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The Odyssey, The Aeneid, and Argonautica - Dissertation Sample

09 Mar 2017Dissertation Samples

Symbolic Geography in The Odyssey, The Aeneid, and Argonautica

Assess the symbolic geography of the Odyssey,the Aeneid and the Argonautica. To what extent is it true to say that the heroes of these epics are most truly wandering when they feel they are on firm ground

Epics throughout time have similar themes. No matter the period, nationality, or circumstances, most all epics share the idea that if dedicated enough, a protagonist will reach his/her goal, destiny, or find his/her way home no matter the trials and tribulations that await him/her. Homer’s The Odyssey, Virgil’s The Aeneid, and Apollonius’ The Argonautica share many common protagonist characteristics.

The three heroes, Odysseus (Odyssey), Aeneas (Aeneid), and Jason (Argonautica) involve men who are entrusted with their own destinies and the lives of several other people. All three are seafaring men who face constant animosity from all manner of deities, monsters, and forces of nature. The challenges they face all are tied into the geography that they must conquer; more curious, however, is that all three protagonists discover their power while they are lost at sea. The three protagonists are more lost during times of perceived safety and security; they seem to be more “at home” during times of peril or when they are lost at sea.

Symbolic Geography

The geography of Homer’s Odyssey is symbolic of man’s primal urges. Odysseus, the clever leader of the band of Greeks that leave Troy victorious, represents the guile, wit, and wisdom tempering man’s primal urges. The two islands most symbolic of these urges are the Land of the Cyclops, home to Polyphemus, and the Land of the Lotus Eaters, where sweet fruits erase the minds of men upon consumption. The Land of the Cyclops (referred to as “Kyklopes” by Homer) was one Odysseus describes in Book IX as a land of “giants [and] louts without a law to bless them” (Homer 1990, p. 128).

A wholly uncivilized culture, the gigantic, one-eyed creatures “neither plow nor sow by hand, nor till the ground,” and “have no muster and no meeting, no consultation or old tribal ways”; “each one dwells out rough justice to wife and child, indifferent to what the others do” (Homer 1990, p. 128). The land is symbolic of anarchy, and Polyphemus is the archetypal autonomous, leaderless being. Odysseus’ men find Polyphemus’ cave, indulging in “cheeses” and “pens crowded with lambs and kids” despite Odysseus’ admonitions (Homer 1990, p. 150). The crew’s wishes to reap the benefits of an anarchist state are a reflection of man’s innate tendencies for savagery; when the men plead with Odysseus, imploring him to steal Polyphemus’ goods and livestock, they are ignoring the honor that so typically bound the Greeks.

The erstwhile honorable soldiers become thieves in anarchy, and Odysseus himself falls victim to their banter and participates in the looting. The Land of the Lotus Eaters, however, differs from the Land of the Cyclops in its representation of the ignorance of duty and supplication to excess. Upon eating the fruit, Odysseus’ men “never cared to report, nor to return” and “longed to stay forever, browsing on that native bloom, forgetful of their homeland” (Homer 1990, p. 148). It is only through Odysseus’ forceful removal of the indigent men, symbolic of the superiority of reason and temperance that the journey can continue. Both the lands are symbolic of overindulgence; the Lotus Eaters are plagued by their addiction to the fruit they eat. Odysseus’ men dream only of eating the Lotus and are rooted by their desire to continue eating.

Eating then becomes their greatest priority, subverting even their drives to reach their homeland. The Land of the Cyclops continues the metaphor of gluttony as a mortal vice. The men are baited, tempted by the promise of cheeses and lamb. Polyphemus, in an ironic act of retribution, takes it upon himself to eat those who trespassed and stole into his cave. Consequentially, the glutton Cyclops is punished when he drinks Odysseus’ wine in order to “wash down [his] scraps of men”; Polyphemus swills “three bowls,” revealing a “fuddle and flush” indicating to Odysseus his incapacitation (Homer 1990, p. 155). Drunk off the wine, Polyphemus is overpowered and outsmarted by Odysseus, who later puts out his eye with a “red hot bar” (Homer 1990, p. 156). 

