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What Do Monsters Represent in The Odyssey?

The monsters are numerous and distinct in The Odyssey, serving as the main antagonists in the epic journey of Odysseus. They symbolize many things, from divine punishment to spiritual guidance and difficult choices. The beasts come in many forms: ruthless chthonic creatures like Scylla and Charybdis, more human-looking beings represented by Calypso and Circe, or even mythical figures like Polyphemus the Cyclops. An epic narrative provided by the author allows the reader to see beyond humanity’s inherent fear of dangers of the unknown and look more deeply into hidden meanings of traits those monsters represent. In The Odyssey,Homer looks past the clichéd labels like “malicious” or “boastful”, “clever” or “ignorant”, painting instead a macrocosm of life in all its’ manifestations. The poet presents even the most horrid creatures in a new perspective, addressing the reader in an unusual way – through a battle of monsters and men. Each one of The Odyssey’s monsters is important to the development of the main character, thus becoming an essential part of the story.

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In The Iliad, Odysseus is presented to the reader as a cunning and righteous warrior, who, however, is not above deceiving his enemies with dirty tricks. Athena herself favors him, but that does not save Odysseus from Zeus’ punishment in The Odyssey for committing a heinous crime of eating the oxen of Helios. Odysseus spends seven long years on the island Ogygia – a paradise-like refuge of the nymph Calypso. To stay here would mean to live forever, but Odysseus refuses the temptation. As Alden claims, “To escape from Calypso and a blessed afterlife at the ends of the earth is to return to ‘the real world, his real wife and (ultimately) real death’” (71). So being held captive by Calypso represents not only the imprisonment of body, but also the imprisonment of Odysseus’ soul.

Following the story further, the reader reveals that it was not only Zeus whom Odysseus’ actions have angered. Another god, Poseidon, the ruler of the seas, swore to never let Odyssey make his way home. Poseidon’s son, The Cyclops Polyphemus, becomes a manifestation of divine interference in form of a monster, made possible to exist by the gods (Zanon 3). As Odysseus defeats Polyphemus with a cunning plan, the poet creates a parallel to Odysseus’ return to Ithaca, where the hero confronts his wife’s suitors similar to Polyphemus confronting him and his warriors.

Reciting the tales of his adventures to the Phaecians, on whom his return to Ithaca depends, Odysseus emphasizes his narrative on the part where he met Scylla and Charybdis. The author implies Charybdis to be greedy and determined in her attempts of devouring an entire ship, whilst Scylla captures her victims one by one like a money-loving hetaera, swallowing them whole (Stuligrosz 23-24). “We then sailed on up the narrow strait with wailing. For on one side lay Scylla and on the other divine Charybdis terribly sucked down the salt water of the sea” (Homer 12.235). In regard of the consequences of Odysseus’ decisions Myrsiades says that “by overlooking the risks involved when encountering Scylla and Charybdis, an adventure he is forewarned will cost him more lives” (165). The choice between two equivalent evils falls on Odysseus’ shoulders, and despite being a hero, he fails it, causing himself more grief.

Although the story is mainly centered on the Odysseus’ journey – both literal to Ithaca and metaphorical as a man – the monsters and challenges they represent remain the greatest push to the hero’s changes. Odysseus’ battles against different creatures are all about spiritual refinement; a consistent growth of his wisdom and foresight. His newly acquired prudence will make him a better man and a better king in the end of his wanderings.

Works Cited

Alden, Maureen. Para-Narratives in the “Odyssey”: Stories in the Frame. Oxford University Press, 2020.

Homer. The Odyssey. Translated by John Flaxman et al., Sirius, 2019.

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Myrsiades, Kostas. Reading Homer’s Odyssey. Bucknell University Press, 2019.

Stuligrosz, Magdalena. “Odyssean Motifs in the Middle Comedy: Witches, Monsters and Courtesans.” Symbolae Philologorum Posnaniensium Graecae Et Latinae, vol. 27, no. 2, 2018, pp. 17–27. doi:10.14746/sppgl.2017.xxvii.2.2.

Zanon, Camila Aline. “Fantastic Creatures and Where to Find Them in The Iliad.” Classica – Revista Brasileira De Estudos Clássicos, vol. 32, no. 2, pp. 235–252. doi:10.24277/classica.v32i2.880.

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