One of the most common translations of the First Noble Truth of Buddhism is “existence is suffering”, implying that to exist, to be alive, brings on pain, loss, grieving, and suffering. Reading Homer’s Odyssey and analyzing the characters, one thing is evident – human suffering is constant. We might not see it, but it takes place in everyone’s lives, everywhere. Reading the Odyssey constantly made me question the value that suffering brings into out lives; does it do something for us? The Odyssey is a profound epic that explores tragedy and suffering through intricate storytelling. It tells the tale of several characters as a way of showcasing different aspects of suffering, ultimately making the characters seem more relatable and unless there is intervention by gods to save the day, human lives are shown as being full of suffering and loss. This suffering has been described as the curse of mortality, and the only way to deal with it is to endure. Humans in the Odyssey weep, grieve, and lament and the theme of grief highlights the fact that regardless of the time we are in, human suffering remains constant but it is this human suffering that provides several valuable lessons such as humility, the importance of being kind and hospitable to one another (xenia), the significance of relationships, and the downside of acting impulsively. For characters in the Odyssey, self-improvement comes as a result of suffering and acts as a catalyst for heroic journeys.
At the beginning of the Odyssey, we are introduced to the notion that despite Odysseus being the King of Ithaca and “a man of outstanding wisdom and shrewdness, eloquence, resourcefulness, courage, and endurance” (“Odysseus”), his life is not free from suffering and there is much he has to endure. We are given a glimpse of Poseidon’s fury against Odysseus that stems from his victory over the Trojans, a people who Poseidon favored. To pay for his actions, Poseidon unleashes the wrath of the seas upon Odysseus, vowing never to allow his return to Ithaca and his loving wife Penelope. Odysseus further insults Poseidon by blinding his son, the Cyclops Polyphemos, ‘But Lord Poseidon rages, unrelenting, / because Odysseus destroyed the eye / of godlike Polyphemus, his own son, / the strongest of the Cyclopes’ (Homer I. 68-70). By blinding Polyphemus, Odysseus instigates Poseidon and he ensures that Odysseus suffers as much as possible by unleashing the tides and winds against Odysseus, blowing him to Ogygia, the island that would test the feebleness of his body.
At Ogygia, the daughter of Atlas and the sea nymph of the island, Calypso, held Odysseus captive despite the profound love that Odysseus had for his wife Penelope, Odysseus was determined to overcome his situation. He was willing to forego Calypso’s offer to make him immortal for the chance to see his beloved Penelope again despite the suffering that he will be forced to live with as a result of his choice, “But if you understood / how glutted you will be with suffering, / before you reach your home, you would stay here / with me and be immortal” (Homer V. 206-209). Odysseus refuses the offer as he longs to return home to a more human life, “I want to go back home, / and every day I hope that day will come. / If some god strikes me on the wine-dark sea, / I will endure it. By now I am used / to suffering— I have gone through so much, / at sea and in the war. Let this come too” (Homer V. 219-224). This statement by Odysseus highlights the importance of human relationships and how to most humans, the value of family outweighs the cost of suffering. Odysseus has been through personal turmoil, fought in a war, lost his fellow soldiers, and is held captive far away from home; he is given the opportunity to finally be free of suffering by becoming immortal and living a peaceful and luxurious life, and yet he is willing to sacrifice that comfort so he can return to his home and to his family. At Ogygia with Calypso and among the watchful eye of the gods, Odysseus has his share of heaven, something that most humans long for and never experience; yet Odysseus is willing to endure the difficult journey that lies before him to return to Ithaca. He accepts that human suffering is natural and is ready to face adversities as they come, ultimately transforming Odysseus’ character in the eyes of the reader from a brash fighter to a sensitive and caring individual, thus announcing the beginning of an odyssey of his own, the odyssey of self actualization. He begins to understand that there is more to him than brute force and strength, and that he truly does care about his family, home, allies, and he begins to become a more rational person.
