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.
Piety, Customs, and Justice Theme Icon

The world of The Odyssey is defined by rules that prescribe human interactions. Important customs include hospitable behavior to strangers and guests, respect for family and marriage, and punishment of those who have violated these customs. The lines between these customs can be blurry, and at times the customs may even conflict – as in the case of Agamemnon's son Orestes, who must avenge Agamemnon's murder by his wife Clytemnestra, but in doing so has to kill his own mother. A person who fails to follow these customs usually falls victim to violent justice meted out by other humans or by the gods. Those who act quickly, selfishly, or ignorantly are likely to run afoul of the complicated interplay of these customs; at the same time, those who are cunning and thoughtful can get their way within the confines of the rules, bending but not breaking them.

The gods also reward piety and punish disrespect and hubris (excessive pride). Human piety toward the gods takes many forms, such as sacrifice and respect for a divine property and offspring. Yet the gods are often unreliable in their assessments of human piety. It can take very little for a god to feel slighted, and the consequences are often unpredictable. Poseidon remains angry at Odysseus for blinding his son Polyphemus even after he punishes Odysseus repeatedly, but eventually decides to spare Odysseus's life on a whim.

The emotions of the gods sometimes conflict, and the mysterious tugs and pulls of divine influence determine the fluctuations of justice on earth. The Phaeacians follow Zeus's code of hospitality in welcoming Odysseus and speeding him home; but Poseidon (still sore at Odysseus) interprets their actions as a mark of disrespect, so Zeus joins him in punishing the Phaeacians for an action that should have pleased him. The outlines of divine justice align with a set of assumptions about human conduct, but the details are a blurry tangle of Olympian tempers.

Piety, Customs, and Justice ThemeTracker

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Piety, Customs, and Justice Quotes in The Odyssey

Below you will find the important quotes in The Odyssey related to the theme of Piety, Customs, and Justice.
Book 1 Quotes

Ah how shameless – the way these mortals blame the gods.
From us alone, they say, come all their miseries, yes,
but they themselves, with their own reckless ways,
compound their pains beyond their proper share.

Related Characters: Zeus (speaker)
Page Number: 1.37-40
Explanation and Analysis:

Here Zeus, the king of the gods, surveys the lives of Odysseus and his son, Telemachus. As Zeus prepares to meddle in the life of Odysseus--sending a messenger to free Odysseus from his captivity  on Calypso's island--he comments on the relationship between humans and gods. People, he notes, are fond of blaming the gods whenever anything bad happens to them. The truth, however, is that the gods are only partly responsible for human misery--humans themselves are capable of making choices (usually), and thus compounding their own suffering unnecessarily.

On one level, Zeus is being almost comically disingenuous here, as he complains about mortals denying free will while simultaneously Zeus is meddling in mortal affairs and affecting their fates. But Zeus's observations also complicate our understanding of free will and fate. While the gods of ancient Greece are extremely powerful, they leave humans space in which to exercise their freedom (but the exact amount of free will is very blurry and ambiguous). Although Zeus is complaining about the people who blame the gods for their own misfortune, his statement could be interpreted optimistically: humans do have the power to control their own destinies. In the poem, we'll see Odysseus exercising his own agency and using his ingenuity and courage to control his fate.

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Book 2 Quotes

You should be ashamed yourselves,
mortified in the face of neighbors living round about!
Fear the gods' wrath – before they wheel in outrage
and make these crimes recoil on your heads.

Related Characters: Telemachus (speaker), Antinous, Eurymachus, Ctesippus
Page Number: 2.69-72
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, young Telemachus yells at the suitors who have overrun his mother Penelope's court. In the absence of Odysseus, suitors have come from across the land to ask for Penelope's hand in marriage, and they're all incredibly rude and sloppy. Telemachus angrily warns the suitors that the gods will punish them for their rudeness one day (foreshadowing the final scenes of the poem).

Telemachus's outburst reminds us that he's too young and weak to attack the suitors himself, but he's also portrayed as a moral authority in the poem: he's been trained in right and wrong, and immediately recognizes when the suitors overstep their position. In ancient Greece, the highest law is the law of the household: visitors and guests are required to be polite and orderly. Thus, for the suitors to be rude and spend all their time in Penelope's home, abusing the law of hospitality, is a sign of their immorality--a crime for which they'll eventually pay with their lives.

Book 3 Quotes

Some of the words you'll find within yourself,
the rest some power will inspire you to say.
You least of all – I know –
were born and reared without the gods' good will.

Related Characters: Athena (speaker), Telemachus
Page Number: 3.29-32
Explanation and Analysis:

In this scene, young Telemachus gets a visit from the goddess Athena. Athena tells Telemachus that she's going to help his father return to his home, and that Telemachus needs to take action as well. Telemachus is reluctant to follow Athena's advice and ask Nestor about Odysseus, but Athena encourages him nonetheless, assuring him that he'll "find the right words."

