Introduction to The Odyssey

The Odyssey is an ancient Greek epic poem attributed to Homer that tells of the trials and tribulations Odysseus, king of Ithaca, endures in his attempt to return home after fighting in the Trojan War. Modern scholars debate the accuracy of ascribing sole authorship to Homer, and many instead believe that both the Odyssey and the Iliad, Homer’s other surviving work, were likely collaborative efforts. The exact date of composition of the Odyssey is not known, but scholars believe that it most likely formally composed between the sixth and eighth centuries BCE. Prior to that, some version of the epic likely existed within the ancient Greek oral tradition, and stories about the Trojan War date back to approximately the twelfth and thirteenth centuries BCE. 

The Odyssey is one of the oldest surviving pieces of Western literature, and it has been studied extensively by both literary and historical scholars. However, the historicity of the events are still the subject of debate, with many scholars asserting that the Trojan War is purely mythical. Regardless, the Odyssey offers insight into the values, plots, and themes that were important to Homer’s contemporary Iron Age Greeks, and many of the practices depicted and materials described appear to accurately reflect earlier Bronze Age Greek society, the era in which the Trojan War supposedly occurred.

From a literary standpoint, the word “odyssey” has come to describe an epic voyage, like the one that Odysseus undergoes in Homer’s epic. Whether mental or physical, an odyssey is an arduous journey that tests the wit, courage, strength, and values of a character, and the concept has inspired many future works, such as James Joyce’s Ulysses and J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit. Furthermore, just as the plot of the Odyssey is informed by ancient Greek customs, the epic itself went on to influence future generations. Homer’s literary style and the themes explored within the Odyssey surrounding home, family, friendship, intelligence, piety, and cunning have had a lasting impact on Western literature and culture.

A Brief Biography of Homer

Homer is the name given to an ancient Greek poet, though to this day, there is continuing debate over whether or not the poet actually existed. And if he did, there are serious doubts about his authorship. Some contend that there is artistic unity within each of Homer’s epic poems, yet others believe the works to be the effort of multiple contributors. The style of the poetry has its roots in oral tradition, and some liken Homer’s writings to the Sanskrit epic the Mahabharata, a poetic work that was edited, expanded, and rewritten by many hands over its lengthy history. Although these issues of authorship can never be resolved conclusively, the man known as Homer—whether fiction, legend, or flesh-and-blood poet—is still revered for his highly influential works, the Iliad and the Odyssey.

Frequently Asked Questions about The Odyssey

The Odyssey

Homer’s Odyssey is considered one of the most important and influential literary works of all time. The epic poem is thought to have been composed around the 8th century BCE, and it is in part the...

Latest answer posted September 23, 2020, 2:41 pm (UTC)

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The Odyssey

While there are many potential lessons to be learned from the Odyssey, one significant thing the text teaches us is the characteristics of a hero in the world of ancient Greece. As the hero of the...

Latest answer posted September 23, 2020, 11:30 am (UTC)

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The Odyssey

Homer’s Odyssey is an epic poem that tells the story of Odysseus, a hero of the Trojan War and the king of Ithaca, and his arduous journey home from Troy. Odysseus faces a host of challenges,...

Latest answer posted September 23, 2020, 1:49 pm (UTC)

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The Odyssey

The Odyssey is an episodic poem with various climactic moments in Odysseus's individual adventures. These often occur as Odysseus reveals his identity, a vital matter for a Greek hero who would...

Latest answer posted September 23, 2020, 12:17 pm (UTC)

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The Odyssey

Odysseus and his men are trapped inside the lair of Polyphemus, where they are being picked off and eaten one by one by the hungry Cyclops. Odysseus then comes up with a brilliant, audacious plan...

Latest answer posted September 23, 2020, 11:16 am (UTC)

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The Odyssey

Not all the gods hate Odysseus, but Poseidon—the god of the sea—certainly does. Poseidon is the father of Polyphemus, the Cyclops that Odysseus blinds when he and his crew land on the Island of the...

Latest answer posted September 23, 2020, 4:54 pm (UTC)

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The Odyssey

During Odysseus's twenty-year absence from Ithaca, Penelope finds herself besieged by suitors, who think, or pretend to think, that her husband will never return from Troy. As the years pass, she...

Latest answer posted September 23, 2020, 11:50 am (UTC)

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The Odyssey

Although Odysseus has arrived back in his homeland in Ithaca, he doesn't reveal his true identity right away. He still plans to settle scores with Penelope's suitors, but he doesn't simply head to...

Latest answer posted September 23, 2020, 11:43 am (UTC)

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The Odyssey

In the story, Circe tells Odysseus that the Sirens are formidable creatures. They are beautiful and unimaginably seductive. With their voices, they lure men to their deaths. To her recollection, no...

Latest answer posted September 23, 2020, 6:41 pm (UTC)

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The Odyssey

Odysseus is a very muscular and strong warrior. Part of his claim to fame rests on his reputation as a fierce and powerful fighter on the battlefield. However, a second, extremely important part of...

Latest answer posted September 23, 2020, 11:58 am (UTC)

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The Odyssey

When Odysseus is leaving Circe with his men to sail onward toward his home, Circe advises him to beware of the sirens. The song of these creatures is so beautiful and alluring that it leads humans...

Latest answer posted September 23, 2020, 11:39 am (UTC)

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The Odyssey

Odysseus is loyal to Penelope in some ways, though not in others. For instance, he is not sexually faithful to her, as he does sleep with both Circe and Calypso multiple times over many years. He...

Latest answer posted September 23, 2020, 11:42 am (UTC)

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The Odyssey

The Odyssey starts with an invocation to the Muse, a prayer to Calliope, goddess of epic poetry, to inspire the poet and help him to tell his story. Following is the invocation in Samuel Butler's...

Latest answer posted September 23, 2020, 2:23 pm (UTC)

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The Odyssey

In the Odyssey, Penelope is depicted as a loyal wife and clever woman who carefully outwits the suitors by delaying her marriage and creating a contest that only Odysseus can win. While Odysseus...

Latest answer posted September 23, 2020, 12:46 pm (UTC)

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The Odyssey

Odysseus is exceptionally clever and is portrayed in the Iliad and other sources as an excellent adviser to other leaders. In the Odyssey, however, he appears as a disastrously bad leader. The acid...

Latest answer posted September 23, 2020, 11:29 am (UTC)

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The Odyssey

There can be little doubt that Odysseus loves Penelope. For one thing, his overriding objective in the Odyssey is to reunite with her after twenty years, two whole decades, of epic wandering. If...

Latest answer posted September 23, 2020, 11:55 am (UTC)

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The Odyssey

The Odyssey (and by extension, its predecessor, the Iliad) is not a true story. In fact, the Trojan War itself more than likely never occurred—at least not as Homer or other storytellers present...

Latest answer posted September 23, 2020, 11:30 am (UTC)

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The Odyssey

Honor was a particularly important value in ancient Greece. It should come as no surprise, then, that the importance of acting honorably should constitute the main message of Homer's Odyssey....

Latest answer posted September 23, 2020, 12:15 pm (UTC)

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The Odyssey

The Odyssey is not in any sense a tragedy. Classified by genre, it is an epic poem, as are the Iliad, the Aeneid, the Divine Comedy, and Paradise Lost. However, while the Iliad is an epic that is...

Latest answer posted September 23, 2020, 11:11 am (UTC)

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Summary