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The Odyssey | Study Guide


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The Odyssey | Discussion Questions 21 - 30


In The Odyssey what does Odysseus mean when he says the Cyclopes are a "lawless" race?

Odysseus considers the Cyclopes to be a "lawless" race because they have no government, no customs, no culture, and, most importantly, no hospitality. Odysseus approaches the cave of Polyphemus anticipating that he will offer his visitors shelter and food, customary treatment that nearly everyone in ancient Greece would have expected. Instead, Polyphemus traps Odysseus and his men and begins devouring them. This behavior stands in marked contrast to the other hosts Odysseus encounters, such as the Phaeacians, who offer him a ship and provisions at the conclusion of his visit with them. In a society of wayfarers like the Greeks, the lack of hospitality provided by Polyphemus would have been threatening to what seemed the natural order of the world.

In The Odyssey why does Odysseus conceal his identity when he returns to Ithaca?

Odysseus conceals his identity when he returns to Ithaca for several reasons. He adopts a disguise under the guidance of Athena, who has been advising him on how to best take revenge upon the suitors. Odysseus also seems to know that by practicing patience his success in defeating the suitors will be more likely. Furthermore, he hasn't been home in 20 years, and so it's difficult for him to know how his friends and family might react to seeing him. The first person he sees is Eumaeus, whom Odysseus has always considered a loyal friend. Yet Odysseus tests Eumaeus's loyalty to make sure that their relationship has not changed. This concealment and testing again shows Odysseus as a cunning and shrewd character who is able to see the bigger picture and bide his time. When his old nurse, Eurycleia, recognizes him and offers to tell which servants have not been loyal, Odysseus tells her not to speak further; he will make his own judgment after observing them all. In this Odysseus shows himself to be patient, cautious, and supremely confident in his own judgment.

In what way do mortals in The Odyssey both fulfill the fates dictated by the gods and act with some freedom?

The gods seem to set up destiny in a way that, while the larger outcome has been predetermined, the smaller actions and choices needed to achieve that outcome are up to individual mortals. If mortals knew that every second of their lives and choices was predetermined, they would have no sense of responsibility for their actions, and that sense of responsibility is vital to the worldview of the epic. Indeed, the gods hold mortals accountable for their actions, as evidenced by the punishment that Poseidon visits on Odysseus and the Phaeacians and that Helios administers to Odysseus's men when they consume his cattle. The idea of accountability also underlies acts of piety, such as the sacrifice that Nestor and his people are making, when Telemachus reaches their land, and that Odysseus must make to Poseidon at the end of the poem.

What does Homer gain by beginning The Odyssey in media resthat is, in the middle of the story?

By beginning the story in the middle, Homer immediately sets up the central conflicts and relationships that will be the core of the epic: Odysseus's desire to return home, the turmoil at his home in Ithaca, Penelope's resolution to remain faithful to her husband, Telemachus's resolve to find out what has happened to his father, Athena's support of Odysseus, and Poseidon's implacable opposition to Odysseus. In addition, the three members of Odysseus's family have reached a crisis point at this juncture of the story. If Homer had begun his story right at the fall of Troy, Odysseus would not feel the need to return home as acutely as he does 20 years later, Penelope would not appear as noble for resolutely resisting the suitors, and Telemachus would be a baby. By opening the story later, they all acutely feel the need for change, and soon.

What is an example of the theme of deception in The Odyssey, and what is the result of the deception for the characters?

