Some of the most interesting elements of the story are the illusions and shadows that remind, mimic, and misrepresent various aspects of the Gospel. But before delving into some of those, it may be necessary to give an admittedly short defense of what follows. First, the epic poem is obviously the product of a pre-Christian paganism, and thus must be properly analyzed and appreciated from that context. However, pre-Christian or not, the world is inescapably the handiwork and symphony of the Triune God. Being a creature in the created world means confrontation with our Creator. Homer no less than any individual in the history of the human race came face to face with his Maker and either bowed his neck with thanksgiving or scorned the Truth with ingratitude. Further, it may be maintained by some that is simply unreasonable to cast a Christian shadow over the myth to see what fits. However, it must be asserted that the mysteries of redemption have not been confined to Old Covenant signs, shadows, and prophecies. In fact, the entire cosmos has been groaning and continues to groan in expectation for the redemption of the world (Rom. 8:21-22).
This said, The Odyssey is a ‘nostos’ or a return. The king has done battle with the enemy and is trying to get home to his wife, son, and kingdom. He is accompanied by a number of men who prove to be for the most part, bumbling fools. Here begin some interesting comparisons: Jesus is accompanied by disciples during his ministry, who often have a knack for putting their feet in their mouths, disobeying their master, and lacking faith in their master. Odysseus’ men are no better. From the Lotus Eaters to Circe’s island, his men disobey their master and wander into trouble at a terrific rate. Odysseus’ lifestyle of feasting and storytelling is another interesting comparison, particularly with the theme of hospitality so prominent throughout the story. Odysseus is given good food and rest by some hosts, and others seek to make him their meal (ie. the Cyclopes). Jesus is recorded throughout the gospels as being at meals and feasts, and many of the arguments and discussions that He takes part in are centered around the propriety of His eating habits. The Pharisees despise Jesus for eating with sinners, and some go so far as to invite Jesus to banquets in order to mock him (Lk. 7:36-50). Ultimately Jesus institutes a simple feast, the Eucharist, which will culminate at the resurrection in the great Wedding Feast of the Lamb. At the same time, the suitors are in Ithaca eating Odysseus and Penelope out of their house and kingdom. The men of the kingdom who should be guarding the Queen intrude upon the royal house and take advantage of the vacant throne, seeking to make Penelope their wife. Odysseus’ return has interesting aspects as well. He returns to his own and his own do not recognize him. He comes disguised by the gods. He spends the early part of his return seeking out those who have been loyal and labeling those who have betrayed him and done harm to his household. Even as Jesus who is the promised Messiah is not recognized by many of his own household. It also seems significant that Odysseus is disguised as a beggar. He has been humbled for a season in order to bring justice to his kingdom. As did Jesus. It is only a few of the oldest members of Odysseus’ house who recognize him. Likewise, it’s Simeon, Ana the prophetess, and other faithful Israelites who recognize Jesus for who he is. The actual unveiling of Odysseus can be seen from a number of different angles, but here are a couple. The clearing of his house is a miniature of Jesus’ cleansing of the Temple. The actual clearing of the house is spoken of by Odysseus as a feast, and after the suitors have met their fates, Odysseus commands the servants to make like there’s a wedding feast taking place. This can be taken several ways of course, but in an important sense, Odysseus has returned to his bride and the whole event is a wedding renewal. These themes can compare with Jesus first coming, but there is much that might also sound like His second. Finally, Odysseus, like Jesus, is recognized by his people by scars. In the end, Odysseus also returns to his father and sets the kingdom at peace. And in these events, there are hints of the ascension and rule of Jesus at the Father’s right hand.
There are also a number of contrasts that can and should be made. Obviously, Odysseus lacks many of the necessary characteristics to what we might call Holiness. The Greek idea of a faithful husband obviously falls short of Christian standards. Nor can Odysseus be seen as the mediator between God and men: his justice is limited to a small portion of Greece (though it might be argued that his struggle to return is in some senses cosmic). And ultimately the justice that Odysseus brings falls short if only in so far as Odysseus does not give up his life for his loved ones. Death is not conquered by Odysseus, even though the story does center on his “descent” into Hades.
How might these observations be helpful? One of the most important reasons is for showing how the gospel story is inescapable, and how ultimately the story of Jesus is the only true one. Drawing these correlations can be helpful for teaching both the details and themes of the true gospel as well as showing the weaknesses and lies in the ‘gospel’ of ancient Greece. We ought to ask questions about how these themes work themselves out in the story and their cultures. What was the Greek view of marriage? Of masculinity and femininity? What is justice? What is hospitality? What is love or nobility? These questions are some of the most important questions in life and are answered very differently depending upon whether our savior is the Lord Jesus or a mere man like Odysseus.