The characters in the Odyssey are definitely not free to be you and me. Their destinies are just that: destiny, and there's not much room to change what's going to happen. Still, there is a way to change how they get there. Fate and free will aren't mutually exclusive, and even the gods have a lot of leeway in how they bring about what's fated. (Not to mention that they're subject to all the same fickleness of human emotion that we are). Add it all up, and you get a pretty flexible notion of just what "fate" means.
Questions About Fate and Free Will
It's clear that Odysseus is responsible for his own actions, like telling Polyphemos his name. It's also clear that certain events are fated to happen from the start. How are both of these possible in the Odyssey?
What is the difference between "fate" and "luck" in the Odyssey? When do the characters ascribe events to the former, and when to the latter, and why? (And is "fate" always bad? Does it ever seem to do good for anyone?)
At what point does divine intervention strip the characters of their ability to act and think for themselves? Can we draw much of a line between, say, the ideas that Athena puts in Odysseus's head and the ideas that he devises on his own?
The Odyssey Theme of Piety
In The Odyssey, piety involves way more than going to church on Sundays, and it has a lot more to do with your day-to-day actions than how you feel in your heart. Want to prove your piety to the gods? Better round up some goats, because you're going to need to get sacrificing. And feasting. And banqueting. And burying your friends properly. And making very sure that you never challenge and insult the gods in anyway. See? There's no way you could fit all that into an hour and a half on Sunday.
Why do the gods care so much about the living respecting the dead? Are the dead more god-like than the living?
How are the suitors—in taking advantage of Odysseus's house in his absence—committing a crime against the gods?
How do the gods reward piety? Do we see any particular cases of the gods granting favors in exchange for earlier piety?
The Odyssey Theme of Justice
There may be a lot of justice in The Odyssey, but there isn't a court of law to be found. Justice seems to be based around some divine sense of cause-and-effect: there's a certain order and balance in the universe, and bad actions (like violating guest-host laws) nets you a bad return. But this isn't the kind of justice where they put you in a cushy prison and try to rehabilitate you. It's the kind where, if you throw a footstool at a beggar, you get an arrow in your heart—and then your dad gets one in his head. Way harsh, Athena.
Questions About Justice
What kind of justice system do the gods follow? What kinds of transgressions are punishable by death?
Is there even a system at all? If the gods are subject to the same whims, grudges, desires, and pettiness as the mortals, isn't "justice" (and especially "divine justice") as inconstant and illogical as basic emotion?
Why does Athena want all the suitors to die—even the sort-of-cute-and-fuzzy ones? Is this "justice" according to the Odyssey?
Is justice in the ancient Greek system just a cover for personal vengeance? Is it fair? What does "fair" even mean in this world? Are there any instances of more civil methods of punishment and reconciliation?
The Odyssey Theme of Pride
Fair enough: Odysseus has a lot to be proud of. He's smart, strong, brave, and good-looking; he's married to a hot, loyal wife; and did we mention his pecs? Because he did. Yeah. He's kind of that guy. And a little bit of pride is just fine—it helps get your name out there and win you immortal fame, the super important Greek concept of kleos. But too much pride, and you're going to start ticking people off—or rather, the gods. And no matter how "godlike" Odysseus is, he's still a human. (Even if he doesn't look like one when he takes off his shirt.)
Questions About Pride
Is pride mostly good or bad in the Odyssey?
What is the difference between humility and straight-up weakness in the Odyssey? Which does Telemachus display? Is the answer to this question the same at the beginning of the epic as it is at the end?
Odysseus seems to learn to check his pride over the course of his adventures. When he meets the Phoenicians, has the change already taken place? Or does it continue all the way through the battle with the suitors?
The Odyssey Theme of Lies and Deceit
In the Odyssey, honesty is most definitely not the best policy. In fact—as we learn when Odysseus idiotically tells Polyphemos his name and address—it's usually a pretty bad policy. All the good guys tell lies: Telemachus sneaks away from his mom; Athena is constantly dressing herself up as some old man or other; and even Penelope comes up with a rad deception about Laertes's magically shrinking shroud. That's not even mentioning Odysseus, who's practically the king of lies. What makes all this deception acceptable to the gods? (Besides the fact that they do it themselves, all the time?) It's all for a good cause: reuniting Ithaca’s First Family.
