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Odyssey Essay, Research Paper
The Odyssey, by Homer, is a classical piece of Greek literature. Throughout The
Odyssey, Homer makes use of many literary techniques in order to give meaning to
the poem beyond its significance as a work of historic fiction and help his
readers in the comprehension of the story. One of these techniques is the use of
motifs. In The Odyssey, perhaps the most important of Homer’s motifs is the
symbolic death and rebirth theme. This motif is used throughout The Odyssey to
emphasize the growth and maturation of the characters. The first example of this
motif occurs with Telemachus early in the book. Telemachus, in book I, is
visited by the goddess Athena in disguise. In their conversation, Telemachus
reveals the pain and suffering that he is experiencing as a result of living
without knowing the status of his father, fearing that he is dead. ". . .
and he left pain and lamentation to me. Nor is it for him alone that I grieve in
my pain now (The Odyssey, Latimore, I. 242-3)." Symbolically, at this point
in the text, Telemachus is dead. He is willing to take no action to save his
home from the suitors or take any initiative to determine the status of his
missing father. However, his symbolic death is not without a rebirth. Athena,
disguised as Mentes, brings Telemachus back to life. She convinces him that he
must take action to preserve the household and determine the fate of his father.
This prompts Telemachus to take over his father’s role in the household and
journey forward to gather information about his missing father. His rebirth is
further carried out in the story when he is reunited with his father; together,
the two act to regain control of their household from the suitors. The next
example of the death and rebirth motif occurs with our introduction to the
story’s main character and hero, Odysseus. Homer introduces Odysseus on the
Kalypso’s island. Odysseus’s stay with Kalypso would cause his demise as that
was the fate of mortals who lived with goddesses. On a more symbolic level,
Odysseus was dead to the world as Kalypso forbids him from leaving the island
and forces him to do her bidding. Odysseus was reborn, however, at the hands of
Hermes, who was a messenger for Zeus. Hermes tells Kalypso that Odysseus is to
be freed so Odysseus builds a raft and sets out for home. This symbolic rebirth
is emphasized by Odysseus’s emergence from the ocean on the island of the
Phaiakians. He is washed ashore with nothing–his raft is destroyed and he is
completely naked. This naked emergence can also be seen as symbolic of birth.
Another reference to this rebirth is found at the end of book V. "As when a
man buries a burning log in a black ash heap in a remote place in the country,
where none live near as neighbors, and saves the seed of fire, having no other
place to get a light from . . . (V. 488-91)." The phrase "seed of the
fire" is used by Homer specifically to make reference to the rebirth of
Odysseus; the term "seed" clearly brings to mind reproductive and
birth images that would not be associated with a less metaphorical reference.
Another instance in which Homer makes use of the death and rebirth motif occurs
with Odysseus’s adventure with the cyclops Polyphemus. Odysseus and his men are
trapped in the cave of Polyphemus, which symbolizes their death. This death is
further emphasized when Odysseus refers to himself as "Nobody". As
Homer later recounts, those in the underworld are truly nobodies–they have no
interaction with the living world and cannot even communicate. Odysseus is
reborn through his own ingenuity and cleverness as he escaped Polyphemus’s cave
and announced to the cyclops his true identity, once again making himself born
into the realm of mortals. The symbolic rebirth of Odysseus can be emphasized by
the cave, which can be seen as a symbol of the womb, therefore making Odysseus’
emergence from the cyclops’s cave a true rebirth. The next example of the death
and rebirth motif is a rather obvious one that has little symbolic inference:
Odysseus’ descent into the underworld in book XI. Homer uses many light and dark
references to emphasize the death and rebirth theme in this book– darkness
symbolizing death and light symbolizing life and therefore rebirth. While in the
underworld, Odysseus gains insights about his eventual return home. With this
knowledge, Odysseus and his crew return to the world of the living, symbolizing
their rebirth. Again, light and dark images are used to emphasize this rebirth.
". . .where Helios, the sun, makes his uprising . . . (XII. 4)." As
illustrated in the preceding line, Odysseus returns from the Underworld to the
place where the sun rises– the symbolism is obvious. The death and rebirth
theme surfaces again in book XIII. Odysseus, after visiting the underworld, is
returning home to Ithaca. During the long voyage, he is visited by Arete’s
serving women. The women bring Odysseus gifts and put him into a deep slumber,
which Homer himself likens to death: "The bent to their rowing, and with
oars tossed up the sea spray, and upon the eyes of Odysseus there fell a sleep,
gentle, the sweetest kind of sleep with no awakening, most like death . . .
(XIII. 78-81)." Again, this death is not without a rebirth. The Phaiakians
leave the sleeping. This theme is re-emphasized in this book because many of the
citizens of Ithaca believe that Odysseus actually is dead; they will see his
return from the underworld as a true rebirth. Penelope is Homer’s next vehicle
to strengthen the death and rebirth motif. In book XVIII, Athena causes Penelope
to undergo a deep sleep which Penelope associates with death. "How I wish
chaste Artemis would give me a death so soft . . . (XVIII. 202)." While
asleep, Athena enhances Penelope’s looks in anticipation of Odysseus’s return.
Penelope awakens looking younger, taller, and more beautiful. After she awakens
Penelope talks to her son and makes a definitive statement condemning the
suitors; something she had never done before in public. Truly, this represents a
rebirth and awakening in the character of Penelope. The final example of the
death and rebirth theme in The Odyssey occurs in book XXIV when Odysseus is
reunited with his father, Laertes. Laertes faints when he realizes that his son
has returned. This fainting symbolizes his death. When he awakens, and is
therefore reborn, he has a new love for life and no longer wishes for death to
overtake him. This is a just a compact version of the death and rebirth theme at
the end of the book. Overall, the death and rebirth theme makes a very important
contribution to The Odyssey. Throughout the work, Homer makes use of this theme
for several reasons. Primarily, it helps the reader gain better understanding
into what is one of the more important underlying themes in the entire book: one
should never give up on living. Homer tells his tale and emphasizes that, even
though a situation may seem insurmountable, there is always an option that, if
taken, will not only sustain life but provide some valuable insight or
experience. This theme of The Odyssey is a universal one, which truly helps to
account for the timelessness example of Homer’s work.
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