The following themes in The Odyssey are particularly important because they serve to shape most of the characters ‘ moral and ethical constitutions. Throughout, the reader learns about the characters. The more complicated a character is, the more it involves these main themes. Thus, Odysseus, the most complicated character, properly embodies each of the themes in part, hospitality, loyalty, perseverance, vengeance, perception, and spiritual growth.
Civilized people make an investment in hospitality so as to demonstrate their quality as human beings and in the hope that when they travel, their own people will be treated the same.
In addition, Homeric communications are antediluvian, and the news is brought and received by strangers. It was through visitors that the Greeks learned about what was happening worldwide beyond their local areas and kept them informed. Hospitality affects Odysseus throughout the epic, either lack of it, or abundance of it thereof. In The Odyssey, the reader is able to judge certain civilizations by the degree of hospitality they offer.
A horde of suitors who exploit crudely the long-standing hospitality tradition of Ithaca took over Odysseus’ own home. Telemachus and Penelope do not have the strength to evict them nor can they expect a lot of community help as the suitors belong to some of the strongest families in the area, “In the case of the suitors, however, there was a larger assumption made on their part. When the suitors first showed up at the doors of the palace, Penelope and Telemachus intended for them to stay for a feast or two.
The suitors more or less intruded and welcomed themselves far more than Penelope and Telemachus had wanted them to.” (minerva.union.edu, The Value of Hospitality).
Odysseus receives impressive assistance from the Phaeacians and, initially, from Aeolus in his wanderings. After Odysseus conquers her, Circe is of great help, and the Lotus-eaters are a bit too helpful. The Sirens, on the other hand, only lead anyone who has the misfortune as to be their company to death, and Polyphemus does not pretend to be hospitable at all. In fact, the concept and the gods that support it are scorned by the Cyclops. Zeus himself is known as the greatest supporter of hospitality and suppliers asking for it yet he allows the punishment of the Phaeacians by Poseidon for their generous tradition of returning wanderers to their homelands.
Loyalty is another personal virtue which is an essential theme in The Odyssey. Of course, the most striking example of loyalty in the epic is Penelope, who waits for the return of her husband faithfully for 20 years. Telemachus is another example, who stands against the suitors with his father. The old nurse of Odysseus, Eurycleia, stays loyal to Penelope and Odysseus. In their loyalty to their master, and to his possessions, Eumaeus the swineherd, and Philose the cowherd are exemplary. Also, an excellent if not humble host Eumaeus is proud of his king as he speaks respectfully of the royal family and abhors the suitors’ invasion. In contrast, are goatherd Melanthius and maidservant Melantho. Melanthius became friendly to Odysseus ‘ suitors and insults Odysseus while the king remains in disguise. Melantho continues sleeping with the enemy, disrespecting the queen and insulting Odysseus disguised as the beggar. While the faithful servants are recompensed; the unfaithful are dealt with harshly. However, this problem can be complicated since many of those Odysseus expects loyalty from are his property. Even Penelope. It is expected that Penelope will be unwavering in her loyalty to her husband. Given the account of the hall battle at the end of the epic, one could well imagine what would happen to her if she did not. On the other hand, Odysseus is not held to the same expectations regarding sexual fidelity, “…Yes the actual infidelity that threatens Odysseus’ marriage is not committed by Penelope with any other “chaps,” namely the suitors, but by Odysseus himself with the goddesses Kalypso and Kirke.” (p. 133, Keri Elisabeth Ames, The Oxymoron of Fidelity in Homer’s Odyssey and Joyce’s Ulysses)
Odysseus and Penelope in particular are the embodiment of perseverance. One reason being they’re both survivors. For twenty years, ten years in the Trojan War, and ten more on his journey home, Odysseus was absent. The most aggressive of the suitors, Antinous, said that for four years Penelope persistently opposed the suitors, playing one against another and confronting each other with cleverness, which is most notably demonstrated in her ruse to weave her father-in-law Laertes a shroud. The perseverance of Odysseus is legendary, especially in books nine through twelve. He endures by using guile, courage, strength, and determination. Perhaps the hardest test of his perseverance as well as his loyalty is the seven years that he spends as the captive of Calypso, a situation that he could not trick or fight his way out. Even when tempted with immortality by the beautiful goddess-nymph, Odysseus yearns for home.
Poseidon and Odysseus represent the theme of vengeance most prominently. Odysseus blinds the one-eyed giant to escape from the Polyphemus’ cave. Unfortunately, Polyphemus was not bluffing when he claimed to be the son of Poseidon, resulting in Odysseus engaging a fairly formidable enemy. Poseidon is unable to kill Odysseus because it is determined by the Fates that he will make it home. The god of the sea, however, can help fulfill the desire of his son that Odysseus arrives late, broken, and alone to Ithaca, his shipmates lost, and his household in turmoil. Poseidon takes out his frustration on the Phaeacians in one of the more controversial sections of the epic whose only offense is by their tradition of hospitality.
“While by some reckonings Poseidon’s wrath may be excessive, it is hardly without motive. Zeus, in his opening council with Athena, connects Poseidon’s animosity directly with Odysseus’ blinding of Polyphemus, stating that Poseidon “is angry because of the Cyclops, whose eye [Odysseus] blinded””. (p. 58, chs.harvard.edu, Victims of the Gods’ Vengeance). The vengeance of Odysseus is daunting when it is directed at his disloyal servants and suitors. He shows impressive tolerance when in disguise, he endures, for example, the suitor Antinous, goatherd Melanthius, and maidservant Melantho’s derision and aggression, waiting to strike at the proper moment. Odysseus kills the leader of the suitors, Antinous, in a surprise attack with an arrow through the neck; then he kills Eurymachus, the other leading suitor, with an arrow to the liver. After the slaughter of the suitors, Melanthius and Melantho are left to die more slowly. Odysseus avenges the disrespect of the suitors and the lack of loyalty of the servants to his office, property, and family.
