While the Iliad is the world’s greatest war epic, the Odyssey is literature’s grandest evocation of an everyday individual’s life. The ten-year journey to Ithaca after the Trojan War and Odysseus’ reliance on his wit and wiliness for survival is at once a timeless human story and an individual test of moral endurance.
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Table of Contents
A Greek hero returns to his home and family after 20 years of imprisonment and wandering.
Odysseus, King of Ithaca, has been away from home for 20 years—10 years fighting in the Trojan War and 10 years wandering. For the last seven years, he has been held captive by the goddess Calypso on her island.
In Ithaca, his wife, Penelope, remains faithful and clings to her belief that he is still alive, but she is being courted by a group of men—the suitors—who have forced their attentions on her and are living on Odysseus’s wealth.
Each of them wants to marry her, but she refuses to make a choice, confident that Odysseus will soon return. She and her son Telemachus are powerless to get rid of them.
Athena, goddess of wisdom, asks her father, Zeus, king of the gods, to allow Odysseus to return home, despite the sea god Poseidon’s grudge against Odysseus for having blinded his son. When Zeus agrees, Athena disguises herself as a mortal stranger and visits Telemachus.
He receives her kindly despite the suitors’ rudeness. On her advice, he protests the suitors’ behavior, but the suitors refuse to leave Odysseus’s house. Now disguised as Mentor, an old friend of Odysseus, Athena urges Telemachus to visit the neighboring kingdoms in search of news of Odysseus.
On this journey he visits the aged Nestor in Pylos, and Menelaus in Sparta, both of whom were Odysseus’s allies in the Trojan War. Menelaus has heard that Odysseus is being kept captive by Calypso. Telemachus, who exhibits a growing intelligence and maturity on his journey, must turn homeward with only vague information about his father. Meanwhile, the suitors plan to ambush and kill Telemachus, and Penelope has no way of warning him.
Zeus orders Calypso to release Odysseus. When Odysseus has been at sea for 18 days, near Phaeacia, Poseidon sends a storm that nearly drowns him. But he swims ashore and the Phaeacian princess Nausicaa sends him to her parents.
Odysseus arrives at the prosperous home of King Alcinous and Queen Arete, and asks them for transport home. They agree to help him, and the next day give a banquet in Odysseus’s honor. He is moved to tears by the songs they sing of the Trojan War, and when Alcinous sees his tears, he asks Odysseus to tell his own story.
Odysseus relates what happened to him after the Trojan War. When he and his men had left Troy, they came upon many strange creatures and places: the Kikones, whose town they sacked; the Lotus-Eaters and the Cyclopes (the plural of Cyclops, a one-eyed, man-eating monster); Aiolos, king of the winds; the monstrous Laistrygones, who destroyed all but one of the Trojan ships; the enchantress Circe; the underworld; the deadly Sirens, who tried to lure them to destruction with their seductive music; the monster Scylla and the treacherous whirlpool Charybdis; and finally the island of the sun god Helios.
The three most important adventures were the encounters with the Cyclopes and Circe, and the voyage to the underworld. Odysseus tells his listeners what happened on each occasion.
On the Cyclopes’ rich, primitive island, a curious Odysseus, seeking guest gifts, led his men to the cave of the Cyclops named Polyphemus and told him his name was Nobody. To Odysseus’s horror, the Cyclops imprisoned them and ate several of Odysseus’s men for dinner.
In order to escape, Odysseus got the Cyclops drunk and blinded him. The Cyclops called for help and screamed out, “Nobody is killing me!” The men escaped, but in defiance Odysseus shouted out his real name as he sailed away. Polyphemus cursed him, and Poseidon, the Cyclops’s father, prevented Odysseus from returning home for eight more years. Odysseus’s single remaining ship landed in Aeaea.
He sent some men out to explore the island, but they were turned into pigs by the enchantress Circe. After winning the men’s release, Odysseus became Circe’s lover for a year. When the men insisted on leaving, Circe told Odysseus he must first visit the underworld, the home of the dead.
