The Odysseus who leaves Troy changes into a completely different man before he arrives at his home in Ithaca. The hero endures many trials and tribulations induced by the menis of Poseidon, but learns from his mistakes and matures much through his trek. Poseidon serves as a symbol of the supernatural and the threatening. In a way, he is the abusive, but pedagogic father. It is Poseidon who keeps Odysseus in the face of danger, and it is Poseidon who keeps him suffering. Until the seventh year of Calypso, Athena does nothing and observes patiently. She is the gentle and guiding mother. She stops the father from killing the son, but lets the son gain wisdom through his suffering. It is only when the hero gains enough wisdom that she allows him to return to Ithaca and reclaim his domain.
The first lesson is taught to Odysseus by the hostility of Polyphemus. His experience teaches him that the world is not the same in all places. On the Cyclopes’ island, Odysseus assumes xenia even though he does not know the lay of the land or anything about its inhabitants. Upon setting foot in Polyphemus’ cave, he and his men almost immediately begin feasting on the cyclops’ milk and cheeses. When Polyphemus returns, he asks the men who they are and why they are dining in his cave. Odysseus answers to him, “we are here at your knees, asking you to offer us a token of welcome or to make us a gift such as strangers have a right to receive.” Odysseus’ rash assumption of xenia leads to six of his men eaten by Polyphemus during the whole encounter.
In Phaecia Odysseus recounts how “my men were begging me… to go back and sail over the salt sea. But I did not listen to them–it would have been much better if I had!–because I wanted to see the creature and find out whether he would offer me gifts. His coming, I discovered, was to be no joy for my comrades.”
The regret he expresses over his actions shows that the encounter with Polyphemus also taught him to not only to heed his inferiors, but to plan ahead as well. He applies the lesson best on Circe’s island, when he eats the magical twig to protect himself from Circe’s magic, draws his sword on her, and subdues her. When she tries to bed him down, he thinks quickly and makes her swear that no harm will come to him or his men.
“O Circe, how can you ask me to be kind to you, when you have changed my men into swine! And now you treacherously urge me to lie with you, perhaps only to unman me and make a coward of me once I am stripped! I shall never be willing to lie in your bed unless you swear a great oath that you will not invent some worse trouble for me.”
With that being said, he has obviated any potential problem that can arise while lying with the enchantress. Defeating Circe expedites his change from curious person who loves to think on his feet to patient one who is constantly suspicious, always making sure his actions never lead him into more harm.
In addition to patience, among the most important lessons Odysseus learns is humility. He knows that he could have easily prevented nine years of back- and mind-breaking labor had he not displayed salient hubris by bragging to Polyphemus that “if any man asks you about the ugly blinding of your eye, say that it was put out by the great son of Laertes, Odysseus the destroyer-of-cities, who lives in Ithaca.” By doing so, he has invoked Poseidon’s wrath and made his odyssey much more dangerous, the mildest part being Circe and the worst part being the tumultuous days after leaving Ogygia.
Poseidon stirs the sea into storm after Odysseus departs from Ogygia. Winds and waves batter him every which way and almost kill him, but Poseidon lets him live. Ino Leucothea offers him help by giving him a protective veil. However, his now paranoid nature even makes him suspicious of the goddess.
“Odysseus said to himself in doubt and despair: ‘Oh, I fear that this god is weaving a snare for me by telling me to leave my raft. But I won’t take her advice, because I had a glimpse of the land where she said I might find help, and it was a long way off. Here is what seems best to me and what I shall do. As long as the timbers hold together, I’ll stay here and take what comes.'”
The error of his way of thinking makes itself clear when Poseidon “lifted up a great wave, a terrifying and mean one, that arched high over him and struck. As a violent wind tosses up a heap of dry chaff and scatters it in every direction, so the wave scattered the timbers of the raft…. For two days and nights after that he drifted in the heavy seas, and he thought he saw his end coming many times.”
After enduring the long vicious storm at sea, Odysseus finally learns that he can not accomplish things alone and to trust the gods fully. His body, half-unconscious, bloody, and naked, washes ashore in Phaeacia. “His skin swelled up all over his body, and salt water gushed in a stream from his mouth and nostrils. He lay breathless and speechless.” This symbolizes his death and rebirth. The odonos gained from his journey is his development as a fetus, and his stay with Calypso is his gestation. He emerges naked and bloody in an unknown world, like a newborn child.
Once he lands on Phaeacia, Odysseus realizes that he cannot persist as a bloodthirsty warrior, but rather must heed the wisdom passed on to him by Athena and Poseidon and change his outlook of the world. He shows his appreciation to the gods by “kiss[ing] the life-giving earth.” At this point of the story, Odysseus begins to fully understand the effects his actions have on those around him, as well as on his future. He is mentally prepared for his return to Ithaca.
Before his long voyage home, he is full of pride and attempts to break free of his human confines. He thinks he can conquer and control everything pitted against him. By suffering Poseidon’s wrath, the principal trait he acquires from his ten-year expedition is sophrosyne, wisdom by knowing one’s own mortal limits. Although Poseidon does not forget his anger at Odysseus until he reaches Ithaca, he eventually grants Odysseus a smooth trip from Phaeacia because he knows that Odysseus has paid his dues.
The Odyssey, like all epics, is a form of didactic literature. It teaches those who read it and those who hear it. The travels and endurances of Odysseus are not the only stories it recounts. Beneath the surface, one can notice the many lessons Odysseus learns and how his character changes. His journey is symbolic of his growth as a person, and his rebirth as a hero. As the trials become more brutal, the lessons become more valuable. He departs Troy as proud as a warrior, but returns to Ithaca as humble as a beggar. By realizing that he cannot control everything in the world, he learns the most indispensable values of life.