Summary of the Work
Odysseus, lord of the isle of Ithaca, has been missing from his kingdom for twenty years. The first ten had been spent fighting in the Trojan War, and the next ten had been spent in continual wanderings en route home from the war. His wife Penelope, in the meantime, has been harassed by dozens of suitors who have come from surrounding islands and Ithaca itself in order to win her hand in marriage. Penelope, desperately clinging to the hope that her husband is still alive, tries to stall the suitors by making them an idle promise: she will choose a husband from among them when she has finished weaving a burial shroud for her father-in-law, Laertes, who presently lives on a farm removed from the main city. However, when alone at night, Penelope secretly undoes the work of the shroud so that the fabrication of the garment will go on indefinitely. Unfortunately, the ruse has been discovered by the suitors, who now demand she choose one of them immediately.
The suitors, who have been awaiting her decision for several years, have in the meantime spent their days feasting in Odysseus’ hall. In so doing, they are devouring his livestock and abusing his servants. The direct victim of their voracious behavior is Tele-machus, the son of Odysseus who is now approaching manhood. Telemachus, who is the heir of Odysseus’ property and title, is constantly derided and taunted by the suitors who waste his father’s household.
Athene, goddess of wisdom and daughter of Zeus, begs her father to allow Odysseus to return home at last, for he has languished for seven years on the isle of the nymph Calypso, who holds him captive. Despite his brother Poseidon’s hatred of Odysseus because of the fate of Polyphemus, Zeus yields to his daughter. Obtaining permission and aid from her father, Athene comes down from Mount Olympus to visit Telemachus in disguise. She convinces him that he should sail abroad and seek information concerning his father.
Though feeling hopeless concerning his father’s fate, Tele-machus agrees to the journey. Athene manages to get together a crew and ship for Telemachus, and he departs without informing his mother or the suitors. When his mother finds out, she despairs with the thought that Telemachus will share his father’s fate. The suitors, angered at Telemachus’ departure, sail out themselves to set an ambush for his return.
Telemachus arrives at Pylus with Athene, who is disguised as the elder friend of Odysseus, Mentor. There Telemachus is warmly received and entertained by the aged Nestor, the famous counselor of the Trojan War. Nestor informs Telemachus of the various ill-fated homecomings of the Greeks, especially the fate of Agamemnon, commander of the Greeks at Troy, who was slain by his wife, Clytemnestra, and her lover, Aegisthus. He then advises Telemachus to visit Menelaus, Agamemnon’s brother, where he rules in Sparta. Borrowing a chariot from Nestor, Telemachus travels to Sparta with Peisistratus, Nestor’s son.
Menelaus and his queen, Helen, whose retreat with Paris instigated the Trojan War, entertain Telemachus with splendor. Menelaus tells his guests of his own wanderings which resulted in his encounter with the Old Man of the Sea, Proteus. Capturing Proteus to obtain information concerning his own homecoming, Menelaus inadvertently discovered Odysseus’ fate: namely, his imprisonment on Calypso’s isle. Although unsure if Odysseus survived the intervening years, Menelaus is able to offer this information to Telemachus, who is still pessimistic concerning his father’s fate.
Meanwhile, the god Hermes has been sent to Calypso’s isle to demand Odysseus’ liberation in Zeus’s name. The nymph reluctantly agrees, and sends Odysseus on his way in a raft of his own making. However, Poseidon sees Odysseus’ escape, and sends a storm to destroy him. With the help of Athene and the sea goddess, Leukothea, Odysseus is able to swim for several days and land exhausted on the isle of the Phaeaceans: Scheria. After having secured shelter for himself beneath a bush, Odysseus is wakened the next morning by the playful dancing of Nausikaa, Princess of the Phaeaceans, and the handmaids who accompany her to do the palace laundry. Odysseus and Nausikaa encounter each other, and the latter agrees to take him to the palace of her father, Alcinoös.
Odysseus, aided again by Athene, is welcomed warmly by Alcinoös and his queen, Arete. There is great feasting accompanied by the singing of the blind bard Demodocus, who recounts many of the Greek heroes’ exploits in the Trojan War as well as narrating an amusing tale of the gods. There are also great games played in which Odysseus reluctantly takes part with great success. Having heard of Odysseus’ journey from Calypso’s isle, Alcinoös agrees to assist Odysseus with the Phaeaceans’ magic ships, which can reach any destination in the world and return in a single day. However, Odysseus’ hosts remain ignorant of his identity. When they learn he is the famous adventurer, Odysseus, they demand he tell them of his many adventures.
Odysseus begins his tale with the departure of his twelve ships from Troy and his early encounters with the Ciconians and Lotus-Eaters. He then recounts his adventure with Polyphemus the Cyclops. Having left most of his fleet at a different part of the Cyclopes’ isle, Odysseus explored the strange land in his own vessel. He chose twelve men from his ship to join him in exploring the cavernous home of Polyphemus. However, when Polyphemus returned to his lair, he rolled a great stone over the entrance to his cave and proceeded to eat Odysseus’ men two at a time, till only six remained with their leader. Odysseus tricked Polyphemus into drinking a potent wine unmixed with water, and while the giant Cyclops snored drunkenly, Odysseus and his men gouged out Polyphemus’ eye with a wooden stake. Odysseus’ cunning allowed them to escape the cave despite Polyphemus’ attempts to block the cave entrance with his body. After his ship set out to sea to rejoin his fleet, he called to taunt Polyphemus, and the latter cursed him in his father Poseidon’s name. This is how Odysseus incurred the enmity of this powerful deity.
