Hidden Themes from Homer's Odyssey

Part of the Guide to Ancient Greece by students in CLAS C101, Ancient Greek Culture.

Welcome to a web site that discusses some less revealed themes in the Odyssey.  The Odyssey is not just about the heroic Odysseus, but more importantly about the underlying themes from the Greek culture.  The following page discusses in detail four of those themes:  spiritual growth, loyalty, perseverance, and hospitality.  We hope you enjoy the thoughts and opinions expressed here.  Thanks!


Spiritual Growth

By Brian Lower

 Below is a picture of the Greek god Zeus.  Zeus was chief over all the Greek deities.  He was a very important figure in their worship. 

The picture came from rainbowcrystal.com.

Homer uses the idea of spiritual growth as one of his underlying themes in the Odyssey.  He relates this message through various characters and their adventures or actions.  Spiritual growth is brought on by rough times, temptations, long travels, and even good times.  Homer does a good job of hitting on all of these factors.

Odysseus’ adventures and growth are much more prevalent in the Odyssey than those of any other character.  He begins on Calypso’s island, where he has everything, except happiness.  His spirit is low as he longs for his homeland.  Homer introduces Odysseus at a low point to emphasize the growth of Odysseus’ spirit from beginning to end.  If Homer had shown Odysseus in a good spirit first, then the growth would not have seemed as prevalent.  Odysseus seems to see the light when he finds out that he will be sailing home.  He is tested first when Poseidon nearly kills him off the coast of Scheria, the first island he reaches.  The Odyssey says, “and trapped within that backwash of the brine, Odysseus would have died before his time had not gray-eyed Athena counseled him” (Odyssey by Mandelbaum, 109).  Athena allows Odysseus to experience the storm, but not die.  She knows that it will make him stronger for it.  There is an old saying, which goes along with this situation, “what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.”   

Odysseus is also tempted when he and his crew pass the Sirens.  He is the only one to hear their song and must be tied to a post in order to keep himself restrained.  Odysseus’ spirit is still weak as he is engrossed with the Sirens ability to foretell the future.  He says, “So did they chant with their entrancing voice.  My heart longed so to listen, and I asked my men to set me free” (Odyssey by Mandelbaum, 243).  The restraints allow him to struggle with the challenge and become stronger without being entangled with the evil.  The suitors entice Odysseus when he returns home disguised as the beggar.  But now, he has the strength and will power to reject those spoken words.

Homer expresses his ideas about pride and spirit when Odysseus encounters the Cyclopes.  After out-smarting the Polyphemus, Odysseus shouts out his own name in search for “kleos.”  These were his words to Polyphemus, “if any mortal man should ask about the shameful blinding of your eye, then tell him that the man who gouged you was Odysseus, ravager of cities” (Odyssey by Mandelbaum, 185).  Instead of being humbled by the experience, Odysseus tries to brag about what he has done.  In reality, it was the gods who blessed him with the ability to escape his situation.  Odysseus pays for this action as Poseidon makes his journey back more difficult than it should have been.  We see later in the Odyssey how Odysseus grows from this experience when he returns home.  He is angered by the suitors and has the composure to keep his name secret until the right time.  His spirit is more humble now with the idea of pride than it was on his journey home.

Telemachus also experiences spiritual growth, but Homer displays it in a different manner.  Whereas Odysseus’ growth is concerned with situations, Telemachus’ is dependent upon a journey.  He is sent away from home in search of his father.  It seems as though the prince was so dependent on his father that he never really got away from home on his own.  It took his father’s disappearance to force Telemachus into a leadership role.  He visits friends of his father’s and experiences “xenia” as the normal head of households do.  Through his journey, he learns to depend on the gods and returns home a more spiritually inclined man.  Telemachus learns how to make decisions and trust the instinct that the gods give to him.  Many can “talk the talk,” but Telemachus had to “walk the walk” in order to grow spiritually.  And his maturity is displayed toward the end of the Odyssey.

Homer shows many different types of spiritual growth throughout the Odyssey.  But, he has one main idea:  the spirit with the most growth and strength is the one that is tested and weakened through the process.  Telemachus’ spirit grows, but cannot compare to that of Odysseus because he was not weakened and tested as much as Odysseus.  The weakening allows a person to grow stronger, not just grow.

