When we talk about epic poems, no other piece of literature finds as spectacular a position in the Greek Culture as do The Iliad and The Odyssey. Being the author of both these classic works, Homer has influenced the ancient Greek civilization more profoundly than Shakespeare has influenced English literature. “These two epics provide the basis of Greek education and culture throughout the classical age and form the backbone of humane education down to the time of the Roman Empire and the spread of Christianity.” (Encyclopedia Britannica 2005).
The Odyssey consists of twenty-four books, and is a sequel to the Iliad. The story of the Odyssey starts when Troy has been destroyed and the Trojan War has come to an end. It creates a new epic with the adventure story of the Greek hero Odysseus who is struggling to go back to his home after the Trojan War. His journey combines hopes and hopelessness, loyalty and disloyalty, hospitality, vengeance, intelligence, experience, and what it means to be mortals and to be gods. During his entire journey, the gods play an important role. Interestingly, sometimes some of the gods help him, and sometimes some of the gods, like Poseidon, who are not happy with him, create trouble for him. Thus, his journey becomes a matter of argument between the gods.
In the absence of Odysseus, some thousand suitors have forcefully entered his palace in Ithaka, and are courting his wife Penelope. His son Telemakhos finds himself helpless. The goddess Athena comes for help in disguise and urges him to go in search of his father. (Trans. Robert Fitzgerald, Book I-IV).
Meanwhile, she helps Odysseus to release him from the eight-years long prison in the island of a beautiful goddess, Kalypso. The sea god Poseidon, who is angry because Odysseus had once blinded his son Polyphemus, interrupts Odysseus’ voyage by bringing up a storm. Somehow, with the help of Athena he arrives at Phaiakians, and sweet talk their princess, Nausikaa, into helping him. He gets a warm hospitality there, and before leaving tells them the story of his adventures. (Trans. Robert Fitzgerald, Book V-VIII)
In flashback, we come to know that how after the Trojan War, Odysseus and his men suffered during their way back to home, and how his voyage took him to all over the Greek world from one island to another. First, at the hands of Kikones on the island of the Lotos eaters. Then, at the hands of kyklops Polyphemus who ate up many of his men before Odysseus blinded him in order to escape from there. It was here that his personal war with the sea god Poseidon had started. Their next stop was an island of man-eaters monsters. Somehow, Odysseus again managed to escape with his men. On the next island, the goddess Kirke turned his men into pigs, but with the help of the god Hermes, Odysseus became Kirke’s lover, metamorphosed the pigs into men again, and stayed on that island for one year. Next, they landed at the island of Helios, where as per the prophecy of the blind seer Teiresias, all of them except Odysseus were drowned in the sea by a storm. Finally, Odysseus reached Kalypso’s island. (Trans. Robert Fitzgerald, Book IX – XII)
After telling the story of his adventure, Odysseus, finally, leaves Phaiakians and with Athena’s help arrives at Ithaka in the disguise of a beggar. Athena, then, helps Telemakhos to come back and avoiding the suitor’s ambush he reunites with his father. Odysseus, now, makes a plan to teach a lesson to the suitors. As per the plan he reveals his identity only to his son and his loyal swineherd Eumaios. (Trans. Robert Fitzgerald, Book XIII – XVI)
In the same disguise of a beggar Odysseus reaches his palace and analyze the situation, while the suitors and some of his old but disloyal servants treat him badly. He finds that Penelope has been a faithful wife, while Penelope doubts him as she finds some resemblance between the beggar and his supposedly dead husband. She organizes a shooting competition for the suitors with his husband’s great bow. (Trans. Robert Fitzgerald, Book XVII – XX).
Odysseus participates, and wins the contest. Then, in the climax, he kills the leader of the suitors, Antinoos, and finally reveals his identity to all following the massacre of the majority of the suitors. Odysseus reunites with his wife and son, and with them visits his father, Laertes. There, an army of the suitors, lead by Antinoos’ father attacks them. Laertes kills the leader. But, before the battle could proceed, gods interfere and order peace between the two sides. (Trans. Robert Fitzgerald, Book XXI – XIV).