The theme of suffering in the Odyssey isn’t just limited to Odysseus as we also see several other characters dealing with their own struggles. One such character is Penelope, Odysseus’ wife. At the beginning of the epic, we see her as more than just a weeping widow, she is clever and tactful such as when she came up with tricks to delay the suitors waiting to court her, “She came up with a special trick: she fixed / a mighty loom inside the palace hall. / … / You must be patient / I have worked hard to weave this winding-sheet / to bury good Laertes when he dies” (Homer II. 95-102). However, as the epic progressed and Penelope is forced to spend more time without Odysseus while simultaneously being pursued by multiple suitors, we see her suffering begin to take a toll on her. The reason for her suffering is very similar to that of Odysseus – longing for something that she thinks she may never have again. When Penelope dramatically says, “May the gods annihilate me just like them! Or may / Artemis strike me dead, with my gaze fixed / upon Odysseus! Let me not make / a lesser husband glad” (Homer XX. 79-83), we get a glimpse of her love and loyalty towards Odysseus, and how she’s grieving without him. Penelope’s statement shows that she would rather be dead than marry another man and believes that the suitors who are trying to court her, are inferior to Odysseus. Clearly, Penelope longs for Odysseus and is suffering without him, “When someone weeps / all through the day quite overwhelmed by grief, / but sleeps at night, forgetting everything, / her pain is bearable. But I am cursed / with nightmares by some god” (Homer XX. 83-87). This statement shows Penelope in what can be described as a very uncharacteristic moment of weakness for her, but a moment that showcases her suffering nonetheless. She has been patient and has put on a brave face throughout the story, but at this point it seems that the aggregated suffering and prolonged wait for Odysseus to return has taken its toll on her. Despite all the suffering that Penelope has endured, she still has a kind heart and doesn’t lose her sense of hospitality. When Eurymachus and Antinous disrespect disguised Odysseus, “Calmly, / Penelope replied, ‘Eurymachus, / people who waste the riches of a king / have lost their dignity. Why fuss at this?’” (Homer XXI. 330-333), thus urging the suitors to give the beggar a chance despite him not belonging to being of the same status as them. Finally, just like Odysseus’ journey, we see the culmination of Penelope’s own suffering when she realizes that the beggar has been Odysseus in disguise all this while, “So glad she was to see her own dear husband, / and her white arms would not let go his neck” (Homer XXIII. 241-241). Throughout the epic, Penelope has been shown as a loyal and strong character, and the statement above reaffirms this. Her suffering brought incidences of uncharacteristic behavior and moments of weakness, but overall it made her more resilient and served to reiterate her love for Odysseus. Homer leaves us the reader with the notion that the suffering that both Odysseus and Penelope endured throughout the Odyssey has made them wiser, kinder, and deepened their love for one another. When Odysseus says, “But come now, let us go / to bed together, wife; let us enjoy / the pleasure of sweet sleep” (Homer XXIII. 254-255), he recognizes that they have both endured deep turmoil but now that they are united, Odysseus’ upcoming adventures do not cause him too much worry and their suffering is finally eased.
The Odyssey constantly elucidates the theme of suffering through the personal journeys that Odysseus and Penelope take. While their journeys are different, their suffering is brought about by the same reasons – waiting to reunite with the one they love for 20 years. Odysseus has to endure several hardships on his travels back home such as fighting Polyphemus the Cyclops, being pushed off course by the winds, being trapped on Circe’s island, being shipwrecked as they were being driven to Charybdis, and being held captive by Calypso on the island of Ogygia, but each of these hardships improves him as a person and instills in him many positive qualities. These small improvements eventually lead to a drastic transformation from when we are first introduced to his character. His suffering makes him a better person, bringing out his best qualities as a husband, a father, and a friend. For Penelope, her suffering is brought about in the form of the suitors actively trying to court her while she longs to be with her husband, and jostling with the possibility of her husband being dead. We see the suffering that she undergoes transforming her character from a clever, courageous woman, to someone who has lost all hope and is in despair; however, she stays kind and even becomes more resilient. Eventually we see her suffering come to an end when she is reunited with her one true love in an emotionally charged moment of passionate love. Ultimately, Homer’s Odyssey serves to remind the readers that suffering is a crucial part of the collective human experience and each of our personal odysseys are blank canvases that are filled over time with the ups and downs of mortality, but it is important to remember that while suffering is inescapable, pain is optional and that if there is one thing to learn from Odysseus’ journey, it is to keep going until you get where you want. Through this journey filled with ups and downs, you will learn several valuable lessons that will eventually allow you to reflect on your own life and give you the opportunity to improve yourself.