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Literary Devices in The Odyssey

The Odyssey is an epic poem that served an educational purpose for those who heard it. It relates historical stories with fantastical elements of myth, legend, and divine intervention. Epics begin in medias res (in the middle of things) and explore a vast world or universe, generally that involves mythological landscapes such as the home of the gods. It uses symbolism, imagery, and allegory to elevate the story to the fantastical realm of myth and legend. Heroes often give long speeches and represent the ethos of their civilization. Thus, they lack in what we would understand as emotional resonance and instead demonstrate honor, bravery, and courage.

Literary Devices Examples in The Odyssey:

Book I

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"I will give you one of no less value in return..."   (Book I)

Given what we know of Athena's intentions here, it's likely that the "gift" she gives Telemachus will be his father, returning at last from his voyage. It seems unlikely, however, that Telemachus will be able to give Athena a gift of equal value, since his father's return may as well be priceless to him. We will have to wait and see what, if anything, comes of this promise.

"a prize of such rare perfection..."   (Book II)

Keep in mind that the suitors aren't that interested in Penelope herself, but want control over Odysseus's land, livestock, and estate. Though Eurymachus claims they can't go after other women, in fact, they can, but choose not to do so. Their brash refusal to change course is a fine example of "hubris," the Greek word for pride. In a classic Greek tragedy, hubris would be the primary character flaw of a hero, but in The Odyssey, it's a trait of the villainous suitors, who are blinded by their self-interest.

"Halitherses..."   (Book II)

A prophet and friend of Odysseus who, like Mentor, remained in Ithaca to help Telemachus while his father was at war. Like Penelope's soothsayer, his ability to read the future is questionable, but is used by Homer as a way to foreshadow things that take place later in the poem. In that sense, Halitherses' prophecy is a way for Homer to structure the narrative and establish the timeline (up until this moment, we didn't know that Odysseus had been gone twenty years).

"there shall be no man to avenge you..."   (Book II)

Telemachus leveled this same threat at the end of Book I. The repetition implies that it hasn't been effective and that Telemachus still feels insecure about his position here. This entreaty to the gods and councillors wouldn't be necessary if Telemachus had control of the situation, and in emphasizing the fact that he doesn't, Homer makes it all too clear that Telemachus can't live up to his father. Even this meeting, so seemingly bold, is someone else's idea.

"rosy-fingered..."   (Book II)

This descriptor, known as an "epithet," appears throughout The Odyssey. It's one of many epithets (like high-hearted or wine-colored) that Homer uses to fill the constraints of dactylic hexameter (a form of meter consisting of six "feet" of one long and two short syllables). Such epithets were also used as mnemonic or memory devices to help performers remember where they were in their recitation of the poem.

"As the sail bellied out with the wind, the ship flew through the deep blue water, and the foam hissed against her bows as she sped onward. Then they made all fast throughout the ship, filled the mixing bowls to the brim, and made drink offerings to the immortal gods that are from everlasting, but more particularly to the grey-eyed daughter of Zeus...."   (Book II)

This paragraph, full of sailing jargon, provides Homer with an opportunity to create verisimilitude (a literary term meaning realism or reality). His audience, regardless of what part of Greece they come from, would've been familiar with these nautical terms, which are: hawsers (ropes), cross plank, and forestays (a piece of rigging that prevents the mast from falling).

"rosy-fingered..."   (Book III)

This is Homer’s second use of this epithet, used to remind those reciting the poem of where they are in the story.

"praying heartily to Poseidon..."   (Book III)

It is ironic that Athena prays to Poseidon since she is actively working against the god who is punishing Odysseus by giving advice to his son, Telemachus.

"Athena led the way and Telemachus followed her..."   (Book III)

Notice how this image is very similar to one in Book II. Homer uses repetition to emphasize important images or ideas. This image emphasizes Telemachus’ reliance on the goddess Athena, who has taken on the form of Mentor.

"When the child of morning, rosy-fingered Dawn..."   (Book III)

This is the third use of this phrase to describe dawn.  In an oral culture in which the poet must remember accurately hundreds of lines, a phrase like this--always used to describe dawn--is easy to commit to memory and creates an image in the minds of listeners that just the word dawn would not. In the conventions of epic poetry, this type of phrase is known as an epithet.

