The theme of The Odyssey is one of homecoming and reunion with loved ones. Though the proem of the epic states that Odysseus own purpose is simply the fight to save his own life and return his shipmates home safely, the gods of Olympus are the unknown captains of this journey. It is an epic story of the making of men, mainly Odysseus and Telemakhos. Homer methodically details the struggles set forth by the gods. The contests of Odysseus wisdom, honor, piety and prudence. These tests of will prove Odysseus master mariner and soldier, truly virtuous and capable.
He becomes not only the last hope of those still true and loyal, but he is the only one who can discern the proper course of action in the re-ordering of his house and his household. In the opening of the epic, the gods, at home upon great Olympus, sit in conversation reflecting upon the pride of men. One example being Agisthos, who is run amuck with greed and pride. Zeus remark that Greed and folly will double suffering in the lot of man… is indeed the standard by which men are judged to be the Shepherd or the wolf.
It is greed and folly, which are the marks of impious men, men who engage in improper feasting. Worse still are those who give into temptation after long suffering, for it denies them the knowledge of the good; namely virtue. Of improper feasting there are numerous examples, from the gluttonous behavior of the suitors and the cannibalism of the Kyklops, to Odysseus own shipmates who kill and feast on the cattle of Lord Helios, the Sun. As illustrated by the text, improper feasting is a sin against the order of Zeus and thus the order of men.
Telemakhos recognizes the wrong done against him and his household. The youth of Telemakhos prevents him from doing more than sitting by in mute fury, but it is the visitation of Athena that unlocks his silent disgust. He reveals to the goddess that the feast of the suitors is plunder, and their acts rapine. He tells Menthos (Athena in disguise) that the suitors lives are easy and scot-free. At the assembly, Telemakhos remarks are quick and to the point. My home and all I have are being ruined… like a pack they came… ese men [that] spend their days around our house killing our beeves and sheep and fatted goats, carousing, soaking up our good dark wine, not caring what they do.
They squandered everything. In response to this, Antinoos gives a brash reply, claiming that it is Telemakhos that judges them wrongly. He mislays the blame upon Penelope, who has contrived all these years to deceive the suitors and avoid a match. Antinoos betrays his own impious nature when he says that Penelopes deception at the loom was a plan some god put into her mind.
He does not recognize the weight of his own admission. If a god was the author of that scheme, would it not be the obligation of any sensible man to leave off his courtship? Eurymakos too scorns the god when he insults the auger. This is a sign of overweening pride and impiety. It is hubris. Polyphemos, son of the great earth-shaker, Poseidon, embodies supreme horror. He is hubris personified and his actions are indisputably grotesque, blasphemous, and extreme. He is described as a caveman, primitive and barbarous, unaccustomed to the polite ways of the world of men.
According to Zeus laws of hospitality, it is an egregious error to turn strangers from your feast, and worse still is it to murder a guest, but to eat a guest or six is a trespass without parallel. Thus, cannibalism is one of the greatest acts of atrocious impiety; not only is it contrary to Zeus holy laws, but it is against the natural order. For truly if the house of Atreus was ever cursed by the gods for Tantalus insidious act of deceit, so much greater the offense of the Kyklopes. Son of Poseidon flaunts a smite-me sign.
Further, he scoffs at the gods in bliss, particularly Zeus, Lord of Olympus: We Kyklopes care not a whistle for your thundering Zeus or all the gods in bliss; we have more force by far. It is significant that this ruthless, brutish creature defies the gods of Olympus, though his own Aquarian father, Poseidon, admits in The Iliad that not for all the strength of the gods could Zeus be overthrown. The anagogical meaning of this is of course is that the Will of Zeus will ultimately prevail. Other images of improper feasting are Polyphemos drunkenness, which enables Nohbdy, Odysseus, to blind him, and the profusion of dung in the cave.
Dung is a sign of disorder and neglect. Recall the image of Argos, Odysseus ever loyal puppy, now attenuated with age and neglect. Before the gates of the formerly great house of Odysseus lies once treasured Argos upon a hill of manure, half-destroyed with flies, and treated as rubbish. The resplendent home of Menelaos presents a counter image to Polyphemos rank cave. Even Telemakhos remarks that his hall must be more beautiful than the gods. King Menelaos is the embodiment of the just and gracious host (the complete antithesis of the Kyklopes), for he scolds Eteoneus for his lack of hospitality.
Another example of a good host is that of Nausikaa, daughter of Prince Alkinoos. She too gives a reprieve to her maids for fleeing the stranger, Odysseus, and says, this man is a castaway… we must take care of him. Strangers and beggars come from Zeus. It is the case of every well ruled society that Zeus laws are abided by, but in the absence their king the people become unruly like children and are guided by an underdeveloped sense of justice to their own imminent destruction, as are the suitors of Penelope and the shipmates of Odysseus.
