The Odyssey by Homer

The Odyssey book cover
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Overview

The main characters of The Odyssey are Odysseus, Penelope, Telemachus, and Athena.

  • Odysseus is the Greek hero who devised the Trojan Horse and who spends ten years trying to get back to Ithaca after the Trojan War.
  • Penelope is Odysseus's devoted wife; she fends off her suitors by refusing to marry until she finishes weaving a tapestry that she cleverly unravels every night.
  • Telemachus is Odysseus's young son.
  • Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom, disguises herself as Mentor to help Odysseus and Telemachus defeat the suitors.

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Character Analysis

Athena
It could be said that Athena is Odysseus’ “Guardian goddess”; after all, she is the Greek goddess of not only Battle, but Wisdom. Her wrath is what causes the Acheans’ difficulty in getting home, but she seems to have a special place in her heart for Odysseus. Her primary role in the epic seems to be for Odysseus; even the interactions she has with other characters are for the hero’s benefit.

In Book 5, Athena stills the waters Poseidon threw against Odysseus’ ship in an attempt to destroy it, avenging the Cyclops. Thanks to the goddess Odysseus and his crew are allowed to make it to shore. Later, in Book 22, Athena comes to the hero’s aid more as a “coach” or mentor than a participant. She doesn’t fight the suitors herself but encourages Odysseus. This shows her faith in his strength and skill in battle. Athena seems to admire this “mere mortal” a great deal.

In her dealings with Telemachus, Athena is equally supportive. She encourages him to cause as much trouble as he can with the suitors, assuring him that his father is indeed alive. She sends him to Pylos and Sparta to earn a name for himself, obviously believing he has the potential to equal his father, if not outshine him. More than anything, she encourages the boy not to give up and to use the wisdom and battle skills he is developing for the good of his homeland.

In addition to being the goddess of Wisdom and Battle, Athena is goddess of the “Womanly Arts.” Penelope’s work at the loom reflects the dreams Athena brings her, again encouraging her to believe that Odysseus will return. She is constantly watching over the other main characters in this way, more a gentle presence than a demanding power. In this, she is an uncharacteristic goddess for a Greek epic.

Odysseus
Odysseus is the central figure in the Odyssey (it is, of course, named after him). He is a prime example of a Homeric Hero – he exhibits strength, skill, determination, courage, and moral responsibility in his actions throughout the epic, and he is fairly consistent with these traits. His most valuable skill is his intellect, which gets him out of situations that would confound a strongman like Hercules. Odysseus’s strength lies in his intelligence, which enables him to escape from the Cyclops in Book 9 and fool his wife’s suitors near the end of the epic.

As the story begins, Odysseus is comfortable on the island of Calypso, his every wish catered to as long as he doesn’t leave. For many men, this would have been enough after the hardships of the Trojan War and an attempted trip home. For Odysseus, loyalty and a love of his home and family win out over sheer pleasure. After escaping from Calypso’s island, Odysseus sets out to reach home, no matter what it takes.

Odysseus is an exception to the Homeric Hero in that he changes over the course of the epic. Early on, Odysseus's pride and ego cause him to reveal his identity to the Cyclops, thus earning Poseidon's anger. By the end of the epic, he seems much more willing to temper this arrogance with patience; in effect, the events of the epic teach him that intelligence is far more important than power can ever be in the long run. Disguised as a beggar in his own home, he takes the suitors’ abuse, waiting for the moment to strike, not only revealing himself but ridding himself of all those who would take his life away from him. Odysseus is loyal, and he expects loyalty in return; by the end, he gets...

(The entire section is 6,371 words.)