Essay Preview: The Odyssey
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Ten years after the fall of Troy, the victorious Greek hero Odysseus has still not returned to his native Ithaka. A band of rowdy suitors, believing Odysseus to be dead, has overrun his palace, courting his faithful‹though weakening‹wife, Penelope, and going through his stock of food. With permission from Zeus, the goddess Athena, Odysseus greatest immortal ally, appears in disguise and urges Odysseus son Telemakhos to seek news of his father at Pylos and Sparta. However, the suitors, led by Antinoos, plan to ambush him upon his return.
Odysseus most prominent characteristic is his cunning; Homers Greek audience generally admired the trait but occasionally disdained it for its dishonest connotations. Odysseus skill at improvising false stories or devising plans is nearly incomparable in Western literature. His Trojan horse scheme (recounted here and written about in The Iliad) and his multiple tricks against Polyphemos are shining examples of his ingenuity, especially when getting out of jams.
Both examples indirectly relate to another dominant pattern in The Odyssey: disguise. (The soldiers “disguise” themselves in the body of the Trojan horse, while Odysseus and his men “disguise” themselves as rams to escape from Polyphemos.) Odysseus spends the last third of the poem disguised as a beggar, both to escape from harm until he can overthrow the suitors and to test others for loyalty. In addition, Athena appears frequently throughout the poem, often as the character Mentor, to provide aid to Odysseus or Telemakhos.
Though he is usually a smart, decisive leader, Odysseus is prone to errors, and his deepest flaw is falling prey to temptation. His biggest mistakes come in the episode with Polyphemos as he first foolishly investigates the Kyklops lair (and ends up getting trapped there), and then cannot resist shouting his name to Polyphemos after escaping (thus incurring Poseidons wrath). If Odysseus character changes over the course of The Odyssey, though, it pivots around temptation. After his errors with Polyphemos, Odysseus has his crew tie him up so he can hear‹but not follow‹the dangerously seductive song of the Seirenes. Disguised as a beggar in Ithaka, he is even more active in resisting temptation, allowing the suitors to abuse him as he bides his time. Temptation hurts his crew, as well, in their encounters with Kirke, the bag of winds from Aiolos, and the oxen of Helios.
As Telemakhos tracks Odysseus trail through stories from his old comrades-in-arms, Athena arranges for the release of Odysseus from the island of the beautiful goddess Kalypso, whose prisoner and lover he has been for the last eight years. Odysseus sets sail on a makeshift raft, but the sea god Poseidon, whose wrath Odysseus incurred earlier in his adventures by blinding Poseidons son, the Kyklops Polyphemos, conjures up a storm. With Athenas help, Odysseus reaches the Phaiakians. Their princess, Nausikaa, who has a crush on the handsome warrior, opens the palace to the stranger. Odysseus withholds his identity for as long as he can until finally, at the Phaiakians request, he tells the story of his adventures.
Odysseus relates how, following the Trojan War, his men suffered more losses at the hands of the Kikones, then were nearly tempted to stay on the island of the drug-addled Lotos Eaters. Next, the Kyklops Polyphemos devoured many of Odysseus men before an ingenious plan of Odysseus allowed the rest to escape‹but not before Odysseus revealed his name to Polyphemos and thus started his personal war with Poseidon. The wind god Ailos then provided Odysseus with a bag of winds to aid his return home, but the crew greedily opened the bag and sent the ship to the land of the giant, man-eating Laistrygonians, where they again barely escaped.
On their next stop, the goddess Kirke tricked Odysseus men and turned them into pigs. With the help of the god Hermes, Odysseus defied her spell and metamorphosed the pigs back into men. They stayed on her island for a year in the lap of luxury, with Odysseus