 

Here's a link to Ancient Athens Photographs!  This web page was also created by people from the Department of Classical Studies at Indiana University.  It contains some great pictures of ancient Athens and its architecture.


Loyalty

By Chad Croley

This picture to the right is of what Athens may have looked like long ago.  Athens expected many of the cities involved in the Delian League to be very loyal to them.  If they weren't, then the Athenians might take strong measures against them.  This picture came from home.freeuk.com/elloughton13/ greece.htm

There are many layers of meaning in the fantastic world of Odysseus’s tale.  Loyalty has to be seen as a major theme in The Odyssey and can be seen as having a significant meaning to Odysseus’s story.  This section will discuss the idea of how Odysseus’s loyal supporters still remain devoted to him even after he has been away for nearly two decades as well as pose a question pertaining to Odysseus’s own actions of infidelity

When reading The Odyssey three main characters stand out that show their trustworthiness to Odysseus while he is away fighting in the Trojan War and trying to make his way back to Ithaca.  It seems to me that the most loyal of all these characters could, somehow, easily be overlooked, but it would definitely have to be Odysseus’s wife Penelope.  Even after nearly twenty years apart from her husband, she still remains faithful to Odysseus and refuses to marry one of the awaiting suitors that hassle her day in and day out.  There even came a time when Penelope told the suitors that she would wed once she finished Laertes’ shroud, but stated, ‘I would weave that mighty web by day; but then by night, by torchlight, I undid what I had done (Odyssey 384).  This only proves her complete and utter devotion to Odysseus.

Along with Penelope, Telemachus and Odysseus’s loyal swineherd Eumaeus were committed to the King of Ithaca.  Telemachus, in one regard, shows his loyalty to Odyssues by going on a voyage to learn more about his father,Odysseus, and Eumaeus speaks highly of his king when Odysseus questions him upon returning to Ithaca saying, ‘I call him my lord, although he is not here” (Odyssey  278).  But the main way in which I see the two of these characters remaining loyal to Odysseus is when they stand by him and take on the feisty suitors to win back Odysseus’s palace.  It would have been extremely difficult for Odysseus to do it on his own and either one of them could have not participated in the bout, but instead decided to stand by their king and put him back in the position that he once held.

Through each of these three character’s commitment and devotion to Odysseus, it can be expressed that loyalty has a major meaning in the world of Odysseus’s tale, but I would like to end this section by posing a question to be thought about.  Penelope is shown as the most loyal of all by staying faithful and true to her husband even though they are not together.  She resists time and time again the attempts of the suitors for her hand in marriage. So, why is it that Odysseus is so unfaithful to his wife?  He is unfaithful with at least two characters Circe, whom he stays with for a year and Calypso, where he is held captive for seven years but sleeps in her bed.  Of all the characters that are so loyal to Odysseus, why is he so unloyal in return?

 

 Here's a link to Ancient Greek Mythology Page.  It has interesting facts about the Greek gods and also has a fun quiz that you can take.  A lot of neat information.


Perseverance

By Jeremy Fine

This is a picture of the Parthenon.  It was built by Ictinus and Callicrates.  It is one of the most famous Doric temples.  The picture and information on the Parthenon came from www.culturalresources.com.

 The topic of our group is layers of meaning in the fantastic world of Odysseus's tale. There are a lot of different layers of meaning for each tale and the Odyssey itself, and there is more than one interpretation. In this perspective, the theme of the Odyssey is perseverance. Perseverance is an important theme and is one that is seen through out the whole play and by more than one character. First there is Odysseus. Odysseus was greeted with perseverance at the very beginning of the epic. He was being held captive by Calypso on an island, and after being visited by Athena, he had the notion and the strong desire to get home. Despite Calypso’s insistence, he decided to leave. He also had an encounter with Circe, and was presented with temptation of all kinds. Odysseus with his wife and son still in mind took the sea once more and proceeded home. Also, Odysseus and his men came in contact with the lotus-eaters. The lotus plants provided an excellent, relaxing feeling for all of the crew, and no one wanted to leave except for Odysseus who stayed his course. Perseverance is also displayed in his way of thinking, his desire to survive and at times conquer, are qualities that promote his perseverance. For instance, when Odysseus finally returns home, he plans to kill all of the suitors that have been courting his wife and he does so. He also earns his place as the basileus of his home again. Odysseus however isn’t the only person to present this theme throughout the story. Penelope is another example of this theme. Penelope lived for years with out Odysseus and everyone told her that he was most likely dead and the she should move on. Penelope however never lost hope. She often cried and was sad thinking of the notion that he was dead, but she never moved on. Penelope was visited by many suitors and often housed the suitors. She would feed them and the suitors would take full advantage of her hospitality and her kindness. She persevered over all the years that Odysseus was gone, and when he returned to her, she had no reason to feel guilty and was still fully his. Finally Telemacus also displayed perseverance. He was in very much the same situation that Penelope was, except that he wasn’t a believer until after Athena visited. He could have ignored what Athena said and just given up right there, but he created his course and stayed, going on voyages and discovering the truth about his father and also grew as a person at this time. Perseverance appears to be one of the strong themes of this story and also a strong characteristic of Odysseus and his family. The fact that they all have this characteristic and that they all display it at different times and apart from each other shows that they each mean a lot to one another.  It also displays the importance of the family in ancient Greek history.

