The formal, elevated, and repetitive style of The Odyssey is largely a result of its history as part of an oral tradition that predates writing. Homer includes formulaic elements that would have been essential for oral performance in order to keep the audience engaged and help the person performing the poem (called a bard) remember the lines. The Odyssey is composed in dactylic hexameter, a strict poetic structure in which each line of the poem has six ‘feet,’ or dactyls, each made up of one long and two short syllables. Homer also repeats poetic phrases and entire lines of poetry. This repetition helped the bards performing the poem improvise verses that fit the necessary rhythm, while also giving them time to recall what came next in the story. Longer repeated passages describe stock settings, such as Olympus, “where, they say, the gods’ eternal mansion stands unmoved, never rocked by galewinds, never drenched by rains…”. Homer also repeats epithets, or descriptive phrases, for characters, for instance, “gray-eyed Athena,” “cloud-gatherer Zeus,” and “circumspect Penelope.” The modern reader gets the impression of a formalized narrative akin to an incantation, with vivid characters who stand out from the poem’s extensive cast of mortals and gods.
The narrator of The Odyssey speaks energetically and vividly, moving quickly from one thing to the next, providing just enough detail to keep the reader engaged. A typical scene emphasizes the action without lingering on the details—for example, the scene of Telemachus calling an assembly at the beginning of Book 2: “At once he ordered heralds to cry out loud and clear and summon the flowing-haired Achaeans to full assembly…When they’d grouped, crowding the meeting grounds, Telemachus strode in too, a bronze spear in his grip and not alone: two sleek hounds went trotting at his heels.” The verbs—“cry out loud and clear and summon”—pile up on one another, and the short sentences propel the narrative forward. The one piece of descriptive detail, that the hounds accompanying Telemachus are “sleek,” helps the reader visualize Telemachus’s determined leadership.
While the narrator is largely removed from the emotional complexities and inner lives of the poem’s characters, he allows characters to speak at length for themselves in frequent direct quotes, giving a deeper sense of their interior lives. We can compare the narrator’s introduction to Telemachus’s assembly in Book 2 to what Telemachus says to the men at the assembly: “Oh I’d swing to attack if I had the power in me. By god, it’s intolerable, what they do—disgrace, my house a shambles! You should be ashamed yourselves, mortified in the face of neighbors living round about!” In contrast to the narrator’s introduction, Telemachus’s language is expressive and emotional, incorporating exclamations and threats. Since the Odyssey would have originally been performed orally, the alternation would have given the bard an opportunity to perform as different characters while maintaining an objective narratorial voice. For modern readers, these first-person passages give insight into characters’ motivations. We can identify with Odyssseus, Telemachus, and Penelope, which raises the stakes for the family’s reunion.
Another important characteristic of The Odyssey’s style is its use of “epic similes” that compare characters and actions in the plot of the poem to aspects of daily life or the natural world, which helps audiences visualize the fantastical events. Some of these similes have become common figures of speech, like when Athena “flies like the wind.” Others are much longer, likening characters to animals not just in appearance but in action: “As in a country steading, when the cows of the herd return to the yard after their fill of pasture, the calves leap and frisk all together to greet them…So when my men saw me before their eyes, they poured round me with their tears streaming.” Some of the similes compare the fantastical feats the characters perform to more mundane activities the audience would be familiar with: a farmer’s longing for supper after a day in the fields; a blacksmith plunging an axe into cold water, causing it to sizzle; a man burying a burning log in ashes to keep the spark alive. These descriptions connect the world of the epic to the world of its audience, at the same time slowing down the narrative and providing expressive detail.