Reading Pointers for Sharper Insights

Homer's two poems, the Odyssey and the Iliad, are among the first epics ever written. To better appreciate the Odyssey, it is essential to understand the nature of the genre. Epics generally contain the following elements:

As you read the Odyssey, take note of the following thematic concepts:

  • Hospitality as a serious and important obligation in Greek culture. Openness and offers of friendship to strangers will become pivotal to the action of the story. In Greek society, however, it was also necessary to be a polite and considerate guest. Both types of obligations will play a role in Odysseus' attempts to return home.

  • The dangers of hubris. This Greek word translates loosely as excessive pride that leads to destruction. Odysseus would certainly have fallen victim to the gods because of his hubris, had not Athena intervened a few times on his behalf. For example, when Odysseus brazenly taunts the Cyclops, the one-eyed monster almost destroys Odysseus' ships.

  • The importance of moderation. Giving in to excess or temptation, whether food, drink, or other sensory pleasures, will cause a person harm. The Sirens' song leads to destruction, and the suitors' desire for Penelope and the home of Odysseus causes their death.

  • The expected roles for men and women in Greek society. Notice the demanding and superior manner that the suitors use with Penelope. Telemachus' relationship with his mother and with the suitors changes, both as he grows older and as Odysseus' return seems less certain.

  • The role of Fate in the Odyssey. Many characters, including Odysseus, receive hints as to what their fate will be. Whether they choose to heed or ignore this foreshadowing is up to them, however. The suitors are given enough warning of their coming destruction, which they ignore. Their motivations for wanting Penelope and her riches make them blind to the obvious dangers they face. Consequently, and as part of their destiny, Odysseus kills them.

  • The similarities between Greek gods and mortals. The gods are portrayed anthropomorphically; they are jealous, fickle, capricious, and highly susceptible to sensual temptations. Sometimes they choose favorites; Athena chooses Odysseus, for example, because he is clever, and the goddess of wisdom appreciates this trait. Gods and goddesses also help people for no logical reason and with no concern for the number of other mortals who die as a result. While the gods are given credit for all that is good, they are not blamed for bringing destruction to mortals.

  • Certificates of Character – Certificates of character are formal statements in which prominent individuals guarantee, or certify, the quality and character of a slave. Sojourner wished to sell copies of her Narrative and needed certificates of character to receive sufficient recognition. She sold copies of her Narrative for twenty-five cents per copy to support herself financially.