The Odyssey is considered to be one of the most influential literary works. It has remained to be an important subject in literature and continues to enjoy many adaptations. The Odyssey has also turned out to be the source of many legends of the Greek Mythology.
After a decade spent in battle, Odysseus and his men are desperate to return home. It was Odysseus himself who recalls the story of his travel home. He relates to the people of Phaeacians his adventures on the lands of the Lotus Eaters; how he and his men had incurred Poseidon’s wrath by blinding the Polyphemus’ eye; how they missed getting home when his men released the winds that were supposed to be an assurance of a safe trip home; their encounter with the cannibal Laestrygones; the conflict and his affair with the witch-goddess Circe; his journey to the underworld to seek the advice of Teiresias; how he and his men escaped the fatal song of the Sirens; their encounter with Scylla and Charybdis; their blunder at the land of Trinacia where they incurred the wrath of the sun god Helios; and finally his confinement to the island of Calypso.
Odysseus has spent another decade of adventure before he could set home. However, he would have to deal yet again with the crisis that has transpired during his absence. Convinced that he is already dead, some men of Ithaca had “invaded” Odysseus’ palace, asking Odysseus’ wife, Penelope, to marry one of them. In the process, they have turned the palace into a marketplace. With the assistance of his patron goddess Athena, Odysseus was able to regain his rightful place in his palace.
Symbols and Themes
The journey home of Odysseus is a theme in itself. The essence of the plot could have never been emphasized more than by Odysseus’ yearning to get home. The fact that Odysseus had even pretended to be insane to avoid going into war with the Trojans highlights the main character’s concept of home. Homer presented Odysseus breaking up in Book V when he remembered his wife and son which he left when the son was still an infant. Faced with obstacles on his journey home, his yearning goes stronger every time. Such is Odysseus yearning to see his home again that he even refused Calypso’s offer of immortality.
Homer also presents that man’s misfortunes are the product of his own weaknesses. While it could be said that the Olympian gods have played their part in man’s misfortunes, it is primarily because of the consequences of man’s actions. In the Odyssey, Homer presents that the misfortunes endured by Odysseus and his men result from their greed. From the land of the Lotus Eaters, Odysseus’ men were intoxicated with the fruit and lost all their thoughts about their home. Odysseus also falls in temptation on the land of the Cyclops where, despite of his men’s urging to quickly snatch some food, he decided to linger until finally they were caught by Polyphemus. This single mistake by Odysseus has caused him to wander for years before finally setting home and has ultimately caused his men their lives. In this scene, Odysseus also displays his hubris, a flaw from which almost all classical Greek tragic heroes possess, by defiantly shouting his name to the Cyclopes. Although this act of Odysseus is common in classical Greece, it has nevertheless given away his identity, thereby allowing Poseidon to direct his vengeance upon him and his men.
Odysseus and his men’s journey should have also been ended without too much suffering and great loss had his men been disciplined enough to control their greed. Odysseus’ men had thought Aeolus’ gift to Odysseus as a bag full of gold and silver which Odysseus would not want to share with them. Their greed had caused them to release the winds that were contained in the bag and eventually caused them to sail away from Ithaca, which was already on sight before the incident.
It is apparent that the underlying cause of men’s sufferings as it happened in the Odyssey is greed. Odysseus’ men’s greed had caused them to fall into Circe’s spell; living in luxury in Circe’s palace, they delayed their journey home for another year; and the temptation of fresh meat drove Odysseus’ men to disobey his orders and slaughter the cattle of Helios, which ultimately caused them their deaths.
Perhaps the most understood theme in the Odyssey is the power of wit or cunning against any adversity. Odysseus survived most of the challenges because of his wit and guidance from the gods. His patron goddess, Athena, is the goddess of wisdom. While having bodily strength, Odysseus usually relied on his mind rather than his physique to overcome his challenges. The importance of mind over body is best exemplified in the scene where Odysseus could have used his sword against Polyphemus. Had he killed Polyphemus on the spot, he and his men would have no way of getting out of Polyphemus’ cave as Polyphemus is the only one that can move the rock that blocks the only passage.
Odysseus again proves the power of careful planning in contrast to a mere show of force during his face-off with Penelope’s suitors. Knowing that he does not have the number to win against the men who had invaded their palace, use up its resources, and slaughter their livestock, Odysseus with the help of Athena used disguise and deceit to gain the upper hand against the enemies.
The difference between the use of wit and cunning and the use of force could also be seen by comparing two of the most prominent Greek heroes of the Trojan War. Achilles had sought death and glory, which he also gained by joining the War. He, however, was ruthless and enraged, and, just as he lived in violence his life was cut short and ended as well in violence. On the other hand, Odysseus, thanks to his wit, had given the Acheans victory after 10 years of war, and was able to live his life until a ripe old age, together with his wife and children, and was destined to die in peace.
The Use of Literary Elements
While The Odyssey is primarily the story of Odysseus’ journey home, Homer incorporates some ideas through the use of literary elements such as symbolism and figurative language. Homer presents numerous ironic events throughout the epic. He presents Polyphemus as cruel to the humans but gentle to his flocks; Odysseus’ supposedly renown and glory had caused him the hatred of one of the most powerful Olympian gods; even the honors of the glorious death of heroes is presented with an irony through Achilles’ confession that he would rather be alive than be the king of kings among the dead.
Continuation of The Iliad?
While The Odyssey seems to be a continuation of The Iliad, it is wrong to assume that the literary context of the second follows that of the first. The Iliad and The Odyssey are two separate works of art, each having a character of its own. The Odyssey was presented, in contrast with The Iliad, with less ardor of force, focusing more on the moral and intellectual aspects of the plot. The Iliad and The Odyssey were written with different style and context, and in subject and moral. It focuses on seeking home, the household, ingenuity, and domestic love in contrast with The Iliad which focuses on war, the society, heroism, and romantic love. While The Iliad may seem to some to be a livelier epic in terms of the events that has transpired, both epics are nevertheless regarded with equal praise.
Homer. The Iliad.
Homer. The Odyssey.