The Odyssey: The Most Influential Epic in Literature
Homer’s The Odyssey is an interactive poem that has influenced literature since it was written in the 8th century BCE. In addition to establishing many conventions for future Western epic poetry, the story interacts with the audience on multiple levels, transforming it from a simple adventure story to an emphasis of cultural values. The use of storytelling, repetition, and structure create a revolutionary piece that still influences literature today. The poem interacts with its audience through genre, and this interactive nature is what makes The Odyssey so influential.
The Odyssey is an epic poem, which is a prominent story of a hero’s journey and interaction with the gods, told in a formal poetic structure. The Odyssey, as well as The Iliad, established many conventions for future Western epic poetry. The Odyssey is written in dactylic hexameter, which is a strict poetic structure in which one long syllable is followed by two short ones. After The Odyssey, this became known as ‘heroic meter’ or ‘meter of the epic.’ The Odyssey also established the use of epithets and extended similes (which became known as epic similes or Homeric similes,) as etiquette for future epics.
The Odyssey begins with the poet asking the Muse for inspiration, imagining her singing through him. The poet states: “Sing to me of the man, Muse, the man of twists and turns, driven time and time again off course… many cities of men he saw and… many pains he suffered… launch out on his story, Muse, daughter of Zeus, start from where you will- sing for our time too” (1.1-12). Epic poetry often begins by stating the subject of the work to follow. In the case of The Odyssey, this means describing a long journey through ‘many cities’ and ‘many pains,’ the type of journey deserving of a resourceful hero like Odysseus. The opening line foreshadows the poem’s end, with all of Odysseus’ men dead except himself. This opening captures the themes the subject matter will explore and gives the Muse freedom in their narration. This prepares the audience for a complex narrative structure that relies on flashbacks as it moves through Odysseus’ ten-year journey.
Many aspects of The Odyssey’s structure and composition result from its origins as an oral performance. The poem is told ‘en medias res,’ or beginning in the middle of an extended action. This is common for all epic poetry, but specifically oral epic poetry, because it allows the audience to immediately engage with the plot, without sitting through backstory. Homer begins The Odyssey in the middle of Odysseus’ travels rather than beginning the story in the climax of the Trojan War, which serves several purposes in addition to immediately engaging the audience. By presenting events out of chronological sequence, Homer leaves plenty of space for narrative flashbacks, specifically Odysseus’ story of his previous travels, which occurs in books nine through twelve. His arrangement of the story also leaves the audience with a sense of unity when the story ends where it began, at Odysseus’ house in Ithaca.
The Odyssey uses different methods to explain previous events in the timeline of the plot, usually through recollections from characters or explanations from the gods. The Odyssey begins in Odysseus’ home in Ithaca, where suitors are overtaking his house and badgering Penelope to remarry. As Telemachus learns about his father’s time in the Trojan War, the poem’s audience is able to learn about events that don’t directly relate to Odysseus’ journey. These interludes don’t fall within the poem’s main action, but fill in details that come before the beginning of the poem, and allow Homer to tell a much more extensive story that expands past the plot’s relatively short time span.
The Odyssey’s formal, exalted, and repetitive style can be attributed to its history as an oral performance that precedes the written version. As with many oral poems, formulaic events are an essential aspect of the performance in order to engage the audience and aid the bard’s ability to recall lines. Repetition is a standard component of oral poetry, which, like modern songs, relies on echoes and refrains to emphasize individual ideas. Homer’s repetition of poetic phrases and entire lines of poetry gave the bards performing the poem time to recall upcoming events in the story, and the ability to improvise verses that fit the rhythm if necessary. For example, stock settings are described with long repeated passages. Homer always describes Olympus with the same phrase, as the place where “the god’s eternal mansion stands unmoved, never rocked by gale winds, never drenched by rains…” (VI.45-47). Time is also described using repeated phrases. Almost every day begins with the narrator describing “young Dawn with her rose-red fingers” which improves the overall unity of the poem, and adds vivid imagery.