"She then went quickly on, and Telemachus followed in her steps..."   (Book III)

Note how often in the early part of the Odyssey Homer uses this construction almost as a refrain. Later on, this characterization will become a measure of the changes in Telemachus. Homer’s strong emphasis on Telemachus’ allegiance will be important later as a measure of changes in his character.

"ruined himself by boasting..."   (Book IV)

The ancient Greeks, drawing on Aristotle's philosophies about human behavior, believed in hamartia, or a fatal flaw of personality that affected many heroes. One of the most common flaws was hubris, that is, pride or boasting.

"the ruin of a stately mansion..."   (Book IV)

Following Agamemnon's murder, his estate would've fallen into the hands of Aegisthus and Clytemnestra, then passed again to Orestes, Agamemnon's son, after he avenged his father. Traditionally, Menelaus would've become King of those lands in his brother's wake, but since he was away, he wasn't able to claim his rights in the matter.

"and now the gods..."   (Book IV)

Keep in mind that at this point in the narrative Achilles has been dead at least ten years, and if he gave his consent to the marriage while at Troy, as Menelaus did, that means this engagement lasted anywhere from ten to twenty years. Why the gods waited so long after Achilles' death remains a mystery.

"not to betray him to the Trojans..."   (Book IV)

Homer's audience would know that there's no mention of this either in The Iliad or any of the stories about Helen. It's clear that Helen is reinventing her history in order to curry favor with the men dining with her.

"there is an island called Pharos..."   (Book IV)

Pharos, the site of the famous lighthouse built by Ptolomy II, the Pharos of Alexandria (one of the Seven Wonders of the World) is not quite a mile from the mainland of Egypt, so Menelaus' description of it as being a full day's ride from the mainland is inaccurate. Menelaus is clearly playing up the distance for dramatic effect.

"when you have done supper I shall ask who you are..."   (Book IV)

According to the ancient Greek custom of xenia, hosts must offer their guests food and drink regardless of their social status. In practice, that often meant seeing to their needs before asking their names or where they came from (a neat way of avoiding feeling put upon by guests of lower social station).

"When the child of morning rosy-fingered Dawn appeared..."   (Book V)

In both the Iliad and Odyssey, Homer repeatedly uses some mnemonic devices, words and phrases designed to be easier to remember, and this line is one of the most often repeated. In an oral literary culture, mnemonic devices become important shortcuts to aid the poet's memory.

"she hovered over her head and said:..."   (Book VI)

The form that Athena takes is consistent with dream visions depicted in the Iliad and elsewhere. The god or goddess appears in the dream and hovers in the form of a trusted friend or relative near the head of the dreamer. This typically makes the person to whom the god speaks more receptive.

"which Odysseus got by stratagem..."   (Book VIII)

Odysseus speaks of himself in the third person in order to incite the bard to tell stories about the Trojan Horse. Keep in mind that we've heard another version of this story from Helen, and that it wasn't uncommon in ancient Greek texts for there to be multiple conflicting accounts of a single event.

"by one of the bearing-posts..."   (Book VIII)

Notice how this image parallels an earlier description of Penelope, who's often depicted as standing near or leaning against a bearing-post at home. Homer draws this parallel to show both Nausicaa's goodness and Odysseus' attraction to her.

"this golden goblet..."   (Book VIII)

Notice that this is virtually the same gift Menelaus offers Telemachus: a goblet to use during drink-offerings, which thus becomes a daily reminder of the giver. Homer deliberately draws this parallel between father and son to show Telemachus is maturing and how their timelines are beginning to merge.

"smote the grey sea with their oars..."   (Book IX)

This phrase is one of many phrases that appears repeatedly throughout the Odyssey—another mnemonic formula.

"staying and munching lotus..."   (Book IX)

If temperance was a virtue to the ancient Greeks, then naturally, gluttony was a vice. Again, Homer uses Odysseus’s men to act as foils for his heroism. Each of these stages in their journey is another chance for Odysseus to prove himself before the gods.

"left off caring..."   (Book IX)

The apathetic Lotus-eaters serve as foils for Odysseus’s unwavering determination. Homer exploits their passivity as a chance for Odysseus to prove his tenacious character and heroism.

