|Synopsis||Nine years after the Trojan War, every one of the surviving Achean Warriors has been accounted for except Odysseus. As his family suffers without him in his home in Ithica, the weary old warrior suffers alone in the aftermath of a long and painful voyage.|
|Length||560 Pages (Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition - Recommended by Reviewer)|
|Release Date||Composed between 725-675BC|
We talked about The Illiad of Homer earlier this year as the monthly Classics Series was just beginning. My essay on that massive poem served as the launching point for what I wanted to do with this series: long-form analytical analysis borrowing from whatever academic material I could readily get my hands on. Four months later, I’m excited to finally be talking about the book’s nominal sequel, The Odyssey.
Fair warning: There are HEAVY spoilers ahead, but this is a 2,700-year-old work of Greek poetry everyone is at least tacitly familiar with, and the broad outline I’m going to give you will actually help explain the story to first-time readers in a comprehensible way. If you’re worried about spoilers, I wouldn’t bother avoiding this piece, since going in blind to classic literature doesn’t do you any favors.
Spiritual Content: The book describes the involvement of the Greek gods in the story and explores how they affect the lives of humans for good and ill
Violence: Significant violence throughout, bloody fights with characters being ground into viscera, characters are eaten alive, eyes are gouged out, and characters suffer in the underworld
Language/Crude Humor: None
Sexual Content: Lots of casual sex, but nothing graphic
Drug/Alcohol Use: Characters frequently drink honey wine at dinners
Other Negative Themes: None
Positive Content: Themes of home, peace, joy, and overcoming despair
Both The Illiad and The Odyssey are frequently spoken about together. That’s not surprising, as they both concern the same characters, events, and were (likely) conceived of by the same storyteller. They are two very different poems, though. They were composed decades apart, and both function very differently as stories. As much as the two books are deeply connected, one can’t just view them as parallels or direct continuations. The Epic Cycle tradition was comprised of eight poems; five of which have been lost to history. There’s no duality between the texts, so direct 1-to-1 comparisons aren’t going to necessarily reveal that much in the way a modern comparison would.
That said, the books do seem to lend themselves to some comparisons regarding their overall themes and conclusions. If anything, one could say The Odyssey is a curious answer to the moral questions set up in The Illiad. It’s a strange rebuttal of sorts; it’s more mature than its predecessor. If the first book is about the tragic depths war descends humanity into, The Odyssey is about the way human beings bring themselves out of those depths and return to civilization in the aftermath. There’s more on that in the analysis later.
It’s also, unsurprisingly, the more popular of the two poems. The Odyssey is one of the most popular works of western literature when it comes to reprints, parodies, references, and pop culture recreations. Every bookstore in the English-speaking world has a half dozen or more copies of this book in stock at any given time. Penguin Classics released its first prose edition of it in 1946 in paperback to launch the classics series, and it was an immediate bestseller. It’s widely read in high schools and colleges and remains the most popular work of Greek literature to this day.
Just the word “Odyssey” has become its own word in the English language. Merriam-Webster defines the word as “a long wandering or voyage usually marked by many changes of fortune.”
References to The Odyssey are littered across pop culture and literature. Part of the fun of reading it is realizing just how much the ideas and names in this book have completely influenced our culture. Names from the book wind up everywhere from Studio Ghibli movies to video games like Borderlands; from Marvel Comics to Game of Thrones characters. Popular video game franchises like Assassins Creed Odyssey and Super Mario Odyssey bear the name of the poem. Famous authors like James Joyce, Madeline Miller, Margaret Atwood, and Alfred Lord Tennyson have written stories using Homeric concepts, while filmmakers like the Coen Brothers and Stanley Kubrick have borrowed heavily from it to build their own stories. It’s been parodied in everything from The Simpsons to Star Trek to Disney’s Hercules (where Achilles is directly name-dropped). News media websites have even been named after concepts from the poem.