Like Homer’s Odyssey, Virgil’s Aeneid features geography indicative of the human struggle in conflict. Where Odyssey portrayed the human struggle of reason over impulse, geography in the Aeneid represents different manifestations of both internal and external conflicts over which man must prevail. The Trojan warrior Aeneas, weary from heavy losses and the destruction of his native troy, initially settles in Crete. A placid, calm island, Crete was historically “free of [Trojan] enemies,” its shores “awaiting settlers” (Virgil 1983, p. 69).

However, the gods and prophecies of Rome prompt Aeneas to leave, beginning the seemingly endless struggle of the will of Man versus the will of the gods. Aeneas is constantly manipulated by the trite Olympian deities, coerced into a relationship with Dido, the queen of Carthage. Juno (Hera) tries to keep Aeneas from reaching the future site of Italy, and in doing so forces Dido to fall in love with Aeneas. Aeneas and Dido are driven by harsh weather (instigated by the gods, particularly Juno) into “the self-same cave” where “they reveled all the winter long” in each other’s company, “prisoners of lust” (Virgil 1983, pp. 101-102).

The darkness of the cave is symbolic of man’s ignorance and the influence his natural impulses have over his actions; the elements of Dido and Aeneas’ affair are representative of the nature of primordial man. The “rolling thunder”, “torches of lightning”, and the bareness of the cave are stark contrasts to the civility of Carthage (Virgil 1983, p. 101), where Dido held her passions at bay, remembering her oath to never remarry following her late husband’s death. Aeneas’ sexual congress with the African queen symbolizes both the conflict of his will versus that of the gods as well as his own conflict with himself. Aeneas cannot stay in Carthage with Dido because his prophecy will remain unfulfilled. Aeneas is caught between loving Dido and “the memory [of his wife] Elissa,” representative of the prophecy he must fulfill (Virgil 1983. p. 107). 

Aeneas refers to the “Libyan city” as indicative of the need for him to leave Carthage in order to provide “the Teucrians new lands” (Virgil 1983, p. 108). Though caught between the will of Juno (who would like to see him wed in Carthage) and Jupiter (who would like to see him fulfill his prophecy), Aeneas must struggle to conquer his own desires for the beautiful queen, signifying the struggle of man versus himself. The geography of Carthage serves simultaneously as a means to hasten his departure and also as inspiration for him to leave. 

Jason and his Argonauts in Apollonius’ Argonautica face geographical challenges of a similar nature with their counterparts in Aeneid and Odyssey. The two most symbolic representations of Jason’s challenge are the crashing rocks of the Bosporos (Bosphorus Strait), gigantic stones that rapidly crash into each other, destroying ships before they can make it through. Apollonius describes the “striking rocks” as having a will of their own, crashing together only when something passed between them (Apollonius 2005, p. 36).

The rocks are symbolic of the will of the gods; as trite entities whose existence is as banal as any human, the gods make sport of the Argonaut men and their fates. Having adversaries as simple as rocks denotes the simplicity and triviality of man. Jason is forced to “outsmart” the rocks by allowing a dove to pass through them, forcing them to prematurely crash. Upon the rocks’ separation, Jason planned to steer the Argo through, gaining time; however, he was unable to clear the passage, relying ultimately on the mercy of Athena to help push the boat through safely.

Scylla and Charybdis are even more symbolic of man’s incompetence; Jason can neither navigate Charybdis, a furious wave pool who “would swallow them at one gulp”, nor can he destroy Scylla, a six-headed monster who would “swoop them up with her horrible jaws” (Apollonius 2005, p. 84). More indicative of the manipulative nature of the gods is the land of Colchis, where a love-stricken Medea assists Jason in sewing the Plain of Ares (Apollonius 2005, p. 49). Colchis itself represents a land of opportunity for the men of the Argo; it is there that the Golden Fleece resides, the necessary prize required of Jason in order to consolidate his power as king.

Colchis presents an environment were Jason, a mortal man, takes on the manipulative qualities of the Olympian gods. It is where Jason uses “Hermes’ wand”, compete in challenges next to “four fountains, ever-flowing, which Hephaestus had delved out,” and where Jason’s challenge is to yoke and steer “bulls with feet of bronze” and mouths that “[bellow] a terrible fire” (Apollonius 2005, p. 52). In Colchis, the mortal version of Olympus, Jason becomes god-like not in his incredible feats and accomplishments, but in his subversive and under-handed character. Using Medea’s enchanted armor, Jason is able to yoke the bulls. And just as the gods bicker among themselves using slight of hand and deception, Jason takes advantage of the warriors that “spring up from the planted earth”, inspiring them to kill each other so as to speedup his victory (Apollonius 2005, p. 53). 