Odysseus next borrowed from Aeolus the divine bag which sealed up the world’s winds. However, Odysseus’ greedy companions meant to seize some of their master’s treasure, and unintentionally released all the winds at once. The fleet of ships was swept back to the island of Aeolus, who angrily banished the miserable Odysseus from his island. Odysseus’ ships then met disaster in the land of the enormous Laistrygones. Caught by surprise, all his moored ships but his own personal vessel were speared by the giants and carried off. Odysseus’ ship escaped alone. They arrived next on Circe’s island, and half the party was sent ahead to explore a visible column of smoke. Eurylochus, Odysseus’ second-in-command, led the men to Circe’s cottage. The men entered at Circe’s invitation, but Eurylochus himself refused to enter. Once inside, the men feasted with Circe, who transformed them into swine. Eurylochus escaped to inform Odysseus, who returned alone to face Circe. Aided by the herb moly bestowed on him by Hermes, Odysseus overcame Circe’s sorceries and demanded his men’s return. Circe complied, and was thereafter benevolent to Odysseus’ party.
Circe entertained Odysseus’ men for some time, then warned them that their journey could only continue after they had consulted the land of the dead. Though dreading the journey, Odysseus’ men accompanied him on a voyage into the Underworld. Once there, Odysseus encountered the soul of the prophet Teiresias, who told him how to reach his home and informed him of the final journey he would make in years to come. Odysseus also saw the spirit of his mother, Anticlea, and the spirits of queens from many ages and lands. He also interviewed the souls of his deceased Greek comrades from the Trojan War, Agamemnon and Achilles. He finally witnessed the spirits of many dead spirits in torment, including Heracles, Tantalus, and Sisyphus.
Returning to Circe’s island, Odysseus was given warning by the sorceress how to avoid the horrible fates associated with the Sirens’ isle and the passage between Scylla and Charybdis. She also warned him to spare the cattle of Helius that reside on the island Thrinacea. Odysseus set out from Circe’s isle, and his men plugged their ears versus the Sirens’ singing, although Odysseus himself, tied to a mast, listened to their beguiling voices. His men then navigated the ship through the perilous cliffs inhabited by Scylla, a monstrous beast with six heads that reach down from towering heights, and Charybdis, a disastrous whirlpool. Avoiding Charybdis, the men were victimized by Scylla, who carried off six of their number before the ship was clear of the dangerous passage.
Odysseus’ ship became stranded by storm winds on Thrinacea, despite Odysseus’ hope to avoid this island. When their ship could not set out because of poor winds, the men broke down and devoured several of Helius’ cattle. When the winds finally died down and the ship set sail, Helius coerced Zeus into punishing the ship. Zeus sent down a lightning bolt which destroyed the ship and all its crew except Odysseus, who floated off on a makeshift raft. He was carried all the way back to Charybdis, where he narrowly avoided death in the whirlpool. Odysseus finally came to be stranded on Calypso’s island, and it is here that his tale ends.
The Phaeaceans are pleased with his tale. After they shower him with gifts that exceed the value of his lost treasure, Odysseus sets out in the magical ships of the Phaeaceans. While Odysseus himself sleeps peacefully on board, the Phaeaceans reach Ithaca in a matter of hours. Without waking him, the Phaeaceans disembark Odysseus and his goods. They return to Scheria, but are turned to stone by Poseidon when they are within sight of their harbor. Alcinoös recognizes the portent as the sign of an old prophecy at last fulfilled.
Odysseus awakens on Ithaca at last, but is unsure of his locale until he meets with Athene, who advises him concerning the situation in his kingdom and transforms him into the shape of an old beggar. Odysseus sets out and meets with Eumaeus the swineherd, who accepts Odysseus as a guest in his shelter and unwittingly reveals his loyalty to his master.
Telemachus begs his leave of Menelaus, and returns with Peisistratus to Pylus. Before setting sail to Ithaca, Telemachus is joined by the fugitive prophet, Theoclymenus. Forewarned by Athene concerning the suitors’ ambush, Telemachus avoids the trap and lands safely on shore. He sends his companions with the prophet on to the main city, while he himself, inspired by Athene, travels alone to Eumaeus’ dwelling.
Telemachus meets his disguised father at the swineherd’s shelter, and while Eumaeus is away informing Penelope of her son’s return, Odysseus reveals himself to his overjoyed son; the two then commence hatching out a plan for the suitors’ death.
After Eumaeus has returned, Telemachus returns to his household and the suitors, who have since abandoned their hope for ambushing their host. Shortly thereafter, Eumaeus and Odysseus head toward the main city. Along the way, they meet with the scurrilous Melanthius the goatherd, who rudely accosts Odysseus. Odysseus and Eumaeus arrive at last at Odysseus’ palace, where Odysseus enters and begs from the suitors. While many of the suitors pity his appearance, some of them abuse him severely. Among those who abuse him most are the two leaders of the suitors, Antinoös and Eurymachos.
After the suitors return to their homes for the evening, Odysseus and Telemachus hide the armor and weapons that are normally kept in the main hall. Penelope then summons Odysseus in his beggar guise to her presence so that she may question him concerning his alleged claim to knowledge of her lost husband’s whereabouts. During the interview, Penelope never suspects the beggar’s identity. She is pleased by his talk of Odysseus, however, and orders the aged servant, Eurycleia, who nursed both Odysseus and Telemachus, to wash Odysseus’ feet. While doing so, Eurycleia notices a scar on Odysseus’ leg that he had received during a hunting incident while visiting the family of his maternal grandfather, Autolycus. Eurycleia almost reveals Odysseus’ identity, but he quickly silences her.