The book has even served as a fascinating jumping-off point for other writers to build new stories using the original characters. Dante Alighieri famously wrote an alternate ending to The Odyssey in The Divine Comedy that mirrored story elements from his epic poem. He did so in relative ignorance of the actual ending. The full text had been lost in 12th century Italy and wouldn’t be rediscovered and published in Florence until 1488.
In his version of the story, the poem ends with Odysseus’ quest failing as he willing chooses to sail into the unknown west, rather than to his home, into the Atlantic and stumbles upon the island of Purgatory (the Earthly location of Eden as seen in Dante’s Purgatorio). For the crimes of sacking Troy, abandoning his family, and attempting to access a divine sanctuary, Odysseus’s ship is sunk and he is then cast down to Hell to suffer in the eighth circle for all eternity. Although, in the poem, Dante refers to him with his Latin name: Ulysses.
“When there appeared to us a mountain, dim from distance, and it seemed to me so high as I had never any one beheld. Joyful were we, and soon it turned to weeping for out of the new land a whirlwind rose and smote upon the fore part of the ship three times it made her whirl with all the waters, at the fourth time it made the stern uplift, and the prow downward go, as pleased another, until the sea above us closed again.” – Inferno, Canto 26, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow translation
Such an ending is interesting for numerous reasons. It’s an overtly Catholic critique of Homer’s vision of the ancient world as expressed in his poems that castigates the cruelty and barbarous actions of the ancient Greeks. It also falls closely in line with the traditional epic story structure the Greeks themselves established in their tragedies. Most epic heroes do not get happy endings. Oedipus, Beowulf, Hamlet, King Arthur, Don Quixote, Captain Ahab, the Vault Dweller, and even Frodo Baggins have sad or tragic endings because of the weight their journeys place upon them. They either die or aren’t able to reintegrate into society after their journeys. They’re usually consumed by their experience and hubris. Usually, happy endings in classical stories are reserved for comedies and fairy stories. It’s not surprising, then, that another epic poet like Dante would find it logical to write a new ending with a tragic ending where Odysseus’s hubris destroys him.
That’s one of the interesting things that set The Odyssey apart: It’s an epic quest with an overtly happy ending.
The Story of The Odyssey
In his essay on Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, the YouTube film critic Kyle Kalgreen made this reflection on the nature of war:
“There is a huge gap between military life and civilian life, and every soldier has known that since Homer first told a story about a man’s impossibly long journey to return home from war.”
I wish I could summarize all 12,109 lines of poetry so succinctly. The Odyssey, like the rest of The Epic Cycle, is a poem about the Trojan War, but it’s focused on one specific aspect of it more than any other: return from war. As was tradition for oral stories, The Odyssey‘s opening lines more or less explain the events and moral of the poem that an audience would’ve been expected to understand:
“Sing to me of the man, Muse, the man of twists and turns driven time and again off course, once he had plundered the hallowed heights of Troy. Many cities of men he saw and learned their minds, many pains he suffered, heartsick on the open sea, fighting to save his life and bring his comrades home. But he could not save them from disaster, hard as he strove – the recklessness of their own ways destroyed them all, the blind fools, they devoured the cattle of the Sun and the Sungod wiped from sight the day of their return. Launch out on his story, Muse, the daughter of Zeus start from where you will – sing for our time too.” (Page 77 – Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition)
When the poem starts, it’s been nine years since the sack of Troy by the Acheans. Achilles is long dead alongside the majority of his fellow warriors like Agamemnon and Ajax. The Trojan Horse allowed the Acheans to sneak into Troy during the night and lay siege to the city. Helen was rescued and returned to her husband Menelaus, and the other survivors went their separate ways and returned to their home cities.
All except Odysseus; he has been trapped for seven years on the island of the Goddess Calypso after a two-year journey across the Mediterranean resulted in numerous upsets and eventual failure. What should’ve been a two-week journey across the sea became a long and fruitless journey across the most dangerous regions of the Earth.
