The Odyssey Summary
The Odyssey is an ancient Greek epic poem by Homer that tells the story of Odysseus’s ten-year struggle to return home to Ithaca after the end of the Trojan War.
- In Odysseus’s absence, his wife, Penelope, is plagued by destructive suitors, and his son, Telemachus, has become a young man.
- Odysseus and his crew undergo many trials and suffer the wrath of the god Poseidon. The goddess Athena protects Odysseus, but all of his men die during the journey.
- After arriving in Ithaca, Odysseus slaughters the suitors with the aid of Athena and reunites with his wife and son.
Last Updated on March 1, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1233
Homer’s Odyssey takes place in the aftermath of the Trojan War, after the events of the Iliad. It follows the hero Odysseus and the ten ill-fated years it takes for him to return to Ithaca, his homeland. It is divided into twenty-four books.
Book 1 begins with the speaker invoking the Muse so that he may be granted guidance in telling Odysseus’s tale. Odysseus is the only one of the Danaans whose fate is unknown to his people, as all else who fought in the Trojan War have either returned home or perished. For seven years now, Odysseus has been a captive guest of the nymph Calypso on the island of Ogygia. On Ithaca, meanwhile, Odysseus’s wife, Penelope, and his son, Telemachus, are beset by scores of suitors who feast recklessly on their stores, believing Odysseus dead. The goddess Athena, who has always favored Odysseus, implores Zeus to send Hermes to Ogygia and compel Calypso to set him free. For her part, Athena travels to Ithaca and disguises herself as one of Odysseus’s old friends, Mentor, in order to console Telemachus and give him advice concerning the suitors and Odysseus’s imminent homecoming. In a ploy to protect Telemachus from the hot-blooded suitors, she bids him assemble a crew of trustworthy men and journey to the Greek mainland to collect information on Odysseus.
Books 2 to 4 center on Telemachus and his stay on the Greek mainland, first at Pylos, in the household of King Nestor, one of the Greek chieftains who fought in the war. Because King Nestor is able to provide little information as to what happened to Odysseus, he sends Telemachus with his son, Pisistratus, to Sparta—where King Menelaus, the brother of the late King Agamemnon, resides with his wife, Helen. In Sparta, Telemachus is given a grand welcome and regaled with tales of his father’s heroism and wit. King Menelaus also reveals that Odysseus is still very much alive, trapped on Ogygia by the nymph Calypso. Meanwhile, on Ithaca, the suitors discover that Telemachus has left the island and plot to ambush and murder him when he returns.
Book 5 centers on Odysseus’s travels following his release from Ogygia. When Poseidon finds Odysseus sailing on the open sea, he sends a great storm which Odysseus only survives with the help of Athena and the sea nymph Leucothea. Odysseus swims ashore to Scheria, land of the seafaring Phaeacians. Books 6 to 8 relate how Odysseus, posing as a wanderer, is welcomed by King Alcinous and Queen Arete of Scheria. When he finally reveals to the court of Scheria who he is, he is asked to tell the unfortunate tale of how he came to wander the seas for more than nine years.
Books 9 to 12 tell Odysseus’s tale—the three years of trials and tribulations he endures after the Trojan War. Book 9 relates his unpleasant encounter with the Cyclops Polyphemus, who trapped him and his men in a cave, devouring some of his men in the process. Odysseus devises a cunning plan of escape and, in the process, blinds Polyphemus—and so incurs the wrath of Poseidon, Polyphemus’s father.
Book 10 is an account of how Aeolus, the master of winds, gifts Odysseus with an ox-skin pouch of winds to help him and his men journey homeward. Odysseus uses this pouch to great success, Ithaca coming within view on the tenth day of their sailing. Odysseus’s men, however, suspect there to be hidden riches in the pouch and open it while Odysseus is asleep—and so their ships are blown back to Aeolus, who refuses to help them a second time. Odysseus then loses all ships but his own in a gruesome attack from the Laestrygonians, a race of cannibalistic giants. After the ordeal, the survivors make port at the island of Aeaea, home of the goddess Circe.
Book 11 is an account of Odysseus’s journey to the Land of the Dead. Circe informs Odysseus that, in order to reach Ithaca, he must first go to Land of the Dead and speak with Tiresias, the blind prophet. In the Land of the Dead, Tiresias reveals to Odysseus that Odysseus is cursed by the god Poseidon, whom he angered by blinding Polyphemus. He also informs Odysseus that he will eventually reach home—alone, after many struggles—and find his household in chaos. Apart from Tiresias, Odysseus also speaks with his mother, Achilles, Agamemnon, and many others.
Book 12 is an account of Odysseus’s departure from Circe’s island and the hardships he endures with the Sirens, the Prowling Rocks, and the six-headed monster Scylla, who devours six of his men in exchange for letting their ship pass. After these trials, Odysseus’s ship makes port at Thrinacia, where the sun god Helios keeps his cattle—sacred animals Circe had warned Odysseus not to touch. Odysseus’s men defy him, however, and slaughter one of the cattle. This prompts Zeus to send a terrible storm, killing all of the men but Odysseus, who washes up ashore on Ogygia, where he spends the next seven years as the captive guest of Calypso. Thus Odysseus’s tale ends.
Books 13 to 14 center on Odysseus’s return to Ithaca with the help of the Phaeacians. Once on the island, Athena transforms Odysseus’s appearance to that of a beggar so that he may collect information before revealing himself to his people. Under this disguise, Odysseus befriends the loyal swineherd Eumaeus and questions him about Ithaca’s state of affairs.
Books 15 to 16 center on Telemachus’s return to Ithaca, evading the suitors’ ambush with Athena’s guidance. Athena also advises Telemachus to visit Eumaeus before heading home. Odysseus reveals his true form to Telemachus, and the two reunite in joy.
Books 17 to 20 center on Odysseus’s return to his estate, disguised as a beggar. There he is able to observe and pass quiet judgment on the suitors, as well as the household servants who have betrayed him. He also uses this disguise to talk to Penelope and approve of her plan to hold a contest the following day to decide, once and for all, who is to be her husband. Books 21 to 22 center on Odysseus’s violent retribution. Penelope announces that whoever can shoot through the openings of twelve axes with Odysseus’s great back-strung bow shall be her husband. The suitors all take turns trying, but none are able to even string the bow. Finally, the disguised Odysseus volunteers and successfully accomplishes Penelope’s task. He then casts off his disguise, denounces the suitors’ crimes, and proceeds to slaughter them all with the help of Telemachus, the swineherd Eumaeus, and the cattle foreman Philoetius. After the suitors have all been killed, Odysseus orders the execution of the servants who had betrayed him in his absence.
Book 23 describes the reunion of Odysseus and Penelope, who first tests his knowledge of their marriage bed in order to ensure that he is truly her husband. Odysseus passes this test, and the two reunite joyfully.
Finally, in book 24, Odysseus visits his father, Laertes, who rejoices to see him again. The people of Ithaca, however, are angered at the killings and march towards Laertes’s land to apprehend Odysseus. Once they are face to face with Odysseus, however, Athena intervenes and declares that neither blood nor civil unrest must ensue on Ithaca—and so the two parties make peace.
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