Odyssey

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The Odyssey (Greek Οδύσσεια) is the second of the two great Greek epic poems ascribed to Homer, the first of which is the Iliad. The 11,300 line poem follows Odysseus, king of Ithaca, on his voyage home after a heroic turn in the Trojan War. It also tells the story of Odysseus' wife Penelope who struggles to remain faithful, and his son Telemachus who sets out to find his father. In contrast to the Iliad, with its extended sequences of battle and violence, all three are ultimately successful through use of cleverness, and the support of the goddess Athena. This cleverness is most often manifested by Odysseus' use of disguise and, later, recognition. His disguises take forms both physical (altering his appearance) and verbal (telling the Cyclops Polyphemus that his name is "Nobody" then escaping after blinding the Cyclops because Polyphemus cries foul at the hands of "nobody").

The poem is considered one of the foundational texts of the Western canon and continues to be read in both Homeric Greek and translations around the world. While today's Odyssey is usually a printed text, the original poem was an oral composition sung by a trained bard, in an amalgamated Ancient Greek dialect, using a regular metrical pattern called dactylic hexameter. Each line of the original Greek was composed of six feet; each foot a dactyl or a spondee. Among the most impressive elements of the text are its strikingly modern non-linear plot, and its elevation of the status of women and the lower classes. In the English language as well as many others, the word odyssey has come to refer to an epic voyage.

Character of Odysseus

Main article: Odysseus.


Structure

The Odyssey consists of twenty-four books, or chapters. The first four books, known as the Telemachy, trace Telemachus' efforts to maintain control of the palace in the face of suitors who would have his inheritance, and his mother Penelope's hand in marriage. Failing that, he sets off to find his father. In book 5, we find Odysseus near the end of his journey, a not entirely unwilling captive of the beautiful nymph Calypso, with whom he's spent 7 of his 10 lost years. Released from her wiles by the intercession of his patroness Athena and her father Zeus, he departs. His raft is destroyed by his nemesis Poseidon, who is angry because Odysseus blinded his son, Polyphemos. When Odysseus washes up on Scheria, home to the Phaeacians, the naked stranger is treated with traditional Greek hospitality even before he reveals his name. Odysseus satisfies the Phaeacians' curiosity, telling them - and us - of all his adventures since departing from Troy. This renowned, extended "flashback" leads him back to where he stands, his tale told. The shipbuilding Phaeacians finally loan him a ship to return to Ithaca, where, home at last, he regains his throne, reunites with his son, metes out justice to the suitors, and reunites with his faithful wife Penelope.

Plot summary

Book 1

"Tell me, o muse, of that ingenious hero who traveled far and wide after he had sacked the famous town of Troy." With the invocation of the muse Homer begins his epic, though the hero himself is still offstage. We are treated to a glimpse of life among the supreme gods on Mount Olympus. Urged on by Athena, the goddess of wisdom and battle-tactics, they decide that Odysseus has been marooned too long on the island of the nymph Calypso. Athena also decides to pay a visit to Telemachus who is Odysseus's son.

Book 2

Meanwhile, the mansion of Odysseus is infested with suitors for the hand of his wife Penelope. Everyone assumes Odysseus is dead. Encouraged by Athena who arrives in the form of Mentes, Telemachus calls an assembly to ask for help. He breaks down and cries and is pushed off the platform by Athena. Antinous mocks Telemachus. He issues an ultimatum to Telemachus: "Either you force your mother to marry a suitor, or we ruin your house." Telemachus refuses to comply. Zeus sends an omen of the suitors' doom. Two eagles swoop down, tearing each other's throats and necks with their talons. The suitors mock Halitherses, who makes the prophecy. Afterwards, Telemachus, accompanied by Athena, sets sail for Pylos to seek news of his father.

Book 3

Telemachus travels to Pylos to consult Nestor, accompanied by Athena, who is disguised as Mentor, a man from Ithaca. When they arrive at the shore of Pylos, they find Nestor and the men of Pylos performing sacrifices to Poseidon. Nestor tells what he knows of the Greeks' return from Troy: "It started out badly because of Athena's anger. Half the army, your father included, stayed behind at Troy to try to appease her. The rest of us made it home safely--all except Menelaus, who was blown off course to Egypt, where he remained for seven years. Seek advice from Menelaus. I'll lend you a chariot to travel to his kingdom." Athena flies away in the form of an eagle. The very next morning, Nestor performs a sacrifice to Athena and Telemachus is borne away, accompanied by Nestor's son.

