As students approach Robert Fagles’s nearly 500-page translation of The Odyssey, they may express surprise at the length of Homer’s poem. Reading The Odyssey may be their first experience with the epic as a literary genre, and they may be unfamiliar with its characteristics. Discussing the conventions of an epic will benefit students as they work with the text.
An epic is a long narrative poem that recounts the deeds of a hero, god, or other powerful, often mythic, person. It begins in medias res (in the middle of the action) and often opens with an invocation to the Muse—a request from the poet for divine inspiration in telling the tale. Since poets recited epics from memory long before they were written down, the poems rely heavily on mnemonic (memory) devices, such as the repetition of key lines and passages and the use of epithets, descriptive re-namings of important characters. (In The Odyssey, for example, Menelaus and his brother Agamemnon are “sons of Atreus.”) Epic poems are vast in their scope of settings, characters, and events. The gods often intervene in the action, and more often than not, interfere in the lives of men.
Many of the conventions of epic poems arose from the poets’ original purposes. Epics functioned as the embellished record of a culture’s history; consequently, they include catalogues of famous people, battles, and family lineages—all the historical details the civilization wanted to remember. Epics also provided role models for the culture that produced them; therefore, epic heroes embody the values of their civilization. Finally, because epics reminded a culture of its greatness, they contain long, eloquent speeches and formal boasts meant to bring an ancient crowd to its feet. While the epic form may seem foreign to students, they are probably familiar with several modern “epics.” J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, George Lucas’s Star Wars, and J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books all possess qualities of the epic, although they are not written as narrative poems and don’t follow all the conventions of traditional epics.
The Odyssey is one of two famous Greek epics most often attributed to Homer, The Iliad being the second. However, crediting Homer with the authorship of The Iliad and The Odyssey remains a subject of debate among scholars because few details about his identity are known. The ancient Greeks believed that Homer was a blind poet of enormous talent, and a number of Greek cities claimed he had resided there. Today, the debate about Homer’s identity and his writing of the two epics continues. Some scholars argue that The Iliad and The Odyssey are far too different to be the works of a single poet, citing the warrior ethic of The Iliad versus the more sensitive tone of The Odyssey; they believe The Odyssey may well have been written by a woman. Still other academics suggest that the name “Homer” refers to a person who compiled a number of shorter poems to create these two massive epics, functioning more like an editor than an author. This theory, they argue, explains the presence of so many digressions in the texts; both epics feature back stories and tales-within-a-tale.
The Odyssey focuses on the trials of Odysseus, King of Ithaca, as he journeys home from the Trojan War. His feats in the war are chronicled in The Iliad and serve as antecedent action in The Odyssey. Like every renowned Greek of his day, Odysseus had pledged his loyalty to the brother kings Agamemnon and Menelaus; he had left his wife and infant son in Ithaca to fight for the Achaeans (Greeks) and win glory in the war against Troy. As both a commander and a warrior on the battlefield, Odysseus had distinguished himself during the Trojan War, employing his characteristic cunning and wit to devise the Trojan horse ploy through which the Greeks captured Troy and burned the city after ten years of bloody battle and stalemate.
The Odyssey begins ten years after the fall of Troy, when all the Greek warriors except Odysseus have either returned home or met their deaths and descended to the underworld. Odysseus has been absent from his home in Ithaca for twenty years, and his family has had no word of his fate. Leaving Troy, he sets out for Ithaca by sea, experiencing a series of dangerous adventures during his journey home. To the Greeks who knew this story (and that would include most of them), the word “odyssey” meant simply “the story of Odysseus.” Given the poem’s enduring popularity with people throughout the world, the word has come to mean “a series of adventurous journeys marked by many changes of fortune.”
The Odyssey can be divided into three parts. The first, called the Telemachy by scholars, comprises the first four books (chapters); it begins in the present with Odysseus’s son, Telemachus, and details the challenges he and his mother have faced since his father failed to return from Troy. As his father tries desperately to make his way home, Telemachus embarks on a journey of his own to discover news of Odysseus and, in the process, to test himself as a man. The second and longest part of the epic begins with Odysseus’s release from the goddess Calypso’s island after a long but rather pleasant “imprisonment” there and relates his time with the Phaeacian people to whom he narrates the story of his wanderings in exchange for passage to Ithaca. This part of the tale details Odysseus’s fantastic encounters with hostile gods, raging storms, cannibalistic monsters, and perhaps most deadly of all, desirable women. Finally, Odysseus reaches the shores of Ithaca, where he reunites secretly with his wife Penelope and with Telemachus, the son he has never known; he then conspires with the goddess Athena to weave a bloody plot that will restore order to Ithaca and himself to the throne.
