Major Symbols in The Odyssey
Homer's world in The Odyssey looms large, and it presents symbols, ranging from specific objects to geographical entities, that are large in their significance. Examples include the shroud that Penelope weaves for Laertes, the great bow of Odysseus, the sea itself, and the island of Ithaca.
The shroud that Penelope weaves for her father-in-law, Laertes', eventual funeral symbolizes the cunning with which she confronts the suitors. She lacks the power to fight them with physical strength so she wards them off with her wits. The suitor Antinous bitterly tells the story of the shroud to the assembly in Book 2: Penelope devoted herself to the shroud for three full years, promising she would choose a husband when she finished. By day, the queen, a renowned weaver, worked at a great loom in the royal halls. At night, she secretly unraveled what she had done, deceiving the young suitors. The ruse failed only when Penelope was betrayed by a disloyal maidservant.
Primarily, the bow symbolizes the physical superiority of the king — an important point in a world in which the mighty prevail. But the bow also symbolizes the maturity and perhaps the character of the king. The suitors can't come close to stringing it (Book 21), illustrating the fact that none of them is capable of leading Ithaca. Prince Telemachus, trying the bow just for sport, comes close. The reader is told that Telemachus probably could string the bow on his fourth attempt, but his father signals him to desist. We take from this passage that Telemachus is almost ready to be king but patiently and properly acquiesces to his father's judgment. Only Odysseus can string the bow on his first attempt, and he does so with ease, showing that he is the proper mate for Penelope and the only man ready to be king of Ithaca.
The sea itself is a recurring symbol throughout the epic. It is, in effect, the sea of life. It represents a great man's journey through life with all its victories and heartbreaks.
Because Odysseus is far from Ithaca and the only way home is by way of the sea, he shows lack of judgment when he incurs the wrath of the sea god, Poseidon, by blinding the god's son Polyphemus. The sea god answers the Cyclops' prayer by making Odysseus' struggle long and hard, assuring that he returns home alone and finds formidable problems in his household. Part of the appeal of The Odyssey is this universal journey that we all undertake, in ways great or small.
The island of Ithaca symbolizes home. There Odysseus can share his life with his beloved wife and son, enjoy the wealth that he has earned, eat the food of his youth, and even sleep in the bed that he built. Ithaca symbolizes the end of the journey, the goal of the mythic trek. Nevertheless, it is not gained without a fight.
Odysseus must initially enter his own home in disguise. This is necessary because his home has been invaded by the enemy: the suitors. Being the military leader that he is, Odysseus first gathers pertinent information. He then plans the time and place of his attack, doing what he can to limit the enemy's weapons while procuring his own. His son and two loyal herdsmen stand by him, and Athena intervenes only enough to encourage victory so long as Odysseus fights well. The reward is that Odysseus resumes his proper position as king of his homeland, Ithaca.