Major Themes in The Odyssey
The major themes in The Odyssey are especially significant because they serve to form the moral and ethical constitution of most of the characters. The reader learns about the characters through the themes. The more complicated a character is, the more he or she engages these major themes. Therefore, the most complicated character, Odysseus, appropriately embodies each of the themes to one degree or another.
Thinking of hospitality as a major theme in a literary work may seem odd to modern readers. In Homer's world, however, hospitality is essential. Fagles and Knox (p. 45) refer to hospitality as a dominant part of "the only code of moral conduct that obtains in the insecure world of The Odyssey."
Arriving strangers may be dangerous or harmless, and residents are wise to be prepared for trouble. Often, however, strangers are but wayfarers, probably in need of at least some kind of help. Similarly, the residents themselves — or their friends or kin — may, at some time, be wayfarers. Civilized people, therefore, make an investment in hospitality to demonstrate their quality as human beings and in hopes that their own people will be treated well when they travel. Furthermore, communications are very primitive in Homer's world, and strangers bring and receive news. It was through visitors that the Homeric Greeks learned about and kept abreast of what was happening in the world beyond their local areas.
Hospitality, or the lack of it, affects Odysseus throughout the epic, and the reader can judge civility by the degree of hospitality offered. Odysseus' own home has been taken over by a horde of suitors who crudely take advantage of Ithaca's long-standing tradition of hospitality. Telemachus and Penelope lack the strength to evict them, nor can they hope for much help from the community because the suitors represent some of the strongest families in the area. In his wanderings, Odysseus receives impressive help from the Phaeacians and, initially, from Aeolus. Circe is of great assistance after Odysseus conquers her, and the Lotus-eaters might be a little too helpful. On the other hand, the Sirens are sweet-sounding hosts of death, and Cyclops (Polyphemus) makes no pretense toward hospitality. In fact, Polyphemus scoffs at the concept and the gods that support it.
Zeus himself, king of the gods, is known as the greatest advocate of hospitality and the suppliants who request it; yet even he allows the sea god Poseidon to punish the Phaeacians for their generous tradition of returning wayfarers to their homelands.
Another personal virtue that is a major theme in the epic is loyalty. The most striking example of loyalty in the epic is, of course, Penelope, who waits faithfully for 20 years for her husband's return. Another example is Telemachus, who stands by his father against the suitors. Odysseus' old nurse, Eurycleia, remains loyal to Penelope and her absent master. Eumaeus, the swineherd, and Philoetius, the cowherd, are exemplary in their loyalty to their master and his possessions. Also an excellent if humble host, Eumaeus makes his king proud as he speaks respectfully of the royal family and abhors the invasion of the suitors.
In contrast are goatherd Melanthius and maidservant Melantho. Melanthius has become friendly with the suitors and insults Odysseus while the king is still in disguise. Melantho goes even further, sleeping with the enemy, showing disrespect for the queen, and insulting the beggar/Odysseus. The loyal servants are rewarded; those who betray their master are dealt with more harshly.
This issue, however, can be complicated because many of the people from whom Odysseus expects loyalty are actually his property. Even his wife, Penelope, literally belongs to her husband. As abhorrent as that may seem to a modern reader, possession is part of the justification for a double standard when it comes to sexual fidelity. Penelope is expected to be absolutely faithful to her husband. Given the account of the battle in the hall at the end of the epic, one might well imagine what would happen to her upon Odysseus' return if she were not. Odysseus, on the other hand, is not bound by the same expectation of fidelity.
Penelope and Odysseus especially embody the theme of perseverance. One of the reasons that they are well matched is that they are both survivors. Odysseus has been absent for 20 years, 10 at the Trojan War and 10 more in his journey home. According to the most aggressive of the suitors, Antinous, Penelope has persevered against the invaders for about four years (2.96), playing one against another and confronting them with cunning, most notably exemplified in her ruse of weaving a shroud for her father-in-law, Laertes.
Odysseus' perseverance is legendary, especially in the section of the epic involving his wanderings (Books 9-12). Through the use of guile, courage, strength, and determination, he endures. Perhaps the most difficult test of his perseverance as well as his loyalty is the seven years he spends as Calypso's captive, a situation he can neither trick nor fight his way out. Even when the beautiful goddess-nymph tempts him with immortality, Odysseus yearns for home.
Poseidon and Odysseus are the most noticeable representatives of the theme of vengeance. In order to escape from the cave of the Cyclops (Polyphemus), Odysseus blinds the one-eyed giant (Book 9). Unfortunately, the Cyclops is the sea god Poseidon's son; Odysseus has engaged a formidable enemy. Poseidon can't kill Odysseus because the Fates have determined that he will make it home. However, the sea god can help to fulfill his son's wish that Odysseus should arrive in Ithaca late, broken, and alone, his shipmates lost, and his household in turmoil (9.590-95). In one of the more controversial sections of the epic, Poseidon takes his frustration out on the Phaeacians whose only offense is following their tradition of hospitality by sailing Odysseus home (13.142 ff.).
