The Odyssey is one of the two great epic poems written by the ancient Greek poet Homer. Due to its antiquity, it is not known when or where it was first written, nevertheless, the approximate date and place is 700 BC Greece. Later publications are widespread as the text is transcribed in modern English with no deviation from the original story.
The story is set in the lands and seas in close proximity to Greece changing by books as Odysseus, the protagonist hero, recounts of his many fated adventures and misfortunes in a series of flashbacks. Odysseus, a survivor of the bloody Trojan War that left many Greek heroes dead and a city plundered, yearns to return Ithaca and his wife Penelope, who is solicited by countless suitors, yet due to an accidental grievance done to the God of Sea, Poseidon, Odysseus is plagued by misfortunes and spend nearly ten years traveling the seas searching a path home.
The Odyssey is written in the third person omniscient perspective, perhaps the only voice capable of integrating Homer’s usage of the Gods and the supernatural. This perspective shifts as necessary to give the reader a full understanding of Odysseus’ journeys. In fact, without incorporating the supernatural forces, there would be no way of understanding why Odysseus is met with such inhospitality from certain Gods or constructing a majestic recount of the actions in the plot.
Odysseus is the classic Greek hero by all standards. He is a hardened warrior who has fought against the Trojans, a dutiful husband who would journey years to return home, a cunning wayfarer who fares well with any host hostile or amicable, and a mortal in bipolar relation with the Gods. He may be the protagonist, yet as a mortal, he is only a servant to the Greek Gods. Poseidon has a bitter grudge against Odysseus for blinding the Cyclopes Polyphemus, yet Homer balances Odysseus’ fate by giving him the aid of the Goddess Athena. Thus, Odysseus’ fortunes and misfortunes are all the deeds and misdeeds of the Gods, and the protagonist is subject to his fate as determined by the supernatural. Homer’s implications about the life and fate of a man could be easily recapitulated as uncontrollable. Though the Greek Gods do not exist, man’s fortunes and misfortunes still contain unexplainable entropy, leaving mortals with no precise knowledge or grasp of their future yet mortals do have an unfailing sense of hope, just as Odysseus is determined to return home despite his foes and hardships.
Odysseus’ wife Penelope is also an important character in the story despite the fact that Homer only writes in fragments about her. Without any news of Odysseus after the end of the Trojan War, she is treated as a widow and wooed by many soliciting men from the neighboring area. Homer has characterized her with an unfailing constitution and loyalty to Odysseus. She fends off the suitors with her cleverness, exemplified by her pretentious indecisive publicized to all the suitors, and waits desperately for Odysseus for indefinite years. Penelope is seen as stubborn in the eyes of her lovers, yet, unbeknownst to these men, her loyalty will be awarded when the Gods finally return Odysseus back to her as according to his fate. The Goddess Athena also favors her and help guides her faith despite the pressure of the suitors and Odysseus’s years away. Homer has fictionalized Penelope with the necessary traits that make an ideal wife in Greek times. She is imbued with unyielding character, quick wit, and lasting beauty.
Athena is a prominent figure of the plot. According to Greek mythology, she is the daughter of Zeus, King of gods and men, and the goddess of wisdom and battle. As with many feminine supernatural figures in The Odyssey, she has a predilection for Odysseus and would watch over him passively throughout the plot. Homer has underscored her aid to Odysseus to counterbalance the weakening brought upon him by Poseidon. This careful equilibrium of heavenly forces is the constant recurring element in the plot that keeps Odysseus alive yet suffering at the same time. Her appearances in the plot are often under the disguise of mortal figures, mystifying her true identity as a goddess to all, yet she does reveal herself to Odysseus at several points, which shows a deep favorability that Homer protrudes to glorify Odysseus.
Telemachus is the son of Odysseus who has lived for twenty years without seeing his father. His role, as the protector of his mother, is part of the parallel subplot that Homer creates in Ithaca. Since most of Odysseus’ adventures are told as flashbacks in his last journey in the land of the Phaeacians before finally returning home, the chronological order of events match up to Telemachus’ first sea journey searching for news of his father. His journey is minor and obscured by the heroic proportions of Odysseus’ journey, nevertheless, Homer uses this subplot to prepare for the reuniting of Odysseus with his family and the climax as Odysseus lead Telemachus in battle against the suitors. Homer illustrates Telemachus in the same fashion as Odysseus with a minimized range of heroism, the same method as most proteges are described.
The plot of The Odyssey is mainly a chain of events as described by Odysseus as he retells his story to his Phaecian hosts. The chain of events starts with his unfortunate landing in the Land of the Lotus Eaters after leaving the shores of Troy. Briefly after that, Odysseus lands on the island of the Cyclops and thus deepen Poseidon’s grudge against him after the blinding of his son Polyphemus. After that, Odysseus spends a year as the unfortunate prisoner of the beautiful witch Circe. Circe eventually allows Odysseus to leave and he continues past the tempting Sirens to Hades, the land of the dead, to consult Tiresias, the dead prophet whose guidance can send Odysseus to the right direction. Another unfortunate incident with the sea monster Scylla, a six headed beast that consumed six of Odysseus’ sailors, left Odysseus searching for shelter on the island of the Sun, on which all of Odysseus’ men were sent to their doom by Zeus for pillaging the cattle of the Sun. After that, Odysseus is swept by a storm to Ogygia, the island of the Goddess Calypso. The land of the Phaecians is his next stop and with the aid of the generous Phaecian king, Odysseus finally returns to Ithaca.
