Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
The Power of Cunning over Strength
If The Iliad is about strength, The Odyssey is about cunning, a difference that becomes apparent in the very first lines of the epics. Whereas The Iliad tells the story of the rage of Achilles, the strongest hero in the Greek army, The Odyssey focuses on a “man of twists and turns” (1.1). Odysseus does have extraordinary strength, as he demonstrates in Book 21 by being the only man who can string the bow. But he relies much more on mind than muscle, a tendency that his encounters showcase. He knows that he cannot overpower Polyphemus, for example, and that, even if he were able to do so, he wouldn’t be able to budge the boulder from the door. He thus schemes around his disadvantage in strength by exploiting Po1yphemus’s stupidity. Though he does use violence to put out Polyphemus’s single eye, this display of strength is part of a larger plan to deceive the brute.
Similarly, Odysseus knows that he is no match for the host of strapping young suitors in his palace, so he makes the most of his other strength—his wits. Step by step, through disguises and deceptions, he arranges a situation in which he alone is armed and the suitors are locked in a room with him. With this setup, Achilles’ superb talents as a warrior would enable him to accomplish what Odysseus does, but only Odysseus’s strategic planning can bring about such a sure victory. Some of the tests in Odysseus’s long, wandering ordeal seem to mock reliance on strength alone. No one can resist the Sirens’ song, for example, but Odysseus gets an earful of the lovely melody by having his crew tie him up. Scylla and Charybdis cannot be beaten, but Odysseus can minimize his losses with prudent decision-making and careful navigation. Odysseus’s encounter with Achilles in the underworld is a reminder: Achilles won great kleos, or glory, during his life, but that life was brief and ended violently. Odysseus, on the other hand, by virtue of his wits, will live to a ripe old age and is destined to die in peace.
The Pitfalls of Temptation
The initial act that frustrated so many Achaeans’ homecoming was the work of an Achaean himself: Ajax (the “Lesser” Ajax, a relatively unimportant figure not to be confused with the “Greater” Ajax, whom Odysseus meets in Hades) raped the Trojan priestess Cassandra in a temple while the Greeks were plundering the fallen city. That act of impulse, impiety, and stupidity brought the wrath of Athena upon the Achaean fleet and set in motion the chain of events that turned Odysseus’s homecoming into a long nightmare. It is fit that The Odyssey is motivated by such an event, for many of the pitfalls that Odysseus and his men face are likewise obstacles that arise out of mortal weakness and the inability to control it. The submission to temptation or recklessness either angers the gods or distracts Odysseus and the members of his crew from their journey: they yield to hunger and slaughter the Sun’s flocks, and they eat the fruit of the lotus and forget about their homes.
Even Odysseus’s hunger for kleos is a kind of temptation. He submits to it when he reveals his name to Polyphemus, bringing Poseidon’s wrath upon him and his men. In the case of the Sirens, the theme is revisited simply for its own interest. With their ears plugged, the crew members sail safely by the Sirens’ island, while Odysseus, longing to hear the Sirens’ sweet song, is saved from folly only by his foresighted command to his crew to keep him bound to the ship’s mast. Homer is fascinated with depicting his protagonist tormented by temptation: in general, Odysseus and his men want very desperately to complete their nostos, or homecoming, but this desire is constantly at odds with the other pleasures that the world offers.
Early in The Odyssey, Zeus explains his vision of justice. The gods mete out suffering fairly, he says, but some mortals suffer more as a result of their unwise or wicked actions: “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.” In some cases, The Odyssey shows its characters suffering as a result of their own actions. Polyphemus is blinded after he kills several of Odysseus’s men. Odysseus’s men die when they ignore the commands of Odysseus and the gods not to kill the Cattle of the Sun. The poem’s most dramatic comeuppance befalls the suitors, who are killed for insulting Odysseus and consuming his wealth. It’s debatable, however, whether the murder of the suitors is just. Odysseus believes one of the suitors, Amphinomus, is blameless. Odysseus even risks blowing his cover to warn Amphinomus about the danger to his life: “I say he’s right at hand—and may some power save you.” Nevertheless, “Athena had bound him fast to death,” so Amphinomous is murdered along with the rest of the suitors.