For what purposes is deception used in the Odyssey? Are these mainly benevolent? When (if ever) do we see deception being used for bad purposes?
Odysseus's cunning certainly gets him out of some tight spots, but does it ever work against him?
Is a particular sex—male or female—more associated with cunning and trickery? Which characters exemplify this? Which characters buck this trend?
The Odyssey Theme of Tradition and Custom
In an accurate reflection of ancient Greek culture, rules of hospitality are among the most revered social and religious laws in the Odyssey. Men are measured by the way they play host or guest, and those that antagonize the hero often do so by failing their part of this important contract. Guests are expected to bring gifts to their host, respect the house and servants, and act with grace and appreciation. Often, the guest is a source of news and bearings from the outside world and expected, in some ways, to sing for his supper. The host is then to provide food, shelter, and even money and transportation if the guest is in need. Breaking these obligations in the Odyssey is disrespectful to the gods and indicates a somewhat subhuman status.
The Phoenicians are the epitome of good hospitality in the Odyssey, yet they are punished by a god for their actions. How is this possibly just? Is this an argument against hospitality?
How is the concept of hospitality related to the gods? Why might piety be so closely related to good hospitality?
The Odyssey Theme of Suffering
It's not surprising that the Odyssey is full of suffering: its characters live in a world without antibiotics, painkillers, and iTunes. (They actually have to get in a car and drive to a store to buy the latest One Direction album.) That's just the curse of mortality. And there's only one way to deal with it: endure. But they're not particularly keep-calm-and-carry-on about it—they may put up with the suffering, but they also weep, grieve, and lament. A lot. And one odd thing: you'd think that people who thought so much about daily suffering would come up with a better afterlife for themselves. Instead, our glimpse of the Underworld makes it look like a lot more of the same.
Questions About Suffering
From the gods' perspective, is there any way for mortals to avoid suffering in the Odyssey?
How do men in this epic rid themselves of pain and suffering? What about Odysseus, specifically?
Odysseus's mother Antikleia dies "out of grief" over her son's absence. Does dying of grief make sense in the context of the Odyssey?
Is there a point to all of Odysseus's suffering? Does he return to Ithaca humbler? Wiser?
So, we know that mortals suffer. What about the gods? Is their suffering less? Different?
Would Penelope suffer less if Odysseus really had died in the Trojan War?
Frankly, trying to keep up with the list of dos and don'ts in ancient Greece is enough to make us want to lie down with an US Weekly and a can of Diet Coke. Whether you're fighting your enemies, hosting some guests, herding some pigs, or burying your companions, there's a right way and wrong way to do it. But for the characters in the Odyssey, living up to their standards—and the standards of the gods—is a matter of life or painful, humiliating death.
Questions About Principles
How does a man win honor in the Odyssey? How does a woman?
What characteristics define honor in the ancient Greek tradition, at least as far as you can tell from this epic?
Is "honor" a human concept in the Odyssey, or one handed down from the gods?
Why does Odysseus's lack of compassion and mercy for the suitors prove not to be a blow to his honor?
The Odyssey Theme of Loyalty
No one told him life was going to be this way—but if he has to spend ten years heading home from a decade-long war, at least Odysseus gets to do it with a boatful of loyal companions and a loving wife waiting for him at home. Loyalty is one of the Odyssey's most important virtues: the epic is full of examples of faithfulness (Penelope, Argos, Eumaios) and betrayal (Klytaimestra, Aphrodite, Melantho). Sure, Odysseus had those little incidents with Circe and Calypso—but he didn't really mean it, since he never "in his heart" gave consent. So it totally doesn't count. Right?
Questions About Loyalty
Is Odysseus justified in (or at least excused for) sleeping with Circe and Calypso?
Many of Odysseus's Ithacan friends and subjects think he's, yet he still considers them loyal to him. But when he's killing the suitors, he mentions that they didn't think he was coming back. Does loyalty mean something different if he's alive or dead?
Is Odysseus's loyalty to his men similar in any way to a wife's loyalty to her husband? Or are they totally different relationships?