As the story begins, the Olympian gods look down upon the stranded man and consider how they’ve allowed his suffering to go on for far too long. He has no way to leave because Poseidon continues to attack him whenever he tries to. Because of this, the other Olympians decide to come to his aid. They give him the means to escape the island and he slowly starts making his way to a neighboring island with a population. They allow him to escape to the nearby island of the Phaeacians where the real crux of the story begins.
Before all of this happens, though, the story pulls back to Odysseus’s home island of Ithica. His queen Penelope and son Telemachus have found themselves besieged by local bachelors who have made it a mission to pressure the queen into marrying a suitor. Because her husband has been gone for nearly two decades, the island’s male population has collectively decided they want to force her to take a new King so one of them could marry her and inherit vast wealth and power. For years, their house has played host to feasts and unruly behavior that has consumed many of their flocks of cattle and diminished the family’s wealth.
It’s a comical scene overall, but one with dire consequences. Eventually, Penelope’s responsibility as a queen will require her to choose a new husband and the suitors can continue to ransack the house until she does.
In rebellion, Telemachus makes the decision to seek out his father on his own terms and prove decisively what his father’s fate was. Telemachus, upon hearing from Athena that his father is still alive, goes on a quest to seek out the surviving members of the Trojan War abroad to see if they might know where to look. He meets up with King Nestor, King Menelaus (Agamennon’s Brother), and Queen Helen who collectively reminisce about the final years of the Trojan War, but don’t know what happened to the other survivors. Once the boats left Illium, most of the warriors didn’t see each other again. Eventually, Telemachus does find a way to confirm his father is still alive and starts making his way home to Ithica, where the male suitors are conspiring to kill him.
The first four books of The Odyssey specifically follow Telemachus’s own personal quest. It’s a strange literary device upon the first inspection. Telemachus isn’t necessarily the instigator of the events of the poem, and his journey to visit Nestor and Menelaus doesn’t set the events in motion that help free Odysseus.
Functionally speaking, this part of the story is merely establishing the setting. It gives the reader some tension for what Odysseus is going to face when he returns home and just how different the world of Ithica is from the chaos of Illum and the open sea.
The Voyage of Odysseus
Odysseus finally arrives on the island of the Phaeacians, where he is welcomed and asked to recount his adventures. After explaining the story of the Trojan Horse, he begins to recount his long voyage home and the series of supernatural catastrophes that beset him and his crew as they sailed home to Ithica. It’s during this period the most iconic and familiar moments of The Odyssey take place.
This segment of the book is the most famous and is widely considered the most popular segment of the story. All of the most iconic moments of the book, including the island of the Lotus Eaters, the escape from the cyclopses, his crew being transformed into pigs by the witch Circe, the bag of winds, the temptation of the Sirens, the voyage to the underworld, and more happen in this portion of the book.
It’s not hard to see why this segment of the story is the most popular part. It’s the most colorful, exciting, and playful segment of the entire poem. The moments all serve as interesting metaphors for temptation in the long path home: be it the temptation to dull the senses with substances, break the laws of the gods, debase one’s self, make reckless decisions, or even the desire to commit suicide. These moments all result in the deaths of crew members on the long voyage home and emphasize just how much of a miracle it is that Odysseus himself managed to survive long enough to make it home.
