The Odyssey (Greek: Ὀδύσσεια, Odysseia) is one of two major ancient Greek epic poems attributed to Homer. It is, in part, a sequel to the Iliad, the other work ascribed to Homer. The poem is fundamental to the modern Western canon, and is the second oldest extant work of Western literature, the Iliad being the first.
Odysseus is described by many who know him to be the most cunning and clever man they ever knew. Because he is identified with this art this can be considered his principal arête. Athena is also known for her cunning and deceit, which is most likely why Athena helps Odysseus. She often disguises herself when she speaks to Odysseus, but through her deception speaks truthfully like Odysseus. Alkinoos, the king whom Odysseus is telling the story to, voices his opinion at times and comments on his wit. He made a comment about Odysseus’s wit when Odysseus tells him about conversing with the souls of the underworld. Alkinoos states, “You speak with art, but your intent is honest. The Argive troubles, and your own troubles, you told as a poet would, a man who knows the world” (Davis 571).
Odysseus on his journey shares his desire to return to Ithaca to see his wife and son. Odysseus says he loves his wife and wants to see her, but there are points in the story where his loyalty to Penelope can be questioned. One moment in the text where Odysseus seems to falter in his faithfulness is when he shares the bed of Kirke. However, Hermes tells Odysseus that he must not decline Kirke’s bed implying that Odysseus would have if not told otherwise (Davis 552). Though Hermes told Odysseus to share Kire’s bed Kirke tells Odysseus that he may leave whenever he wishes, but Odysseus chooses to stay with her for a long time.
We might say "shifty" these days, except that Homer does not appear to mean anything negative by the word, merely descriptive-Odysseus is rather a twisty-turny sort of fellow: he has to be, just in order to survive.
When reading The Odyssey three main characters stand out that show their trustworthiness to Odysseus while he is away fighting in the Trojan War and trying to make his way back to Ithaca. It seems to me that the most loyal of all these characters could, somehow, easily be overlooked, but it would definitely have to be Odysseus’s wife Penelope. Even after nearly twenty years apart from her husband, she still remains faithful to Odysseus and refuses to marry one of the awaiting suitors that hassle her day in and day out. There even came a time when Penelope told the suitors that she would wed once she finished Laertes’ shroud, but stated, ‘I would weave that mighty web by day; but then by night, by torchlight, I undid what I had done (Odyssey 384). This only proves her complete and utter devotion to Odysseus.
Odysseus’ adventures and growth are much more prevalent in the Odyssey than those of any other character. He begins on Calypso’s island, where he has everything, except happiness. His spirit is low as he longs for his homeland. Homer introduces Odysseus at a low point to emphasize the growth of Odysseus’ spirit from beginning to end. If Homer had shown Odysseus in a good spirit first, then the growth would not have seemed as prevalent. Odysseus seems to see the light when he finds out that he will be sailing home. He is tested first when Poseidon nearly kills him off the coast of Scheria, the first island he reaches. The Odyssey says, “and trapped within that backwash of the brine, Odysseus would have died before his time had not gray-eyed Athena counseled him” (Odyssey by Mandelbaum, 109). Athena allows Odysseus to experience the storm, but not die. She knows that it will make him stronger for it. There is an old saying, which goes along with this situation, “what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.”
Respect for the gods is shown through the numerous descriptions of sacrifices and offerings. Before feasting, the ritual involves "cutting the first strips for the gods" having them "wrapped in sleek fat . . . sprinkling barley over them" then "burning the choice parts for the gods that never die." Libations are also poured.
Disrespect for the Gods inevitably leads to disaster; the Gods do not forget disrespect and are not easily appeased. (Poseidon, Athena, Aeolus, Helios.)
Note how often Odysseus prays, especially after he makes the mistake with Polyphemus.
It is little wonder Odysseus fears Penelope's lapse into infidelity. Women are usually depicted, if anything, as sexual aggressors in The Odyssey. Kirke exemplifies this characteristic among the goddesses, turning the foolish men she so easily seduces into the pigs she believes them to be, while Kalypso imprisons Odysseus as her virtual sex-slave. The Seirenes, too, try to destroy passing sailors with their beautiful voices. The suitors even accuse Penelope of teasing them, a debatable point. But no woman receives as negative a portrait as Agamemnon's wife Kyltaimnestra; the story of her cuckoldry and murder of her husband frequently recurs as a parallel to Odysseus' anxieties about Penelope.
Odysseus' most prominent characteristic is his cunning; Homer's Greek audience generally admired the trait but occasionally disdained it for its dishonest connotations. Odysseus' skill at improvising false stories or devising plans is nearly incomparable in Western literature. His Trojan horse scheme (recounted here) and his multiple tricks against Polyphemos are shining examples of his ingenuity, especially when getting out of jams.
Both examples indirectly relate to another dominant motif in The Odyssey: disguise. (The soldiers "disguise" themselves in the body of the Trojan horse, while Odysseus and his men "disguise" themselves as rams to escape from Polyphemos.) Odysseus spends the last third of the poem disguised as a beggar, both to escape from harm until he can overthrow the suitors and to test others for loyalty. In addition, Athena appears frequently throughout the poem, often as the character Mentor, to provide aid to Odysseus or Telemakhos.
Piety in the Odyssey is shown by deference to the gods, submission to their will, and through gestures such as sacrifices, festivals, banquets, and prayers. It also entails respect for the dead – proper burials and rites. Impiety or direct challenges to the gods often result in suffering or death for the offender.
In the Odyssey, fate and free will are not mutually exclusive concepts. Men may be destined to specific ends, but their personal choices alter the road they take to get there. The same freedom applies to the gods, who have a lot of leaway in how they bring about what is fated. Because the gods of ancient Greece are endowed with human characteristics, their will is subject to the same fickle and petty attributes of human emotion. Because of this hodge-podge of factors, the Greeks had a very different view from the one we have in mind when we think of destiny as fixed and constant.