The Odyssey: 3 Topics for Group Discussion

October 4, 2001


Group 1: Identity and Homecoming.

What is the relationship between identity and homecoming, in the nostos (return) of Odysseus? Consider:

  • how Odysseus negotiates his homecoming--and his identity
  • Odysseus's MO: disguise & revelation (e.g. Cyclopes, Phaiakia, Ithaka)
  • social roles: what roles must Odysseus reassume in order to complete his homecoming? How does he reassume each one? Look particularly at the recognition [anagnoresis] scenes (Telemachos, Book 16; Argos, Book 17; Eurykleia, Book 19; suitors, Book 21; Penelope, Book 23; Laertes, Book 24). How do these reflect on what it means to be human (see also Odysseus's speech to Nausikaa at 6: 153-160).
  • By the way, be sure to note the role of memory in these scenes: recognition is subtly different from cognition.
  • social roles, again: can you draw parallels between the roles Odysseus quests to reassume in the Odyssey, and those Telemachos learns to assume in the Telemachy?
  • Similes--the way the language of the epic reflects on the characters' identities: see esp. 8: 523 (Odysseus as woman), 19: 207 (Penelope as king), 16: 17 (Eumaios as father), 23: 233 (Pen. as sailor, Od. as land), p. 85 (Pen. as lion; cf. Od. at 6: 130, 22: 401, and elsewhere).
  • Odysseus's name

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Group 2: Storytelling.

Consider the following:

  • Odysseus as poet (of own adventures), Books 9-12.
  • Od.'s "Cretan stories": to Athene, p. 204; to Eumaios, p. 214; to Penelope, p. 286; to Laertes, p. 352.
  • Other storytellers: Demodokos in Book 8 (note what 3 stories he tells, and why; note also Odysseus's reaction to each); Phemios in Books 1 (p. 35) and 22 (p. 330). What effect does each of these bards have on Odysseus and Penelope (whom, respectively the entertain)? Don't leave out Agamemnon's bard (p. 58)--the one who was supposed to guard Clytemnestra. Why is he included in the Odyssey?
  • Also noteworthy: the conversations between Alkinoos and Odysseus on the subject of storytelling (11: 366 ff. and 12: 450 ff.). Cross-reference Alkinoos's praise of Odysseus on page 177 with the story Od. tells Pen. at p. 287; any irony here? What purpose does it serve, if so? (NB: purposeless irony is a great artistic offence; if ever crediting a great author with irony, be sure to have a hypothesis about the irony's purpose--unless, of course, you do not intend the observation as a compliment.)
  • Note what Eumaios says about Od's stories at p.266.

The question of what makes a good story will come up again and again in this class--starting with our next assignment, Herodotus. Be sure to give some thought to this topic!

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Group 3: Book 24.

What is the relationship between Book 24 and the rest of the poem? Does it provide a satisfying ending? What does it accomplish? What does it compromise? In short, what is it doing there?

Some things to consider:

  • first of all, why not just end on the reunion with Penelope?
  • and, if the story must continue, why does it continue only until Od. has accomplished the first TWO of the THREE "difficult" things he has told Penelope he still has to do?
  • why do we have to go back to Hades'--this time without Odysseus for a guide? Wasn';t once enough? What is accomplished by taking us back there?
  • still in the Underworld: why mix the Iliadic heroes and the dead suitors this way?
  • why this needless "odysseusing" (troubling) of Laertes? Is Odysseus completely heartless to deceive his father this way, or what?
  • the murder of the suitors gets re-examined here: what purpose(s) does this serve. By the way, is the slaughter of the suitors justified? How does the poem prepare us for this event? And how does the poem motivate this event (a different question)? Does Homer succeed in justifying, motivating, and/or foreshadowing it adequately, in your opinion? If there were no Book 24, would you answer these questions differently?
  • Note the role of Athene here, which is if anything even more interventionist than before. What do you make of her solution to the problem (imposing forgetfulness--one assumes, a form of amnesia--on the suitors' fathers)? How does this accord with her role as Odysseus's benefactress? How does it accord with her responsibilities as a goddess? How do you like this as an ending?

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Click here to download the handout "Design in the Odyssey" (by Rebecca--a structural diagram, with notes, for the whole epic).