Themes in The Odyssey

Book I 8
"for he feared his wife's resentment..."   (Book I)

This sheds light on some of the complex gender dynamics at work in this poem. While this is a male-dominated society, and women are considered property in many ways, their emotional lives are still as rich and varied as they would be now, and though women have no real political clout, they nevertheless wield some level of power over their husbands.

"But in his heart he knew..."   (Book I)

Telemachus, like his father before him, has grown suspicious of other people's motives, and this has led him to make a series of shrewd decisions, including confronting the suitors and making this display of power. This wisdom born of familiarity with deceit further develops the theme of lies, which will become more important as we get deeper into the poem.

"she flew away like a bird..."   (Book I)

It's unclear whether Athena transfigures herself into a bird or merely makes use of her enchanted sandals to fly off into the air. If indeed it is the former, this fits into a larger theme of gods disguising themselves as animals. Perhaps the most famous example of this might be Zeus turning himself into a swan while pursuing Leda, one of his consorts.

"by fair means or foul..."   (Book I)

Until now, Athena has been presenting Telemachus with a reasonable course of action, but with this suggestion, her speech takes a dark turn emblematic of the gods themselves: while they're not in general that bloodthirsty, their idea of justice skews toward violence, and as a result the Greek justice system didn't adequately address problems like murder and rape.

"the gods in their displeasure have willed it otherwise..."   (Book I)

Here we see the theme of man's fate versus the gods' will in action. Telemachus believes that the gods have done this to him, but we know from earlier passages that this isn't true, so the tension between gods and mortals becomes instead just a question of perception. In the end, Telemachus's inability to cast away the suitors isn't because of the gods, but rather due to his own youthful lack of courage and experience.

"mixing wine with water in the mixing-bowls..."   (Book I)

In ancient times, Greeks routinely mixed wine with water in order to dilute it and make it last longer. This practice was especially common among the nobles, who signified the status of their guests by how much or how little water was mixed into their wine. Basically: the stronger the wine, the greater their social status, suggesting that these guests, who have a great deal of water in their wine, are, in the end, not very important.

"men lay blame upon us gods..."   (Book I)

In Greek mythology and literature, there exists a tension between a man's "fate" and the unpredictable will of the gods. It often happens that men are ruined by the gods for no reason, and this results in feelings of resentment and distrust. A man might say that the gods caused his troubles instead of taking responsibility for his own actions because it was well-known that the gods were capricious.

"prevented them from ever reaching home..."   (Book I)

At heart, The Odyssey is a coming home story, and the central tension of the story is whether or not Odysseus is going to make it home in time to keep his home from falling apart. In the course of this journey, Odysseus's men are delayed, killed, injured, or enchanted, while Odysseus struggles to return to his wife when faced with temptations like beautiful water nymphs.

"Tyro, Alcmena, Mycene..."   (Book II)

Here Homer refers to famous women of the past, including Mycene (namesake of the city Mycenae), Alcmena (mother of Heracles), and Tyro, one of the many consorts of Poseidon. Notice that, with the exception of Alcmena, a mortal, the women listed here are either nymphs or royalty, and that this is the level of social status required for a woman in ancient Greece to be great. Suggesting that Penelope is better than these women is hyperbolic, but telling: any powerful woman, they suggest, is to be feared.

"whether she would or no..."   (Book II)

Strangely and yet not unsurprisingly the suitors have misunderstood Penelope's intentions, mistaking her deceit with the loom as a form of indecision rather than taking it as a sign that she doesn't want to marry any of them. This failure to see what's really happening here speaks to a sharp gender divide in ancient Greek society, in which men didn't bother to think about the emotional lives of women.

"tambour frame..."   (Book II)

This tambour frame, a circular frame for use in sewing, becomes a symbol both of femininity and fate, as Penelope uses her sewing to hold the suitors at bay. In the course of this poem, the frame will take on increasingly layered meanings and will, like Odysseus' bow, represent the split between "women's work" and men's work.

"was one of the suitors..."   (Book II)

Financially speaking, it would've been a tremendous financial relief to be one of the suitors, as Telemachus was obliged as their host to provide food, wine, and lodgings to all the suitors. The financial burden this placed on the household is incalculable, and it's a testament to just how wealthy Odysseus was that his house hasn't already been destroyed.

