QUESTIONS FOR STUDY and IDEAS FOR ANSWERS
Q: ‘The Odyssey’ and ‘The Iliad’ are epic poems. What defines them as such?
These works must not be confused with later poems, as ‘The Odyssey’ and ‘The
Iliad’ were unwritten oral art forms.
Another work that can be compared to these is ‘The Beowulf’’, a saga of
The ancient Greeks had numerous such epic poems, but unfortunately many are
now lost to us. However, ‘The Iliad’ and ‘The Odyssey’ represent the finest examples of the polished epic poem.
They have survived the ages because of their sophistication and evocative content. They spark the imagination of young and old alike.
It is safe to assume that what we know today about ‘The Odyssey’ is probably
an edited version of the original.
At some stage when the work was being composed, it would probably have been written down, but for many centuries it was observed and not read, and those companies or individuals performing ‘The Odyssey’ would have added or subtracted from the original form.
All epic poems are based on history and events that had taken place in the
past; therefore, generally speaking, the audiences were aware of the general plot. Today we will go and see Shakespeare’s ‘Romeo and Juliet’ not because we don’t know the story, but to see a particular
interpretation of the plot. So it was with ‘The Odyssey’ and ‘The Iliad’. Audiences went to see the interpretation of the story, and perhaps they would see new scenes depending on what company was appearing.
Another source of entertainment provided by the epic poem was its
construction, and much pleasure is obtained from the actual technical structure of the poem, the rhyming and the metre.
Q: It is evident that Homer places women into certain categories in ‘The
Odyssey’. Please expand on this.
There is definitely a set hierarchy regarding the female characters in ‘The
At the bottom end of the scale, we have such as Clytemnestra and the
disloyal maidservants, who were looked on with contempt regardless of their station. Socially they represent the two extremes of mortal women, but their fate is the same because they were in one way or
Next, we have those like Penelope and Queen Arete, who were pillars of
virtue and in particular Penelope who stays faithful to her husband despite his absence for twenty years. However, her role in ‘The Odyssey’ is passive, and she really doesn’t contribute to advancing the
storyline. That is why she is not the heroine of the story.
Further up the scale we have Helen, Circe and Calypso.
These are supernatural beings and although their morals are to say the least questionable, this is permitted because they are always in control of the situation. They are not seduced. They seduce. One might refer to them as being feminine, but having all the advantages that mortal males would have.
At the very top of Homer’s hierarchy, we have Athena, plus the other
virtuous goddesses. So far as ‘The Odyssey’ is concerned, Athena is the only goddess and she is, therefore, the heroine of the story as she comes down from Mount Olympus and walks with the mortals, especially
Odysseus and to a lesser extent, Telemachus. Her relationship with Odysseus is platonic.
She understands his needs and she is almost like a surrogate mother to him. You will note that Odysseus has lost his own mother. Homer stresses the fact that Athena is virtuous.
Q: Odysseus is regarded as ‘the complete hero’. Why is this?
Odysseus can be described as a combination of Achilles, Jason and Perseus.
Achilles was renowned for his barbarism as well as his prowess on the
Jason was known for his sense of adventure and his bravery. He was a
leader of men and was able to persuade his crew to follow him into dangerous situations.
Perseus was perhaps not as adept in the physical pursuits, but he used
cunning in order to obtain the head of the Gorgon, Medusa.
Odysseus shows his barbarism by the way in which he hangs the maidservants
in his hall.
He shows his skill in fighting when he kills the suitors who greatly
He shows his athleticism by matching the youths at the games held outside
the palace of King Alcinous and Queen Arete.
Of course he more than matches the voyages of Jason with his own epic trials
whilst trying to return home to Ithaca.
By and large his crew is faithful to him, and he doesn’t let them down when
the enchantress turns some into swine.
He shows his cunning by suggesting the use of the wooden horse to defeat the
Trojans, and by his plan to escape from Polyphemus.
All these heroes have one thing in common – they were sponsored by Athena.