The Odyssey, like its companion poem, The Iliad, is an epic poem, meaning an exalted story of a warrior-like hero’s journey and dealings with the gods, told in a formal poetic structure. While epic poems were created in a number of ancient cultures, including India, Sumeria, and Persia, The Odyssey had the greatest influence on Western epic poetry and established a number of conventions that are repeated in other Greek and Latin epics. One such convention is its poetic form, dactylic hexameter, a form of poetry in which one long syllable is followed by two short ones. Following The Odyssey, dactylic hexameter, also known as “heroic meter” or the “meter of epic,” became the standard meter of epic poetry. Another convention is the repeated use of the same phrases and brief descriptions, called epithets, throughout the poem. Nearly every new day is marked by the phrase “When young Dawn with her rose-red fingers shone once more…” and most of the significant characters are described with epithets, such as “bright-eyed Pallas” for Athena, and “the bewitching nymph” for Calypso. The Odyssey features many extended similes, as when Homer compares Circe’s mountain lions to “hounds that fawn around their master, coming home from a feast, who always brings back scraps to calm them down.” These comparisons are known as epic similes. Dactylic hexameter, epithets, and epic similes became conventions of epic poetry after The Iliad and The Odyssey.
Epic poems typically begin in the middle of an extended action, or to use the Latin term, in medias res, which enables the audience (who originally listened to the poem, rather than reading it) to become immediately engaged in the plot without sitting through a lot of backstory. The poem uses different methods to explain previous events in the timeline of the plot, often via recollections from characters or explanations from the gods. The Odyssey begins in a moment of crisis in Odysseus’s hometown of Ithaca, where suitors are running amok in Odysseus’s house and pestering his wife, Penelope, to remarry. As Odysseus’s son, Telemachus, learns what happened to his father during the Trojan War, the poem’s audience hears about events that are not directly relevant to the story of Odysseus. While outside of the main action of the poem, these interludes fill in the details of the story that come before the beginning of the poem, allowing Homer to tell a much broader story in a plot that spans a relatively short period of time.
The protagonists of epic poems exemplify values important to the poet’s culture, expanding the poems from a simple adventure story to a reinforcement of cultural ideals. For the Greeks of Homer’s time, hospitality was a chief virtue. Their most powerful god, Zeus, is described by Odysseus as the god of strangers, who “guards all guests and suppliants.” Odysseus judges the various communities that he encounters at sea by whether they are “violent, savage, lawless? Or friendly to strangers, god-fearing men?” Over the course of his journey Odysseus receives hospitality in the form of food, shelter, and gifts from the Phaeacians, and he erroneously assumes Cyclops will extend him the same goodwill when he eats all of Cyclops’s cheese. (He’s wrong.) Meanwhile, back at Ithaca, the suitors exploit Odysseus’s hospitality by slaughtering his livestock and drinking all his wine. In this way, the poem reinforces the cultural importance of being both a good guest and a good host. Ancient Greeks also prized intelligence and physical ability. Odysseus uses a combination of wit and strength to overcome the obstacles thrown in his path. In this way, through Odysseus’s adventures, Homer describes the heroic values of hospitality, cunning, and bravery prized by the Greek society that was the original audience of the poem.