As a hero of Greek culture, Odysseus embodies the values important to his civilization: courage, honor, piety, propriety, strength, and resilience. However, his long years of suffering have challenged aspects of his character, such as his leadership, fidelity, and desire to win glory and fame. To understand Odysseus’s motives and behavior, it is helpful to know a little about his culture and the expectations he faces as a warrior, leader, and king. Odysseus is bound to a strict warrior ethos as well as to cultural conventions that form the foundation of Greek civilization. His devotion to the former inspires courageous deeds but also provokes him into committing foolish acts of bravery.
Odysseus’s sometimes reckless pursuit of recognition leads some scholars to suggest that through his recklessness, Homer subtly questions or criticizes the Greek warrior culture’s emphasis on kleos, the glory or renown a Greek warrior earns through deeds of valor or, often, his own glorious death in battle. The imperative to make a lasting name for oneself, to earn kleos, explains why so many Greeks went willingly to Troy in search of a “beautiful death” that would ensure their fame throughout the ages. The Odyssey reveals the kinds of problems that result when the desire for glory motivates a leader’s decisions and actions, and the concept of kleos creates complexity in Odysseus’s character.
Another trait central to Odysseus’s character is metis, a quality that combines wisdom with cunning and emphasizes intelligence over physical strength. Although Odysseus possesses great strength, metis is his signature trait; both gods and men know him as “the man of twists and turns.” While a talent for trickery, lies, and deception may not seem heroic today, the Greeks considered this quality quite noble because it displayed a mortal’s mental acuity as being on a level with the gods’. (In Greek mythology, Metis was a Titan associated with wisdom, deep thought, and cunning). A broader concept governing Greek warrior culture is arête, the drive to achieve one’s greatest potential. Since metis is Odysseus’s most defining trait, he must strive to become the most accomplished of liars and tricksters in order to achieve arête. In The Odyssey, the challenges Odysseus faces provide the opportunity for him to employ metis, display arête, and win kleos.
While metis, arête, and kleos form the basis of Odysseus’s warrior ethos, the cultural value of xenia (hospitality) is even more pervasive in The Odyssey and more essential in understanding the evil Odysseus and his son face. The concept of xenia calls for every person, regardless of social station, to show hospitality to anyone, stranger or friend, who comes to his home. Xenia epitomizes the Greeks’ concept of civility; they also considered it a duty owed to the gods, particularly to Zeus who they believed favored strangers. Throughout the epic, Homer dwells on numerous, lengthy descriptions of feasting, entertainments, and gift-giving, all displays of xenia. Odysseus relies on the hospitality of those he meets, perhaps to a fault, and violations of xenia have disastrous consequences.
On one level, The Odyssey can be enjoyed simply as a great adventure story, full of monsters and marvelous deeds. On another, the tale serves as a classic example of a hero’s journey during which trials and suffering transform his character, making him a better man. Odysseus as hero also serves as an example of how concepts of heroism and leadership have and have not changed over time. Finally, The Odyssey can be read as a literary artifact that illuminates the culture of the ancient Greeks, revealing their values and their relationships to family, to society and to their gods; through the complex character of Odysseus, Homer validates some tenants of the Greek warrior culture but criticizes others. What he seems to question—the personal desire for glory and everlasting fame—is surely as relevant today as it was in the poet’s ancient time.
By the end of the unit the student will be able to:
1. Identify the conventions of the epic in The Odyssey: invocation to the Muse, catalogues, formal boasts, intervention by the gods, epithets, and epic similes.
2. Establish the chronology of major events in Odysseus’s journey, and explain how each of the specific challenges he faces reflect strengths or weaknesses in his character.
3. Describe how both Odysseus and Telemachus are transformed by the journeys they undertake, and identify the traits they develop as a result of their trials.
4. Identify examples of Greek cultural values such as xenia, kleos, and metis and explain their significance in the text.
