The Idea of Time in “The Odyssey”

Time has always been a very important device used in narratives. In the Odyssey we can see it being used to control how information is revealed, to whom and when (2). Odysseus, in Books 9-12 recalls his adventures that have led him to “the land of the Phaeacians” (Murray, 278-280). The flashbacks and the flashforwards, encountered here as visions of things to come, such as Penelope’s dream in Book 19 (Murray, 535-541) or Theoclymenus’ foretelling in Book 20 (Murray, 364-370), include signs that will alter our understanding of the actions narrated in the present time of the story (2).

This temporal framework, of 10 years of travels compressed in merely 40 days, can add sometimes to the epic, giving us more details, thus adding depth to the story (as in the case of the previously mentioned Odysseus’ narration, in Books 9-12). But other times, this hurts the flow of the epic, all the time narrative devices (flashbacks, flashforwards) making it hard to follow (e.g. Book 24).

On the other hand, all these digressions can be looked at from a functionalist point of view. They legitimize the social practices envisaging the “extraction of knowledge,” making connections through verbal communication in order to learn new information. Examples can be found in many parts of the epic, such as Books 9-12, where Odysseus tells all his stories in order to form a bond with Alcinous, to learn the path to his home, and maybe get some help from the king; or in Book 14, when he tells a fictitious story to Eumaeus, aiming to know what has happened in Ithaca in his absence (Murray, 195-359).

Finally, the long period of time depicted here (20 years, if we count also the Trojan War) contributes to the making of myth by showing that in order for a man to become a true hero, he must experience and vanquish a long series of trials and tribulations.

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 Works cited:

1. Homer, The Odyssey

English Translation by A.T. Murray, 1919

2. Narrative Disclosure –


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