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Homer's Odyssey, Books IX-XVI
(click here for Books I-VIII)
(click here for Books XVII-XXIV)


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In our last class, we covered a lot of the Odyssey's important themes, but were able to go into detail (that is, looking at particular passages in the text and picking them apart) about only a few of them. Keep the themes we discussed in mind, as you go on reading and analyzing the Odyssey; we will be returning to them in future discussions.

Some of the things we discussed were:

--the insistence on homecoming, which appears five times on the first page. Homecoming is the chief theme, the motivation, the "Holy Grail," as it were, of the Odyssey. (You can compare Dorothy's mantra in The Wizard of Oz: "There's no place like home. There's no place like home. There's...." Incidentally, The W. of Oz is only one latter-day "Odyssey" that has enjoyed huge popularity; Alice in Wonderland is another, as is the recent Coen Brothers film, O Brother, Where Art Thou?. Can you think of others?)

--the homecoming theme itself branches out into three "sub-themes":

  • the importance of home (your place of origin, "where you're from") to identity
  • the cost of absence (to Odysseus himself, but especially to those he left behind him--at home)
  • the difficulty of return (nostos), which is presented in the Odyssey as a task at least as heroic as conquering Troy. It takes a rare combination of skill, luck and divine favour to accomplish it (one must be a polutropos , a "man of many ways"), as we learn from the proem ("Even so, he could not save his companions...") and from the constrasting stories of Menelaos, Achilles and especially Agamemnon. Be sure to note the tales Odysseus relates having heard from his erstwhile friends in the Underworld (Book XI).

--each of these three themes also breaks down into sub-themes:

  • identity: what makes up one's identity? We mentioned parentage (particularly fathers); knowing "where you're from"; knowing what one's role is in society, how to conduct oneself in dealings with others (Telemachos has marked problems here, as we discussed in class). How important is the ability to narrate oneself (as we see many characters do here, and as we saw Persephone do in H2D)? What about the ability to hide one's identity (to which we repeatedly see Odysseus resort)?
  • absence: we talked about the "Odysseus vacuum" that Homer creates by not mentioning Odysseus by name in the proem, by not starting the story with Odysseus himself (who doesn't make an appearance until Book 5), by emphasizing the "Odysseus vacuum" in Telemachos's life and in the public life of Ithaka.....all of these create an enormous tension in the poem, as though every line were re-stressing the urgency of Odysseus's homeward mission.
  • ....so, then, if Odysseus actually makes it "home"--that is, to Ithaka--in Book 13, why are there still eleven books to go???

Other things to consider:

--Be sure to look closely at all the scenes where Odysseus must introduce himself to people who either do not know or do not recognise him. We will look at some of these in class (definitely his approach to Nausikaa in Book 6!) and try to come with a theory about them as a group of scenes.

--What other "type-scenes" do you notice in the epic?

--What do you make of Odysseus's tale of his own adventures, Books 9-12? Can you make any generalisation about his adventures (in particular, about the personages "whose cities he saw, whose mind he learned of" [I:3])? What purpose do they serve within the overarching themes of homecoming and identity?

--Track the female figures who seem to preside over each stage in Odysseus's quest for home. What observations can you offer about them? Why are they female? What values or dangers do they represent? What does Odysseus learn from each? (David commented on this in the first Odyssey discussion, but most of you probably didn't see it; click here to go back to it, then visit the
NEW discussion
to post your dissenting or assenting opinions...)

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