Book 4

Menelaus tells what he learned of Odysseus while stranded in Egypt after the war. He was advised by a goddess to disguise himself and three members of his crew in seal pelts and then pounce on the Old Man of the Sea. If they could hold him down while he transformed himself into various animals and shapes, he would send them on their homeward way and give news of their companions. Menelaus did as instructed and was informed that Odysseus was presently being held against his will by the nymph Calypso.

Book 5

Zeus, the King of the Gods, sends his messenger Hermes skimming over the waves on magic sandals to Calypso's island. Calypso promises Odysseus immortality, but he refuses. At last all fails. Though the nymph isn't happy about it, she agrees to let Odysseus go. But the raft on which he sets sail is destroyed by his enemy, the god Poseidon, who lashes the sea into a storm with his trident. Odysseus barely escapes with his life and washes ashore days later, half-drowned. He staggers into an olive thicket and falls asleep.

Book 6

Odysseus wakes up to the sound of maidens laughing. Princess Nausicaa of the Phaeacians has come down to the riverside to wash some clothes because Athena came to her in a dream and instructed her to do so. Now she and her handmaids are frolicking after the chore. Odysseus approaches as a supplicant, and Nausicaa is kind enough to instruct him how to get the king's help in returning to his home.

Book 7

Odysseus stops on the palace threshold, utterly dazzled. The very walls are covered in shining bronze and trimmed with lapis lazuli. The blacksmith god Hephaestus has even provided two brazen hounds to guard the queen. Odysseus puts his case to her as a supplicant. The king knows better than to refuse hospitality to a decent petitioner. He invites Odysseus to the banquet which is in progress and promises him safe passage home after the king and his guests have been suitably entertained.

Book 8

The next day is declared a holiday in honor of the guest, whose name the king still does not know. An athletic competition is held, with foot races, wrestling and the discus. Odysseus is invited to join in but he declines the invitation, prompting someone to suggest that he lacks the skills. Angered, he takes up a discus and throws it with such violence that everyone drops to the ground. That night at a banquet, as the court bard entertains with songs of the Trojan War, Odysseus is heard sobbing. "Enough!" shouts the king. "Our friend finds this song displeasing. Won't you tell us your name, stranger, and where you hail from?"

Book 9

"My name is Odysseus of Ithaca, and here is my tale since setting out from Troy. We destroyed a city called Ísmaros first off, but then reinforcements arrived and we lost many comrades. Next we visited the Lotus Eaters, and three of my crew tasted this strange plant. They lost all desire to return home and had to be carried off by force. On another island we investigated a cave full of goat pens. The herdsman turned out to be as big as a barn, with a single glaring eye in his forehead. This Cyclops promptly ate two of my men for dinner. We were trapped in the cave by a boulder in the doorway that only the Cyclops could budge, so we couldn't kill him while he slept. Instead we sharpened a pole and used it to gouge out his eye. We escaped by clinging to the undersides of his goats."

A more humourous version of this event is portrayed in Cyclops by Euripides, the only complete satyr play to have survived.

Book 10

"Next we met the Keeper of the Winds, who sent us on our way with a steady breeze. He'd given me a leather bag, which my crew mistook for booty. They opened it and released a hurricane that blew us back to where we'd started. We ended up among the Laestrygonians, giants who bombarded our fleet with boulders and gobbled down our shipmates. The few survivors put in at the island of the enchantress Circe. My men were entertained by her and then, with a wave of her wand, turned into swine. Hermes the god gave me an herb, called moly, that protected me. Circe told me that to get home I must travel to the land of Death."

Book 11

"We traveled to the underworld to hear from the blind prophet Tiresias. There I saw the ghost of my mother, as well as many of my fallen comrades who died before Troy. Finally I encountered the ghost of Tiresias, who foretold the path I must travel to finally return to Ithaca and make amends to Poseidon."