Repetition is used for more than just memorization, and The Odyssey is full of different kinds of repetition. One example is the use of epithets, which became a standard for epic poetry because of The Odyssey. Brief repeated character descriptions like “swift-footed Achilles,” “bright-eyed Pallas,” and “the bewitching Nymph” are used throughout the poem, allowing the audience to recall characters and their traits more easily. This gives the audience the impression of formalized narrative similar to incantation, and emphasizes important characters with vivid descriptions, setting them apart from the poem’s extensive cast.
Repetition in The Odyssey often involves slight variation between occurrences, or with a change in context that gives encounters and phrases new meaning. Throughout the poem, the suitors berate Odysseus with the same insults, but his reaction slowly changes. In book nineteen, Odysseus responded with anger, but by the end of book twenty, he responds with pity and disgust. He has now accepted his antagonist’s comments as arrogance and their fates as inescapable.
The repeated omens that occur throughout the poem vary by becoming increasingly frequent and violent. In book fifteen, Telemachus sees an eagle grasping a goose fly overhead as he leaves Sparta, flying away before killing its prey. In book twenty, Penelope dreams that an eagle “snap(s) the [geeses’] necks and kill[s] them one and all… leaving them in heaps” (XIX.607-608). As the plot of the story gets more suspenseful and intense, the omens do as well, leaving the audience with an increasing sense of dread and intrigue.
The repeated observation of the beggar’s resembling Odysseus is used to build tension up to the final confrontation. Each remark increases the likelihood of his identity being revealed, which nearly happens with Eurycleia. Because this revelation would force Odysseus to resolve to poem, this repetition interacts with the audience by bringing them closer to the climax, but stalling it to tantalize them and make the story more exciting.
In addition to repetition in the content of the poem, there is also repetition in the structure. The Odyssey is written in chiastic structure, which resembles concentric circles. This serves both aesthetic and mnemonic functions in The Odyssey, and resembles the geometric art of the time, comprised of ready-made formulas which combine to form a whole. Homer is often referred to as the ‘supreme geometric artist’ because the highly symmetrical and balanced narrative architecture was a defining component of the Homeric epic. Chiastic structure allowed oral poets to rely on the formula for memorization, and was used to concentrate attention on the main ideas of the passage by placing them at the central turning point, as well as draw meaningful contrasts.
The shifting point of view is another form of interaction between the audience and the story. The third person narrator begins the poem by invoking the divine authority of the Muse, allowing them to know everything and understand the characters’ motivations. The narrator often describes characters’ feelings and attitudes with short, descriptive expressions. In book one, the narrator describes Telemachus “sitting among the suitors, heart obsessed with grief…” (I.132-134). More commonly, the characters describe their own emotional states. In book five, Odysseus states, “man of misery, what next? Is this the end? I’m bone-weary, about to breathe my last…” (V. 15-18). Because the majority of characters’ emotions are described through direct speech, they are more relatable to the audience.
In books nine through twelve, the narration shifts completely to Odysseus, as he recounts his times before the poem began. This first-person narration makes Odysseus’ trials more immediate, and gives the audience the sense that they experience his encounters with Circe, the Cyclops, Scylla and the Charybdis as they happen. This further invests the audience in Odysseus’ fate, and reinforces the notion of his heroic qualities. By making Odysseus a good storyteller, Homer makes him a better-liked hero and carries on the oral tradition of the time.
In the Greek audience The Odyssey was written for, morals were taught through storytelling. Stories were an important aspect of entertainment in Greek culture, and the spreading of stories allowed legends and myths to form. In epic poetry, the protagonist exemplifies the values important to the poet’s culture, which gives the poem the function of reinforcing cultural ideas in addition to entertainment. For the Greek audience of Homer’s time, the principal value was hospitality.