5. Contrast the behavior of the suitors with the behavior of the kings and monsters Odysseus and Telemachus meet on their journeys.
6. Contrast the story of Agamemnon’s homecoming and death at the hands of his wife Clytemnestra and her lover Aegisthus to Odysseus’s homecoming. Discuss the reason for the prevalence of this allusion in The Odyssey.
7. Identify Odysseus’s strengths and weaknesses as a leader and argue whether he ultimately succeeds or fails as a leader.
8. Analyze the presentation of women in the epic, citing specific examples from the text.
9. Discuss the roles of the gods and the importance of fate in Odysseus’s story.
This eNotes lesson plan is designed so that it may be used in numerous ways to accommodate ESL students and to differentiate instruction in the classroom.
Student Study Guide
• The Study Guide is organized for a section-by-section study of this epic tale. Study Guide pages may be assigned individually and completed at a student’s own pace.
• Study Guide pages may be used as pre-reading activities to preview for students the vocabulary words they will encounter in each section and to acquaint them generally with the section’s content.
• Before Study Guide pages are assigned, questions may be selected from them to use as short quizzes to assess reading comprehension.
(The entire section is 802 words.)
1. What is the purpose of the several allusions to the story of Aegisthus and Agamemnon in The Odyssey? Explain how this story parallels Odysseus’s own situation and also how it addresses cultural values such as xenia, fidelity, and loyalty.
2. Using three specific examples from the text, describe how Odysseus uses his metis to overcome obstacles and, more importantly, add to his immortal fame (kleos) on his journey home.
3. Identify two or three of Odysseus’s character flaws, and describe how these traits create conflict for him throughout his journey.
4. Identify two or three examples of the gods intervening in the lives of men and women in this...
(The entire section is 575 words.)
bewitching: enchanting; charming, captivating
gorging: feeding greedily; glutting or satiating (oneself)
hallowed: sanctified, blessed, consecrated, dedicated
harangued: made an address or speech to an assembly; declaimed
indignation: righteous anger prompted by a sense that meanness, injustice, wickedness, or
misconduct has been done to oneself or others
insolent: proud, arrogant; offensively contemptuous of the rights or feelings of others
mortified: deeply humiliated or embarrassed
Muse: one of nine Greek goddesses believed to inspire learning and the arts, especially poetry and music
nymph: a semi-divine spirit that takes...
(The entire section is 1383 words.)
balk: to stop short as at an obstacle; to hesitate (as in the face of a suggestion, challenge, or situation)
bevies: large numbers, multitudes, groups (of people or animals)
carousing: drinking freely and repeatedly
cunning: skill employed in a secret or underhanded manner or for purposes of deceit
disclose: to make openly known; to reveal, to declare (secrets, purposes, beliefs, etc.)
doddering: mentally feeble or inept
foil: to frustrate the efforts of a person; to thwart, to prevent
Furies: deities sent from the underworld to avenge wrong and punish crime
inept: without aptitude or ability; unfit,...
(The entire section is 1119 words.)
adept: very skilled or thoroughly proficient at something
citadel: the fortress commanding a city
contrived: ingeniously or artfully devised or planned
craven: cowardly, weak-hearted
distraught: mentally distracted by conflicting emotions; deeply agitated or troubled
lustral: pertaining to or used in rites of purification
shrewd: clever or keen-witted in practical affairs; astute in action or speech
staunch: standing firm and true to one’s principles or purpose
1. How does Telemachus’s hesitancy to speak to King Nestor demonstrate that he is “wise in his own way too?” How...
(The entire section is 1088 words.)
canted: tilted up, caused to lean from the perpendicular
circumspect: attentive to everything; cautious, heedful of all circumstances that may affect action or decision
commandeered: taken for military service or use
reveling: making merry; engaging in wild or noisy recreation or festivities, especially those involving drinking and dancing
vaunt: to boast or brag
wary: given to caution; habitually on one’s guard against danger, deception, or mistake
2. How does Menelaus demonstrate xenia at the beginning of Book Four? Why do you think Homer emphasizes this value in both Nestor and Menelaus?...
