Study Guide

The Odyssey

by Homer

The Odyssey Characters

Character Analysis

Athena
It could be said that Athena is Odysseus’ “Guardian goddess”; after all, she is the Greek goddess of not only Battle, but Wisdom. Her wrath is what causes the Acheans’ difficulty in getting home, but she seems to have a special place in her heart for Odysseus. Her primary role in the epic seems to be for Odysseus; even the interactions she has with other characters are for the hero’s benefit.

In Book 5, Athena stills the waters Poseidon threw against Odysseus’ ship in an attempt to destroy it, avenging the Cyclops. Thanks to the goddess Odysseus and his crew are allowed to make it to shore. Later, in Book 22, Athena comes to the hero’s aid more as a “coach” or mentor than a participant. She doesn’t fight the suitors herself but encourages Odysseus. This shows her faith in his strength and skill in battle. Athena seems to admire this “mere mortal” a great deal.

In her dealings with Telemachus, Athena is equally supportive. She encourages him to cause as much trouble as he can with the suitors, assuring him that his father is indeed alive. She sends him to Pylos and Sparta to earn a name for himself, obviously believing he has the potential to equal his father, if not outshine him. More than anything, she encourages the boy not to give up and to use the wisdom and battle skills he is developing for the good of his homeland.

In addition to being the goddess of Wisdom and Battle, Athena is goddess of the “Womanly Arts.” Penelope’s work at the loom reflects the dreams Athena brings her, again encouraging her to believe that Odysseus will return. She is constantly watching over the other main characters in this way, more a gentle presence than a demanding power. In this, she is an uncharacteristic goddess for a Greek epic.

Odysseus
Odysseus is the central figure in the Odyssey (it is, of course, named after him). He is a prime example of a Homeric Hero – he exhibits strength, skill, determination, courage, and moral responsibility in his actions throughout the epic, and he is fairly consistent with these traits. His most valuable skill is his intellect, which gets him out of situations that would confound a strongman like Hercules. Odysseus’s strength lies in his intelligence, which enables him to escape from the Cyclops in Book 9 and fool his wife’s suitors near the end of the epic.

As the story begins, Odysseus is comfortable on the island of Calypso, his every wish catered to as long as he doesn’t leave. For many men, this would have been enough after the hardships of the Trojan War and an attempted trip home. For Odysseus, loyalty and a love of his home and family win out over sheer pleasure. After escaping from Calypso’s island,...

(The entire section is 1154 words.)

The Odyssey Characters Discussed (Great Characters in Literature)

Odysseus

Odysseus (oh-DIH-see-uhs), a far-roving veteran of the Trojan War who, having incurred the anger of Poseidon by blinding the sea god’s son Polyphemus, a gigantic Cyclops, is fated to roam for ten years before he can return to his homeland of Ithaca. Leaving Troy, he and his followers sail first to Ismarus. In the sack of the Ciconian city, Odysseus spares the life of Maro, a priest of Apollo, who in turn gives the conqueror some jars of potent wine. Gales then drive the Greeks to the country of the Lotus-eaters, from which they sail to the land of the fierce Cyclopes. There Ulysses and twelve of his band are captured by Polyphemus. After Odysseus frees himself and his companions by a clever ruse, leaving the Cyclops maimed and blinded, the band journeys to the Isle of Aeolus. In the land of the Laestrygones, man-eating giants destroy all but one of his ships and devour their crews. At Aeaea, Odysseus outwits the enchantress Circe and frees his men after she has turned them into swine. In the dark region of the Cimmerians, he consults the shade of Tiresias, the Theban prophet, to learn what awaits him in Ithaca. Following the advice of Circe, Odysseus escapes the spell of the Sirens, passes safely between Scylla and Charybdis, and arrives at Thrinacia. There, his remaining comrades are drowned for their impiety in eating cattle sacred to Hyperion. Cast adrift, Odysseus floats to the island of Ogygia, where for seven years he lives with the lovely nymph Calypso. Finally, the gods take pity on him and order Calypso to release him. On a makeshift raft, he continues his voyage. After his raft is wrecked by Poseidon, he battles the waves until he arrives, exhausted, on the island of Drepane. Nausicaä, daughter of the king of the Phaeacians, finds him and leads him to the royal palace. Warmly received by King Alcinous, Odysseus takes part in celebration games and tells the story of his adventures. Alcinous gives Odysseus rich gifts and returns the wanderer by ship to Ithaca. There, in disguise, he meets his son Telemachus, now grown to manhood, routs and kills the suitors who throng his palace, and is reunited with his loyal wife Penelope. Odysseus is the ideal Greek hero, eloquent at the council board, courageous in battle, resourceful in danger, and crafty in wisdom. He is the darling of the goddess Athena, who aids him whenever it is in her power to do so.