Heroes Who Wander Most On Firm Ground

There is a significant measure of relevance behind the contention that the three classic heroes are most in their element when wandering or in peril. When their environments seem most hospitable and it appears as though Fate as afforded them the opportunity to rest, Odysseus, Aeneas, and Jason all find themselves incapacitated or plagued with indecision. It is as though they were born to be in conflict; despite their strengths in journeying, all three achieve their goals and consolidate their power as superior men of antiquity literature. Odysseus, Aeneas, and Jason all find themselves unable to stay in one place for too long; while all three are future rulers whose power hangs in the balance, only Jason’s leadership hinges on his successful acquisition of a prize and victory over his surroundings.
Odysseus is the perfect example of a man who is most “lost” in places of stability. Though he eventually survives to return to his home of Ithaca, Odysseus’ journey is fraught with his ineptitude as a leader.

While he saves his men from the Land of the Lotus Eaters, Odysseus finds himself responsible for encountering the cannibalistic Polyphemus. When his men approach the shores of the Land of the Cyclops, they find good fortune in the form of wild goats and safety. Though they dine on the island and revel as “Heaven gave [them] game a-plenty”, Odysseus’ men become opportunistic and search for the opportunity to hoard more supplies (Homer 1990, p. 149). Delving into Polyphemus’ cave, the men go with the intention of looting his cheese and livestock. Though they could have just as easily left and found other wild goats to bring on board, Odysseus and his men buckle to temptation; Odysseus is particularly guilty of inaction as he takes no initiative to force his men to accept his judgment as he did in the Land of the Lotus Eaters.

The Land of the Cyclops is unique in that Odysseus finds he has the opportunity to spare his men danger if he so decides. However, he fails to stand against the will of his men, despite his premonitions that “some towering brute would be upon [them] soon” (Homer 1990, p. 151). Until his men decide to raid Polyphemus’ cave, Odysseus is in stable territory. He is in no imminent danger, and is an inefficient, “lost” leader until caught and threatened with death at Polyphemus’ hands. He is equally deserving of the curse Polyphemus casts upon him; after Odysseus blinds Polyphemus and escapes the Land of the Cyclops, his pride gets the better of him and he shouts his real name, exclaiming jubilantly that “Odysseus, raider of cities [took Polyphemus’ eye]” (Homer 1990, p. 160).

Odysseus’ men implore him not to “bait the beast again” and to “let him alone”, but the proud leader gives in to his hubris, garnering the hostility of Poseidon, Polyphemus’ Olympian sea deity father (Homer 1990, pp. 159-160). Needless to say, spiting the son of the god of the oceans is not an auspicious start to a seafaring-journey. Still more disturbing is Odysseus’ proclivity to weakness; though his indecision and sporadic failures are consequences of his action (or lack thereof), Odysseus’ successes and failures are determined by the gods he spites or honors. Athena, for example, sporadically helps Odysseus along his journey on account of his wisdom and wit. Poseidon, ever the temperamental oceanic entity, aspires to crush Odysseus as penance for his son’s blindness. Odysseus, like his counterparts in Aeneid and Argonautica, ultimately are subjugated under the will of the gods. 

Aeneas is not as guilty of bad decisions as Odysseus; Fate has its way with Aeneas, forcing bad fortune upon him whenever he is faced with the prospect of peace and tranquility. Upon arriving at Crete, Aeneas rejoices at the “lands abandoned” ready for his people’s resettlement (Virgil 1983, p. 70). He and his people are able to dock their ships in the land of their “ancestors”, tempted by the “refreshing wind” blowing, “[chasing them] on” (Virgil 1983, p. 70). The power the gods have over the weather suggests manipulation of the one of the last surviving Trojan groups. Juno may have driven the group to Crete in order to stave off the prophecy of her favorite city (Carthage) and its destruction at the hands of Aeneas’ Italian-born descendants.

