The Odyssey is one of the greatest tales of all time, renowned for its influences over other works, its critical commentary of the human condition, and, more importantly, its story.
Unlike Homer’s earlier work, The Iliad, The Odyssey is a complex poem with numerous embedded narrators and a non-linear storyline, its protagonist and hero, Odysseus, reflecting on many of his adventures, such as with the famous Cyclops, Polyphemus, and mysterious witch, Circe, after they have already happened. The Odyssey is clearly then a more adventurous work compared to The Iliad, which, in twenty-four books, depicts a passing of only forty days. The later text describes the passing of ten years, Odysseus travelling all over the known world and bringing culture and mystery to the work. More significantly, perhaps, The Iliad features mainly prominent heroes, such as the likes of Hector and Achilles. Whilst The Odyssey does this, too, it also depicts multiple women with developed characters, and even gives a perspective of the world from the eyes of a beggar. In considering the nature of humanity, then, The Odyssey is a clear view of the world of Ancient Greece, considering its beliefs, customs, and every level of its society.
Many readers of The Odyssey struggle with it, perhaps because of its unusual features, such as constant repetition and the use of epithets; these, however, were devices used by the poet when the story was told in its oral form, as it predates the existence of the Greek alphabet. The presence of the “human” gods in the poem may also be cause for confusion, as they constantly interfere with the actions of the mortals around them. However, though these factors may, initially, seem off putting, cultural differences will always be apparent in unfamiliar texts, whether they originated in modern France or historical Ghana. Really, it is worth accepting these differences and embracing the unfamiliar culture, in order to properly process the incredible tale of The Odyssey, for it truly is one worth reading.
What I found most interesting when reading the poem, was the nature of Penelope, Odysseus’ wife. Ancient Greece was a place of the typical patriarchy, where the man ruled the woman and she existed only to serve him. What seems curious, then, is that the “cunning Odysseus” is matched only by the “cunning” of Penelope. To prevent herself from having to remarry in her husband’s ten year absence, she tricks her many suitors, telling them that she will only choose her new husband once she has finished weaving a shroud upon her loom. However, “cunning” Penelope returns to the weaving each night, unpicking her stitches to delay having to choose one of the suitors to marry. This is a clear sign of the intelligence of Penelope, but what is still more interesting, is the question of when she truly recognises her husband.
When Odysseus finally returns to Ithaca from his many “wanderings”, the goddess, Athene, disguises him, changing his appearance into one of a beggar. This is in order to aid him in the destruction of Penelope’s suitors and the reclaiming of his household. However, the beggar Odysseus speaks to Penelope from book XIX of The Odyssey, and what struck me, is that, whilst the true “reunion” between Odysseus and Penelope officially takes place in book XXIII, the “cunning” Penelope may have been far more informed than this would suggest. After speaking with the beggar, she goes from swearing to never marry again, to hosting a competition to decide who the lucky suitor would be. If she truly did not know of her husband’s return, why would she have such a change of heart? And why would the contest play on Odysseus’ greatest strength, that being the bow and arrow? It makes more sense if she knew that he was home, but could not reveal this fact, so as not to ruin his plan to destroy the suitors.
Whatever the case, this argument proves the greatest strength of The Odyssey: its interpretations. With such an ancient story, there have been hundreds of different theories and ideas questioning its every aspect, and there is so much to wonder about. Really, the magic of The Odyssey is then in its reception, just as much as it is in its existence.
Regardless of how deeply you read into the poem’s narrative, this is a story that I feel everyone should be made aware of. It has influenced every book we know today, whether this was done consciously, or not. It is an epic, and a story to take throughout your life.