Penelope

Penelope (peh-NEH-loh-pee), his devoted wife, a model of domestic fidelity, skilled in handicrafts. Still attractive in spite of twenty years of anxiety and grief during the absence of Odysseus, she is by custom forced to entertain importunate, insolent suitors whom she puts off from year to year through various stratagems. Until betrayed by her false servants, she weaved by day a burial robe for Laertes, her father-in-law, and at night unraveled her work. The return of Odysseus is for her an occasion of great joy, but first she tests his knowledge of the construction of their wedding bed to avoid being duped by a plausible stranger. Although she is noteworthy for her forbearance and fidelity, there are occasions when she complains bitterly and laments her sad fate.

Telemachus

Telemachus (teh-LEH-muh-kuhs), the son of Odysseus and Penelope, grown to handsome young manhood during his father’s absence. Also favored by Athena, he accuses the suitors of being parasites, journeys to other lands in search of news of his father, and returns to fight bravely by the side of Odysseus when the 112 suitors of Penelope are routed and put to death. His comeliness, manly bearing, and good manners show him to be his father’s son when he meets wise King Nestor and King Menelaus.

Athena

Athena (uh-THEE-nuh), also called Pallas Athena, the goddess of wisdom and the patron of arts and crafts. Moved by pity and admiration, she becomes the benefactor of Odysseus and pleads with Zeus, her father, to release the hero from the seven-year embrace of the nymph Calypso. Assuming various disguises and aiding him in many ways, she watches over the homeward journey and eventual triumph of Odysseus. Her divine intervention ensures peace between him and the angry families of the slain suitors.

Poseidon

Poseidon (poh-SI-duhn), the earth-shaking god of the sea. The blinding of his giant son, the Cyclops Polyphemus, arouses his anger against Odysseus, and he prevents as long as possible the return of the hero to Ithaca.

Laertes

Laertes (lay-UR-teez), the aged father of Odysseus. Withdrawn from the royal palace, he tends his vineyards and herds during his son’s absence. Still vigorous, he helps Odysseus and Telemachus repulse a band of angry citizens in their attempt to avenge the death of the suitors.

Eumaeus

Eumaeus (ew-MEE-uhs), the devoted swineherd in whose hut disguised Odysseus takes refuge upon his return to Ithaca. Despising the suitors, he fights bravely against them alongside Odysseus, Telemachus, and Philoetius, the neatherd. Though of lowly occupation, he is of noble birth, and he is both slave and devoted friend to Odysseus.

Philoetius

Philoetius (fih-LEE-tee-uhs), the neatherd and a trusted servant in the household of Odysseus. He is forced to provide cattle for the feasts of the suitors, but he resents their presence in his master’s hall, and he yearns for the return of the absent hero. In the great battle in which the suitors are killed, he fights bravely by the side of Odysseus, Telemachus, and Eumaeus.

Eurycleia

Eurycleia (ew-rih-KLEE-uh), the aged nurse of both Odysseus and Telemachus. She recognizes her master by a scar on his thigh and reveals to him his faithless servants who have consorted with the suitors during his absence. Taken as a bondservant by Odysseus’ father, she is loyal to the royal household and vindictive in her revenge.

