SUBJECTS — World/Ancient Greece; Mythology; Literature; Seafaring;
SOCIAL-EMOTIONAL LEARNING — Humility; Surviving; Marriage; Leadership; Courage;
MORAL-ETHICAL EMPHASIS — Trustworthiness; Responsibility.
AGE: 14+ for the film; 11+ for the book; MPAA Rating — PG-13 (for violent sequences and some sensuality);
Drama; 1997; 165 minutes; Color. Available from Amazon.com.
Read the Book First!
The ancient epic poem The Odyssey is an absorbing, action-packed adventure full of exciting battles, fascinating situations, interesting characters, and fantastic beings. Robert Fitzgerald’s award-winning translation reads easily and is engrossing, almost like a modern popular novel. It is comprehensible to any child who reads at a 10th-grade level. (Many children read at this level much earlier than the age of 15.) The book transports the reader back in time: children (and adults) can easily envision being at the banquet hall of a Greek nobleman listening to the story recited by a blind poet. It is a great loss for any child not to have read The Odyssey before he or she graduates from high school! Click here for an example of the beautiful language of this book.
While the movie is interesting, Homer’s tale is truly exceptional. The film is best used in conjunction with reading the book. Therefore, this Learning Guide focuses on the book. It will help teachers prepare lesson plans for classes with students who are reading the entire epic. For parents, we suggest that you read the book to or with your child. Very good readers can start the Fitzgerald translation on their own at about age 11. This Learning Guide will also help parents discuss the book with their children.
MOVIE WORKSHEETS & STUDENT HANDOUTS
TWM offers the following movie worksheets to keep students’ minds on the film and to focus their attention on the lessons to be learned from the movie.
Teachers can modify the movie worksheets to fit the needs of each class. See also TWM’s Historical Fiction in Film Cross-Curricular Homework Project and Movies as Literature Homework Project.
Additional ideas for lesson plans for this movie can be found at TWM’s guide to Lesson Plans Using Film Adaptations of Novels, Short Stories or Plays.
This movie recounts the efforts of Odysseus to return home after the Trojan War. The names of the characters are the same as those of the classic Greek epic. Most of the incidents in the film bear a strong resemblance to stories from the myth. There are some changes in the plot and the characters. The movie also adds some explanatory material about the birth of Telemachus and the Trojan War.
The characterization of Odysseus by Armand Assante is excellent and will leave a strong impression of the cleverest of the ancient Greek warriors.
SELECTED AWARDS & CAST
1997 Emmy Awards: Best Director for a Miniseries (Konchalovsky); Outstanding Special Visual Effects; 1997 Emmy Awards Nominations: Outstanding Miniseries; Art Direction; Hair Styling. 1998 Golden Globe Awards Nominations: Outstanding Miniseries; Best Actor (Assante).
Armand Assante, Geraldine Chaplin, Greta Scacchi, Isabella Rosselini; Vanessa Williams.
BENEFITS OF THE MOVIE
This movie is best used as an adjunct to reading the book and should be shown to children after the book has been read. The film can be used by teachers as a reward or a supplemental activity. Alternatively, certain portions of the film can be shown in class, analyzed and discussed.
MODERATE. The film is not as good as the book. (This is a comment rather than a criticism. Very little can measure up to the written version of The Odyssey.) The movie eliminates some of the episodes in the book.
In the film, there are several bloody scenes of fighting and men being eaten alive by various monsters. There are some quite sexually suggestive scenes with Circe and Calypso, but nothing explicit is shown other than embracing, kissing and the act of lying down together on a bed. Odysseus is a married man. His allegiance to his wife and family and his strong desire to return to them are a major theme. However, in ancient times, marital fidelity for males had nothing to do with sexual fidelity.
Remember to either read the book with your child or have your child read it. See Read the Book First! As you go through the book review the Helpful Background section and the Discussion Questions for topics to discuss.
If your child watches the movie before reading the book, ask and help your child to answer the Quick Discussion Question.
A Story Centered on the Life of a Man
This story is about a man who understands his humanity and accepts it. Gods and divine beings appear, but unlike many other myths, the Gods are not the focus of interest. Odysseus makes use of his capacity to reason and think (that most human of tools) to deal with the situations he faces. When offered eternal life with the divine nymph, Calypso, Odysseus declines, choosing instead to remain a mortal devoted to his human wife, Penelope. By the end of his travails, both Odysseus and Penelope are past the golden age of their youth, but Odysseus knows that his nature is that of a mortal human being, born and bred into a particular society, and a member of a family who cares for him. His story and his choice are a celebration of humanity.