"drinking much wine..."   (Book IX)

Not only do some of his men fall prey to temptation, but they disregard the Greek virtue of temperance. Their excessive pride, or hubris, they get from sacking the town results in a bloody battle. The virtuous Odysseus triumphs over temptation and survives, as opposed to some of his men, who serve as foils for his heroic character.

"if no man is attacking you, you must be ill..."   (Book IX)

The cunning Odysseus tricked Polyphemus so that while the Cyclops thinks he is calling out “Noman”, it just sounds like “no man” to the other cyclopes. While emphasizing Odysseus’s heroic qualities, this pun also provides comic relief during this gruesome scene.

"give me a present..."   (Book IX)

Odysseus tests to see if the Cyclops will abide by xenia, or hospitality. The cyclops does not show xenia, widening the divide between him and the Greeks. Homer uses the cyclops as a foil for all of Greek civilization, celebrating their advanced society.

"One of them spread a fair purple cloth over a seat..."   (Book X)

The following is a careful description of traditional hospitality, xenia, in a Greek household and the purpose of this description is to emphasize the normalcy of Circe's domestic life.

"now that he is old..."   (Book XI)

Homer draws a parallel between Peleus and Laertes, Odysseus' father, who has been described multiple times as old and feeble. Taken together, these two examples suggest that the ancient Greeks didn't revere their elderly and were prone to disrespecting and usurping kings in their old age.

"but tell me and tell me and tell me true..."   (Book XI)

Polysyndeton, or the unnecessary repetition of words and phrases, is a common literary device in Greek tragedies. The purpose is to slow the rhythm of the reading and emphasize each word or phrase. Here, Odysseus stresses that he wants Tiresias to tell him the whole truth, however long or difficult it might be.

"sees and gives ear to everything..."   (Book XI)

Remember that the sun, in a previous chapter, spied on Ares and Aphrodite for Hephaestus and informed him of his wife's infidelity. Make sure to differentiate between Apollo, the god of the sun, and the sun itself, Helios, a divine entity with its own powers and agendas.

"Thrinacian island..."   (Book XI)

This is the home island of Helios (also, Apollo), the sun god. In Book I of The Odyssey, Homer told us that Odysseus' men had slaughtered Apollo's cattle and been punished, so we know even before Tiresias completes his prophecy that this is true and will come to pass shortly.

"carry it on and on..."   (Book XI)

What follows (instructions to Odysseus about how to satisfy Poseidon) seems like an odd interpolation because it takes us past the end of The Odyssey's narrative. The Iliad, which predicts the death of Achilles and the fall of Troy, is similar in that the narrative ends before these events actually take place.

"Athena had made it a foggy day..."   (Book XIII)

This is the second time Athena has interceded on Odysseus's behalf by making him less visible in order to protect him; the first time was during his walk to Alcinous's cloister. Notice how Homer is attributing these circumstances to the gods while simultaneously using them as a device for controlling the elements of the plot.

"as fearing him and pitying you..."   (Book XIV)

In this passage, Eumaeus has effectively denounced this "stranger," accusing him of being a liar and a swindler unworthy of his respect. He admits that Odysseus' story is interesting, but doesn't believe it because it's too fantastic (a metafictional response written by Homer to underscore the unlikeliness of Odysseus' return, which seems all the more incredible because of it).

"but I was in command also..."   (Book XIV)

This episode is a fiction: Odysseus invents another ambush, involving himself and Diomedes, as the frame for this story, which is designed only to see if Eumaeus is genuinely dedicated to him and to judge what, if any, support Odysseus still has in Ithaca.

"so Odysseus thought he would see..."   (Book XIV)

What follows is a story designed to test Eumaeus' loyalty. In Latin, this technique is called an exemplum, whose goal is twofold: to determine the extent of Eumaeus' loyalty to his absent master and to convince Eumaeus, without commanding, to take a specific action.

"which saved my life..."   (Book XIV)

Notice the parallels between this story and what actually happened to Odysseus in his journey home. Homer deliberately repurposes this material to underscore how common these kinds of events were in ancient Greece and to continue developing the themes of misfortune and death that have been following Odysseus from the beginning.