Greed and folly, the all-consuming qualities of disordered souls, entangle men in sorrow, leaving them forever unsatiated on a sea of inordinate desire. Such is the case of the avaricious sailors and the plight of unfortunate Odysseus who is stuck with them. It must be noted that the covetousness of Odysseus shipmates buffets the poor exiled king further from home; a journey nearly at its end prolonged seven years more by the King Aiolos bag of winds and the sailors excessive greed. In another instance, Odysseus heeds the bitter cries of Eurylokhos to land upon Thrinakia, the island of the Sun.
In the same manner, King Saul heeds the threats of the people and sacrifices without Samuel. Like Moses before his accession Sinais summit, Odysseus warns his crew, Fierce the god is who cherishes these heifers and these sheep: Helios; and no man avoids his eye. And like the stiff-necked children of Israel who did prefer to bend their knees to the golden calf fashioned by Aaron than reverence their covenant with God, the sailors too disobey their captain in his absence and slaughter Helios sacred flock. The fame of Odysseus is that of perseverance and hard-wrought, high priced victory.
The man of woe struggles for the sake of his shipmates, for his crew he strives homeward, but for all this, his travail is fruitless as he describes the death of his precious friends: No more seafaring homeward for these, no sweet day of return; the god had turned his face from them. Their just reward for their pernicious persistence is death. Two themes consistant with The Odyssey are comic delay and engulfment. Many examples of comic delay exist within Odysseus long, suffering journey homeward. Time proves all things. It is this time, this delay, that makes it possible for Telemakhos to overcome the shyness and uncertainty of his age.
Penelope delays a marriage with the suitors with her weaving; and Athena delays the waking of Dawn in order that Odysseus has his fill of plesure and sleep. Odysseus nine years of exile are fraught with many trials and struggles that only deepened his hunger for home and wife. The majority of his adversity can be characterized as an avoidance of engulfment. As in all Homeric literature, the purchase of engulfment is anonymity or an obscure death in exile. To be swallowed by the sea or the Kyklopes or to be caught in the gullet of one of great Skyllas nightmarish heads, these are the horrors that poor Odysseus faces.
Another image of engulfment is the island and the goddess, Kalypso. Though is probably the only pleasant variation of this image, Kalypsos name means engulfment. Kalypso herself describes Odysseus time on her island as consumption: O forlorn man, be still. Here you need grieve no more; you need not feel your life consumed here. The most significant image of engulfment in The Odyssey is that of the realm of Persephone and her Lord, Hades. Odysseus himself ironically enough often inspires his crew with courage and fortitude by saying, Come friends, though hard beset, well not go down into the House of Death before our time.
The Lord of Ithaka thought himself to mean that they would not go down into the House of Death until they themselves were dead, but Odysseus time comes quite sometime before his own death. Hades is the only consummate image of the engulfment, for Odysseus emerges a man reborn, and called twice mortal by Kirke. The Odysseus of old and his deep heart at sea are forever forgotten and exiled by Odysseus the King. His commission to visit the land of the dead comes from the subtle goddess Kirke. She is the first to address the great captain with his true (and well earned) epithet, son of Laertes and the gods of old, master mariner and soldier.
She commands Odysseus to seek out the blind prophet, Teiresias, so that he might discover his new purpose. Thus begins his transformation, but in order to fulfill his destiny as the true king of Ithaka he must go down into that gentle night, realm of bitter Persephone. Teiresias warns Odysseus of the things yet to be endured, as he alludes to Skylla and Kharybdis. In his infinite wisdom, the dead seer, tells the man of woe that he must deny himself, in order to survive the wrath of Poseidon. Great captain, a fair wind and the honey lights of home are all you seek. But anguish lies ahead.
In this way, Teiresias prepares Odysseus for new trials and the sufferings of his household. He tells him that he will survive alone, bereft of his companions, to find his home filled with insolent men, courting his wife, slaughtering his cattle, and drinking his good, dark wine. Furthermore, Teiresias charges the master mariner to go overland on foot with an oar, to seek men who know nothing of the sea and to plant said oar into the ground and make a fair sacrifice to Polyphemus father and avenger, Poseidon. This is important for several reasons. First and foremost, to appease the wrath of Poseidon and to increase the reverence of the god.
Secondly, Odysseus must formally give up his sea-ways in order to achieve peaceful death. Other noteworthy shades relative to Odysseus are his mother, Antikleia, who asks of her son have you not gone at all to Ithaka? ; his dead shipmate, Elpenor, who, having fallen off the roof of the palace of Kirke, asks Odysseus for proper burial upon his return to the world of light; Agamemnon, angered at his murder and forever bitter at his wife, Klytaimnestra; and miserable Akhilleus. Through the testimony of Agamemnon and Antikleia, Odysseus learns of his cattish wife, Penelopes own unendurable trials and loyalty and undying love.
In regards to Penelope there is much to write. Penelope, Odysseus ever-faithful queen, must tirelessly endure the roguish suitors until the time her husband returns home. Unlike Klytaimnestra, Penelope awaits her lord in grief, rather than revenge. Though her suffering is long and arduous and the torment of the suitors intolerable, wily Penelope, rather than acquiesce and take another husband (as does Agamemnons traitorous wife), devises against the brutes. She tells them that she must weave a death shroud for Lord Laertes before she marries, and the suitors being men and not entirely possessed by ignominy, give in.