Odysseus’ weaknesses are quintessentially human. He suffers from pride (hubris) and sometimes fails to see the frailties of his friends. Odysseus is curious; almost terminally curious in some cases. He struggles to control his desires and largely succeeds. His sailors on the other hand, cannot control their desires, with fatal consequences.
A Man is Defined by His Place in His Community and His Family
Odysseus never abandons the desire to return home to Ithaca, his wife, and his son. In ancient societies, a man was defined by his relationship to his town and his family. The attachment of a well-grounded modern person is broader and, while tied to family, children, and country, it is often not closely related to a physical location.
Allegiance to Family is a Virtue
The story of the Trojan conflict and the return of the Greeks from Troy involves issues of loyalty and fidelity to marriage. Helen’s betrayal of Menelaus, Agamemnon’s sacrifice of his daughter Iphigenia in return for favorable winds for the Greek fleet, and the revenge on Agamemnon by his wife Clytemnestra, are contrasted with the constant fidelity of Odysseus and Penelope to their marriage. Thus, the importance of loyalty to family is a major theme in The Odyssey. Odysseus is twice offered enticing alternatives to home and Penelope. First with Calypso, who would give him immortality if he stayed with her, and then with the pretty young Phaeacian princess Nausicaa. Each time he declines in favor of Ithaca, his own family, and Penelope. (Note that sexual fidelity for men was not considered a virtue in the ancient world. Odysseus was not seen as transgressing his marriage vows by sleeping with the various women and female beings he meets on his journey.)
The Celebration of a Man Who Uses His Mind
Odysseus is a great warrior, but not in the manner of Achilles or Ajax. These heroes excelled at strength, ferociousness, and skill in the use of arms, while Odysseus was merely competent in battle. The bow, the weapon at which Odysseus favored, was not often used as a weapon in battle. Odysseus is the cleverest of the Greeks in counsel and in strategy. He is more powerful than any single soldier, including the great Achilles. Time and again during the Trojan War, his intelligence and diplomacy save the day for the Greeks. In the end, after the Greeks have been unable for ten years to breach the walls of Troy, it is Odysseus’ stratagem of the Trojan Horse that finally enables the Greeks to sack the city. Odysseus has the ability to use his mind and out-think his opponents, be they Trojan or Cyclops.
The Necessity of Restraint
Men who don’t restrain themselves suffer or even perish. Both Odysseus and his men suffer from lack of restraint. Odysseus incurs wrath from Poseidon because he rashly identifies himself to Polythemus. His remaining soldiers die because they cannot restrain themselves from eating the sheep and cattle of the Sun God.
A Warning Against Pride
The Odyssey is a warning that no matter how clever, mankind is still dependent on the will of the gods. Bad luck and circumstances can easily overmatch any human being. Odysseus’ ultimate triumph, returning home and defeating the suitors, could not have been accomplished without the sufferance and the help of the fickle and amoral gods. (Zeus had to instruct Poseidon to allow Odysseus to come home. Zeus also instructed Calypso to release Odysseus. Athena was at Odysseus’ side during the battle with the suitors.)
Hospitality – One of the Ancient World’s Highest Virtues
In the ancient world, travelers and strangers were to be given hospitality. As Menelaus said, when rebuking a retainer for not immediately showing hospitality to Telemachus:
You were no idiot before, Eteoneus,
but here you are talking like a child of ten.
Could we have made it home again — and Zeus
give us no more hard roving — if other men
had never fed us, given us lodging? Book IV lines 34-38
Guests, in return were not to abuse that hospitality. Thus, when a Trojan prince, while a guest at the palace of Menelaus, stole the king’s wife and treasure, it was a breach of the rules of hospitality and led to the Trojan War. The suitors of Penelope committed a capital offense when they abused the rules of hospitality by taking over the home of an absent man. To compound their crime, they themselves abused a beggar (Odysseus in disguise) and failed to extend to him the hospitality that they had demanded and abused. The interest of the gods in punishing abuses of hospitality is shown by the sack of Troy and by the direct intervention of Athena, helping Odysseus to trap and kill the suitors.
The Cyclops is lawless, obeying neither the rules imposed by gods or any society. He violates the obligation of hospitality, eating six of Odysseus’ men before Odysseus blinds him. Eumaios, the swineherd, the first human being Odysseus meets when he returns to Ithaca, is also the first host who is neither god nor aristocrat. This episode shows that rules of hospitality extend to the lower classes.
The Role of Women in The Odyssey
The main human female characters are Penelope, Nausicaa, Arete, and Helen. Their characters are strongly and sympathetically drawn. Penelope is a heroine for her constancy. Even the minor female human characters Anticleia (Odysseus’ mother) and the servant, Eurycleia, are striking personalities.