The suitors arrive the next day, as do Eumaeus and Philoitius, an oxherd who has remained loyal to Odysseus. The suitors are soon gripped by a divinely sent, though temporary, hysteria. Theo-cly-menus, who has returned to the household, interprets this as a foreboding of doom. The fugitive prophet is ignored, however, so he leaves in despair. Penelope arrives bearing Odysseus’ famous bow, which he did not carry with him to Troy, and proposes that the one suitor who can string it and shoot an arrow through twelve axe handles may marry her. Telemachus sets up the axe handles, and attempts to string the bow himself, but eventually fails. One by one the suitors attempt to string the bow but with no success.
It is at this point that Odysseus pulls Eumaeus and Philoitius into another room and reveals himself to them. Now part of his conspiracy, the two loyal thralls agree to bar the doors and prepare to arm themselves at the critical moment. Penelope is sent away, and Eumaeus brings Odysseus the bow, much to the disapproval of the suitors. Odysseus quickly strings the bow and shoots through the axe handles. He next takes an arrow and shoots Antinoös through the throat. He finally reveals himself to them fully, and begins picking them off one by one with his bow and arrows. Meanwhile, Telemachus, Eumaeus, and Philoitius arm themselves, and when Odysseus runs out of arrows, he does likewise. However, Melanthius the goatherd sneaks out of the room and starts bringing equipment to the remaining suitors. He is eventually stopped and bound by Eumaeus and Philoitius, who then rejoin Odysseus and Telemachus in the final battle against the suitors.
Odysseus and his allies overcome and slay all the suitors, then execute Melanthius and the bondswomen who were loyal to the suitors. The palace is cleaned of bloodshed, and Penelope is brought into Odysseus’ presence. However, she refuses to believe that it is her husband until she craftily tricks him into revealing himself. She then embraces and accepts him, and they are reunited at last.
Meanwhile, the souls of the suitors arrive in the Underworld, and there Agamemnon asks them to relate the nature of their deaths. When he discovers that Odysseus has won back his home, the murdered general both rejoices and expresses envy at his friend’s success. In the morning, Odysseus leaves the palace and visits his father, Laertes. After some delay, Odysseus reveals his identity to his rejoicing father, who brings him and his followers into his house. However, the families of the suitors, having performed the funeral rites for their dead, seek to avenge their kinsmen’s deaths. They don armor and weaponry and march out to Laertes’ farm. Odysseus and his companions ready themselves for battle, but the skirmish has only begun when Athene intervenes and stifles any bloodshed. Odysseus then reconciles himself with his enemies and reestablishes himself in the land.
Background: The Homeric Tradition
The authorship of the Iliad and the Odyssey has been disputed heavily for decades. Previous tradition held that Homer the ancient, blind poet who sang of a heroic age that was long past even in his own day, composed these magnificent poems. The epics were then handed down through the generations until they acquired an immortal fame that no other work could ever hope to equal, no less exceed.
Today, these traditions have been blanketed by more than a century of scholarship disputing not only Homer’s claim to complete authority over the poems, but even the poet’s historical existence. To best understand the arguments on both sides (for indeed the consensus has not swayed unanimously into the realm of total doubt), we must first understand the basis for the Homeric tradition itself.
That the details of Homer’s supposed existence vary widely is not surprising, considering the tradition is two and half millennia old. Still, the common theory dictates that Homer lived on the western coast of Asia Minor (in modern-day Turkey) in the city of Smyrna circa the eighth or ninth century B.C. The tradition of the Trojan War, with many of its related stories and episodes, was already several centuries old in Homer’s day; his characters and the action that surrounded them would have been known to his contemporaries. Indeed, both poems assume their audience possesses a knowledge of at least the general storyline of Troy.
The irony of Homer’s place as the founder of Western literature is that, in all probability, the master bard was himself illiterate. He was a singer of tales in the oral tradition, most likely entertaining at feasts and court occasions to earn his keep. This does not mean that Homer composed a work and then memorized it by rote, for such a thing assumes that he wrote something down that could be memorized verbatim. The oral tradition was much more subtle and complex than that, as can be observed from Yugoslavian poets who still practice their art in our own century.
An apprenticed bard was taught to employ many tools to master the oral poetic medium. There were routine formulas that he manipulated to form the core of his narrative, and he shaped around these formulas a body of story material that he also inherited. He was taught to compose his story in meter, to the accompaniment of a musical instrument such as the lyre; he never composed his stories without the aid of music. When called upon to perform, the bard would often be asked to recite a particular story or episode that was popularly known, but he would in turn compose his own version of the tale extempore.
What this means is that the oral poet never told the same story twice. Every performance was an original one, as formulaic expressions were meshed with wholly original poetry within the structure of a particular story. As time wore on, a bard continually reciting a particular story would begin to tighten up his structure as he became aware of ingredients which were more effective than others, but the story could never be identical from one performance to the next.