"To this you answered, O swineherd Eumaeus..."   (Book XIV)

Homer's addressing a character directly, using the vocative O (a sign of great respect), is very unusual. In The Iliad, this form of address is used only a couple times, and this is the only instance so far in The Odyssey. It may signal Homer's wish to exalt the nobility of a poor shepherd whose loyalty has been tested.

"he will give you a shirt..."   (Book XV)

Homer draws a parallel between the suitors and Telemachus, who has manners and respect where the suitors do not. In this way, the suitors act as foils for the main characters, emphasizing their good qualities by revealing what it's like not to have them.

"Eumaeus sprang to his feet..."   (Book XVI)

The love that Eumaeus has for Telemachus is described as the love a father has for a son. Homer's choice of words here juxtaposes Eumaeus's and Odysseus's responses to Telemachus's arrival to demonstrate the difference between a man who has been like a father and an absentee biological one.

"so that I have never been of any use to him..."   (Book XVI)

This is an instance of true pathos in the Odyssey. Telemachus has just returned from an unsuccessful voyage to discover the fate of his father, and he clearly feels a sense of failure at not finding anything out.

"Beggars should not be shamefaced..."   (Book XVII)

Telemachus said the same thing earlier in this book. It's unclear whether this is a belief that was generally held in ancient Greece or if it's something that Odysseus made sure to teach his family, because of his high moral values and respect for the traditions of xenia. This repititon emphasizes the connection between mother and son.

"to take it by force of arms..."   (Book XVII)

Homer may be emphasizing how large and well-defended the house is to prepare us for a later battle. It's also possible that he's showing off Odysseus' considerable wealth by saying that one building "keeps following on" after another, suggesting an entire complex, not just a house.

"Argos died as soon as he had recognized his master..."   (Book XVII)

Homer doesn't typically rely on pathos for dramatic and emotional resonance in *The Odyssey," but here uses it to great effect, allowing Odysseus' loyal dog, Argos, to rest easy now that he has finally seen his master's return (the implication being that he stayed alive all those years to wait for Odysseus).

"how he had hurt himself to get the scar..."   (Book XIX)

As commentators have pointed out, this is an excellent example of ring composition, the repetition of certain ideas, themes, or events in a specific order. This long digression began with Euryclea's recollection of how Odysseus received a scar on Mt. Parnassus in a boar hunt, and it ends with the same details in the same order.

"like the twittering of a swallow..."   (Book XXI)

Note the two similes used in this passage: the bard stringing his lyre and the twittering of a swallow. Homer may have wanted to create a concrete image for an audience who may not have been familiar with a weapon such as a bow but would have seen a lyre strung or heard a swallow sing.

"He began with his victory..."   (Book XXIII)

Notice how Homer briefly recounts the main adventures of The Odyssey for his audience's sake. Since this was traditionally shared aloud by a narrator, such repetition helps to remind the listeners what has transpired during the course of events.

"against the wall at right angles to that by which she had entered..."   (Book XXIII)

Notice the care with which Homer precisely describes the physical setting. As one of the most climactic moments in the story, he wants to ensure that his audience experiences the scene as completely as possible.

"and looking just like a lion..."   (Book XXIII)

Although this is a gruesome description, Homer uses the typical lion simile to depict Odysseus the warrior-king as he is in the Iliad and as he is now that he has returned home.

"could throw our arms about him..."   (Book XXIV)

Recall that Odysseus did attempt to embrace his mother, Anticlea, when her spirit spoke to him from Erebus in Book XI, but that he was unable to touch her because her form was incorporeal. This inversion (where Anticlea can't embrace him) reflects the emotional burden that both son and parents have felt during their separation.

"cattle-lifting or sheep-stealing..."   (Book XXIV)

Recall that Agamemnon's brother, Menelaus, asked almost the same question of Telemachus when they spoke in an earlier book. This repetition emphasizes their familial bond and further suggests that this kind of death (occurring during the process of stealing) was in fact very common in ancient Greece.

"You gave me thirteen pear trees..."   (Book XXIV)

Note above the catalogue of gifts Odysseus, in the disguise of the son of King Apheidas, says he gave to Odysseus during a visit, and note the catalogue of trees that Odysseus uses to identify himself. In epic literature, catalogues of things (leaders, troops, ships, men, trees, and gifts) are quite common and have become a convention of epic poetry.

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