The female divine characters of the fantasy world of Odysseus’ journey (the nymph Calypso, the witch Circe, and the Sirens) are limited to their islands and each represents some part of the female personality perceived as dangerous. Circe leads to overindulgence (note that the benefits of restraint are a major theme in the epic). Odysseus’ stay with Calypso is characterized by barely controllable grieving, suspension of activity, sensuality, and isolation, all traits that are antithetical to a healthy human society. The Sirens’ song is alluring but leads sailors to their deaths.
Emphasis on Survival
While Odysseus embraces his identity as a mortal, his story is one of tenacious survival. Unlike his men, and unlike the warriors at Troy, many of whom sought death in battle, Odysseus affirms the choice of life over an easy surrender to death. There are times when he contemplates suicide or states, ingenuously, that he wishes that he had died. There is a long period of time (e.g. seven years in Ogygia), when overcome by the hardships and tragedies that he has endured (held in thrall by the magic of Calypso), Odysseus lapses into lassitude and passivity. But ultimately he surges back. Odysseus will not give up until he can overcome a foe or reach safety.
Others in the story do not cling to life so tenaciously. Examples are Anticleia, Odysseus’ mother who dies of grief over his absence and his crew who, although warned, slaughter the livestock of Helios to feed their hungry bellies.
The treatment of sleep in The Odyssey shows the profound distrust that the ancients had of this necessary bodily function. In sleep, a warrior loses consciousness and control. He is vulnerable to the transgressions of others, as when Odysseus’ men open the bag containing the winds that blow the ship away from Ithaca or when, as he sleeps, his companions fatally slaughter Helios’ livestock.
Sleep is also an occasion for the transition from the world of fantasy to the world of men. Odysseus sleeps after he emerges from the sea and crawls onto the beach at Scherzi, the way station between the magical world of the voyage and the world of mankind. Odysseus also sleeps during the final voyage to Ithaca the last transition from the world of magic to the world of men.
The Odyssey teaches obedience to wise leadership. Odysseus’ men repeatedly defy him. They repeatedly meet adversity and eventually die due to their failure to obey. Odysseus is not a great leader, failing at crucial times to fully inform his men of the reasons for his decisions and being asleep when they make important mistakes. Odysseus does not have the trust and loyalty of his men, but this might be asking too much for a three-year voyage to nowhere.
Appearance vs. Reality
The difference between appearance and reality is a constant tension in The Odyssey. Odysseus appears in Ithaca disguised as a beggar. Athena is always assuming one type of disguise or another. The suitors are venal and base, but apparently young and handsome. The Sirens sing a beautiful song but it leads only to death. Circe appears to be hospitable but turns her guests into animals. And of course, the entire epic has as its background the Trojan Horse, apparently a gift, but in reality, a hiding place for the men who will sack and burn Troy.
The movie tells the story chronologically. The epic takes a much different course:
Books I – IV — Sets the scene of Odysseus detained on Ogygia and disorder at home; Telemachus leaves Ithaca to search for news of his father.
Book V — Zeus instructs Calypso to let Odysseus go; Odysseus declines Calypso’s offer of immortality and journeys on a raft from Ogygia to Scheria.
Books VI – XII — Odysseus spends a few days with the Phaeacians in which he reveals his identity, declines the hand of Nausicaa, wins an athletic competition, secures passage home, and tells of his travels in the fantasy world.
Book XIII — The Phaeacians take Odysseus home and are punished by Poseidon; Odysseus arrives on Ithaca and is met by Athena who prepares him for the trials to come.
Books XIV – XXIV — Odysseus meets Telemachus, deals with the suitors, is reunited with Penelope, and reestablishes himself in his home and on his Island.
In Books VI – XII Homer has Odysseus, rather than the poet, describe what happened in the fantasy world of his voyage. This occurs in the transition world of Phaeacia and is a means of allowing Odysseus to come to terms with what happened to him on the voyage before he takes up the challenges of the real world in Ithaca. Homer, as all great poets, was an excellent psychologist.
Ogygia is a place of exile, suspension and isolation. It is called the navel of the sea. Odysseus’ travels from Ogygia to the reacquisition of his place as King of Ithaca can be seen as a story of rebirth. Seen another way, from the time he builds the raft on Ogygia, through the way station world of Phaeacia, and until he is reunited with his father on Ithaca, Odysseus is step-by-step progressively reintegrated into human society.