What Homer composed, then, was a series of short episodes that could each be recited in a single evening. The entire mass of tradition that Homer accumulated became the core for the two epic poems as we now have them. Disciples of Homer carried on his tradition, adopting the formulaic arrangements that their master had originated and retelling the stories with essentially Homeric elements. It is supposed that a school of Homerites lived on the island of Chios, and from there they brought the Homeric tradition to the Greek mainland. Then, sometime before or during the sixth century B.C., Homer’s works reached their final form and were inscribed in writing.
Even within the Homeric tradition itself, we must accept the fact that what we are reading are not the exact words of Homer at all. Indeed, even if Homer himself had been capable of writing down his work, we would have only a single performance of Homer; the many variations of his work which took place over the course of his life would be lost to us. As it stands, Homer’s legacy consists solely of a tradition which underwent several centuries of revision by later poets. Yet, so integral were Homer’s personality and skill to that tradition that his fame as the poems’ founder never waned among his descendants.
The written versions of theIliad and Odyssey were widely disseminated and known in classical Greece and surrounding regions such as Egypt. The organization of each of the poems into twenty-four separate Books is the invention of later editors and certainly not the work of Homer or his descendants in the oral tradition. For the most part, the tradition of epic poetry in the West stems from these written versions of the Homeric poems. Classical epic poems in Greek and Latin were directly modeled on Homer, although the Augustan Virgil altered the genre in order to suit the needs of his time when he composed the Aeneid. Dante knew Homer through Virgil, and both he and (two centuries later) Torquato Tasso Christianized Homeric elements when they composed their respective epics, the Commedia and Gerusalemme Liberata. Milton’s English epic, Paradise Lost, is also heavily laced with Christianized elements from Homer.
But consider now those earlier Greek epics, known familiarly as the Epic Cycle and including such poems as the Thebais, the Nostoi, the Little Iliad, the Destruction of Troy, and the Cypria. There are scattered passages in post-Aristotelian writings that ascribe to Homer the authorship of these works, though it is unlikely that Homer did indeed write them. Many scholars fear that, just as these works have been ascribed erroneously to Homer, so too might one or both of his epics be the work of other poets.
Many scholars, although believing Homer wrote the Iliad, propose that either a disciple of his or another poet familiar with his style wrote the Odyssey. One reason for this assertion is that the overall structure and style of the poems differs significantly, and the possibility of false authorship attributed to other classical poems strengthens the argument. Other scholars counterargue that any number of poets whose extant works are undoubtedly their own have created works of differing structures. Others have cited the symmetry and similarity of scope existing between the two works, which they assert outweighs any so-called differences in style and structure.
The more radical arguments come from those who believe that, due to the very nature of oral-formulaic poetry, the odds of a real person named Homer ever having existed are minimal. They assert that one or more schools of poets created a vast body of oral literature over the course of many years. These traditions were later compiled and organized by unifying hands. Then, after the Iliad, the Odyssey, and the various poems of the Epic Cycle had been written and disseminated, the Greeks attributed all of this work to a fictional poet named Homer, the blind poet of Smyrna.
The truth of the matter, of course, is beyond physical proof. Students of Homer should make themselves aware of these various theories, but it is with the poetry itself and not in the historicity of their supposed creator that we should most concern ourselves.
List of Characters
Achilles—The greatest hero of the Greek forces at Troy; he discusses the fate of his son with Odysseus in the Underworld.
Aegisthus—The lover of Clytemnestra, Agamemnon’s wife; he plans and executes Agamemnon’s assassination.
Aeolus—The keeper of the Bag of Winds; he lends his charge to Odysseus to help him return home.
Agelaus—The suitor who leads his companions in the attack against Odysseus.
Agamemnon—The commander of the Greek forces at Troy; he discusses his death with Odysseus in the Underworld.
Ajax Telamonius—a Greek hero who committed suicide after Odysseus won Achilles’ armor; he shuns Odysseus in the Underworld.
Ajax Oïleus— a Greek hero who committed the dreadful sin of wrenching Cassandra from the sanctuary of Athene’s temple during the sack of Troy.
Alcinoös—The king of the Phaeaceans who entertains Odysseus.
Amphimedon—A suitor who later recounts his death and that of his companions to Agamemnon while in the Underworld.
Amphinomus—A chief suitor who is the least bent on violence, and who is vainly forewarned of danger by Odysseus.
Anticleia—Odysseus’ mother, whom he meets in the Underworld.
Antinoös—A chief suitor who is the most arrogant and brazen of the pack; he and
Eurymachus are the leaders of the suitors.
Antiphates—The king of the giant Laistrygones.
Aphrodite—Goddess of Love; she appears in Demodocus’ story.
Apollo—God of Archery, Prophecy, and Poetry; he appears in Demodocus’ story.
Ares—God of War; he appears in Demodocus’ story.
Arete—The queen of the Phaeaceans and wife of Alcinoös.
Argos—Odysseus’ aged dog.
Athene—Goddess of Wisdom and Battle, Odysseus’ patron goddess and protector.
Autolycus—Odysseus’ grandfather, who gave him his name.
Calypso—A nymph who imprisons Odysseus for seven years and takes him as a lover during that time.
Cassandra—The Prophetess of Apollo who is wrenched from Athene’s temple by Ajax Oïleus and later killed alongside Agamemnon.
Charybdis—A creature that appears as a devouring whirlpool.
Circe—The goddess and sorceress who transforms Odysseus’ shipmates into pigs, and later advises them on the proper course to return home.
Clytemnestra—The wife of Agamemnon who treacherously conspires against his life on his return from Troy.
Demodocus—The blind bard who entertains Odysseus and the Phaeaceans in the hall of Alcinoös.
