The Odyssey Analysis

  • In the original ancient Greek, The Odyssey adheres to a consistent meter without a regular rhyme scheme. Notable stylistic features of the poem include the use of parataxis, the absence of indirect speech, and a mixture of formal and colloquial language.
  • Homer’s use of repeated epithets, such as “winedark sea” and “grey-eyed goddess Athena,” points to the origin of The Odyssey and the Greek epic tradition in oral performance.
  • In the world of the poem, poets and seers, such as Demodocus, Tiresias, and Phemius, are considered to be favored by the gods and even to speak for them.

Analysis

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Last Updated on June 25, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1006

The structure of Homer’s Odyssey, in its original Greek, is comparable to that of blank verse in English. This is because, while it observes consistency in meter, it does not have a strict rhyme scheme. Another prominent stylistic feature of The Odyssey is its use of parataxis, as it typically foregoes subordinating conjunctions such as “because,” “although,” and “since,” lending the poem an elegant, undisrupted flow. This also allows for the smooth inclusion of multiple clauses in a single sentence.

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True to most epic poetry, The Odyssey does not contain indirect speech. In order to mark transitions between narrative passages and direct speech, therefore, the poem has the character who is speaking address their specific audience with titles such as “Zeus-born son of Laertes, Odysseus of many ways of contending” or “O Achilles, son of Peleus.” There can also be found, both in narrative passages and direct speech, a blend of highly formal language and slang or colloquial language. For example, Fitzgerald’s translation of Odysseus’s duel with the beggar Irus (or Arnaeus) in book 18 is marked with roguish insults such as “chicken-heart” and “rag-picker.”

However, the one stylistic feature of The Odyssey which is most obvious to readers is Homer’s use of epithets such as “winedark sea,” “the young Dawn spreading her fingertips of rose,” and “the grey-eyed goddess Athena.” The repeated use of these epithets bears testament to the roots of The Odyssey in oral performance. In Greek epic tradition, bards or poets are storytellers with a repertoire of certain scenes, patterns, and phrases rearranged or customized at will or upon request. One instance in The Odyssey in which the role of the bard is explored can be found in book 8, in which the bard Demodocus sings three narrative songs, two of which concern the Trojan War and move Odysseus to tears.

In the Homeric universe, it is the bard’s duty to know tales of interest by heart, including feats of heroism (such as the siege of Troy), the gods’ dalliances (such as Aphrodite and Ares’s extramarital affair), and cautionary tales (such as Clytemnestra’s betrayal of Agamemnon). In book 8, the bard Demodocus effortlessly switches between tales, as the stories themselves are more or less composed of the same elements and conventions. Some examples of these oft-repeated conventions include the partaking of food and wine at a feast, the launching of a ship, and the hero’s reckoning—all of which can be found in multiple points in The Odyssey. Apart from the apparent ease these established conventions bring to the storyteller, they also serve to reiterate the values upheld by gods and men, such as deference to the gods, the value of hospitality, and humility in the face of misfortune. Admittedly, the gods are not held to the same moral standards as mortals, as evidenced by the contrast between the fates of Aphrodite and Clytemnestra. Both are accused of marital infidelity, but while Aphrodite escapes to her divine abode, Clytemnestra is murdered, her name forever disgraced.

Bards, heralds, and seers hold a special place in the Homeric universe and are often considered to be favored by the gods. This is because they are, in many ways, the gods’ mouthpieces—the bridge between gods and mortals. In book 10, Odysseus journeys to the Land of the Dead to speak with the blind prophet Tiresias, who informs him of what he must do to rid himself of Poseidon’s wrath. That both Demodocus and Tiresias are blind is one of the poetic ironies of the Homeric universe, as they are gifted with either foresight or lyricism in return. (This sort of poetic irony is not limited to mortals, as evidenced by the god Hephaestus, who cannot battle or wield weapons because of his crippled leg and yet is the greatest blacksmith among both gods and men.) Another instance in which bards and heralds are given deference can be found in book 22, as Odysseus spares only the bard Phemius and the herald Medon from the slaughter. Phemius maintains that he was merely compelled by the suitors to provide entertainment and that he is innocent in his preoccupation with song and verse:

Mercy, mercy on a suppliant, Odysseus!
My gift is song for men and for the gods undying.
My death will be remorse for you hereafter.
No one taught me: deep in my mind a god
shaped all the various ways of life in song.
And I am fit to make verse in your company
as in the god’s. Put aside lust for blood.

The Odyssey begins not with Odysseus, the main protagonist, but with his son Telemachus. This accomplishes two things: the addition of Telemachus serves to emphasize the wickedness of the suitors, as they undermine his authority in his own household and even plot to murder him; and Telemachus’s trip to the Greek mainland serves to bring closure to the events of The Iliad, as he meets with King Menelaus and his wife, Helen. Because The Odyssey is a sequel to The Iliad, certain characters are brought in to “complete” the events of the earlier poem. Apart from King Menelaus and Helen, these characters include Achilles and Agamemnon, both of whom Odysseus speaks with at length in the Land of the Dead. That The Odyssey commits to resolving the events of The Iliad accounts for its great number of speeches. Approximately 67.74% of The Odyssey is direct speech, the speeches numbering to exactly 546.

Many of The Odyssey’s most iconic scenes—such as the Sirens’ song, Penelope’s weaving of the shroud, and Odysseus’s clash with the Cyclops Polyphemus—are not narrated but merely recounted in speech, as the events of The Odyssey begin toward the end of Odysseus’s ten-year journey. This structure preserves the tension between Odysseus and the wicked suitors who have overrun his household in his absence, which forms the central conflict of the story. Ultimately, the poem’s structure serves to emphasize that The Odyssey is, at its core, a tale of homecoming and reckoning.

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