Great Books 101: Ancient to Medieval

“Homer’s Odyssey


Homer’s Odyssey—which tells the tale of the Greek hero Odysseus and his journey home after the fall of Troy—is one of the great works of Western Civilization. With this poem, Homer establishes the context in which the great cultural and political flowering of 5th century Athens takes place.

Though the Odyssey tells a story, it is not merely entertainment: It begins by invoking the Muse, in part because it is an attempt to discern meaning in a life that can be mysterious.  Many aspects of life are easy to discern but difficult to understand. It is also an appeal to memory, without which we lose our identity as individuals, nations, and civilizations.

The main character Odysseus is a man of many turnings, well-traveled, and experienced. Rhetorically clever, though never merely deceptive, he exhibits a deep understanding of human nature. His words and deeds provide lessons about human nature that are still applicable today.

The poem addresses timeless themes of Western Civilization—including home, order and disorder, hospitality, fidelity, and loyalty. A pattern of good and bad representations of each major theme runs through the entire work. For example, social order or public peace begins in marriage, as represented by the unmovable marriage bed of Odysseus and Penelope, and the best claim to glory is not war but home and family.


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Recommended Readings

Discussion Questions

  1. Why does Homer begin by invoking the Muse?
  2. How does the cleverness of Odysseus reveal timeless truths about human nature?
  3. What are some major themes of the poem, and how are they represented by Homer?

Q & A Session 

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David Whalen is Provost and Professor of English at Hillsdale College. He obtained his Ph.D. in English Literature from the University of Kansas.