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Sleep and Death in Homer’s Odyssey

In the Odyssey, Homer uses the idea of sleep to represent the idea of death, which makes the struggle to remain conscious and the struggle to remain alive one in the same struggle. Odysseus is constantly fighting to remain alert, to avoid monotony. It is this metaphorical insomnia that enables Odysseus to return to his native land. However, in the end, sleep is an inevitable part of being alive, just as death is. Odysseus, being human, cannot avoid this. A way to delay if not to transcend both sleep and death though is through storytelling.

Sleep is death’s representative on earth. The most important distinction that can in fact be drawn between sleep and death is that death is a permanent state of affairs, and therefore carries with it a more negative connotation. Penelope defines sleep as “the oblivion of all/ things, both good and evil” (20:85). Such is death. Sleep has the ability to “quiet” (12:31) as does death. Furthermore, when describing how Telemechos slaughters the maids guilty of treason, Homer employs a metaphor by saying that “the sleep,” the death, “given them was hateful;/ so their heads were all in a line, and each had her neck caught/ fast in a noose, so that their death would be most pitiful” (22:469-471). Death is therefore a more “hateful” version of sleep. This idea is present again in Homer’s description of Hades, in which one must pass through “the country of dreams” in order to arrive at “the dwelling place of souls” (24:12-13).

Just as the world changes uncontrollably when one dies, so too does the world change uncontrollably when a character falls asleep. Odysseus is asleep when his fellow seamen let loose the winds and when they eat Helios’ sacred cattle. He is asleep when Alkinoor’s daughter discovers him. He is asleep when he arrives in Ithaka. Penelope sleeps through what would be her saddest and happiest moments: when her son leaves her for the unknown, and when her husband extracts his revenge from the suitors. Athene even “drifted a sweet sleep over [Penelope]…endow[ing] her with gifts immortal/ to make the Achaians admire her” (18:187-191). Thus we see what setbacks and miracles can and do take place while the character in question sleeps through them. It is this daunting fact that leads Odysseus to yell out, “Father Zeus, and you other everlasting and blessed/ gods, with a pitiless sleep, you lulled me, to my confusion” (12:371-372). It is this “confusion” that the characters awaken to, just as Ares and Aphrodite, after falling asleep together in love, awaken to find themselves trapped in the “artful bonds that had been forged by subtle Hephaistos” (10:298). Similarly, a human character is trapped in whatever situation he finds himself in when he wakes up.

Unlike Ares however, Odysseus, being human, must struggle when he wakes up to break free from the bonds of his situation. Ares’ savior Poseidon does not save Odysseus from anything, but in fact makes the seas even rougher. And so, by struggling against Poseidon’s seas and Poseidon’s son the Cyclops, Odysseus is struggling against death, the final oblivion. Therefore he is in a sense struggling against sleep, as sleep is simply death on a smaller scale. This idea of struggling against sleep, against a death of sorts, is shown again and again in Odysseus’ struggle to avoid monotony. He escapes Kalypsoe, who offers him permanent monotony. He escapes the Lotus-eaters, who would have him forget his own home. He avoids the Sirens, who would have him listening to their songs until his death, which would be redundant, as it would essentially be death to listen all day to the “honey-sweet voice” (12:183) of the Sirens. That is the nature of monotony.

Since it is Odysseus’ nature to struggle against death, it follows that he would suffer from insomnia, which is to struggle against sleep specifically. Indeed, Athene often puts Odysseus to sleep, as Odysseus tends to spend his nights “on an unpleasant/ couch… lay[ing] and wait[ing] [for] the throned Dawn in her splendor” (19:341-342). Once, Athene scolds Odysseus for his inability to sleep, saying, “There is annoyance in lying awake and on guard all night. You will soon be out of your troubles” (20:49-53). Thus Athene implies that one must, in the end, accept sleep. (Athene however never scolds Telemechos for his newfound insomnia, as Telemechos is learning to be an adult, and therefore must learn to be an “insomniac” first.)

Just as Odysseus must accept the sleep Athene forces on him, a human being must in the end accept death. Just as Penelope says that “it is in no way possible for people forever/ to go without sleep” because the immortals have given each man “his own due share all over the grain-giving corn land” (19:589-593), so too have the immortals given every mortal his own due share of death. If the struggle against death is what defines Odysseus what defines us as human beings then finally dying must be equally important in our definition of ourselves. And just as sleep makes the evil “endurable, when one cries through the days, with the heart constantly troubled,” so too must death make life endurable, in so far as we know that there will finally come “an oblivion of all things” (20:83-86).

Homer often suggests that the way to avoid the inevitable sleep is story-telling. Storytelling makes the night “endless” and enables Alkinoos to “hold out till bright dawn” (11:372-375). Eumaios insists on hearing Odysseus’ story because he believes that “Too much sleep is only/ a bore” (15:392-395). Thus stories are a way of transcending the natural need to sleep. Stories must also be a way, therefore, of transcending death. The very existence of The Odyssey proves that. Odysseus’ story has long outlasted Odysseus. Both Homer and his main character show the ability of story-telling to overcome sleep, of art to overcome death.

Homer enables the reader to better understand Odysseus’ struggle for life against the forces of death by depicting Odysseus’ struggle to be awake, both literally and figuratively, against the forces of sleep or monotony. But, in the end, a man must accept his fate, or he must tell stories.

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