'The Odyssey' Themes and Literary Devices

The Odyssey, Homer's epic poem about the decades-long journey of Trojan War hero Odysseus, includes themes such as cunning vs. strength, coming of age, and order vs. disorder. These themes are conveyed with the use of a few key literary devices, including poems-within-a-poem and flashback narration.

Cunning vs. Strength

Unlike Achilles, the Iliad protagonist known for his physical strength and prowess in combat, Odysseus earns his victories through trickery and cunning. Odysseus’ cleverness is reinforced throughout the text by the use of epithets accompanying his name. These epithets and their translations include:

  • Polymetis: of many counsels
  • Polymekhanos: many-deviced
  • Polytropos: of many ways
  • Polyphron: many-minded

The triumph of cunning over strength is a running theme in Odysseus’ journey. In Book XIV, he escapes the cyclops Polyphemus with his words rather than a traditional duel. In Book XIII, he disguises himself as a beggar in order to probe the faithfulness of the members of his court. When he listens to the bard Demodocus retell the end of the Trojan war and the building of the Trojan horse—his own invention in Book VIII—he weeps “like a woman,” realizing how dangerous his own cunning is.

What’s more, Odysseus’ cunning is almost matched by the intelligence of his wife Penelope, who manages to remain loyal to Odysseus and stave off her suitors in his absence through trickery and cunning.

Spiritual Growth and Coming of Age

The first four books of The Odyssey, known as Telemacheia, follow Odysseus’ son Telemachus. Odysseus has been absent from Ithaca for two decades, and Telemachus sets out to uncover his father’s whereabouts. Telemachus is on the brink of manhood and has very little authority in his own household, as he is besieged by suitors seeking to marry his mother and rule over Ithaca. However, thanks to Athena, who teaches him how to behave among Greek leaders and takes him to visit Pylos and Sparta, Telemachus gains maturity and knowledge. Ultimately, he is able to serve as an ally to his father when it comes time to slay the suitors, a scene that demonstrates how much Telemachus has matured.

Odysseus undergoes spiritual growth of his own, becoming less brash and more thoughtful over the course of his journey. At the start of his journey, Odysseus is brash, overconfident, and taunting, which results in numerous obstacles and delays. By the time he returns home, Odysseus has become more cautious and careful.

Order vs. Disorder

In The Odyssey, order and chaos are represented by the contrasting settings.  The island of Ithaca is orderly and “civilized”: inhabitants tend to animals and agriculture, engage in handiwork, and lead orderly lives. By contrast, in the worlds visited by Odysseus during his travels, plants grow freely and the inhabitants eat anything that they find. These worlds are depicted as obstacles to Odysseus' journey, threatening prevent him from returning home, Consider the Lotus Eaters, who spend their days languorously eating lotus plants; the lotus plants cause a sleepy apathy that Odysseus and his crew have to escape. Another example is the cyclops Polyphemus. Polyphemus, who reaped the fruits of his island without labor, is depicted as one of Odysseus' main antagonists.

Poems Within a Poem

The Odyssey features two bard-like characters, Phemius and Demodocus, whose roles offer insight into the ancient art of oral poetry and storytelling. Both Phemius and Demodocus tell their court audience stories tied to the heroic cycle.

In Book I, Phemius sings of the ‘returns’ of other Trojan War heroes. In Book VIII, Demodocus sings about the disagreements of Odysseus and Achilles during the Trojan War, as well as the love affair of Ares and Aphrodite. The vocabulary used to describe the poetic practice suggests that it is a performative art intended for an audience of listeners and accompanied by a lyre. In addition, both bards took requests from their audience: “But come now, change thy theme,” Demodocus is asked in Book VIII. Such requests suggest that these poets had a wide repertory of tales to draw from.

Flashback Narration

The narration of The Odyssey begins with Telemachus’ journey. Then, the narrative moves back in time, as Odysseus recounts his journeys for the length of three entire books. Finally, the narrative moves forward in time to Odysseus' return to Ithaca. The most notable flashback in the text is the multi-book tale recounted by Odysseus himself, but other sections feature flashbacks, as well. The poem utilizes flashbacks to describe events of the past in detail, including the end of the Trojan War and the return of other war heroes.