Symbols are objects, characters, figures, and colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.


Although throwing a feast for a guest is a common part of hospitality, hunger and the consumption of food often have negative associations in The Odyssey. They represent lack of discipline or submission to temptation, as when Odysseus tarries in the cave of the Cyclops, when his men slaughter the Sun’s flocks, or when they eat the fruit of the lotus. The suitors, moreover, are constantly eating. Whenever Telemachus and Penelope complain about their uninvited guests, they mention how the suitors slaughter the palace’s livestock. Odysseus kills the suitors just as they are starting their dinner, and Homer graphically describes them falling over tables and spilling their food.

In almost all cases, the monsters of The Odyssey owe their monstrosity at least in part to their diets or the way that they eat. Scylla swallows six of Odysseus’s men, one for each head. The Cyclops eats humans, but not sheep apparently, and is gluttonous nonetheless: when he gets drunk, he vomits up wine mixed with pieces of human flesh. The Laestrygonians seem like nice people—until their queen, who is described as “huge as a mountain crag,” tries to eat Odysseus and his men (10.124). In these cases, excessive eating represents not just lack of self-control, but also the total absence of humanity and civility.

The Wedding Bed

The wedding bed in Book 23 symbolizes the constancy of Penelope and Odysseus’s marriage. Only a single maidservant has ever seen the bed, and it is where the happy couple spends its first night in each other’s arms since Odysseus’s departure for Troy twenty years earlier. The symbolism is heightened by the trick that Penelope uses to test Odysseus, which revolves around the immovability of their bed—a metaphor for the unshakable foundation of their love.

Penelope’s Shroud for Laertes

During Odysseus’s long absence from Ithaca, his house fills with suitors seeking Penelope’s hand and her riches. Penelope tells them she will choose one to marry after she has finished weaving a burial shroud for her father-in-law, Laertes. This ruse symbolizes Penelope’s cunning resistance, as she weaves during the day and unravels her work at night. Her power over her own home rests on her ability to keep from remarrying.

Penelope’s cleverness and deception set her up as an equal match to Odysseus. Although they do not reunite until later in the poem, Penelope’s trick with the shroud implies a unified approach with her husband. The couple uses similar concealed tactics to achieve their goals, and Penelope’s intelligence fits well with quick-thinking Odysseus. Her lingering delay in completing the shroud works in tandem with Odysseus’s consistent fighting to get back home. Their parallel strategies ultimately symbolize their steadfast commitment to Odysseus’s return.