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The Odyssey | Discussion Questions 1 - 10

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How does Homer convey the idea of continuity between generations in The Odyssey?

Homer conveys the idea of continuity between generations primarily through the mirrored depictions of Odysseus and Telemachus. The two are similar in several ways, showing how certain qualities recur across generations in families. Though they haven't seen each other in 20 years, both are clever and brave. They both also undertake journeys that are not only physical but emotional and psychological as well. Odysseus's journey takes him from the life of a noble warrior who prizes glory above all else to that of a man who yearns to be reunited with his family. Telemachus begins his journey as a naive and uncertain boy but becomes a man who takes responsibility and can command. Also of note is Athena's guidance and protection of both men, which suggests continuity through allegiance to a particular deity. Continuity across generations is also shown in Odysseus's visit to Laertes in the last book. His father hasn't been eating or drinking since Telemachus left and has been sitting, mourning the apparent loss of his son, Odysseus. Odysseus weeps when he sees Laertes's condition. After he tests his father's loyalty, satisfying himself on that point, and proves his own identity, satisfying his father, they enjoy a feast. Laertes is restored to health and dignity by Athena. The whole episode shows the importance of devotion to elders. That Telemachus works on providing the food and preparing the feast underscores the generational message.

How do both gods and mortals handle justice in The Odyssey?

The gods of The Odyssey seem at times to administer justice in an arbitrary way. Though certain types of conduct seem very important to them—hospitality, for example—their decisions to punish or reward mortals based on single actions often seem to be dictated by an individual god's whim rather than on any fixed rules. For example, Poseidon goes to great lengths to thwart Odysseus's return home as punishment for blinding Polyphemus—until the god winds up, inexplicably, helping Odysseus make it ashore. It's difficult to know what might provoke a god or who might be in their favor on any given day. Because they are gods, however, they are beyond the judgment of mortals. The mortal characters in The Odyssey seem to try to live according to their understanding of the codes ordained by the gods—and many of their actions are meant to appease the gods. Indeed, the humans seem to be always trying to anticipate the gods' desires as they consider what to do in a situation. Often the first thing a character utters after witnessing something he or she considers unjust is along the lines of "this will certainly displease the gods." Mortals apply justice without mercy, and they judge in black-and-white terms. Someone who is hospitable is good and is repaid with compliments and honor. Someone inhospitable is bad and is punished. Similarly, those who abuse hospitality—who take advantage of the society's codes of behavior—are bad. Hence, all the suitors must die.

In The Odyssey why is it so important to Elpenor that he be properly buried? Why does Odysseus delay his journey in order to return to Circe's island?

Loyalty and honor were two important virtues to the ancient Greeks, and to honor the dead meant to administer proper burial rites. Elpenor can't find peace in the afterlife until he is properly buried. For Odysseus loyalty and honor are important to both his reputation and his sense of self. He feels he owes his men the same loyalty they give him, and in some ways he feels responsible for Elpenor's death. For these reasons he delays his return home to go back to Circe's island to fulfill this responsibility. Doing so is more important to him than returning home at this point. It can be argued that he is rewarded for this action, for Circe advises him how to evade the peril of the Sirens during his second visit to her island.

Which events cause the most change in Telemachus over the course of The Odyssey?

Over the course of The Odyssey, Telemachus changes from a shy, uncertain boy to a man with as commanding a presence as that of his father, Odysseus, though his growth seems more developmental over time rather than the result of one or two significant experiences. The epic opens with Telemachus unsure of how to handle the suitors who have besieged his home. He has allowed the suitors to wreck Odysseus's home and torment his mother, showing that he lacks manly dignity and strength, which is not surprising considering he has been raised without a father. Under the guidance of Athena, he slowly begins to take charge of his and his mother's future, first by sailing off to discover the whereabouts of Odysseus. Hearing the tales of Odysseus from the Trojan War, he learns about his father's accomplishments, which provides him with an example to follow. During his travels he learns about how others offer sacrifices to the gods and what kinds of gifts are provided to guests. After learning these lessons, he returns with news that his father is alive and with renewed desire for vengeance on the suitors. He escapes the suitors' trap with the aid of Athena and through his own cunning—demonstrating that he is his father's son. By the end of the story, when he and Odysseus are reunited, it is almost difficult to distinguish between the two of them. He takes as much responsibility for planning revenge on the suitors as his father does, an action that proves he is far more capable and confident than at the story's outset.

Why is an eagle used as the omen of good news for Odysseus in The Odyssey?

