The Meaning And Symbolism Of Odysseus' Return

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Odysseus’ return symbolises the return to civilisation and the world of mankind. Odysseus’ travels do not relate to geography, instead they explore the pillars that define both man and civilisation, one’s identity as a man, mortality, sacrifice, and working the land and the preparation of food. His return is a story of returning to normalcy, and his acceptance of the constraints placed on man. The worlds he visits are fantastical, and the beings vary from super to sub human to contrast his choice of remaining human.

Mortality differentiates mankind from the gods and in his journey home to civilisation Odysseus must fight to maintain his mortality. Calypso offers Odysseus immortality and to live with her. However, to accept this offer would mean never returning home, abandoning heroic repute, and his very humanity. While Calypso outwardly takes the form of a woman, she is clearly inhuman. Her name means to conceal and hide, which suggests that she is overpowering Odysseus’ potential and the recognition he would achieve if he returned home. Calypso represents the world of the superhuman and to accept it would mean to choose becoming inhuman. Humanity requires the overcoming of risk and challenges and living as a god would thus destroy these hopes for achievement as a mortal man. Thus Odysseus’ continuation of his journey back to civilisation is evidence of his acceptance of the human condition. This is further emphasised in Odysseus’ descent to the Underworld. Odysseus’ interaction with Achilles recalls the cost of mortality and the loss of Achilles’ future. This reinforces Odysseus’ rejection of Calypso’s offer in favour of the benefits of a mortal life, including his wife Penelope. Achilles chose a death that brought glory, Odysseus instead chooses a mortal life. Odysseus also meets his mother, and in being unable to hold her this communicates to the audience the conclusiveness of his choice of remaining a mortal man. Even when meeting the dead Odysseus does not meet a being that is strictly human, emphasising that to return home is to return to civilisation and humanity. Therefore, his return is only possible through maintaining his mortality, which in turn confirms his return symbolises returning to the civilised and normal world.

Odysseus’ individual identity as a man is challenged but is re-affirmed on his return to civilisation. “Man” is one of the first words of the poem, which is fitting as the poem explores the identity of Odysseus as a man. At this early point we do not know who this man is, and we will discover this throughout his journey. This introduction both presents and obscures the protagonist of the poem, drawing a connection with Odysseus’ absence in the beginning of the piece. In his absence the concept of identity and social relations can be brought to the forefront as his goals form our perception of him. Goldhill believes that language is the medium of acknowledgement and appearances in the Odyssey. Odysseus’ self-representations have multiple layers, with the story itself being named after him to show the power he finds in the manipulation of language. This interest in the control of language can also be seen through the repeated self-descriptions and self-reflexive ponderings of his use of marked speech. Odysseus’ penchant for disguising himself is utilised when he gives his name as “Nobody” in his escape from Polyphemos. Due to the Cyclopes’ solitary and uncivilised lifestyle, their linguistic structures make them vulnerable. Herein Odysseus manipulates the language surrounding his identity as a man and the Cyclopes’ uncultured social structure to escape. However, when he calls back his name to Polyphemos this enables Poseidon to send the strong winds to assault his ship, thus showing the perils his identity as a mortal man holds in this super human world. Van der Ralf explains that Odysseus barely retains his identity as a man when he finds the Phaeacians. He has maintained his identity through-out the tribulations of his fantastical adventures but once he nears civilisation he is weary from these tests. In Odysseus’ return to Ithaca, the increased pressure on social paradigms and individual identity within the poem is emphasised. Odysseus’ return is a return to the civilised world and thus he is once again under its effects. As Odysseus approached Nausicaa he was compared to a lion that wanders down from the hills to kill livestock, but as he returns to Ithaca he is instead compared to a tired plow-man returning home. This demonstrates the civilisation that Ithaca symbolises, and his return allows him to fully regain his identity as a man. Therefore, while his identity is challenged, returning home to civilisation re-confirms his humanity.

