The Odyssey


Sharon Fleming

Themes are described as ideas that dominate a particular piece of literature. In almost all cases, pieces of literature will be centered a theme or a number of them.
The Power of Cunning over Strength

If the Iliad is about strength, the Odyssey is about cunning. This difference becomes obvious in the very first lines of the epics. The Iliad is the story of rage of Achilles, the strongest hero in the Greek army. The Odyssey is about a “man of twists and turns” (1.1). Odysseus demonstrates his extraordinary strength in Book 21 by being the only man who can string the bow. But, he relies more on mind than muscle, a trait visible in the course of the book. He realises that he cannot overpower Polyphemus, and even if he were able to do so, he wouldn’t be able to move the boulder from the door. He works around his disadvantage in strength and exploits Polyphemus stupidity. He uses violence to put out Polyphemus’s single eye but it is part of a larger plan to deceive the monster. Similarly, Odysseus is outnumbered by young suitors in his palace, so he makes use of his wits to beat them. Through disguises and deceptions, he brings about a situation in which he alone is armed and the suitors are locked in a room with him.  
With this setup, Achilles’ sublime skills as a warrior would help him accomplish what Odysseus does, but only Odysseus’ shrewd plotting can bring about a sure victory. Some of the episodes in Odysseus’ ordeal seem to mock the use of strength alone. No one can resist the Sirens’ song but Odysseus listens to the lovely melody by having his crew tie him up. Scylla and Charybdis cannot be overcome but Odysseus can minimise his losses with cautious decision-making and careful navigation. Odysseus’ encounter with Achilles in the underworld is a reminder that glory by sword is short-lived. Achilles won great glory during his life but that life was brief and ended violently. Odysseus, by virtue of his wits, will live to a ripe old age and die in peace.

The Pitfalls of Temptation

The Achaeans’ homecoming turned out to be a nightmare and it was the work of an Achaean itself. Ajax, the “Lesser” Ajax, a relatively unimportant figure not to be confused with the “Greater” Ajax, raped the Trojan priestess Cassandra in a temple while the Greeks were plundering the fallen city. This abhorrible act brought the wrath of Athena upon the Achaean fleet and led to a chain of events that turned Odysseus’ homecoming into a nightmare. The Odyssey is a description of obstacles that arise out of mortal weakness and the inability of mortals to control it. Many of the pitfalls that Odysseus and his men face are an apt example of this universal principle. The submission to temptation either angers the gods or distracts Odysseus and his crew from their journey back home. They give in to hunger and kill the sun’s cattle. They also eat the fruit of the lotus and forget about their return journey. Odysseus’ hunger for kleos can also be taken as a kind of temptation. He gives in when he reveals his identity to Polyphemus, inviting Poseidon’s wrath upon him and his men. The Sirens episode and the theme are revisited simply for its own interest. The crew members’ sail safely by the Sirens’ island with their ears plugged. Odysseus, longing to hear the Sirens’ sweet song, is saved only by his foresighted command to his crew to keep him bound to the ship’s mast. Homer likes to show his protagonist tormented by temptation. Odysseus and his men want to reach home at the earliest but their desire is constantly pitted against other worldly pleasures.

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