As students approach Robert Fagles’s nearly 500-page translation of The Odyssey, they may express surprise at the length of Homer’s poem. Reading The Odyssey may be their first experience with the epic as a literary genre, and they may be unfamiliar with its characteristics. Discussing the conventions of an epic will benefit students as they work with the text.
An epic is a long narrative poem that recounts the deeds of a hero, god, or other powerful, often mythic, person. It begins in medias res (in the middle of the action) and often opens with an invocation to the Muse—a request from the poet for divine inspiration in telling the tale. Since poets recited epics from memory long before they were written down, the poems rely heavily on mnemonic (memory) devices, such as the repetition of key lines and passages and the use of epithets, descriptive re-namings of important characters. (In The Odyssey, for example, Menelaus and his brother Agamemnon are “sons of Atreus.”) Epic poems are vast in their scope of settings, characters, and events. The gods often intervene in the action, and more often than not, interfere in the lives of men.
Many of the conventions of epic poems arose from the poets’ original purposes. Epics functioned as the embellished record of a culture’s history; consequently, they include catalogues of famous people, battles, and family lineages—all the historical details the civilization wanted to remember. Epics also provided role models for the culture that produced them; therefore, epic heroes embody the values of their civilization. Finally, because epics reminded a culture of its greatness, they contain long, eloquent speeches and formal boasts meant to bring an ancient crowd to its feet. While the epic form may seem foreign to students, they are probably familiar with several modern “epics.” J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, George Lucas’s Star Wars, and J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books all possess qualities of the epic, although they are not written as narrative poems and don’t follow all the conventions of traditional epics.
The Odyssey is one of two famous Greek epics most often attributed to Homer, The Iliad being the second. However, crediting Homer with the authorship of The Iliad and The Odyssey remains a subject of debate among scholars because few details about his identity are known. The ancient Greeks believed that Homer was a blind poet of enormous talent, and a number of Greek cities claimed he had resided there. Today, the debate about Homer’s identity and his writing of the two epics continues. Some scholars argue that The Iliad and The Odyssey are far too different to be the works of a single poet, citing the warrior ethic of The Iliad versus the more sensitive tone of The Odyssey; they believe The Odyssey may well have been written by a woman. Still other academics suggest that the name “Homer” refers to a person who compiled a number of shorter poems to create these two massive epics, functioning more like an editor than an author. This theory, they argue, explains the presence of so many digressions in the texts; both epics feature back stories and tales-within-a-tale.
The Odyssey focuses on the trials of Odysseus, King of Ithaca, as he journeys home from the Trojan War. His feats in the war are chronicled in The Iliad and serve as antecedent action in The Odyssey. Like every renowned Greek of his day, Odysseus had pledged his loyalty to the brother kings Agamemnon and Menelaus; he had left his wife and infant son in Ithaca to fight for the Achaeans (Greeks) and win glory in the war against Troy. As both a commander and a warrior on the battlefield, Odysseus had distinguished himself during the Trojan War, employing his characteristic cunning and wit to devise the Trojan horse ploy through which the Greeks captured Troy and burned the city after ten years of bloody battle and stalemate.
The Odyssey begins ten years after the fall of Troy, when all the Greek warriors except Odysseus have either returned home or met their deaths and descended to the underworld. Odysseus has been absent from his home in Ithaca for twenty years, and his family has had no word of his fate. Leaving Troy, he sets out for Ithaca by sea, experiencing a series of dangerous adventures during his journey home. To the Greeks who knew this story (and that would include most of them), the word “odyssey” meant simply “the story of Odysseus.” Given the poem’s enduring popularity with people throughout the world, the word has come to mean “a series of adventurous journeys marked by many changes of fortune.”
The Odyssey can be divided into three parts. The first, called the Telemachy by scholars, comprises the first four books (chapters); it begins in the present with Odysseus’s son, Telemachus, and details the challenges he and his mother have faced since his father failed to return from Troy. As his father tries desperately to make his way home, Telemachus embarks on a journey of his own to discover news of Odysseus and, in the process, to test himself as a man. The second and longest part of the epic begins with Odysseus’s release from the goddess Calypso’s island after a long but rather pleasant “imprisonment” there and relates his time with the Phaeacian people to whom he narrates the story of his wanderings in exchange for passage to Ithaca. This part of the tale details Odysseus’s fantastic encounters with hostile gods, raging storms, cannibalistic monsters, and perhaps most deadly of all, desirable women. Finally, Odysseus reaches the shores of Ithaca, where he reunites secretly with his wife Penelope and with Telemachus, the son he has never known; he then conspires with the goddess Athena to weave a bloody plot that will restore order to Ithaca and himself to the throne.
