Main Themes of The Odyssey – Introduction
The events of this epic poem occur along the Mediterranean Coast during the Bronze Age, which took place in the late 11th century into the 12th century. It is clear from the language used in the poem that Homer sees this age as a time of great innovation in which kings possessed great wealth and warriors won strong favor for their courage from these wealthy kings.
In literature, this translates into heroes having superhuman strength and extraordinary beauty. Gods are able to walk among humans and to bless them with their supreme knowledge, meaning that no human on Earth was truly ever alone in their suffering. This idea translates into wonderful storytelling, such as in the case of our hero Odysseus.
As is the case in any narrative, The Odyssey has many motifs that work to support the story’s overall thematic elements. The motifs mainly speak to traditions that were important in the culture of the time it was written. Many of the most upstanding values are able to be reflected in some way or another thanks to the motifs.
Seeing as the story focuses around a human man trying to get back home to his family while being thwarted by supernatural forces, it makes sense that motifs such as disguised characters, storytelling traditions, and temptress characters are present. These represent the human ability, under great moral character, to withstand temptation and to carry on a legacy of honor by doing what’s right.
Homer’s Odyssey Themes
Here’s a list of major themes in The Odyssey.
- The Power of the Mind Over Physical Strength
- The Dangers of Temptation
- The Dangers of Isolation
- Maturity From Trials and Triumphs
The Power of the Mind Over Physical Strength
This epic poem is about cunning and the power of intellect over physical brute strength. Instead, the focus is on the strength of the mind and strength of willpower.
What makes Odysseus such a hero is not just his outstanding physical strength and his triumphs over impressive monsters, but his ability to withstand mental trials as well and to look forward with cunning to help him get out of certain situations that can’t be fixed with sheer manpower. There are many times throughout the story in which Odysseus knows that his physical abilities alone won’t get him out of a dire situation. However, he is able to plan, to think ahead, and to make calculated moves to outwit his opponents.
The Dangers of Temptation
During all of Odysseus’s travels, he is plagued by temptation. In fact, the very reason that his journey back home turned into such an ordeal is due to the rape of the Trojan princess Cassandra while the Greeks plundered the city. As a result of this weak moment of one man’s surrender to temptation, the goddess Athena sought vengeance against the offending Achaean fleet, complicating Odysseus’s journey home.
Odysseus and his men are repeatedly faced with the possibility of giving in to mortal weaknesses and being punished by the gods as a result. These kinds of acts really anger the gods and make them place further tempting obstacles in humans’ paths. Odysseus himself has a lot of pride over being a hero and his desire for the glory that comes along with that is another type of temptation.
The overarching idea is that if Odysseus and/or his men give in to temptation, it will only continue to prolong their journey home because they will be punished for these misgivings.
The Dangers of Isolation
While he’s away from home, the main guiding light for Odysseus to return home is to be reunited with his family and to protect their honor. Although he meets with many interesting and even challenging forces on his way home, he never loses the hope that he will make it back home. The separation he feels fuels his fire to experience a grand homecoming.
In the Greek heroic tradition, part of a hero’s great triumph is his celebrated return home from his journeys. Part of the problem that arises for Odysseus, though, is that his kingdom may not be as he left it, which would prevent him from receiving this highest triumph.
While his family are isolated from Odysseus, they do their best to preserve his honor in any way possible. However, they are also feeling this isolation, which only increases the threat that Odysseus may not have the homecoming he so desires. The family’s isolation from one another really increase the tension with this idea.
Maturity From Trials and Triumphs
Many heroes are heroes from the start of their story. This is true of Odysseus as well, but he is also still only human. Humans and their weaknesses are contrasted with the purity and mightiness of the gods and goddesses who interfere on their behalf.
In the case of Odysseus, his journey helps him to reaffirm what is important to him—his family and his family’s honor back home. He learns a lot of lessons about triumphs, retribution, overcoming obstacles, and withstanding temptations.
This all translates to his increased maturity. Mirrored with this is his wife and son’s journey to defend Odysseus’s honor while he’s away. They both mature as well, especially his son, Telemachus, as he learns how to be a leader and protector earlier than he would have otherwise. When Odysseus comes home, the two are able to bond over coming together to thwart the mob of suitors and massacre them in payback for terrorizing their home and their family name.