At the heart of the relationship between Athena and Odysseus is the theme of perception. Athena is the maven of transformation. Her most memorable, for herself or for Odysseus, are her disguises. She appears to Telemachus at the beginning of the epic as Mentes, king of the Taphians, Odysseus’ old friend who was visiting Ithaca. As Mentes, she encourages the prince to canvass the problems in the Palace. Most famously, however, she appears to Telemachus as a mentor, an Ithacan counselor who protects and guides the prince from the murderous suitors through his coming of age. Athena changes the look of Odysseus on several occasions to either mask him or make him look even more imposing. For example, as Odysseus prepares for a banquet with the Phaeacians in his honor, she changes his appearance to make him look more impressive. When Odysseus returns to Ithaca in book thirteen, Athena disguises him as an old beggar, even going so far as to shrink his skin, removing from his head the “russet curls”, and dimming the fire in his eyes. Odysseus, of course, is no stranger to disguise. He posed as a beggar to enter the city during the Trojan War; he also initiated the ruse of a giant wooden horse filled with Greek soldiers, a story reported by bard Demodoc, not realizing that the hero himself was present during his visit to Phaeacia.
The scenes of recognition with the three members of Odysseus’ family on Ithaca give the theme of perception significant and sometimes controversial twists. He appears a beggar to his son, Telemachus, who visits the pig farm of the family. When they can be alone, Athena changes the appearance of Odysseus to something so impressive that Telemachus wonders if he might be a god. At the palace, Odysseus is privately identified by the faithful nurse Eurycleia when she recognizes a scar on his leg as she bathes him, but she vows to keep her news. On the other hand, it is a matter of dispute whether Penelope recognizes her husband. Although she sometimes seems to suspect who he is, and although he wins the giant bow contest, she does not officially accept him until he reveals his knowledge of their wedding bed. Also somewhat controversial is the meeting between Odysseus and his father, Laertes. It may be argued that Odysseus is unnecessarily cruel to the old man in maintaining his disguise, but one can conclude that he helps restore dignity to his father.
One of the frequently asked questions about work is whether the main characters grow or evolve with the progression of the story. The Odyssey focuses on the theme of spiritual growth as it concerns Telemachus and Odysseus. When the epic opens, Telemachus loses his way of dealing with the suitors who have taken over his home and seek his mother’s hand in marriage. His life is at risk as he is next in line to the crown, he is nothing more than baggage to the suitors who also seek Odysseus’ crown. The youth expresses an admirable if naïve spirit with good intentions, following the usual pattern of a coming-of-age story. He faces different barriers, temporarily falters, but ultimately prevails. Telemachus calls for a meeting of the leaders of Ithaca with the help of Athena and confronts the suitors. While he talks well, he does not find very much realistic community support; however, he took the first step towards maturity. On Athena’s suggestion, Telemachus, in a hope of learning more about his father, visits two former comrades of Odysseus, the King Nestor of Pylos and the King Menelaus of Sparta. At the courts of these great men, Telemachus learns more about himself and how a prince should behave than about Odysseus. However, he has some hope of returning his father. When Odysseus does return, Telemachus survives the test of battle and acquires the trust of his father.
The growth of Odysseus is less linear. When he left for the Trojan War, he was already quite a man. His trials have more to do with spirit refinement; his growth has something to do with the kind of wisdom and judgment that makes him a better king. Earlier on as he escapes from the island of the Cyclopes, Odysseus feels compelled to taunt Polyphemus. Odysseus shouts at the giant with his real name, allowing Polyphemus to identify his tormentor with his father, Poseidon. This brings serious problems to Odysseus and the Phaeacians later on. However, when he returns to Ithaca, Odysseus acts more cautiously. He goes into disguise to obtain information about the enemy and knowledge of whom to trust. Even when the suitors or his servants mock and aggress him, Odysseus succeeds in maintaining his composure and postponing the inevitable vindication. The time is perfect when he finally does strike. Odysseus appears to be a wiser, more perceptive leader by the end of the epic than he might have been having he sailed from Troy straight home. “Just as Athena controls hero-men with the force of her spear, so hero-men must control their own forces, the desires of the heart (thumos) in order to endure.” (p. 143, Harold Bloom, James Joyce).
In conclusion, it can concur that Odysseus, though other characters are discussed, is overall a very good representation of each of the following themes: hospitality, loyalty, perseverance, vengeance, perception, and spiritual growth. As the reader, it is important to understand how these themes portray Odysseus and the other characters of The Odyssey. Odysseus endured different types of hospitality, some proving to be too much for him. He was not entirely unfaithful to his wife, Penelope, in that he allowed himself to be embraced by the goddesses Circe and Calypso’s fine hospitality but faltered. His perseverance to return home to his wife supposedly prevailed so that he did not allow himself to be drawn completely by the goddess’ charms. Once returning home, Odysseus disguised as a beggar patiently endured the onslaught of mockery and torment brought on by the suitors, Melanthius the goatherd, and Melantho the maidservant, waiting for the proper moment to cast his revenge. He wore many disguises, altering others’ perceptions so as to not reveal himself. By the end of the epic, Odysseus evolved into a better, wiser man. Today these themes are seen everywhere. Perhaps the most predominant one being perseverance.
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