(The entire section is 1299 words.)
baffled: confounded, discomfited
foiled: frustrated, defeated, rendered ineffectual
harried: tormented, harassed, worried mentally
lustrous: having sheen or gloss; shiny
racked: tormented; strained to or beyond the limit
Styx: Greek mythology a river of the underworld (Hades) over which the shades of the departed were ferried by Charon and by which the gods swore their most solemn oaths
thwart: to oppose successfully; to prevent another from accomplishing a purpose; to foil, frustrate, balk, defeat
1. Speaking to the other gods concerning Odysseus’s fate, Athena says, “Never let any...
(The entire section is 1025 words.)
assail: to attack violently by physical means, to assault (a person, stronghold, etc.)
beguiled: deluded, deceived by trickery or deception
blithe: exhibiting gladness; merry, sprightly, mirthful
bridle: verb to curb, check, restrain, hold in
chide: to scold by way of rebuke or reproof
lithe: easily bent; limber, pliant, supple
scurf: an encrustation upon the surface of a body; grime, scale, salt buildup
suppliant(s): a person who makes a humble or earnest plea to another, especially to a person in power or authority; a petitioner
1. Why did the Phaeacians have to leave their...
(The entire section is 1013 words.)
brusquely: in a rough, rude, offhand manner
resplendent: shining, brilliant, splendid
swaggering: demonstrating a blustering or insolent air of superiority
1. How and why does Athena disguise Odysseus as he makes his way into the city? What warning does Athena, disguised as a young girl, give to Odysseus about the Phaeacians?
Athena shrouds Odysseus in a heavy mist, “shielding him / from any swaggering islander who’d cross his path, / provoke him with taunts and search out who he was.” She wants to protect him from conflict and maintain for now his anonymity. Before he enters the city, Athena warns Odysseus that...
(The entire section is 640 words.)
chafing: displaying irritation of temper and impatience of restraint or obstacles
impelled: drove or forced (a person) to take action; urged on, incited
languish: to decline in health; to weaken, wither, or become faint
poised: composed, self-assured
thronging: pressing; crowding
wily: crafty, cunning, deceitful
1. As Odysseus joins the Phaeacians for a day of songs and contests, how and why does Athena alter his appearance?
As translated, Homer writes that “Athena lavished a marvelous splendor” on Odysseus. She made him look taller and more muscular to the Phaeacians so that they might...
(The entire section is 1048 words.)
enthralled: captivated or held spellbound by pleasing qualities
swill: to drink freely, greedily, or to excess
1. Identify three aspects of his life and experiences that Odysseus emphasizes when he finally introduces himself to the Phaeacians. Why would he speak of himself as he does?
In introducing himself to the Phaeacians, Odysseus first boasts of his fame by saying he is “known to the world / for every kind of craft” and “[his] fame has reached the skies.” He goes on to describe his homeland, “a rugged land but good for raising sons,” and to declare, “I know no sweeter sight on earth / than a man’s own native...
(The entire section is 1383 words.)
fawn: to give a servile display of flattery or exaggerated affection, usually to gain favor
haggard: looking exhausted and unwell
malinger: to pretend or exaggerate illness in order to escape duty or work
mulling: turning over information or an idea in one’s mind; reflecting upon, pondering
sere: poetic dry, withered
squalls: sudden and violent gusts of wind that bring rain, sleet, or snow; small storms
1. Who is Aeolus, and what does he give to Odysseus as a parting gift when he and his men make ready to leave his island? What can Odysseus do with this gift?
Aeolus is a king...
(The entire section is 1227 words.)
ignominious: shameful, disgraceful, discreditable
pyre: a pile of wood or other combustible material used for the ritual burning of a dead body
1. As Odysseus begins the ritual that will allow him to speak to the shades of the dead, what promise does he make to the dead? Why do you think he does this?
Perhaps to appease the dead for intruding in the underworld, Odysseus promises that once he returns to Ithaca, he will sacrifice his best barren heifer and a pile of treasure to the shades of the dead.