With Circe’s help, Odysseus reached the underworld, where he saw Agamemnon (leader of the Greeks in the Trojan War), and where the prophet Tiresias predicted Odysseus’s homecoming and future trials.
When they reached the island of Helios, Odysseus’s men ate sacred cattle and Zeus punished them by destroying their ship. Odysseus, clinging to the mast, was almost sucked into the whirlpool Charybdis, but finally the pool reversed itself and Odysseus escaped.
After hearing his story, the Phaeacians escort Odysseus to Ithaca and leave him there with many gifts. During the Phaeacians’ trip home, their ships are turned to stone by Poseidon as their punishment for helping the man who had blinded his son (Cyclops). Athena reveals herself to Odysseus for the first time in nine years and tells him news of Ithaca.
Odysseus, disguised by Athena as an old beggar, visits his loyal herdsman, Eumaios, at his farm in the hills and learns more about the situation at home. Meanwhile, Telemachus leaves Sparta, joined by the prophet Theoklymenos.
Eluding the suitors’ ambush, he visits Eumaios and, at Athena’s prompting, Odysseus reveals himself to Telemachus. At first the son is suspicious, but is soon reassured. Together they plan to hide the suitors’ weapons, then attack them. Meanwhile, the suitors discover Telemachus’s safe return and reaffirm their plans to marry Penelope soon.
Telemachus visits Penelope while Odysseus, dressed as a beggar, approaches the palace with Eumaios. On the way, the men are abused by the evil servant Melanthius. At the palace, Argos, Odysseus’s ancient hunting dog, recognizes him, then dies.
Saddened, yet hiding his feelings, Odysseus enters the hall. Telemachus presides over the evening’s feast and honors the disguised Odysseus despite the suitors’ rudeness to him. Odysseus begs from the suitors, testing their character.
Penelope, who has heard from Eumaios that a stranger is visiting, dresses beautifully and appears in the hall, winning compliments and gifts from the suitors. Odysseus is pleased with her beauty and cleverness in winning gifts. It is his first sight of her in 20 years.
Later, Penelope and Odysseus talk while Telemachus removes the suitors’ weapons from the hall. She tells this “beggar” how she has delayed the suitors for three years. She has told them that she would marry one of them when she finished making a funeral shroud for her father-in-law, Laertes.
She wove it by day and unraveled it at night. The beggar gives her hopeful news of Odysseus, and a grateful Penelope, not daring to believe him, sends his old nurse, Eurykleia, to bathe him. Eurykleia recognizes Odysseus by a scar on his leg, but Odysseus swears her to secrecy.
Later, Penelope tells him about a dream she has had: an eagle killed her 20 geese, and the stranger says this is an omen of Odysseus’s return and the suitors’ deaths. She proposes a contest: she will marry the suitor who can string Odysseus’s bow and shoot an arrow through 12 axheads. Odysseus approves her plan.
Odysseus and Penelope sleep fitfully. He awakens in the night and receives an omen of his success. The next day, Telemachus keeps Odysseus in a place of honor and snubs the suitors. When Penelope orders the bow contest, the suitors struggle futilely to string the bow. Odysseus reveals his identity to Eumaios and tells of his plans.
Penelope insists that the beggar be allowed to try the bow. Telemachus agrees but sends Penelope from the hall and orders Eurykleia to bar the doors. Effortlessly, Odysseus strings the bow and shoots the arrow through the axheads.
With Athena’s help, Odysseus, Telemachus, and the two herdsmen kill all of the suitors, capture and kill Melanthius, force the 10 treacherous serving women to move the bodies and clean the hall—then they hang them while a singer plays wedding music to fool passers-by.
Meanwhile, Eurykleia tells Penelope that Odysseus is home. When he appears, bathed, dressed, and made more handsome by Athena, Penelope refuses to believe he is truly her husband. Instead, she orders servants to bring outside the bed that Odysseus himself made.
