The Odyssey Summary

The Odyssey summary

Twenty years have passed since Greek hero Odysseus left Ithaca to fight in the Trojan War. He has spent the last ten years trying to get home, but has been prevented from doing so by gods, goddesses, and sirens.

  • Odysseus' wife Penelope has been plagued by suitors, who have been systematically eating up Odysseus' estate. She holds off the suitors by refusing to marry until she finishes her weaving.

  • Odysseus’s son Telemachus sneaks off the island to find his father. He's told by Menelaus that Odysseus is being held captive by Calypso. Meanwhile, the suitors plan to kill Telemachus.

  • Athena manipulates events to free Odysseus from Calypso. When an angry Poseidon wrecks Odysseus's raft, the hero is forced to swim to the island of the Phaeacians. There, he recounts his adventures since the Trojan War, describing Circe and the Cyclops.

  • The Phaeacians help Odysseus return home. He disguises himself as a beggar as he plans his revenge. With the help of Telemachus, he kills Penelope’s suitors. Penelope and Odysseus are finally reunited.


Summary of the Work
Odysseus, lord of the isle of Ithaca, has been missing from his kingdom for twenty years. The first ten were spent fighting in the Trojan War, and the next ten were spent in continual wanderings en route home from the war. His wife Penelope, meanwhile, has been harassed by dozens of suitors who have come to win her hand in marriage. Penelope, desperately clinging to the hope that her husband is still alive, tries to stall the suitors by making them an idle promise: she will choose a husband from among them when she has finished weaving a burial shroud for her father-in-law, Laertes, who presently lives on a farm removed from the main city. However, when alone at night, Penelope secretly undoes the work of the shroud so that the fabrication of the garment will go on indefinitely. Unfortunately, the ruse has been discovered by the suitors, who now demand she choose one of them immediately.

The suitors, who have been awaiting her decision for several years, have in the meantime spent their days feasting in Odysseus’ hall. In so doing, they are devouring his livestock and abusing his servants. The direct victim of their voracious behavior is Tele-machus, the son of Odysseus who is now approaching manhood. Telemachus, who is the heir of Odysseus’ property and title, is constantly derided and taunted by the suitors who waste his father’s household.

Athene, goddess of wisdom and daughter of Zeus, begs her father to allow Odysseus to return home at last, for he has languished for seven years on the isle of the nymph Calypso, who holds him captive. Despite his brother Poseidon’s hatred of Odysseus because of the fate of Polyphemus, Zeus yields to his daughter. Obtaining permission and aid from her father, Athene comes down from Mount Olympus to visit Telemachus in disguise. She convinces him that he should sail abroad and seek information concerning his father.

Though feeling hopeless concerning his father’s fate, Tele-machus agrees to the journey. Athene manages to get together a crew and ship for Telemachus, and he departs without informing his mother or the suitors. When his mother finds out, she despairs with the thought that Telemachus will share his father’s fate. The suitors, angered at Telemachus’ departure, sail out themselves to set an ambush for his return.

Telemachus arrives at Pylus with Athene, who is disguised as the elder friend of Odysseus, Mentor. There Telemachus is warmly received and entertained by the aged Nestor, the famous counselor of the Trojan War. Nestor informs Telemachus of the various ill-fated homecomings of the Greeks, especially the fate of Agamemnon, commander of the Greeks at Troy, who was slain by his wife, Clytemnestra, and her lover, Aegisthus. He then advises Telemachus to visit Menelaus, Agamemnon’s brother, where he rules in Sparta. Borrowing a chariot from Nestor, Telemachus travels to Sparta with Peisistratus, Nestor’s son.

Menelaus and his queen, Helen, whose retreat with Paris instigated the Trojan War, entertain Telemachus with splendor. Menelaus tells his guests of his own wanderings which resulted in his encounter with the Old Man of the Sea, Proteus. Capturing Proteus to obtain information concerning his own homecoming, Menelaus inadvertently discovered Odysseus’ fate: namely, his imprisonment on Calypso’s isle. Although unsure if Odysseus survived the intervening years, Menelaus is able to offer this information to Telemachus, who is still pessimistic concerning his father’s fate.

Meanwhile, the god Hermes has been sent to Calypso’s isle to demand Odysseus’ liberation in Zeus’s name. The nymph reluctantly agrees, and sends Odysseus on his way in a raft of his own making. However, Poseidon sees Odysseus’ escape, and sends a storm to destroy him. With the help of Athene and the sea goddess, Leukothea, Odysseus is able to swim for several days and land exhausted on the isle of the Phaeaceans: Scheria. After having secured shelter for himself beneath a bush, Odysseus is wakened the next morning by the playful dancing of Nausikaa, Princess of the Phaeaceans, and the handmaids who accompany her to do the palace laundry. Odysseus and Nausikaa encounter each other, and the latter agrees to take him to the palace of her father, Alcinoös.

Odysseus, aided again by Athene, is welcomed warmly by Alcinoös and his queen, Arete. There is great feasting accompanied by the singing of the blind bard Demodocus, who recounts many of the Greek heroes’ exploits in the Trojan War as well as narrating an amusing tale of the gods. There are also great games played in which Odysseus reluctantly takes part with great success. Having heard of Odysseus’ journey from Calypso’s isle, Alcinoös agrees to assist Odysseus with the Phaeaceans’ magic ships, which can reach any destination in the world and return in a single day. However, Odysseus’ hosts remain ignorant of his identity. When they learn he is the famous adventurer, Odysseus, they demand he tell them of his many adventures.