Dolius—An old servant who remains loyal to Odysseus, but is the father of the wicked Melanthius.
Eidothea—The daughter of Proteus who assists Menelaus during his wanderings.
Elpenor—A companion of Odysseus whom he later meets in the Underworld.
Eumaeus—Odysseus’ swineherd who remains loyal in his absence and cares for him while he is in disguise.
Eupeithes—The father of Antinoös who leads the suitors’ relatives in the attack against Odysseus.
Euryalus—A Phaeacean athlete who insults Odysseus.
Eurycleia—The aged nurse of both Odysseus and Telemachus who remains loyal to them.
Eurylochus—Odysseus’ secondary commander who leads the first expedition to Circe’s cottage and escapes unharmed.
Eurymachus—A clever suitor with a quick tongue who gave the most gifts to win Penelope’s hand.
Eurynome—The faithful maidservant of Penelope.
Halitherses—A prophetic Ithacan who predicts Odysseus’ homecoming both when he leaves for Troy and in the year of his return.
Helen—The wife of Menelaus and daughter of Zeus; her departure with Paris began the Trojan War.
Helius—God of the Sun; his cattle are eaten by Odysseus’ men.
Hephaestus—God of Blacksmiths; he traps the adulterous Aphrodite with her lover Ares during Demodocus’ story.
Hermes—Messenger of the gods who tells Calypso to release Odysseus.
Iros—The beggar who sparred with Odysseus while he was in disguise.
Laertes—Father of Odysseus who retreats to his farm during his son’s absence.
Laodamas—The son of Alcinoös who is among the greatest of the Phaeacean athletes.
Leodes—A prophetic suitor slain by Odysseus despite his appeal for mercy.
Leukothea—Sea goddess who aids Odysseus when he is in peril on his way from Calypso’s island.
Medon—Herald of Odysseus who remains loyal to Penelope and Telemachus in his master’s absence.
Melanthius—The wicked son of Dolius, a goatherd who abuses Odysseus while he is in disguise but sorely regrets it later.
Menelaus—King of Sparta and husband of Helen; he entertains Telemachus during his journey.
Mentor—The aged protector of Odysseus’ property in his absence; his identity is often assumed by Athene.
Nausikaa—Princess of Scheria and daughter of Alcinoös; she meets Odysseus soon after his arrival on the island of Scheria.
Neoptolemus—The son of Achilles whose exploits are recounted to his deceased father by Odysseus in the Underworld.
Nestor—An aged counselor from the Trojan War; he entertains Telemachus during his journey.
Odysseus—The epic hero of the poem; his wanderings and homecoming are the subject of the narrative.
Orestes—The son of Agamemnon who avenges his father’s death by slaying both his mother and Aegisthus.
Peisistratus—The son of Nestor who guides Telemachus to Menelaus’ palace in Sparta.
Penelope—Odysseus’ wife and mother of Telemachus; she steadfastly awaits her husband’s return.
Peraeus—A loyal friend of Telemachus.
Phemius—A bard who entertained the suitors unwillingly.
Philoitius—The loyal oxherd of Odysseus who joins him in his slaughter of the suitors.
Polyphemus—A wicked Cyclops and son of Poseidon who devours six of Odysseus’ men, but is later blinded by his captives.
Poseidon—God of the Sea who harries Odysseus throughout his wanderings because of Odysseus’ actions toward Polyphemus.
Proteus—The Old Man of the Sea who is imprisoned and interrogated by Menelaus during his wanderings.
Scylla—A monster who dwells opposite Charybdis that uses her six elongated necks to reach down and snatch six of Odysseus’ men from his ship.
Teiresias—A prophet residing in the Underworld who advises Odysseus on his future course of action.
Telemachus—Odysseus’ only son, who seeks out his missing father and later joins him in purging their household of the suitors.
Theoclymenus—A fugitive prophet who meets Telemachus on the shores of Pylus and accompanies him back to Ithaca.
Zeus—King of the gods, who appeases his daughter Athene when she wishes to rescue Odysseus from Poseidon’s wrath.
Meter and Style in the Odyssey
The Greek text of the Odyssey as we have it is written predominantly in Dactyllic Hexameter: each line consists of six metrical feet, each of which consists of a stressed syllable followed by two unstressed syllables. By no means are dactyls used exclusively. In fact, the last foot of every line usually ends in either a spondee (two stressed syllables) or a troche (one stressed syllable followed by one unstressed syllable). Spondees frequently replace dactyls in other parts of certain lines as well.
Homer’s style is famous for its flow and pacing. It is easy to follow and meant to be read briskly, unlike much modern poetry which is designed to be read carefully one line at a time. There are a wealth of details in descriptions, unlike other contemporary writings such as the Bible, which are reticent on all details but the most essential. Characterization is strong in Homer’s writing; each character, large or small, is a distinctive individual with independent motivations. On the other hand, character development over the course of the narrative is minimal; characters are what they are and changes in personality are usually insignificant. Finally, one should not be surprised by the frequent use of formulaic repetition and contextually unseemly epithets, for Homer’s narratives are the product of oral development, and these ingredients were essential to the spontaneous composition of oral poetry.
Estimated Reading Time
There are several excellent translations of the Odyssey in both poetry and prose; two of the most noted modern translations are those by Richmond Lattimore and Robert Fitzgerald. Each Book or chapter of the Odyssey can probably be read in an hour or two, so that a range of 25 to 50 hours span the average reading time of the poem as a whole.