The weird reality of this segment is it’s relatively short. Odysseus explains the events of the voyage from Troy to Phaecia from Book 9 to Book 12. Only about 1/6th of The Odyssey takes place during the famous voyage. At that, the stories are being told in a flashback and are very brisk. Odysseus quickly explains the events of the voyage without much flourishing or detail. As an example, the story of the “Lotus Eaters” takes up less than one page:
“Nine whole days I was borne along by rough, deadly winds on teh fish-infested sea. THen on the tenth our squadron reached the land of the Lotus-Eaters, people who eat the Lotus, mellow fruit and flower. We disembrarked on the coast, drew water there and crewmen snatched a meal by the swift ships… So off they went and soon enough they mingled with the natives… Lotus eaters who had no notion of killing my companions, not at all, they simply gave them the lotus to taste instead… Any crewman who ate the lotus, the honey-sweet fruit, lost all desire to send a mesage aback, much less return, their only wish to linger there with the Lotus-Eaters, grazing on Lotus, all memory of the journey home dissolved forever. But I brought them back, back to the hollow ships, and streaming tears…” (Page 214 – Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition)
Some of the stories take up greater length and importance than others. The Island of the Cyclops is a particularly memorable and well-regarded story in the poem and lasts for roughly 14 pages.
Interestingly enough, this segment also highlights Odysseus’s most understated skill: His intelligence. Throughout the journey, the only thing that saves lives and allows them to proceed is the fact Odysseus was the smartest and most strategic member of the Greek army. He is able to think his way out of situations Achilles merely fought his way through. During his crew’s confrontation with Polyphemus, the cyclops, his adept thinking blinds the brute, tricks the giant man into opening the door to the cave where they’ve been trapped, and helps them escape by having his crew hang off the sides of sheep fleeing from the cave.
The only reason this plan works is Odysseus tricks Polyphemus into thinking his name is “nobody.” When the other Cyclops hear his screams, he yells out, “Nobody’s killing me now by fraud and not by force.” The other Cyclops sardonically reply:
“If you’re alone, his friends boomed back at once, and nobody’s trying to overpower you now – look, it must be a plague sent here by might Zeus and theres no escape from that. You’d better pray to your father Lord Poseidon.” They lumbered off…” (Page 224 – Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition)
Of course, this also leads to Odysseus’s greatest moment of hubris. As he escapes the clutches of the giant, he yells back:
“Cyclops, if any man on the face of the earth should ask you who blinded you, shamed you so, say Odysseus, raider of cities, he gouged out your eye, Laertes’ son who makes his home in Ithica!” (Page 227 – Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition)
Odysseus could not bear the thought of not receiving proper credit for his accomplishment. As a result, Polyphemus prays to his father Poseidon, the father of the Cyclops race, and sets the wheels in motion for the slow-motion catastrophe of the remainder of the voyage. As a result, a voyage that could’ve been accomplished in a few weeks would turn into a nine-year tragedy.
A Digression on Home and Hospitality
A consistent theme throughout the work of The Odyssey is the nature of home and how others welcome Odysseus into theirs.
The voyage of Odysseus required him and his crew to spend much time meeting, talking to, negotiating with, fighting, and occasionally murdering or looting people. Odysseus’ first stop after the end of the Trojan War is to sack the island of Ismarus to fill the hull of his ship with MORE treasure. The power quickly shifts as he starts coming in contact with more powerful beings. Odysseus initially appeals to Polyphemus’ good nature in a speech asking him for hospitality for his crew.
“… since we’ve chanced on you, we’re at your knees in hopes of a warm welcome, even a guest gift, the sort that hosts give strangers. That’s the custom. Respect the gods my friend. We’re suppliants at your mercy! Zeus of the Strangers guards all guests and suppliants: strangers are sacred- Zeus will avenge their rights!” (Page 220 – Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition)
This “custom” is a reference to the greek concept of Xenia. The Greeks believed Zeus was a protector of travelers and gods could sometimes appear to humans in the form of men and women. It was thus the host’s responsibility to offer kindness, friendship, and even presents to passing travelers who approached their homesteads.
We see this relationship between Odysseus and all of the places he stops along the way on his journey. In Book 10, the crew reaches the Aeolian island, home of the incestuous King Aeolus. Odysseus is hosted there for an entire month before being given directions home and a bag of winds that could potentially set them on their way home (the crew messes it up, of course).