Points discussed in the poem
So many points have been discussed in this poem. Some of them are even highly debatable. Following are a few of them:
- The value and importance of home and family
During his eight years of imprisonment on Kalypso’s island, Odysseus would daily sit on the seashore and weep because he felt lonely there and wanted to go back to his family. When Kalypso offered him to stay with her and gain immortality, he simply replied, “Goddess! I am quite aware that my wife Penelope is only a woman, whereas you are an immortal. Nevertheless, I want to get home.” (Samuel Butler). Some critics argue why a human being would choose to be mortal when he has the chance to gain immortality? The only possible answer that comes to me is that a true human being would never like to gain immortality at the cost of his morality. After all Odysseus loves his wife and family.
- Women as predators
Kalypso makes Odysseus her sex-slave. Seirenes try to seduce men with their beautiful voice. Even Penelope is accused of teasing her suitors. Homer has treated women characters unfairly in his poem because interestingly, when Odysseus sleeps with Kalypso while he is free from her prison, Homer does not write a word of disdain against his infidelity. Why it is acceptable for Odysseus to sleep with another women, while he wants Penelope to be a faithful wife? This double standard does, likely, persist in the ancient Greek as well as in the modern one. The epic is dominated with male characters. Although, Homer brings our attention to it when Kalypso exclaims in rage, “you gods! You are always jealous and hate seeing a goddess take a fancy to a mortal man… So when rosy-fingered Dawn made love to Orion, you precious gods were all of you furious till Diana went and killed him in Ortygia… And now you are angry with me too because I have a man here.” (Samuel Butler)
- The power of the gods
Homer presents the belief of the ancient Greeks in his poem that lives are directed by the wills of the gods. If something good happens to you, gods are supposed to be in your favour. If something bad happens to you, gods are supposed to be angry with you. Odysseus journey is also very much dependent on gods’ moods. This gives rise to another question whether it is good for the gods to be so inconsistent, while human beings are supposed to be responsible for their own actions?
- The Homeric idea of justice
It is also a debatable issue whether Odysseus’ attack on the suitors, in the climax, was justifiable or was it just an unreasonable violence?
Larger context of scholarship
In spite of all the debatable issues, being composed around three thousand years ago, the masterpiece of Homer, The Odyssey, have been the earliest and the most widely read and the most popular classic epic even today. It is generally regarded as the highest cultural achievement of the Greek People. The historical events in Greek make sense only if the Odyssey verifies the same. The Odyssey spectacularly fits under the definition of a classic epic work, as Homer cleverly uses all the elements of an epic poem in the Odyssey, for example, divine intervention, the personification of forces of nature, various trials and tests of Odysseus, long speeches using ‘Homeric’ similes and metaphors, and journey with adventures, to name a few. The Odyssey is beyond any comparison as most of the contemporary works have been derived from The Odyssey only. For example,
The contemporary play “Highway Ulysses” by Rinde Eckert tells the story of the journey of a Vietnam veteran travelling to his son, meeting modern day characters akin to characters or monsters in the Odyssey (including the Sirens and Cyclops).
“Telemachus Clay” by Lewis John Carlino is a contemporary play about the travels of a young man, Telemachus, in search of the father he never knew in the big city as he meets many strange characters along the way.
Some of the tales of Sindbad the Sailor from The Book of One Thousand and One Nights (Arabian Nights) were taken from Homer’s Odyssey.
A modern novel inspired by the Odyssey is James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922). (Wikipedia).
But, none of the above works ever challenged the significance of The Odyssey. Old is gold – the idiom suits best to this epic.
The Odyssey has been known as one of the most influential and historical reference book as it is supposed to be based on true facts and religious beliefs of the ancient Greek people. The Odyssey has been an interesting medium to convey a message and to teach the young generation about the past time as it makes the learning enjoyable. The Odyssey, in some way or other, defines and explores the various aspects, like life style, hospitality, and the religious faith of the ancient Greek civilization through its actions, characters, plot and wordings. Even today, The Odyssey is widely read in Greece, America, and many other countries worldwide.
Encyclopedia. Britannica 2005. Deluxe Edition CD. Version: 2005.00.00. (April23, 2006).
Trans. Robert Fitzgerald. The Odyssey. Homer. New York: Vintage Books, 1990.
Trans. Samuel Butler. The Odyssey. Homer. <http://darkwing.uoregon.edu/~joelja/
odyssey.html>. (April23, 2006).
Wikipedia. Odyssey. ‘Derivative works’. Last modified: April21, 2006< http://en.wikipedia
org/ wiki/Odyssey#Derivative_works >. (April23, 2006).