Simile is a particularly powerful literary tool in the hands of Homer. A simile describes by comparison, in which the attributes of a person, action, object, situation or place are described as something ordinarily thought of as quite different. Similes use the words “like”, “as,” or “so” for their logical connectors. An example of a simile is “He roared like a lion.” In this simile, “roared” is the subject, “like” is the connector, and “lion” is the description.
Homer exploits simile beautifully by painting word pictures and by placing the subject of the comparison, in our example, the “roar” at the end of the simile. Homer often splits the simile, sandwiching the description between two references to the subject. He also adds colorful descriptions throughout the simile, to the subject and to the description. This draws out and enriches the image.
We have analyzed three examples of similes used in the Robert Fitzgerald translation of The Odyssey. The connectors are in italics and are capitalized. The subjects are in bold. The first example occurs the night before Odysseus slays the suitors. At this point, Odysseus is in his own hall, but incognito, disguised as a beggar…
held hard in leash, submitted to his mind,
while he himself rocked, rolling from side to side,
AS a cook turns a sausage, big with blood
and fat, at a scorching blaze, without a pause,
to broil it quick: SO he rolled left and right,
casting about to see how he, alone,
against the false outrageous crowd of suitors
could press the fight. (Book XX, lines 23 – 30. The structure of this simile is that Odysseus “rocked” [subject] AS a cook turns a sausage … [description]…SO [second connector] he “rolled” [the subject again] Notice how the images are enhanced throughout the simile and especially at the end when Homer adds the fact that Odysseus rolled “left and right, casting about to see how he, alone, against the false outrageous crowd of suitors could press the fight.”)
Another example is the following description of the suitors after Odysseus has finished with them:
In blood and dust
he saw that crowd all fallen, many and many slain.
THINK of a catch that fishermen haul in to a half moon bay in a fine-meshed net from the white-caps of the sea: how all are poured out on the sand, in throes for the salt sea, twitching their cold lives away in Helios’ fiery air: SO lay the suitors heaped on one another. (Book XXII lines 431 – 437. The structure of this simile is “that crowd all fallen” [the subject] … “THINK [a unique logical connector] … of a catch that fishermen haul … [the description] … SO [second connector] lay the suitors [the subject again].”)
A final example is a “simple” simile from the reunion of Odysseus and Penelope:
Now from his breast into his eyes the ache
of longing mounted, and he wept at last,
his dear wife, clear and faithful, in his arms
AS the sunwarmed earth is longed for by a swimmer
spent in rough water where his ship went down
under Poseidon’s blows, gale winds and tons of sea.
Few men can keep alive through a big surf
to crawl, clotted with brine, on kindly beaches
in joy, in joy, knowing the abyss behind. (Book XXIII lines 262 – 268. In this simile, the longing of a husband for his wife is compared to the longing of a shipwrecked sailor for the shore.)
Metaphor is the application of a word or phrase to an object or concept it does not literally denote. The metaphors used by Homer are lovely as well. A few examples follow:
“His rage held hard in leash, submitted to his mind …” Book XX, lines 23 & 24;
“in throes for the salt sea” Book XXII lines 431 – 437;
“kindly beaches,” (Book XXII, line 267)
Telemachus and Nestor’s son are on their journey to the Menelaus’ palace when “… they slept the night./But up when the young Dawn’s finger tips of rose opened in the east they hitched the team once more to the painted car, and steered out eastward….” (Book III lines 533 – 535.) Note that one line of this short passage contains as many as five metaphors, “young Dawn’s,” “Dawn’s fingertips,” “fingertips of rose,” and “Dawn … opened” and “finger[s] … opened,”;
“the singing nymph with sun-bright hair” (Book XI, line 8)
“Kharybdis, dire gorge of the salt sea tide” (Book XII lines 304 & 5).
This work abounds with symbols. Let us name a few:
The marriage bed is a symbol for the marriage between Penelope and Odysseus.
The bow is a symbol of the power of established authority on Ithaca, and of Odysseus’ authority. No one but Odysseus can string it. When strung, Odysseus uses it to kill the suitors, the main sources of lawlessness in Ithaca.
The suitors themselves are a symbol of the anarchy that comes when lawful authority is missing.
Argus is Odysseus’ dog, trained by his master, but just a puppy when Odysseus embarked for the Trojan war. When Odysseus returns home, the dog sees his master, wags his tail and expires. This is a symbol for the domestic life that Odysseus has lost due to his twenty year absence from home.
A Greek Amphora Showing Odysseus Listening to the Sirens
Based on a careful reading of The Iliad, ancient Troy was rediscovered in present-day Turkey by Heinrich Schliemann, a German-born American amateur archaeologist. Beginning with Schliemann’s work (1870 – 1890) there have been many excavations of the site. There was a settlement in Troy from 3000 BC until 400 AD. Archaeologists have found nine different layers, each established on the one before. See e.g., Archaeological Evidence of Troy.
