Is The Odyssey still relevant to modern readers?

Amir Khan – GSAL Alumnus (2019 Leaver)

Former student Amir Khan was an editorial member of Salutaris, the Sixth Form academic journal, during his time at GSAL. This essay on the classical work The Odyssey was originally published in Salutaris 2019, a project led by Mrs Gray, E-Learning Designer. Mr Dodd (TJG Staff Editor)

The Odyssey, for a text approximately 2800 years old, is remarkably relevant to the modern day. While the text presents a very character-driven narrative, it is this polarisation of some characters, like Penelope’s suitors compared to individuals like Odysseus, which allows the reader to see different aspects of the human condition and how this can impact an individual’s life. This is epitomised in the way the text presents characters overflowing with hubris and arrogance, and subsequently how characters engage with the principle of hospitality. One of the significant ways the Odyssey is relevant to the modern day is through its examination of mortality, as through this we can see how the text teaches us to respect the dead, but also how in turn the text suggests we live our lives.

Death and mortality in the poem hold a remarkable level of relevancy, as not only does it shows a level of continuity concerning the way humans view death, but it also displays the message that we should live a life of fulfilment – not glory. This is achieved mainly through the use of spirits of the dead in Book 11. The most emotive moment of this scene is when the recently dead character of Elpenor says “I beg you, Lord, to remember me: do not sail away and leave me behind”. This quotation captures the essence of humanity’s relationship with death, both when the poem was written and in the modern day. This is because the quotation seems to embody the innate existential issue humanity has with death and how we then cease to exist. This existential crisis seems to afflict the character of Elpenor as he struggles to comprehend his new form of existence. The last line we hear from Elpenor is that he wants people to “learn about me” which reiterates the pre-existing crisis of remembrance of the dead. The only difference between the time the text was written and now is that in Bronze Age Greece, it was believed the dead soul lived on, in contrast to the modern day where many are agnostic or atheistic in their faith. Nevertheless, the point remains that within the Odyssey views on death are very similar to those of today. The speech provided by Elpenor gives an insight into the human condition which permeates the entirety of history – the desire not to be forgotten. If taken from this angle, the Odyssey can remind us that we should commemorate the dead, as while we may not believe as fundamentally in life after death, it can be interpreted that we should commemorate the dead out of respect for the fallen – which is a belief that has definitely been carried forward to this day. The text also tackles the issue of mortality from a different angle, in which it suggests that the best life is one which may hold less success and glory, but instead prizes loved ones and family. This can be seen in the quotation by Athena which states “but Odysseus, yearning only to catch sight of the smoke curling up from his own log, longs only to die”, thus conveying a view arguably distinctive from the one presented by Elpenor. While Elpenor presents the view that a man should be presented for his valiant deeds, seen in his begging to “burn the oar” he rowed with in order to commemorate his successes at war, Odysseus seems to neglect that in favour of a small, island life. Through Odysseus’s rejection of the desire for glory and fame gained by death on the battlefield in favour of the peace and tranquility gained by living out the rest of his mortality at home, we can see how the text suggests that perhaps the most fulfilling life is not the grandest or one filled with the most glory, but one where what is prized is really meaningful, such as family and friends. This message in particular is one which is relevant to the modern day, where perhaps in the society we live in it is easy to forget those in our lives who matter for the sake of money or status. Yet in fact is it that which probably yields less satisfaction than merely living a life surrounded by those who bring us the most joy. The text also explores the theme of hubris and excessive pride, in which it displays the damage too much pride can cause to an individual’s life in the long term.