In one sense, this passage further complicates the idea of free will in the poem. Telemachus must choose to take action on his own, but Athena, a goddess, is also blatantly advising him what to do, and she tells him that he will be inspired by "some power" to say the right things when the time comes. As is typical of Homer and Greek mythology in general, there is a complicated mixture of human freedom, divine intervention, and overarching fate involved in every action.

The passage is also important because it establishes speech and eloquence as a vital part of maturity. Telemachus's story in the poem is a coming-of-age tale: with Athena's help, he'll learn to take control over his own life. The first step in doing so, it's suggested, is learning how to express his opinions with courage and conviction. Homer, a poet, is a little biased in portraying speech as the most important part of maturity, perhaps. He even makes a comparison between Telemachus's speech to Nestor and his own duty to recite the Odyssey--in both cases, the mortals look to the gods for inspiration, but also receive glory for rhetorical skill and power.

Book 5 Quotes

Outrageous! Look how the gods have changed their minds
about Odysseus – while I was off with my Ethiopians.
Just look at him there, nearing Phaeacia's shores
where he's fated to escape his noose of pain
that's held him until now. Still my hopes ride high –
I'll give that man his swamping fill of trouble!

Related Characters: Poseidon (speaker), Odysseus
Page Number: 5.315-320
Explanation and Analysis:

Here Homer firmly establishes the antagonism between Odysseus and Poseidon. Odysseus has disrespected Poseidon by, among other things, blinding his son Polyphemus. Poseidon has vowed to wage war against Odysseus, making his journey back to Ithaca extremely challenging.

And yet, the passage shows, Poseidon is only one god out of many. Many of the other gods on Olympus support Odysseus in his quest to journey home. The indeterminacy of the gods' support for Odysseus (i.e., the fact that some of the gods support him and others don't, and all of them are fickle and likely to change their minds) suggests that the result of Odysseus's journey is not predetermined, unless it is by a power higher than the gods themselves--fate, or perhaps the mysterious divine figures of "the Fates." But because of this ambiguity regarding destiny, it's suggested that Odysseus will have to use his own ingenuity and strength to get home, recognizing that insofar as he's in control of his destiny, he must act in the right way in order to succeed.

Book 6 Quotes

But here's an unlucky wanderer strayed our way,
and we must tend him well. Every stranger and beggar
comes from Zeus.

Related Characters: Nausicaa (speaker), Odysseus, Zeus
Page Number: 6.226-228
Explanation and Analysis:

Nausicaa, a princess, stumbles upon the body of Odysseus, who's been washed ashore after a horrible storm. While Nausicaa's maids and serving girls run away from Odysseus, a male stranger, Nausicaa is not afraid. Indeed, she orders her attendants to take care of Odysseus. Nausicaa's explanation for her kindness is interesting: all wanderers come from Zeus.

Nausicaa embodies the morality of the ancient world: hospitality is a sacred law, and a good host must provide food and shelter for wanderer, recognizing that all human beings (and gods) deserve respect and welcome. Nausicaa alludes to her common humanity with Odysseus: while they may be very different, they're both human beings, and therefore the creations of Zeus. (Her statement may also be a reference to the myth of Baucis and Philemon, a poor old couple who took in Zeus himself when he was disguised as a beggar, and were richly rewarded for doing so.) Also notice that Nausicaa agrees to take care of Odysseus before she's aware that he's a king of Ithaca--her generosity is motivated by a selfless respect for other people, not a desire to please a king. (It's also possible that Nausicaa has a crush on Odysseus, as Athena has enchanted him to look beautiful.)

Book 8 Quotes

A bad day for adultery! Slow outstrips the Swift.

Related Characters: Ares, Aphrodite, Hephaestus
Page Number: 8.372
Explanation and Analysis:

In this scene, an unnamed bard (a self-portrait, it's been suggested, of Homer himself) tells a comic story for a large banquet audience. In the story, the crippled god Hephaestus learns that his wife, the beautiful Aphrodite, is having an affair with Ares, the strong, handsome god of war. Hephaestus tricks Aphrodite and Ares into making love in a booby-trapped bed: when they're finished having sex, Hephaestus traps his victims in a strong chain. Hephaestus gloats over his victory: even though he's incapable of walking fast, he's managed to trap the swift, powerful Ares.

The story is interesting because it emphasizes the power of thought and ingenuity over physical force. Throughout the poem, we'll see how Odysseus relies more heavily on his mind than on his body: Athena, not Ares, is his god of choice, and Odysseus's epithets (the brief phrases used to describe him when he's mentioned in the poem) almost always refer to his cunning, not his physical exploits.

