Given the narrative complexity of The Odyssey, foreshadowing plays an important role in the poem by reassuring the audience that, despite the many twists and turns of the plot, Odyssey will ultimately return to his family in Ithaca and defeat of the suitors. However, his journey will be neither easy nor swift, and the pain he endures along the way is foreshadowed throughout the poem.
At the beginning of Book 1, Zeus says he is fond of Odysseus but that Poseidon feels differently, foreshadowing Odysseus’s coming clashes with Poseidon. Poseidon is absent from this scene, and his anger at being left out, as well as his continued wrath at Odysseus for blinding his son, mean he will get in one last jab at Odysseus. In an instance of ironic foreshadowing, Zeus says, “Poseidon, I trust, will let his anger go.” In fact, Poseidon’s not so quick to forgive, and in book 5 says, “I’ll give that man his swamping fill of trouble,” creating a huge storm as Odysseus sails away from Calypso’s island. Calypso also foreshadows Odysseus’s troubles getting home when she tells him, “if you only knew, down deep, what pains are fated to fill your cup before you reach that shore, you’d stay right here.” Throughout, Odysseus is identified with the epithet, “man of pain,” or “born for pain,” suggesting he is fated to suffer greatly in his life. At one point he is described as “master of exploits, man of pain.” In fact, his appetite for exploits, and his unwillingness to heed the gods’ warnings, is exactly what causes him so much pain, and extends his journey home by so many years.
In Book 8, Odysseus brags about his skills as an archer, foreshadowing his triumph at the end of the poem when he alone is able to shoot an arrow through a row of axe handles. When king Alcinous arranges a display of sports and games to amuse Odysseus, Odysseus says he can outperform all the athletes: “Well I know how to handle a fine polished bow, the first to hit my man in a mass of enemies… Of the rest I’d say that I outclass them all.” This speech foreshadows his prowess as a warrior in general, useful to the audience since we don’t see any actual scenes of Odysseus in battle until the end when he takes on the suitors with Telemachus. As ten years have passed since the Battle of Troy, and Odysseus has spent much of that time sitting around on Calypso’s island, he and the audience may be questioning if he is as fit as he once was. In the scene with the sports competitions he proves himself still a powerful competitor, foreshadowing his ability to take on the suitors, even though they are younger than him.
In Book 1, Telemachus has a daydream that his father arrives unannounced and drives away all the suitors plaguing his house, a direct foreshadowing of what happens when Odysseus arrives in Ithaca at the end of the poem. Describing Telemachus, the narrator says “He could almost see his magnificent father, here.. if only he might drop from the clouds and drive these suitors all in a rout throughout the halls and regain his pride of place and rule his own domains!” This wish is echoed by Athena, disguised as Mentes, when she says, “Oh how much you need Odysseus, gone so long – how he’d lay hands on all these brazen suitors!” When Odysseus does finally arrive, he doesn’t exactly drop from the clouds, but the revelation of his identity is a surprise to Telemachus. The two together slaughter all the suitors, fulfilling the fate foreshadowed by Telemachus’s daydream.
In Book 4, Helen tells the story of how Odysseus disguised himself as a beggar to sneak into Troy during the Trojan War, foreshadowing the disguise he uses to enter Ithaca at the end of the poem. “Throwing filthy rags on his back like any slave, he slipped into the enemy’s city, roamed its streets – all disguised, a totally different man, a beggar,” Helen recalls. This exactly foreshadows the tactics Odysseus employs, with Athena’s help, to reenter Ithaca. His disguises are significant because they indicate his cunning and intelligence in outwitting the enemy – first the Trojans, then the suitors at his home in Ithaca. In telling the story, Helen says she recognized Odysseus despite his disguise – “I spotted him for the man he was” – foreshadowing Penelope’s suspicions about the beggar’s true identity when Odysseus arrives in Ithaca.