Symbols in The Odyssey

Of the many symbols throughout The Odyssey, birds and food are the most frequent motifs. Birds symbolize both peace and bad omens. Birds are sent from the gods to foreshadow future events and to indicate good and bad characters. Food symbolizes transformation and the growth of characters and their bonds. Every positive event or relationship results in a shared meal; every negative event or relationship gives way to cannibalism or poisoning.

Book XIII 2
"goddess dispersed the mist and the land appeared..."   (Book XIII)

The mist symbolizes the difficulties the gods give Odysseus during his voyage home. By dispersing the mist and showing Odysseus that he is in his home country, Athena shows readers how the gods help mortals. This dichotomy is a recurring theme in the story that can be read as a cultural reflection of the time The Odyssey was written: Although people believed the gods oftentimes helped people, they also believed gods caused them great harm.

"At the head of this harbor there is a large olive tree..."   (Book XIII)

Again Homer uses the olive tree as a symbol of hope and salvation. Since the tree is at the head of the harbor, as readers we know that this is a place of salvation for Odysseus, even though it does not occur to him right away.

"a dove in its talons..."   (Book XV)

In ancient Greece, a dove was a symbol of peace and was often depicted in an olive tree or carrying an olive branch. The expression "extend an olive branch" derives from this image and means to make an offer of peace or make amends with an enemy.

"birds of the same feather..."   (Book XVII)

In The Odyssey, birds are usually symbols that soothsayers read to foretell the future. A dove might mean peace, a hawk might represent power, and an unnamed bird, such as one mentioned here, would mean nothing, except that one was of low status and not worthy of a more meaningful bird.