"no meeting of our councillors until now..."   (Book II)

In Odysseus's long absence, Ithaca has been a largely lawless state, with the suitors taking advantage of Odysseus's house without fear of retribution. Telemachus calls for a meeting of the councillors to hail a return to a just and lawful state, aligning himself with the side of the good and the just while implying that the suitors are criminals.

"board of a ship..."   (Book III)

Nestor exhibits the Greek virtue of xenia, or hospitality shown towards guests. Xenia was very important to the Greeks because it created moral and civic order in their society. Take note of which characters do not exhibit xenia in the poem, as they will be characterized as malevolent.

"not even the gods can save him..."   (Book III)

Control over one’s destiny is a theme that runs through the Odyssey. Although the gods can provide guidance or divine intervention, Athena admits that it is ultimately up to the individual to make the right choices and save themselves or be the hero.

"good name..."   (Book III)

In this passage, “good name” refers to a good reputation, or what the Greeks call kleos: the glory and renown a hero earns by accomplishing great deeds. Kleos is a theme found throughout the poem that drives the narrative, particularly Telemachus’s and Odysseus’s quests.

"while I tell you a tale in season..."   (Book IV)

Telemachus has stopped at the home of Menelaus and his wife, Helen, the woman whose beauty started the Trojan War. the theme of temptation is prevalent throughout The Odyssey and each character faces temptation in their own way. Helen's story predates The Odyssey, but it's impact on this theme is important. Helen blames her leaving Melelaus on Aphrodite rather than her own love for Paris, thereby placing the blame where it is undeserved. As other characters face temptation, take note of the ways they justify their actions and how they relate their deeds to others.

"in two minds..."   (Book IV)

This idea of "two minds" or double consciousness appears throughout the text and underscores one of the central tensions in the poem: that a person is always struggling between what he's supposed to do (in this case, xenia) and what he wants to do (breach the many codes of etiquette in Greek society). In some ways, every major conflict in the poem stems from this double consciousness.

"Nevertheless, I want to get home, and can think of nothing else..."   (Book V)

Calypso fails to understand why Odysseus refuses her offer to stay with her and become immortal, saying that no mortal woman can match her beauty. Odysseus states his loyalty to his wife and desire to go home are all he wants, even if that means the gods will torment him on his journey. Odysseus's choice shows how he resists Calypso's temptation to choose loyalty and love, which he considers the marks of highest honor. If Odysseus were to succumb to his baser nature, he would give up on his higher purpose as a husband and father.

"had been grafted..."   (Book V)

Odysseus’s discovery of the olive tree tells the reader two things. First, the fact that it has a grafted branch means that the island Odysseus has just landed on is inhabited. Second, the fact that it is an olive tree demonstrates the recurring symbol of hope and salvation.

"better than this..."   (Book V)

Homer repeats a theme regarding the reliability of the gods. Throughout his journey Odysseus has been both tricked and assisted by the gods, thus he never can know whether or not he can trust them. This could read as a form of social commentary on how the ancient Greeks who put so much blind belief into the power of their gods.

"Even a god could not help being charmed with such a lovely spot..."   (Book V)

By articulating the beauty of Calypso’s island, Homer emphasizes the authenticity of Odysseus’s desire to go home. He has been in paradise for seven years, and even though Calypso offers him immortality, he yearns to return to his country, his friends, and Penelope. Homer uses this description to help symbolize the power of home in the heart of Odysseus.

"his country and his friends..."   (Book V)

These are Odysseus’s two recurring symbols for freedom; they represent motivation and triumph throughout Homer’s epic. Odysseus wants to return home to his loved ones and to receive praise for his heroism in Troy. It is important to keep these symbols in mind to understand his motivations to fight so hard to get home.

"who are near of kin to the gods..."   (Book V)

Zeus is easily convinced by Athena to assist with Odysseus’s journey home. He intends to send him to Scheria because he knows that the Phaeacians will do all that he asks. By sending him to this particular island, he continues to control the fate of Odysseus, a metaphor for the belief that the gods control the lives of mortals.

"and make the best of it...."   (Book VI)

Nausicaa reiterates the Greek belief that there is no luck in the world. When explaining why things happen, the inscrutable will of Zeus presides over any human agency or supposed chance.

"did the whole voyage in a single day..."   (Book VII)

Long-distance seafaring was notoriously dangerous in ancient Greece, with many ships being lost to the seas and the fickle will of the gods. To make a long voyage in a single day was virtually impossible and should signal the extreme skill and speed of Alcinous' ships and sailors.

