The Odyssey of Homer

I. External Structure:

(1) the Telemachy (or story about Telemachus) Books I-IV

(2) the Homecoming of Odysseus Books V-VIII and XIII, 1-187

(3) the Great Wanderings Books IX-XII

(4) Odysseus in Ithaca Books XIII, 187 to XXIV, 548

II. Functions of the Telemachy

(1) to enhance the importance of Odysseus by

a) by the praise others give him (cf. III.120-123, IV.333-345 & I.255-256, 265f.)

b) by the evident need of him by his family and friends.

(2) to show that the Odyssey belongs to the cycle of the returns by comparison contract with the returns of Menelaus and Agamemnon.

(3) to provide the instigation for, and the justification of, the murder of the suitors at the end of the work. (The suitors are guilty of hubris in two ways: a) failing in justice in regard to guest-friendship, b) in their ruse of courting Penelope when their real interest is in usurping the throne.)

(4) to establish the role of Athena as guardian spirit of Odysseus and his family.

(5) to present us with Telemachus as a son who grows up to be worthy of his father.

III. Types of materials and stories in the Odyssey

(1) the wanderings of Odysseus as part of the Returns (Nostoi), caused by Athena and Poseidon's anger at the Greeks' excesses in taking Troy and especially at the lesser Ajax's rape of Cassandra.

(2) the Homecoming--from Calypso's Island to Ithaca, including the stay with the Phaeacians (told by the poet himself as narrator)--and these are interrupted by the story of the Great Wanderings (Books 9-11)

(3) the so-called "lying stories"--the stories invented by Odysseus when he is disguised as a tramp pretending to be a fallen noble who has news of Odysseus (13.256-286, 14.191-359, 17.419-414, 19.165-202, 24.302-8). In most of these Odysseus represents himself as a Cretan, a veteran of the Trojan War who subsequently led a disastrous raid on Egypt, was spared and befriended by the Egyptian king, survived the wreck of the Phoenician ship, and came to Ithaca by way of Thesprotia. Significance: This story is remarkably similar to the one told in an official Egyptian inscription which describes the Egyptians' successful defeat of the "Sea People." This may represent the basis saga (or legend) of Odysseus, while the rest of the story may represent folk-tale themes and intrusions.

(4) the "Great Wanderings" -- the material in these stories is taken in part from the story of the Argonauts and is in large part folk-tale in origin.

IV. Folk-Tale elements in the Odyssey:

A. Characteristics of folk-tales which are present in the Odyssey

(1) cleverness [Odysseus is polutropon]= " a man of many turns"; cf. to the intelligence of Penelope and Telemachus;

(2) violence (on psychic, moral, civic, and bodily levels)

(3) cruelty (the Cyclopes, Sicyones, Laistrygonians, etc.);

(4) irrationality (fairy-land places; witches, demons, monsters);

(5) absence of the Gods (i.e., the supernatural) in the Great Wanderings (though preternatural forces like witches are present).

B. Some folk-tale themes:

(1) the man who returns (Odysseus, Agamemnon , Menelaus);

(2) the acquisition MATURITY (Telemachus-Orestes parallel, see below);

(3) a woman's wit--Penelope's web (the shroud for Laertes);

(4) the suitor contest;

(5) intelligence vs. brute strength (cf. Odysseus' calling himself Noman);

(6) the danger of the feminine (of the princess (Nausicaa); the nymph (Calypso); and the witch (Circe);

(7) the test of the hero through perils or temptations: --of irresponsibility (those who try to make Odysseus forget Ithaca and Penelope, to stay with them and give up his ties to home, family and country; e.g., the Lotus Eaters, the Sirens and the Phaeacians);

--of sensuality (those women who boast their superiority to Penelope and even offer Odysseus immortality if he will stay with them as a kind of captive lover; e.g., Calypso, Circe, and, to some extent, Nausicaa);

--of violence (those subhuman creatures whose only interest in Odysseus does not go beyond destroying him and his men; e.g., the Cicones, the Laestrygonians, the Cyclopes, and Scylla and Charybdis);

(8) the descent into the underworld (=the harrowing of hell);

(9) finding what is lost;

(10) civilization vs. chaos, justice vs. injustice, love vs. hate;

(11) the curse and the vendetta (e.g., Polyphemus' blinding);

(12) the son's search for his father;

(13) the recognition sign (the scar, the bow, the bed);

(14) the deathly wedding (the wedding feast which becomes the instance of the suitor's deaths);

(15) values such as wisdom, love of home, hospitality and friendship, reputation and ability;

(16) the hero's quest

(17) divine hostility/divine favour

V. The Agamemnon-Orestes Theme

A theme is a general incident, story, or description with a specific structure, which the poet may use as is or may elaborate as his telling of the story demands.

The Agamemnon-Orestes theme incorporates the following elements in its structure:

(1) the return of the king (2) to a wife who is involved with (3) a suitor; (4) the death of the king at the hand of his wife &/or suitor (5) which is avenged by a son (6) who has been away from his land for a time and then returns.

This theme is used six times in the Odyssey (Book I.298-302; III.2550275; III.303-310; IV.524-540;; XI.409-434; XXIV.1-202) to compare and contrast the situation of Odysseus who (1) is a king who also returns (2) a wife who is (3) plagued by suitors; the king's life and that of the son, (6) temporarily absent from the kingdom in search of his father, are (4) threatened by the suitors who aim at the throne; together with his son (5) he wreaks vengeance on these suitors.

VI. The Role of the Gods in the "Odyssey"

The gods operate at several different levels:

(1) as characters in the story (de-mythologized);

(2) as true religious forces;

(3) as symbols of a human's abilities or disabilities: the presence and intervention of a god in the story on behalf of a human is an indication of the human's own innate talent. Homer's society ascribed extraordinary powers and skills as gifts of the gods because their understanding of human psychology was not so developed as to explain concepts like differing degrees of intelligence, creativity, etc.

Thus Poseidon, so long as he is present and hostile to Odysseus, is a symbol of Odysseus' own inability to get home. But once Poseidon becomes absent, Odysseus regains his skills. So, too, Athena's presence is a symbol of Odysseus' own ability to cope with threats and dangers.

VII. Symbolism of the Sea in the "Odyssey"

The sea is integrally connected with Odysseus' wanderings and sorrow.

"The barbarism and vagueness of the sea is particularly applicable to the social significance of the Odyssey. For the sea is primal violence ever encroaching upon the gains of civilization. Poseidon's persecution of Odysseus was invoked by a curse and animated by a desire for vengeance; his weapons are storm and wave. The curse and the vendetta are the moral sanctions of the most primitive society; against them the poem counterposes the boast, the island, and the ideal of justice in an ascending scale of civilized values--the boat, be it raft or ship, by which Odysseus makes his way across Poseidon's sea; the island, like Scheria or Ithaca, in which men live together and nature is benign; and justice, as it is done to the good and the bad that is one of the moral themes of the poem."

--H. W. Clark, The Art of the Odyssey

VIII. Some Important Features of Homeric epic

invocation (introductory prayer to the Muse)

in medias res (plot begins in the middle of the story)

supernatural elements

assembly scenes (either of gods or humans)

epithets (nicknames)

oral formulas and themes

epic retardation

dactylic hexameter


IX. A note on the transliteration of Greek names:

There is little consistency of method here. The name of the hero of the Odyssey is Odysseus, he is known as Ulysses in Latin. His son can be referred to in English as "Telemachus", "Telemachos" or even "Telemakhos."

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