The Odyssey by Homer

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Summary of epics of the Iliad and the Odyssey.

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The beauty of epic poems such as The Iliad and The Odyssey is that the stories are so rich that many can return to them again and again and find completely new meanings. As a result, distilling both into a "summary" is a difficult task indeed! Here are the two stories, in a nutshell:

The Iliad is the story of the Trojan War. The Trojan War began when Paris, a Trojan prince, visited a Greek king, Menelaus. During his visit, Paris seduced Menelaus's wife, escaping with her and returning to Troy. As a result, Menelaus rallied his fellow Greek kings, raised an army, and set sail for Troy to reclaim his wife. The story follows the Greek army as they lay siege to Troy for ten long years and raises thematic questions as to the value of honor and glory and the role of warfare in human society.

The Odyssey, on the other hand, is a very different tale. The Odyssey follows the journey of Odysseus, one of the Greek soldiers, as he attempts to return home from the war. One of the heroes of the Trojan War, Odysseus offends the sea god Poseidon and is punished with another decade of trials and tribulations before he can return home to the wife, Penelope, and son, Telemachus, that he left behind. The Odyssey considers themes such as the role of the veteran in society and the role of ego in the face of fated events.

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These are some of the greatest works of epic literature in the Western canon. Moreover, they are complex pieces of work with many twists and turns. Hence, any summary will be a bear sketch. So, I encourage you to read both works when time permits. With that said, here are a few points of summary.

First, Homer, the Greek poet is said to have written both. The Iliad is about the Trojan War, which started because the Trojan prince, Paris took Helen of Sparta from Menelaus. So, as revenge Menelaus got the leaders of Greece to fight the Trojan. However, things got complicated due to the conflict between Agamemnon and the greatest hero among the Greek, Achilles. Achilles, therefore, withdrew from battle, which caused the Trojan to gain the upper-hand. Achilles only went back into battle, because his good friend Patroclus was killed. Achilles then defeats many of the Trojans, and more importantly the great hero of the Trojans, Hector. This turns the tide. From this perspective, the Iliad is about the wrath of Achilles.

The Odyssey is about what happened after the Trojan war. Odysseus, one of the Greek heroes is on his way home back to Ithaca. However, his journey is fraught with twists and turns. In a word, things get very complicated. For instance, he has to face many dangers - the sirens, Polyphemus, Circe, Calypso, and many more. When he finally gets back, he realizes that there are many suitors that have taken over his home. So, he needs to fight them and he does. In short, this work is about his journey and homecoming.

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The Iliad and Odyssey are the two earliest known works in Western literature, with linguistic and archaeological evidence suggesting an origin in the eighth century BCE. Both poems were attributed by the ancients to Homer, who they believed lived around that same time. Both poems form part of the Epic Cycle, which dealt with the Trojan War and its tragedies.

The Iliad came first, both in the Trojan mythological canon and, it is believed, in its historical composition. Covering a few weeks in the tenth and final year of the Greek siege of Troy, the Iliad tells the story of the rage of Achilles and its consequences.

Achilles was the greatest warrior among the Greeks, but had his honor slighted by Agamemnon, the supreme commander of the Greek expedition, and withdraws from combat as a result. In the first book of the Iliad, Achilles vows that Agamemnon will rue the day that he insulted his best warrior so grievously, declaring that:

"A yearning for Achilles will strike your armies! But then, Atrides, harrowed as you will be, nothing you do can save you - not when your hordes of fighters drop and die, cut down by the hands of man-killing Hector!"

The rest of the Iliad fulfills Achilles' prophecy, with the tide of battle turning against the Greeks until Achilles returns to the front and kills the Trojan prince, Hector. Throughout, Homer shows how Achilles' rage brings tragedy to Greeks and Trojans alike, and by the end of the Iliad, the audience is left with the impression that nobody has truly won.

The Odyssey is a very different story that takes place a decade after the events of the Iliad and the fall of Troy. Here, we learn that the task of returning home is just as arduous for the Greek heroes as actually winning the war against the Trojans. It is particularly arduous for the hero Odysseus, who, alone of all the Greeks, has still not returned home. At the beginning of the Odyssey, he is trapped on a desert island, Ogygia, home of the nymph Calypso.

To make matters worse, a throng of suitors is attempting to marry Odysseus' wife, Penelope, and assume his position as King of Ithaca, believing him to be dead. They deplete his estate and threaten the life of his son, Telemachus, disrespecting the sacred laws of hospitality.

The Odyssey tells the story of how Odysseus came to be in this predicament and how he gets out of it. Throughout, Homer shows that the central value of the poem isn't force, as in the Iliad, but patience and cunning, which the Greeks described as metis. Through these attributes, Odysseus had the self-control to don a disguise and outsmart the suitors, maneuvering them into a position where they would be helpless. Odysseus shoots them down with his bow and wins back his home, completing his long journey at last.