Odysseus Laërtiades (Greek: Οδυσσεύς Λαερτιάδης}', 'son of Laertes'), or simply Odysseus (meaning "man of wrath" according to Homer, or more likely, from Greek οδηγός: odēgós, "a guide; the one showing the way"), is a character in Greek mythology, known as Ulysses or Ulixes in Roman mythology. Known for his guile and resourcefulness, he is the hero of Homer's Odyssey, and a major character in the Iliad. Odysseus was the son of Laertes and Anticlea, although some sources, prominent among them Iphigenia at Aulis by Euripides, state that Sisyphus was his father.
As a child, Odysseus was wet-nursed by Euryclea. Odysseus was the king of Ithaca, husband of Penelope and father of Telemachus, favorite of Athena, and wiliest of the Greeks involved in the Trojan War. Odysseus earns this title by, among other things, masterminding the Trojan Horse. He is most famous for the ten years it took him to return home from the war, which is described in the Odyssey.
According to some late sources, most of them purely genealogical, Odysseus had many other children besides Telemachus, the most famous being:
- with Circe: Telegonus, Ardeas
- with Calypso or Circe: Nausinous or Nausitoo
- with Calidices: Polipetes
Most such genealogies aimed to link Odysseus with the foundation of many Italic cities in remote antiquity.
The city of Lisbon, Portugal was believed by Greek settlers to be named after Odysseus.
Before the Trojan War
Odysseus was one of the original suitors of Helen. He agreed to help Tyndareus, her father, settle the dispute for her hand in marriage, in return for which Tyndareus supported Odysseus in his quest to marry Penelope. Odysseus and all the other suitors pledged to defend Helen's marriage to the winning suitor, Menelaus.
Odysseus did not want to make good on his pledge to defend Menelaus' marriage. He pretended to be insane, ploughing his fields and sowing salt instead of seeds. Agamemnon (Menelaus' brother), however, sent Palamedes to retrieve Odysseus. Palamedes was very intelligent and placed Telemachus, Odysseus' infant son, in front of the plough. Odysseus could not kill his son and revealed his sanity, then left for the Trojan War.
Odysseus discovered Achilles on the isle of Skyros, disguised as a girl by his mother, the goddess Thetis, and convinced him to come out of hiding and fight. According to legend, Odysseus had two carts set up in the city plaza. One was filled with expensive clothing and perfumes, and the other was stocked with weapons of war. Most women rushed to the first cart. However, Achilles, being a man of the sword, went directly to the second, and was thus found by Odysseus.
On the way to Troy, Philoctetes was bitten by a snake on Chryse. Odysseus advised that he be left behind because the wound was festering and smelled bad. Ten years later, Helenus, under torture, revealed that Philoctetes' arrows (which he received from Heracles) would be necessary to win the war. Odysseus and Neoptolemus went to Lemnos to retrieve Philoctetes.
After Odysseus and his men depart from Troy, they are greeted by friendly and calm waters. The ships near land and Eurylochus, convincing Odysseus that the gods were on their side, told him to go ashore and loot the nearby city. The crew had landed in Ciconia. The city was not at all protected and all of the inhabitants fled without a fight into the nearby mountains. Odysseus and his men looted the city and robbed it of all its goods. Odysseus wisely told the men to board the ships quickly but they refused and fell asleep on the beach. The next morning, the Ciconians returned with their fierce kinsmen from the mountains. Odysseus and his men fled to the ships as fast as they could but they lost many men still.
When Odysseus and his men landed on the island of the Lotus-Eaters, Odysseus sent out a scouting party who ate the lotus with the natives. This caused them to fall sleep and stop caring about ever going home. Odysseus went after the scouting party and dragged them back against their will to the ship and set sail.
A scouting party led by Odysseus (and his friend, Misenus), lands in the territory of the Cyclopes and ventures upon a large cave. They enter the cave and proceed to feast on some food they find there. Unknown to them, this cave is the home of Polyphemus who soon comes upon the trespassers and traps them in the cave. He proceeds to eat several crew members, but Odysseus devised a cunning plan for escape.
To make Polyphemus unwary, Odysseus gave him a barrel of very strong, unwatered wine. When Polyphemus asked for Odysseus' name, he told him that it was "Nobody" (Outis). Once the giant fell asleep, Odysseus and his men took a hardened spear and destroyed Polyphemus' only eye. In the morning, Odysseus tied his men and himself to the undersides of Polyphemus' sheep. When the Cyclops let the sheep out to graze, the men were carried out. Since Polyphemus was blind, he did not see the men, but felt the tops of his sheep to make sure the men were not riding them.
