2007 Schools Wikipedia Selection. Related subjects: Ancient History, Classical History and Mythology

Beginning of the Odyssey
Beginning of the Odyssey

The Odyssey ( Greek Οδύσσεια (Odússeia) ) is one of the two major ancient Greek epic poems attributed to the Ionian poet Homer. The poem is commonly dated circa 800 to 600 BC. The poem is, in part, a sequel to Homer's Iliad and mainly centers on the Greek hero Odysseus (or Ulysses in Latin) and his long journey home to Ithaca, following the fall of Troy.

It takes Odysseus ten years to reach Ithaca after the ten-year Trojan War. Due to his twenty-year absence, most people assume Odysseus is dead. His son Telemachus and his wife Penelope must deal with a group of unruly suitors who have moved into Odysseus's home, greedily consuming his goods, insulting him and his son, and competing for Penelope's hand in marriage.

The poem is fundamental to the Western canon and continues to be read in Homeric Greek and translations into modern languages around the world. The original poem was composed in an oral tradition by an aoidos perhaps a rhapsode. The details of the ancient oral performance, and the story's conversion to a written work inspire continual debate among scholars. The Odyssey was written in a regionless poetic dialect of Greek and comprises 12,110 lines of dactylic hexameter. Among the most impressive elements of the text are its strikingly modern non-linear plot, and the fact that events are shown to depend as much on the choices made by women and serfs as on the actions of fighting men. In the English language as well as many others, the word odyssey has come to refer to an epic voyage.

Character of Odysseus

Odysseus's heroic trait is his mētis, or "cunning intelligence"; he is often described as the "Peer of Zeus in Counsel". This intelligence is most often manifested by Odysseus's use of disguise and deceptive speech. His disguises take forms both physical (altering his appearance) and verbal, such as telling the Cyclops ( Polyphemus) that his name is "Nobody", then escaping after blinding Polyphemus. When queried by other Cyclopes about why he is screaming, Polyphemus replies that "Nobody" is hurting him. The most evident flaw, however, that Odysseus sports is that of his pride, or hubris. It is due to his stark pride that he taunts the blinded Polyphemus, allowing him to hurl stones in his direction by following the sound of his voice. Odysseus's hubris was also the initial cause of Poseidon's wrath, and continued to enrage the sea god the length of his voyage. Because Odysseus is intrigued with the reaction of Polyphemus, he tells the Cyclops he is a fool and that his real name is Odysseus.


The Odyssey begins in medias res, meaning that the action begins in the middle of the plot, and that prior events are described through flashbacks or storytelling. In the first episodes we trace Telemachus' efforts to assert control of the household, and then, at Athena’s advice, to search for news of his long-lost father. Then the scene shifts: Odysseus has been a captive of the beautiful nymph Calypso, with whom he has spent 7 of his 10 lost years. Released by the intercession of his patroness Athena, he departs, but his raft is destroyed by his divine enemy Poseidon, who is angry because Odysseus blinded his son, Polyphemus. When Odysseus washes up on Scherie, home to the Phaeacians, he is assisted by the young Nausicaa and is treated hospitably. In return he satisfies the Phaeacians' curiosity, telling them - and the reader - of all his adventures since departing from Troy. This renowned, extended "flashback" leads Odysseus back to where he stands, his tale told. The shipbuilding Phaeacians finally loan him a ship to return to Ithaca, where he is aided by the swineherd Eumaeus, meets Telemachus, regains his household, kills the suitors, and is reunited with his faithful wife Penelope.

In nearly all modern editions and translations the Odyssey (like the Iliad) is divided into 24 books. This division is handy but it is not original; it was developed by Alexandrian editors of the 3rd century BC. Aside from this, the first four books, focusing on Telemachus, are sometimes known as the " Telemachy". Within Odysseus's narrative, the section describing his meeting with the spirits of the dead is known as the " Nekuia".

The last 550 lines of the Odyssey, corresponding to book 24, are believed by many scholars to have been added by a slightly later poet. Several passages in earlier books seem to be setting up the events of book 24, so if it is indeed a later addition, the offending editor would seem to have changed earlier text as well. For more about varying views on the origin, authorship and unity of the poem see Homeric scholarship.

Outline of the plot

Spoiler warning: Plot and/or ending details follow.
Herbert James Draper, Ulysses and the Sirens, 1909
Herbert James Draper, Ulysses and the Sirens, 1909

Telemachus, Odysseus’s son, was a baby when Odysseus set out for Troy. At the point where the Odyssey begins, ten years after the Trojan War ended, Telemachus is about twenty and is sharing his missing father’s house on the island of Ithaca with his mother Penelope and with a crowd of 108 boisterous young men, "the Suitors", whose aim is to persuade Penelope to accept her husband’s disappearance as final and to marry one of them.