Odysseus, deeply hurt, asks if someone has harmed the bed since it has a living olive tree as a bedpost and is impossible to move. This convinces her that he is Odysseus, and she joyfully takes him to bed, where they make love all night.
Odysseus goes to the farm where his father lives in poverty and the two have a happy reunion. Meanwhile, the suitors’ families prepare to take revenge on Odysseus. Fighting breaks out, but Athena appears and makes peace between Odysseus and the Ithacan nobles.
Zeus: King of the gods; aloof and remote; fair to humans by divine standards; fond of Athena.
Poseidon: God of the sea. Hates Odysseus for blinding Poseidon’s son Polyphemus (the Cyclops).
Athena: Daughter of Zeus. Goddess of wisdom, warfare, and womanly crafts. Divine force behind much of the action in Odyssey. Hostile to all Greeks after the destruction of Troy (and her temple there). Fond of Odysseus (though estranged from him for nine years), but demanding. Encourages his intelligence and endurance. Delights in disguise and the manipulation of humans.
People in Ithaca and Nearby
Odysseus: Greek warrior at Troy; age 40-45. Intelligent, sometimes devious. Tells good stories and good lies. Likable, charming, but also ruthless and vengeful with suitors. More than all else, a survivor: able to face unexpected situations; strong endurance. Loves his wife and home.
Penelope: Odysseus’s wife; about 35. Intelligent, beautiful, intuitive; able to adapt to circumstances. Strong-willed but restrained; sometimes doubtful of herself and her future. Worn down by Odysseus’s 20-year absence; torn between her belief that he will return and her fear that he may be dead. Has wit, charm, and endurance.
Telemachus: Son of Odysseus and Penelope; age 20. Schemes with his father to kill his mother’s suitors. Intelligent, polite, enduring; becomes more masterful, assertive, and mature as the Odyssey progresses. Has Odysseus’s bravery and fearlessness.
Eumaios: Well-off slave herdsman on Odysseus’s estate; loyal to Odysseus, resents suitors, gracious host to disguised Odysseus. Good ally in the battle against suitors.
Eurykleia: Odysseus’s old nurse. Intelligent, trustworthy housekeeper. Helps in the destruction of suitors and recognizes Odysseus by his scar.
Suitors: 108 young men from in and around Ithaca who assume that Odysseus is dead and live on his wealth as they court Penelope.
During Odysseus’s Wanderings
Calypso: Beautiful, quiet goddess on the island where Odysseus landed. Offered Odysseus immortality if he would agree to marry her, but he refused, so she held him hostage for seven years as her unwilling lover.
Cyclopes: Huge, one-eyed, man-eating monsters. Odysseus is captured by one of them named Polyphemus (also called simply by the singular, “Cyclops”). In order to escape, Odysseus tricks and blinds Polyphemus.
Themes and Ideas
The Greeks believed in 12 major gods (referred to as the “Olympians,” who live on Mt. Olympus), among them Zeus, Athena, and Poseidon; as well as many minor gods and spirits such as Calypso and Circe. The major gods control the natural forces, for example, Poseidon is the sea god, and Aphrodite is the goddess of love.
The gods have distinct personalities and relationships with each other and with mortals. (Poseidon hates Odysseus, but Athena loves him). For Homer, the influence of the gods explains the sudden emotions and good/bad luck for the mortals.
2. Prophecy and Omens
Prophecy means “prediction of a future event”: in the underworld, the prophet Tiresias predicts Odysseus’s future struggles. Omens are signs of the gods’ will and/or predictions of the future: in the Odyssey, most omens predict the suitors’ deaths.
3. Identity, Trouble, and Life
The Odyssey is the affirmation of struggle, individuality, and life over ignorance, peaceful oblivion, and death. It is a poem about Odysseus’s self-discovery. Odysseus seeks his identity even at the cost of safety. For example, on the Cyclopes’ island, he shouts his name rather than remain “Nobody.”
