The Odyssey Themes
The main themes in The Odyssey are hospitality, loyalty, and deception and dissimulation.
- Hospitality: The importance of the code of hospitality in ancient Greek society is stressed throughout The Odyssey, with Odysseus relying on a variety of hosts in order to survive his journey home.
- Loyalty: The virtue of loyalty is embodied in Penelope, Odysseus’s wife, who faithfully awaits his return for twenty years, as well as in Eumaeus, the swineherd.
- Deception and dissimulation: Odysseus relies on his craftiness, his ability to deceive others and manipulate situations to his advantage, both during his journey and when he returns to Ithaca in disguise.
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1057
In The Odyssey, hospitality is a virtue which is demonstrated time and time again, as Odysseus wanders far from home, stumbling on the homes of others countless times. Throughout the tale, he consistently relies on the hospitality of strangers, taking for granted that hosts have a responsibility to entertain whoever knocks at their door. In the Homeric universe, there are certain customs revolving around hospitality, such as that of providing one’s guest with food and drink before asking questions. Another custom is that of furnishing one’s guests with gifts before sending them on their way.
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Hospitality also prevails as a moral code which separates god-fearing mortals from heathens. This can be seen in books 15 to 16, when Odysseus, disguised as a beggar, knocks on the door of the swineherd Eumaeus and asks for food and shelter. Eumaeus happily obliges, stating that beggars and wanderers are tests of virtue from the gods. This is in contrast with book 9, when Odysseus ventures into the Cyclops Polyphemus’s cave and asks him to show him and his men kindness. Polyphemus scoffs at Odysseus’s request, as he has no respect for the laws of gods and men. In fact, Odysseus’s encounter with Polyphemus is a gruesome subversion of the customs and conventions of hospitality. Polyphemus does not provide them with food and drink, as is custom; rather, he makes Odysseus’s men his food. Hosts are also expected to provide their guests with splendid gifts. What Polyphemus does, however, is give Odysseus the gift of promising to eat him last.
Another subversion of hospitality can be seen in the unfortunate fate of Agamemnon, which is recounted and referenced several times in The Odyssey. When Agamemnon and his men return to Argos from their victory at Troy, they are slaughtered in the middle of a banquet by Agamemnon’s unfaithful wife, Clytemnestra, and her lover, Aegisthus. This is one of the ways in which Agamemnon serves as a foil to Odysseus, who fears that the same fate may await him upon his return. Odysseus subverts Agamemnon’s fate, however, by being the one to slaughter the wicked suitors in the middle of their feasting.
The Odyssey elevates loyalty as one of the noblest virtues. Eumaeus, one of the most loyal characters in the poem, is the only character Homer addresses directly and, indeed, lovingly. In contrast, Odysseus’s servants who have betrayed him in his absence are met with swift retribution. This includes the goatherd Melanthius, who has befriended the wicked suitors, and the maidservant Melantho, who regularly sleeps with the suitor Eurymachus. Some of Odysseus’s maidservants also betrayed Penelope in Odysseus’s absence, as they revealed to the suitors Penelope’s disingenuous plot to keep them at bay with her weaving of Laertes’s shroud. After Odysseus slaughters the suitors, he orders the execution of all of these servants.
Odysseus’s shipmates are also punished in all the instances in which they exhibit disloyalty to their master, Odysseus. One of these instances is when they raid Ismarus against Odysseus’s wishes and so are massacred by the Ciconian forces. Another is when they open Aeolus’s ox-skin pouch of winds when Odysseus is asleep, thwarting their journey homeward. Their gravest disobedience, however, is slaughtering one of Helios’s cattle, which Odysseus had made them swear not to do. This invokes the gods’ wrath, and all of Odysseus’s men subsequently perish in a great storm sent by Zeus.
The theme of loyalty, however, is most prominently seen in the character of Odysseus’s wife, Penelope. Throughout the poem, Penelope emphasizes her longing for her husband’s return and the fact that she has no desire to remarry. Even when Eurycleia joyfully informs her that Odysseus has returned and slaughtered all the suitors, Penelope remains cautious. This is because she knows that the gods might be testing her loyalty as a wife. In the Homeric universe, wives are judged more harshly than their husbands, as seen in the case of Clytemnestra, who is repeatedly condemned by different characters for her infidelity. Unlike Clytemnestra, Penelope remains faithful and loyal to Odysseus for almost two decades. In contrast, Odysseus has affairs with Circe and Calypso and yet is not condemned or judged harshly for it. It is fitting, therefore, that Penelope sees fit to test Odysseus before embracing him. Even with the suitors dead and Odysseus standing before her, she still refuses to believe he has returned. When she hints that their marriage bed has been moved, Odysseus loses his composure, one of the only times he does so in the poem. In the end, therefore, Penelope proves to be Odysseus’s equal in wit. It is only after Odysseus reveals his knowledge of their marriage bed that Penelope tearfully reunites with her husband.
Deception and Dissimulation
In many ways, Odysseus is a deviation from other classical heroes such as Heracles and Achilles. This is because he does not rely on brute strength alone, even though he possesses it, as evidenced when he strings the great bow and slaughters the suitors in the main hall. Instead, Odysseus chooses to rely on deception and dissimulation. This is one of the ways in which he is comparable to a god. In fact, Athena even lovingly compares Odysseus to herself because of his wit and cunning.
In The Odyssey, Odysseus is repeatedly forced to forego brute force in favor of deception and dissimulation. This is seen in his encounter with the Cyclops Polyphemus, as Odysseus immediately recognizes that Polyphemus is far too strong to be beaten in direct battle. One of the most famous events of The Odyssey is when Odysseus fools Polyphemus into thinking he is “nobody,” thus successfully escaping with his men from Polyphemus’s cave. This heroism is undone by his pride, however, as he is unable to resist revealing his true name to Polyphemus in the end. This pride leads Poseidon to curse Odysseus and his journey homeward.
In the latter half of The Odyssey, Odysseus is portrayed as having learned to swallow his pride. When he disguises himself as a beggar on Ithaca, the suitors aggressively insult and assault him. Odysseus tempers his pride, however, and commits fully to his disguise. This is how he is able to successfully slaughter the suitors and reclaim his estate.