"absolutely without any name whatever..."   (Book VIII)

A clever act of foreshadowing on Homer's part. In the next book of the poem, we will see an instance in which not having a name (or being "no one") will make the difference between life and death for Odysseus. This idea of being nameless ties into the theme of identity, which the Greeks based on one's social status and physical strength.

"bury our city..."   (Book VIII)

Remember that Poseidon hasn't looked favorably on Odysseus' previous attempts to return home and that he might be particularly mad at the Phaeacians for helping him this time. If Alcinous knew this, he might be less likely to help Odysseus, which is another good reason for Odysseus to keep his identity secret.

"set fire to their tents..."   (Book VIII)

This was a fake-out designed to lull the Trojans into a fall sense of security. After a ten year siege on the city of Troy, the Argives set their tents on fire to signal that they'd finally given up. Meanwhile, Odysseus and his men were sneaking into the city, preparing to win the war.

"and you might look on..."   (Book VIII)

Modern readers will no doubt recognize how degrading this situation is for Aphrodite. She's tied up (presumably naked) and being laughed at and fantasized about by all too violent men. Hermes' statement reveals something ugly about the hyper-sexualized nature of the gods, who are constantly depicted as having affairs.

"showing himself a proper man..."   (Book VIII)

In ancient Greece, a man's masculinity was measured by his feats of strength and courage either in battle or during a pentathlon such as this. Odysseus, a man primarily known for his cunning, happens to be a man of great strength, as well, but can't be guaranteed to win any contest like this.

"inhuman..."   (Book IX)

Notice how Homer describes Polyphemus in relation to humanity instead of in terms of his extraordinary physicality. The poem celebrates humanity by showing the great feats that mortals, such as Odysseus, can accomplish. The Cyclops, neither a god nor human, is thus considered the outcast.

"lawless..."   (Book IX)

Here, “lawless” refers to how the cyclopes do not live in a structured society guided by the same laws, assemblies, and social customs that the Greeks pride themselves on. Order and unity are important to the Greeks, and those who do not abide by these laws in the poem are generally characterized as antagonistic and beneath the Greeks.

"a whole people make merry together..."   (Book IX)

In the Iliad, Homer stresses the importance of Greek unity, that city-states must unite or risk defeat. Take note of the characters who value unity and those who do not, as their fates will be determined by how well they can work together.

"the blind Theban prophet Teiresias..."   (Book X)

This is another example of how one of the purposes of Odysseus' quest is to teach him humility. By sending him to speak to Teiresias and others in the realm of Hades, Circe is playing her role in the lesson Odysseus needs to learn.

"who Hermes always said would come here..."   (Book X)

Notice that this is the second time a prophecy about Odysseus has been fulfilled. (The first was the blinding of the Cyclops). This further enhances his reputation among humans and gods, and it also reminds us of the overall arc of the story and his journey home.

"we were lost through our own folly...."   (Book X)

The folly of humankind is a leitmotif (a sub-theme) in The Odyssey. In almost every case in which Odysseus and his men get into trouble, they ignore their own self interest and do something they have been warned not to do, or they allow their selfish desires to overcome their good sense.

"digging their beaks into his liver..."   (Book XI)

A common punishment in ancient Greece, the most common recipient of which was Prometheus, a Titan, said to have created mankind. Prometheus stole fire from Mount Olympus to give to the humans, which resulted in this punishment. Remember that Prometheus is an immortal and thus regenerates his liver every time it's eaten, thus prolonging his punishment for all eternity.

"proud spirit into subjection..."   (Book XI)

Ajax and Odysseus are both proud men with good reason never to bend their principles or allow themselves to be dishonored. Many of their problems stem from this pride, and one of the central themes of The Odyssey is the difficulty of controlling that pride and preventing further disaster.

"no trusting women..."   (Book XI)

Agamemnon's own personal experiences fuel his suspicions, which will later contribute to Odysseus's caution when he returns to Ithaca. It should be noted, however, that the suitors are the ones Odysseus can't trust, and they are without exception male.

"close my lips nor my eyes..."   (Book XI)

In ancient Greece, it was tradition to close the lips and eyes of the dead and to place a coin over them to pay Charon, the ferryman on the River Styx, who conveyed them from the land of the living to the land of the dead. Without this payment, Charon might be less inclined to perform this service, and the spirits of the dead would remain waiting forever.

