Literary Devices of The Odyssey
Elevated Language and Meter
Composed around 700 bc, The Odyssey is one of the earliest epics still in existence and, in many ways, sets the pattern for the genre, neatly fitting the definition of a primary epic (that is, one that grows out of oral tradition).
In The Odyssey, Homer employs most of the literary and poetic devices associated with epics: catalogs, digressions, long speeches, journeys or quests, various trials or tests of the hero, similes, metaphors, and divine intervention.
Homer composed The Odyssey in a meter known as dactylic hexameter, which gives the epic its elevated style. Each line has six metrical feet. The first five feet may be made up of either dactyls and/or spondees. A dactyl is a metrical foot consisting of a long sound followed by two short sounds (BEEEEAT beat-beat). A spondee has two long sounds (BEEEEAT BEEEEAT). However a line is composed, the last metrical foot usually is a spondee (BEEEEAT BEEEEAT).
In Homer's epic poetry, composed in Ancient Greek, it is the length of the sound that counts, not the emphasis as is usually the case in contemporary English poetry. Translations, for obvious reasons, generally cannot mimic the metric foot of the epics and remain true to content and themes.
The Epic Simile
One of the devices used most effectively by Homer is the epic simile. A simile is a figure of speech in which two unlike things or concepts are shown to be similar, for poetic purposes, often through the use of the words "like" or "as." For example, we might say that a girl's hair is like sunshine or that her breath is rank as an old gym sock. An epic simile sometimes extends the comparison to expansive proportions. One relatively short example in The Odyssey appears when Odysseus and his men blind the Cyclops: "as a blacksmith plunges a glowing ax or adze / in an ice-cold bath and the metal screeches steam / and its temper hardens — that's the iron's strength — / so the eye of the Cyclops sizzled round that stake!" (9.438-41)
Seth L. Schein (Reading the Odyssey, 1996, pp. 15-16) neatly distinguishes between the similes of The Iliad and The Odyssey. The Iliad is confined geographically in ways that The Odyssey is not; it deals primarily with the Trojan War. The Odyssey, on the other hand, covers much of the known (and some of the unknown) world of the time. Because of this, Homer's similes in The Iliad perform two functions: First, as with most similes, they help to clarify or deepen the reader's experience of something, such as a mood, an event, an object, or thought. Second, the simile also, as Schein puts it "expand(s) the universe of the poem and the range of experience it comprehends."
In The Odyssey, Homer uses the epic simile differently. First, the later poem has fewer similes, and, for the most part, they do not expand the already vast world of the story. Instead, in The Odyssey, the similes intensify the experience for the reader. Schein and others cite the simile that Homer creates when he appropriately compares Penelope's delight, upon realizing her husband's return, to that felt by shipwrecked sailors who catch sight of shore: "Joy, warm as the joy that shipwrecked sailors feel / when they catch sight of land." (23.262-63 in Fagles). Penelope is like the shipwrecked sailors. Her life has been, in effect, lost at sea without her husband. Realizing his return is like catching sight of land.
Homer's poetics include other noticeable devices that may seem odd to a modern reader. One is his extensive use of epithets. An epithet is a term or phrase used to characterize the nature of a character, an object, or an event. An epithet that has become a cliché because if its excessive use in earlier translations of The Odyssey is "rosy-fingered Dawn." Morning's first light is compared to rosy fingers spreading across the land. Fagles spares the reader slightly, while being faithful to the text, by referring to "Dawn with her rose-red fingers" (the first line of Book 2, for example).
Athena, sometimes called Pallas Athena or simply Pallas, often carries the epithet "sparkling-eyed" (l.53). Among other characteristics, hair gets a lot of attention in epithets. Circe, for example, is "the nymph with lovely braids" (10.149). Various limbs are extolled. The sea-nymph Ino is "Cadmus' daughter with lovely ankles" (5.366); the beautiful daughter of Alcinous and Arete is "[w]hite-armed Nausicaa" (6.112). In addition to identifying characters in ways that may or may not be very significant, epithets allow the poet to fill out a line and match the meter at his discretion.
Other Literary Devices
Some other literary devices, such as catalogs and digressions, may seem tedious to the modern reader. To his audience in ancient Greece, however, Homer's various lists of heroes or villains were familiar.
For modern readers, the epic also has an unusual amount of repetition. Nevertheless, this repetition is one of the features of oral tradition that help to identify The Odyssey as a primary epic. Repetition was used as a touchstone for the rhapsode; it helped him keep his place. Repetition aided the listener in the same way.