The Odyssey Themes
by Homer

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The Odyssey Themes

The main themes in The Odyssey are the nature of heroism, the importance of love and devotion, and the differences between men and women.

  • The nature of heroism: Homer explores Odysseus's persistence, bravery, and loyalty on his quest to return home.
  • The importance of love and devotion: Penelope's faithfulness to her husband despite her besiegement by suitors is presented as ideal, and Odysseus is sustained during his journey by his love for his family.
  • The differences between men and women: Traditional women's roles are called into question by the independence and intelligence of characters like Penelope, Circe, and Calypso.

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(Epics for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 2,302 words.)