Though thousands of years old, Homer’s famous epic poem, The Odyssey, remains a perennial favorite—a classic.
As Ken Boa says in his latest edition of the Great Books Audio CD series, “Homer established the epic as a genre in Western literature and set the standards by which later works would be judged. Moreover, the values reflected . . . in The Odyssey not only shaped Greek culture but also persisted into the Roman era and influenced the Renaissance centuries later.”
Homer’s works were a major influence on poets through the centuries, from Virgil to Dante to Milton and beyond. Even Hollywood still uses it as source material, as in the popular film O Brother, Where Art Thou?
That’s quite a legacy for an ancient epic. Just what is it that makes Homer’s work, in particular The Odyssey, so special?
Homer’s 12,000-line poem tells the story of the journey of the Greek warrior Odysseus after the end of the Trojan War. Twenty years after leaving home, Odysseus is still battling against various obstacles and dangers, including angry or deceitful gods and treacherous monsters, in order to get back to his home and family in Ithaca.
At the same time, his wife, Penelope, and his son, Telemachus, are facing their own struggles without him. It takes Odysseus’s eventual return to make things right at home and drive out the wicked men who have been trying to win over his wife and take over his household.
This epic is all the more remarkable for having been conceived and created in the oral tradition of Homer’s time, by a bard who was probably illiterate and may have been blind. It would have changed many times in the telling before being preserved in the written form in which it was passed down to us.
But it’s not just the method of its creation that makes this epic narrative one of the great achievements of literature. Ken tells us, “The Odyssey is thematically rich, and its principal themes include creativity, imagination, deception, heroism, the human condition, love and loyalty, order and disorder, heroic craftiness, triumph over temptation, the nature of women, the concept of home, the epic journey, the theme of revenge, and the gods’ involvement in humanity.”
In other words, there’s something here for just about everybody!
The myth of Odysseus encompasses an incredibly wide range of experiences, emotions, and ideas. And the tale is permeated by the longing for home—something we Christians know is a longing for God—that’s so strong that it again and again leads Odysseus to forsake a life of easy pleasure and to keep pursuing his goal.
As Ken puts it, “The fullness of life demands the wholeness of longing.”
In this way, Odysseus’ journey shows us something about the condition of humanity as a whole, about our need for home, for God and our capacity for endurance. Ken calls it “a timeless journey into self-understanding and completeness.”
It’s no wonder, then, that this work of genius resonates so powerfully with us, so many centuries later.