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The Odyssey | Study Guide


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The Odyssey | Discussion Questions 11 - 20


Based on evidence from The Odyssey, what purpose did the gods serve in the lives of mortals in ancient Greek culture?

In the world of The Odyssey, the gods' purpose seems to be that they should be obeyed and honored; they also may provide guidance or evidence of their favor, which can bestow prestige on a mortal. The importance of obeying and honoring the gods is evident in the role of sacrifice. Menelaus makes a poor sacrifice and is punished on his return from Troy by having his ships stopped. Nestor makes a generous sacrifice, demonstrating for Telemachus the importance of that devotion. Odysseus has to make a sacrifice after his return home to appease Poseidon and finally achieve peace. Disobeying the gods can also result from harming their favorites or associates, as Odysseus learns when he blinds Polyphemus and earns Poseidon's ill will. Mortals appeal to the gods for guidance and help. In Book 21 the loyal cowherd Philoetius asks that "some god guide" Odysseus back home so he can put an end to the suitors. The gods can also play favorites—as shown clearly and often by Athena's protection of Odysseus and Telemachus. That attention, when noted by other mortals, wins respect for the mortal the gods help. In Book 3 Nestor tells Telemachus how favored his father was by Athena, suggesting that Odysseus thereby gained added luster. In Book 2 Athena "lavishe[s] a marvelous splendor" on Telemachus, resulting in "the elders making way [for him] as he took his father's seat." These attentions enhance the stature of the king and prince. Gods play both direct and indirect roles in the lives of mortals, but mortals need to always be aware of paying them proper honor and respect, or they may suffer the consequences.

What do readers learn about Odysseus when he faces the Sirens in The Odyssey?

Odysseus encounters temptation when he is forced to sail past the Sirens, who sing a bewitching song that lures sailors to their deaths. Even though he was advised by Circe to stuff his ears full of beeswax, temptation and his curiosity get the better of him (which Circe also predicted). He instructs his men to stuff their ears in this way but leaves his own ears uncovered. Odysseus does not trust himself completely, though, and orders his men to lash him to the mast of the ship to prevent him from plunging to his death. The episode shows that Odysseus has a curious nature—he wants to hear the Sirens' song to know what it's like, but he is also cautious and clever. The stratagem of having himself tied to the mast saves him. True, he suffers greatly and is almost driven mad, but he does survive the episode.

What are the characteristics of Penelope in The Odyssey?

Penelope is a loyal wife, admirable for her devotion to her husband despite his being absent for two decades and the strong likelihood that he is dead. She is virtuous as well—a woman might well be tempted to choose a mate from the many suitors who fill her house. But she remains true to her marriage. One can imagine that Greek males who traveled often for trade or warfare would highly value such loyalty and virtue in a spouse. In addition, she is wily, using her wits to outsmart the annoying suitors. In this quality she proves herself a worthy match for her husband.

How do prophets play the role of conduits to the gods in The Odyssey?

For Homer's audience, the function of a prophet was twofold. The first function was to reassure the audience that all is not lost at even the most dire moments, because the gods have determined the outcome already. The second function was to remind the audience that they were at the mercy of fate but that it was their task to wait while their fate was revealed. The first instance of a prophet is Halitherses, who reads the omen of the two eagles flying over the assembled suitors. His interpretation of this omen proves accurate, though it is not until almost the end of the epic that the prophecy becomes true. Tiresias plays another important prophetic role in the Land of the Dead. He tells Odysseus that he can make it home alive but that he will face much peril and heartache along the way due to his conflict with Poseidon. He also reveals to Odysseus what is happening to his family back home in Ithaca. In this case the prophet does not reveal the character's fate but gives useful information.

Based on the stories Odysseus recounts to King Alcinous in The Odyssey, is Odysseus a good leader?

Odysseus clearly commands the respect of his men, who seem to admire his cleverness and cunning. He is able to take definitive actions and to help his men when they are lost or unfocused. Yet there are times when his men revolt against him, usually because they are tempted by something (lotus plants, the wind pouch, the sacred cattle). He is sometimes too arrogant about his own capabilities and thus puts himself and his men in dangerous situations, which he then must get them out of. Odysseus doesn't always seem to be able to anticipate such problems, and it costs him dearly—in fact, it eventually costs him all of his men.

Compare the impact of Athena, Poseidon, and Zeus on the action of The Odyssey.

