Study Guide

The Odyssey Themes

  • Fate and Free Will

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    The characters in the Odyssey are definitely not free to be you and me. Their destinies are just that: destiny, and there's not much room to change what's going to happen. Still, there is a way to change how they get there. Fate and free will aren't mutually exclusive, and even the gods have a lot of leeway in how they bring about what's fated. (Not to mention that they're subject to all the same fickleness of human emotion that we are). Add it all up, and you get a pretty flexible notion of just what "fate" means.

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    Questions About Fate and Free Will

    1. It's clear that Odysseus is responsible for his own actions, like telling Polyphemos his name. It's also clear that certain events are fated to happen from the start. How are both of these possible in the Odyssey?
    2. What is the difference between "fate" and "luck" in the Odyssey? When do the characters ascribe events to the former, and when to the latter, and why? (And is "fate" always bad? Does it every seem to do good for anyone?)
    3. At what point does divine intervention strip the characters of their ability to act and think for themselves? Can we draw much of a line between, say, the ideas that Athene puts in Odysseus' head and the ideas that he devises on his own?

    Chew on This

    In The Odyssey, fate never seems to bring about anything good.

    In The Odyssey, free will is simply an illusion. Even the choices that men make are guided by events outside their control.

  • Piety

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    In The Odyssey, piety involves way more than going to church on Sundays, and it has a lot more to do with your day-to-day actions than how you feel in your heart. Want to prove your piety to the gods? Better round up some goats, because you're going to need to get sacrificing. And feasting. And banqueting. And burying your friends properly. And making very sure that you never challenge and insult the gods in anyway. See? There's no way you could fit all that into an hour and a half on Sunday.

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    Questions About Piety

    1. Why do the gods care so much about the living respecting the dead? Are the dead more god-like than the living?
    2. How are the suitors—in taking advantage of Odysseus' house in his absence—committing a crime against the gods?
    3. How do the gods reward piety? Do we see any particular cases of the gods granting favors in exchange for earlier piety?

    Chew on This

    Humans in the Odyssey might revere the gods, but the gods see humans as hardly more than playthings.

    Since Odysseus is so god-like, those who disrespect him suffer the same consequences as those who are impious.

  • Justice

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    There may be a lot of justice in The Odyssey, but there isn't a court of law to be found. Justice seems to be based around some divine sense of cause-and-effect: there's a certain order and balance in the universe, and bad actions (like violating guest-host laws) nets you a bad return. But this isn't the kind of justice where they put you in a cushy prison and try to rehabilitate you. It's the kind where, if you throw a footstool at a beggar, you get an arrow in your heart—and then your dad gets one in his head. Way harsh, Athene.

    Questions About Justice

    1. What kind of justice system do the gods follow? What kinds of transgressions are punishable by death?
    2. Is there even a system at all? If the gods are subject to the same whims, grudges, desires, and pettiness as the mortals, isn't "justice" (and especially "divine justice") as inconstant and illogical as basic emotion?
    3. Why does Athene want all the suitors to die—even the sort-of-cute-and-fuzzy ones? Is this "justice" according to the Odyssey?
    4. How are random events like Elpenor's death justified?
    5. Is justice in the ancient Greek system just a cover for personal vengeance? Is it fair? What does "fair" even mean in this world? Are there any instances of more civil methods of punishment and reconciliation?

    Chew on This

    Poseidon is unjustified in hounding Odysseus across the seas because his son Polyphemos deserved the blinding that the hero gave him.

    The Odyssey shows a tentative shift away from the "you killed my son, so I'm going to kill you" kind of justice toward a "maybe it's better not to be killing each other all the time" sort of justice.

  • Pride

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    Fair enough: Odysseus has a lot to be proud of. He's smart, strong, brave, and good-looking; he's married to a hot, loyal wife; and did we mention his pecs? Because he did. Yeah. He's kind of that guy. And a little bit of pride is just fine—it helps get your name out there and win you immortal fame, the super important Greek concept of kleos. But too much pride, and you're going to start ticking people off—or rather, the gods. And no matter how "godlike" Odysseus is, he's still a human. (Even if he doesn't look like one when he takes off his shirt.)

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    Questions About Pride

    1. Is pride mostly good or bad in the Odyssey?
    2. What is the difference between humility and straight-up weakness in the Odyssey? Which does Telemachos display? Is the answer to this question the same at the beginning of the epic as it is at the end?
    3. Odysseus seems to learn to check his pride over the course of his adventures. When he meets the Phaiakians, has the change already taken place? Or does it continue all the way through the battle with the suitors?

    Chew on This

    Odysseus is often justified in showing his pride because he has the goods—muscle, courage, and an honorable name—to back it up.

    No character in the Odyssey can afford to have hubris, because it's always an offense against the gods.