The Odyssey: An Oral Tradition
Most people believe that The Odyssey was composed as an oral poem, that was amended and improved by the bards who recited it from memory. There are many arguments for this position, chief among them the use of a multitude of fixed phrases employed repeatedly or in several variations. The variations permit the thought to be expressed in a different number of metrical feet allowing the poet to meet the demands of the hexameter verse. The most frequent of these fixed phrases with variations are the noun-epithets for people or gods. Just a few examples are:
Son of Laertes, versatile Odysseus
Odysseus, raider of cities
Odysseus, canniest of men
The great tactician
That kingly man, Odysseus
Lord Odysseus, the long enduring
Odysseus, master of land ways and sea ways
young Dawn’s finger tips of rose
young Dawn with finger tips of rose
Entertainment in ancient Greece consisted of stories recited to large groups of people. In The Odyssey itself, there are several examples of storytelling in ways similar to that in which The Odyssey would have been told. In each retelling, the listeners were looking for the beauty of the poetry, to think about the story again; to wear and enjoy the old clothes, so to speak.
Homer is thought to have been born in a Greek Colony in Asia Minor around 800 B.C.E. The Iliad, which tells the story of the Trojan War, is also attributed to Homer.
[No suggested Answers.]
2. It has been said that the genius of Odysseus lies in his intelligence to quickly assess any situation and his ability to select the best course. He also has the strength and resourcefulness to act on his ideas. Is this wisdom?
No. Being a clever tactician is important, especially in a warrior. It is not wisdom. A wiser man than Odysseus would not have given in to hubris and would not have angered the gods. While Odysseus was a clever man and this was one part of his intelligence, he has many more virtues, such as his allegiance to home and family, his fidelity (in the way of the ancients) to his wife, his ability to tell tales, and his ability to restrain his appetites.
3. In this story, what was Odysseus’ most grievous loss?
The loss of 20 years, the prime of their lives, with his wife and the fact that he was not with his son while the boy was growing up. To a lesser extent, his tragedy is the loss of his men.
4. Why is Odysseus a hero?
There is no one correct response. A good response would include some the following concepts: Because he triumphs, not over a person, but over adversity, because he perseveres, because he recognizes who he is despite temptations to become immortal or to marry a young girl, because he is able to restrain himself (with notable exceptions), because he survives due to his wits and because his weaknesses (e.g., pride, difficulty in seeing the faults of his companions) are so human.
5. What is Athena to Odysseus?
There is no one correct response. A good response would include some of the following concepts: Athena is the god who loves Odysseus the most. She intervenes on his behalf and counsels him. When he performs miracles in battle, he feels her presence beside him, battling along with him. She tells him: “Two of a kind we are, contrivers both…. I am always with you in times of trial, a shield to you in battle, ….” Book XIII lines 379 & 380. In mythology, no god and man are soul mates like Athena and Odysseus. But on a deeper level, Athena represents Odysseus’ rationality, patience and understanding. She embodies the strength and resilience of Odysseus’ human spirit which works, perhaps in his unconscious, even through the seven years of suspended animation with Calypso.
6. What are the differences between the Judeo/Christian/Muslim concept of God and the gods of the ancients as shown in The Odyssey?
There is no one correct response, and it is beyond the scope of a Learning Guide to sum up religions, but a good response would include some of the following concepts: The ancient gods required obedience, recognition of their power over man, and recognition of the obligations of family and hospitality. The gods of the ancients had attributes of nature (wind, the sea, earthquakes, thunderbolts) or attributes of society or of men (war, technology, art, love). The gods of the ancients could feel sexual attraction, friendship, hatred and could argue in a petty way. The Judeo/Christian/Muslim God is sole (there is only one God) and also requires obedience, but these religions focus on recognition of God’s glory and, in addition, impose a moral code of conduct much stricter than simply a focus on family and hospitality. (This answer is limited to ancient Greek religion as described in The Odyssey. A full study of the religion of the ancients is beyond the scope of this Learning Guide.)
7. What was the ancient Greek view of death shown in The Odyssey? Does the world of the dead seem to be a good place?
The soul or shade of a person is represented as a gibbering insubstantial being that lives in eternal regret at the loss of its body and of the substantive nature of life. If the person died unfulfilled, that lack of fulfillment persists in the shade. Hades is not a happy place but it is not a place of torture like the Christian hell. The shades regret their deaths and constantly feel the need to become corporeal again. (This answer is limited to the view of death shown in The Odyssey. A full study of the religion of the ancients is beyond the scope of this Learning Guide.)