They had to give in to so pious a purpose. So Penelope weaves and unweaves as the years pass, weaving and unweaving the death of old Laertes. Weaving is an image that is generally associated with dubious intentions. Such are the cases of Kalypso, who seemingly weaves a net to ensnare Odysseus for all time, and Kirke, whos weaving is a matter of guile ([l]ow she sang in her beguiling voice, while on her loom she wove ambrosial fabric sheer and bright, by the craft known to the goddesses of heaven ). Also, Odysseus asks Athena to weave him a way to repay the suitors disloyalty. Penelope is the embodiment of forbearance.
She is also the perfect companion for Odysseus. Just as Odysseus must, Penelope survives the long years by her wisdom and wits. Her final stroke of genius is the test of the bow (though later she tests Odysseus to discover if he is her true lord). Telemakhos own journey is equally significant to the trials of his mother and father. Athena personally takes up the oar of responsibility for Royal Odysseus only son in his absence. His mother beset by grief and crazed suitors, his father lost at sea, Telemakhos has no one to teach him the value of virtue, particularly: prudence, piety, and patience. This is the value of the feminine role model.
The grey-eyed goddess intent for Telemakhos journey was that he earn respect for his filial devotion to his father and to observe the condition of house better ordered than his. The last topics of import are those of the faithful and unfaithful servants, and the re-ordering of Odysseus house and household. The swineherder, Eumaios, is the best example present in the work of the true and faithful servant. Eumaios provides us with a basis with which to judge all other servants and subjects, as he is not only dutifully awaiting the return of his master, but also continuing in his charge of the swine of his master.
Eumaios selflessly and humbly serves his master both in his absence and after his return, bearing the taunts and slieghts of the suitors and weak-hearted servants. It is Eumaios who offers the hospitality of the House of Laertes to Odysseus, as is required by the law of Zeus, before the identity of the beggar had been revealed to him. Melanthios, the goatherder, on the other hand, provides perhaps the most striking image of the ill-intentioned, small-minded servant. At his first encounter with the beggar that is his lord, for instance, Melanthios is violent and beligerent.
He even goes so far as to later kick this down-trodden king, a clear and vicious offence against Zeus and his law of hospitality. It is Melanthios who is drunk upon the stolen wine of his master, while Eumaios offers it graciously to his master in disguise. Melanthios inordinate pride in his wealth causes him to strive above his station, just as Eumaios humility allows him to seek and fulfill his telos as the good and faithful servant, forever dear to the hearts of both Zeus and his grateful master, Odysseus.
Eumaios pride is in his master and his masters family, while Melanthios pride is hubris and based in his own possesions. Ironically though Melanthios has the gift of blind intuition (a gift without understanding or insight, in this case), when he says, [h]ere comes one scurvy type leading another! God pairs them off together every time. Melanthios, of course, is followed by a herd of goats. In the end, all is set aright, for it is Eumaios who lives on to serve his master while Melanthios and all his attempts to win the favor of the suitors are laid to waste, slain in the righteous wrath of his master.
The re-ordering of Odysseus house and household can be likened to the Christian notion of Gods Judgement. Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great! It is become a dwelling place of demons, A haunt of every foul spirit, A haunt of every foul and hateful bird; for all nations have drunk the wine of her impure passion, and the kings of earth have commited fornication with her, and the merchants of the earth have grown rich with the wealth of her wantoness. One could re-write this passage to say (this could be playing with fire, literally! ): Fallen, fallen are the sons of great Ithaka!
The House of Odysseus is become a dwelling place for impious men, A haunt of every foul spirit, A haunt of every foul and hateful wolf; for the suitors have drunk the wine of their own impure passion, and the kings of earth have squandered the virtue of maids, and the merchants of the earth have grown fat on the stores of others. Odysseus rewards each individual for their service. This includes the suitors, whose reward is obscure and violent death. He spares the life of the poet and minstrel because of their divine gifts of posy and song.
On the other hand, he kills the diviner for his lying augery and evil intentions. After he punishes all that deserve punishing, he cleanses the great hall with fire and brimstone. Thus, Odysseus returns hearth and home to its proper order and is united with his true family. Odysseus himself achieves the fullness of his idenity (Royal Odysseus, master mariner and soldier, master of landways and seaways, great captain, Laertiades) with all the grandeur due to a man so long suffering and honorable.
And in this way he sets out overland to the place where no one knows his name, nor the vast expanse of the sea; a place where seaways and oars are utterly unknown and it is here he will plant his oar and make fair hecatombs to Poseidon of the waters, when asked, What winnowing fan is that upon your shoulder? Once accomplished Odysseus will go on into rich old age, and surrounded by his country folks, a seaborne death soft as mist will take him down into the House of Death, Persephones gentle realm of eternal night.