Common Themes in the Odyssey and how they Partain to the Characters
On his voyage to his home Ithaca, the hero, Odysseus undergoes many trials, and his ability to heed warnings, his desire to return home, and his fidelity are tested. Many themes are explored through Odysseus’ journey. Morally and ethically, the characters of The Odyssey are shaped by the themes surrounding them. The reader learns as the epic progresses more about each character through their involvement within the themes. The more complicated the characters are, the more involved are the themes. Thus, Odysseus, Penelope, Telemachus, Poseidon, and Athena properly illustrate each of the following themes in part; hospitality, loyalty, perseverance, vengeance, deception, and spiritual growth.
In the Odyssey, Odysseus experiences different types of hospitality, becoming affected by the lack thereof, or abundance in congenial nature. The suitors seize control over the home of Odysseus. Telemachus and Penelope are left alone and unable to evict the suitors, given that they are members of some of the most robust families in the area. “In the case of the suitors, however, there was a larger assumption made on their part. When the suitors first showed up at the doors of the palace, Penelope and Telemachus intended for them to stay for a feast or two. The suitors more or less intruded and welcomed themselves far more than Penelope and Telemachus had wanted them to.” (minerva.union.edu, The Value of Hospitality). The Phaeacians and initially Aeolus aid Odysseus in his wanderings. After conquering Circe, she also proves to be of great help. However, the Sirens are dangerous, killing anyone who has the misfortune to be in their company, and the Cyclops Polyphemus chooses to eat his guests, scoffing at the very word hospitality.
Penelope, faithfully awaiting her husband’s return for twenty years is a prime example of loyalty in The Odyssey. Telemachus is another example, standing at his father’s side against the suitors. The old nurse, Eurycleia does not waiver in her loyalty to Penelope Telemachus, and the absent Odysseus. Eumaeus and Philose too stay loyal to their master, Eumaeus speaking proudly of his king in spite of the suitors’ abhorrent invasion. There is one contention, however, in that Odysseus owns those he expects to be loyal. Penelope, as his wife, is expected to remain loyal as his servants, without falter. Odysseus, while still remaining somewhat loyal, is not held to the same expectations as Penelope regarding sexual fidelity, “…Yes the actual infidelity that threatens Odysseus’ marriage is not committed by Penelope with any other “chaps,” namely the suitors, but by Odysseus himself with the goddesses Kalypso and Kirke.” (p. 133, Keri Elisabeth Ames, The Oxymoron of Fidelity in Homer’s Odyssey and Joyce’s Ulysses).
Ten years, Odysseus was gone in the Trojan War, and ten more on his journey home; absent twenty years from his home in Ithaca. For four years, Penelope opposed the suitors’ advances, as according to Antinous. Perseverance is shown in Penelope’s advocacy to remain a faithful wife. The hardest test of perseverance as well as loyalty is the seven years Odysseus spent captive to the goddess-nymph, Calypso. Though he technically failed, even when tempted with immortality Odysseus could not think of anything but home.
In blinding Polyphemus, Odysseus enrages Poseidon, resulting in the god of the sea to seek vengeance for his son. Unable to kill Odysseus, Poseidon fulfills Polyphemus’ desire that Odysseus arrive home late, broken, and alone, his shipmates lost, and his household in turmoil. For helping Odysseus home, the Phaeacians endure Poseidon’s frustrations, their only offense by their tradition of good hospitality. “While by some reckonings Poseidon’s wrath may be excessive, it is hardly without motive. Zeus, in his opening council with Athena, connects Poseidon’s animosity directly with Odysseus’ blinding of Polyphemus, stating that Poseidon “is angry because of the Cyclops, whose eye [Odysseus] blinded””. (p. 58, chs.harvard.edu, Victims of the Gods’ Vengeance). Odysseus endures derision and aggression from Antinous, Melanthius the goatherd, and the maidservant Melantho. He reclaims his vengeance by slaughtering the suitors, the goatherd and maidservant being left to die a slow death.