He often says he would prefer the fame of a noble death at Troy to the oblivion of drowning. He is as threatened by blissful paradise as he is by death. Both would prevent his return home to his roots.
But he rejects the Lotus-Eaters’ offer of forgetfulness (they offer him lotus plants that cause a loss of memory) and even rejects the immortality offered by Calypso, preferring the rocky Ithaca to fertile Ogygia, the mortal Penelope to the divinely beautiful Calypso, and the trouble-filled homecoming to an uneventful eternity.
Odysseus is often called “long-suffering” and “enduring.” He is capable of great self-mastery, for example, he maintains his disguise upon his return to Ithaca despite his love for Penelope and his offense at the suitors’ insults.
In Greek, Odysseus means “he who causes or suffers trouble.” Odysseus has wit, courage, and the endurance to embrace troubles.
Intelligence unites Odysseus, Penelope, Telemachus, and Athena. It characterizes many of Odysseus’s allies (Alcinous, Eurykleia), while ignorance/foolishness characterizes some foes and causes Odysseus’s men to die. Odysseus’s intelligence (and that of people he trusts) has many aspects:
(a) curiosity often causes trouble for him (a desire to hear the Sirens; visit to Cyclops) but brings him fame and knowledge of himself and of the world;
(b) versatility allows Odysseus to escape Cyclops;
(c) disguise/deception includes the ability to tell convincing false stories and enables him to test servants and family in Ithaca;
(d) suspicion/testing shows his lack of gullibility, which would be dangerous: Telemachus, Penelope, and Laertes all require signs before believing that Odysseus has really returned;
(e) recognition shows the intelligence of people who have a similar nature: Eurykleia recognizes Odysseus (Book 19), but the suitors do not suspect him and fail to see omens of their doom.
Despite the popularity of the stories of Odysseus’s wanderings, most of the Odyssey (20 of 24 books) concerns Odysseus’s voyage home to Ithaca. The action of the poem revolves around his return to normality.
Cyclopes, the enchantress Circe, Sirens, Scylla, and Charybdis all have origins in traditional folktales (timeless stories that are told orally by people). In the Odyssey, traditional stories are adapted to complex themes and to the continuous story of Odysseus’s homecoming.
Women play a major role in the Odyssey. Athena directs the action; Circe and Calypso love Odysseus and assist him; Nausicaa and Arete offer guest-friendship; Eurykleia helps eliminate the suitors; Penelope matches Odysseus in wit and strength of character. Homer is clearly interested in feminine nature and strengths; his women are restrained, versatile, and quietly intelligent.
Names often have significant meanings: Odysseus means “trouble,” Alcinous means “sharp-mind” (he is perceptive); Calypso means “hidden” (she hides Odysseus for seven years); Polyphemus means “far-famed” (Odysseus seeks fame by shouting his name to the Cyclops).
2. Central Images
Homer creates powerful symbolic images at crucial moments of the poem:
(1) Weaving is a symbolic metaphor for song and storytelling (Odysseus “weaves” deceptive stories). It is also an image for feminine cleverness: in Book 19, Penelope tells how she fooled the suitors by weaving and unraveling a shroud; she literally “wove” a deception. Here, weaving symbolizes Penelope’s endurance, intelligence, and loyalty—characteristics tying her to Odysseus.
(2) Odysseus’s scar: When Eurykleia recognizes the scar, Homer tells how Odysseus was named “Trouble” by his grandfather: he got the scar from a boar that wounded him before he killed it and returned home in triumph. The story parallels Odysseus’s wandering and return; it establishes Odysseus’s name and past at the moment of his homecoming; the scar symbolizes his identity, origins, and roots.
1. Engaging and Unconventional Narrative Style
Homer’s “Odyssey” is a timeless work of literature that can be somewhat perplexing to the modern reader. With multiple translations and variations in the use of names, it can take some time to become accustomed to the text.
However, the unusual prose and verse translation of the Finnish version adds an intriguing layer to the reading experience. This unique approach to storytelling allows readers to explore the narrative from a fresh perspective, making it a truly engaging experience.
