Prof. G. Steinberg
Study Sheet
Odyssey




Odyssey, Books I-IV:
As we read the Odyssey, I'd like us to focus on what we can learn about the culture that produced the poem.  What can we conclude about ancient Greek culture from reading this text?  What do the characters in the poem value?  What are their goals and aspirations?  How do the characters live and think?  Are their lives and their ways of thinking fundamentally different from our own?

As you read the first four books of the poem, focus on three areas in particular:

  1. The beginning of a text is usually very important.  It sets up what the text is about and solidifies our expectations about where the text is going to go.  So, focus on the beginning of the Odyssey.  What do the first 15 lines of the poem tell us about what the poem is going to be about?  What expectations do you have about the poem after reading the opening lines?  What expectations does the very first speech in the poem (Book I, lines 45-59) raise about where this poem is going to go?  What themes and ideas is Homer introducing?  Does Homer give us any idea how we're supposed to think about those themes and ideas?
  2. Focus on Telémakhos in Books I-III.  Telémakhos is clearly a good guy -- young, naive, infinitely promising.  So, if Telémakhos is a good guy, what is good about him?  Wherein lies his goodness?  What does he do that makes him a good guy?  How is he different from the bad guys (the suitors)?  What does his goodness tell us about what Homer and Homer's culture valued as good in people?  Telémakhos passes an important test in Book I with Athena, and the suitors fail the test.  How does Telémakhos's behavior with Athena differ from that of the suitors?  What does his behavior tell us about what Homer's culture valued most?
  3. Focus on Helen and Meneláos in Book IV.  They seem good on the outside, but they're also kind of suspicious and strange.  What is wrong with their behavior?  How are they different from Telémakhos?
To answer these questions, you may need a little background on the Trojan War.

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Odyssey, Books V-VIII:
In Book V, we finally meet Odysseus face to face.  Given what we've already said about ancient Greek values in our discussion of Telémakhos, how does Odysseus shape up?  Does he have the right values and behave the right way according to ancient Greek standards?  Does he sometimes slip up?  Focus especially on Book V.  What happens when Odysseus doesn't behave rightly according to ancient Greek standards?  When Odysseus experiences a setback, does something in his behavior precipitate the setback?  When things go better for Odysseus, has something in his behavior changed to cause his improved fortunes?  When is it appropriate to be suspicious of others and when is it not appropriate?  Does Odysseus know?  Should he be able to tell?

Also, you've now seen a number of women in the Odyssey -- Penelope, Helen, Nausikaa, Arêtê, the various goddesses.  What seems to be considered proper behavior for them?  Do ancient Greek standards for women seem to differ from standards for men?  If so, in what ways?


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Odyssey, Books IX-XII:
In this section of the Odyssey, we backtrack to the time before Odysseus came to Kalypso's island.  We get a glimpse at what Odysseus did that got him stranded in the first place.  As you read these books, focus specifically on three areas:
  1. What happens with Polyphêmos the Kyklops?  Where does Odysseus go wrong?  What mistake does he make?  What does that mistake tell us about the values of ancient Greek culture?
  2. What happens with Kirkê?  In Book IX, Odysseus and his men are on a deserted island that has lots of fertile land and good water, but they "gazed, too, at Kyklopês Land, so near, / we saw their smoke, heard bleating from their flocks" (lines 177-178).  In Book X, we find a similar event:  "Gazing out / from that high place over a land of thicket, / oaks and wide watercourses, I could see / a smoke wisp from the woodland hall of Kirkê" (lines 163-166).  Homer has made the two episodes subtly parallel -- in each case, the first sign of life is smoke.  Did Odysseus learn anything from his first encounter with a wisp of smoke in a strange land?  Does he approach Kirkê differently from the way he approached the Kyklops?  What, if anything, has he learned?  How is he wiser?  What does his newfound wisdom tell us about the values of ancient Greek culture?  What did they value as wise?
  3. What happens with the cattle of Hêlios?  In Book I, the narrator says that Odysseus couldn't save his men, "for their own recklessness destroyed them all -- / children and fools, they killed and feasted on / the cattle of Lord Hêlios, the Sun" (lines 12-14).  Do you agree with this perception of events?  Did the men deserve their fate?  Were they reckless children and fools?  What kind of standards did the ancient Greeks use to judge people's actions?  Are their standards different from ours?

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Odyssey, Books XIII-XXIV:
Finally, Odysseus has made it back to Ithaka.  As you read the second half of the poem, concentrate on four areas:
  1. What did you expect Odysseus to do when he got home?  How did you expect him to do it?  What did you expect Penelope and Telémakhos to do?  Did things turn out the way you expected?  How so or how not?  What do you learn about the values of ancient Greek culture from the hero's behavior once he's home?  Do those values differ significantly from ours?  Were you able to predict what would happen and why?
  2. Why doesn't the poem end with Book XII?  If the point of the poem is for us to learn something valuable by watching Odysseus pass through his trials, haven't we already learned our lesson by the end of Book XII?  Why can't Odysseus just go home and live happily ever after?  Why do we need another twelve books about his adventures at home in Ithaka?  What are these second twelve books about?  Do they just reinforce and repeat the themes of the first twelve books?  Is something new going on?
  3. What role does destiny play in the fate of the suitors?  Watch in particular for Amphínomos (who appears briefly in Book XVIII and again in Book XXII).  Why are some suitors spared and others not?  What makes one guilty and another innocent?  Does the fate of the suitors bear out the judgment of the narrator on their badness?
  4. What would you say is the biggest difference between our culture and Homer's?  Where do we disagree with ancient Greek culture the most in terms of our standards and values?  What is something that the Odyssey values as good that we would definitely think of as bad?  What is something that the Odyssey seems to consider bad that we would value as good today?

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