The Odyssey by Homer Analysis

The Poem (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Of the Greek heroes who survive the Trojan War only Odysseus does not return home, because he is detained by the god of the sea, Poseidon, for an offense that he committed against that god. At a conclave of the gods on Olympus, Zeus decrees that Odysseus should at last be allowed to return to his home and family in Ithaca. The goddess Athena is sent to Ithaca where, in disguise, she tells Telemachus, Odysseus’s son, that his father is alive. She advises the youth to rid his home of the great number of suitors suing for the hand of his mother, Penelope, and to go in search of his father. The suitors refuse to leave the house of Odysseus, but they give ready approval to the suggestion that Telemachus begin a quest for his father, since the venture will take him far from the shores of Ithaca.

The youth and his crew sail to Pylos, where the prince questions King Nestor concerning the whereabouts of Odysseus. Nestor, a wartime comrade of Odysseus, advises Telemachus to go to Lacedaemon, where King Menelaus can possibly give him the information he seeks. At the palace of Menelaus and Helen, for whom the Trojan War was waged, Telemachus learns that Odysseus is a prisoner of the nymph Calypso on her island of Ogygia in the Mediterranean Sea.

Zeus in the meantime sends Hermes, the messenger of the gods, to Ogygia, with orders that Calypso is to release Odysseus. When the nymph reluctantly complies, the hero constructs a boat in four days and sails away from his island prison. Poseidon, ever the enemy of Odysseus, sends great winds to destroy his boat and to wash him ashore on the coast of the Phaeacians. There he is found by Nausicaa, daughter of King Alcinoüs of the Phaeacians, when she goes down to the river mouth with her handmaidens to wash linen. When the naked Odysseus awakens and sees Nausicaa and her maidens, he asks them where he is. Frightened at first by the stranger hiding behind the shrubbery, Nausicaa soon perceives that he is no vulgar person. She tells him where he is, supplies him with clothing, and gives him food and drink. Then she conducts him to the palace of King Alcinoüs and Queen Arete. The royal pair welcome him and promise to provide him with passage to his native land. At a great feast the minstrel Demodocus sings of the Trojan War and of the hardships suffered by the returning Greeks; Alcinoüs sees that the stranger weeps during the singing. At the games that follow the banquet and songs, Odysseus is goaded by a young Phaeacian athlete into revealing his great strength. Later, at Alcinoüs’s insistence, Odysseus tells the following story of his wanderings since the war’s end.

When Odysseus left Ilium he was blown to Ismarus, the Cicones’ city, which he and his men sacked. Then they were blown by an ill wind to the land of the Lotus-eaters, where Odysseus had difficulty in getting his men to leave a slothful life of ease. Arriving in the land of the Cyclops, the one-eyed monsters who herded giant sheep, Odysseus and twelve of his men were caught by a Cyclops, Polyphemus, who ate the men one by one, saving Odysseus until last. That wily hero tricked the giant into a drunken stupor, however, and then blinded him with a sharpened pole and fled back to his ship. On an impulse, Odysseus disclosed his name to the blinded Polyphemus as he sailed away. Polyphemus called upon his father, Poseidon, to avenge him by hindering Odysseus’s return to his homeland.

Odysseus’s next landfall was Aeolia, where lived Aeolus, the god of the winds. Aeolus gave Odysseus a sealed bag containing all the contrary winds, so that they could not block his homeward voyage. However, the crew, thinking that the bag contained treasure, opened it, releasing all the winds, and the ship was blown back to Aeolia. When he learned what had happened, Aeolus was very angry that Odysseus’s men had defied the gods by opening the bag of winds. He ordered them to leave Aeolia at once and denied them any winds for their homeward journey. They rowed for six days and then came to the land of the Laestrigonians, half-men, half-giants, who plucked members of the crew from the ship and devoured them. Most managed to escape, however, and came to Aeaea, the land of the enchantress Circe. Circe changed the crew members into swine, but with the aid of the herb Moly, which Hermes gave him, Odysseus withstood Circe’s magic and forced her to change his crew back into men. Reconciled to the great leader, Circe told the hero that he could not get home without first consulting the shade of Teiresias, the blind Theban prophet. In the dark region of the Cimmerians Odysseus sacrificed sheep. Thereupon spirits from Hades appeared, among them the shade of Teiresias, who warned Odysseus to beware of danger in the land of the sun god.

