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20090825-11 Odyssey Books 1, 5-8

Page history last edited by Brian Croxall 11 years, 11 months ago


During today's class we started by discussing some of the general characteristics of epics , the genre of literature in which The Odyssey (and several other works that we'll read this semester) falls. In general, epics are long narrative poems (albeit poems that might not look like poetry when they've been translated into English); they have a grand scale taking place across a wide swath of the world (or the world as it is known at the time); they are focused on the actions or deeds of a central character who is a hero; and they often have national or cultural significance in the sense that they embody the history or aspirations of a nation at large. Epics are composed in two different ways: oral or written. The Odyssey is an example of the former, and Homer used particular tools--repetition, epithets, and standard scenes--to produce the poem. 


We then discussed some of the basic conventions that are found in many epics:

  • Invocations
  • Beginning in medias res (in the middle of things)
  • Epithets
  • Similes (Homeric similes are long and they create an image that is ornate or vibrant enough to distract from what is currently being described. Homer inevitably brings one's attention back to the subject at hand with the word "so.")
  • The inclusion of other legends, history, or folklore as digressions within the story. (Think of Demodocus's recitation of the story of Hephaestus, Aphrodite, and Ares in Book VIII.)
  • Eloquent speeches
  • Magic or the supernatural
  • A visit to the underworld


While these conventions might have originally been idiosyncratic to Homer's approach to telling a story, they have since become standard features in any subsequent works that want to participate in the Homeric tradition of epics.


Word count: 294



"So he vowed

and the long-enduring great Odysseus glowed with joy

and raised a prayer and called the god by name..." (Book VIII, lines 377-379 [pages 355-356])


In this passage we see an example of one of Odysseus's epithets: "long-enduring great." The epithet describes who Odysseus is in no uncertain terms, and it shows up repeatedly as a way of confirming these traits. Because Odysseus is the hero of the text, we can know that the Greeks as a culture valued the ability to be "long-enduring."


"Muttering so, great Odysseus crept out of the bushes,

stripping off with his massive hand a leafy branch

from the tangled olive growth to shield his body,

hide his private parts. And out he stalked

as a mountain lion exultant in his power

strides through wind and rain and his eyes blaze

and he charges sheep or oxen or chases wild deer

but his hunger drives him on to go for flocks,

even to raid the best-defended homestead.

So Odysseus moved out..." (Book VI, lines 139-148 [page 343])


This is an example of a Homeric simile. It's longer than many similes we use in our daily life, and Homer reminds us of what he's been elucidating with the "So" at the end. In describing Odysseus like a mountain lion, Homer conveys his strength and physical bearing. In continuing on to describe how the mountain lion attacks flocks, we also get a sense of Odysseus's power vis a vis the Phaeacian girls, including Nausicaa, whom Odysseus intrudes upon. If we didn't already know that Odysseus was the hero, this simile might cause us to fear for the safety of the girls. As it is, the suggestion that there might be danger involved represents how the girls apprehend Odysseus emerging unexpectedly from the undergrowth.



  • epic - a long narrative poem that describes the deeds of heroes (especially one central hero).
  • epithet - A phrase that describes a character or object. As opposed to a typical description, an epithet shows up repeatedly throughout the text of an epic.
  • simile - A comparison of two unlike things that begins with "like" or "as." It's a subset of metaphor.


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