Although there is a lot of action in Odysseus’ adventures, the climax of the story is the reclaiming of Odysseus’ estate and the battle with the suitors. The main rising action is when Odysseus prepares for the surprise attack on Penelope’s suitors with Telemachus. Their entire plan was kept secret from everyone except two loyal herdsmen who would fight alongside. After the battle, the story ends with Odysseus reuniting with his family formally and Athena bringing peace to the Odysseus estate as the suitors’ family demand vengeance.
Homer is most famously recognized by his two epic poems The Iliad and The Odyssey. These two related works are distinguished by their intense and captivating actions written in non-prose form, a feat unshared by other writers. Homer has a masterful control over the chronology of an epic story that spans years yet contain a consistent parallel chain of events and subplots. His plot is also consistent with the historical basis of the actual Trojan War and the mythology of his time period. Most noticeable is the fact that after book nine of The Odyssey, the main portion of the story actually begins as a long yet entertaining flashback that is described so realistically that the reader’s imaginary abstractions take over. Perhaps Homer’s unique style of non-prose narration is a part of his Greek education and culture that is homogenous only to writers of that era’s environments that would inspire the mind and soul in a way on a scale of epic proportions.
There are several symbols employed by Homer that are very visible starting from as early as the first Book. The presence of the divine gods and goddesses symbolizes man’s inability to control his own life. Even though Odysseus eventually returns to Ithaca, his success can only be attributed to his fate as determined by the Olympians. These authoritative forces are completely uninfluenced by man yet they are the most influential forces in man’s life. In modern terms, the deities are a representation of the volatile state of man’s life. For Homer, life is never settled for sure in the mortal’s eyes, not even after the passage to the underworld. Man cannot control his life nor his society, the world asserts its claws and manipulates life as a toy.
Homer also uses the monsters in The Odyssey as indirect depictions of his ideas. The Cyclops Polyphemus, a behemoth giant, symbolizes nature’s brute force. It has the power of hundreds of men, yet it is hindered by a diminutive intelligence. Thus, Odysseus’ cunning defeat of Polyphemus proves to be the conquest of wit over strength. Homer also glorifies the evolutionary advantages of mortals’ mind over pure nature, yet Homer carefully limits this daring statement by introducing Poseidon’s vengeful punishments. Perhaps Homer has two contrasting messages about man’s abilities over nature: man can defeat nature because of his intellect, yet it is often unwise to clash against nature.
Another monster, the Sirens, is the apparent embodiment of all the deceitful temptations in man’s life. The Sirens persuade men into their traps by beautiful hypnotic songs. Once a sailor has entered their trance, his or her life is doomed to Hades. Homer shows that there are many false enticements in the world; the only way to pass these obstacles is to maintain a linear course and never deviate from a fortified moral constitution. To be persuaded by these temptations is to fall into the fatal control of others, to be used without knowing. In the story, Odysseus hears songs about Ithaca and he is filled with nostalgia at that moment, yet his men controlled the ship and steered clear of danger. Sometimes, these temptations may be so alluring that a momentary emotional outbreak occurs, yet man should never rely purely on emotions, rather, rational thinking and logic must be prioritized to prevent fatal mistakes.
One other monster, the six-headed Scylla, is the symbol of sacrifice. As Odysseus sails past the strait between Scylla and the whirlpool of Charybdis, he is forced to make a harsh decision to sail by Scylla and lose at most six sailors rather than sailing by Charybdis and lose the entire crew. It was a hard decision for Odysseus to make, yet it is the only way to save the entire crew. Homer establishes a clear message about the necessity to sacrifice in time of need despite certain unpreventable losses.
Another important symbol employed by Homer also concerns the deities. Every time a deity visits Odysseus, a mortal form is chosen and the deity’s true identity is kept secret. This disguise represents the idea that life can never by judged purely by the outlook. The true significance of things is not proportionally reflected by their material form. The suitors can also be seen as thugs in disguises of gentlemen. Even though they promise to be civil visitors in the residence of Penelope, they are truly symbols of the lowest form that men can be. Their characterizations bring up only disgust and hatred, the far extreme low point of humanity. In other terms, the manifestation of anything may either be an overstatement or an understatement of the truth. Relevant to this idea, Homer also mentions the importance of modesty and amicability. Odysseus is always humble and gracious to the people he meets, despite their stature in the world. This is one of the many characteristics of Odysseus that makes him welcomed by many. Homer’s theme may be that hospitality is one of the more honorable traits of humanity and a moral that should be shared by many.
Homer has built a myriad of symbols and themes in The Odyssey. His epic is not only an entertaining enduring literature, but an education and enlightening of the mind. The plot moves continuously from action to action, yet weaved within the twenty-four books of this poem is numerous life lessons that are invaluable to even the modern society.