Polyphemus

Polyphemus (po-lih-FEE-muhs), one of the Cyclopes, giants with one eye in the center of the forehead, and the son of Poseidon. When Odysseus and twelve of his companions seek hospitality in his cave, the monster makes prisoners of the band and eats six of them. Wily Odysseus saves himself and his remaining companions by giving Polyphemus some of Maro’s strong wine to drink and then, while the Cyclops is asleep, putting out his eye with a heated, pointed shaft. The Greeks escape from the cave by hiding beneath the bodies of Polyphemus’ sheep when the giant turns his flock out to pasture.

Circe

Circe (SUR-see), an enchantress, the daughter of Helius and Perse. Arriving at Aeaea, Odysseus sends Eurylochus, his lieutenant, and twenty-two men ashore to explore the island. When they arrive at Circe’s palace, she invites them to feast with her. Eurylochus, almost as crafty as his master, remains outside, and through a window he sees the sorceress serve the men drugged food and then transform them into swine. Odysseus, on his way to rescue his companions, encounters the god Hermes, who gives him a flower called moly as a charm against the powers of the enchantress. Her power destroyed by the magic herb, Circe frees her captives from her magic spell and entertains Odysseus and his companions for a year. At the end of that time, Odysseus wishes to leave Circe’s bed and continue his journey. Though reluctant, she consents to his going, but first she advises him to consult the shade of Tiresias to learn what the future holds for the wanderers.

Eurylochus

Eurylochus (ew-RIH-luh-kuhs), the lieutenant of Odysseus. He reports to Odysseus that the enchantress Circe has turned half of his band into swine. It is at his suggestion that the Greeks kill some of Hyperion’s sacred cattle and eat them while Odysseus is sleeping. To punish their act of impiety, Zeus causes the Greek ship to founder, and all but Odysseus are drowned.

Tiresias

Tiresias (ti-REE-see-uhs), the prophet of Thebes. In the land of the Cimmerians, acting on the advice of Circe, Odysseus summons the aged seer’s shade from the dead. Tiresias tells him not to harm the sacred cattle of Hyperion; otherwise, Odysseus will encounter many difficulties and delays on his homeward journey, he will find trouble in the royal house when he arrives there, he will be forced to make a journey into a land so far from the sea that its people will mistake an oar for a winnowing fan, he will be forced to make a rich sacrifice to Poseidon in that distant land, and in his old age he will meet death coming to him out of the sea.

Calypso

Calypso (kuh-LIHP-soh), the divine nymph who lives on the island of Ogygia, where Odysseus is washed ashore after his ship has foundered and his companions have drowned. For seven years, he lives as her bondman and husband, until Zeus sends Hermes to her with the message that Odysseus is to be released to return to his own land. Although she wishes him to stay with her and offers him immortality and youth in return, she yields to Odysseus’ own wishes and the divine command of Zeus. She teaches Odysseus how to build a raft and allows him to set sail before a favorable breeze.

Nausicaä

Nausicaä (no-SIH-kee-uh), the maiden daughter of King Alcinous and Queen Arete. Finding Odysseus on the seashore, where he sleeps exhausted from fighting buffeting waves after Poseidon destroyed his raft, she befriends the hero and conducts him to her father’s palace. There, Odysseus tells the story of his adventures and hardships to an admiring and pitying audience. Moved by the wanderer’s plight, King Alcinous gives him rich gifts and returns him to Ithaca in a Phaeacian ship.

Alcinous

Alcinous (al-SIH-noh-uhs), the king of the Phaeacians. He entertains Odysseus after the hero has been washed ashore on the island of Drepane, and he returns his guest to Ithaca in one of the royal ships.

Arete

Arete (ay-REH-tee), the wife of Alcinous. She is famous for her kindness, generosity, and wisdom.

Nestor

Nestor (NEHS-tur), the wise king of Pylos. Telemachus, seeking to rid the royal palace of his mother’s insolent suitors, journeys to Nestor’s country in search of his father Odysseus.

Peisistratus

Peisistratus (pi-SIHS-truh-tuhs), the noble youngest son of King Nestor. A skilled charioteer, he accompanies Telemachus when the son of Odysseus travels to Sparta in an effort to get word of his father from King Menelaus and Helen, his queen.

