The Odyssey

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Themes and Colors
Fate, the Gods, and Free Will Theme Icon
Piety, Customs, and Justice Theme Icon
Cunning, Disguise, and Self-Restraint Theme Icon
Memory and Grief Theme Icon
Glory and Honor Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in The Odyssey, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Memory and Grief Theme Icon

Memory is a source of grief for many characters in The Odyssey. Grief and tears are proper ways to honor the memory of absent or departed friends, but grief as a mere expression of selfish sadness or fear is somewhat shameful – Odysseus often chides his crew for wailing in grief for fear of death. Moreover, the grief caused by memory is in many instances a guide to right action. Telemachus' grief for his father spurs him to take command of his household and journey to other kingdoms in search of news. Penelope remains faithful to Odysseus because she remembers him and grieves in her memory, and the gods honor her loyalty – just as they scorn the disloyalty of Agamemnon's wife. Odysseus remains faithful in his heart to the memory of Penelope even in the seven years he spends as Calypso's unwilling lover, and his memory keeps alive his desire for home.

If memory in The Odyssey is a guide to action, it follows that loss of memory is often a loss of desire - since it is mainly desire that causes people to act. The Lotus-Eaters, Circe and the Sirens all threaten to halt the homecoming of Odysseus's crew by erasing the men's memories and extinguishing their desires. Like grief, desire can be both noble and shameful: desire for home is noble, but desire for food and drink is bestial. In the Circe episode, the men who are stripped of their desire for home become swine – as though a person without desire for something other than food and drink is no longer human.

The opposite of grief seems to be the forgetfulness and innocence of sleep, which Athena often gifts to Penelope or Telemachus to ease their sorrows. But sleep, like loss of memory, can be treacherous: when Odysseus falls asleep after his encounter with the god Aeolus, his crew opens the bag of winds that was the god's parting gift, and the winds cause a terrible storm. Grief and memory are noble, heroic experiences in The Odyssey. Lotus flower, Circe, and the Sirens are said to spellbind their victims, as the bards spellbind their listeners; but the songs of the bards enhance memory rather than destroy it. The Odyssey itself was such a song, a spell of memory and grief.

Memory and Grief ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Memory and Grief appears in each section of The Odyssey. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Memory and Grief Quotes in The Odyssey

Below you will find the important quotes in The Odyssey related to the theme of Memory and Grief.
Book 7 Quotes

The belly's a shameless dog, there's nothing worse.
Always insisting, pressing, it never lets us forget –
destroyed as I am, my heart racked with sadness,
sick with anguish, still it keeps demanding,
‘Eat, drink!' It blots out all the memory
of my pain, commanding, ‘Fill me up!'

Related Characters: Odysseus (speaker)
Related Symbols: Food, Food
Page Number: 7.251-257
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Odysseus speaks to King Alcinous. Alcinous is suspicious that Odysseus is really a god in human form, or perhaps a nobleman from a faraway land. Odysseus insists that he's just a common man. To prove his point, Odysseus make a big show of being hungry for more food: he claims that his greatest desire in life is the desire of his stomach.

Odysseus's speech is ironic, since his real desire (the desire that has motivated him to travel for so many years) is a desire to return to his wife and family. But Odysseus is clever enough to conceal his true name and background from the people of the kingdom: instead of introducing himself as a king, he pretends to be a commoner.

It's worth asking why, exactly, Odysseus doesn't reveal himself to be a king right away--he's among friends, after all. First, Odysseus has had some rough experiences before, and he's learned the hard way to keep secrets from other people, no matter how friendly they appear to be. Second, Odysseus loves to lie and deceive: he thinks of lying as "practice" for a more serious deception in the future.

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Book 9 Quotes

Calypso the lustrous goddess tried to hold me back,
deep in her arching caverns, craving me for a husband.
So did Circe, holding me just as warmly in her halls,
the bewitching queen of Aeaea keen to have me too.
But they never won the heart inside me, never.
So nothing is as sweet as a man's own country.

Related Characters: Odysseus (speaker), Calypso, Circe
Page Number: 9.33-38
Explanation and Analysis:

At the beginning of this book, Odysseus introduces himself as a lover of his own country, and his own wife (Penelope). Odysseus reinforces his loyalty to his homeland by claiming that beautiful women like Circe and Calypso have tried to seduce him away from his family, but he always proved too strong for them. Odysseus's lust for women is nothing compared to his affection for his home: his family, his house, and his entire kingdom.

The passage is an important statement of the key theme of the poem: the importance of a home, and the memory of home. Odysseus is given many opportunities along the way back to Ithaca to live a good life: he could have stayed on Calypso's island, for example. Instead, Odysseus remembers his duty to his wife and child, and his duty to his subjects. In short, Odysseus proves himself to be a noble king by refusing to stop short of Ithaca. At the same time, Odysseus is further glorified as a hero by the fact that these goddesses, witches, and queens all fall hopelessly in love with him.