The vision of an eagle appears several times in The Odyssey. In each case it is interpreted as an omen that means good things for Odysseus and his family. The eagle is a symbol of royalty and fierceness in fighting. It is suitable as a symbol for Odysseus because he is a king, and he is renowned for his fighting ability and willingness to persevere until he gains victory. The eagle omen predicts Odysseus's eventual victory over the suitors. As Halitherses says in Book 2, "a great disaster is rolling like a breaker" toward the suitors' heads, and that looming disaster is Odysseus about to wreak his revenge. The appearance of two eagles in this case may allude to the fact that Telemachus joins his father in punishing the suitors.

What role does Athena play in The Odyssey?

Athena plays the role of protector and advisor throughout The Odyssey, not only to Odysseus but also to Telemachus. Although she seems to orchestrate a great deal of the action of the book, she rarely intervenes directly to change the course of events. Instead, she advises Odysseus while appearing in human form or leads him to a certain place where he will encounter someone who can help him. She acts similarly with Telemachus, appearing in several different guises at timely points. Her initial appearance to him spurs Telemachus to action, just as her appearance as Mentor in Book 22, during the battle against the suitors, revives Odysseus's resolve to triumph. Her role is invaluable and indicates the divine blessing that Odysseus and his family enjoy. As Nestor tells Telemachus in Book 2, when Athena changes from Mentor into the form of an eagle, "never fear you'll be a coward or defenseless" as long as Athena is providing protection.

Why is providing hospitality so important in The Odyssey?

The Greeks held hospitality to be one of the highest mortal virtues. The Odyssey shows that it ran through the cultural fabric everywhere, from palaces to swineherds' cottages. Perhaps the most important example of hospitality in The Odyssey is the 10 years of hospitality that Penelope shows the suitors, much to her discomfort and unease. The fact that she provides them food, drink, and a place to stay for so long a time and at such great personal cost shows how centrally important this value was to the Greeks. Odysseus receives wonderful hospitality from several kings and queens, who supply him with ships, treasures, and directions home. But perhaps the most moving instance of hospitality comes when Odysseus, disguised as a beggar, seeks out his old swineherd Eumaeus. Eumaeus doesn't recognize his former master but welcomes him into his home nonetheless and provides him with food, shelter, and clothing. Even a humble swineherd understands that hospitality is an important value.

In what ways does Odysseus display the typical qualities of a hero in The Odyssey?

Odysseus displays many typical qualities of a hero, according to ancient Greek standards. He is courageous and a natural leader. He is charismatic and clever, using his wits when he cannot rely on his strength. Even his journey is typical of a hero's quest—he overcomes obstacles, seeks helpers, and faces tests. Yet Homer portrays Odysseus as a more complex character rather than a one-dimensional hero. He is easily swayed by temptation, and he sometimes lets his arrogance or pride get in the way of making good decisions. Odysseus doesn't always have control of his men, who disobey him to disastrous effect on at least two occasions. He can be lazy and make mistakes.

What evidence in The Odyssey supports the idea that Telemachus is its central figure?

While The Odyssey focuses on the journey of Odysseus, marking him as the protagonist, Telemachus is also very important to the narrative. His story launches the epic, and he arguably changes the most, growing from an unformed youth to an adult man capable of assisting his father in the great task of avenging the harm and humiliation caused by the suitors. In many ways his is a typical coming-of-age tale. He learns a great deal about himself and has a pivotal role in the climax of the book. His presence at the reconciliation feast of Odysseus and Laertes at the end of the epic underscores the sense of resolution created by that scene, for he represents the future of the royal house of Ithaca, as his father and grandfather represent the present and the past.

What can be inferred about ancient Greek culture from the treatment of women in The Odyssey?

The Odyssey has many examples of men and women being treated differently, indicating that there were clear differences in roles, expectations, and social position for men and women in ancient Greece. These differences extend even to the gods. Although Athena is shown great deference throughout, gods and goddesses are viewed differently. As Calypso points out in Book 5, Olympus has a significant double standard. Gods prefer that goddesses shun relationships with mortal men, but the gods themselves are often involved with mortal women. The story of Penelope points out other differences. Penelope has the power to delay a wedding to one of the suitors—something she does with remarkable success for two decades. She cannot resolve the problem of the suitors, however, without her son taking action or her husband returning home. She is trapped by the expectation that she will remarry given that Odysseus is presumed dead. Mortal women are treated as their husbands' property, while mortal men such as Odysseus are not punished for their infidelities. On the other hand, Penelope does demonstrate that women in ancient Greece could exert power in some way.

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