Odyssey Themes of Homer's Odyssey Term Paper

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According to Griffin, the Odyssey is a didactic poem that delights precisely in its own lesson about human fate and its own rhetoric. Thus, as Griffin emphasizes, the Odyssey teaches its reader that the end of human life and of all the disasters, misfortune and happiness that accompanies it is to provide a theme for a beautiful song like that of Ulysses: "From the narration of suffering we are to draw serenity: the gods devise disasters, Odysseus is told, that there may be song among men (8.579), and to listen to that sad song gives delight. Listen and learn, Penelope was told: the gods bring unhappiness on many others besides you (1.353-5). In the end Odysseus and Penelope have learned that hard lesson. Life is full of unhappiness, but that is what is transmuted into song. They achieve harmony with that process and learn, as we are to learn, the lesson of the Odyssey."(Griffin, 96) Thus, the pitfalls of temptation as well as the tension between obstacles and goals represented in the epic are in fact important precisely because the sad song composed to describe them gives delight. The sorrow of mortal life and its experience as a song are thus the main themes of the poem. Ulysses' journey is therefore fraught with obstacles and temptations so as to embody life itself and its endless strife.

Besides the theme of return, there is also the theme of recognition that shapes the narrative. The hero is confronted with a restless journey full of dangerous and tragic obstacles, temptations and struggles in order to be able to return to his own homeland. This ultimate goal is also accompanied by the theme of recognition. After having been estranged from his home and family for more than twenty years, Ulysses is forced to regain his rightful identity by slaying the suitors who had invaded his home in his absence and by making himself known to his wife and son. His disguise as a humble beggar to deceive the suitors is Ulysses' final trick and the one that finally puts him in possession of everything that was rightfully his. The disguise is however symbolic precisely because it prefigures the final recognition. The recognition adds to the theme of homecoming, by emphasizing the idea of the hero's final encounter with his own self. The sufferance that Ulysses endures throughout his journey is obviously that of separation from his own family and his own self. The long and restless struggle to return emphasizes the misery of separation. Ulysses' story is that of the exile who is banished from his own home and therefore displaced. Separated from his familiar and beloved home, the hero is compelled to live the life of a wanderer in search for his own home. It is not a new identity that the hero seeks, but actually his own home and his own possessions that have been robbed from him. The story of Penelope and the suitors that progresses at the same time with that of the errant hero is very important as it reminds the reader of Ulysses' separation from what truly and rightfully belongs to him. Moreover, the tension of Ulysses' struggle with obstacles and temptations on his way home is paralleled with the tension of Penelope's own struggle with the suitors. The wife needs a great moral strength to be able to resist temptation herself and ensure that all of Ulysses' possessions remain intact. The struggle is even more poignant since it is very hard for Penelope to believe that she will ever see her husband again as she has no news of him whatsoever. Thus, the case of Homer's Penelope is one of the most famous and most prominent examples of the way in which war affected women. Although Penelope has become almost an epitome of patience, endurance and lasting fidelity (having waited for her husband's return for more than twenty years), she nevertheless gives mournful speeches throughout the epic, lamenting over her cruel fate and her unmitigated suffering: "Phemius...cease this sad tale, for it breaks my sorrowful heart, and reminds me of my lost husband whom I mourn ever without ceasing..."(the Odyssey," 33) Thus, once more, the narrative circles and closes back on itself, as Ulysses' suffering as an exile is paralleled by the suffering of his wife who mourns the terrible and prolonged separation. Separation and loss are among the main subjects of the poem, as Halkin emphasizes. Moreover, these subjects prefigure the ultimate theme, that of the permanent presence of death in the life of a mortal human being: "The Odyssey is about loss, and as death is the ultimate loss, all other loss is its symbol. A man is gone from his home for twenty years. The island's bachelors lounge insolently in his palace, drinking his wine and feasting on his flocks while wooing his wife, each determined to wed her and be king in his place. Only she and her son, born on the eve of her husband's departure, still believe he may be alive, but as Homer's story begins, they too are on the verge of giving up hope. Surely, his return is as unlikely as a dead man's." (Halkin, 77)

As Carole Moses explains, the Odyssey maintains the theme of return and recognition in its very structure. The comparisons made by the poet, as well as many other textual references, interestingly point back to the text itself. This serves to redraw the circuitous journey over and over again. The story exemplifies the round journey thought the text, as Homer uses references that points to an inside theme of the text rather than to an outside source: "It is as if Homer is saying that the emotions of the Odyssey are so intense that they can only be compared to the emotions of the Odyssey. Similarly, Penelope's feelings on being united with her husband are compared to those of a man achieving shore after being shipwrecked by Poseidon (23: 233-40). The reference to Poseidon is hardly a fortuitous one and echoes the number of times Odysseus achieves safety after being shipwrecked by the sea god. Once again, the Odyssey defines emotions -- in this sense, joy -- in terms of itself."(Moses, 131) This technique is exemplified in many of the episodes of the text, and Homer compares some of the situations with other similar occurrences in the text: "And as a father, with heart full of love, welcomes his only and grown son, for whose sake he has undergone many hardships when he comes back in the tenth year from a distant country, so now the noble swineherd, clinging fast to godlike Telemachos, kissed him even as if he has escaped dying. "(Homer, 112) Thus, the theme of return after separation points to the hero's regain of identity. Homer creates a circuitous universe in which self-reference is very important.

The theme of return is also present in one of the greatest works of humanity, the Holy Bible. The first five books of the Old Testament, also known as the Pentateuch follow the description of Israel's journey towards the Promised Land, which is equally fraught with obstacles and mistakes. Here, the main subject is not an individual though but rather the whole of the Israelite nation that journeys towards its own transformation or becoming. The Pentateuch is, like the Odyssey, a symbolic journey which emphasizes the ultimate goal of finding one's true identity. Here, the identity that the people of Israel seek is their own faith in God. These first books of the Bible significantly settle the main laws and the constitution of the people through Moses' Decalogue. Thus, the journey has the purpose of laying the foundation of the people, as the people loved by God and protected by Him. As in the Greek epic, the relationship of man with God and with his own fate is also very important. Like the Odyssey therefore, this is the story of the maturation of a nation that finds its own laws and establishes its relationship with the creator of the universe.

According to Charles Segal, the purpose of the Odyssey is a return to humanity in the sense that Ulysses comes back to his own self and humanity after a series of supernatural adventures: "Odysseus' return is a return to humanity in its broadest sense. For the early Greek, however, humanity subsumes and is essentially linked with mortality; and life is defined by the awareness of death. The Odyssey is permeated by an undercurrent of death: the honorless, unheroic death of Agamemnon; the horror of death expressed by Achilles; the lurid horror of Hades itself; the culmination of the poem in the death of the suitors, felt and presented in its grimness and necessary brutality, and their spiritless shades in the underworld."(Segal, 111) Thus, the image of life itself is the representation that ultimately emerges from the intricate and adventurous story. The homecoming of the hero…[continue]


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