Book 15 Quotes

Even too much sleep can be a bore. …
We two will keep to the shelter here, eat and drink
and take some joy in each other's heartbreaking sorrows,
sharing each other's memories.

Related Characters: Eumaeus (speaker), Odysseus
Page Number: 15.443-449
Explanation and Analysis:

In this Book, Odysseus stays with the humble shepherd, Eumaeus. Eumaeus isn't very wealthy, but like a good host, he provides Odysseus with food and warm clothing, in the process confirming that he's a good, moral person. (This is later contrasted with the goatherd Melanthius, a man who shares a similar social position to Eumaeus, but is rude to visitors and disloyal to his king.)

In this passage, Odysseus and Eumaeus engage in the sacred art of storytelling. Eumaeus is a lonely man, and so he gets pleasure out of hosting visitors: as a host, he has somebody to talk to about his memories of the past. There is, in short, a "quid pro quo" in hospitality. The host provides the guest with food and warmth, and the guest provides the host with good company and stories of adventure. Eumaeus may not be a rich man, but he's a good man: he knows the unwritten, sacred laws of hospitality, and he follows them to the letter.

Book 17 Quotes

You know how you can stare at a bard in wonder –
trained by the gods to sing and hold men spellbound –
how you can long to sit there, listening, all your life
when the man begins to sing. So he charmed my heart.

Related Characters: Eumaeus (speaker), Odysseus
Page Number: 17.575-578
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Eumaeus has brought Odysseus, disguised as a beggar, to the court where Odysseus once ruled. Antinous, the informal leader of the suitors, angrily asks Eumaeus why he's brought a mere beggar to the court. Eumaeus, thinking fast, claims that he took pity on Odysseus. He adds that Odysseus charmed his heart, like a bard might charm a listener with his song.

The passage is a good example of the Odyssey's unique style of comedy, based on the sudden reversal of social roles. The passage is undeniably funny because it gives a humble shepherd, Eumaeus, the opportunity to patronize Odysseus, a king among men. Later on, this passage was extremely influential in Greek and Roman comedies, which were almost always structured around a similar reversal of social roles.

Book 24 Quotes

What good sense resided in your Penelope –
how well Icarius's daughter remembered you,
Odysseus, the man she married once!
The fame of her great virtue will never die.
The immortal gods will lift a song for all mankind,
a glorious song in praise of self-possessed Penelope.

Related Characters: Agamemnon (speaker), Odysseus, Penelope
Page Number: 24.213-218
Explanation and Analysis:

In this scene, the ghost of Agamemnon, confined to the Underworld, crosses paths with the ghosts of the various suitors Odysseus has just slaughtered. Agamemnon is glad to hear that Odysseus has reclaimed his place in Ithaca, because it proves that Penelope was a good and faithful wife to him. Agamemnon was murdered by his own wife, but he's pleased to hear that Penelope really is a loyal, moral woman.

Even if Agamemnon is trapped in the Underworld forever, he's gets some relief with the knowledge that not all marriages are treacherous, and Odysseus has come to a happy ending. Furthermore, Agamemnon's speech reminds us that, in a way, Penelope is another true hero of the poem: her intelligence and faithfulness will be remembered for just as long as Odysseus's wiliness and strength. Furthermore, both king and queen are ultimately most praised for their self-restraint--Odysseus when he allowed himself to be disguised as a humble beggar, or chose to give up glory in pursuit of his ultimate goal, and Penelope when she chose to remain loyal to Odysseus, despite all indications that he would never return from Troy.

Now that royal Odysseus has taken his revenge,
let both sides seal their pacts that he shall reign for life,
and let us purge their memories of the bloody slaughter
of their brothers and their sons. Let them be friends,
devoted as in the old days. Let peace and wealth
come cresting through the land.

Related Characters: Zeus (speaker), Odysseus
Page Number: 24.533-538
Explanation and Analysis:

In the final pages of the poem, the gods tie up all the "loose ends" in Ithaca. While it's possible that civil war could break out with the return of Odysseus and the slaughter of the suitors (all young noblemen with influential families), Zeus ensures that both sides of the conflict make peace and unite around Odysseus's newly restored leadership. In this way, the gods intervene to ensure a happy ending to the story.

The passage is one final reminder of the relationship between free will and divine intervention. Zeus ties up the loose ends, but only because he's pleased with what Odysseus has accomplished all by himself: i.e., his defeat of the suitors and his reunion with his equally-admirable wife and child. In other words, Zeus chooses to intervene in the lives of the people who deserve his help. After years of war, jealousy, and betrayal, all caused by Helen's abduction from Greece, Zeus decides to shut the book on the whole affair and bring some happiness to the human race (at least in the case of this poem). He rewards Odysseus, out of all those involved in the Trojan War, because Odysseus has proven his own worth as a free human being beyond all doubt.