Odyssey of Homer

Course No. 302
Professor Elizabeth Vandiver, Ph.D.
Whitman College
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Course No. 302
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Course Overview

Keats compared discovering Homer to "finding a new planet." What is it in Homer's great works—and especially the Odyssey—that so enthralled him? Why have readers before and since reacted the same way?

By joining award-winning classics professor Elizabeth Vandiver for these lectures on the Odyssey, you can get answers to these and hundreds of other questions.

At first glance, those first two questions indeed seem troubling.

For the Odyssey tells of a long-dead epoch that seems utterly alien to us. Indeed, the Bronze Age Aegean was a distant memory even to the original audiences of these works.

But age seems only to have burnished the luster of this epic.

It may be precisely because of its very strangeness and distance that generation after generation of readers have come to love it so much.

This strangeness and distance throw sharply into focus the timeless human issues that ride along on Odysseus's journey, voyaging to strange lands on the shores of wine-dark seas, dealing face-to-face with gods and monsters.

A Single Riveting Question... and the Others It Raises

The epic's exploration centers around a single question about the protagonist, and the two related questions it immediately suggests:

  • Why does Odysseus long so powerfully to go home?
  • What holds people together and keeps them going in extreme situationn such as war or shipwreck?
  • Why do we love our own so strongly?

It is this universal theme that seems of paramount importance. What does it mean to live?

Professor Vandiver builds her analyses skillfully around meticulous, insightful examinations of the most important episodes in the Odyssey.

She explains the cultural assumptions that lie behind Homer's lines, and you join her in weighing the basic critical and interpretive issues.

Just as knowledge of the Trojan War legend is necessary for understanding the Iliad—available as a companion course—the Odyssey assumes that its audience knows how the war ended and what happened next.

Learn the Story between the Epics

Lecture 1. We begin with an overview of the traditional Trojan War story that took place after the Iliad. Next we examine the difference between kleos epic, with its primary focus on glory, and nostos epic, which focuses instead on homecoming.

Lecture 2. This lecture defines and examines xenia, a concept that is of key importance for understanding the Odyssey and the characters of Telemachos and the suitors.

Xenia is usually translated "guest-host relationship." It is a reciprocal relationship between two xenoi—a word which means guest, host, stranger, friend, and foreigner. It is not based on friendship, but rather on obligation.

In addition to examining xenia, the lecture also highlights two other important narrative elements established in the Telemachy:

  • the use of Agamemnon's story as a parallel for Odysseus's own
  • Telemachos's need to assert his maturity.

Lecture 3. In this lecture, we turn to Odysseus himself as a character in the Odyssey.

The lecture concentrates on the aspects of Odysseus's character that are introduced in these two books:

  • his desire to return home as a desire to reestablish his own identity
  • his superb skills as a rhetorician, able to craft his speech to appeal to whomever he is addressing.

Enter Odysseus... in His Own Voice

Lecture 4. This lecture continues to follow Odysseus's interactions with the Phaiakians, and moves on into the beginnings of his own great narrative of his past adventures.

The lecture addresses several key themes, including the continued importance of xenia as offered by the Phaiakians and how the conception of kleos in the Odyssey differs from that of the Iliad.

Professor Vandiver also discusses how the appearance of the bard Demodokos in Book VIII may reflect the original three-day performance structure of the Odyssey.

As the lecture concludes, we see how the encounter with the cyclops Polyphemos shows Odysseus at his most clever and quick-thinking but also causes all his subsequent troubles.

Lecture 5. We continue following Odysseus's own narrative of the "Great Wanderings"—Odysseus's narrative of his trip to Hades—including an examination of his encounter with Circe and the implications of the sexual double standard reflected in it and in the rest of the Odyssey.

A Journey into Hades

The lecture looks at the first half of the pivotal episode in the Great Wanderings and ends with a discussion of the reasons for and effects of the abrupt break in the text, where the poem returns briefly to the third-person narrative.

Lecture 6. This lecture continues to look at Odysseus's narrative of his journey to Hades.

Professor Vandiver notes elements in the Hades narrative that seem particularly designed to enchant Odysseus's Phaiakian audience.

She also considers the vexing question of Odysseus's own veracity before moving on to the final episode of the "Great Wanderings"—the killing of Helios's cattle and the death of Odysseus's remaining companions.

Lecture 7. This lecture moves to the second half of the Odyssey by discussing the change in pace and subject matter in the "Ithakan"books.