Book 9 Quotes

Since we've chanced on you, we're at your knees
in hopes of a warm welcome, even a guest-gift,
the sort that hosts give strangers. That's the custom.
Respect the gods, my friend. We're suppliants – at your mercy!
Zeus of the Strangers guards all guests and suppliants:
strangers are sacred – Zeus will avenge their rights!

Related Characters: Odysseus (speaker), Zeus, Polyphemus
Page Number: 9.300-305
Explanation and Analysis:

In this flashback scene, Odysseus and his crew of sailors land on the island of Polyphemus, a wicked cyclops. Odysseus asks Polyphemus to give his crew food and shelter--he even cites the unwritten laws of Zeus, which compel any host to take good care of his visitors and guests.

The passage spells out the "laws of the home" that dominate life in the ancient world. All people are religiously required to take care of their guests--doing so is a sacred duty among the Greeks, backed up by the power of almighty Zeus. Polyphemus, as we'll see, refuses to abide by Zeus's laws--and in the process, he confirms that he's not just a bad host but an evil person as well.

Book 11 Quotes

Even so, you and your crew may still reach home,
suffering all the way, if you only have the power
to curb their wild desire and curb your own.

Related Characters: Tiresias (speaker), Odysseus
Related Symbols: Food
Page Number: 11.117-119
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Tiresias urges Odysseus to obey the laws of the gods so that he and his crew can return to Ithaca alive and well. Tiresias instructs Odysseus to refrain from killing and eating the famous Oxen of the Sun, the sacred cattle of the god Helios. Tiresias warns Odysseus that if his men kill the oxen, the gods will punish them all very harshly and make their journey back to Ithaca all but impossible.

It's interesting that Tiresias frames Odysseus's challenge as a test of "wild desire." Throughout the poem, Homer will portray gluttony, lust, and other bodily sins as crimes of desire more than anything else. A true leader, it's implied, can control his desires, and those of his followers, completely: instead of giving in to hunger, thirst, lust, etc., he uses his mind and his willpower to stay strong.

I tell you this – bear it in mind, you must –
when you reach your homeland steer your ship
into port in secret, never out in the open…
the time for trusting women's gone forever!

Related Characters: Agamemnon (speaker), Odysseus, Clytemnestra
Page Number: 11.515-518
Explanation and Analysis:

In this famous passage, Odysseus visits the ghost of Agamemnon in the Underworld. Agamemnon, who has been murdered by his own wife, Clytemnestra, warns Odysseus against trusting his own wife, Penelope, too much. Agamemnon claims that married women often have affairs with other men--Penelope may have taken a lover while Odysseus was away. Thus, Agamemnon urges Odysseus to arrive on Ithaca in secret--just in case Penelope is planning to kill him.

The passage is important because it adds another layer of suspense to the story: Odysseus is trying to return to Penelope, but does Penelope want him back? By returning to Ithaca, Odysseus is hoping to return to his old life--a life of peace, love, and prosperity. But Agamemnon raises the grim possibility that Odysseus will never be able to return to his old life: his wife and child may have changed beyond all recognition.

Book 12 Quotes

So stubborn! …
Hell-bent again yet again on battle and feats of arms?
Can't you bow to the deathless gods themselves?
Scylla's no mortal, she's an immortal devastation.

Related Characters: Circe (speaker), Odysseus, Scylla
Page Number: 12.125-128
Explanation and Analysis:

Odysseus has captured the witch Circe, who gives Odysseus advice for how to survive the coming dangers. Circe explains that Odysseus will have to sail past two dangers: the whirlpool known as Charybdis, and the monster known as Scylla. Odysseus believes that he'll be able to fight off Scylla without losing any of his men, but Circe angrily corrects him: Scylla is immortal, and can't be defeated by mere mortals. Odysseus will have to sacrifice six of his own men to feed Scylla if he hopes to get back to Ithaca.

Circe's point of view is interesting: she encourages Odysseus to accept the inevitable; i.e., accept the fact that he's going to have to lose some men in order to get home. She further accuses Odysseus of being overly eager to fight, and suggests that he's hopelessly violent and desirous of glory. In short, Circe is urging Odysseus to accept his limitations, and sometimes take the easier way out. Odysseus is a hero, but he's also mortal, meaning that he'll never be able to beat Scylla. Odysseus's boundless confidence in his own abilities is part of what makes him such a compelling character, but as we'll see, it also makes him reckless and careless at times.

Book 16 Quotes

Would I were young as you, to match my spirit now,
or I were the son of great Odysseus, or the king himself
returned from all his roving – there's still room for hope!
Then let some foreigner lop my head off if I failed
to march right into Odysseus's royal halls
and kill them all. And what if I went down,
crushed by their numbers – I, fighting alone?
I'd rather die, cut down in my own house
than have to look on at their outrage day by day.

