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Homer’s epic poem The Odyssey begins, as epics traditionally begin, with an invocation to (a “calling upon”) some source of inspiration. In this case the source of inspiration is the “muse,” one of the goddesses who were traditionally thought to inspire human creativity.
Odysseus is described as an
ingenious hero who travelled far and wide after he had sacked the famous town of Troy.
Notice how even this brief sentence epitomizes many major themes of the poem, including the famed ingenuity of Odysseus (who was valued at least as much for his cleverness as for his physical strength); Odysseus’s travels (which are described in much of the poem and from which we get both the title The Odyssey and the word “odyssey,” usually defined as a long and difficult journey); and the fall of Troy, for which Odysseus, more than perhaps anyone else, was responsible because of his ingenuity.
Odysseus is one of the great Greek heroes who, with a huge army, had participated in the ten-year-long siege of the ancient city of Troy. The Greeks had destroyed Troy because a Trojan prince had committed adultery with Helen, wife of a Greek king and had refused to give Helen back to the Greeks. After the fall of Troy, Odysseus himself had spent ten more long, arduous years of journeying, delayed by an offended deity, as he tried to get back to his home in Ithaca:
Many cities did he visit, and many were the nations with whose manners and customs he was acquainted; moreover he suffered much by sea while trying to save his own life and bring his men safely home . . .
During the decade that Odysseus is at sea, his virtuous wife, Penelope, is being courted by numerous suitors who want to marry her and thus acquire Odysseus’s power and property. They tell her that Odysseus is surely dead. To postpone giving a decision (since she is intensely loyal to her husband), Penelope weaves a funeral shroud for Odysseus’s aging father, but each night she undoes her weaving, so that completion of the project is stalled and delayed.
Telemachus is Odysseus’s brave and loyal son, now a courageous and energetic young man, who is disgusted by the suitors. Visited by the disguised goddess Athena (Minerva) and with her encouragement and help, he goes in search of news about his long-lost father.
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