The goddess Athena (who is Odysseus’s protector) discusses his fate with Zeus, king of the gods, at a moment when Odysseus's enemy, the God of the Sea Poseidon, is absent from Mount Olympus. Then, disguised as a Taphian chieftain named Mentes, she visits Telemachus to urge him to search for news of his father. He offers her hospitality; they observe the Suitors dining rowdily, and the bard Phemius performing a narrative poem for them. Penelope objects to Phemius's theme, the "Return from Troy" because it reminds her of her missing husband, but Telemachus rebuts her objections.

Next morning Telemachus calls an assembly of citizens of Ithaca and demands a ship and crew. Accompanied by Athena (now disguised as his friend Mentor) he departs for the Greek mainland and the household of Nestor, most venerable of the Greek warriors at Troy, now at home in Pylos. From there Telemachus rides overland, accompanied by Nestor's son, to Sparta, where he finds Menelaus and Helen, now reconciled. He is told that they returned to Greece after a long voyage by way of Egypt; there, on the magical island of Pharos, Menelaus encountered the old sea-god Proteus, who told him that Odysseus is a captive of the mysterious goddess Calypso. Incidentally Telemachus learns the fate of Menelaus’ brother Agamemnon, king of Mycenae and leader of the Greeks at Troy, murdered on his return home by his wife Clytemnestra and her lover Aegisthus.

Charles Gleyre, Odysseus and Nausicaä
Charles Gleyre, Odysseus and Nausicaä

Meanwhile Odysseus, after wanderings about which we are still to learn, has spent seven years in captivity on the goddess Calypso's distant island. She is now persuaded by the messenger god Hermes to release him. Odysseus builds a raft. It is wrecked (the sea-god Poseidon is his enemy) but he swims ashore on the island of Scherie, where, naked and exhausted, he falls asleep. Next morning, awakened by the laughter of girls, he sees the young Nausicaa, who has gone to the seashore with her maids to wash clothes. He appeals to her for help. She encourages him to seek the hospitality of her parents Arete and Alcinous. Odysseus is welcomed and is not at first asked for his name. He remains several days with Alcinous, takes part in an athletic competition, and hears the blind singer Demodocus perform two narrative poems. The first is an otherwise obscure incident of the Trojan War, the "Quarrel of Odysseus and Achilles"; the second is the amusing tale of a love affair between two Olympian gods, Ares and Aphrodite. Finally Odysseus asks Demodocus to return to the Trojan War theme and tell of the Trojan Horse, a stratagem in which Odysseus had played a leading role. Unable to hide his emotion as he relives this episode, Odysseus at last reveals his identity. He then begins to tell the amazing story of his return from Troy.

After a piratical raid on Ismarus in the land of the Cicones, he and his twelve ships were driven off course by storms. They visited the lazy Lotus-Eaters and were captured by the Cyclops Polyphemus, escaping by blinding him with a wooden stake. They stayed with Aeolus the master of the winds; he gave Odysseus a leather bag containing all the winds, a gift that should have ensured a safe return home, had not the sailors foolishly opened the bag while Odysseus slept. All the winds flew out and the resulting storm drove the ships back the way they had come.
After pleading in vain with Aeolus to help them again, they re-embarked and encountered the cannibal Laestrygones. Odysseus’s own ship was the only one to escape. He sailed on and visited the witch-goddess Circe, whose magic potions turned most of his sailors into swine. Hermes met with Odysseus and gave him a drug called moly, a resistance to Circe’s potion. Circe, being attracted to Odysseus's resistance, fell in love with him. Circe released his men. Odysseus and his crew remained with her on the island for the next year. Finally, Odysseus's men convinced Odysseus that it was time to leave. Guided by Circe's instructions, Odysseus and his crew crossed the ocean and reached a harbour at the western edge of the world, where Odysseus sacrificed to the dead and summoned the spirit of the old prophet Tiresias to advise him. Next Odysseus met the spirit of his own mother, who had died of grief at his long absence; from her he learned for the first time news of his own household, threatened by the greed of the suitors. Here, too, he met the spirits of famous women and famous men; notably he encountered the spirit of Agamemnon, of whose murder he now learned (for Odysseus's encounter with the dead see also Nekuia).
Returning to Circe’s island, they were advised by her on the remaining stages of the journey. They skirted the land of the Sirens, passed between the many-headed monster Scylla and the whirlpool Charybdis, and landed on the island of Thrinacia. There Odysseus’ men – ignoring the warnings of Tiresias and Circe – hunted down the sacred cattle of the sun god Helios. This sacrilege was punished by a shipwreck in which all but Odysseus himself were drowned. He was washed ashore on the island of Calypso, where she compelled him to remain as her lover for seven years, and he had only now escaped.