Summary (Magill's Survey of World Literature, Revised Edition)
Read at its most basic level, the Odyssey recounts Odysseus’s struggles to return to his native island of Ithaca after ten years of fighting at Troy. It appears to be a highly particularized account of one warrior’s struggles and sufferings. No doubt exists that Odysseus remains the focus; though names of his crew appear at intervals, they collectively constitute a vehicle that gets their master part of the way home, and all of them die long before their master reaches home. Even the mythic Phaeacians, who literally place the sleeping hero on his remote western island, remain peculiarly nameless, except for the family that rules them, but Alcinous, Areté, and Nausicaä merely approve this final phase of the journey....
(The entire section is 2193 words.)
Summary and Analysis
Book 1 Summary and Analysis
Poseidon: god of the sea, enemy of Odysseus
Zeus: king of the gods
Athene: goddess of wisdom, Odysseus’ patron
Telemachus: Odysseus’ son
Phemius: bard forced to sing for the suitors
Penelope: Odysseus’ wife, mother of Telemachus
Antinoös: leader and most brazen of the suitors
Eurymachus: crafty co-leader of the suitors
Eurycleia: aged maid who nursed both Odysseus and Telemachus
The narrator calls upon the Muse to help him narrate the story of Odysseus’ wanderings and homecoming. We learn that he is imprisoned on...
(The entire section is 852 words.)
Book 2 Summary and Analysis
Mentor: aged protector of Odysseus’ property
Halitherses: prophetic Ithacan who predicts Odysseus’ homecoming
Telemachus arises in the morning and calls the people of Ithaca together for an assembly. This is the first time since Odysseus’ departure for Troy that such a gathering has taken place. With a divine air of grace bestowed on him by Athene, Telemachus addresses the people, who are impressed by his speech. He demands that they take some action against the suitors and their outrages against his household and possessions.
Antinoös retorts that the cause of Telemachus’ troubles lies not in the suitors but in...
(The entire section is 822 words.)
Book 3 Summary and Analysis
Nestor: the aged counselor of the Greeks during the Trojan War
Peisistratus: the youngest son of Nestor
Telemachus’ ship arrives safely on the Greek mainland at the city of Pylus. This is the domain of Nestor, the aged counselor of the Greek forces at Troy; he is renowned for his wisdom and strategy. The Pylians are in the midst of celebrating a feast dedicated to Poseidon, the Earthshaker. Seeing Telemachus and Athene (still disguised as Mentor) approaching from the shore, Nestor’s sons greet them heartily and invite them to the feast. Foremost among the sons in greeting the new arrivals is Peisistratus, Nestor’s youngest son who is...
(The entire section is 813 words.)
Book 4 Summary and Analysis
Menelaus: the king of Sparta
Helen: his wife, instigator of the Trojan War
Eidothea: daughter of Proteus
Proteus: sea god interrogated by Menelaus during his travels
Ajax Oïleus: blasphemous Greek who pulled Cassandra from Athene’s temple
Medon: a herald who remains loyal to Penelope and Telemachus
Telemachus and Peisistratus arrive in Sparta and enter Menelaus’ palace. They are warmly received during a wedding celebration in honor of Menelaus’ two children. Megapenthes, the king’s son through a bondswoman, is about to marry a Spartan woman, and Hermione, the only child of Helen, is...
(The entire section is 1260 words.)
Book 5 Summary and Analysis
Hermes: the messenger of Zeus
Calypso: nymph who holds Odysseus captive for seven years
Odysseus: the epic hero of the narrative
Leukothea: sea goddess who aids Odysseus in his plight
At a council of the gods, Athene renews her suit to Zeus to free Odysseus from Calypso’s isle. Zeus complies, and sends Hermes on his way to break the news to Calypso. Hermes descends to earth from Mount Olympus, and alights on Calypso’s isle. There, he tells the beautiful goddess that Zeus wills her to release Odysseus. Though distraught and angry over Zeus’s decree, Calypso obeys. After Hermes has...
(The entire section is 1165 words.)
Book 6 Summary and Analysis
Nausikaa: princess of the Phaeaceans who greets Odysseus on Scheria
Alcinoös: king of the Phaeaceans
Arete: queen of the Phaeaceans
While Odysseus sleeps peacefully out in the wilderness of Scheria, Athene appears to Nausikaa, princess of the Phaeaceans and daughter of King Alcinoös, in a dream vision. Disguised as one of Nausikaa’s young friends, Athene suggests that Nausikaa be a dutiful daughter and potential wife, and go to wash the palace laundry. Upon awakening, Nausikaa requests a mule-drawn cart from her father, who allows her to bring the wash down to the river with some of her...
(The entire section is 645 words.)
Book 7 Summary and Analysis
Nausikaa returns to the palace, where a maid prepares her a meal. Odysseus himself eventually heads toward the city and is greeted by Athene, who is disguised as a young girl. Athene offers to guide Odysseus to the palace of Alcinoös. In order to avoid rude inquiry, she forms a magical mist around Odysseus which renders him invisible to his surroundings. Leading him to the palace, Athene tells Odysseus that he will be accepted by the Phaeaceans if he is able to win the favor of the queen, Arete, whose people love her well. Athene then departs from Scheria, and journeys to Athens.
Odysseus admires Alcinoös’ splendid palace, which is worked in finely...
(The entire section is 782 words.)