Menelaus

Menelaus (meh-neh-LAY-uhs), the king of Sparta. Menelaus receives Telemachus hospitably and entertains him lavishly, but he has no information that will help the young man in his search for his father.

Helen

Helen, the wife of Menelaus and the cause of the war with Troy. Older but still beautiful, she presides over her husband’s palace with queenly dignity. When Telemachus takes leave of the royal pair, she gives him a rich robe for his bride to wear on his wedding day.

Antinous

Antinous (an-TIH-noh-uhs), the leader of the suitors for the hand of Penelope. Insolent and obstreperous, he leads more gullible young men to their corruption and destruction. He mocks Telemachus, berates Penelope, and tauntingly insults Odysseus disguised as a beggar. Because of his arrogance, he is the first of the suitors to die.

Eurymachus

Eurymachus (ew-RIH-muh-kuhs), the most treacherous of the suitors. Seemingly fair in speech but cunning in his design to destroy Telemachus and marry Penelope, he deserves his death at the hands of Odysseus.

Noëmon

Noëmon (noh-EE-muhn), one of the most generous and least offensive of the suitors. He lends Telemachus his own ship in which to sail to Pylos.

Theoclymenus

Theoclymenus (thee-uh-KLIH-meh-nuhs), a young warrior who has fled from Argos after killing a kinsman. As Telemachus is about to set sail from Pylos, the fugitive asks to be taken aboard the vessel so that he can escape the wrath of the dead man’s brothers. Telemachus takes the stranger back to Ithaca and gives him shelter. At a feast in the palace, Theoclymenus foretells the destruction of the suitors.

Peiraeus

Peiraeus (pi-REE-uhs), the loyal and gallant friend of Telemachus. He goes with the son of Odysseus to Pylos.

Mentor

Mentor (MEHN-tur), one of the elders of Ithaca, wise in counsel. Athena assumes his form on several occasions.

Melanthius

Melanthius (meh-LAN-thee-uhs), the treacherous goatherd who taunts disguised Odysseus and later tries to aid the suitors. On orders from Odysseus, he is hanged by Eumaeus and Philoetius and later is dismembered.

Melantho

Melantho (meh-LAN-thoh), Penelope’s faithless maid, the mistress of Eurymachus.

Medon

Medon (MEE-don), the herald. Because of his kindness to young Telemachus, his life is spared when the other suitors are killed.

Phemius

Phemius (FEE-mee-uhs), the unwilling bard of the suitors. Telemachus asks that his life be spared, and Odysseus grants him mercy.

Eurynome

Eurynome (ew-RIH-noh-mee), the housekeeper of the royal palace in Ithaca.

Maro

Maro (MA-roh), the priest of Apollo whose life is spared when the Greeks raid the Ciconian city of Ismarus. In gratitude, he gives Odysseus the wine with which the hero makes the Cyclops drunk.

Elpenor

Elpenor (ehl-PEE-nohr), one of Odysseus’ companions whom Circe transformed into swine and then restored to human form. He climbs on the roof of her palace and, dazed by wine, falls to his death. Appearing among the shades in the land of the Cimmerians, he begs Odysseus to give him proper burial.

Haliserthes

Haliserthes (hal-ih-SEHR-theez), an elder of Ithaca able to interpret the flight of birds. Seeing two eagles fighting in midair, he predicts that Odysseus will return and rend the unruly suitors like a bird of prey.

Irus

Irus (I-ruhs), the nickname of Arnaeus, a greedy vagabond whom disguised Odysseus strikes down with a single blow when the two men fight, urged on by the amused suitors, to decide who will be allowed to beg in the palace.

Hermes

Hermes (HUR-meez), the messenger of the gods. He gives Odysseus the herb moly to protect him against Circe’s spell and takes to the nymph Calypso Zeus’ command that the hero be allowed to return to his own country.

Zeus

Zeus (zews), the ruler of the Olympian deities and the father of Athena.

The Odyssey Characters

Achilles
Son of the mortal man Peleus and the sea goddess Thetis, Achilles is the best warrior at the siege of Troy....

(The entire section is 5217 words.)

Ed. Scott Locklear, Michael Foster