Once the sheep (and men) were safely out, Polyphemus realized the men were no longer in his cave. He yelled out to his fellow Cyclopes that "Nobody" hurt him, so they ignored him. As Odysseus and his men were sailing away, he told Polyphemus that "Nobody didn't hurt you, Odysseus did!" Odysseus did not realize that Polyphemus was the son of Poseidon, and that telling him his name would have severe repercussions.
In another interpretation, Odysseus knew that revealing his name would harm him; however his honor, or hubris compelled him to do so.
Odysseus stopped at Aiolia, home of Aeolus, the god of the winds. He gave them hospitality for a month and provided for a west wind to carry them home. Unfortunately he also provided a gift of a bag containing each of the four winds, which Odysseus' crew members, suspecting that treasure was in the bag, opened just before their home was reached. They were blown back to Aiolia, where Aeolus refused to provide any further help.
The next stop was the island of Circe (Aeaea), where Odysseus sent a scouting party ahead of the rest of the group. She invited the scouting party to a feast, the food laced with one of her magical potions, and she then changed all the men into pigs with a wand after they gorged themselves on it. Only Eurylochus, suspecting treachery from the outset, escaped to warn Odysseus and the others who had stayed behind at the ships. Odysseus set out to rescue his men, but was intercepted and told by Hermes to procure some of the herb moly to protect him from the same fate. When her magic failed he was able to force her to return his men to human form. She later fell in love with Odysseus and assisted him in his quest to reach his home after he and his crew spent a year with her on her island. According to some sources, Circe and Odysseus had three children: Telegonus, Argius, and Latinus.
On Circe's island, one member of Odysseus' crew, his good friend Elpenor, got drunk and fell off Circe's roof. The fall killed him.
Journey to the Underworld
Odysseus wanted to speak with Tiresias, so he and his men journeyed to the River Acheron where they performed sacrifices which allowed them to speak to the dead, including his mother, Elpenor, Tiresias, and Achilles. They all gave him valuable advice on how to pass the rest of his journey. Odysseus sacrificed a ram and the dead spirits were attracted to the blood. He held them at bay and demanded to speak with Tiresias, who told him how to pass by Helios' cattle. He also told Odysseus that after he returned to Ithaca, that he must take a well-made oar and walk inland with it until someone asked him why he carried a winnowing-fan on his back. At that place, he was to make a sacrifice to Poseidon. He also told Odysseus that after all that was done, that he would die an old man, "full of years and peace of mind," that his death would come from the sea and that his life would ebb away very gently. (Some read this as meaning that his death would come away from the sea.)
Finally, Odysseus and his surviving crew landed on an island, Thrinacia, sacred to Helios, where he kept sacred cattle. Though Odysseus warned his men not to (as Tiresias had told him), they killed and ate some of the cattle. The guardians of the island, Helios' daughters, Lampetia and Phaethusa, told their father. Helios destroyed the ship and all the men save Odysseus. Sometimes, Apollo is cited in place of Helios in this part of the legend.
Odysseus was washed ashore on Ogygia, where the nymph Kalypso (Calypso) lived. She made him her lover for seven years and would not let him leave, promising him immortality if he stayed. On behalf of Athena, Zeus intervened and sent Hermes to tell Kalypso to let Odysseus go. Odysseus left on a small raft furnished with provisions of water, wine and food by Kalypso, only to be hit by a storm and washed up on the island of Scheria and found by Nausicaa, daughter of King Alcinous and Queen Arete of the Phaeacians, who entertained him well and escorted him to Ithaca. On the twentieth day of sailing he arrived at his home in Ithaca.
Odysseus reaches Ithaca
In Ithaca, Penelope was fending off countless suitors while Odysseus' mother, Anticlea, had died of grief. Odysseus, upon landing, disguised himself as an old man or a beggar and took the name Eperitus. Odysseus' faithful dog Argos was the first to recognize him in his rags. He had waited twenty years to see his master. Aged and decrepit, he did his best to wag his tail, and then happily lay down to die. Odysseus was then welcomed by his old swineherd, Eumaeus, who did not recognize him in disguise, but still treated him well. The first person to recognize him was his old wet nurse, Euryclea.