"Then my men took the wax from their ears and unbound me..."   (Book XII)

While Odysseus ensures that his men stop their ears with wax, he has them bind him to the ship so he can hear the Sirens' call. The Sirens are synonymous with temptation, and in this moment, Odysseus accepts the pull of temptation and his own weakness. However, he also relies on the help and faithfulness of others to protect him. This passage shows that while he perhaps should have simply stopped his ears and avoid the peril, Odysseus has recognized a weakness of his and demonstrated that accepting that weakness and relying on others is a valuable way to overcome temptation.

"You dare devil,’ replied the goddess, ‘you are always wanting to fight somebody or something..."   (Book XII)

Odysseus constantly tests the gods to achieve glory for himself, and these actions have evolved into hubris. He asks Circe if he and his men might fight Scylla, escape Charybdis, and avoid any casualties. Circe chides him for his pride and recklessness, and she is one of the first to open his eyes to his headstrong and adventure-seeking ways. Odysseus soon comes to realize that his actions have worn down the patience of the gods.

"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.

"common lot of mankind..."   (Book XIII)

A common theme in The Odyssey is the recurring contrast between humans and gods. By mentioning “age and death” as the “common lot of mankind,” Homer emphasizes the mortality of humans. For Odysseus to say this is ironic because even though he doesn’t have god-like power, with the help of the gods he has been somewhat of an immortal.

"he was longing to be on his way..."   (Book XIII)

After all he has gone through, arriving home now feels tangible for the first time in awhile. So, even though he is being celebrated, he is ready for the night to be over and he can finally be on his way to Ithaca. This longing symbolizes the power of home for the wandering Odysseus.

"I swear by king Zeus..."   (Book XIV)

In ancient Greece, taking an oath in vain was especially dangerous, as it was likely to anger both the gods and the parties involved. As a "stranger" to Eumaeus, this oath would've seemed particularly strong and binding, because it would've meant the difference between his safety and an untimely death.

"tramps in want of a lodging..."   (Book XIV)

Travelers in ancient Greece were known to take advantage of the tradition of xenia to secure lodgings and meals while on the road. It would've been very easy for men who'd heard of Odysseus' absence to make up stories about him in exchange for dinner. Some appear to have claimed he was alive, while others told Penelope he was dead.

"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.

"seduced her, and cajoled her..."   (Book XV)

Notice that while women are depicted as being weak-willed, men aren't expected to refrain from making advances on them. Notice too that there's a sharp gender divide between what's acceptable behavior for men (flirting and seducing) and what's acceptable for women (being faithful and chaste).

"kills them with his painless shafts..."   (Book XV)

In ancient Greece, the most honorable way to die was in battle, while the worst way was often to grow old and miserable and die of some terrible disease. For these people to be spared old age by Apollo and Artemis would mean a great deal to them and should indicate that they're of a particularly well-respected class.

"but Odysseus stood firm, and did not budge from the path..."   (Book XVII)

Throughout the tale, Odysseus has been quick to protect his ego and his pride. However, at this point in the tale, he has learned some humility and demonstrated it through patience. Melanthius the goatherd treats him like a beggar and even lashes out at him. Odysseus's natural response is to retaliate, but he checks himself this time, trusting that he will have his revenge eventually.

"like a man..."   (Book XVII)

Note the irony of this statement. Melanthius, a man of little to no means and a servant with no respect for his master, would never receive a sword or a cauldron as a gift, making him, by his own definition, less of a man. This further underscores how unhealthy the gender roles in ancient Greece were.

"grant us our revenge..."   (Book XVII)

Telemachus places faith both in human endeavors (his father's plan) and the gods (via this offering to Zeus). This duality existed throughout ancient Greece and colors the behavior of all the main characters in The Odyssey, who must rely both on their wits and on the favor of the gods in order to survive.

"but he that is righteous and deals righteously..."   (Book XIX)

Penelope's speech indicates that despite being self-absorbed in grief, she is not only able to understand the beggar's sorrows, but she is also able to reach out to him in kindness. Fair dealing with others is another virtue that was prized in Greek society.

"you are my age-mate..."   (Book XXII)

Odysseus has noticed that all of the suitors are young men half his age (and thus, half Penelope's age). Odysseus probably feels that these young men haven't been brought up properly to fear and respect him and that only men his own age ("age-mate") know how to treat him properly.