On his homeward journey, Odysseus was forced to sail past the isle of the sirens, maidens who by their beautiful voices drew men to their death on treacherous rocks. By sealing the sailors’ ears with wax and by having himself tied to the ship’s mast, Odysseus passed the sirens safely. Next, he sailed into a narrow sea passage guarded by the monsters Scylla and Charybdis. Scylla’s six horrible heads seized six of the crew, but the ship passed safely through the narrow channel. On the island of the sun god, Hyperion, the starving crew slaughtered some of Hyperion’s sacred cows, despite a warning from their leader. The sun god thereupon caused the ship to be wrecked in a storm, all of the crew being lost but Odysseus, who was ultimately washed ashore on Ogygia, the island of Calypso.

When he concludes his story, Odysseus receives many gifts from Alcinoüs and Arete. They accompany him to a ship they provide for his voyage to Ithaca and bid him farewell, and the ship brings him at last to his own land.

Odysseus hides in a cave the vast treasure he receives from his Phaeacian hosts. The goddess Athena appears to him and counsels him on a plan by which he can avenge himself on the rapacious suitors of his wife. The goddess, after changing Odysseus into an old beggar, goes to Lacedaemon to arrange the return of Telemachus from the court of Menelaus and Helen.

Odysseus goes to the rustic cottage of his old steward, Eumaeus, who welcomes the apparent stranger and offers him hospitality. The faithful servant discloses the unpardonable behavior of Penelope’s suitors and tells how Odysseus’s estate was greatly reduced by their greed and love of luxury.

Meanwhile, Athena advises Telemachus to leave the ease of the Lacedaemon court and return home. On his arrival, he goes first to the hut of Eumaeus to get information from the old steward. There, Athena transforming Odysseus back to his heroic self, son and father are reunited. After pledging his son to secrecy, Odysseus describes his plan of attack. Eumaeus and Odysseus, again disguised as a beggar, go to Odysseus’s house where a meal is in progress. Reviled by the suitors, who forget that hospitality to a stranger is a practice demanded by Zeus himself, Odysseus bides his time, even when arrogant Antinous throws a stool that strikes Odysseus on the shoulder.

Odysseus orders Telemachus to lock up all weapons except a few that are to be used by his own party; the women servants are to be locked in their quarters. Penelope questions Odysseus concerning his identity but Odysseus deceives her with a fantastic tale. When Eurycleia, ancient servant of the king, washes the beggar’s feet and legs, she recognizes her master by a scar above the knee, but she does not disclose his identity.

Penelope plans an impossible feat of strength to free herself of her suitors. One day, showing the famous bow of Eurytus, and twelve battle-axes, she says that she will give her hand to the suitor who can shoot an arrow through all twelve ax handles. Telemachus, to prove his worth, attempts but fails to string the bow. One after another the suitors fail even to string the bow. Finally Odysseus asks if an old beggar might attempt the feat. The suitors laugh scornfully at his presumption. Then Odysseus strings the bow with ease and shoots an arrow through the twelve ax hafts. Throwing aside his disguise, he next shoots Antinous in the throat. There ensues a furious battle, in which all the suitors are killed by Odysseus and his small party. Twelve women servants who were sympathetic to the suitors are hanged in the courtyard. When Penelope, in her room, hears what the purported beggar did, husband and wife are happily reunited.

The Odyssey Places Discussed (Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)

*Ithaca

*Ithaca. Odysseus’s home, a mountainous island to the west of mainland Greece, and the primary setting of the first two and last twelve books of the twenty-four-book poem. The two key locations on Ithaca are the palace of Odysseus and the hut of the swineherd Eumaeus. Odysseus’s twenty-year absence has finally resulted in the palace being overrun by 108 suitors for the hand of his wife and supposed widow, Penelope. Ironically, while the greedy and disrespectful suitors have turned the formerly noble palace into a place of lawlessness and disorder, the humble hut of the apparently lowly Eumaeus exemplifies the courtesy and hospitality that the suitors fail to observe.

*Troy

*Troy. City on the west coast of Asia Minor (now part of Turkey) and the site of the Trojan War, where Odysseus and the Greek armies spend ten years fighting the Trojans to recover Helen, the wife of the Greek leader Menelaus. The final year of that war serves as the focus of The Iliad (c. 800 b.c.e.; English translation, 1616), the narrative of life during wartime that serves as a companion piece to The Odyssey.

*Pylos

*Pylos and *Sparta. Greek kingdoms visited by Odysseus’s son, Telemachus, in books 3, 4, and 15 of the poem, which constitute a sort of miniature, parallel version of Odysseus’s much longer journey. These kingdoms also offer a contrast to Ithaca in that they are models of the proper observance of social decorum and order. Pylos is ruled by Nestor, the wisest of the Greeks, and Sparta is ruled by Menelaus, the husband of Helen, whose abduction by Paris had begun the war. His introduction to these men, both great heroes of the Trojan War, and his ability to win their approval, serve as symbolic markers of the young man’s psychological and social “voyage” from adolescence to maturity. While the “Telemachia,” as it is sometimes called, has a relatively minor plot function, it does allow for considerable exposition, as the rulers inform Telemachus about key sections of the story of Troy and Odysseus’s wanderings.