Later in the same book, the Goddess Circe bewitches his crew and turns them into swine to eat. Odysseus confronts, threatens, and convinces her to be a proper hostess for his crew. She then allows them to live comfortably in paradise on her island for a year.
Again and again, The Odyssey defines the nature of the relationships between characters in how the host figure treats the guest figure, and vice versa. This even extends to the Telemachus and Penelope story as well. Their hospitality is taken advantage of by the men of Ithica who abuse it for their own gain.
It sets up moral reasoning for why these men are such an offensive pestilence in their lives and why Penelope is justified in tricking them into perpetually delaying the decision of choosing a new husband. She famously does this by promising to choose a husband as soon as she finishes sowing a garment, but then goes upstairs each night to un-sow it so it is never complete.
The concept of “home” itself is also of vital importance to understanding The Odyssey. It’s the most potent idea in the entire poem and underlines what makes the poem so achingly powerful.
The Return to Ithica
Thankfully, our woeful protagonist doesn’t have to wait much longer to reach home. At the halfway point of The Odyssey, Odysseus has accomplished his nominal goal of returning to the island of his birth. He finishes telling the king of Phaecia his story in Book 13, at which point he’s gifted immense treasures and sets course on a boat for Ithica. Exhausted, Odysseus sleeps the entire voyage home. His journey has been long, but he can finally rest knowing he is, ostensibly, almost home.
Home, however, isn’t immediately welcoming or heartwarming. For as much of a relief as it is for him to be back home, he awakes in a sudden shock to discover he doesn’t recognize his home.
“That very moment great Odysseus woke from sleep on native ground at last- he’d been away for years- but failed to know the land for the goddess Pallas Athena, Zeus’s daughter, showered mist over all… And so to the king himself all Ithaca looked strange…” (Page 292 – Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition)
To make matters more confusing, the goddess Pallas Athena makes the decision to mask Odysseus in a false appearance so nobody will recognize him either.
“…so under cover she might change his appearance head to foot as she told him every peril he’d meet at home – keep him from being known by wife, townsmen, friends, till the suitors paid the price for all their outrage… Athena stroked Odysseus with her wand. She shriveled the supple skin on his lithe limbs, stripped the russet curles from his head, covered his body top to toe with the wrinkled hide of an old man and dimmed the fire in his eyes, so shining once. She turned his shirt and cloak into squalid rags, ripped and filthy, smeared with grime and soot.” (Page 292 and 300 – Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition)
The Odyssey wouldn’t be a traditional hero’s journey if the journey itself didn’t change the hero in some way that isolated him from the society he once left behind. In the case of this book, though, his transformation is quite literal. As he approaches Ithica, Athena disguises his appearance in the form of an old man in rags. As a result, nobody recognizes him in the kingdom he was once a prince in.
That punishment is two-fold: an entire generation has grown up in Ithica in the twenty years he has been away. The world he left has changed in equal measure to himself. They’re both older, more tired, and at a distance from one another. War has metaphorically, and literally, torn him away from his people and aged him horribly.
The only way for him to resolve this conundrum is for him to be recognized by the people of Ithica as Odysseus, and he can’t just do it with his looks. As a result, the final chapters of the poem become something of a game wherein he must prove he is who he claims to be until the people around him recognize him, at which point his appearance becomes familiar to them.
The Goddess Athena
Now’s a good time to bring up one of the subtle differences between The Illiad and The Odyssey; their portrayal of the Greek gods.
Whereas the gods’ function in The Illiad was to serve as a metaphor for the fog of war, they serve a different metaphor here. They’re equal parts fortune and fate. They are the good breeze at one’s back and the curse that plagues you. They are the forces of change themselves and the forces that push back against being themselves as you navigate the world.
Their role in the book is crucial. Multiple plot points in the story would not exist were it not for the fact the gods whispered into multiple peoples’ ears at the exact right moment to set forth a new course of events.
