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The Odyssey Essay Examples

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Homer uses the theme of family to explore the move to a different type of heroism. The move from importance of gaining kleos (glory) to achieving a successful nostos (homecoming) is shown through Homer’s depiction of a broken family coming back together. Homer also shows how family life intersects with other themes of identity within the poem. Compared with the Iliad, where heroism is defined by the acts of glory one completes, heroism in the Odyssey is defined through upholding one’s family bonds, and loyalty within a family, which comes in the form of fidelity for Penelope and living up to a father’s legacy for Telemachus. The Odyssey shows how kleos is gained through maintaining the oikos (home), which has the role of elevating a hero. Homer’s focus on the family is also due to the fact that kleos in the Odyssey is not limited to the male sphere, it is something that females can also attain, and rather than being a completely individual pursuit, it requires others to give, and is a communal act.

Homer’s epic poem describes the journey of Odysseus, yet this hero does not seem to take part in many heroic acts. Odysseus is selfish in his desire to return home, often leading to a disregard of his companions, which results in their death. EXAMPLES. Like in the Iliad, where the first word shows the real focus of the poem (rage rather than heroism), the first word of the Odyssey is ‘man’. Homer put the focus on mortality rather than heroic deeds, perhaps being the reason that Homer spends the first four books describing the son of the hero instead, showing a focus on the journey to define oneself through their family. Odysseus’s passiveness and ruthlessness are part of the change is goal: to get home rather than to gain kleos through defeating others in battle. The central decision to gain kleos in the Odyssey is actually given to Penelope rather than Odysseus, who has his kleos for fighting but depends on Penelope’s fidelity to raise it to a new level that Achilles or Agamemnon could not reach. Penelope also has kleos for staying faithful but can ruin the familial kleos for Odysseus by remarrying. Competing with suitors is a key part of this epic, as it is not a battle with a foreign invader to the country that kleos is given for – it is overcoming threats to the oikos that grants this new type of kleos and completes the nostos.

Katz describes how a ‘successful nostos upholds kleos’, and the role the female has in this is undeniable. Zeitlin describes the bed as the ‘double-sided sign-of identity for him, fidelity for her’. The bed, which is made using the ‘root’ of a tree, shows how important the idea of sharing a bed is to the theme of family and legacy. Sharing a bed for sexual activity leads to children, carrying on the legacy. It is also a sign of affection between couples and presents the idea of a united couple. Thus, moving the bed represents rejecting Odysseus’s identity as a husband and master of the house, it also suggests that Penelope sleeps with another person, which completely breaks the nostos for a hero. Penelope’s fidelity is used by Homer to present a contrast in imagery and language. As described by Foley, ‘the consequences [of infidelity] … can reverberate out to corrupt’. This is seen when Agamemnon’s wife, Clytemnestra, goes to another man (Aegisthus), which has fatal consequences, as Agamemnon is murdered by them – which contrasts with the image of Penelope’s loyalty. Homer also shows a contrast in language, where Agamemnon tells Odysseus to be suspicious of a wife’s actions in book ?? but also compliments Penelope for her ‘kleos aretes’ in book 24 (196-197), praising her moral virtue.

The Odyssey also shows how identity is confirmed and fulfilled through family, and results in balance in all domains. As the Odyssey is an epic poem, we expect our hero to fight against evil on a national scale. Although Odysseus fights many battles, it is only to return home, thus a spectator might wonder whether he is truly an epic hero. However, Homer shows how how the nostos is an epic problem. Odysseus’s cunningness to disguise himself does is not successfully accomplished in his fight against the cyclops. His disguise works however, to rid Ithaca of the suitors that plague his wife and the whole nation’s future, an issue of epic proportions. Similarly, Penelope’s attractiveness and unguarded nature, makes her a target for the suitors, which does not benefit her – but it allows Odysseus to get rid of all threats very easily, thus being a positive aspect in the end. But it is important to note, that it is only when they are together that their individual characteristics can thrive.

Telemachus also benefits from his family, as his journey to find his father endows him with the confidence to confront his mother’s suitors that he did not earlier possess. Family as a way of confirming identity, is an important aspect of talking about Telemachus, in regard to titles and names. Telemachus’ title is ‘son of Odysseus’ a name that grants him much respect outside of Ithaca. But it is an almost ironic title, as Telemachus does not know his father. The qualities that spectator knows are similar to his father in his speech with Nestor (where he makes use of…), he is not aware of himself, as he has not met his father. Thus, Telemachus’’ identity as a son is also confirmed through family, and the Homer’s first word of the poem ‘man’, which foreshadowes the journey to manhood that Telemachus takes. Telemachus’ existence provides kleos for Odysseus as he is an ‘assurance of a continued lineage’ as put by Murnaghan, which is a core part of an oikos, and also contrasts Achilles and Agamemnon who ‘learn of their worthy sons only after they have died’.

Naquet describes the story of the Odyssey as a ‘return to normality’, and this is correct in the sense that socially, Telemachus’ though he is not an infant, is not the master of the house and cannot defend it. Penelope is also in an odd situation, where fidelity to her husband is commended, but she is also in a position where she is vulnerable, and it would not be frowned upon if she remarried. But if she did marry, and entered a new house, or even went back to her father, it would end the social reality that Penelope is married to Odysseus, she would be just a widow. This ambiguity and confusion over placement, relates to the fact that Odysseus’ death during this time is not clear – they do not have the body, and can only act based on assumptions they have. Having a family physically is important, as seen through Homer’s description of the maid Eurycleia recognising Odysseus in book 19 by the scar on his leg and the physical act of getting rid of suitors. During the act of getting rid of the suitors, Odysseus spares the bard – who acts as physical mediator for the immortalisation of the kleos that Odysseus and Penelope possess. This relates back to my previous point of heroism in the Odyssey as a communal act – it requires not only the entire family, but the wider community (which Goldhill describes as the constructor of fame) to affirm and respect. The importance of the wider community is seen in the disregard the suitors have for Telemachus compared to those outside Ithaca. The suitors that break the construct of the host-guest, contrast the respect given to Telemachus during his visit to Nestor. Hospitality in 8th century Greece, expected a host to provide food and drink, without even asking the identity of the guest, as seen between Telemachus and Athena. But the suitors break the expectations of the guest in Greek hospitality as they are described in book 2 to ‘infest our palace day and night, they butcher our cattle… feasting themselves sick’. The word ‘infest’ likens them to vermin, thus making their own ‘butcher’ satisfying.

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