As a hero of Greek culture, Odysseus embodies the values important to his civilization: courage, honor, piety, propriety, strength, and resilience. However, his long years of suffering have challenged aspects of his character, such as his leadership, fidelity, and desire to win glory and fame. To understand Odysseus’s motives and behavior, it is helpful to know a little about his culture and the expectations he faces as a warrior, leader, and king. Odysseus is bound to a strict warrior ethos as well as to cultural conventions that form the foundation of Greek civilization. His devotion to the former inspires courageous deeds but also provokes him into committing foolish acts of bravery.
Odysseus’s sometimes reckless pursuit of recognition leads some scholars to suggest that through his recklessness, Homer subtly questions or criticizes the Greek warrior culture’s emphasis on kleos, the glory or renown a Greek warrior earns through deeds of valor or, often, his own glorious death in battle. The imperative to make a lasting name for oneself, to earn kleos, explains why so many Greeks went willingly to Troy in search of a “beautiful death” that would ensure their fame throughout the ages. The Odyssey reveals the kinds of problems that result when the desire for glory motivates a leader’s decisions and actions, and the concept of kleos creates complexity in Odysseus’s character.
Another trait central to Odysseus’s character is metis, a quality that combines wisdom with cunning and emphasizes intelligence over physical strength. Although Odysseus possesses great strength, metis is his signature trait; both gods and men know him as “the man of twists and turns.” While a talent for trickery, lies, and deception may not seem heroic today, the Greeks considered this quality quite noble because it displayed a mortal’s mental acuity as being on a level with the gods’. (In Greek mythology, Metis was a Titan associated with wisdom, deep thought, and cunning). A broader concept governing Greek warrior culture is arête, the drive to achieve one’s greatest potential. Since metis is Odysseus’s most defining trait, he must strive to become the most accomplished of liars and tricksters in order to achieve arête. In The Odyssey, the challenges Odysseus faces provide the opportunity for him to employ metis, display arête, and win kleos.
While metis, arête, and kleos form the basis of Odysseus’s warrior ethos, the cultural value of xenia (hospitality) is even more pervasive in The Odyssey and more essential in understanding the evil Odysseus and his son face. The concept of xenia calls for every person, regardless of social station, to show hospitality to anyone, stranger or friend, who comes to his home. Xenia epitomizes the Greeks’ concept of civility; they also considered it a duty owed to the gods, particularly to Zeus who they believed favored strangers. Throughout the epic, Homer dwells on numerous, lengthy descriptions of feasting, entertainments, and gift-giving, all displays of xenia. Odysseus relies on the hospitality of those he meets, perhaps to a fault, and violations of xenia have disastrous consequences.
On one level, The Odyssey can be enjoyed simply as a great adventure story, full of monsters and marvelous deeds. On another, the tale serves as a classic example of a hero’s journey during which trials and suffering transform his character, making him a better man. Odysseus as hero also serves as an example of how concepts of heroism and leadership have and have not changed over time. Finally, The Odyssey can be read as a literary artifact that illuminates the culture of the ancient Greeks, revealing their values and their relationships to family, to society and to their gods; through the complex character of Odysseus, Homer validates some tenants of the Greek warrior culture but criticizes others. What he seems to question—the personal desire for glory and everlasting fame—is surely as relevant today as it was in the poet’s ancient time.
By the end of the unit the student will be able to:
1. Identify the conventions of the epic in The Odyssey: invocation to the Muse, catalogues, formal boasts, intervention by the gods, epithets, and epic similes.
2. Establish the chronology of major events in Odysseus’s journey, and explain how each of the specific challenges he faces reflect strengths or weaknesses in his character.
3. Describe how both Odysseus and Telemachus are transformed by the journeys they undertake, and identify the traits they develop as a result of their trials.
4. Identify examples of Greek cultural values such as xenia, kleos, and metis and explain their significance in the text.
5. Contrast the behavior of the suitors with the behavior of the kings and monsters Odysseus and Telemachus meet on their journeys.
6. Contrast the story of Agamemnon’s homecoming and death at the hands of his wife Clytemnestra and her lover Aegisthus to Odysseus’s homecoming. Discuss the reason for the prevalence of this allusion in The Odyssey.
7. Identify Odysseus’s strengths and weaknesses as a leader and argue whether he ultimately succeeds or fails as a leader.
8. Analyze the presentation of women in the epic, citing specific examples from the text.
9. Discuss the roles of the gods and the importance of fate in Odysseus’s story.