Deception is a recurring theme in The Odyssey, and several characters employ it, including Odysseus, Penelope, and Athena. That these deceptions generally succeed and that the characters who deceive others are sympathetic figures suggests that Homer thought it a useful tool in navigating through life. Odysseus shows his deceptive tendencies often. He sometimes deceives his men by not telling them everything he knows, and those occasions often lead to failure. In the final scene of the story, he deceives the suitors into believing that he is a beggar, which allows him to wait for the right moment to attack, thereby ensuring that his plan of revenge will work. Odysseus shows great self-restraint in not giving in to the taunts of the suitors, and the outcome is good for him because he gets his family and home back. Penelope uses her shroud-weaving trick to deceive the suitors. By day she weaves a funeral shroud for her father-in-law, Laertes, and tells the suitors that, when she finishes it, she will choose a husband. But by night she undoes the day's weaving. This deception postpones the choice she must make, until her maid informs the suitors what has been going on. The outcome is ultimately good—her deception buys enough time for Odysseus to make his return. Athena appears in disguise several times to Odysseus and to Telemachus. She is successful when she does so, as the disguises enable her to provide needed advice and guidance

Is Zeus right when he says in The Odyssey that the mortals cause all their own problems?

Zeus seems to forget how much the gods intervene in the lives of mortals. One of the larger questions in The Odyssey is the degree to which mortals have freedom of action. Zeus seems frustrated that the mortals blame the gods for their problems, but the gods do make mortals' lives difficult if they don't do as the gods wish. Consider Poseidon and Odysseus: though Odysseus makes the single mistake of harming Poseidon's son, Poseidon continues to cause problems for Odysseus all throughout his journey home. Odysseus had no way of knowing that Polyphemus was Poseidon's son, and he has no way of making things right with Poseidon until much later in the book.

Through what actions does Eumaeus prove his loyalty to Odysseus in The Odyssey?

Eumaeus proves his loyalty before he even realizes that the beggar in his home is, in fact, Odysseus. Odysseus tests Eumaeus by having him tell stories about his old friend and master and telling Eumaeus in turn about how "Odysseus" showed kindness to him once by offering him a cloak. Eumaeus offers the disguised Odysseus his own cloak. Once Odysseus has revealed himself, Eumaeus stays by his side and aids him in his plan to murder the suitors.

What does the vengeance theme in The Odyssey suggest about ancient Greek culture?

Poseidon and Odysseus most clearly demonstrate the vengeance theme in The Odyssey, and their vengeful responses suggest that certain values were important to the Greeks. In seeking vengeance against Odysseus for blinding his son, the Cyclops Polyphemus, Poseidon attempts to thwart Odysseus's return home at several points. Poseidon's anger suggests that mortals must avoid contradicting the divine authority of a god. Odysseus plots vengeance against the suitors who have taken over his home during his absence. The majority of them are rude, selfish, and demanding. When Odysseus returns home disguised as a beggar, most of the suitors taunt and antagonize him. Odysseus also punishes the maidservants who were not loyal. In these cases vengeance suggests the importance of other values, which seem to be gratitude and respect for a host's hospitality, in the case of the suitors, and loyalty to proper human authority, in the case of the maidservants. These values, particularly the recognition of the authority of the gods and mortal masters, would contribute to maintaining the proper moral order in the world.

In The Odyssey can the deaths of Odysseus's men be considered his fault? Why or why not?

Odysseus is the leader of his men, which does make him in part responsible for their welfare. He accepts that responsibility and tries to protect them, working to win their release from Polyphemus and ordering them to stuff their ears with beeswax to avoid the danger of the Sirens. He also warns them to avoid eating the sacred cattle of Helios, but he does not tell them everything he knows about that danger. If his men had had this knowledge, they might have been able to resist the temptation to kill and eat the cattle. On that basis he can be said to bear a large burden of responsibility for their deaths.

In Book 8 of The Odyssey, why does Odysseus react so strongly to hearing Demodocus sing about the Trojan War? Why is that reaction important?

Odysseus probably reacts strongly to hearing the songs of the bard Demoducus about the Trojan War because he is overcome with his memories of the events and his recollection of the colleagues he lost in that war. He may also be thinking of the many years he has been away from home, first because of the war and then because of his long journey home. His behavior piques the curiosity of the Phaeacian king and queen because they don't know Odysseus's identity at this point, and so they wonder why a stranger ise so moved by common songs about the war. Their curiosity leads ultimately to Odysseus's revealing himself to them.

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