Odyssey Themes Essay

When Homer wove the characters of The Odyssey into a story, he undoubtedly left
room for interpretation of their actions. The characters, most of whom are
dynamic, colorful, and three dimensional, are used by Homer to give a fun but
truthful commentary on the Ancient Greeks and their way of life. The actions of
one figure, the man-eating monster named Skylla, are particularly interesting
when viewed in the context of the rest of the story. Though her contribution to
the plot is minor, Skylla’s actions are important in that they are
characteristic of several themes found throughout the poem. These themes include
the role of the female in Odysseus’s struggle, the hunger (figuratively and
literally) of the characters in The Odyssey, and the commentary Homer makes on
the individuals who live lawlessly. In The Odyssey, Homer introduces many female
characters; some play significant roles, some are in the background. Regardless
of their importance, distinctions can be made as to their roles in the story:
that is, some put forth effort to help Odysseus and the other men–Arete,
Athena, Nausikaa, and Eurykleia are examples–and others (whom he encounters on
his voyages home) lead to the delay or destruction of them. Skylla plays the
role of the latter, as do Kalypso, Kirke, and the Seirenes. Although none of
these women actually harm Odysseus, each poses a deadly threat to him on his
voyage. Odysseus’s experience with Skylla is by far the most deadly and
disturbing. Whereas the other women succeed only in enticing and delaying the
crew, the encounter with Skylla has lethal consequences. Even though he decides
to take the sea route that passes near her lair, it seeming to be the least
dangerous of the three options, he wants nothing to do with the monster. Yet,
instead of passing unscathed, six of his men are taken (XII, 294-7) as the boat
sails through the channel. Homer uses an epic simile to help the reader
visualize the macabre scene. He compares Skylla to a fisherman who “will
hook a fish and rip it from the surface / to dangle wriggling through the
air” (XII, 303-4). The crewmen are the fish, of course, and seem helpless
as Skylla whisks them from the ship. Describing the attack, Odysseus says,
“and deathly pity ran me through / at that sight–far the worst I ever
suffered, / questing the passes of the strange sea” (308-10). It seems that
he realizes that the losses were his responsibility and that he too could easily
have been a victim of Skylla’s wrath. Earlier in the story (Book V) we see that
Calypso poses a similar, though not as deadly, threat to Odysseus’s homecoming.

Instead of literally grabbing for him as Skylla does, Kalypso tries to retain
Odysseus by enticing him with the prospect of immortality and a life with a
beautiful goddess. We are also told she has cast “spells” (198) on him
to keep him docile and under her power. Kalypso says to Zeus, “I fed him,
loved him, sang that he should not die / nor grow old, ever, in all the days to
come” (142-4). Despite her efforts and hospitality, Odysseus still longs
for home as he sits each day by the rocky shore “with eyes wet scanning the
bare horizon of the sea” (165-6). He is quite happy when the day comes that
he is set free by Zeus’s will. Without Zeus’s intervention, Odysseus would have
been kept indefinitely. Book X, which contains the introduction of Kirke,
provides another example of near fatal attraction. This time it is not a
monstrous woman or an overly hospitable nymph that brings them near their
downfall, but an immortal who entrances her visitors so that they forget their
motives. Whether or not Kirke intended to eat Odysseus’s men, as Skylla does,
after she turned them to swine we do not know, though it is certainly a
possibility. What is known is their flaw–they are men who fall prey to the
desires of women. This fact is admitted twice by Odysseus in lines 440 and 503
and is the reason they end up “feasting long / on roasts and wine, until a
year grew fat” (504-5). Only after Odysseus is reminded of his homeland
does he go to Kirke and plead for their release, to which she agrees. A point to
make is that in both cases, with Kalypso and Kirke, Odysseus plays the role of
the mortal lover who has little resistance; and in all three cases, the females
cause only pain or delay. As already mentioned, six of Odysseus’s men were taken
by Skylla as their ship passed through the channel. The incident seems
particularly gruesome as Odysseus recalls it for King Alkinoos: Then Skylla made
her strike, whisking six of my best men from the ship. I happened to glance aft
at ship and oarsmen and caught sight of their arms and legs, dangling high
overhead. ….She ate them as they shrieked there, in her den, in the dire
grapple, reaching still for me- (XII, 294-307) In another description, Kirke
says that she is a horrible monster who hunts “for dolphins, dogfish, or
what bigger game” and that “Amphitrite feeds in thousands” (XII,
103-4). What a murderous appetite! Without a doubt Skylla would have whisked six
more men away had she the opportunity. Though the action with Skylla is
seemingly short, it is significant in that it reflects a quality found in male
characters throughout the poem–a gluttonous appetite. Whether it is for
material items or food, this is an attribute that many of the men in The Odyssey
possess. Three examples of men who have great hunger for wealth and material
items are King Alkinoos, King Menelaos, and Odysseus. All three have impressive
palaces filled with beautiful decor. Odysseus describes the palace at Phaiakia
in Book VII, lines 85-140 as being breathtaking. The palace has “high
rooms” which are “airy and luminous”, and “the posts and
lintel / were silver upon silver; [with] golden handles curved on the
doors”. Telemachus describes Menelaos’ home in a similar fashion in Book
IV. He says “how luminous it is / with bronze, gold, amber, silver, and
ivory! / This is the way the court of Zeus must be” (74-7). Odysseus’s
desire for material wealth is reflected in his enormous estate, which is large
enough to support a large number (100+) of suitors helping themselves for years.