2. What request does the ghost of Odysseus’s companion Elpenor make of Odysseus? How does Elpenor’s...
(The entire section is 1339 words.)
beetling: projecting, overhanging
bracing: refreshing, awakening to the senses, energizing
coped: covered with a sloping top (as a part of the construction of a wall)
crags: steep or precipitous rugged rocks
regalia: the official decorations, clothing, or insignia of an order, office, etc. frequently indicating authority
riven: torn, rent; split, cracked
transfix: to pierce through (especially with pain, grief, or other emotion); to render motionless (with astonishment, horror, etc.)
yaw: to deviate temporarily from the straight course, as through faulty or unsteady steering
1. What advice...
(The entire section is 1458 words.)
ardent: animated by keen desire; intensely eager, zealous, fervent
hale: adjective in good health
hove: to be borne or carried along (as on horseback, the waves, or the air)
levies: duties, taxes
sumptuous: magnificent and costly in workmanship, construction, decoration, content
tactician: one versed or skilled in the science or art of strategy
tripod: archaic an ornamental pot or cauldron resting on three legs, often presented as a prize or as a votive offering
trove: a discovery, a find (as in a treasure trove)
vexed: feeling troubled, harassed; in a disturbed or unquiet state.
(The entire section is 1119 words.)
haven: a safe station for ships; a harbor, a port
head: a unit in numbering cattle and sheep
paltry: trivial, measly or meager (as an amount)
pittance: a small or sparing allowance, share, or allotment; a small proportion of a whole
1. Despite being poor, how does the swineherd Eumaeus demonstrate both xenia and loyalty to Odysseus, even though he does not recognize his master?
Even though Eumaeus is poor, he invites the stranger into his home, arranges a comfortable seat for him, and gives him food and wine. He shows his devotion to the concept of xenia when he says, “It’s wrong, my friend,...
(The entire section is 689 words.)
canny: knowing, prudent; wary, cautious
irreproachable: free from blame, faultless
pensive: full of thought; meditative, reflective
1. What does Athena say about Penelope to convince Telemachus to return home at once?
Athena claims that Penelope’s father and brothers are urging her to marry Eurymachus because he is willing to give the most in gifts and money. She says, “You know how the heart of a woman always works: she likes to build the wealth of her new groom.”
2. What advice does Athena give Telemachus about avoiding the ambush set by the suitors?
Athena warns Telemachus...
(The entire section is 786 words.)
jaunt: an excursion, a trip, or journey, especially one taken for pleasure
patrimony: property inherited from one’s father or passed down from one’s ancestors; an inheritance.
shirk: to evade (one’s duty, work, obligations, etc.)
1. How does Telemachus react when Eumaeus tells him that the stranger (Odysseus) is counting on Telemachus for shelter? What traits does his response reveal in Telemachus?
Telemachus despairs at ever being able to offer shelter in his own house. He says, “I’m young myself. I can hardly trust my hands / to fight off any man who rises up against me.” He promises to provide the stranger with clothes and a sword if he wishes...
(The entire section is 1477 words.)
brooding: engaging in moody mental contemplation
cadge: to get by begging
debauched: seduced or corrupted from duty or virtue; depraved or corrupt in morals
discreet: showing discernment or judgment in the guidance of one’s own speech and action;
hale: verb to draw, to pull
salvos: simultaneous discharges of projectile weapons, artillery, or firearms
1. When he returns to his house, what instructions does Telemachus give to his mother? How does he act with the suitors? How do his actions reflect a change in Telemachus’s character?
(The entire section is 943 words.)
insatiable: incapable of being filled, satisfied, or appeased; inordinately greedy
pith: physical strength or force; toughness; mettle, backbone
unguent: an ointment or salve
1. What does Odysseus’s fight with Arnaeus the beggar reveal about the degree of corruption in Ithaca?
Although Arnaeus is also a vagrant and a beggar, he is rough and abusive to Odysseus and, like Melanthius, has allied himself with the suitors, thus showing that their poor behavior has begun to poison other members of society. The fight between Odysseus and Arnaeus also further reveals the suitors’ corruption because they laugh and encourage...
(The entire section is 1348 words.)
dissented: withheld agreement; differed in opinion
evanescent: tending to vanish quickly; momentary, ephemeral
guile: deceitful cunning; duplicity
leering: casting a sidelong, unpleasant glance at someone
mortised: joined or fastened securely
pall: a feeling of gloom
raucous: noisily chaotic or disorderly
whorls: whirls, coils, or spirals (shapes)
will-o’-the-wisp: a deceptive goal or hope
1. When Odysseus sends Telemachus to bed after they have locked all the weapons away, what does he say he intends to do?
Odysseus says he plans to test the loyalty of the women in...