The theme of hubris and arrogance in the text conveys to the reader that excessive pride is often detrimental to one’s life – causing the text to warn against it. This does indeed hold relevance to the modern day, as it conveys to us that sometimes modesty is the best cause of action to succeed, and sometimes being overly proud can result in an individual’s downfall. Hubris throughout the text can be seen in multiple different characters, but most prominently in Penelope’s suitors, who seem to embody this sense of arrogance and pride which ultimately leads to their downfall. This can be seen in Book 2 where Eurymachus, one of the suitors, rebukes an old prophet by saying, “Enough old man! Go home now, and prophesy to your children, for they may fear some harm in the future. In these matters, I am a far better prophet than you”. The quotation aptly captures the sense of prideful superiority held by the suitors, that they are superior to others for no other reason than their bloodlines. Of course, here there is a sense of proleptic irony, as at the end of the epic Odysseus does indeed return to do what the old man threatened, the killing of the suitors. The likeness between the suitors and the Cyclopes is astounding, as the Cyclopes themselves are described as “men of great arrogance” who then go on to kill and torture Odysseus and his crew, similarly how Penelope’s suitors emotionally torture Telemachus in his household. Perhaps this comparison exists to highlight the ultimate brutality of these arrogant and prideful individuals. Also, the fate of the Cyclops Polyphemus, being blinded by Odysseus, can be used to foreshadow the fate of the equally as prideful and arrogant suitors who suffer an equally as cruel fate at the hands of Odysseus. While hubris in the poem is seen through a somewhat hyperbolic lens, it does convey a message which is somewhat relevant to the modern day: the message that excessive pride is ultimately detrimental to an individual’s life in the long term, and that sometimes modesty is the best course of action to succeed – as the excessive pride of the suitors results in their death. The hubris in the text is quite clearly linked to the theme of hospitality and how being hospitable is prized above all else, which is relevant to the modern day as our individualistic society often forgets interpersonal relationships for the sake of self-gain.

The theme of hospitality permeates the entirety of the text yet it runs beneath the aforementioned theme of hubris, displaying the need for individuals to be kind and welcoming to one another – or else face the wrath of Zeus. This theme is clearly relevant to the modern day, as it conveys the message that people should be kind to one another. This message, in the age of division and confusion we live in, could arguably go a long way to fixing some of the societal issues we face today. This theme of hospitality is reflected in the repetition of the phrase that those seeking shelter are “protected by Zeus” throughout the poem, where the linking to the highest God gives a sense of importance to the protection of the innocent and vulnerable. Those who do not abide by these rules of hospitality appear to be brutish and animalistic, seen in the suitors whom Telemachus despises saying “They infest our palace day and night, they butcher our cattle, our sheep, our fat goats, feasting themselves sick”. This quotation conveys the suitor’s consumption of the house and connotes a sense that they are also consuming Telemachus’s livelihood. By eating all his possessions they are effectively draining the family’s wealth. Moreover, there is a stark comparison between the individuals who abide by the rules of hospitality and those who do not. Those who refrain from being hospitable are usually arrogant, evil or even monstrous, seen in the character Polyphemus who not only is unkind but kills and then eats his visitors. Similarly to the theme of hubris, the links between Polyphemus and the suitors are rather blatant, as while Polyphemus eats Odysseus’ men, the suitors eat him out of his household and wealth. In comparison to this, those who do abide by the rules of hospitality are depicted as being good and peaceful people, and this is epitomised in the Phaeacians who care for Odysseus until he is rested. Consequently, the Phaeacians are described as being “the farthermost of men, and no other mortals are conversant with them” – displaying those who do follow the rules of hospitality as the best of humanity, in contrast to the animalistic and primitive way those who do not follow the rules of hospitality are seen. While the theme of hospitality in the poem is wrapped up in the mythology of the poem, ultimately the message is rather simple – be kind to others. It is this message which is definitely relevant to the modern day, as since we clearly live in an age of discord and confusion in both the political and social spheres, perhaps the simple message of being kinder to other people would be useful when trying to fix the societal problems over race, sexuality, religion, etcetera that we face today.

In conclusion, the Odyssey is a text which is relevant to the modern reader, as it presents some rather essential messages for the modern times. These messages can be confined to the rather simple ideas that we should: live life to the fullest and remember the dead; not be overly arrogant and prideful, as it is a destructive trait to hold in one’s character; and to be kind to others. Especially in today’s world of individualism and self-interest, perhaps if we tried to emulate the lessons this 2800 year old text tries to teach, then the world might be a better place.

Amir Khan

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