Birds in the Odyssey

While reading the Odyssey, one of the key things I noticed was the use of birds as a means to foreshadow the outcome of the final conflict between Odysseus and Penelope’s suitors. As the epic begins, two eagles are seen flying through the sky until they begin to attack one another and then eventually tear one another apart (Book 2, Lines 165-169). Then in book 15 a giant eagle flies by with a dove clutched in its talons (Book 15, Lines 588-590), and later on Penelope asks Odysseus (who she believes is a random stranger from Crete) to interpret her dream about a great eagle snapping the necks of twenty geese (Book 19, Lines 605-608). At the beginning of the story, both Odysseus and the suitors are represented as eagles. To me, this alludes to their equal chance of getting to Penelope—Odysseus is far away trapped by a Calypso, and Penelope has no intention of marrying any of the suitors. However, as the story progresses and Odysseus gets closer and closer to making his way home and back to Penelope, the potential and power of the suitors diminishes. This explains why as the epic progresses, one of the initial eagles deteriorates into less powerful birds in each instance. Another thing to note about the bird motif, is that Athena also takes on a bird shape as well. I’m not completely sure what the implications of that mean. 

On a side note, one thing that really struck me in the lecture was the idea that the Odyssey could have a feminist twist to it. It was something that never occurred to me in the slightest and I just found it really neat that something as old as it could be read with that lens/perspective.


  1. This is really interesting–I hadn’t paid much attention to the birds beyond thinking that they were used, at the time, for telling the future. Prophets would interpret birds sometimes as omens, as we see in the text. But I didn’t really go beyond that in thinking about them.

    The idea that maybe the suitors turn into the dove or the geese later in the epic is intriguing. It’s certainly a possible interpretation, though I suppose there are other legitimate ones for the dove and the geese being devoured by an eagle. Still, Odysseus definitely overpowers them and snaps their necks, figuratively speaking, at the end.

    I don’t remember the part near the beginning where the suitors and Odysseus are represented as eagles. Can you locate that and put it here in a comment? Thanks!

    On a different note, can you please enable the plugin that allows commenters to check a box to receive an email if there are replies to their comments? Go to “plugins,” then to a plugin called something like “subscribe to comments,” click “activate” on the right and then save (if there is a save button at the bottom, which there might not be for this). Then, I could check the box and get word if you or anyone else replies to my comment! Otherwise, I’m certain I’ll forget to go back and check for any replies.

    1. So on page 98, book 2 lines 64-171 the scene with the two eagles is described. Then, a bit further down from lines 180-187 Halitherses, a reader of bird sign, says “clearly Odysseus won’t be far from his loved ones any longer–now, right now, he’s somewhere near I tell you, breeding bloody death for all the suitors here.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *