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The Use of Symbols and Symbolism in Homer's Odyssey

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The Use of Symbolism in Homer's Odyssey


There are three signs in the Odyssey which are quite significant to the epic and are symbolic of different things. The first sign is the scar, the second sign is the bow and the third sign is the bed.

"Note the importance of signs in the works of Homer, such as the sign of the burning ship in the Iliad. Then there is a long flashback telling how Odysseus got the scar and the significance of it. The scar is symbolically important, for it defines who he is -- and what he is. The scar-flashback starts with the naming of Odysseus by his grandfather Autolykos, who was the world's greatest thief. There Autolykus says, since he has caused pain to people all over the world (the Greek verb odyussai) the boy will be called Odysseus. Odysseus is one who both gives pain and also suffers it. Then we get the long description of the hunt in which Odysseus gets the scar. This is a type of male initiation ritual, where the men of the family or tribe take the young man on an animal hunt so he can prove himself in the company of men. Such rituals often involve scarring or ritual mutilation, and here Odysseus achieves notable deeds by killing the fierce boar (giving pain) but also receiving pain and a scar as token of his accomplishments"(chss.montclair.edu/classics/ODYNOTES19TO24.HTML).

"IN the folk-tale told about the husband who comes home after years of absence, so changed by time and Fortune's hard usage that he must adduce proof after proof of his identity before his wife will admit his claim, the first Sign to be exhibited is the scar. This he reveals first to an aged dame, his old nurse, perhaps the only woman then alive in the world who was familiar with its appearance and history. For naturally the first token must not be of a kind so intimate and convincing as to make the wife's unreadiness to respond to it appear capricious and unreasonable. To this extent Homer has adopted the ancient tale"(questia.com/PM.qst?a=o&d=5372374).

"The book ends with another sign of the great sympathy that exists between the two, as Penelope admits she could gladly spend all night talking with Odysseus. The beggar has accomplished his mission of winning her confidence and now can see the means by which he might kill the suitors -- the bow" (chss.montclair.edu/classics/ODYNOTES19TO24.HTML).

"The bow, which really tells only one, although major, event -- how Odysseus gets the bow into his own hands. Notice the long description of the origin of the bow, indicating its importance in the events to come. Also, note some other themes, how Heracles, here the evil guest, had killed his host; Odysseus will reverse the situation - he will kill the suitors that have outraged him. Notice how Penelope weeps as she takes the bow out, which is still shining as the day it was put away. This is symbolic of the fact that its owner (Odysseus) is still strong. For Penelope, of course, it is a symbol of the man. In Telemachus attempting to string the bow Telemachus is probably intentionally acting a bit stupid, again to throw the suitors off. The reason that he tries the bow, of course, is to show us that he in fact is the equal of his father. He would have strung the bow unless Odysseus had not signaled him not to"(chss.montclair.edu/classics/ODYNOTES19TO24.HTML).

"The third Sign, which finally breaks down the suspicions and hesitation of the wife and throws her at last into the arms of her lord. Our quest will be neither long nor arduous, because Homer has used this third Sign in the same way and for the same purpose as in the old tale. The first Sign he used for purposes of tension --though also for purposes of recognition or proof to minor characters--the second Sign for a certain specific purpose as an element in the contest; the third Sign he uses in its original function, as means of proof between the principal actors in the story" (questia.com/PM.qst?a=o&d=5372374).

"The secret of the bed is that its main leg is built into an olive tree stump. These trees are extremely tough, and it is extremely hard to pull them up. This bed is also symbolic of a kind of hieros gamos, a holy or sacred marriage. The marriage bed, the center of the household where procreation takes place, is rooted in the earth. There is a tight connection between the marriage act and the very fertility of the earth. It is a type of axis mundi, the central beam of the world. By cutting this link the bond between household and land would be broken. No wonder Odysseus becomes angry. But he has been tricked into revealing that he indeed knows the secret that only the couple should know. Notice that it is not any old secret, but the symbol of the full importance of their union"(chss.montclair.edu/classics/ODYNOTES19TO24.HTML).

This leads to the final conclusion of what the Odyssey is all about. "It is a story of identify., the scar. The Odyssey is about experience., the bed. The Odyssey is about community, the bow used to restore his home" (Approaches to Teaching Homer's Iliad and Odyssey, p.57-59).

Myrsiades, Kostas Approaches to Teaching Homer's Iliad and Odyssey The Modern Language Association of America New York Fourth Printing 1993

http://www.chss.montclair.edu/classics/ODYNOTES19TO24.HTML

Questia Media America, Inc. www.questia.com

http://www.questia.com/PM.qst?a=o&d=5372374

Lawall, Sarah The Norton Anthology World Masterpieces Seventh Edition Volume 1

W.W. Norton and Company, Inc. Copyright 1984

Squillace, Robert The Odyssey Homer Edited with an Introduction and Notes Translated by George Herbert Palmer, New York: Fine Creative Media, Inc., 2003

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