  • Lies and Deceit

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    In the Odyssey, honesty is most definitely not the best policy. In fact—as we learn when Odysseus idiotically tells Polyphemos his name and address—it's usually a pretty bad policy. All the good guys tell lies: Telemachos sneaks away from his mom; Athene is constantly dressing herself up as some old man or other; and even Penelope comes up with a rad deception about Laertes' magically shrinking shroud. That's not even mentioning Odysseus, who's practically the king of lies. What makes all this deception acceptable to the gods? (Besides the fact that they do it themselves, all the time?) It's all for a good cause: reuniting Ithaka's First Family.

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    Questions About Lies and Deceit

    1. For what purposes is deception used in the Odyssey? Are these mainly benevolent? When (if ever) do we see deception being used for bad purposes?
    2. Odysseus' cunning certainly gets him out of some tight spots, but does it ever work against him?
    3. Is a particular sex—male or female—more associated with cunning and trickery? Which characters exemplify this? Which characters buck this trend?

    Chew on This

    In the Odyssey, deception is just fine as long as you're in good with the gods. If not—look out for some divine retribution.

    When Odysseus resumes his rightful place as king of Ithaka, we get the sense that he's done with lies and trickery for good.

  • Tradition and Custom

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    In an accurate reflection of ancient Greek culture, rules of hospitality are among the most revered social and religious laws in the Odyssey. Men are measured by the way they play host or guest, and those that antagonize the hero often do so by failing their part of this important contract. Guests are expected to bring gifts to their host, respect the house and servants, and act with grace and appreciation. Often, the guest is a source of news and bearings from the outside world and expected, in some ways, to sing for his supper. The host is then to provide food, shelter, and even money and transportation if the guest is in need. Breaking these obligations in the Odyssey is disrespectful to the gods and indicates a somewhat subhuman status.

    Questions About Tradition and Custom

    1. Who violates hospitality laws more severely, the suitors by their greed, or Kalypso by holding Odysseus captive?
    2. The Phaiakians are the epitome of good hospitality in the Odyssey, yet they are punished by a god for their actions. How is this possibly just? Is this an argument against hospitality?
    3. How is the concept of hospitality related to the gods? Why might piety be so closely related to good hospitality?

    Chew on This

    Because they violated the laws of hospitality, according to the world depicted in the Odyssey, both Polyphemos and the suitors got what they deserved.

    The Phaiakians’ remarkable hospitality towards Odysseus was ultimately not worth all the trouble it caused.

  • Suffering

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    It's not surprising that the Odyssey is full of suffering: its characters live in a world without antibiotics, painkillers, and iTunes. (They actually have to get in a car and drive to a store to buy the latest One Direction album.) That's just the curse of mortality. And there's only one way to deal with it: endure. But they're not particularly keep-calm-and-carry-on about it—they may put up with the suffering, but they also weep, grieve, and lament. A lot. And one odd thing: you'd think that people who thought so much about daily suffering would come up with a better afterlife for themselves. Instead, our glimpse of the Underworld makes it look like a lot more of the same.


    Questions About Suffering

    1. From the gods' perspective, is there any way for mortals to avoid suffering in the Odyssey?
    2. How do men in this epic rid themselves of pain and suffering? What about Odysseus, specifically?
    3. Odysseus' mother Antikleia dies "out of grief" over her son's absence. Does dying of grief make sense in the context of the Odyssey?
    4. Is there a point to all of Odysseus' suffering? Does he return to Ithaka humbler? Wiser?
    5. So, we know that mortals suffer. What about the gods? Is their suffering less? Different?
    6. Would Penelope suffer less if Odysseus really had died in the Trojan War?

    Chew on This

    In the Odyssey, suffering always comes from bad actions. If you could manage to live without angering the gods, you'd be able to avoid suffering entirely.

    In the Odyssey, suffering doesn't serve a purpose: it's a senseless burden that all mortals must bear.

  • Principles

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    Frankly, trying to keep up with the list of dos and don'ts in ancient Greece is enough to make us want to lie down with an US Weekly and a can of Diet Coke. Whether you're fighting your enemies, hosting some guests, herding some pigs, or burying your companions, there's a right way and wrong way to do it. But for the characters in the Odyssey, living up to their standards—and the standards of the gods—is a matter of life or painful, humiliating death.

    Questions About Principles

    1. How does a man win honor in the Odyssey? How does a woman?
    2. What characteristics define honor in the ancient Greek tradition, at least as far as you can tell from this epic?
    3. Why do Elpenor's wishes about his burial have to be heeded? What kind of glory does he win by having Odysseus give him a proper burial? Isn't he already dead? Who cares?
    4. Is "honor" a human concept in the Odyssey, or one handed down from the gods?
    5. Why does Odysseus' lack of compassion and mercy for the suitors prove not to be a blow to his honor?

    Chew on This

    Odysseus is obligated to avenge himself on the suitors in order to restore honor to his house.

    In the Odyssey, women can only win honor by what they don't do, not by what they do.