The gods play a vital role, once again, in being the instigators and subtextual forces that push the world into motion. At times, their actions would almost seem quite contrived if they weren’t directly influencing events. Would Odysseus have met the Phaeacians if the gods hadn’t whispered into the ear of Princess Nauscia to randomly walk along the beach that day?
Athena especially functions as an important deity character in the book. While Poseidon’s role is necessary as the God of the seas and Odysseus’s bane, Athena directly pushes the plot forward consistently.
She’s the goddess of wisdom and deception, which both play into Odysseus’s character. She appears constantly throughout the poem as a muse to help him in his actions. She whispers words into the ears of those who need to hear them and protects Odysseus and Telemachus in some of their most vulnerable moments. Considering Odysseus’ character trait in the story is deception and intelligence, it’s no accident Athena plays such a vital role.
Still, The Odyssey is ultimately a poem about the decisions of men. Curses and magical wishes can only carry these characters so far when the fallen nature of man haunts them. As Bernard Knox writes:
“In both epics the gods enjoy their pleasures and pursue their intrigues on Olympus, while on earth they decide the fate of mortals and their cities with scant regard for human conceptions of devine justice, whenever what is at stake is in the interest or prestige of a major god. Human beings may indeed, like the suitors and Odysseus’ crew, bring disaster on themselves “beyond their proper share” but disaster may still come to those who, like the phaecians and amphinomus, are by human standards admirable, and in each case it is a god who serves them their proper share.” (Page 48 Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition)
And as Zeus reflects in Book 1:
“Ah how shameless – the way these mortals blame the gods. From us alone, they say, come all their miseries, yes, but they themselves, with their own reckless ways, compound their pains beyond their proper share.” (Page 78 Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition)
The Trojan War itself was caused by Prince Paris seducing Queen Helen of Sparta. While the whims of the gods may ebb and flow, their impulses are ultimately just a reflection of the hearts of the characters we already see and understand on the battlefield. Poseidon doesn’t destroy Odysseus’s ship; his crew does. The gods are merely here to help us destroy ourselves, and they don’t need much help doing it.
Thankfully, The Odyssey is a story about goodness winning out over evil.
Final Reunions and Peace
It isn’t long before events finally coincide to allow Odysseus to return to his home at last. In Book 16, he finally stumbles across his son Telemachus for the first time. At first, the son does not recognize his disguised father. He describes himself as the son of Odysseus to the old man. Athena appears to him and tells him to reveal himself to his son, at which point his disguise disappears and they’re finally reunited.
“… I am your father – the Odysseus you wept for all your days, you bore a world of pain, the cruel abuse of men.” And with those words Odysseus kissed his son and the tears streamed down his cheeks and wet the ground… and Telemachus threw his arms around his great father, sobbing uncontrollably as the dep desire for tears welled up in both. They cried out, shrilling cries, pulsing sharper than birds of prey…” (Pages 344-345 Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition)
Together, Odysseus and Telemachus begin to lay a scheme that will allow them both to return home safe and unharmed while swiftly dispatching the suitors who have overtaken his home. Odysseus sneaks into his own home under the beggar’s disguise and slowly comes to understand the situation facing him.
With little time to spare, Penelope crafts a final plan to try and dissuade the suitors. She has precious little patience left before her obligations require her to take a husband. She devises a scheme wherein only the real Odysseus could fulfill a challenge of strength and accuracy. Naturally, Odysseus fulfills the challenge and reveals his true identity to everyone at last.
Odysseus then proceeds to murder the entire nobility of Ithacan society in a cold-blooded massacre. More on that in a second.
With his identity revealed and his body bathed to remove the blood, Odysseus finally reunites with his beloved Penelope.
“So joyous now to her the sight of her husband, vivid in her gaze, that her white arms embracing his neck would never for a moment let him go…” (Page 463 Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition)
Naturally, the story isn’t over yet. One does not simply commit dozens of murders in broad daylight without attracting some negative attention. While the book’s emotional finale ends with Odysseus and Penelope’s emotional reunion, there are still loose ends to tie up.