Athena, Poseidon, and Zeus all have a significant impact on the course of the action in The Odyssey, indicating the power that the gods have to shape mortals' lives. While Athena and Poseidon respectively help and delay Odysseus's journey home and involve themselves in his story more often than does Zeus, Zeus has the most power and effectively determines the outcome for Odysseus. When Zeus does not interfere with either Athena or Poseidon, their actions determine what befalls Odysseus. When their desires clash directly, though, and Zeus intervenes, his decision determines what will occur, and there is no appeal beyond his decision. When he supports Athena, Odysseus moves closer to home. When he chooses Poseidon's side, things go badly for Odysseus. Of the other two gods, Poseidon may be more powerful, at least insofar as he feels free to act overtly to exert his will. Athena mentions on occasion that she is frightened of incurring the wrath of Poseidon, which is why she takes a more indirect approach to helping Odysseus. In some respects, though, she has more impact on Odysseus's life, in part because she is more devoted to his cause than Poseidon apparently is to punishing him. Athena intervenes often; Poseidon seems only to take notice of Odysseus once in a while.

In The Odyssey what does Penelope's strategy for holding off the suitors reveal about her?

Penelope, desperate to put off her suitors while she waits for Odysseus to return, extends the delay by claiming that she will choose a husband when she finishes weaving a death shroud for her father-in-law, Laertes. What the suitors don't know is that each night Penelope deliberately undoes the previous day's weaving. This means, of course, that she will never finish the shroud and, therefore, never need to choose a husband. This deception reveals a level of cunning that rivals her husband's, because by fooling the suitors she buys some time for Odysseus to return and rescue her. Penelope's willingness to resist the suitors also shows her loyalty to and love for Odysseus and her belief that he is still alive and will indeed return.

In The Odyssey what would happen if Athena did not disguise herself?

At certain points in the story, Athena shows that she does not want to incur the wrath of Poseidon, who is angry at Odysseus for blinding his son. It's unclear whether gods can punish other gods, but they do seem to try to avoid discord among themselves. Were she to reveal herself more openly, Poseidon might take a much more active role in opposing Odysseus than he does and might try to persuade Zeus to tell her to stop assisting the mortal. Her disguises, then, protect Odysseus to a degree. Athena's use of disguise also allows her to help Odysseus and Telemachus more directly. By taking the role of Mentor, for instance, she can give Telemachus direct advice and react to his responses. If she were simply to send omens or messengers, they might be misinterpreted. Finally, her disguises help them gain the respect of other mortals, as they appear more masterful and in control of their lives if they are perceived as acting on their own rather than following a god's chosen path.

Why does Athena choose to champion Odysseus in The Odyssey?

Odysseus shares many characteristics with the goddess Athena, which probably explains why she favors him so strongly and assists him so often. Like Athena, the goddess of war, Odysseus is a great warrior. Like her, the goddess of wisdom, he is cunning, crafty, and skilled as a strategist. He demonstrates his cunning several times in the adventure, including his clever answer to the problem of Polyphemus, his shrewd solution to the conflict between his desire to hear the Sirens and his need to escape their danger, and his plan for eliminating the suitors. Like her, he is skilled in crafts; he is able to build himself a boat that will carry him from Calypso's island. Finally, like the goddess, he is bold and fearless, as these actions and others demonstrate.

How do the episodes featuring Polyphemus and Odysseus's return to Ithaca show the hero's cunning in The Odyssey?

In the first instance, Odysseus cleverly realizes that the solution to the problem of Polyphemus is to blind him. He fashions a stake and then gets Polyphemus drunk so that he and his men can attack. When Polyphemus asks Odysseus his name, Odysseus replies that his name is "Nobody." Later, when Odysseus and his men attack Polyphemus and the Cyclops cries out in pain, neighbors hear the noises and call to Polyphemus, asking who is harming him. When Polyphemus replies that "Nobody" is harming him, they ignore him. By means of this trick, Odysseus and his men can escape. A second example of Odysseus's cunning is when Odysseus practices restraint while disguised as a beggar after his return to Ithaca. Goaded by the suitors into fighting another beggar, Odysseus takes care not to harm him so that he doesn't raise the suspicion of the suitors. The restraint Odysseus demonstrates in these scenes show that his cunning nearly always benefits him in the long run.

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