The lecture looks in detail at several important moments in the story:

  • Odysseus's arrival on Ithaka
  • the significance for xenia of the formulaic lines he speaks here for the third time
  • his encounter with the disguised Athena
  • their plan for his vengeance on the suitors.

Lecture 8. The two books covered in this lecture, XVI and XVII, include Odysseus's reunion with his son Telemachos and his entry into his own palace disguised as a beggar.

Follow Odysseus's Trials of Suppression

Throughout this section of the Odyssey the poet stresses Odysseus's emotional trials, for he must not:

  • show joy at the sight of Telemachos
  • display anger at the evil goatherd, Melanthios
  • reveal sorrow at the death of his dog Argos.

Each encounter reiterates Odysseus's supreme self-control and moves him closer to his utmost danger and most extreme trial.

Lecture 9. This lecture looks in close detail at the two lengthy conversations between Odysseus—still disguised as a beggar—and Penelope in Book XIX, and the scene that separates those conversations, in which Eurykleia recognizes Odysseus.

Lecture 10. This lecture, which covers Books XX through XXII, examines the "contest of the bow," Odysseus's revelation of his identity to the loyal slaves Eumaios and Philoitios, and the slaughter of the suitors.

Professor Vandiver continues her consideration of Penelope's knowledge and motives, as well as her focus on Homer's narrative strategies for increasing the sense of inevitability as the suitors' doom approaches.

Lecture 11. This last lecture on the Odyssey itself discusses the final reunion of Odysseus and Penelope in Book XXIII and the resolution of several themes and issues in Book XXIV.

Does Homer's Ending Work?

The lecture concludes with an examination of the Odyssey's ending and a discussion of whether or not it is effective.

Lecture 12. In this final lecture, Professor Vandiver turns to the question of whether the Trojan War has any historical basis.

After looking at the history of this question, she recounts the story of Heinrich Schliemann's 19th-century excavations at Hisarlik and Mycenae and examines some of the issues still left unresolved by those excavations.

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12 lectures
 |  Average 30 minutes each
  • 1
    Heroes' Homecomings
    After an overview of the background story, we examine the difference between a kleos epic such as The Iliad, with its primary focus on glory, and a nostos epic such as The Odyssey, which deals with homecoming. We then examine The Odyssey's own complicated chronology and plot. x
  • 2
    Guests and Hosts
    This lecture defines and examines xenia, guest-host relations, which is a key concept in The Odyssey. How does xenia permeate the first four books of The Odyssey and affect our understanding of Telemachos and the suitors? Why does Homer continually evoke Agamemnon's story as a parallel to that of Odysseus? What drives Telemachos? x
  • 3
    A Goddess and a Princess
    In this lecture, we examine the first appearance of Odysseus, in Book V, and his interaction with Kalypso and later the Phaiakian princess Nausikaa. The lecture focuses on the rhetorical skills of Odysseus, and on his desire to return home and re-establish his own identity. Finally, we discuss the ongoing thematic importance of xenia. x
  • 4
    Odysseus among the Phaiakians
    We see Odysseus as bard, relating a narrative of his adventures to his Phaiakian hosts. These lead us to ponder key themes of xenia and glory. We ask whether The Odyssey handles the latter theme the same way The Iliad does. Book IX brings us to the famous encounter with the Cyclops. x
  • 5
    Odysseus Tells His Own Story
    We continue following Odysseus's retelling of his "Great Wanderings." His encounter with Circe raises the issue of the sexual double standard in Homer. Finally, the lecture looks at the first half of the pivotal episode in the Great Wanderings, Odysseus's sojourn among the dead in Hades. x
  • 6
    From Persephone's Land to the Island of Helios
    We note how Odysseus tailors his Hades narrative to his Phaiakian audience. A question has always troubled readers of Homer: Is Odysseus telling the truth? x
  • 7
    The Goddess, the Swineherd, and the Beggar
    This lecture begins our study of the second half of The Odyssey by discussing the change in pace and subject matter in the Ithakan books. From Book XIII onward, the pace is much slower, and the challenges Odysseus faces are very different from those we have seen earlier. The lecture looks in detail at Odysseus's arrival on Ithaka and the situation he finds there. x
  • 8
    Reunion and Return
    Books XVI and XVII include Odysseus's reunion with Telemachos, and his entry, disguised as a beggar, into the royal court of Ithaka. Throughout the poet stresses how hard Odysseus must strive to conceal his emotions during a series of encounters. Each encounter reiterates Odysseus's supreme self-control and moves him closer to the tremendous danger and difficulty that await him in his own palace. x
  • 9
    Odysseus and Penelope
    In Book XIX we hear two lengthy conversations between the disguised Odysseus and Penelope that are separated by a scene in which Odysseus's old nurse recognizes him. We look at the significance of Odysseus's name, and then at the great enigma of whether Penelope recognizes the ragged beggar. x
  • 10
    Recognitions and Revenge
    Books XX to XXII recount the "contest of the bow," Odysseus's revelation of his identity to the loyal slaves Eumaios and Philoitios, and the slaughter of the suitors. We continue to ask what Penelope knows, and what motives drive her, and then ask: Were Odysseus's slaughter of the suitors and the disloyal slave woman justified? x
  • 11
    Reunion and Resolution
    The final lecture on The Odyssey turns to the final reunion of Odysseus and Penelope in Book XXIII, and to resolve several themes in Book XXIV. The lecture analyzes the tremendous symbolic and narrative significance of Odysseus's and Penelope's marriage bed. Finally, we look at Book XXIV and discuss whether The Odyssey's conclusion is an effective one. x
  • 12
    The Trojan War and the Archaeologists
    What can history and archaeology tell us about the Trojan War? We examine the famous 19th-century excavations of Heinrich Schliemann and touch on some of the controversies he left behind. Finally, we trace the discoveries made by more recent excavators. x