Hospitality is one of the main themes in The Odyssey. Odysseus judges the various communities he encounters on his journey based on whether they’re “violent, savage, lawless? Or friendly to strangers, god-fearing men” (XI. 195-196). Odysseus receives hospitality throughout the poem in the form of shelter, food, and gifts from the Phaeacians. When he encounters the Cyclops and eats all of his cheese, Odysseus wrongfully assumes he will extend the same benevolence as the Phaeacians did. The poem reinforces the importance of being a good host as well as being a good guest. The suitors exploit Odysseus’ hospitality by drinking all of his wine, slaughtering his livestock and pursuing his wife, Penelope. Much of the action is written through Odysseus’ point of view, which emphasizes the contrast between his expectations of hospitality and the reality he experiences.
The gods offer another perspective on hospitality. Odysseus describes Zeus, the most powerful god, as the god of strangers, who “guards all guests and suppliants” (IX.304), reinforcing the notion that hospitality is a godly trait. At the end of the poem, Athena fights the suitors with Odysseus and Telemachus as punishment for their abuse of the guest-host relationship.
Intelligence and physical ability are other values important to Greeks of Homer’s time. Odysseus, “the man of twists and turns,” combines wit and strength to overcome obstacles in his way. Through Odysseus’ adventures, Homer is able to describe the heroic values of hospitality, bravery, and cunning cherished by his original Greek audience.
Storytelling is a method of interaction with the audience that serves many functions in The Odyssey. Each storyteller reveals a piece of Odysseus’ story, which form a whole while still serving different purposes within the epic. Storytelling in The Odyssey evokes emotional responses and leaves lasting impressions on the audience. Storytelling is one of the main techniques used to propel the plot in The Odyssey, and to create a composite of Odysseus. Helen and Menelaos tell stories that give information about Odysseus’ past, each describing different aspects of his character. Helen tells the story of Odysseus disguising himself as a beggar so he can enter Troy unnoticed. Menelaos tells of Odysseus’ scheme that allowed the Greeks to enter Troy in the Trojan horse.
The largest purpose of storytelling in The Odyssey is to provide the characters and audience with backstory, which compensates for information lost by the ‘en medias res’ format. In books three and four, Telemachus goes on his own brief odyssey through Greece, in an attempt to learn about his father’s fate. This expansion in the plot cues an expansion in the story, as each of Telemachus’ hosts add their own stories about Odysseus.
Storytelling also serves the important function of situating The Odyssey in the cultural context of ancient Greece. Morals in ancient Greece came from stories, and the spreading of stories formed legends and myths, which were another important part of Greek culture. Phemius, the court minstrel of Ithaca, and Demodocus, a Phaeacian bard, sing of the exploits of the Greek heros in Troy. In the underworld, Agamemnon tells the story of his muder, and Ajax tells the story of his disagreement with Odysseus. These stories, as well as many of Nestor’s, Helen’s, and Menelaos’, interact with the audience by tying The Odyssey to cultural legends that Homer’s audience would have been familiar with. The combination of these stories provide more than just colorful histories of the characters. Most of them also call out other stories in Greek mythology, elevating The Odyssey by reminding its audience of the epic’s mythic tradition, and allowing them to draw connections to other stories they know.
The Odyssey’s uses epic similes in another way, it interacts directly with the audience. Epic similes help the audience visualize whimsical events, connecting the world of the epic to the audience’s reality. They also serve the function of slowing down the narrative and providing poignant detail. Epic similes are used in Homer’s description of Circe’s mountain lions, when he compares them to “hounds that fawn around their master, coming home from a feast, who always brings back scraps to calm them down” (X.201-203).
The Odyssey interacts with the audience in many ways. The poem’s origins as an oral performance resulted in many unique structures and forms of repetition, which made it easier to memorize, but also made the story more engaging and unified. The story interacted with its original Greek audience by weaving itself through other Greek mythology, reinforcing their strongest values, and resembling the Greek art of the time. This poem’s highly interactive qualities are what made it the standard for later Western epics, and the reason it has influenced literature since it was written.
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