The Odyssey by Homer

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Teaching Approaches

Odysseus and the Hero’s Journey: Odysseus’s adventure is an example of a hero’s journey: a reluctant hero must leave home to conquer an external threat. In so doing, the hero must pass through a sequence of trials and tribulations, confronting her own flaws and mortality along the way. Scholar Joseph Campbell used Odysseus as a model hero and identified the hero’s journey archetype in stories across genres, epochs, and cultures in his seminal work The Hero with a Thousand Faces. The stages of the journey that Campbell outlines are a valuable framework for analyzing the epic and can be used to help struggling students organize Odysseus’s adventures amid the nonlinear narrative. 

  • For discussion: What is Odysseus’s tragic flaw? When does he confront it directly in the text? When does it empower him, and when does it disable him? Does he overcome his flaw in the end? 
  • For discussion: One of the stages of the hero’s journey is called “atonement with the father” and involves the hero reckoning with an authority figure. Who holds authority in Odysseus’s life? When and how does Odysseus atone? 
  • For discussion: Compare and contrast Odysseus and Telemachus as they each pass through stages of the hero’s journey. What are their flaws, and how do they address them? Is one a more successful hero than the other? 

Fate Versus Free Will: Odysseus is famed for his wit and cunning, and for riddling his way out of deadly situations. Paradoxically, he is also famed for being at the mercy of the gods: Calypso holds him captive on her island; Poseidon refuses to let him return home; Helios, the sun god, kills Odysseus’s crew for having eaten his cattle. The ongoing tension between the events within and outside of Odysseus’s control encourages readers to question the limits of human free will in a world outside of human control. 

  • For discussion: To what extent does Odysseus have free will in the text? When and how is he successful in determining his life, and when and how does he fail? 
  • For discussion: In the text, is fate the same thing as divine intervention? Does the Odyssey distinguish between luck, fate, and random chance? If so, how? 
  • For discussion: How would you describe the characters of the gods? How do the Greek gods compare to characterizations of an omniscient god in monotheistic cultures? How does the ancient Greek concept of fate compare to the religious notion of intelligent design today?

Suffering and the Human Condition: The Odyssey provides a perspective on the human experiences that arise during international war. Odysseus is on a journey to return home after being sent abroad for war. Telemachus and Penelope, as dominant secondary characters, illustrate the consequences of the Trojan War on the homefront. Through the nuance of these interactions, the epic reveals different responses to the suffering brought about by war. 

  • For discussion: Describe Odysseus’s emotional arc over the course of the epic. To what extent does he suffer? When does Odysseus keep his emotions hidden, and when does he act on them? 
  • For discussion: Describe the suffering that Telemachus, Penelope, and Odysseus endure at the start of the epic. Is there anything the characters could have done differently to avoid suffering? What do they do to remedy their suffering? Are they successful? 
  • For discussion: In book 11, Odysseus travels to the underworld, where he meets with his former comrades of war, Achilles and Agamemnon. How does Odysseus’s experience after leaving Troy compare and contrast with those of his comrades? 
  • For discussion: Consider that which Odysseus gains and loses over the course of his journey. Is his odyssey worth it? Would he be better off having stayed home, as he originally wanted? Why or why not? 

Stranger in a Strange Land: As part of his fate, Odysseus is destined to wander. In the ten years after the Trojan War, Odysseus embarks on some of the most legendary adventures in Western lore. He blinds Polyphemus and overpowers...

(The entire section is 1,801 words.)