Book 8 Summary and Analysis
Demodocus: the blind bard who entertains Odysseus and the Phaeaceans
Laodamas: the son of Alcinoös and one of the greatest athletes of Scheria
Euryalus: a Phaeacean athlete who insults Odysseus
The next morning, Alcinoös orders a grand feast to be held in Odysseus’ honor. Disguised as Alcinoös’ herald, Pontonoös, Athene summons the mighty men of Scheria, including the twelve kings who reside on the island, to come to the feast. Alcinoös orders that a ship and companions be readied to speed Odysseus on his way. After his orders have been fulfilled, the Phaeacean king continues to entertain...
(The entire section is 1015 words.)
Book 9 Summary and Analysis
Polyphemus: a Cyclops who devours Odysseus’ men
Odysseus reveals his identity to the Phaeaceans, and then begins recounting his tales from the time of his departure from Troy. Sailing to the northwest along the coast of the Aegean Sea Odysseus and his fleet of twelve ships raided the Ciconian people, taking much booty and plunder. However, despite Odysseus’ entreaties for his men to take to sea, his men did not obey him. The coastal Ciconians summoned their inland brothers, who came and waged a fierce battle against Odysseus’ men, a struggle which eventually turned against the raiding Greeks. Odysseus lost over...
(The entire section is 1441 words.)
Book 10 Summary and Analysis
Aeolus: the keeper of the magical bag of winds
Antiphates: king of the giant Laistrygones
Eurylochus: the leader of the expedition to Circe’s dwelling
Circe: the sorcerous goddess of the isle Aeaea
Elpenor: a young crewman of Odysseus who dies after a drunken fall
Aeolus, a king charged with caring for the world’s winds, entertained Odysseus and his men for a month on his island. He lent Odysseus the magical bag that keeps the winds so that his fleet might move under the steady West Wind until it reached Ithaca. However, as the fleet was within sight of its home...
(The entire section is 1034 words.)
Book 11 Summary and Analysis
Teiresias: prophet of Thebes who retained his prescience after death
Anticleia: Odysseus’ mother
Agamemnon: commander of the Greek forces at Troy
Achilles: greatest hero of the Trojan War
Ajax Telamonius: burly hero of the Trojan War
Odysseus departed from Aeaea and sailed to the ends of the earth in search of Hades’ realm. Passing through the realm of the Cimmerians, which the sun never illuminates Odysseus and his men arrived on the outskirts of Hades’ kingdom. They disembarked and prepared a drink offering for the dead spirits in a shallow pit. Following Circe’s...
(The entire section is 1302 words.)
Book 12 Summary and Analysis
Scylla: a horrendous monster with six heads extended on elongated necks
Charybdis: a terrible creature that takes the form of a devouring whirlpool
Helius: god of the sun
Odysseus’ men, having left the Underworld, arrived once more on Circe’s isle, Aeaea. There they immediately set about retrieving and burning Elpenor’s body, as his spirit had requested. Circe met Odysseus and crew down by their ship, and pulled Odysseus aside to advise him on his upcoming journey home.
She warned him of the Sirens, whose singing lured men to their island, where they would listen to the women’s...
(The entire section is 1218 words.)
Book 13 Summary and Analysis
Odysseus ends his tale, and the Phaeaceans, highly impressed, return to their homes for the evening. The next morning, at Alcinoös’ behest, the Phaeacean lords return to the palace to render Odysseus even costlier gifts than they had before. These are loaded aboard the ship reserved for Odysseus’ journey home. Alcinoös then begins another feast in Odysseus’ honor.
Odysseus, impatient to be on his way home, waits anxiously for evening to arrive. As Alcinoös yet again toasts Odysseus on his journey, the adventurer does not even stop to drink; he hands Arete his cup, says a quick farewell, and strides out of the hall and down to the ship. The Phaeaceans...
(The entire section is 1142 words.)
Book 14 Summary and Analysis
Eumaeus: Odysseus’ loyal swineherd
Odysseus sets out for the shelter of Eumaeus the swineherd as per Athene’s instructions. The faithful and loyal swineherd has kept Odysseus’ pigs in order and has tended them skillfully. As Odysseus approaches the crude dwelling, he is accosted by Eumaeus’ dogs; the swineherd himself, however, quickly comes to his rescue and brings him to his dwelling.
Eumaeus cares for Odysseus’ needs, feeding him immediately upon bringing him into his house. As he speaks to the disguised Odysseus, Eumaeus constantly makes references to his beloved master, whom he asserts is lost...
(The entire section is 1098 words.)
Book 15 Summary and Analysis
Theoclymenus: a fugitive prophet from Argos
Peraeus: a loyal friend of Telemachus
Athene travels to Sparta and visits Telemachus in a dream. She tells him to take his leave of Menelaus quickly and return home so that he need not fear for the welfare of his goods. She informs him that Eurymachus has given the most presents to Icarius, Penelope’s father; Telemachus had best return home in case Penelope decides to give some of her son’s wealth to her prospective husband.
Telemachus awakens, and in the morning he and Peisistratus take their leave of Menelaus and Helen. However, the Spartan king first bestows a golden goblet and...
(The entire section is 1159 words.)
Book 16 Summary and Analysis
Amphinomus: the least violent of the suitors
Telemachus enters the dwelling of Eumaeus as the swineherd and Odysseus take their morning meal. Eumaeus, overjoyed to see Telemachus safely returned to Ithaca, embraces his master and weeps tears of joy. Telemachus questions Eumaeus about his guest, and the swineherd explains Odysseus’ fictional situation. Telemachus agrees to send the guest where he desires to go, but admits that present circumstances prohibit him from entertaining his guest at his own hall.
