Themes of the Odyssey
The following themes are especially important in the Odyssey because they form most of the moral and ethical characters. The more complex a character becomes, the more these main themes are involved. Odysseus is the best example of each of the themes in part, hospitality, loyalty, perseverance, vengeance, perception and spiritual growth. The civilized invest in hospitality to show their validity as a people in hopes that they may recieve equal treatment when they travel.
Homeric communications are also antediluvian, and foreigners bring and receive news. Hospitality affects Odysseus all along the epic, either lack of it, or abundance of it thereof. The reader can judge certain civilizations in accordance with their degree of hospitality. Suitors took over the home of Odysseus leaving Telemacus and Penelope at a loss with no leg to stand on. “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 give Odysseus impressive assistance in his wanderings. Circe and the Lotus eaters are of great help to Odysseus. The Sirens kill anyone who has the misfortune of stumbling upon them and Polyphemus is not at all hospitable. Loyalty in The Odyssey is yet another important personal virtue.
Penelope faithfully awaiting her husband for 20 years is a prime example of loyalty. Odysseus ‘ old nurse, Eurycleia, remains loyal to Telemachus and Penelope. In contrast are goatherd Melanthius and maidservant Melantho. Melanthius befriends the suitors and insults Odysseus while the king remains in disguise. Melantho continues sleeping with the enemy, disrespecting the queen and insulting Odysseus disguised as the beggar. While the faithful servants are recompensed; the unfaithful are dealt with harshly.
However, this problem can be complicated since many of those Odysseus expects loyalty from are his property. Even Penelope. It is expected that Penelope will be unwavering in her loyalty to her husband. Odysseus is not held to the same expectations 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) Odysseus and Penelope in particular share the embodiment of perseverance. One reason being they’re both survivors.
For twenty years, ten in Troy and ten on his journey home, Odysseus was absent. Antinous claimed that for four years Penelope denied the suitors. The perseverance of Odysseus is legendary, especially in books nine through twelve. Perhaps the hardest test perseverance as well as loyalty is the seven years spent captive by Calypso, a situation in which he could neither fight nor trick his way out of. However, even when tempted with immortality Odysseus yearned for home. The theme of vengeance is best represented in book nine when Odysseus blinds Polyphemus in an attempt to ecape his cave.
Unfortunately, Polyphemus was not bluffing when he claimed to be the son of Poseidon, resulting in Poseidon’s pursuit of revenge on Odysseus. While Poseidon is unable to kill Odysseus as determined by the Fates, he does make true the curse his son Polyphemus wished upon Odysseus, that he arrive late, broken, and alone to Ithaca, his shipmates lost, and his household in turmoil. “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 shows impressive tolerance when enduring the suitor Antinous, goatherd Melanthius, and maidservant Melantho’s derision and aggression, waiting for the right moment to strike.
Perception is best represented by Athena, and her aiding Odysseus throughout the epic. Athena’s most memorable deeds, for herself or for Odysseus, are her disguises. She appears to Telemachus first as Mentes, king of the Taphians, an old friend to Odysseus. As Mentes, she encourages the prince to canvass the problems in the Palace. She also appears to Telemachus as a mentor. Athena changes the look of Odysseus on several occasions to mask or to make him look even more imposing.
For example, as Odysseus prepares for a banquet with the Phaeacians in his honor, she changes his appearance to make him look more impressive. When Odysseus returns to Ithaca in book thirteen, Athena disguises him as an old beggar. Odysseus has also done his fair share of disguising. Posing as a beggar to enter the city of Troy. And after Athena disguises him, he appears a beggar to his son, Telemachus, who visits the pig farm of the family. When they are alone, Athena changes his appearance to something so impressive that Telemachus wonders if he might be a god. At the palace, Odysseus is privately identified by the faithful nurse Eurycleia when she recognizes a scar on his leg as she bathes him, but she vows to keep her news secret.
Although she seems to suspect who he is, Penelope does not entirely accept Odysseus until he reveals his knowledge of their wedding bed. The Odyssey focuses on the theme of spiritual growth as it concerns Telemachus and Odysseus. In the opening lines it is revealed that Telemachus is struggling to control the suitors. Telemachus calls for a meeting of the leaders of Ithaca with the help of Athena and confronts the suitors. On Athena’s suggestion, Telemachus, in a hope of learning more about his father, visits two former comrades of Odysseus, the King Nestor of Pylos and the King Menelaus of Sparta. When Odysseus does return, Telemachus acquires his trust. As he escapes from the island of the Cyclopes, Odysseus taunts Polyphemus, shouting at him with his real name, revealing to the Cyclops his true identity.
However, when he returns to Ithaca, Odysseus is cautious. Even when the suitors or his servants mock and aggress him, Odysseus succeeds in maintaining his composure and postponing the inevitable vindication. Odysseus becomes a wiser, more perceptive leader by the end of the epic . “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, Harold Bloom, James Joyce). 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, perception, and spiritual growth.
As the reader, it is important to understand how these themes portray Odysseus, and the other characters of The Odyssey. Odysseus endured different types of hospitality, some proving to be too much for him. 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 supposedly prevailed so that he did not allow himself to be drawn completely by the goddess’ charms. Once returning home, Odysseus disguised as a beggar patiently endured 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, altering others perception so as to not reveal himself.
By the end of the epic, Odysseus evolved into a better, wiser man. Today these themes are seen everywhere. Perhaps the most predominant one being perseverance.