The Odyssey Themes

  • Homer's epic poem tells the story of the Greek hero Odysseus, a clever man credited with the idea for the Trojan Horse. Though a formidable warrior in his own right, Odysseus primarily displays heroism through his bravery and loyalty.
  • Love and devotion are prominent themes in The Odyssey. Perhaps the greatest love is that of Penelope for Odysseus, to whom she remains faithful despite many obstacles during his twenty-year absence. Odysseus' love for his family sustains him during his journey, but, unlike Penelope, Odysseus doesn't remain faithful.
  • Homer develops the theme of gender by examining the differences between men and women. Amongst mortals, men assume all the positions of power, but intelligent women like Penelope are able to hold their own rather than act like damsels in distress. Circe and Calypso, on the other hand, are independent women who answer to no man except Zeus.


Creativity, Imagination, and Deception
You might say that "Creativity" or "Imagination" is Odysseus's stock-in-trade. In fact, he is not mentioned by name for the first 20 lines of the poem: the first word used to describe Odysseus at the end of the very first line of the poem, is polutropon, which literally means "of many twists." We might say "shifty" these days, except that Homer does not appear to mean anything negative by the word, merely descriptive—Odysseus is rather a twisty-turny sort of fellow: he has to be, just in order to survive.

It should be no surprise, then, to discover that Odysseus is beloved of Athena, who is the goddess of creativity and imagination. She and Odysseus have much in common, as she remarks in Book 1 (XIII.296-99), including a joy in "weaving schemes" (XIII.386).

A large part of Odysseus's creative energy is channeled into deceiving the people around him. In fact, Athena gives Odysseus what is either a left-handed compliment or a mild reproach in Book 13 when she says:

Wily-minded wretch, never weary of tricks, you wouldn't even dream, not even in your own native land, of giving up your wily ways, or the telling of the clever tales that are dear to you from the very root of your being (XIII.293-95).

Yet it is important to remember that Odysseus only tells such "clever" (or "thieving" - the Greek word used can have both meanings) tales because he needs to: he waits until he is certain of their motives to tell the Phaeacians his true identity, but he does so when pressed. Only when he must remain anonymous to stay alive or to further some ultimate purpose does he continue a deception beyond the first moment when it could be dropped.

Odysseus is a legitimate hero: his reputation from the Iliad is enough to establish that, quite apart from the close relationship he has with Athena and, to a lesser degree, with Hermes. The gods only help those who are worthy, after all: none of the gods lifts a finger to help the suitors, for example, who get what they deserve (II.281-84, XX.394).

Yet how are we to explain the very un-heroic (if not actually anti-heroic) things Odysseus does in this poem? None of the heroes in the Iliad, for example, would likely have endured the kind of insults and abuses that Odysseus takes from the suitors, or even have considered concealing his identity, even to further a noble goal such as the destruction of those very suitors. Should readers therefore assume that Odysseus is not a hero after all? Or—can Odysseus be seen as an entirely new kind of hero?

The heroes of the Iliad were locked into an almost ritual pattern of behavior that is suited to war and the battlefield. Odysseus has his place in that heroic environment as well, but in the Odyssey, Homer gives us a glimpse of what it means to be a hero off the battlefield as well as on it. Odysseus is facing circumstances that are enormously different from those he had to contend with during the war, and he responds to them in an appropriately heroic fashion. Homer is broadening the definition of what it means to be a hero.

Human Condition
"What does it mean to be human?" This may be the single most important theme in the Odyssey. The poem gives us every kind of example of humanity—good, bad, young, old, individuals and groups, the living and even the dead. Each is an integral part of the story of Odysseus—which is in turn our own story, as we try to discover the answer to that question for ourselves.

There are two incidents in the poem that highlight the importance of this theme for Homer. One is Odysseus's refusal of Calypso's offer to make him immortal (V.215-24). The other is Achilles's reply when Odysseus attempts to console him in the underworld:

"I'd rather be a field-hand, bound in service to another man, with no land of my own, and not much to live on, than to lord it over all the insubstantial dead" (XI.489-91).

To be human, Homer implies, and to be alive, is to matter, to be important. The dead in the underworld, like the gods on Olympus, may have a kind of existence, but it is ultimately one that is empty.

Love and Loyalty
Love and loyalty are two very important parts of the human condition, and also two important themes running through the Odyssey. The loyalty of Eumaeus, Eurycleia, and Philoetius, for example, stands in direct contrast to the behavior of Melantho, Melanthius, and the suitors, for which they are eventually punished. Helen and Menelaus are clearly in love, and there can be little doubt that Odysseus and Penelope feel much the same way, despite Odysseus's philanderings on his way home and Penelope's testing of her husband when he finally reveals his true identity.

Love in the Odyssey is neither a tempestuous passion (as it sometimes seems to be in the Iliad, at least where Helen and Paris are concerned) nor a "deathless romance'' as it would become in the lays of the Middle Ages. Love in the Odyssey is much quieter: but, as the saying goes, "still waters run deep." Odysseus and Penelope may not have a grand passion any longer, but the love they do have is clearly one of the most important things in each of their worlds: it is what pulls Odysseus home (V.215ff., IX.29-34), and what keeps Penelope hoping for his return, and plotting to put off the suitors as long as possible.

Order and Disorder
From the very beginning of the poem, we have indications that...

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