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It is also seen in the treasure he brings home from the Phaiakians. They sent
him home “with gifts untold / of bronze and gold, and fine cloth to his
shoulder. / Never from Troy had he borne off such booty” (XIII, 155-7). I
suppose it is only fitting that a great warrior and ruler as Odysseus should
desire to return home with such a treasure, after all; he and his men paid for
it in blood. Not surprisingly, great feasts and sacrifices accompany the wealth
these men have. Although women aren’t seen eating meat in the poem, the men have
exorbitant feasts of swine, steer, and wine in nearly every scene. The most
obvious and outright example of man’s over indulgence of this kind is found in
the suitors, who are slowly devouring Odysseus’s wealth. A typical feast of the
suitors in Odysseus’s hall is described in Book XX: [the men] made a ritual
slaughter, knifing sheep, fat goats and pigs, knifing the grass-fed steer. ….Melanthios
poured wine, and all their hands went out upon the feast. (255-61) In saying
that it was a ritual slaughter, the fact that the act has happened many times
before is reinforced to the reader. Homer also reinforces this idea by
introducing and destroying the suitors while in the act of feasting. A final
example of hunger in the poem reflects on the darker side of men. It is seen
when Odysseus’s fleet comes upon Ismaros. Here, his men prove themselves not to
be a group of poor souls lost at sea, but rather a tyrannical army of pirates in
a bloodthirsty rage. Odysseus says, “[we] killed the men who fought. /
Plunder we took, and we enslaved the women, / ….Sheep after sheep they
butchered by the surf” (IX, 45-50). The men in this scene kill, plunder,
rape, steal, and slaughter innumerable animals, for seemingly no reason! This
type of extreme behavior, though rare in the story, can be explained as random
violence, or the consequence of man’s insatiable appetite. I agree with the
latter. Homer depicts some characters in The Odyssey as living by lower
standards and having fewer values than the rest of society-among them are Skylla,
the Kyklopes, the suitors, and sometimes, Odysseus and his men (as mentioned in
the preceding paragraph). In each case, the outcome of their behavior is either
detrimental to themselves or others around them, leading the reader to believe
that Homer himself frowned upon such people. Looking at Skylla, the reader sees
a displaced creature living solitarily, her only purpose is to feed and make
others suffer. The monster has no resemblance to a human, except that she has
heads and legs, and is therefore exempt from human morality and values. She is a
man-eater, a trait found in several people in the poem, and is looked down upon
and dreaded by all for it. Homer paints a similar picture of Polyphemos, the
Kyklopes. He describes him as being “remote from all companions, / knowing
none but savage ways, a brute / ….a shaggy mountain reared in solitude”
(IX, 197-201). This description impresses upon the reader that Polyphemos is a
caveman-a man who is uncivilized and lives by no rules-just like Skylla. Other
than having his sheep to watch, Polyphemos has no contact with other mortals. A
consequence of his solitude is that he is ignorant as to the proper way to
interact with other beings similar to him and is apathetic to the feelings of
others. This is illustrated when he disrespectfully makes a quick snack of
Odysseus’s crewmembers (300-305). The outcome of his actions, his only eye being
punctured, can be seen as punishment for living a barbarous lifestyle, even
though he is not to blame. Homer’s commentary on societal indecency is also
found in Book XXII when the suitors meet their demise. As already discussed, the
suitors are living freely off of Odysseus’s estate, which is against the
family’s will. Even if some of their behavior is appropriate for the time, the
extent to which they take it-eating and drinking everything in sight and
sleeping with the maids-is inexcusable! Aside from those points, it is also
proper to be polite to guests (despite their condition) and try to help them in
any way possible. This type of hospitality is seen over and over again in
Odysseus’s travels. With Skylla, Polyphemos, and the suitors, the unspoken rule
of being hospitable is broken repeatedly, and the price paid each time is death
or suffering. Like most of the other characters in The Odyssey, Skylla is
three-dimensional and can be looked at on several levels. On the surface, her
role in The Odyssey seems to be only to cause pain and suffering to Odysseus and
his men. When examined more closely, she becomes a monster with twelve legs, six
heads and three themes. These themes-the threat women pose to a man’s motives,
the “hunger” seen in the characters, and the disapproval of
incivility–are not pervasive in the story, but can be identified when Skylla is
examined in the context of the other characters and their roles. Regardless of
her importance in tying these themes together, she is a necessary part of the
story because she is one of the many characters-or threads-that Homer used to
weave The Odyssey.

Homer. The Odyssey. Trans. Robert Fitzgerald. 1961. Ed. Maynard Mack. New
York: W.W. Norton Company, 1995. 219-503


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