The Odyssey Theme of Perseverance
First, Odysseus fights a 10-year-long war. Then, he almost loses his men to a bunch of druggies, is captured by a Cyclops, wins Poseidon's wrath, gets blown years off course, encounters an island full of cannibals, sees all his men turned into pigs and has to sleep with a with to get them turned back; goes to the underworld; passes a six-headed man-eating monster and a giant whirlpool; loses all his men; and finally spends seven years as a sex slave to a goddess. Oh, and when he finally makes it home, he has to kill a hall full of suitors while disguised as a beggar. Through it all, he just keeps on keeping on, heading straight into one disaster after another because, shrug, that's just the way the gods want it to be.
And you thought it was a feat of perseverance just to make it through the Odyssey.
Questions About Perseverance
Which is a more vital skill for Odysseus on his journey home—cunning or determination?
Odysseus is declared god-like in his ability to persevere. How is it that he possesses such "iron" determination? What is it about him and his experiences that might give him greater perseverance than other men?
Does Odysseus ever waver in his determination to return home?
How does Penelope endure at home in Ithaca? How are her tactics of persevering different from Odysseus's?
The Odyssey Theme of Family
In the Odyssey, blood is most definitely thicker than water. Your deeds (or misdeed) don't just reflect on you; they reflect on the honor and reputation (kleos, if you want to be fancy) of your entire family—living, dead, and unborn. That's why Telemachus is actually kind of mad at his father for not just dying in battle; and that's why Achilles is so interested in hearing about his son when Odysseus comes to the Underworld. You think you're under a lot of pressure from your parents? Try having a Greek hero for a dad.
Questions About Family
How do sons view their fathers in the Odyssey? What characteristics do they admire? Are there any sons who don't respect or admire their fathers?
As we all noticed, Homer sometimes gives ancestry and family background for even the most minor of characters. Sure, we might roll our eyes at the seemingly unnecessary digressions, but what might be the point of all this? Why is family history so important?
What does marriage mean in the Odyssey? What kind of marriages do we see, and how do they fit into the epic's concept of the "family"?
How do loyal servants fit into the model of a family in the Odyssey?
In Ancient Greece, hospitality meant a lot more than giving your guest the most crumb-free seat on the Ikea couch. They had a whole word for the relationship between guest and host: xenia. Zeus was in charge of this relationship, and it was one of the ground rules of ancient society. Guests bring news and stories from the outside world; hosts provide food, shelter, and even money if need. And both sides give whatever gifts they can. Why would anyone treat a total stranger like that? You're paying it forward: someday, you just might need someone to do the same.
Questions About Hospitality
Who violates hospitality laws more severely: the suitors by their greed, or Calypso by holding Odysseus captive? Why isn't Calypso punished?
The Phoenicians are the epitome of good hospitality in the Odyssey, yet a god punishes them. How is this possibly just? Is this an argument against hospitality? Or is it just an unfortunate exception?
How is the concept of hospitality related to the gods? Why might piety be so closely related to good hospitality?
The Odyssey Questions
Write your answers (as much as you can include) to the following questions. When you get together with your group, you will be able to add to your answers, so leave some space on your paper to do so. Bring on the tough stuff - there’s not just one right answer.
In a world governed by the gods, is there any room for human will? Do human choices make a difference?
What kind of religion do the characters in The Odyssey seem to have? How do they feel about the gods? What roles do the gods play in their lives?
What does justice mean for the people in The Odyssey? Are revenge and retribution the only options, or do they seem to be working on a different kind of justice?
The people in The Odyssey have no problem boasting, but they also warn against excessive pride. What's the difference? When is it okay to talk big, and when do you need to be little more humble?
Odysseus often gets called "tricky" or "wily." Is this a compliment? An insult? Are there any times when deception is punished?
The world of The Odyssey is all about tradition and custom. Do we see any instances of innovation? How do you think Odysseus would feel about the Internet?
What kinds of roles do women play in the Odyssey? Which women (or goddesses) hold the most power and why?
What's up with the structure of The Odyssey? What is the effect of Homer starting in media res (in the middle of things)?
Is it possible for a modern reader to accept Odysseus's killing of the suitors? If not, how does this change in values affect our enjoyment of Homer's poem?
What makes The Odyssey timeless? What's so appealing that it's resulted in dozens and dozens of spin-offs?