Directed Reading Questions: Odyssey, Ramayana, and Analects

One of the major themes of the ancient period is the emergence of the four great civilizations: the Chinese, the Indians, the Greeks and the Mayans. In treating the primary sources, I usually choose one classic from the three cultures that produced great literature. Focusing on one single work allows students time to catch on to the vocabulary and point of view of the particular society. It also makes them familiar with a classic of world literature. I don't always use the three works chosen for this project, as these civilizations are very rich in great works. There are, however, good historical reasons for using these three as they can be compared with some profit in their attitudes about society, religion, and government.

I begin with the Odyssey, as it is the oldest of the three. In fact, it was produced in the eighth century b.c.e, near the beginning of the Iron Age, and it is aware of the Bronze Age as a different time. Government was virtually non-existent at this time, so students can gain some knowledge of how life was lived in the period of stateless societies. The eighth century was the period of influences from the eastern Mediterranean and Mesopotamia entering the Greek world, and that is reflected in the very fact that an alphabetical text of the Odyssey survives. Within the story, the prominence of Egypt and the Phoenicians, as well as technologies and religious practices (priests, seers and signs and omens) from the east make the Odyssey a symbol for all the Mediterranean cultures. The directed readings questions are intended to take the class through the Odyssey in four books/week assignments. There are one or two questions per week as indicated below.

The Ramayana and Analects were of similar influence and importance in India and China. They offer insights into ancient attitudes towards society, religion and government. Like the Odyssey the Ramayana is an epic with a straightforward story line. The Analects, however, is different as it is composed in dialog form. This causes ambiguities and problems of interpretation, very similar to the interpretive problems encountered in the works of the ancient Greek philosopher Plato.

Since the abridged version of the Ramayana and the Analects are much shorter than the Odyssey , the questions are much less specific and stress cross cultural comparisons of interest to historians. Also, practicing Doing World History and treating the Odyssey will have prepared the students for world historical treatment of these texts.


The Odyssey by Homer (Translated by Samuel Butler)

The Persesus Project: Homer, Odyssey

Chinese Cultural Studies: Confucius Kongfuzi (c. 500 CE) The Analects, excerpts

The Analects of Confucius

The Ramayana: An Enduring Tradition



  1. In books 1--4, what foreshadowing devices are used? What do they tell us about the plot?
  2. Why didn't Telemachus and Penelope call the authorities to deal with the suitors? That is, what does this conflict tell us about the nature of government in Homer's time?
  3. In books 5--8, describe Pheakian society. Do you think it is similar to the Greek world at the time?
  4. By interpreting specific passages in books 9--12, create a portrait of Odysseus' character.
  5. Would you modify your portrait of Odysseus' character after reading how he disguised himself as a beggar in books 13--16?
  6. Odysseus tells several lies in books 17--20. Do you think these may reveal the original story of Odysseus' return that Homer modified? Why would he change the story?
  7. Important references to agriculture appear in books 21--24. Analyze these passages and take a technological cut through the Odyssey as a whole. That is, describe the various technologies and devices that Homer presents. For example, metallurgy, weaving, cooking, farming, ships and sailing. Discuss individual passages.


  1. What does the incident about the king making a promise he could not recall tell us about the Indian attitude towards the spoken word?
  2. How would you characterize Rama? -- Sita?
  3. What does this epic tell us about caste?
  4. Do you see any parallel between the figures in the Odyssey and those in the Ramayana. E.g. Telemachus and Rama? Sita and Penelope?
  5. What does the Ramayana tell us about Indian religion? Be careful to treat particular passages.
  6. Compare the Ramayana and the Odyssey.
    1. How would you compare the treatment of evil in these two epics?
    2. What is the place women in the two societies? Treat particular passages and incidents.
    3. Compare the religions presented in the two epics.


  1. By treating the texts of books 1--5, derive some basic principles of Confucius.
  2. Why do you think it is so difficult to construct a Confucian theory of society from this text?
  3. Look back at the Analects, the Odyssey and the Ramayana. What does each tell us about the society they represent?