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Course Guidebook Details:
  • 80-page printed course guidebook
  • Suggested readings
  • Questions to consider
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Your professor

Elizabeth Vandiver

About Your Professor

Elizabeth Vandiver, Ph.D.
Whitman College
Dr. Elizabeth Vandiver is Professor of Classics and Clement Biddle Penrose Professor of Latin at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington. She was formerly Director of the Honors Humanities program at the University of Maryland at College Park, where she also taught in the Department of Classics. She completed her undergraduate work at Shimer College and went on to earn her M.A. and Ph.D. from The University of Texas at...
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Reviews

Odyssey of Homer is rated 4.8 out of 5 by 112.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from So good I have taken all her other courses Reminded me of the joy of sitting in a class at Berkeley being gifted the knowledge that took her years of study and thought to distill.
Date published: 2019-01-29
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Putting The Odyssey in Perspective I read The Odyssey many years ago in a college course. The professor was in the Literature department, and was particularly interested in analyzing it as one might any novel, on its literary merits. People seem intrinsically to like The Odyssey more than the Iliad; the latter seeming like an awfully long ancient war story while the former seems a more fun adventure story with plenty of fantastic creatures and constantly changing locations. Professor Vandiver puts the whole thing into a broader perspective. She points out what it tells us about ancient Greek customs, values and behavior; theories of the origin in reality for some of the mythic encounters, and more. In a nutshell, she tries in this series to explain why The Odyssey has remained a classic of world literature for several thousand years, and is still read today. If you never studied it in college, this should be equivalent to a college course.
Date published: 2019-01-21
Rated 5 out of 5 by from The Odyssey No Longer Odd! I bought this for my granddaughter who is a freshman in high school. Her English honors class is reading the Odyssey. She was having trouble understanding what is going on. I watched a number of the lectures my self and read the Odyssey. I'm convinced if she watches the DVD and reads all the material she will be better educated on that piece of literature than her teacher!
Date published: 2018-09-01
Rated 5 out of 5 by from The narrator and professor was excellent. Her enthusiasm and knowledge, plus an excellent speaking voice made the Iliad and The Odyssey a real keeper. If I could somehow be guaranteed, that all presenters were as talented as Mrs. Vandiver I would purchase one a month.
Date published: 2018-08-16
Rated 5 out of 5 by from outstanding! Both brilliant and accessible, this lecture series inspired me to fall in love with The Odyssey all over again. Outstanding!
Date published: 2018-01-18
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Informative After reviewing the Iliad, I wanted this and it was just excellent...far better than reading just the book.
Date published: 2017-11-10
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great walk through of the story. Prof. Vandiver provided a great walk through of the grand themes in the Odyssey and opened much more of the richness of this story.
Date published: 2017-10-12
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Understanding the Odyssey as an Ancient Greek The way Professior Vandiver presents the information allows you to understand and appreciate the story as an Ancient Greek would have. She doesn't just explain the cultural importance of The Odyssey to the Greeks, but goes farther and explains the Greek customs and traditions needed to understand how the Greeks themselves would interpret this work. Adding to the beauty and understanding of the epic.
Date published: 2017-07-22
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