Related Characters: Odysseus (speaker), Telemachus, Antinous, Eurymachus
Page Number: 16.111-119
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage Telemachus has made contact with Odysseus, but doesn't yet realize that he's reunited with his own father (Athena has disguised Odysseus as an old beggar). Instead of revealing himself to Telemachus, Odysseus gives a long speech in which he talks about how he'd avenge Penelope's honor if he were young and noble. In another minute, Athena will urge Odysseus to reveal his true identity to his son--but for now, Odysseus keeps himself hidden.

Why doesn't Odysseus just reveal himself to his beloved son right away? Homer suggests a couple of answers. First, Odysseus is unsure if he can trust Telemachus: Agamemnon has inspired him to distrust everyone, even his own family. (Immediately after this passage, Athena appears, assuring Odysseus that he can trust Telemachus.) Second, Odysseus doesn't want to reveal his whereabouts too early: if he tells Telemachus who he is, there's a chance the news could get back to Antinous and the other suitors, and he could be killed. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Odysseus genuinely loves to lie, and wants to draw out the suspense of his secret return. He gets a thrill from pretending to be someone he's not--here, for example, he's definitely enjoying himself as he goes on about what he'd do "if" he were Odysseus. One could even argue that Odysseus is a trickster/poet/artist first and a father/warrior/king second. 

Book 17 Quotes

Odysseus was torn…
Should he wheel with his staff and beat the scoundrel senseless? –
or hoist him by the midriff, split his skull on the rocks?
He steeled himself instead, his mind in full control.

Related Characters: Odysseus, Melanthius
Page Number: 17.257-260
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Odysseus, disguised as an old beggar, ventures toward his palace. While he's walking there a goatherd named Melanthius gives him a kick and insults him. Odysseus is tempted to reveal himself to Melanthius and punish him for his disobedience. But instead, Odysseus keeps his self-control and walks on. If he were to get in a  fight with the goatherd, he'd ruin his plan by revealing his strength and youth.

The passage shows that Odysseus is a very different kind of hero than the ones we met during the Trojan War (including younger-Odysseus himself, at times). Odysseus is a talented warrior, but by now his mind is even more powerful than his body: he has the discipline and caution needed to pull off a complicated plan, and is even willing to take a humiliating beating if it means the plan will succeed. The passage thus suggests that Odysseus has become more disciplined during his journey home. The old Odysseus had ruined his own plan by bragging to the cyclops--the new Odysseus, however, isn't so reckless or so arrogant.

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 21 Quotes

Shame?...
How can you hope for any public fame at all?
You who disgrace, devour a great man's house and home!
Why hang your heads in shame over next to nothing?

Related Characters: Penelope (speaker), Antinous, Eurymachus
Page Number: 21.369-372
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Odysseus, still disguised as a beggar, is in the court of Ithaca, surrounded by arrogant suitors. Odysseus asks to handle a heavy bow that--little known to anyone else--was once his property. While the suitors are reluctant to give the bow to a mere beggar, Penelope convinces them to hand it over, arguing that the suitors have already embarrassed themselves enough by squatting in another man's house. In general, she angrily criticizes the suitors for disrespecting Odysseus's memory, and abusing the sacred law of hospitality.

Penelope's speech reinforces her status as a moral center of the poem. Penelope sees firsthand the rudeness and cruelty of the suitors on her property; moreover, she's fully aware of the laws of hospitality, which the suitors are breaking by spending far too much time in the court. It's interesting to note that Penelope's criticism is enough to convince the suitors to hand over the bow to Odysseus, setting in motion the slaughter that follows. The suitors may not be good men, but they're self-aware enough to feel shame and embarrassment about some things--i.e., they know they're doing wrong by living on Odysseus's property, or at least they feel ashamed of being scolded by the woman they're trying to woo.

Book 22 Quotes

No fear of the gods who rule the skies up there,
no fear that men's revenge might arrive someday –
now all your necks are in the noose – your doom is sealed!

Related Characters: Odysseus (speaker), Antinous, Eurymachus
Page Number: 22.40-42
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Odysseus has revealed himself as the rightful king of Ithaca. The suitors, who have been squatting on his property for years now, beg for mercy. But Odysseus refuses to grant them mercy of any kind: there's nobody who can save them now. Odysseus and his son Telemachus proceed to slaughter every suitor on his property.

It's important to note the obvious pleasure that Odysseus takes in avenging the suitors. While he'll later scold others for rejoicing in the deaths of the suitors, he seems to do exactly that here, gloating that he's tricked them all, and that nobody can save the suitors now. Perhaps Homer believes that Odysseus is entitled to some gloating--he's been trying to get home and regain his throne for years, and now that he's back, he should be able to dole out punishments to people like Antinous who have broken the sacred laws of hospitality and marriage.

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.