Odysseus learned that Penelope was faithful to him, pretending to knit or weave a burial shroud (for they claimed he must be dead) and claiming she would choose one suitor when she finished. Every night she undid part of the shroud, until one day, a maid of hers betrayed this secret to the suitors, and they demanded that she finally choose one of them to be her new husband. Luckily for Odysseus, this occurred just before he returned. Odysseus watched the suitors drink and take advantage of his family's hospitality. Still in his disguise, Odysseus went to Penelope and told her that he had met Odysseus, and he said that whomever could string Odysseus' bow and shoot the most arrows through a certain axe-handle would be able to marry Penelope. This was to Odysseus' advantage, as only he could string his own bow (it is believed that Odysseus' bow was a composite bow, requiring great skill and leverage to string, rather than brute strength). Penelope then announced what Odysseus had said. The suitors each tried to string the bow, but in vain. Odysseus then took the bow, strung it, took off his disguise and, with the help of his son Telemachus, Athena, and Eumaeus, the swineherd, killed all of them save Medon, who had been polite to Penelope, and Phemius, a local singer who had only been forced to help the suitors against Penelope. Penelope, still not quite sure that the stranger was indeed her husband, tested him. She ordered her maid to make up Odysseus' bed, and move it from their bedchamber. Odysseus was astonished because the bed was built into the trunk of an olive tree and thus cannot be moved; he tells her this, and since only Odysseus and Penelope knew this, Penelope accepted that he was her husband.
One of the suitors' (Antinous) fathers, Eupeithes, tried to overthrow Odysseus after the death of his son.Laertes killed him, and Athena thereafter required the suitors' families and Odysseus to make peace; this ends the story of the Odyssey.
Odysseus had been told (by the shade of Tiresias) that he had one more voyage to make after he had re-established his rule in Ithaca, and also that his death would come from the sea and would be peaceful and pleasant. The time frame of these events is left vague, however, perhaps because Homer intended to compose the continuation of the story and wanted room for improvisation.
According to a rarely heard (or derivative) version of this story, Odysseus was sent into exile by Neoptolemus for killing the suitors.
Odysseus is one of the most recurrent characters in Western literature. He has been used by innumerable writers, who often interpret his character and actions in very different ways.
In fifth-century BC Athens, tales of the Trojan War were popular subjects for tragedies, and Odysseus figures centrally or indirectly in a number of the extant plays by Aeschylus, Sophocles, (Ajax, Philoctetes) and Euripides, and figured in still more that have not survived.
As Ulysses, he is mentioned regularly in Virgil's Aeneid, and the poem's hero, Aeneas, rescues one of Ulysses' crew members who was left behind on the island of the Cyclops. He in turn offers a first-person account of some of the same events Homer relates, in which Ulysses appears directly. Virgil's Ulysses typifies his view of the Greeks: he is cunning but impious, and ultimately malicious and hedonistic.
Ovid retells parts of Ulysses' journeys, focusing on his romantic involvements with Circe and Calypso, and recasts him as, in Harold Bloom's phrase, "one of the great wandering womanizers."
Dante, in Canto Twenty-Six of the Inferno of his Divine Comedy, encounters Odysseus near the very bottom of Hell: with Diomedes, he walks wrapped in flame in the eighth ring (Counselors of Fraud) of the Eighth circle (Sins of Malice), as punishment for his schemes and conspiracies that won the Trojan War. In a famous passage, Dante has Odysseus relate a different version of his final voyage and death from the one foreshadowed by Homer. He tells how he set out with his men for one final journey of exploration to sail beyond the Pillars of Hercules and into the western sea to find what adventures awaited them. After travelling east and south for five months, they saw in the distance a great mountain rising from the sea (this is Purgatory, in Dante's cosmology), before a storm sank them.
He appears in Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida, set during the Trojan War.
Alfred, Lord Tennyson's Ulysses presents an aging king who has seen too much of the world to be happy sitting on a throne idling his days away. Leaving the task of civilizing his people to his son, he gathers together a band of old comrades "to sail beyond the sunset".
James Joyce's novel Ulysses uses modern literary devices to narrate a single day in the life of a Dublin businessman named Leopold Bloom; which turns out to bear many elaborate parallels to Odysseus' twenty years of wandering.
Nikos Kazantzakis' The Odyssey: A Modern Sequel, a 33,333 line epic poem, begins with Odysseus cleansing his body of the blood of Penelope's suitors. Odysseus soon leaves Ithaca in search of new adventures. Before his death he abducts Helen, incites revolutions in Crete and Egypt, communes with God, and meets representatives of various historical and literary figures such as Vladimir Lenin, Jesus and Don Quixote.