The Odyssey | Study Guide


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Learn about symbolism in Homer’s epic poem The Odyssey with Course Hero’s video study guide.

The Odyssey | Symbols


Homer employs symbols to connect the characters in The Odyssey, usually through their familiar character traits.

Penelope's Shroud

Penelope is introduced weaving a funereal shroud for her father-in-law, Laertes. This would have been a common task for a woman of the house in Homer's time. Penelope's home has been besieged by suitors, while she has seemingly waited in vain for her husband, Odysseus, to return for 20 years. She tells the suitors she will choose a husband once she finishes the shroud. What they don't know is that each night she undoes the shroud, prolonging inevitably the choice she must make. Because Penelope is largely powerless to do anything about the suitors, her shroud ploy symbolizes that she shares her husband's cleverness and cunning. It also represents her fidelity to her marriage. That she dismantles a funereal shroud while delaying taking a new husband also suggests that she is unwilling to accept the death of her real husband.

Odysseus's Bow and Arrow

Penelope's final contest for the suitors requires them to wield Odysseus's bow and arrow to shoot through 12 axes. This symbolizes, first, her search for a man who can rival Odysseus's strength—or that she is looking for Odysseus himself to appear. It's telling that none of the suitors can even string the bow; only Telemachus comes close, and he is Odysseus's son. The bow and arrow symbolize Odysseus's strength, as well as how well matched he and Penelope are.

Eagle Omen

The vision of an eagle appears at least four times in The Odyssey. First, Zeus sends an omen at the assembly Telemachus has gathered to announce that he will go in search of information about Odysseus. The vision that Zeus sends is of two eagles fighting each other to the death, which a person in the crowd skilled in lore reads to mean the death of the suitors. Later in the book, Telemachus again sees the omen of the eagle, this time clutching a goose in its talons, as he leaves to return home to Ithaca. He sees this as a sign from Zeus that he is helping him. The significance seems to be that the family is connected through this symbol of an eagle, and the fate of their family can be seen in it.

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