Book 24 wraps up the conflicts of the book quite swiftly. The entire family goes on the run to Odysseus’s father Laertes’ house where they plan a final battle against the families of the dead. The surviving nobility of Ithica all decides to go to war with Odysseus and prolong conflict into the future.
Pallas Athena, on the other hand, decides to end the conflict once and for all. Just as the opposing sides meet on the battlefield, she appears to them and demands they make peaceful amends.
“Hold back, you men of Ithica, back from brutal war! Break off – shed no more blood – make peace at once… don’t court the rage of Zeus who rules the world!” So she commanded. He obeyed her, glad at heart. And Athena handed down her pacts of peace between both sides for all the years to come- the daughter of Zeus whose shield is storm and thunder, yes, but hte goddess still kept Mentor’s build and voice.” (Page 485 Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition)
It is with the wise words of the goddess of wisdom the Trojan War finally ends. The last conflict of the brutal war, twenty years after it started, comes to an abrupt end as the tired and brutal warriors lay down their grievances and accept peace at last.
With that, Book 24 of The Odyssey serves as more than just a conclusion to this one poem. It’s the end of the entire Epic Cycle. It’s the last word on the entire lost eight-part epic.
Achilles and Odysseus: The Temptation of Death
Some of the other ghosts of the Trojan War make an appearance in the chapter as well. Earlier in Book 11, Odysseus had summoned a ghost from Hades who could prophecize the way home. In the process, he called forth the dead warriors of the war including Achilles, Agamemnon, Ajax, and Patroclus to talk about their experiences in the underworld.
As it happens, the other Achean ghosts gather together one last time. When Hermes delivers the souls of the dead suitors to the underworld, they start exchanging stories with the Trojan Warriors while they relate the story of Odysseus’s victory over them to the dead.
“Agamemnon’s ghost cried out, “Son of Lartetes – mastermind – what a fine, faithful wife you won! What a good sense resided in your Penelope – how well Icarius’s daughter remembered you, Odysseus, the man she married once”… So they traded stories, the two ghosts standing there in the House of Death, far in the hidden depths below the earth.” (Page 474 Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition)
The underworld plays an important role thematically in the story of The Odyssey. Besides serving as the visual inspiration for every depiction of Hell in the history of literature, it serves to ultimately highlight one of the most important character motivations for the story of the Trojan War: The virtue of glorious death.
This difference is most well seen in the differences between the two protagonists of both poems. Odysseus is about as different a protagonist as you could’ve possibly found from Achilles. Both are great warriors, but whereas Achilles is the strongest of the Greeks, Odysseus is the smartest and most clever. Achilles was a brute. He was a rage-driven godling with the power to level armies singlehandedly. His one goal in life was to trade his life for glory on the battlefield and he ultimately achieves it in the aftermath of The Illiad wherein the Trojan prince Paris stabs his heel with an arrow.
It’s interesting, then, that The Odyssey is fundamentally a story about the last survivor of the Trojan War finding his way home. For where Achilles was brave enough to be fully consumed by war, Odysseus is smart enough to be eternally tortured by it. His hubris haunts him in equal measure to his greed and weariness. That he ultimately achieves something in light of the burdensome journey he’s placed on is vitally important to understand what the poem is ultimately about.
Achilles’ and Odysseus’ quests both effectively end with each character getting what he wants. Achilles achieves glory and is remembered in the annuls of history as the hero of the Trojan War. Odysseus gets home and is allowed peace and reunion with his wife. The road to both destinations is very dangerous. For Odysseus, the journey of his voyage was peppered with dozens of temptations that would’ve allowed him to willingly neglect his sole desire and embrace some form of escape from his weariness.