8. Why does an ancient story such as The Odyssey interest modern audiences?
It deals with issues that are basic to mankind, which we are still attempting to resolve today. Examples are: the struggle to get what we need against forces that are stronger than we are (every man or woman has his own odyssey); the love of home; the necessity of restraint; how to be a good leader or a good follower; the importance of using our minds and trying to think of ways to get out of bad situations; the struggle between sensuality (Calypso) and mature love (Penelope).
9. The society of The Odyssey is very much like our own, despite being set in a different continent thousands of years ago. The story illustrates many of our own concerns, foibles, strengths and weaknesses. What does this tell you about human nature and great literature?
See response to the preceding question.
10. Describe the differences between the society set out in The Odyssey and modern post-industrial society.
There are many differences, among them, urban vs. rural, agrarian vs. industrial, democracy vs. monarchy. There are also differences in the attitude toward hospitality and the attitude toward sexual fidelity, both male and female.
11. Describe the main female characters in The Odyssey. Who are they? How are they portrayed? Is there any difference between the human female characters and the divine female characters of the fantasy world of Odysseus’ journey?
See discussion in the Helpful Background Section.
12. What was Odysseus doing on Calypso’s island for seven years?
There is no one right answer. A good answer would include the following: Odysseus was bewitched by Calypso; Odysseus was mourning for his inability to return to Ithaca and Penelope and for his men and working through (in a psychological sense) all that had happened to him.
13. In the world of The Odyssey, what crimes are consistently punished?
Two, the first is hubris and the second is abuse of the code of hospitality, either the failure to be hospitable to strangers or a guest’s abuse of hospitality.
14. There are still many cultures in the world today and in the recent past which have valued hospitality in a way similar to the ancient Greeks. However, modern Western culture does not hold hospitality in such high regard. Would you make your home available to a homeless person who came in off the street? Would you criticize someone who did not? Would you wonder about the sanity of someone who did? If the attitude toward hospitality has changed, why and how did it change?
Certainly, modern society views hospitality differently than the ancients. In ancient society it was a cardinal sin to deny shelter to a stranger. It is no longer an overriding moral imperative to be hospitable to strangers. In fact, we would question the judgment, or even the sanity, of someone who threw the doors of their home open to strangers. Strangers in need are cared for by governmental and charitable organizations which specialize in caring for the needy. Most people view their role as contributing either time or money to such organizations. We do not know the reason for the change. Perhaps it’s because society has become more complex. Maybe the availability of lodging in hotels and inns has removed the necessity for hospitality. Perhaps it’s because modern day life is too busy and too pressured for person to person hospitality. Perhaps it’s a breakdown of standards over time.
15. What role does revenge play in The Odyssey? Is this consistent with the modern view of revenge?
Actually, revenge is not a real issue in The Odyssey. Odysseus’ right to kill the suitors is taken for granted. This is probably because elimination of the suitors is essential for other beneficial reasons, specifically, to reestablish order in Ithaca. However, Odysseus’ revenge on the suitors is never questioned from a moral standpoint. The modern view of revenge is described by Shakespeare in Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet or West Side Story. In modern Western society, revenge is reserved for the state and violent revenge is punished as a crime.
16. What does the term “hero” mean to you? Is this the same as the ancient Greek concept? Was Odysseus a hero? If you think he was, describe his heroic qualities. If you think he wasn’t, contrast his experience and attributes with those of characters who were heroes.
The modern view of a hero is someone who does something great or wonderful, usually through actions which benefit others or society as a whole. Often it means sacrificing oneself for others. Greek heros included Achilles (the strongest warrior, the most skilled in the use of weapons) and Odysseus (the best tactician). But Odysseus was more than merely a clever warrior and charming diplomat. He was a man who, above all, knew who he was and who persevered against all odds and all temptations to attain his goal of returning home. Odysseus is especially dear to our hearts because his goal was simply to get home, something we all can understand.
17. What is the attitude of The Odyssey toward the sea?
The sea is dangerous and keeps sailors (Odysseus chief among them) away from their homes. Odysseus is frequently tested by dangerous sea voyages. The hostility of the sea is reflected in the fact that Poseidon, god of the sea, is angry at Odysseus. Poseidon’s son, Polythemos, is a threat to Odysseus and eats several of his men. The ability to cross the sea easily, possessed for example by the Phaeacians, is seen as magical. In contrast, the land is seen as hospitable.