In other cases, The Odyssey shows unambiguously that the gods place their personal pride ahead of justice. The Odyssey is deeply concerned with the moral code binding hosts to treat strangers and travelers kindly. Throughout the poem, Zeus punishes anyone who violates this code. When Poseidon complains to Zeus that the Phaeacians have offended him by extending hospitality toward Odysseus, however, Zeus does nothing to protect these excellent hosts. The Phaeacians not only give their guest Odysseus shelter, they restore all his lost wealth and give him direct passage home to Ithaca. The Phaecians help Odysseus because they are good hosts, not because they have any desire to thwart Poseidon. There is no way for them to know that by doing their duty and helping a guest they are offending Poseidon. Nevertheless, Zeus endorses Poseidon’s plan to prevent the Phaecians from ever helping travelers again. Zeus says that Poseidon may “Do what you like” to punish the Phaeacians. In assuring justice to his fellow god, Zeus denies justice to the innocent Phaecians.
The Odyssey is the ultimate endorsement of nostos, or homecoming, the idea that a heroic warrior’s greatest triumph comes when he returns from war to his own home and family. Odysseus’s trials end with the offer of not one but two alternative wives, and two alternative places to live. As Calypso’s husband, Odysseus could live forever in divine luxury. As Nausicaa’s husband, Odysseus would be a prince in the richest, most untroubled country he has visited. Without hesitation he rejects both these offers. He prefers Penelope and Ithaca, not necessarily because they are better, but because they are his: “Mine is a rugged land but good for raising sons—/and I myself, I know no sweeter sight on earth than a man’s own native country.” At the same time, nostos is not an uncomplicated idea in The Odyssey. When Agamemnon returns home, he is murdered by his wife. Menelaus and Helen have an unhappy marriage which is destined to last for all eternity. Even Odysseus’s own home is troubled. Telemachus speaks harshly to Penelope and criticizes her to other people, even after Odysseus has returned and revealed his identity.
Nostos is only possible if a warrior’s home is still there when he returns, unchanged from when he left. Accordingly, what makes a home valuable in The Odyssey is not its happiness as much as its stability and continuity. Odysseus and Penelope are reunited when Odysseus is able to describe their marriage bed, which is literally unshakeable because it is (again literally) rooted in the soil of Ithaca. Nestor suggests that Agamemnon is fortunate, even though he has been murdered by his wife, because his son has avenged him. What matters is the continuance of Agamemnon’s family and reputation: “Ah how fine it is, when a man is brought down,/to leave a son behind!” Odysseus’s own homecoming is not complete until he has revealed himself to Laertes, so that Laertes can relish the continuity of his own family and reputation: “What a day for me, dear gods! What joy—/my son and my grandson vying over courage!”
Although The Odyssey begins with the Trojan Wars that separate Odysseus from Ithaca and touches on themes of warfare throughout, mental agility is as crucial as physical prowess to Odysseus’s homecoming. Athena praises Odysseus for being cunning, a trait she considers herself to have as well, and may be especially inclined to help him because she admires his mental ability. Even Odysseus’s epithet, the man “of twists and turns,” suggests a mind that works cleverly and not always in a straightforward, honest manner. Odysseus’s cunning is most clearly displayed in the episode with Polyphemus the Cyclops. Odysseus tricks Polyphemus twice. First, Odysseus tells the Cyclops his name is “Nobody,” so that the Cyclops is forced to say that “nobody” is hurting him. Second, Odysseus instructs his men to hide under the Cyclops’ sheep as they leave the cave, so that the now-blind Cyclops will only feel his sheep’s wool as they go out the cave door. Odysseus also uses cunning at the end of the poem when he disguises himself as a beggar, to discover who on Ithaca remains loyal to him after his long absence.