Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
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 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.