Having listened with rapt attention to his story, the Phaeacians, who are skilled mariners, agree to help Odysseus on his way home. They deliver him at night, while he is fast asleep, to a hidden harbour on Ithaca. He finds his way to the hut of one of his own former slaves, the swineherd Eumaeus. Odysseus now plays the part of a wandering beggar in order to learn how things stand in his household. After dinner he tells the farm laborers a fictitious tale of himself: he was born in Crete, had led a party of Cretans to fight alongside other Greeks in the Trojan War, and had then spent seven years at the court of the king of Egypt; finally he had been shipwrecked in Thesprotia and crossed from there to Ithaca.

Meanwhile Telemachus, whom we left at Sparta, sails home, evading an ambush set by the suitors. He disembarks on the coast of Ithaca and makes for Eumaeus’s hut. Father and son meet; Odysseus identifies himself to Telemachus (but still not to Eumaeus) and they determine that the suitors must be killed. Telemachus gets home first. Accompanied by Eumaeus, Odysseus now returns to his own house, still disguised as a beggar. He experiences the suitors’ rowdy behaviour and plans their death. He meets Penelope: he tests her intentions with an invented story of his birth in Crete, where, he says, he once met Odysseus. Closely questioned, he adds that he had recently been in Thesprotia and had learned something there of Odysseus’s recent wanderings.

Odysseus’s identity is discovered by the housekeeper, Eurycleia, when he undresses for a bath and reveals an old thigh wound; he swears her to secrecy. Next day, at Athena’s prompting, Penelope maneuvers the suitors into competing for her hand with an archery competition using Odysseus’s bow. Odysseus takes part in the competition himself; he alone is strong enough to string the bow and therefore wins. Immediately he turns his arrows on the suitors, and all are killed. Odysseus and Telemachus kill (by hanging) twelve of their household maids, who had slept with the suitors; they mutilate and kill the goatherd Melanthius, who had mocked and abused Odysseus. Now at last Odysseus identifies himself to Penelope. She is hesitant, but accepts him when he correctly describes to her the bed he built for her when they married.

The next day he and Telemachus visit the country farm of his old father Laertes, who likewise accepts his identity only when Odysseus correctly describes the orchard that Laertes once gave him.

The citizens of Ithaca have followed Odysseus on the road, planning to avenge the killing of the Suitors, their sons. Their leader points out that Odysseus has now caused the deaths of two generations of the men of Ithaca – his sailors, not one of whom survived, and the suitors, whom he has now executed. The goddess Athena intervenes and persuades both sides to give up the vendetta.

The geography of the Odyssey

Reconstitution of the world described by the Odyssey
Reconstitution of the world described by the Odyssey
Main articles: Homer's Ithaca and Geography of the Odyssey.

Events in the main sequence of the Odyssey (excluding the narrative of Odysseus) take place in the Peloponnese and in what are now called the Ionian Islands. There are difficulties in the identification of Ithaca, the homeland of Odysseus, which may or may not be the same island that is now called Ithake. The wanderings of Odysseus as told to the Phaeacians, and the location of the Phaeacians' own island of Scherie, pose more fundamental geographical problems: scholars both ancient and modern are divided as to whether or not any of the places visited by Odysseus (after Ismarus and before his return to Ithaca) were real.

Near Eastern influences

Scholars have seen strong influences from Near Eastern mythology and literature in the Odyssey. Martin West has noted substantial parallels between the Epic of Gilgamesh and the Odyssey. Both Odysseus and Gilgamesh are known for traveling to the ends of the earth, and on their journeys go to the land of the dead. On his voyage to the underworld Odysseus follows instructions given to him by Circe, a goddess who is the daughter of the sun-god Helios. Her island, Aiaia, is located at the edges of the world, and seems to have close associations with the sun. Like Odysseus, Gilgamesh gets directions on how to reach the land of the dead from a divine helper: in this case she is the goddess Siduri, who, like Circe, dwells by the sea at the ends of the earth. Her home is also associated with the sun: Gilgamesh reaches Siduri's house by passing through a tunnel underneath Mt. Mashu, the high mountain from which the sun comes into the sky. West argues that the similarity of Odysseus's and Gilgamesh's journeys to the edges of the earth are the result of the influence of the Gilgamesh epic upon the Odyssey.

There are also some parallels between the Odyssey and the story of Sindbad, whose misfortune on the ocean is rival to that of Odysseus. He also has an encounter with a monster similar to Polyphemus, and escapes using similar tactics.

Retrieved from " http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Odyssey"