The Odyssey

Informal Prompts

  • Food and drink seem to define culture in the Odyssey, to the point that eating food from another culture can literally turn you into them, and cause you to forget about your homeland. What practices do you engage in that make you feel connected to your cultural home? What aspects of modern life do you think define a culture?

  • Odysseus is described as a “man of many ways,” implying he is both a skilled leader and a cunning, even deceitful person. Do you think lying can be used for good? When is deceit a strength, and when is it a flaw?

  • The Odyssey is a Greek “homecoming story,” a genre of epic poetry which assumes the journey back from war is as difficult as the war itself. In the course of his journey, for example, Odysseus must learn to tone down his own warlike character he gained during the war. What challenges have you faced returning to “normal” after a trying experience? Are there any parallels between Odysseus’ experience and your own?

Short answer / Critical Response

Questions for Writing and/or Discussion

  • How would you re-tell the Odyssey in your own words, highlighting the dramatic parts and main themes? Re-tell the story of the Cyclops in your own words, recording your tale in an audio recording, on Snapchat, or in some other form of social media. Imagine you are telling it to your peers.

  • Odysseus chooses to return home, rather than stay with Calypso and become immortal. Why might he do this? First, compare human life with those of the gods in the Greek worldview. Then, venture an argument about why Odysseus might find human life preferable.

  • Hospitality is a recurring theme in the Odyssey, and violations of hospitality provide a key motivating conflict for the poem. Write a “Rules of Hospitality” handbook outlining the expectations for both hosts and guests in the Odyssey, and the significance and penalties of breaking them.

  • What makes someone “heroic” in the Odyssey? Compare Odysseus and Telemachus in this regard, by picking 3 places in the poem where each character acts heroic in some way, and highlight the character traits they display.

In-Class Activities

In small groups, analyze the questions assigned to your group. Select specific passages to read out loud to the class and elaborate on the connotations of the passage.

  1. What kind of father-son relationships are denoted and connoted throughout the epic? How are father-son relationships connected to identity, according to Homer?

  2. In Book IX, the “man of many ways” may be criticism. Is it? Analyze some examples where Homer implies that Odysseus is flawed.

  3. What does eating symbolize in Greek culture? Choose two or three examples to quote and to explain to the class.

  4. What are the characteristics of a hero? Quote two or three examples to prove your answer to the definition of a hero.

  5. Odysseus encounters a number of hospitable lands where he could potentially make a decent home. Name these and why does he ultimately reject them as new homes?

  6. Besides the cannibalism of some of the islands where Odysseus lands, why does he consider these places inhospitable. Look especially at his description of Lamos, the island inhabited by Laestrygonians.

  7. Is the killing of the handmaidens in Book XXII necessary? Why or why not?

  8. Is Odysseus’s killing of the suitors just? Why or why not?

  9. Is it just that Odysseus blame the gods for his long journey? Why or why not?

  10. Examine two or three instances where Odysseus might be to blame for his own suffering.

Essay Prompts

Questions for Writing

  • Write a sequel to the Odyssey. What does Odysseus do once he returns home, and does he stay there? How do the personality traits, virtues and vices of Odysseus, Penelope, and Telemachus play out at home, and how do the gods respond to the situation?

  • Write a dialogue between Penelope and Iocasta from Oedipus Rex, in which the two compare their experiences. What did each think of the motivations and actions of the characters around them, and what strategies did each use to navigate the situations in which they found themselves?

  • Reconstruct the story arc of the Odyssey in a Facebook discussion thread between the poem’s major characters, including Odysseus, Telemachus, Penelope, the Suitors, Athena, the Cyclops, and so on. See an example here.

  • Homer portrays Odysseus’s homecoming as a set of trials and tribulations to be overcome. And yet what is more important may be Odysseus’s reaction, behavior, and actions in response to the numerous obstacles in his way. What do his actions or behaviors reveal about his character and his identity? Choosing 3 or 4 obstacles or events from your assigned chapters, discuss how they connote the total sum of the heroic man. (Is he a hero? In what ways yes, and no?)

  • Odysseus’s representation of foreign lands and cultures encountered on his travels conveys either approval or disapproval. Are Odysseus’s versions credible? Does Homer challenge our faith in Odysseus as a reliable storyteller? Choose 3 or 4 depicted cultures and analyze how Homer frames them through Odysseus’ words.