Whatever the case, Aeneas and the group “ran in to the ancient land”, so excited they could “barely wait to build [their] hoped-for city walls” and “new-found hearths” (Virgil 1983, p. 70). Unfortunately for Aeneas, the land of his ancestors was not the land prophesied for his settlement. He is, therefore, not “at home” while settled. He is forced back into the sea not long after his “men were engaged in marriages” and his “ships [were cradled] on dry land” (Virgil 1983, p. 70). Aeneas’ solid ground was, “without warning”, host to “plague out of infected air” that eventually would “blight trees and crops” for an entire “year of death” (Virgil 1983, p. 70).

Crete is the only place Aeneas takes his people where he finds no opposition, hostility, or contentions from anything other than the will of the gods and the prophecy foretold by the Fates. Unlike Odysseus, whose immense pride and successive victories earn him spite from certain gods, Aeneas does nothing to directly spite Juno or Jupiter. Though aware of his destiny, Aeneas’ indecisions and misfortunes are the product of the struggle between him and the gods as opposed to direct consequences of action. Where Odysseus is forced into situations requiring his guile and sound judgment, Aeneas is a natural leader whose valor is rarely compromised. It is because he is bound to the prophecy of his descendants that Aeneas is forced to leave Crete. 

Jason’s arrival at Colchis and his inadvertent seduction of Medea are mark the first time all the Argonauts were safe, just as Aeneas’ arrival in Carthage marked the first time Aeneas and his people were fully safe. In spite of Juno’s initial hostilities, Aeneas (incidentally the son of Aphrodite) is tempted by the attractive Libyan queen and prospects of marriage. It is in Carthage that Aeneas is bound by his indecision. His strength and disposition are compromised upon his arrival; Dido convinces him to stay, and he is lured by Carthage’s prominence and favorable environment. Just as Aeneas and his people begin to find a home among Tyrians in Libya, they are cursed with exile once more. During a hunt in which both Aeneas and Dido take part, a “storm broke, pouring rain and hail,” forcing Aeneas into a cave (Virgil 1983, p. 101). Dido took cover in the same cave, leaving the two alone to consummate their affair.

Through no fault of Aeneas did Dido fall in love; both Aeneas and Dido were manipulated by Juno in order for her to intervene with a seemingly inescapable destiny. Argonautica’s Jason’s indecision in the face of imminent happiness separates him from Aeneas and Odysseus; just as Aeneas cannot marry Dido, Jason abandons Medea after using her to win the Asian contest. He uses her as a means to an end; Medea later curses Jason, turning his men into animals. Both Medea and Dido represent situations that Jason and Aeneas (respectively) cannot accept. If Jason married Medea and did not attain the Golden Fleece, he would not be able to claim his throne. Had Aeneas married Dido, his prophecy would not have been fulfilled and he would have earned the enmity of Jupiter and the Fates. Both Aeneas and Jason become god-like; they are Olympian in their deceit and seduction of women.


The three protagonists cannot escape their destinies. As men who can do little more than what gods and prophecies allow them, the heroes of Odyssey, Aeneid, and Argonautica may not be epic heroes after all. Though widely regarded as such, the fates of the three protagonists play closer to tragic circumstance. Jason, for example, sets out to survive journeys in order to consolidate his rightful place as king. Unfortunately, he must survive the seduction of Medea, the loss of many of his Argonauts, and face the brutal whims of the gods only to find he is at his finest in times of peril and insecurity. Aeneas finds that he is a slave to a destiny over which he has no control.

He must press on to settle Italy and bear the weight of fathering an entire race; he cannot stay in any place of his choice without suffering the consequences levied by bickering gods and an ambiguous prophecy. Odysseus, in turn, only reveals his wit and leadership capabilities when he is in danger of death or loss of social power (manifested by the many suitors seeking to usurp his position as leader and husband of Penelope). All three are bound, their free will fettered by incompetent deities and limited to use during times of peril. Perhaps the epics serve less as a means of showcasing the capabilities of human perseverance, and more as a method of exposing the misfortune that awaits those with idle feet.


  • Appolonius and R.C. Seaton (trans.) (2005) The Argonautica. Champaign, Champaign U of Illinois P.
  • Bender, David (ed). (1998) Readings on Homer. New York, Greenhaven P.
  • Bender, David (ed). (1998) Readings on Virgil. New York, Greenhaven P.
  • Homer and Robert Fitzgerald (trans.) (1990) The Odyssey. New York, Random House.
  • Virgil and Robert Fitzgerald (trans.) (1983) The Aeneid. New York, Random House. 

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