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.
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.