*Argos

*Argos (AR-gohs). Greek home of Agamemnon, brother of Menelaus and leader of the Greek armies in the Trojan War. Agamemnon’s own homecoming from the war, which results in his murder by Aigisthos, lover of his unfaithful wife, Clytemnestra, is frequently mentioned in the poem as a contrast to the homecoming of Odysseus to his own faithful wife, Penelope. A further parallel is developed between Orestes, the son of Agamemnon, who revenges him by killing Aigisthos and Clytemnestra, and Telemachus, who will assist his own father in the massacre of the suitors.

Skheria

Skheria (skeh-REE-ah). Land of the Phaeacians, where Odysseus arrives after having been freed from Ogygia. There, Odysseus relates the full story of his ten-year journey to the Phaeacians, who then provide him with gifts and transportation to Ithaca. The Phaeacians, identified as kin of the gods, are distinguished by their respect for established custom, hospitality, and generosity, and Odysseus pointedly contrasts their civilized behavior with the barbaric treatment he receives at several places he visits on his journey.

Cave of the Cyclops

Cave of the Cyclops. Island dwelling of Polyphemos, a member of the race of Cyclopes—giant cannibals who exemplify the dystopian world of savagery and barbarism that the poem frequently juxtaposes with examples of civilized societies. The Cyclopes dwell in caves rather than crafted structures and do not farm their land or build ships. Odysseus and ten companions find themselves trapped within the cave of the Cyclops Polyphemos, who eats his guests rather than providing them with aid and gifts as is the custom at such exemplars of civilized behavior as Pylos, Sparta, and Skheria. Odysseus and some of his men escape after blinding Polyphemos. Polyphemos’s request that his father, the sea god Poseidon, revenge him against Odysseus, results in Odysseus’s ten years of forced wandering.

Aiaia

Aiaia (ay-EE-ah). Home of the enchantress Circe, a place of seductive beauty and ease, in which Odysseus is detained for more than a year on his journey home. Circe’s custom is to turn visitors into wolves, lions, and swine, in a symbolic reversal of proper hospitality, which makes the proper treatment of guests one of the highest attributes of true humanity. Even though he is not literally transformed into an animal, Odysseus is seduced by Circe’s hospitality into forgetting his mission to return home. As always, however, Odysseus chooses the hardships of the return home over the temptations of an easy life away from society and his duty.

Nekuia

Nekuia (neh-kew-ee-ah). Underworld home of the dead. It is presented somewhat inconsistently as a remote northern location on the earth’s surface and as an underground realm. Odysseus journeys there in book 11 to get instructions from the prophet Tiresias and meets the shades, or ghosts, of several figures from his past and from Greek mythology. The shades of the dead suitors appear there at the end of the poem as well.

Island of the Sirens

Island of the Sirens. Home of the Sirens, whose irresistible songs enchant sailors into running their ships ashore, with usually disastrous results.

Scylla

Scylla and Charybdis. Mythical monsters that guard a strait through which Olysseus’s ship must pass. Scylla, a monster with twelve legs and six heads, and Charybdis, a gigantic whirlpool, flank a narrow strait between headlands. Their significance lies in the idea that Odysseus cannot possibly get home without passing between them and losing some of his crew. In modern parlance, their names have come to signify any dilemma in which a person is forced to choose between two unavoidable yet thoroughly unpleasant alternatives.

Thrinakia

Thrinakia (THREE-nah-kee-ah). Island of the cattle of Helios, lord of the sun. Odysseus’s men unwisely slaughter some of the sacred cattle, for which transgression Zeus hits their ship with a thunderbolt. Odysseus is the only survivor.

Ogygia

Ogygia (OH-gee-jee-uh). Edenic island of the nymph Calypso, on which Odysseus is shipwrecked after the destruction of his ship by Zeus. This episode constitutes Odysseus’s most powerful temptation to abandon his journey home, as Calypso offers him not only worldly pleasure and luxury, but immortality: He will neither die nor grow old if he stays.

Olympus

Olympus. Mountain in northern Greece traditionally believed to be the home of the gods. The poem narrates several meetings the gods have to discuss and direct Odysseus’s fate. The civilized societies and customs depicted in the poem are always in some sense versions of this Olympian society.

The Odyssey Historical Context

Map of the Aegean region Published by Gale Cengage

The context in which the Homeric poems were created is clouded by the fact that their creation is a process that spans several centuries. In...