Athena is most memorable for her disguises for herself, and Odysseus. Appearing as king of the Taphians and Odysseus’ old friend, Mentes, Athena encourages the prince, Telemachus, to canvass the problems in the Palace. As Telemachus’ mentor and guide for the coming of age, Athena protects the prince from the spiteful suitors. When he returns to Ithaca, Athena disguises Odysseus as an old beggar. Recognition with his family in Ithaca provides substantial and controversial twists to the theme of deception. When appearing as a beggar to his son Telemachus, Athena, when they are finally alone, transforms Odysseus into something monumental, the prince questions whether he may be a god. Eurycleia recognizes a scar on Odysseus’ leg when bathing him at the palace. She vows to keep this news to herself. Although she seems to suspect, Penelope does not fully accept Odysseus as her husband until he shares his knowledge of their wedding bed, “The sequence of scenes which lead finally to recognition begins at 17.508, when Penelope asks the swineherd [Eumaeus] to summon the disguised Odysseus so that she may question him about her husband. But it is only at 23.205, after many diversions, that she breaks down in tears at the final realization that Odysseus is really home.” (cambridge.org, Chris Emlyn-Jones, The Reunion of Odysseus and Penelope)
In the opening of the epic, Telemachus is at a loss of what to do about the suitors. Being the prince, he is next in line for the crown, making things much more dangerous since the suitors also seek the crown. He is seen as nothing but deadweight, and it appears the suitors may be planning his demise. He goes on to face different challenges, falters temporarily, but prevails ultimately. With the help of Athena, Telemachus calls the leaders of Ithaca to meeting, to confront the suitors. He does not find much support, but matures, nonetheless. The prince visits his father’s former comrades, King Nestor and King Menelaus, in order to learn more about his father. In turn, Telemachus learns more about himself. Upon his escape from the island of the Cyclopes, Odysseus cannot resist taunting the blinded Polyphemus. He mistakenly reveals himself, resulting in Poseidon’s wrath being brought upon him. On his return to Ithaca, Odysseus appears to have wised up. “Just as Athena controls hero-men with the force of her spear, so hero-men must control their own forces, the desires of the heart (thumos) in order to endure.” (p. 143, Keri Elisabeth Ames, The Rebirth of Heroism from Homer’s Odyssey to Joyce’s Ulysses). He patiently endures the onslaught of mockery and abuse brought on by the suitors and his servants. When he finally strikes, it is unexpected. By the end of the epic, Odysseus proves to be wiser and more incisive.
In conclusion, it can be concurred that Odysseus, though other characters are discussed, is overall a very good representation of each of the following themes: hospitality, loyalty, perseverance, vengeance, deception, and spiritual growth. As the reader, it is important to understand how these themes portray Odysseus, and the other characters of The Odyssey. Odysseus experienced different types of hospitality. He was not entirely unfaithful to his wife, Penelope, in that he allowed himself to be embraced by the goddesses Circe and Calypso’s fine hospitality but faltered. His perseverance to return home to his wife prevailed and he did not allow himself to be drawn in completely by the goddess’ charms. Once returning home, Odysseus disguised as a beggar patiently withstood the onslaught of mockery and torment brought on by the suitors, Melanthius the goatherd, and Melantho the maidservant, waiting for the proper moment to cast his revenge. He wore many disguises, deceiving others so as to not reveal himself before his final plan had been enacted. By the end of the epic, Odysseus evolved. Telemachus, in the beginning, was at his wits end. With Athena’s aid, Telemachus was able to mature, standing by his father against the suitors in the end. Penelope powered through the twenty years her husband spent away, remaining faithful to the end. Though she was skeptical to believe her husband’s return, she was finally able to conclude that Odysseus had returned. Poseidon obviously cares for his son, or he would not have given Odysseus so much trouble after he blinded Polyphemus. While his actions may be overkill, he had a right to be angry. Athena, throughout the epic, guides the protagonists Telemachus and Odysseus. Today these themes are seen everywhere. Perhaps, the most predominant one being perseverance.
- Ames, Keri. “The Oxymoron of Fidelity in Homer’s Odyssey and Joyce’s Ulysses.” Joyce Studies Annual, vol. 14, 2003, pp. 132–174., doi:10.1353/joy.2004.0002.
- Biggs, Cory, et al. “The Value of Hospitality.” The Value of Hospitality, minerva.union.edu/wareht/gkcultur/guide/8/web1.html.
- Bloom, Harold. James Joyce. Bloom’s Literary Criticism, 2009.
- Emlyn-Jones, Chris. “The Reunion of Penelope and Odysseus.” Greece and Rome, vol. 31, no. 01, 1984, pp. 1–18., doi:10.1017/s0017383500027844.
- “Victims of the Gods’ Vengeance.” Homeric Tisis: Narrative Revenge and the Poetics of Justice in the Odyssey.