Thinking Out Loud about The Odyssey, Part 1

The Odyssey, Books I-VII

The Odyssey has a different focus than The Iliad. It centers more on the home and a longing to reach home. It also has an emphasis on journeys—usually difficult journeys that result in great loss for the one traveling: loss of things, of comrades, of years. Related to this idea of home and loved ones is the idea of strangers and hospitality. Several strangers appear in familiar gatherings, and people are always curious to find out who the strangers are—in other words, to make them friends. For example, Athena (disguised as a man) is the first stranger to come on the scene at Ithaca in Book I, and Telemachus is anxious to hear the whole story about this “man,” who Telemachus suspects is his father’s friend. Once Telemachus sets out to find information about his father’s fate, he, too, becomes the stranger that Nestor, Menelaus, and Helen want to know. In Books VI-VIII, Odysseus becomes the mysterious stranger. Why this emphasis on strangers? At times, being hospitable to a stranger is said to be a mark of good breeding (192), but at others, strangers have caused havoc in the home, as was the case with the man who killed Agamemnon. Furthermore, it is said the gods are no strangers to each other (155).

In terms of god-likeness, The Odyssey seems to be very similar to The Iliad. As Odysseus tells in Book VII, the gods give some gifts to some men—and these gifts make them god-like, but they do not give a man all the gifts (197). It seems, though, that all kings have some sort of physical connection to deities—as king Alcinous, for example, tells of his lineage (181)—which might explain their majesty, or strength, or wisdom. A special emphasis in The Odyssey seems to be that the sons resemble their fathers, and if the father is majestic or godlike, the son will bear at least some of these traits. This is said of Telemachus (128-129, 143), as well as of Nestor’s son (131). Athena also continually works to present Odysseus as a god, and others mistake him for one (186).

Another emphasis in The Odyssey is that placed on goddesses and the likeness of women to goddesses. Nausicaa is likened to—almost confused with—Artemis (173). Odysseus prizes Penelope over a goddess (158-159). Helen’s status elevates Menelaus to acquiring immortality because he is the son-in-law of Zeus. The goddess Athena is the most prominent character among the gods, changing from one form to another to intervene on behalf of Odysseus.

All of these things are told in a song (“Sing, Muse”) and have bards as a important feature of the story. The songs usually cause people to weep constantly as they remember dead loved ones. What is the function of the weeping and the songs? How does it work in a comedy? Could it point out that success does not take place without a cost?


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