  • What does the violence in Book 22 symbolize? What does it connote about the home or the homecoming? What does it imply about the figure of the hero? How does this late chapter change your interpretation of one other event in the earlier books?

  • Throughout the sections of the Odyssey we have read, we see several interactions between the gods and humanity. Select 3 of these moments and analyze what these exchanges reveal about the characters of both god and humans.

  • Events in The Odyssey are determined by the decisions and actions of gods as well as humans.  From the ways in which those actions and decisions are depicted, what might The Odyssey be showing or telling us about the abilities and inabilities, as well as the character, of gods and humans?

  • In The Odyssey, we have identified several different universal themes, such as temptation, enduring trials, the urge to go home and, of course, that of a journey. Discuss how one of those themes–or one you identify–is developed or illustrated in The Odyssey and compare that treatment with the way another story (whether in fiction, drama, poetry, film or music) treats that same theme.

In an essay of 3 double-spaced pages, argue whether you think Odysseus lives up to his epithet as “wise.” Use evidence from the poem to support your thesis.

They seized the beam of olive, sharp at the end, and leaned on it
into the eye, while I from above leaning my weight on it
twirled it, like a man with a brace-and-bit who bores into
a ship timber, and his men from underneath, grasping
the strap on either side whirl it, and it bites resolutely deeper.
So seizing the fire-point-hardened timber we twirled it
into his eye… (IX. 382-88)

And as, in the country, the calves, around the cows returning
from pasture back to the dung of the farmyard, well filled with grazing,
come gamboling together to meet them, and the pens no longer
can hold them in, but lowing incessantly they come running
around their mothers, so these men, once their eyes saw me,
came streaming around me, in tears, and the spirit in them made them
feel as if they were back in their own country, the very
city of rugged Ithaka, where they were born and raised up. (X. 410-17)

There she found Odysseus among the slaughtered dead men,
spattered over with gore and battle filth, like a lion
who has been feeding on an ox of the fields, and goes off
covered with blood, all his chest and his flanks on either
side bloody, a terrible thing to look in the face; so
now Odysseus’ feet and the hands above them were spattered. (XXII.401-6)

Quiz Prompts

Identify the speaker and context of the following quotes.

  1. “They told me he was here in this country, / your father, I mean. But no. The gods are impeding his passage. / For no death on the land has befallen the great Odysseus, / but somewhere, alive on the wide sea, he is held captive, / on a sea-washed island, and savage men have him in their keeping, / rough men, who will somehow keep him back, though he is unwilling.” (32)

  2. “They seized the beam of olive, sharp at the end, and leaned on it / into the eye, while I from above leaning my weight on it / twirled it, like a man with a brace-and-bit who bores into / a ship timber, and his men from underneath, grasping / the strap on either side whirl it, and it bites resolutely deeper. / So seizing the fire-point-hardened timber we twirled it / in his eye, and the blood boiled around the hot point, so that / the blast and scorch of the burning ball singed all his eyebrows / and eyelids, and the fire made the roots of his eye crackle.”(147)

  3. “and the souls / of the perished dead gathered to the place, up out of Erebos, / brides, and young unmarried men, and long-suffering elders, / virgins, tender and with the sorrows of young hearts upon them, / and many fighting men killed in battle, stabbed with brazen / spears, still carrying their bloody armor upon them. / These came swarming around my pit from every direction / with inhuman clamor, and green fear took hold of me.” (169)

  4. “And as a fisherman with a very long rod, on a jutting / rock, will cast his treacherous bait for the little fishes, / and sinks the horn of a field-ranging ox into the water, / then hauls them up and throws them on the dry land, gasping / and struggling, so they gasped and struggled as they were hoisted / up the cliff. Right in her doorway she ate them up. They were screaming / and reaching out their hands to me in this horrid encounter.” (191).

  5. “‘You dogs, you never thought that I would any more come back / from the land of Troy, and because of that you despoiled my household, / and forcibly took my serving women to sleep beside you, / and sought to win my wife while I was still alive, fearing / neither the immortal gods who hold the wide heaven, / nor any resentment sprung from men to be yours in the future. / Now upon all of you the terms of destruction are fastened.’” (322)