Book 12

"At sea once more we had to pass the Sirens, whose sweet singing lures sailors to their doom. I had stopped up the ears of my crew with wax, and I alone listened while lashed to the mast, powerless to steer toward shipwreck. Next came Charybdis, who swallows the sea in a whirlpool, then spits it up again. Avoiding this we skirted the cliff where Scylla exacts her toll. Each of her six slavering maws grabbed a sailor and wolfed him down. Finally we were becalmed on the island of the Sun. My men disregarded all warnings and sacrificed his cattle, so back at sea Zeus sent a thunderbolt that smashed the ship. I alone survived, washing up on the island of Calypso."

Book 13

When Odysseus had finished his tale, the king ordered him sped to Ithaca. The sailors put him down on the beach asleep. Athena cast a protective mist about him that kept him from recognizing his homeland. Finally the goddess revealed herself and dispelled the mist. In joy Odysseus kissed the ground. Athena transformed him into an old man as a disguise. Clad in a filthy tunic, he went off to find his faithful swineherd, as instructed by the goddess.

Book 14

Eumaeus the swineherd welcomed the bedraggled stranger. He threw his own bedcover over a pile of boughs as a seat for Odysseus, who does not reveal his identity. Observing Zeus's commandment to be kind to guests, Eumaeus slaughters a prime boar and serves it with bread and wine. Odysseus, true to his fame as a smooth-talking schemer, makes up an elaborate story of his origins. That night the hero sleeps by the fire under the swineherd's spare cloak, while Eumaeus himself sleeps outside in the rain with his herd.

Book 15

Athena summons Telemachus home and tells him how to avoid an ambush by Penelope's suitors. Meanwhile back on Ithaca, Odysseus listens while Eumaeus recounts the story of his life. He was the child of a prosperous mainland king, whose realm was visited by Phoenician traders. His nursemaid, a Phoenician herself, had been carried off by pirates as a girl and sold into slavery. In return for homeward passage with her countrymen, she kidnapped Eumaeus. He was bought by Odysseus' father, whose queen raised him as a member of the family.

Book 16

Telemachus evades the suitors' ambush. Following Athena's instructions, he proceeds to the farmstead of Eumaeus. There he makes the acquaintance of the tattered guest and sends Eumaeus to his mother to announce his safe return. Athena restores Odysseus' normal appearance, enchanting it so that Telemachus takes him for a god. "No god am I," Odysseus assures him, "but your own father, returned after these twenty years." They fall into each other's arms. Later they plot the suitors' doom. Concerned that the odds are fifty-to-one, Telemachus suggests that they might need reinforcements. "Aren't Zeus and Athena reinforcement enough?" asks Odysseus.

Book 17

Disguised once more as an old beggar, Odysseus journeys to town. On the trail he encounters an insolent goatherd named Melantheus, who curses and kicks him, but fails to knock him over because of his firm stance. At his castle gate, the hero is recognized by a decrepit dog that he raised as a pup. Having seen his master again, the old hound dies. At Athena's urging Odysseus begs food from the suitors. One man, Antinous, berates him and refuses so much as a crust. He even hurls his footstool at Odysseus, hitting him in the back. This makes even the other suitors nervous, for sometimes the gods masquerade as mortals to test their righteousness.

Book 18

Now a real beggar shows up at the palace and warns Odysseus off his turf. This man, Irus, is always running errands for the suitors. Odysseus says that there are pickings enough for the two of them, but Irus threatens fisticuffs and the suitors egg him on. Odysseus rises to the challenge and rolls up his tunic into a boxer's belt. The suitors goggle at the muscles revealed. Not wishing to kill Irus with a single blow, Odysseus breaks his jaw instead. Another suitor, Eurymachus, marks himself for revenge by trying to hit Odysseus with a footstool as Antinous had done.

Book 19

Odysseus has a long talk with his queen Penelope but does not reveal his identity. Penelope takes kindly to the stranger and orders her maid Eurycleia to bathe his feet and anoint them with oil. Eurycleia, who was Odysseus' nurse when he was a child, notices a scar above the hero's knee. Odysseus had been gored by a wild boar when hunting on Mount Parnassus as a young man. The maid recognizes her master at once, and her hand goes out to his chin. But Odysseus silences her lest she give away his plot prematurely.