  • Loyalty

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    No one told him life was going to be this way—but if he has to spend ten years heading home from a decade-long war, at least Odysseus gets to do it with a boatful of loyal companions and a loving wife waiting for him at home. Loyalty is one of the Odyssey's most important virtues: the epic is full of examples of faithfulness (Penelope, Argos, Eumaios) and betrayal (Klytaimestra, Aphrodite, Melantho). Sure, Odysseus had those little incidents with Circe and Kalypos—but he didn't really mean it, since he never "in his heart" gave consent. So it totally doesn't count. Right?

    Questions About Loyalty

    1. Is Odysseus justified in (or at least excused for) sleeping with Circe and Kalypso?
    2. Many of Odysseus' Ithakan friends and subjects think he's, yet he still considers them loyal to him. But when he's killing the suitors, he mentions that they didn't think he was coming back. Does loyalty mean something different if he's alive or dead?
    3. Is Odysseus' loyalty to his men similar in anyway to a wife's loyalty to her husband? Or are they totally different relationships?

    Chew on This

    In the Odyssey, loyalty is important—but it's not as important as honor and pride.

    In the Odyssey, loyalty to family and friends comes before loyalty to the gods.

  • Perseverance

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    First, Odysseus fights a 10-year-long war. Then, he almost loses his men to a bunch of druggies, is captured by a Cyclops, wins Poseidon's wrath, gets blown years off course, encounters an island full of cannibals, sees all his men turned into pigs and has to sleep with a with to get them turned back; goes to the underworld; passes a six-headed man-eating monster and a giant whirlpool; loses all his men; and finally spends seven years as a sex slave to a goddess. Oh, and when he finally makes it home, he has to kill a hall full of suitors while disguised as a beggar. Through it all, he just keeps on keeping on, heading straight into one disaster after another because, shrug, that's just the way the gods want it to be.

    And you thought it was a feat of perseverance just to make it through the Odyssey.

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    Questions About Perseverance

    1. Which is a more vital skill for Odysseus on his journey home—cunning or determination?
    2. Odysseus is declared god-like in his ability to persevere. How is it that he possesses such "iron" determination? What is it about him and his experiences that might give him greater perseverance than other men?
    3. Does Odysseus ever waver in his determination to return home?
    4. How does Penelope endure at home in Ithaka? How are her tactics of persevering different from Odysseus'?

    Chew on This

    Penelope deserves to be praised for her endurance just as much as Odysseus does.

    Homecoming is Odysseus' reward for perseverance. If he'd ever given up or despaired, he would never have made it home.

  • Family

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    In the Odyssey, blood is most definitely thicker than water. Your deeds (or misdeed) don't just reflect on you; they reflect on the honor and reputation (kleos, if you want to be fancy) of your entire family—living, dead, and unborn. That's why Telemachos is actually kind of mad at his father for not just dying in battle; and that's why Achilleus is so interested in hearing about his son when Odysseus comes to the Underworld. You think you're under a lot of pressure from your parents? Try having a Greek hero for a dad.

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    Questions About Family

    1. How do sons view their fathers in the Odyssey? What characteristics do they admire? Are there any sons who don't respect or admire their fathers?
    2. As we all noticed, Homer sometimes gives ancestry and family background for even the most minor of characters. Sure, we might roll our eyes at the seemingly unnecessary digressions, but what might be the point of all this? Why is family history so important?
    3. What does marriage mean in the Odyssey? What kind of marriages do we see, and how do they fit into the epic's concept of the "family"?
    4. How do loyal servants fit into the model of a family in the Odyssey?

    Chew on This

    The father-son relationship is more important to the family structure of Odyssey than the husband-wife relationship.

    In the Odyssey, servants are part of the family. Disloyal servants are like treacherous family members, not deceitful employees.

  • Hospitality

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    In Ancient Greece, hospitality meant a lot more than giving your guest the most crumb-free seat on the Ikea couch. They had a whole word for the relationship between guest and host: xenia. Zeus was in charge of this relationship, and it was one of the ground rules of ancient society. Guests bring news and stories from the outside world; hosts provide food, shelter, and even money if need. And both sides give whatever gifts they can. Why would anyone treat a total stranger like that? You're paying it forward: someday, you just might need someone to do the same.

    Questions About Hospitality

    1. Who violates hospitality laws more severely: the suitors by their greed, or Kalypso by holding Odysseus captive? Why isn't Kalypso punished?
    2. The Phaiakians are the epitome of good hospitality in the Odyssey, yet a god punishes them. How is this possibly just? Is this an argument against hospitality? Or is it just an unfortunate exception?
    3. How is the concept of hospitality related to the gods? Why might piety be so closely related to good hospitality?

    Chew on This

    Because they violated the laws of hospitality, both Polyphemos and the suitors got what they deserved.

    The Phaiakians' remarkable hospitality towards Odysseus was ultimately not worth all the trouble it caused.