2. A Glimpse into a Simpler, Grandiose World
The world of Odysseus is one of simplicity, where daily life revolves around essential tasks such as eating, drinking, dressing, and homemaking. This straightforward existence, contrasting with our complex modern lives, provides a refreshing window into a different way of life.
The Odyssey also showcases grandiose actions, with characters feasting on whole pigs, indulging in rough behavior, and offering lavish gifts. This larger-than-life narrative captures the imagination and transports readers to a world of adventure and extravagance.
2. The Intricate Relationship Between Gods and Men
One of the most fascinating aspects of the Odyssey is the intricate relationship between gods and men. In contrast to the monotheistic religions of today, the polytheistic world of Odysseus features numerous gods, each dedicated to specific aspects of life.
This difference leads to a more complex and nuanced relationship between deities and mortals, as the gods behave more like humans, with conflicting interests and imperfections. This closeness between gods and men adds depth to the story and enhances the reader’s connection to the characters and their struggles.
1. Confusion in Names and Translations
One of the most challenging aspects of reading the Odyssey is navigating the various translations and versions of the text. The Greek-derived names of people and gods in some translations can be confusing when compared to the Latin-based names used in other versions.
This inconsistency can initially be disorienting for readers and may require some additional effort to become familiar with the different names and their corresponding characters.
2. Non-Linear Narrative Structure
The Odyssey is not told in a straightforward, linear fashion, but rather as a recounting of events that have already taken place. This non-linear narrative structure can be confusing for readers who are more accustomed to chronological storytelling.
It may require extra focus and attention to fully grasp the order of events and the relationships between characters, making the reading experience more demanding than some other literary works.
3. Inaccessibility for Some Modern Readers
The Odyssey is a classic work of literature, written in a style that differs significantly from contemporary texts. The absence of the familiar formulaic approach and language that is prevalent in today’s literature may make it difficult for some readers to fully appreciate and engage with the text.
The Odyssey demands a certain level of patience, understanding, and intellectual curiosity to truly appreciate its beauty and complexity, which may not be suitable for all readers.
Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey hold the distinction of being the first known written poetry in Western literature. These epic poems have profoundly shaped the way we understand literature, culture, and human nature. As models for behavior and guides to life’s complexities, the Iliad and Odyssey continue to resonate with audiences across generations.
The Odyssey, in particular, has inspired countless interpretations and adaptations over the centuries. From Greek and Roman writers like Virgil, who explored the theme of wandering in the Aeneid, to early Christians who saw Odysseus’s journey as an allegory for the soul’s progress, the Odyssey’s influence on literature and culture is undeniable.
Despite their ancient origins, the Iliad and Odyssey exhibit a narrative style and thematic depth that is far from primitive. Emerging shortly after the advent of writing in Greece around 750 B.C., Homer’s poetry showcases a sophisticated understanding of storytelling and human nature.
The use of repetition in lines and speeches, as well as the blending of various tales, reflects the influence of oral poetry on Homer’s work. These techniques, which may initially seem contradictory, serve to enrich the narrative and engage the reader in the world of these epic tales.
Overall, Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey stand as foundational works of Western literature, offering timeless insights into human nature and society. Through their compelling narratives and complex themes, these poems have left an indelible mark on our collective consciousness, influencing countless writers and thinkers throughout history. As we continue to explore the rich legacy of these epics, we are reminded of the enduring power of poetry to illuminate the human experience and connect us across time and space.
Homer, who lived in the 9th-8th century BC (exact dates are uncertain), is famous for writing the epic poem, the Odyssey. He is said to have been a blind bard from Ionia (located on the Turkish coast), who travelled around Greece, singing his poetry.
However, some believe that “Homer” might be a legendary name used for many Greek poets who collectively created the Iliad and the Odyssey over a span of 100 years or more. Although there are doubts about whether Homer actually existed, it is still widely accepted that he was a real poet who wrote both these famous poems.
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