How does Homer portray the relationship between gods and men in the Odyssey? What roles do the gods play in human life? How does this portrayal differ from that found in the Iliad?
In the Iliad, the gods relate to human beings either as external powers that influence the lives of mortals from without, as when Apollo unleashes plague upon the Achaeans, or from within, as when Aphrodite incites Helen to make love to Paris or when Athena gives Diomedes courage in battle. In the Odyssey, the gods are often much less grand. They function more as spiritual guides and supporters for their human subjects, sometimes assuming mortal disguises in order to do so. The actions of the gods sometimes remain otherworldly, as when Poseidon decides to wreck the ship of the Phaeacians, but generally they grant direct aid to particular individuals. In a sense, the change in the behavior of the gods is wholly appropriate to the shift in focus between the two epics. The Iliad depicts a violent and glorious war, and the gods act as frighteningly powerful, supernatural forces. The Odyssey, in contrast, chronicles a long journey, and the gods frequently act to guide and advise the wandering hero.
In what ways does Odysseus develop as a character during the course of the narrative? Does he develop at all?
Odysseus does not change remarkably during the course of the narrative, especially in comparison to Telemachus, who undergoes a rite of passage from naive adolescence to manhood. Odysseus, already a famed soldier at the beginning of the Iliad, continues his role as the most intelligent and courageous of all the Achaean heroes. But this is not to say that Odysseus exhibits no signs of growth. Just as Achilles is confronted in the Iliad with the problem of balancing his honor with his pride, Odysseus repeatedly faces situations in which self-restraint and humility must check bravado and glory-seeking. In his early adventures, he often fails these tests, as when he boastfully taunts Polyphemus, enflaming Poseidon.
As the epic progresses, Odysseus becomes increasingly capable of judging when it is wise to reveal himself and when it is appropriate to exult in his accomplishments. At Scheria, he prudently waits until late in his visit before declaring his identity to the king and queen. By the time he reaches Ithaca, he can endure the insults of the suitors for the better part of two days. The ability to hold his passions and pride in check make his swift and total revenge upon the suitors possible. Odysseus’s internal conflict is not nearly as consuming as that of Achilles in the Iliad, making up a relatively small part of his overall journey, but he too is a wiser and stronger man at the end of his epic.
One of the most important cultural values in the Odyssey is that of xenia, a Greek concept encompassing the generosity and courtesy shown to those who are far from home. Why might hospitality have held more significance in Homer’s time than it does in today’s world? How is hospitality established as a key value in the epic?
Odysseus’s journey takes place in a world in which vast swaths of uninhabited land separate human civilizations. Traveling between those settlements involves facing both natural and supernatural perils, as well as logistical problems like shortages in provisions. The code of hospitality operates as a linchpin that allows individuals such as Odysseus to undertake these kinds of journeys at all. It is a set of reciprocal expectations and obligations that not only mitigate the privations of travel but forge and reinforce bonds of friendship and goodwill. Not surprisingly, the Odyssey doles out harsh punishments to those who do not respect this sacred social code. Polyphemus, the suitors, and the Achaean soldiers at Ismarus all suffer for violating it. By the same token, individuals such as Eumaeus and the Phaeacian royalty prove their worth to Odysseus by showering him with selfless generosity and kindness. Within the Odyssey, adherence to the code functions as a kind of imperfect currency. If one acts in accordance with the rules, one will generally, but not always, be rewarded.
1. What is the role of family in the Odyssey? What values characterize the relationship between fathers and sons? You may wish to compare and contrast some of the father and son pairs in the epic (Odysseus and Telemachus, Laertes and Odysseus, Poseidon and Polyphemus, Nestor and Pisistratus, Eupithes and Antinous). How does Homer portray the idea of continuity between generations?
2. What is the role of women in the Odyssey? Focusing especially on Penelope, Calypso, or Anticleia, discuss how women are portrayed in this epic.
3. Compare and contrast Telemachus’s journey with that of Odysseus. How does the younger man’s experience enable him to grow as a character? What role does Athena play in his success?
4. Looking at Odysseus’s narrative in Books 9 through 12, think about the techniques Homer uses to portray the magical and fantastical aspects of Odysseus’s adventures. How does he handle what we might call special effects? That is, how does he make his monsters fearsome, his goddesses stunning, the dangers frightening, etc.?
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Odysseus covered his mens ears with beeswax, because they would never want to go back home listening to the sirens.
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