Here's a link to History, Art, Architecture, and Culture of Ancient Greece!  This page contains useful information on the geography, history, and even the Olympics of Greece.  It also contains art and architecture.


Hospitality

By John Kelley

Odysseus’s journey takes place in a world very different than ours.  Civilizations are separated by vast uninhabited land where both natural and unnatural obstacles are always present.  Hospitality is what makes travel even possible in a world like this.  It allows people to rest from their far journeys and escape from looming troubles.  Because of the extreme importance of hospitality, those who break this code of conduct are severely punished by the gods.  When people follow the code of hospitality they are generally rewarded.

There have been many situations throughout the Odyssey where both Odysseus and Telemachus were shown great hospitality.  Early in the story when Telemachus sets off on his journey to find out about his father he is shown great hospitality by Nestor and Menelaus even before they know his identity.  Meanwhile, back at home, the suitors at his house plot their host’s death upon his return.  Here the Odyssey shows the great contrast between good and evil, using hospitality as the comparison.

Odysseus is also shown great hospitality when he arrives at the shores of Scheria and is welcomed by the Phaeacians.  After his visit, the Phaeacians load up a boat for Odysseus to travel on, and send him off.  Soon Poseidon learns of this and turns the boat into a stone, sinking it to the bottom of the ocean.  This is an example where hospitality is not awarded.  This shows that Zeus will reward hospitality as long as it does not interfere with the other gods.  Zeus did not want a confrontation with his brother Poseidon, therefore allowing Poseidon to punish the Phaeacians.

There have also been situations where hospitality was not shown and punishments were provided.  One example was when Odysseus and his men went to Ismarus and met Polyphemus.  He, at first, showed signs of hospitality but soon turned hostile and killed several of Odysseus’s men.  The rest of the men were locked away, but the gods gave Odysseus the cunning ability to escape and blind Polyphemus.  Telemachus was also protected by the gods from the evils of the suitors, who had plotted his murder.  When both Telemachus and Odysseus had returned home disguised, Arnaeus, another beggar, challenged Odysseus to a fight but Athena gave Odysseus extra strength and stature to win the fight.  The gods then help Odysseus and Telemachus kill the suitors and once again take charge of their home.

In the Odyssey, it is the gods that rule over the mortal.  This cause a fear that drives mortals to behave in a way that they feel will be rewarded by the gods.  Perhaps the mortals in the Odyssey are not great gentlemen that love their fellow men, but show hospitality in fear of punishment.

 


Additional Links

Hospitality - Here is an additional link to a page which discusses the topic of hospitality or "xenia."  John has touched on the fact that the Greeks did it out of fear.  This page also touches on the fear and reward thought process of hospitality.  Please check it out.

Issues of the Odyssey - This is a link to a page that discusses other issues surrounding the Odyssey.  It touches on immortality, the ideal woman, transitions, the importance of Ithaca, and the hero Odysseus.  These are also good underlying issues in the Odyssey.

Telemacheia - A web page that discusses the themes involved in the first four books of the Odyssey.  Hospitality is also mentioned here as well as the development of Telemachus and religious faith.  This provides a more specific area of the book for these themes.

 


This page was created for an ancient Greek culture class.  It is strictly for educational purposes.

Copyright © 2002 Brian Lower, Chad Croley, Jeremy Fine, John Kelley. All rights reserved.