HOMER: The Odyssey [Book I]

In Book I of Homer’s Odyssey, Homer invokes the aid of a Muse to help him recount the story of Odysseus’ return home to Ithaca after the Trojan War. The story begins nearly ten years after the war. Odysseus still has not returned home. A nymph named Calypso, has detained him on her island, and she intends to make him her husband, but Jove and the other Olympian Gods decide that the time has come for Odysseus to return home.

In accordance with the gods’ decree, Minerva, the goddess of wisdom, travels to Ithaca to comfort Odysseus’ son, Telemachus. Minerva assumes the form of Mantes, King of the Tephians, and tells Telemachus that Odysseus will return home soon. She also advises Telemachus to travel to Pylos and Sparta to consult with Nestor and Menelaus about the wanderings of Odysseus. Telemachus resolves to do so.

During Odysseus’ absence from Ithaca, suitors of Odysseus’ wife, Penelope, take up abode in his house and feast on his cattle and wine. Telemachus is naturally outraged at the squandering of his and his father’s estate. He reproaches the suitors and warns them that Jove will avenge their wickedness.

Fate is a major theme in Book I. The human characters believe in fate. Telemachus refers to his father Odysseus as the most “ill-starred man under heaven,” and he reflects that “it rests with heaven to determine whether Odysseus is to return home.” On the other hand, the gods believe that men and women are responsible for the good and evil that befall them. Jove scoffs at men who blame the gods for their ill-fortune. “See now, how men lay blame upon us gods for what is after all nothing but their own folly. Look at Aegisthus; he must needs make love to Agamemnon’s wife unrighteously and then kill Agamemnon, though he knew it would be the death of him.”

This dichotomy between the attitudes of men and gods is very illuminating in regards to the mentalities of those who have power and those who do not. Those who have power – such as successful entrepreneurs and politicians – do not believe in fate because such a belief necessarily destroys their pride and sense of accomplishment. If fate is responsible for their success, then they cannot be proud of their accomplishments because they did not earn them. On the other hand, unsuccessful people often believe in fate because it affords them an excuse for their undesirable station in life. It is not their fault that they are poor, it is simply their fate.

Book I also depicts the roles of women in ancient Greek society. After Penelope, who is Odysseus’ wife and Telemachus’ mother, requests a singer to stop singing about the return of the Greeks from the Trojan War because the song reminds her of Odysseus and therefore saddens her, Telemachus rebukes her for speaking out among the men at the banquet. “Go within the house and busy yourself with your daily duties, your loom, your distaff, and the ordering of your servants; for speech is man’s matter, and mine above all others- for it is I who am master here.” Although the ancient Greeks assigned women to a lowly position within society, Penelope proves to be one of the most noble and virtuous characters by the end of the epic.

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