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Throughout Homer's The Odyssey, many tangible symbols are used to represent abstract ideas. Each symbol that Homer uses has two meanings. The double meanings of these symbols are used to represent Odysseus and Telemachus as they strive to meet each other. While each symbol has a meaning that represents the growth of Telemachus, each one also represents, by another meaning, the growth and development of Odysseus. When they meet for the first time, the symbols, and the character traits that they represent confluence, and the resemblance between Odysseus and Telemachus becomes complete.
One of the main ideas running throughout the Odyssey is the importance of water. It has the power of giving life and quick, safe travel, but it also has the potential to drown you. Water can be considered a paradox in and of itself. While it is good and usually life giving, it also demonstrates how too much of a good thing can bring harm. It brings much harm to Odysseus as he is traveling to Phaeacia, "At Zeus' command the whole sky is heavy with clouds, the sea is seething, squalls from every corner hurtle together. There is nothing now for me but certain death." Everything needs water to live, however Odysseus speaks of water as an agent of death. Water that brings death by excess represents Odysseus, for he is the one that has to suffer all these years, and he is the one that nearly drowns. Odysseus also learns how too much of a good thing, such as wealth or gold, can seriously harm a man. He especially experiences this when he sacks Troy, and gets carried away, angering the gods. Henceforth, it is fitting that the excessive side of water represent Odysseus. Life that is brought by water, the water that satisfies souls is the type that represents Telemachus. He is not excessive, and has been in fact humbled by the suitors in their years there. Further, Telemachus has never seen any trouble with the water or the sea, "...sent a following wind through the clear sky to speed them from astern, so that their ship might most speedily complete their journey across the salt sea." The water never hurts Telemachus and always helps him. Telemachus does not get the chance, as his father did, to Perish from his own excesses. Telemachus also has a pure mind and body which is what water embodies.
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Another main symbol seen all throughout The Odyssey is that of caves. The expression, "tomb or womb" has been used to explain the double meaning of the cave. In other words, the cave is either a place of shelter, or a place of mystery, even death. One of the most obvious places where the symbol of the tomb cave is used is when Odysseus and his group find their way into Polyphemus' dwelling. Many of Odysseus' good men die there. "Instead, he jumped up, and reaching out toward my men, seized a couple and dashed their heads against the floor as if they were puppies...while we, weeping, lifted our hands to Zeus at the ghastly site." The tomb meaning can be interpreted as the real world, sink or swim. Odysseus is faced with this throughout his twenty years of travel. Odysseus is the character that should be associated with the unpleasant side of the caves. The other idea the cave symbolizes, the womb, or the sheltered life of a man never being able to face the real world is represented by a different cave, "...while Odysseus set about bringing in all his belongings...Pallas Athene, Daughter of Zeus, closed the entrance with a stone." The cave in this part, the cave that Odysseus stows all his expensive belongings, is definitely symbolizing a womb. Telemachus is unmistakably represented by this type of meaning of the cave. He is sheltered all his life, until he comes closer and closer to meeting Odysseus. Fatherless, his mother has safe-guarded and protected him. However, when he meets his father, the safe-guard is taken off completely and he helps Odysseus take care of the suitors. Focusing back on Odysseus, when he reaches home, his adventures are sure to be over. He will no longer have to withstand the harsh reality that the cave of Polyphemus symbolizes. He becomes more sheltered as Telemachus becomes more exposed by their reunion.
Symbols, which each have a double meaning are used throughout The Odyssey to represent different facets of the characters of Odysseus and Telemachus. Each interpretation of the symbols exemplifies either Odysseus or Telemachus. As the two characters grow and develop, and the father-son reunion occurs, the two meanings converge into one, and Odysseus and Telemachus become more similar.