Book 20

The next morning Odysseus asks for a sign, and Zeus sends a clap of thunder out of the clear blue sky. A servant recognizes it as a portent and prays that this day be the last of the suitors' abuse. Odysseus encounters another herdsman. Like the swineherd Eumaeus, this man, who tends the realm's cattle, swears his loyalty to the absent king. A prophet, an exiled murderer whom Telemachus has befriended, shares a vision with the suitors: "I see the walls of this mansion dripping with your blood." The suitors respond with gales of laughter.

Book 21

Penelope now appears before the suitors in her glittering veil. In her hand is a stout bow left behind by Odysseus when he sailed for Troy. "Whoever strings this bow," she says, "and sends an arrow straight through the sockets of twelve axe heads lined in a row--that man will I marry." The suitors take turns trying to bend the bow to string it, but all of them lack the strength. Odysseus asks if he might try. The suitors refuse, fearing that they'll be shamed if the beggar succeeds. But Telemachus insists and his anger distracts them into laughter. As easily as a bard fitting a new string to his lyre, Odysseus strings the bow and sends an arrow through the axe heads. At a sign from his father, Telemachus arms himself and takes up a station by his side.

Book 22

Antinous, ringleader of the suitors, is just lifting a drinking cup when Odysseus puts an arrow through his throat. The goatherd sneaks out and comes back with shields and spears for the suitors, but now Athena appears. She sends the suitors' spearthrusts wide, as Odysseus, Telemachus and the two faithful herdsmen strike with volley after volley of lances. They finish off the work with swords. Those of the housemaids who consorted with the suitors are hung by the neck in the courtyard, while the treacherous goatherd is chopped to bits.

Book 23

The mansion is purged with fire and brimstone. Odysseus tells everyone to dress in their finest and dance, so that passers-by won't suspect what's happened. Even Odysseus could not hold vengeful kinfolk at bay. Penelope still won't accept that it's truly her husband without some secret sign. She tells a servant to make up his bed in the hall. "Who had the craft to move my bed?" storms Odysseus. "I carved the bedpost myself from the living trunk of an olive tree and built the bedroom around it." Penelope rushes into his arms.And they make love by the fireplace.

Book 24

The next morning Odysseus goes upcountry to the vineyard where his father, old King Laertes, labors like a peasant. Meanwhile, the kin of the suitors have gathered at the assembly ground, where the father of the suitor Antinous fires them up for revenge. Odysseus, his father, and Telemachus meet the challenge. Laertes casts a lance through the helmet of Antinous' father, who falls to the ground in a clatter of armor. But the fighting stops right there. Athena tells the contending parties to live together in peace down through the years to come.


Geography in the Odyssey

The text of the Odyssey does not contain many modern place names that can immediately be located on a map. Scholars both ancient and modern are divided as to whether or not the locations were in any way real places or mere inventions. Eratosthenes, the third century BC Alexandrian geographer, ridiculed attempts to identify places mentioned in the Odyssey, saying "you will find the scene of the wanderings of Odysseus when you find the cobbler who sewed up the bag of winds." Those who tend towards real locations point to the high degree of realism present throughout the poem, especially in Homer's description of sailing. It seems most likely that Homer strung together tales of one or more sea voyages and that some locations at least should follow a logical sequence. Even amongst those scholars who believe the locations to have some basis in reality there is much dispute.

The traditional orthodox theory, which has been taken as accurate by many including some encyclopedias and other reference works, sees Odysseus driven into the western Mediterranean with most of his adventures taking place between Tunisia, Sardinia, Italy and Sicily. However this theory has a number of flaws which make little sense either from a sailing or identification point of view. Ancient Greek ships were small, rarely ventured out onto the open sea and their captains did not explore unknown territories but instead sought to regain their course if blown off it. The orthodox route includes the following locations:

  • The island of Calypso is associated with Gozo, which is part of the Maltese archipelago. Odysseus is said to have landed on the northern shore of the island, on the beach of Ir-Ramla.
  • The Lotus Eaters are located in Tunisia on the basis that this is where a sailing vessel blown off course at Cape Malea could reach at full speed. However, a vessel blown off course would have been more cautious and would not have ventured so far away, especially if trying to reach home.
  • Aeolus is traditionally located in the Aeolian Islands to the north of Sicily. However, for Odysseus' vessels to have caught a favourable wind all the way to Ithaca and then have an unfavourable wind blow them all the way back so that they would have had to sail through the Straits of Messina is extremely implausible.
  • There is a real river Acheron in north west Greece. However, its location has been ignored by many, since the orthodox theory makes no allowances for Odysseus being in that region.
  • Scylla and Charybdis are traditionally located in the Straits of Messina. However, the channel they inhabit is said to be narrow. The Straits are over two miles wide at their narrowest point, and even wider at the rock traditionally identified as Scylla's. The whirlpools around the straits are not even in the "narrows" and are nothing more than gyrating patches of water caused by the cross-section of two currents. It is impossible to conceive of them producing the legend of Charybdis.
  • Thrinicia, the island home of Helios' cattle, is said to have been Sicily since the name Thrinicia implies an island connected to the number 3 and Sicily has three corners. However, Sicily is huge by ancient Greek standards and so its three corners are only noticeable on a modern map, not at sea, and it is more likely that the name Thrinicia would have come about because sailors could use it to easily identify an island as they could see it.

More generally the orthodox theory assumes that the ancient Greeks knew about Italy, but there are very few references at all in the Odyssey to any part of the world to the west of Greece, though lands in the east and south such as Egypt and Sudan are mentioned in several places.

The historian of science and specialist in the cartography of antiquity Tullio Catullo Stecchini makes interesting speculations in an essay "The Navigations of Odysseus", among several alternative theories that have been proposed in recent times. Not all are based purely on readings in the classics: Tim Severin sailed a replica Greek sailing vessel (originally built for his attempt to follow Jason's argosy) along the 'natural' route from Troy to Ithaca, following the sailing directions that could be teased out of Homer. Along the way he found locations at the natural turning and dislocation points which fit the pattern much more closely than the orthodox theory. However, he also came to the conclusion that the sequence of adventures from Circe onwards derived from a separate voyage to those that ended with the Laestrygonians, possibly coming via the stories of the Argonauts. He placed many of the later adventures on the northwest Greek coast, near to the river Acheron. Along the way he found on the map Cape Skilla and other names that implied strong mythological links to the Odyssey. His adventure is recounted in The Ulysses Voyage: Sea Search for the Odyssey.

Derivative works

  • Some of the tales of Sindbad the Sailor from The Book of One Thousand and One Nights (Arabian Nights) were taken from Homer's Odyssey.
  • A modern book inspired by the Odyssey is James Joyce's Ulysses (1922).
  • Nikos Kazantzakis wrote The Odyssey: A Modern Sequel, a 33,333 line epic poem which continues Odysseus' journeys past the point of his arrival in Ithaca.
  • The first half of Virgil's Aeneid parallels the Odyssey in structure.

External links

Greek Myth: the Odyssey

  • Homer's Odyssey resources on the Web by Jorn Barger. Provides links to the original and various public domain translations.
  • English translations:
    • George Chapman, 1616 (couplets)
    • Alexander Pope, 1713 (couplets); Project Gutenberg edition; [1]
    • William Cowper, 1791 (blank verse)
    • Samuel Henry Butcher and Andrew Lang, Project Gutenberg edition; [2]
    • William Cullen Bryant, 1871 (blank verse)
    • Samuel Butler, 1898 (prose), Project Gutenberg edition; [3]
    • English Text Samuel Butler, 1898 (prose)
    • A. T. Murray (revised by George E. Dimock), 1919; Loeb Classical Library (ISBN 0674995619)
    • Richmond Lattimore, 1965 (ISBN 0060931957)
    • Robert Fitzgerald, 1963 (ISBN 0679728139)
    • Walter Shewring, 1980 (ISBN 0192833758), Oxford University Press (Oxford World's Classics)
    • Robert Fagles, 1999 (ISBN 0140268863); an unabridged audio recording by Ian McKellen is also available (ISBN 014086430X).
    • Stanley Lombardo, 2000 (ISBN 0872204847) has what is considered by many to be the best combination of faithfulness to the original Greek and a more vernacular style. An audio CD recording read by the translator is also available (ISBN 1930972067).