(The entire section is 1187 words.)
ambled: sauntered, strolled
boor: peasant; rude or insensitive person
charlatan: a person making showy pretenses to knowledge or ability; a fraud, a faker
congenial: pleasant; agreeably suited to one’s nature
enticing: tempting, alluring
heckling: harassing and trying to disconcert with questions, challenges, or teasing
hounding: driving or affecting (someone) through persistent harassment
jeered: spoke or cried out with derision or mockery
riffraff: disreputable persons
riveted: fastened or firmly fixed to something
sardonic: disdainfully or skeptically humorous; derisively mocking
sauntered: walked in an...
(The entire section is 985 words.)
blanching: whitening (chiefly by loss of color)
forsake: to renounce or turn away from entirely
gallants: young men of fashion
genteel: of or relating to the gentry or aristocratic class; elegant or graceful in manner
grange: a farmhouse with outbuildings
mawkish: sickly or childishly sentimental; cloying
pique: a fleeting feeling of wounded vanity; resentment
yokels: naive or gullible inhabitants of a rural area or small town
zeal: eagerness and ardent interest in pursuit of something ; fervor
1. What happened to Odysseus’s friend Iphitus? Why is it significant that Odysseus’s...
(The entire section is 922 words.)
buckler: a small round shield
exploit: an achievement displaying a brilliant degree of bravery or skill
manic: exhibiting excitable, hyperactive, or obsessive behavior
recoup: to receive recompense, to gain reimbursement for a loss
ruck: a large number or quantity of people or things; a crowd; a mass
1. Explain the significance of the image of “the bread and meats soaked in a swirl of bloody filth” and of Odysseus’s charge that the suitors “bled [his] house to death.”
Both justify Odysseus’s killing the suitors. They “bled [his] house to death,” and now they bleed to death at his hands....
(The entire section is 1071 words.)
callous: unfeeling, insensitive, and cruel disregard of others
hallmark: a distinctive mark or token of genuineness, good breeding, or excellence
hardy: bold, courageous, daring
1. List some of the epithets that characterize Penelope when she hears the news of Odysseus’s return. What do these terms imply about her? Do you agree with Telemachus that she is “cruel” for not embracing Odysseus at once? Why or why not?
Penelope is “wary,” “guarded,” and “composed,” implying she is reluctant to believe any news of Odysseus’s return. Her refusal to believe Odysseus has returned may seem cruel to Telemachus,...
(The entire section is 595 words.)
affronting: treating with avowed or open indignity or insult
asphodel: a genus of liliaceous plants with very handsome flowers, native in the south of Europe
cortege: a train of attendants, people in a procession
dirge: a song sung at the burial of, or in commemoration of, the dead; a song of mourning or lament
laved: washed, bathed
1. How does Achilles’s death and funeral, as described by the shade of Agamemnon in the underworld, exemplify the Greek concept of kleos?
Agamemnon calls Achilles a “happy man” because he died a glorious death in battle and “the best of Trojan and Argive...
(The entire section is 870 words.)
1. Why does Poseidon resent Odysseus and delay his voyage home?
A. Odysseus refused to make an offering to Poseidon at Troy.
B. Poseidon feels jealous of the favor Zeus shows Odysseus.
C. Odysseus wounded Poseidon’s son, Polyphemus.
D. Odysseus slept with Poseidon’s mistress, Calypso.
E. Poseidon resents all the Greeks for making war against Troy.
2. Why are the suitors overrunning Telemachus’s house?
A. They all lost their own estates in the war.
B. They each want to marry Telemachus’s mother and become king of Ithaca.
C. They were told by...
(The entire section is 1906 words.)
1. Identify three instances in which the Greek warrior culture’s emphasis on kleos (immortal fame attained through glory) creates conflict for Odysseus throughout his journey. What might Homer be saying about the desire for glory?
Throughout The Odyssey, Odysseus’s pursuit of kleos, or glory and renown, inspires him to deeds of bravery but also sometimes provokes him to acts of sheer recklessness that endanger his life and the lives of his men. Because kleos pertains to an individual’s glory and reputation, Odysseus’s pursuit of it often conflicts with his judgment and responsibilities as a leader. While The Odyssey celebrates glory and renown to some extent, it also reveals...
(The entire section is 4922 words.)