18. What does the term “beware of Greeks bearing gifts” mean and how does it relate to Odysseus?
The term means that if someone is in an adversarial position to you (such as a competitor for a job or for the affections of someone) and suddenly they give you a gift or appear to do something for your benefit, you should be very careful. It refers to the Trojan Horse (Odysseus’ idea) which appeared to be a gift by the Greeks to the Trojans.
19. What does the term “a Trojan Horse” mean?
a subversive group or device placed within enemy ranks. Source: American Heritage Dictionary, Third Edition.
20. Is The Odyssey a tragedy?
No. Odysseus, the hero of the tale, reaches his destination and reclaims his home, although with great losses. It is, instead, an epic.
21. Most societies celebrate stories involving a journey. Give some examples other than The Odyssey. What is the attraction of these stories?
The biblical story of the journey of the Jews from Egypt to Canaan; the journey of many Americans from the East to the Western frontier; The Wizard of Oz. For children, the myth of the journey deals with the fear that they will be separated from their home and family. As they mature, they observe in their lives people leaving and returning, for war, for adventure, for business, to fulfill their dreams. There is always a tension about whether the journey will be successful, will the person who takes the journey be the same when they return as when they left, will the people who remained at home be faithful, will the person who takes the journey return home or find a better life and stay where they journeyed to. In this way, the myth of the journey, whether there is a return or not, has a fascination for all ages.
22. Between the Trojan War and his travels, Odysseus was gone from home for twenty years. Imagine that you were separated (with no contact) from your loved ones, all family, boyfriends or girlfriends, for twenty years. What would it be like to be reunited with them? How would things have changed? How would you feel?
There is no one correct response. A good response would include some of the following concepts: There would be joy at the return but each group would have changed and developed during the time away and whether the reunion is successful will depend upon the strength of the bond in the first place, whether the changes of the individuals over time and because of their different experiences were compatible with each other; and whether new bonds could be formed by the individuals due to their new life together. Reunions between soldiers coming home from war and family that stayed behind are often fraught with difficulty because the soldiers have had new and different experiences, many of them very intense.
23. Elpenor was the youngest and least accomplished of Odysseus’ companions. He fell from Circe’s roof while drunk and broke his neck. Odysseus met Elpenor’s shade in Hades and promised to give his body a proper burial when Odysseus returned to Circe’s island. What is the significance of this promise?
Elpenor is not a hero. He dies, not in battle, not in a dangerous enterprise, but when he is at leisure. He is inattentive, slips and falls. An accidental death is much more likely for most of us than a hero’s death in battle. The meaning is that even the least of us deserve respect.
1. Odysseus was smart and clever, but was he wise?
A wise man would not have suffered from pride (hubris) and would not have offended the gods.
2. Does Odysseus survive because the gods love him or due to his own effort?
Some gods love Odysseus and others hate him. One could argue that a theme in The Odyssey is that in the face of the forces of nature, man cannot always control his destiny. (Odysseus loses his youth. He cannot get home without divine intervention, cannot get near Ithaca without the gift of winds from Aolios.) On the other hand, and especially if Athena is seen as a symbol for the force of Odysseus’ nature, then The Odyssey can be seen as an affirmation that with effort, intelligent choices, and restraint, but perhaps only after suffering grievous losses, man can triumph over nature and achieve his goal.
3. Why is Odysseus permitted to sleep with several female divine personages while, if Penelope had been sexually unfaithful to Odysseus, she would have been disgraced? What is the view of The Odyssey about the loyalty of one spouse to another?
It was the morality of the day that a husband did not have to restrict his sexual activities to his wife. In fact, the story celebrates Odysseus’ faithfulness to Penelope in that he persevered for years in trying to get back to her. Odysseus refused an offer of immortality with a beautiful nymph (Calypso), and declined a marriage to a young princess (Nausicaa); all in favor of his family and life in Ithaca. It is of central importance to this tale that Penelope was faithful to Odysseus and permitted no other man to be her lover. This is a function of the disparate treatment of the sexes in ancient times. It has carried over to some societies today, such as traditional cultures in the Middle East and honor cultures. See Learning Guide to “Behind the Sun“.
4. How well do you think that Odysseus and Penelope will get along after their twenty-year separation? What are some of the difficulties that you would anticipate them having?
There is no one right answer. A good answer should focus on the fact that in 20 years each will have grown and changed but they will not have had the opportunity to grow and change together. The question is whether their new growth would be compatible and whether the bonds from the past are strong enough to overcome any changes. Reunions between soldiers coming home from war and family that stayed behind are often fraught with difficulty because the soldiers have had new and different experiences, many very intense, and these have caused them to change in major ways. In addition, each would have gotten used to their own and different lives alone. Penelope will be used to sleeping alone. The person in the bed will not be the young man of her memory, but an older man who may snore and probably has nightmares that wake him from sleep. Penelope will be used to making her own decisions about many aspects of life that Odysseus will now control. Odysseus, who made all his own decisions for the ten years of the voyage, must now share decision making with another person.