Telemachus sends Eumaeus off to secretly tell Penelope of her son’s return and relieve her of her fears....
(The entire section is 981 words.)
Book 17 Summary and Analysis
Melanthius: a scornful goatherd
Argos: Odysseus’ faithful old dog
Eurynome: Penelope’s maidservant
In the morning, Telemachus leaves Eumaeus’ dwelling and returns to the palace, where he is greeted warmly by his mother and the many servants who feared for his life. Telemachus commands his mother to vow sacrifices to the gods should their hardships be avenged. Penelope obeys, while Telemachus himself goes to the place of assembly. There Telemachus meets Peraeus with Theoclymenus the prophet. Telemachus tells Peraeus to hold onto his Spartan treasures until the conflict with the suitors is resolved. Telemachus then returns...
(The entire section is 850 words.)
Book 18 Summary and Analysis
Iros: a quarrelsome beggar
Melantho: an unkind maidservant
After Eumaeus has left, an angry beggar nicknamed Iros approaches the palace and threatens Odysseus with bodily harm should he fail to leave the place immediately. Odysseus resists the overbearing vagabond, and the suitors entertain themselves with the conflict. They set up a contest between the two of them, and Odysseus quickly knocks his fellow out and drags him away through the courtyard, much to the delight of the suitors.
The scandalous affair is not lost on Penelope, who is angry that the stranger should be so mistreated in her house....
(The entire section is 762 words.)
Book 19 Summary and Analysis
After the suitors have departed Odysseus and Telemachus remove the weapons and armor from the great hall and stow them in the upper chamber of the palace. Telemachus retires to his room, but Odysseus remains in the great hall until Penelope arrives and sits with him before a roaring fire. She questions him as to his name and country. When he initially attempts to avoid the issue, she leads the conversation by relating her own situation among the suitors and her attempt to stall them for as long as possible. When she again requests his identity, he tells her his name is Aethon from Crete. Altering the story he told Eumaeus significantly, he claims to be the younger...
(The entire section is 1016 words.)
Book 20 Summary and Analysis
Philoitius: a loyal oxherd
Agelaus: a chief suitor
Odysseus beds down on the floor but is soon bothered by the noise of the disloyal maidservants fleeing the palace to make love to the suitors. Odysseus feels the urge to destroy them on the instant but eventually gains control of himself and lets them go for the moment. He then suffers a night of anxiety and restlessness. He fears that he will be unable to defeat the suitors due to their overwhelming numbers. Athene descends from Olympus, however, and reassures him that with her aid, he is able to accomplish virtually anything. She then drifts him off into a...
(The entire section is 811 words.)
Book 21 Summary and Analysis
Leodes: a suitor who serves as a diviner to his companions
Penelope ascends to the upper chamber of the palace where Odysseus’ famous bow is kept. Odysseus had received the mighty weapon years ago from Iphitus, a friend whom he met shortly before Iphitus’ death at the hands of Heracles. Odysseus had kept the bow in Ithaca when he left for Troy. Now Penelope retrieves the bow, its arrows, and her husband’s strong axes. She brings them down into the main hall and offers her challenge to the suitors: whoever strings the bow and shoots an arrow through twelve axe handles may claim Penelope as his bride. Antinoös, though...
(The entire section is 1364 words.)
Book 22 Summary and Analysis
Amphimedon: a suitor who later describes his death to Agamemnon (in Book XXIV)
Odysseus bounds from his chair and scatters his arrows on the floor beneath himself. He then lets another arrow fly straight into the throat of Antinoös. The suitors, amazed, believe Odysseus shot the man by accident and threaten to kill him for his carelessness. It is at this moment that Odysseus reveals his identity to them at last, and the men are deeply afraid of his wrath. Eurymachus tells Odysseus that the men will make restitution for their evil deeds, but the vengeful man will not be satisfied. Eurymachus then tries to lead the men in a...
(The entire section is 1158 words.)
Book 23 Summary and Analysis
Eurycleia, acting upon Odysseus’ orders, ascends merrily up to Penelope’s chamber and wakens her with the news of her husband’s return and the suitors’ destruction. But, believing her servant to have lost her wits, Penelope scolds the aged nurse for playing such a cruel jest on her. Eurycleia swears that what she has said is true, and she stakes her life on that truth. Penelope, however, is unconvinced, and thinks a god has entered her palace to punish the suitors.
Penelope enters the great hall and sits opposite Odysseus staring at him inquisitively but saying nothing to him. Telemachus rebukes his mother for her obstinacy, but Odysseus silences his...
(The entire section is 875 words.)
Book 24 Summary and Analysis
Laertes: Odysseus’ father
Dolius: an aged servant of Laertes
Eupeithes: the vengeful father of Antinoös
Hermes leads the souls of the dead suitors down to Hades’ realm. There, Agamemnon and Achilles have been discussing their deaths. Agamemnon envies Achilles, whose body was fought over by his companions, and whose funeral rites were grand and accompanied by great games as befits a dead hero. Agamemnon, on the contrary, died ignobly at the hands of his wife, Clytemnestra, and her lover, Aegisthus. As the suitors approach the gates of the Underworld, the surprised Greek heroes approach them. Agamemnon singles out Amphimedon,...
(The entire section is 1345 words.)