The Odyssey Questions and Answers

Homer

Read real teacher answers to our most interesting The Odyssey questions.

When was The Odyssey written?

The Odyssey is thought to have been composed in the 8th century.

What is the significance of watered wine?

In ancient Greek culture, being “civilized” was considered a great virtue. People who were “civilized” only drank wine that was mixed with water. In fact, they had a special vase, called a “krater,” which was used to mix the drink. Therefore, when the Cyclops Polyphemus drinks the undiluted wine that Odysseus gives him, it is a sign of barbarianism. Polyphemus is a wild, uncivilized man, going against the virtues of good Greek people. This scene is more than just a clever trick by Odysseus—it is an indication to Homer’s audience that Polyphemus is an unsympathetic character.

How does Odysseus display hubris?

Another important Greek idea is hubris. In our modern usage of the word, it means excessive ego or pride. In ancient Greece, it meant specifically excessive pride toward the gods. Many tragedies occur because a human defies or insults a god. In The Odyssey, Odysseus’s hubris gets the better of him when he taunts Polyphemus. He is so confident and arrogant about his triumph over the Cyclops that he makes a terrible mistake. When he gives his real name to Polyphemus, he incites the anger of Polyphemus’s father, the sea god Poseidon.

How is Odysseus a flawed hero?

In Odysseus, Homer has created a multi-dimensional Greek hero, and not all of those dimensions are great. In the Iliad, Odysseus is depicted as brave, resourceful, intelligent, skilled in debate, but there are episodes in which Odysseus exhibits some anti-Homeric-hero traits. For example, at one point in a battle, Nestor, one of the oldest and ablest of Greek warrior-kings, is trapped in his chariot's rubble as Trojan warriors descend upon him. Another Greek warrior-king, Diomedes, attempts to help Nestor, and as Odysseus passes by, Diomedes calls for his help. Odysseus, believing that Nestor cannot be saved, rushes on to the safety of the Greek ships. This was a practical response to the problem, but not a heroic one. In the Odyssey, when he is describing the Sirens to his men, he neglects to tell them that the Sirens pose a fatal threat--despite his goal of telling his men that he wants them to go into this danger with "their eyes open," that is, fully understanding the dangers. In other instances, Odysseus' pride puts him and his men at risk. Undeniably, Odysseus is a Homeric hero, whose best traits are worthy of imitation, but he is also arguably the most complex of Homer's warrior-kings, whose flaws and strengths make up the whole man.

How would you describe the relationship between mankind and the gods?

One of Homer's themes in both the Iliad and Odyssey is the complicated and often destructive relationship between the gods and mankind. In both poems, we often see the gods treating mankind as chess pieces on a chess board, giving no thought to the effect of the game on its unwilling participants. In the Iliad, for example, the winning of individual battles often has nothing to do with the skill of the warriors but to the whim of a particular god or, more often, the Trojan War mirrors a war of personalities going on among the gods themselves, who use the Greeks and Trojans as their soldiers. In the Odyssey, Odysseus is tormented by Poseidon at every point in his voyage home, in part because he killed the Cyclops Polyphemus (Poseidon's son), and succeeds because he has the help of Athena and because of his own intelligence, strength, ability to endure. In addition, the gods tend to punish mankind brutally for any kind of disobedience-- Odysseus' original crew is killed because they eat some of the sun-god's cattle while, by the way, they face starvation. Ultimately, mankind has power to act only to the extent that its actions stay within the gods' plans and don't offend a particular god, who is more like a willful, but dangerous and all-powerful, child than a mature adult.

How is Eumaeus a victim of fate?

Eumaeus, a swineherd, servant, and loyal friend of Odysseus, provides insight into the Greek view of fate and one's station in life. Even though Odysseus and Telemachus treat Eumaeus with kindness and respect, Eumaeus is clearly below their station in life--in his eyes and theirs. As it turns out, however, Eumaeus originally belonged in the upper classes: he was kidnapped--pirated away--from his upper class family when a child and bought from his captors by Laertes, Odysseus' father, and he then became part of the servant class. When Odysseus hears Eumaeus tell the story of how he arrived in Ithaca, Odysseus' reaction is not to express horror that Eumaeus has been placed in the "wrong" social station but that Eumaeus should be happy because he has always been treated well as a servant. This seems at first to be an incongruous reaction, but it is in keeping with the Greek belief system: Eumaeus is where he is because the Gods and Fates placed him there, and it is not mankind's right to alter his fate in any material way.