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Sacrifice is a pillar of civilisation and while Odysseus maintains this practice, he finds perverted sacrifices in the uncivilised worlds of the Odyssey. Circe’s island represents the uncivilised. Circe’s victims are changed into animals, and those who were turned into wild animals are unable to return to humanity as they no longer have a connection to civilisation. While Circe appears human, she uses non-human demonic power to achieve her goals. In accordance with Circe’s instruction, Odysseus makes an offering to the dead, however this does not fit with traditional sacrificial practices. When in the Cyclopes’ territory, Odysseus’ companions’ offer sacrifices whereas Polyphemos does not. However, the companions’ sacrifice was improper as it was made with cheese rather than blood and with animals not reared by man as there are none available in the land of the Cyclopes’, and it is thus rejected by Zeus. This demonstrates the uncivilised nature of the Cylcopes, as Polyphemos also fails to perform the characteristics of a sacrificial meal, such as putting aside the bones for the gods. Furthermore, Polyphemos has no regard for appeals of sanctuary under Zeus Xenios’ name. All of these characteristics culminate in a distinctly inhumane representation, and thus demonstrate Odysseus’ distance from civilisation and the characteristics that define mankind. The lack of proper sacrifice is also seen in the episode of the herds of the sun. Whereas Odysseus chooses to hunt and fish, his companions instead choose to sacrifice domestic animals. The sacrifice is improper, lacking the barleycorns to place on its throat, the libations are changed to water, and the very flesh later begins to groan. Odysseus’ companions are then punished for their sacrilege. The suitors also do not sacrifice in the Odyssey. Odysseus attempts to exclude Amphinomous from the slaughter as he is the only one to suggest a libation to Apollo, but they are both unable to fulfil their promises. Even once he is home, the civilised nature of his household must be restored by killing the suitors. Odysseus however is shown to continually sacrifice to the gods throughout his journey. Thus, sacrifice represents both the difference between humans and non-humans, and a criteria of social and moral values between people. Hence, sacrifice is shown to be a pillar of civilisation and morality, and by upholding this Odysseus rises above his companions and those he meets.

Agriculture and food preparation are an essential part of civilisation and are represented through Ithaca and contrasted in Odysseus’ travels. Ithaca itself is referred to as the “grain-giving earth” , and thus reinforces the importance of agriculture to creating a civilised society. It produces grain and vines, and the fruits of Odysseus’ lands are also equally a prize for Penelope’s suitors. To return to Ithaca is hence to return to a civilised and cultivated land. Throughout Odysseus’ travels there is a notable absence of beings working the land and preparing food properly. The Cyclopes in particular do utilise agriculture and flout not only the protection from Zeus Xenios but also mock the practices of receiving a guest. Whereas one should feed their guests and inquire as to their name, Polyphemos instead asks his guests to identify themselves and then devours two of them. Thus the uncivilised Cyclopes are connected with not working the land, and Polyphemos does not use his fire for cooking. Polyphemos eats his meat raw, completely ignoring his readily available fire to emphasise this choice. The cannibalistic and animalistic devouring of the meal illustrates the difference between the inhumanity of the Cyclopes and Odysseus and his companions. The tools of civilisation are thus used to overcome Polyphemos. The wine that is offered overcomes him, for he is unused to the method used to prepare wine and he becomes quickly intoxicated and collapses. Furthermore, the olive is the tree with which Odysseus builds his bed, the fixed point of his home, and the wood of the stake put through Polyphemos’ eye. The olive tree is a symbol of civilisation and blinds Polyphemos so the companions can escape. Later depictions in a proto-attic black figure amphora of this scene utilise an animal pelt and large genitalia to demonstrate Polyphemos’ lack of civilisation in comparison to Odysseus. The Lotus-Eaters also show a lack of civilisation as they do not eat bread but flowers, and this deprives Odysseus’ companions of their memory which is an essential part of humanity. Hence, without the proper preparation of food, there can be no civilisation. Therefore, agriculture and food preparation are an essential part of civilisation and are represented through Ithaca and contrasted in Odysseus’ travels.

In conclusion, Odysseus’ return symbolises the return to civilisation and the world of mankind. The four pillars of mortality, one’s identity as a man, sacrifice, and agriculture and the preparation of food are essential to defining mankind and civilisation. Odysseus’ travels in turn contrast to these factors, demonstrating the uncivilised nature of the inhuman beings that he encounters and their ways of life.

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