Practically, though, all of these escapes are just a subtext for different forms of suicide. He could’ve chosen to become immortal, forget his troubles by consuming the Lotus, staying with the beautiful goddess Circe, or allowing himself to crash into the island of the Sirens. Each of them is just a release. As Knox writes:
“All through the trials of his voyage home, the tempation to find a release in death has always been at hand, by suicide, as in his despair off Ithica or more subtly at any moment of quick suspicion, the inexhaustible resilience and determination that keep him alive.” (Page 33 Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition)
They’re insufficient to the true virtue that only home can provide. As he says to the goddess Calypso, who has offered him immortality and love:
“All that you say is true, how well I know. Look at my wise Penelope. She falls far short of you, your beauty, stature. She is mortal after all and you, you never age or die… Nevertheless I long – I pine, all my days- to travel home and see the dawn of my return. And if a god will wreck me yet again on the wine-dark sea, I can bear that too, with a spirit tempered to endure. Much have I suffered, labored long and hard by now in the waves and wars. Add this to the total – bring the trial on!” (Page 159 Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition)
Home is the nexus of Odysseus’ existence. He longs to be reunited with the sole source of beauty and meaning he once belonged to. He wants the fullness of that experience and the joy of the life he’s rightfully earned for his suffering.
Such a desire is what most sets him apart from Achilles who died in glory as he always wanted. As becomes clear, though, this isn’t a happy ending for Achilles. When Odysseus meets him in the underworld, Achilles delivers unto him one of the most wearisome and painful speeches in the history of literature:
“No winning words about death to me, shining Odysseus! By god, I’d rather slave on earth for another man – some dirt-poor tenant farmer who scrapes to keep alive- than rule down here over all the breathless dead.”
Achille’s words are the complete opposite of those we’d see in the mouth of someone like Milton’s Lucifer. To him, death is the great evil of the world. His death only brought him pain and emptiness as he was forced to live like a phantom in the realm of the dead. He decides, too late, that he wants what Odysseus ultimately gets.
Such a sentiment is one of the most pungent and powerful in literature. The Greek philosopher Plato, in his book The Republic, famously declared it was such a powerful sentiment it might put the entire Republic of Greece in danger. He figured poetry like this needed to be suppressed for the greater good, least it sap the morale of the young men of Greece.
“We shall ask Homer… to forgive us if we delete all passages of this kind. It is not because they are bad poetry… in fact the better they are as poetry…. the less suitable they are for an audience of boys and men on whom freedom places the obligation to fear slavery more than death.”
On Maturity, Peace, and Love
I said in the introduction that I consider The Odyssey to be more mature than The Illiad, and this is what I was talking about. Many scholars believe this poem was written decades after The Iliad, or that it might’ve even been written by an entirely different writer than Homer. In all likelihood, Homer wrote both poems decades apart. The Illiad is a story filled with youthful arrogance and rage. He likely wrote The Illiad as a young man seeking glory and fame. He then likely wrote The Odyssey as an old man reflecting on family and success.
Homer may have learned in his real-life the lesson Achilles never learned. The man who once believed in glory and war at the cost of all things now suffers in Hell, but the man who returns home to his family finds peace. It reflects a fundamental shift in the author’s perspective.
The Odyssey is wiser. It ultimately comes to the conclusion life is better than death, peace is better than war, and family is better than glory. It shows how weary life can be but ultimately delivers its character into peace as a reward for that suffering. Just as God looked upon his creation and called it good, the poem understands life is good and worth living.
Death is a curse. War is a curse. Glory is fleeting. Just as the Christian seeks his eternal home, Odysseus seeks his temporal one…and there’s more virtue in that than any war.
+ Beautiful Poetry
+ Complex Themes About War, Despair and Trauma
+ Powerful Resolution to the Epic Cycle
+ Wonderful Insights into Human Nature
The Bottom Line
The Odyssey is one of the most essential works of literature in world history. There is a reason it has survived for 2,700 years.