Odysseus' vengeance is formidable when it is directed toward the suitors and his disloyal servants. He demonstrates impressive tolerance as he endures, in disguise, the insults and assaults of the suitor Antinous, the goatherd Melanthius, and the maidservant Melantho, for example. Each will die a gruesome death. In a surprise attack (Book 22), Odysseus kills the suitors' leader, Antinous, first with an arrow through the throat; he then kills smooth-talking Eurymachus, the other leading suitor, with an arrow in the liver. Melanthius and Melantho die more slowly after the slaughter of the suitors. Odysseus is avenging the suitors' lack of respect for and the servants' lack of loyalty to his office, his property, and his family.
Appearance vs. Reality
The theme of appearance versus reality is at the core of the relationship between Athena and Odysseus. Athena is the maven of makeovers. Her most memorable illusions in The Odyssey are disguises for herself or Odysseus. At the beginning of the epic, she appears to Telemachus as Mentes, king of the Taphians, an old friend of his father who has just stopped to visit in Ithaca. This allows her to encourage the prince and lead him into an expository discussion of the problems in the palace. However, she most famously appears to Telemachus as Mentor, an Ithacan adviser who helps to protect the prince from the murderous suitors and to guide him through his coming of age.
On several occasions, Athena changes Odysseus' appearance, either to disguise him or make him look even more formidable than he normally would. As Odysseus prepares for a banquet in his honor with the Phaeacians (8.20-22), for example, she alters his appearance to make him look taller, more massive, and more splendid in every way. When Odysseus returns to Ithaca in Book 13 of The Odyssey, Athena disguises him as an old beggar, even going so far as to shrivel his skin, remove the "russet curls" (13.456) from his head, and dim the fire in his eyes.
Of course, Odysseus is no stranger to disguise. During the Trojan War, he posed as a beggar to enter the city; he also initiated the ruse of the giant wooden horse filled with Greek soldiers, a story retold by the bard Demodocus, not realizing that the hero himself is present, during the visit to Phaeacia (8.559 ff.).
The recognition scenes with Odysseus' three family members on Ithaca provide significant and sometimes controversial twists on the theme of appearance vs. reality. He appears to his son, Telemachus, as a beggar who is visiting the family's pig farm. When they can be alone, Athena alters Odysseus' appearance to something so impressive that the prince wonders if he might not be a god. At the palace, the faithful nurse Eurycleia privately identifies Odysseus when she recognizes a scar on his leg as she bathes him; however, she vows to keep the news to herself.
Whether Penelope recognizes her husband, on the other hand, is a matter of dispute. Although at times she seems to suspect who he is, she does not officially accept him — though he wins the contest of the giant bow (Book 21) and slays the suitors (Book 22) — until he reveals his knowledge of their wedding bed. The meeting between Odysseus and his father, Laertes, (Book 24) is also somewhat controversial. Some critics argue that Odysseus, in maintaining his disguise, is needlessly cruel to the old man; others conclude that he helps to restore his father to dignity.
Athena admires Odysseus' craft and guile, saying that even a god would have to be "some champion lying cheat" (13.330) to get past him. Deception, illusion, lying and trickery often are thought to be admirable traits in The Odyssey. Athena enjoys them. It's easy to see why Odysseus is her favorite mortal.
One of the questions often asked about a work of literature is whether the principal characters grow or develop as the story progresses. The theme of spiritual growth is central to The Odyssey, especially as it relates to Telemachus and Odysseus.
When the epic opens, Telemachus is at a loss as to how to deal with the suitors who have taken over his home and seek the hand of his mother in marriage for primarily political reasons. His own life is in danger; as a pretender to the crown, he is nothing more than so much excess baggage to the men who would be king. Telemachus needs to grow up fast. Following the usual pattern of a coming-of-age story, the youth sets out with good intentions and an admirable, if naïve, spirit. He faces various barriers, falters temporarily, but eventually prevails.
With Athena's help, Telemachus calls an assembly meeting of Ithaca's leaders and confronts the suitors. Although he speaks well, he finds very little realistic support in the community; nonetheless, he has taken the first step toward maturity.
At the suggestion of Athena, Telemachus visits two old comrades of Odysseus — King Nestor of Pylos and King Menelaus of Sparta — in hopes of learning of his father. At the courts of these great men, Telemachus learns more about himself and how a prince should comport himself than he does about Odysseus. Nevertheless, he is given some hope that his father will return. When Odysseus does come back, Telemachus survives the test of battle and earns his father's trust.
Odysseus' growth is less linear. He was already quite a man when he left for the Trojan War 20 years before. His trials have more to do with refinement of spirit; his growth is in the kind of wisdom and judgment that will make him a better king.
Early on, Odysseus feels compelled to taunt Polyphemus the Cyclops as he escapes from the one-eyed monster. Odysseus shouts his real name at the giant, making it possible for Polyphemus to identify his tormentor to Poseidon, the Cyclops' father. This brings Odysseus, and the Phaeacians, serious problems later.
When he returns to Ithaca, however, Odysseus behaves more prudently. He enters in disguise in order to obtain information about the enemy as well as knowledge of whom to trust. Even when he is taunted and assaulted by the suitors or his own servants, Odysseus manages to maintain his composure and postpone striking back. When he does strike, the time is perfect. By the end of the epic, Odysseus seems to be a wiser, more perceptive leader than he might have been had he sailed straight home from Troy.