Leadership and Courage
5. Describe Odysseus as a leader. What were his strengths and weaknesses?
Odysseus had some major failings as a leader. It was not so much that he didn’t bring his men home, but rather that in many instances he failed to communicate with them. What harm would it have caused to tell them that adverse winds were in the bag that he brought onto the ship from Aolia?
6. Who was braver, Odysseus or Penelope?
They were both brave. Any answer should acknowledge that their courage was different and involved different strengths and challenges.
MORAL-ETHICAL EMPHASIS (CHARACTER COUNTS)
Discussion Questions Relating to Ethical Issues will facilitate the use of this film to teach ethical principles and critical viewing. Additional questions are set out below.
(Be honest; Don’t deceive, cheat or steal; Be reliable — do what you say you’ll do; Have the courage to do the right thing; Build a good reputation; Be loyal — stand by your family, friends and country)
1. Is honesty a virtue observed by Odysseus? What do you make of this?
Honesty is not a virtue observed by Odysseus. In fact, Athena celebrates his skill at deception. See Book XIII, lines 373 – 378 “… even a god might bow to you in ways of dissimulation./ You! You chameleon!/ Bottomless bag of tricks! Here in your own country/ would you not give your stratagems a rest/ or stop spellbinding for an instant?/ You play a part as if it were your own tough skin…. Two of a kind we are,/ contrivers, both. Of all men now alive/ you are the best in plots and storytelling.” Sometimes Odysseus dissembles to protect himself in difficult situations. At other times he does not. Honesty is more of a virtue in the Judeo/Christian/Muslim religions than among the ancient Greeks.
2. Why were the female servants of Odysseus’ household who consorted with the suitors killed? What duty did they violate?
Actually, Odysseus instructed Telemachus not to kill them, but Telemachus killed them anyway. They violated the duty of loyalty, a duty which Penelope and various servants who were not killed had honored. Penalties for violation of the duty of loyalty were heavier among the ancients than they are now.
See also questions in the Marriage section above.
(Do what you are supposed to do; Persevere: keep on trying!; Always do your best; Use self-control; Be self-disciplined; Think before you act — consider the consequences; Be accountable for your choices)
3. What is the position of The Odyssey on self-control and self-discipline?
Many of the stories in The Odyssey are designed to show that self-discipline and self-restraint are important, even life-saving, virtues. One example is the failure of Odysseus’ companions to withstand the allure of Helios’ cattle to feed their starving bellies. As a result, all but Odysseus, who did not partake of the feast, are lost. It was Odysseus’ will to live, self-control and discipline that permitted him to survive such deadly situations.
ASSIGNMENTS, PROJECTS & ACTIVITIES
2. After students have read The Odyssey, ask them to create a character who goes on a journey which parallels a mental journey the character takes. Questions to consider while writing the story: The reasons the character had for taking the journey. How was the character changed by the journey? What events in the journey caused the change? Who did the character meet while on the journey and what effect did they have on him? What is the structure of the story? The story should be five to ten pages long, typed, double spaced.
BRIDGES TO READING
The Odyssey itself is the basis for this Learning Guide. We read the translation by Robert Fitzgerald which won the Bollingen Award in 1961.
The Gold of Troy: Searching for Homer’s Fabled City (Vladimir Tolstikov and Mikhail Treister, published by. The Ministry of Culture of the Russian Federation, The A.S. Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts in association with Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1996.) This is a catalogue of an exhibition of artifacts from the archaeological exploration of ancient Troy.
Greek Fire (Oliver Taplin. Atheneum, 1990.) This book contains hundreds of beautiful pictures that help illustrate the ways the modern world has been inspired and transformed by Greek culture. It also has information on Greek tragedy, philosophy, science, mythology, politics, and warfare.
LINKS TO THE INTERNET
In addition to websites which may be linked in the Guide and selected film reviews listed on the Movie Review Query Engine, the following resources were consulted in the preparation of this Learning Guide:
- Singers, heroes, and gods in the Odyssey by Charles Segal, 2001 and
- Homeric Moments: clues to delight in reading the Odyssey and the Iliad by Eva T. H. Brann, 2002;
- Articles on “Homer” and “Epic” in Encyclopædia Britannica;
This Learning Guide was last updated on July 21, 2011.