Illustration of Odysseus tied to a ship's mast

The Odyssey

by Homer

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Teaching Approaches

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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 Circe. He outmaneuvers the sirens and survives the cattle of the sun. He is the first person ever to be rescued literally from between a rock and a hard place—in this case the monsters Scylla and Charybdis. All the while, he depends on the hospitality of strangers to continue on his journey. He and his hosts are expected to abide by xenia, the hospitality custom that governed travel in ancient Greece. Hosts were to give a warm welcome to travelers, offering food, drink, and safe haven. Guests were expected to entertain with stories of adventure and news from neighboring city-states. Both guests and hosts were to maintain respectful decorum, the transgressions against which could have catastrophic consequences. Xenia was so important to the ancient Greeks that Zeus himself was designated its patron deity. 

  • For discussion: Compare and contrast instances of xenia over the course of the epic. When do characters abide by xenia, and when do they transgress? Why? 
  • For discussion: Consider the characters who break the norms of xenia. To what extent are they punished? How? In your opinion, do their transgressions merit the punishment they received? 
  • For discussion: Why do you think hospitality, as a cultural value, was protected by the gods in ancient Greece? To what extent does this value exist in modern cultures? 

Tricky Issues to Address While Teaching

The Odyssey Is Long and Overwhelming for Students: The Odyssey contains over 12, 000 lines of epic verse and most translations will present new and challenging vocabulary to students. The text is particularly difficult for struggling and ESL students. 

  • What to do: Before teaching any given book in the poem, have students complete a vocabulary study ahead of time. Giving students an outline of key events in the book, or engaging them in predictive activities, ahead of time will also support comprehension. 
  • What to do: Consider being selective about which books of The Odyssey you read. Many educators choose to read only the most famous or the most thematically relevant books instead of the entire text. 
  • What to do: Engage students in team-learning activities. If students work in groups, each student can do a close study of one specific book (or portion thereof) and share their learning with their peers. Similarly, students can dramatize portions of the text, make cartoons, and draw maps to support comprehension. 

The Odyssey Has a Complicated, Non-Linear Plot: In addition to its length, The Odyssey also features two distinct narratives, one that follows Odysseus and one that follows Telemachus. Adding to that complexity, Odysseus’s adventures are presented within a frame and are non-sequential: his journey from Calypso’s island to Ithaca is interrupted as he narrates events directly following his departure from Troy. 

  • What to do: The stages of the journey that Campbell outlines are a valuable teaching tool, and can be used to help struggling students organize Odysseus’s adventures amid the nonlinear narrative. 
  • What to do: Take liberty to reorganize the books as desired or read only those that are relevant to your course of study. For example, you may choose to read only the books that narrate Odysseus’s adventure, leaving aside Telemachus’s journey for a later time. 
  • What to do: Make use of timelines and other graphic organizers to support students in tracking the events of the plot. 

The Odyssey Is Gender Biased: Students will be quick to point out the cultural double standards that are applied to Odysseus and Penelope. Odysseus engages in a variety of extramarital affairs without consequence, whereas Penelope’s worth as an individual, mother, and queen are determined by her fidelity. Furthermore, while Odysseus is rewarded for his affairs, the maids in Odysseus’s household who carry on affairs are executed. 

  • What to do: Provide students with historical background about the role of women in ancient Greece and the extent to which they held social and political power. For contrast, brainstorm the ways in which women hold, or are working to gain, social and political power today. 
  • What to do: Invite students into thorough analysis of all the female characters in the poem. Compare and contrast Penelope with other mortal women whom Odysseus meets in the underworld. Consider in particular the extent to which these characters are empowered, as compared to the immortal women (Calypso, Circe, Athena) of the poem. Does immortality affect societal empowerment? Are some expectations universal for all the women in The Odyssey? Which ones? 
  • What to do: Compare and contrast ancient Greek culture to your culture today. To what extent is the gender bias present in the text still applied across genders today? What consequences do men face as a result of sexual behavior? What consequences do women face? How do the consequences for men and women differ? 

Alternative Approaches to Teaching The Odyssey

While the themes, character development, and discussion questions above are typically the focal points of units involving this text, the following suggestions represent alternative readings that may enrich your students’ experience and understanding of the epic. 

Focus on Odysseus as a political leader. Odysseus has a complicated relationship with his crew, and his authority as a political and military leader fluctuates over the course of the text. Work with students to define the qualities of a strong political leader and compare them to those of Odysseus. 

Focus on Odysseus and Telemachus as literary foils. Father and son go on parallel journeys in The Odyssey. Explore how Odysseus and Telemachus stand as literary foils, and analyze how their shared and individual faults develop over the course of the epic. 

Focus on monsters and fantasy. The supernatural creatures and characters can be some of the most entertaining elements of reading The Odyssey for the first time. Ask students to consider the ways in which the fantastical elements in the text are representations of social and existential concerns for both the ancient Greeks and readers today. 

Focus on the role of the gods in ancient Greek culture. The Odyssey presents a cast of deities who are flawed, fickle, and yet supremely powerful. Consider the role the gods play in the lives of the characters in The Odyssey and invite students to compare and contrast the ancient Greek tradition of polytheism to numerous traditions of monotheism. 

Focus on setting as a symbolic device: While The Iliad is set predominantly on the battlefield outside Troy, The Odyssey takes readers on a nautical voyage around the Mediterranean. Analyze how the details of the locations—Calypso’s island, the Cyclops’s cave, the underworld—in The Odyssey symbolically work to develop characterization and theme in the text. 

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