If there is one theme I gather from Odysseus’ experiences it is this: Those who deceive and betray expect to be deceived and betrayed in turn. This becomes a self fulfilling prophecy. Books 9-12 are the most famous sections of the epic. In these books we encounter Cyclops, Circe, Sirens, and ghosts and gods and monsters galore. For Odysseus tells the Phaeacians of his adventures since leaving the shores of Troy. The constant theme throughout these tales is of trust and betrayal.

Or course returning to the earlier point, we should not necessarily trust Odysseus. He is after all a master of tricks, disguises and lies. This whole tale he tells the Phaeacians may in fact be a product of his own mind.

For a King and a leader, Odysseus seems to experience a profound lack of trust from his crewmates. More than once, they challenge and outright disobey his orders. The question is why? Does the fault lie with the men or perhaps with Odysseus himself? The first hint of trouble appears when the crew refuses the order to leave the land of the Cicones, too eager for the treasures they are stealing. Before long, the Cicones have mustered their own troops and drive Odysseus’ men away. In a separate episode, Odysseus receives a bag full of winds from Aeolus. Odysseus’ men within sight of Ithaca believing the bag to be full of treasure rip the bag open, sending the ship adrift. And of course, one cannot forget the episode with the Cattle of the Sun and how the crew ensures their own deaths.

Clever as Odysseus is, he can act remarkably stupid at times. In fact, one could argue that he brought his misfortunes all upon himself. For having blinded and escaped the Cyclops Odysseus in a fit of egotism reveals his true name. Naturally the Cyclops, Polyphemus, brings down a curse upon Odysseus, which Poseidon fulfills. Earlier Zeus had wondered that humans blamed the gods for their misfortunes when often they brought such things upon themselves through their own actions. This is Exhibit A for that argument.

Furthermore, Odysseus does not act to improve his standing among the men. Expecting disobedience, he hides information from the crew. For example, he tells the crew about the whirlpool, Charybdis, but not about the monster, Scylla, that also lies in wait. Is it any wonder that Eurylochus, a member of the crew, can so easily sway the minds of the men?

Yet, it is in the visit to the underworld where this theme truly takes hold. Here, Odysseus meets the spirits of long dead heroes. Among them is Agamemnon who tells Odysseus of his death at the hands of Aegisthus and his wife, Clytemnestra. He tells Odysseus that a man should not trust even his own wife, for as Odysseus replies the twisted wiles of women are Zeus’ trustiest weapon.

In the underworld, we also encounter upon another theme: the importance of life. In the culture of Odysseus, glory and honor in death are prizes to be sought for. However, the denizens of Hades refute this belief. Even Achilles himself, proclaims that he would rather be a lowly slave than a glorified dead hero. The only thing that offers the shades comfort is news of their living progeny. Perhaps that is why Odysseus lists the mothers and women he meets in the underworld first. They bring life and the new generations into the world.

That is one of the questions during Odysseus’ journey. What does it mean to be alive and human? The epic seems to argue that suffering and family are the keys to life. When the men consume of the Lotus they forget all about their homes and families, lost in the pleasure. They are effectively dead. The same occurs on Circe’s island. The men lose themselves in the feast and lose their humanity. In fact, the entire island of Ithaca considers these dead before they actually are.

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