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The Odyssey The Trojan War

No student of Homer’s poetry can ignore the central event of both the Iliad and the Odyssey: namely,...

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The Odyssey Literary Style

Since it is one of the first works in its genre to have survived, the Odyssey does not so much display the mechanics of epic poetry...

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The Odyssey Literary Genre

The epic poem is the most ancient form of literature, and Homer is considered the father of Western epic. He...

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The Odyssey Compare and Contrast

  • Late Bronze Age (the time of the Odyssey): Government consists of a few "great kings" (those of...

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The Odyssey Topics for Further Study

  • In the "lying speech" to his wife in Book 19, Odysseus says to Penelope (speaking of himself in the third...

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The Odyssey Media Adaptations

  • There have been several film and television productions based wholly or in part on the Odyssey, beginning in 1954 with the Dino...

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The Odyssey What Do I Read Next?

  • The Iliad is the other epic poem written by Homer and it tells some of the events...

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The Odyssey Bibliography and Further Reading

Sources
Some quotations of the Odyssey are taken from the following translation:
Homer. The Odyssey...

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The Odyssey Bibliography (Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Brann, Eva. Homeric Moments: Clues to Delight in Reading the “Odyssey” and the “Iliad.” Philadelphia: Paul Dry, 2002. A close and witty exploration of the experience of reading Homer.

Camps, W. A. An Introduction to Homer. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1980. Excellent source for beginners. Provides an introductory essay that compares The Odyssey with the Iliad. Includes extensive notes and appendices to each work.

Gaunt, D. M., trans. Surge and Thunder: Critical Reading in Homer’s “Odyssey.” London: Oxford University Press, 1971. Designed for general readers. Gaunt translates selected passages, explaining fine points of language and meaning that are lost in translation. Text includes explication, analysis, and discussion. Has a guide to pronunciation, a list of Greek proper nouns, and an index of literary topics.

Lamberton, Robert. Homer the Theologian: Neoplatonist Allegorical Reading and the Growth of the Epic Tradition. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986. Addresses The Odyssey as allegory, presenting a commentary and summary of the work. Supports points with material from Greek scholars. General researchers will find particularly interesting its focus on Homer as theologian. Well-indexed, well-documented, scholarly.

Mason, H. A. To Homer Through Pope: An Introduction to Homer’s “Iliad” and Pope’s Translation. London: Chatto and Windus, 1972. Mason devotes last chapter to The Odyssey and major translators of that work. Not recommended for beginning researchers.

Taylor, Charles H., Jr. Essays on the “Odyssey”: Selected Modern Criticism. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1963. Seven selected essays, arranged chronologically. Taylor contends that interest grew in the “emblematic or symbolic implications” at work in events and images in the poem. Extensive notes.

The Odyssey Bibliography (Great Characters in Literature)

Brann, Eva. Homeric Moments: Clues to Delight in Reading the “Odyssey” and the “Iliad.” Philadelphia: Paul Dry, 2002. A close and witty exploration of the experience of reading Homer.

Camps, W. A. An Introduction to Homer. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1980. Excellent source for beginners. Provides an introductory essay that compares The Odyssey with the Iliad. Includes extensive notes and appendices to each work.

Dalby, Andrew. Rediscovering Homer: Inside the Origins of the Epic. New York: W. W. NOrton, 2006. Dalby explores the historical development of written poetry and examines the debate regarding the authorship of Homer’s epics.

Gaunt, D. M., trans. Surge and Thunder: Critical Reading in Homer’s “Odyssey.” London: Oxford University Press, 1971. Designed for general readers. Gaunt translates selected passages, explaining fine points of language and meaning that are lost in translation. Text includes explication, analysis, and discussion. Has a guide to pronunciation, a list of Greek proper nouns, and an index of literary topics.

Lamberton, Robert. Homer the Theologian: Neoplatonist Allegorical Reading and the Growth of the Epic Tradition. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986. Addresses The Odyssey as allegory, presenting a commentary and summary of the work. Supports points with material from Greek scholars. General researchers will find particularly interesting its focus on Homer as theologian. Well-indexed, well-documented, scholarly.

Mason, H. A. To Homer Through Pope: An Introduction to Homer’s “Iliad” and Pope’s Translation. London: Chatto and Windus, 1972. Mason devotes last chapter to The Odyssey and major translators of that work. Not recommended for beginning researchers.

Taylor, Charles H., Jr. Essays on the “Odyssey”: Selected Modern Criticism. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1963. Seven selected essays, arranged chronologically. Taylor contends that interest grew in the “emblematic or symbolic implications” at work in events and images in the poem. Extensive notes.