The Odyssey: Historical Background An epic is a long narrative poem about a national or legendary hero. Ancient Greece produced two epics-the Iliad and the Odyssey -which are considered the first great works of western literature. The Odyssey is named for its hero, Odysseus, who is also known as Ulysses. The Iliad is not named for its hero, Achilles, but for Ilium, or Troy, the setting of the action.
Since classical times, both epics have been attributed to a poet named Homer. We know almost nothing about him. Seven different sites claimed to be his birthplace, but none could prove the claim. There is a tradition that Homer was blind and an ancient bust shows him to be so. If he was blind, he must have had his sight at one time, for the poems are so rich in visual imagery that they are clearly the creation of someone who had observed the world carefully.
Scholars have established that the Iliad was composed sometime between 900 and 700 B.C and that it preceded the Odyssey by some years. The raw material of both epics was a well-known body of legend about the most famous event in Greek history, the Trojan War, which had occurred several centuries earlier, about 1200 B.C. The probable cause of the Trojan War was economic. Troy’s location enabled it to control all trading and shipping through the Dardanelles; once Troy was destroyed, the Greeks could expand their trade as much as they pleased. According to the legend, however, the war began when Helen, the most beautiful woman in the world and wife of King Menelaus of Sparta, was kidnapped by Paris, a young Trojan prince. It took several years for the outraged Menelaus to assemble an army, for Greece was not a unified nation at that time. Kings and soldiers from all over Greece-Achilles and Odysseus among them-sailed to Troy to bring back Helen. The war went on for 10 years, and finally the Trojans were defeated.
Homer used this legendary materiel as the basis for his poems. He added an original plot structure, realistic characters, dialogue and details, and tales of fabulous monsters. Against the drama on earth he set the drama of the Olympian gods and goddesses, who were interested in human affairs and who often intervened to protect or punish mortals. Homer’s portrayal of the gods made them seen human, they quarreled and lived and were jealous of each other. Although Homer occasionally treats the gods lightly, he is always respectful. A pervasive theme throughout these epics is that respect for the gods is essential to survival.
When the poems were first composed, they were not written down. They were passed orally from one generation to the next. They were memorized by travelling poets called rhapsodes, who recited the epics in banquet halls of kings and noble families. Both poems were recited in public every four years in Athens at the festival of Athena, goddess of wisdom and patron of the city. In time, the study of Homer’s epics became the basis for Greek education. From Homer, Greek youths learned how to tell a story, to portray characters, to give a speech, and to express the Greek ideals if thought and action. The Iliad and the Odyssey became models for later writers, notably the Roman poet Virgil.
Because Odysseus is instrumental in the destruction of Troy, he angers the gods who are sympathetic to Troy. They vow that he will have a long and difficult journey home. This homeward journey -which takes ten years-is the subject of the Odyssey. The Odyssey is a very long poem-11,300 lines divided into twenty-four books. The poem has three major plot strands. First, there is the story of what happens in Ithaca to Odysseus’s’ wife and son as they await his return. The second story is the take of Odysseus’ wanderings during the ten years following the Trojan War. These two stands come together when Odysseus returns to Ithaca and joins forces with his son, Telemachus, to destroy their enemies.
People have interpreted the Odyssey in many different ways. Some read it as simply as exciting adventure story. In this sense, with its emphasis on character and plot, it has been rightly called the forerunner of the novel. Others interpret the Odyssey as the story of every human being, who must overcome temptations and obstacles in the journey through life and in the effort to find a place of peace and joy.
Taken from Adventures in Reading, New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich
EPIC CONVENTIONS EPIC: A long narrative poem in which the characters and action are of heroic proportions.
I. EPIC HERO: *important historical or legendary character of high social position
*embodies the ideals of the nation / culture
*has a flaw which causes him to go astray (Odysseus’ flaw = hubris)
*the epic hero realizes this flaw in time to save himself (unlike the tragic hero)
II. EPIC SETTING: * Vast in scope (accomplished thru reference to events, places and characters outside main narrative)
covers many years
involves large areas of land and/or of sea
*involves both the natural and supernatural worlds
III. EPIC ACTION: *involves many episodes and subplots
*conflict between hero and forces of evil (against the national ideals).
*hero faces unbelievable odds
*hero fights against supernatural forces, but also has supernatural forces on his side
*hero journeys into the underworld / otherworld
*action leads hero on a journey (physical and/or spiritual) to self-knowledge:
1. Separation (hero leaves what is known, what is familiar)
2. Initiation (hero faces many challenges)
3. Return (hero returns, with the boons he gained on his journey)
IV. EPIC LANGUAGE / STRUCTURE: *In Medias Res – story begins in the middle and then goes back to the beginning of the action.
(probably a result of the story’s oral tradition– gets the audience’s attention right away.) *invocation of muse or other deity (1st person / announces subject / briefly describes action)
*formal - figurative language (epic simile – long, involved, complex comparisons)
long catalogs (participants/places/ships/weapons, etc…)
*oral formulas – gave poet time to improvise along known lines, allowed him to suit each audience
epithets: repeated sections, created to fit a strict meter
“Saffron robe of Dawn”
*motifs (Odyssey is about survival / renewal = frequent short scenes of awakening)
V. EPIC THEME: *embodies the ideals / values of a nation or culture
*universal concerns about good and evil / life and death / sin and redemption