Discussion of Homer's "Odyssey"

Book opened on Homer's "Odyssey"Please join us for a discussion of The Odyssey by Homer on Wednesday, October 5, at 6:30 p.m. in the small meeting room on the second floor.  The talk is the latest in the series on heroic adventure in Western literature, sponsored by the West End Library Friends.  The presenter is Ori Z. Soltes, resident scholar in theology and fine arts at Georgetown University.  Refreshments will be served.

Odysseus is the quintessential adventurer-hero in the Western literary and mythological canon. He leaves home for the adventure of war and pillage and ends up spending 10 years in that activity, mostly at Troy. With the fall of the great city, he heads home—only to find himself spending another decade getting there. Along the way, he encounters a range of creatures—from the one-eyed Polyphemus, whom he blinds, and whose curse leads to his endless-seeming journey; to the island of Calypso, who offers him eternity in her arms and in her cave at the edge of the world; to Circe, the goddess with whom he spends a year before being instructed by her regarding how to arrive at the portal of death and learn his destiny there; to the Phaeaceans, who finally ferry him home, after having heard most of the tales of his adventures that we read. His homecoming is not an easy one after 20 years: suitors for his wife’s hand and for his property have been overrunning his house for years, while Penelope has been holding them off by a stratagem as clever as any Odysseus had ever contrived. Where does it end?

Questions to Consider

1. What kind of a hero is Odysseus? What specific characteristics define him (in comparison with Gilgamesh—or, say, Achilles or Aeneas)?

2. Why doesn’t Odysseus want to remain with Calypso in the end—and how long does it take him to arrive at that point?

3. This is fundamentally an extended tale of homecoming. What is the significance for the theme of “home” of the manner in which Polyphemus receives Odysseus and his crew?

4. What is the significance for Odysseus’ adventure of his boast to Polyphemus? Could Odysseus have done other than boast?

5. Where does the tension between the role of fate, the role of gods, the role of Odysseus and the role of his individual crew members—in short, the role of free will—play out in the scenes involving Polyphemus, the Cattle of the Sun, Circe and Aeolus?

6. How does the hierarchy of gods play into the Circe story and the Polyphemus story?

7. How is death viewed in the world of the Odyssey’s audience?

8. What is Odysseus’ fate? How is the homecoming problematic—and what are the components of its problematic nature? How is it ultimately resolved?

9. How much of the story is true and how much made up, and what is our “evidence” for speculating on this?

10. What is the value of this epic tale to Odysseus himself and to Homer’s audience? (See Cavafy’s “Ithaca.”)