Illustration of Odysseus tied to a ship's mast

The Odyssey

by Homer

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How can Homer's Odyssey be considered an allegory?

Quick answer:

Odysseus lets his pride get in the way of gratitude and humility.

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An allegory is defined as: extended metaphor in which a person, abstract idea, or event stands for itself and for something else.

It says one thing on a literal level, but also makes a point or demonstrates a figurative meaning.

The term [allegory] loosely describes any writing in verse or prose that has a double meaning.

Homer's The Odyssey can be seen to be allegorical in many ways for the many tales we read about. As the story begins, Odysseus has been gone from home for twenty years. He went to fight in the Trojan War and served valiantly. On his return, his reputation is secure. Strong and smart, now he only wants to return home to his wife and son. For all the good he has done, and as deserving as he is, his journey home is not an easy one. The message Homer may be sharing is that Odysseus, for all his physical prowess and dedication in battle, is not as humble as he should be, and it is this lack of humility that costs him another ten years away from home. The stories Odysseus shares are exciting and show how smart Odysseus is and how dedicated to his men he is. However, he insults Poseidon, a powerful god, being arrogant towards Poseidon's son. For all the gifts a "great" man may have, what makes one truly noble is his ability to remain humble in the face of so much good fortune.

It begins in Book Nine when Odysseus' ship lands on the island of the Cyclopes (giants with one eye in the middle of the forehead). The giant, Polyphemus, captures Odysseus and his men. Odysseus charges the giant to observe the laws of hospitality:

'We...humbly pray you to show us some hospitality, and otherwise make us such presents as visitors may reasonably expect...Zeus takes all respectable travelers under his protection, for he is the avenger of all suppliants and foreigners in distress.’

Instead of showing his guests hospitality, the Cyclops proceeds to eat several of Odysseus' men. Odysseus is furious, however, he is also very clever, and he comes up with a plan to get away. Odysseus tells Polyphemus that his name is "Noman." Then he and his men get the giant drunk and blind him. When Polyphemus calls to his friends saying "Noman" is tormenting him, they tell him that of "no man" is tormenting him, he must be in trouble to cry about it—instead, he should pray to his father, the mighty Poseidon.

Odysseus (in the face of Polyphemus' suffering and criticism by his friends) shows his arrogance...

...I laughed inwardly at the success of my clever stratagem...

To escape from the giant's cave, Odysseus instructs his remaining men to strap themselves to the bellies of sheep and goats and then sneak out undetected when Polyphemus removes the rock that blocks their exit. They take all of the giant's sheep to the ship, as Polyphemus pursues them. Out on the water, Odysseus makes his biggest mistake by taunting the giant and showing his lack of humility, even though his men beg him to stop:

[I] shouted out to him in my rage, ‘Cyclops, if anyone asks you who it was that put your eye out and spoiled your beauty, say it was the valiant warrior Odysseus, son of Laertes, who lives in Ithaca.’

Odysseus continues to jeer at Polyphemus who then calls to his father, asking that Odysseus be punished. Poseidon honors his son's request, and it will take ten more years before Odysseus returns home, having lost all his ships and his entire crew.

This story proves the old maxim: Pride goeth before the fall.

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