Odysseus begins his tale with the departure of his twelve ships from Troy and his early encounters with the Ciconians and Lotus-Eaters. He then recounts his adventure with Polyphemus the Cyclops. Having left most of his fleet at a different part of the Cyclopes’ isle, Odysseus explored the strange land in his own vessel. He chose twelve men from his ship to join him in exploring the cavernous home of Polyphemus. However, when Polyphemus returned to his lair, he rolled a great stone over the entrance to his cave and proceeded to eat Odysseus’ men two at a time, till only six remained with their leader. Odysseus tricked Polyphemus into drinking a potent wine unmixed with water, and while the giant Cyclops snored drunkenly, Odysseus and his men gouged out Polyphemus’ eye with a wooden stake. Odysseus’ cunning allowed them to escape the cave despite Polyphemus’ attempts to block the cave entrance with his body. After his ship set out to sea to rejoin his fleet, he called to taunt Polyphemus, and the latter cursed him in his father Poseidon’s name. This is how Odysseus incurred the enmity of this powerful deity.

Odysseus next borrowed from Aeolus the divine bag which sealed up the world’s winds. However, Odysseus’ greedy companions meant to seize some of their master’s treasure, and unintentionally released all the winds at once. The fleet of ships was swept back to the island of Aeolus, who angrily banished the miserable Odysseus from his island. Odysseus’ ships then met disaster in the land of the enormous Laistrygones. Caught by surprise, all his moored ships but his own personal vessel were speared by the giants and carried off. Odysseus’ ship escaped alone. They arrived next on Circe’s island, and half the party was sent ahead to explore a visible column of smoke. Eurylochus, Odysseus’ second-in-command, led the men to Circe’s cottage. The men entered at Circe’s invitation, but Eurylochus himself refused to enter. Once inside, the men feasted with Circe, who transformed them into swine. Eurylochus escaped to inform Odysseus, who returned alone to face Circe. Aided by the herb moly bestowed on him by Hermes, Odysseus overcame Circe’s sorceries and demanded his men’s return. Circe complied, and was thereafter benevolent to Odysseus’ party.

Circe entertained Odysseus’ men for some time, then warned them that their journey could only continue after they had consulted the land of the dead. Though dreading the journey, Odysseus’ men accompanied him on a voyage into the Underworld. Once there, Odysseus encountered the soul of the prophet Teiresias, who told him how to reach his home and informed him of the final journey he would make in years to come. Odysseus also saw the spirit of his mother, Anticlea, and the spirits of queens from many ages and lands. He also interviewed the souls of his deceased Greek comrades from the Trojan War, Agamemnon and Achilles. He finally witnessed the spirits of many dead spirits in torment, including Heracles, Tantalus, and Sisyphus.

Returning to Circe’s island, Odysseus was given warning by the sorceress how to avoid the horrible fates associated with the Sirens’ isle and the passage between Scylla and Charybdis. She also warned him to spare the cattle of Helius that reside on the island Thrinacea. Odysseus set out from Circe’s isle, and his men plugged their ears versus the Sirens’ singing, although Odysseus himself, tied to a mast, listened to their beguiling voices. His men then navigated the ship through the perilous cliffs inhabited by Scylla, a monstrous beast with six heads that reach down from towering heights, and Charybdis, a disastrous whirlpool. Avoiding Charybdis, the men were victimized by Scylla, who carried off six of their number before the ship was clear of the dangerous passage.

Odysseus’ ship became stranded by storm winds on Thrinacea, despite Odysseus’ hope to avoid this island. When their ship could not set out because of poor winds, the men broke down and devoured several of Helius’ cattle. When the winds finally died down and the ship set sail, Helius coerced Zeus into punishing the ship. Zeus sent down a lightning bolt which destroyed the ship and all its crew except Odysseus, who floated off on a makeshift raft. He was carried all the way back to Charybdis, where he narrowly avoided death in the whirlpool. Odysseus finally came to be stranded on Calypso’s island, and it is here that his tale ends.

The Phaeaceans are pleased with his tale. After they shower him with gifts that exceed the value of his lost treasure, Odysseus sets out in the magical ships of the Phaeaceans. While Odysseus himself sleeps peacefully on board, the Phaeaceans reach Ithaca in a matter of hours. Without waking him, the Phaeaceans disembark Odysseus and his goods. They return to Scheria, but are turned to stone by Poseidon when they are within sight of their harbor. Alcinoös recognizes the portent as the sign of an old prophecy at last fulfilled.

Odysseus awakens on Ithaca at last, but is unsure of his locale until he meets with Athene, who advises him concerning the situation in his kingdom and transforms him into the shape of an old beggar. Odysseus sets out and meets with Eumaeus the swineherd, who accepts Odysseus as a guest in his shelter and unwittingly reveals his loyalty to his master.

Telemachus begs his leave of Menelaus, and returns with Peisistratus to Pylus. Before setting sail to Ithaca, Telemachus is joined by the fugitive prophet, Theoclymenus. Forewarned by Athene concerning the suitors’ ambush, Telemachus avoids the trap and lands safely on shore. He sends his companions with the prophet on to the main city, while he himself, inspired by Athene, travels alone to Eumaeus’ dwelling.

Telemachus meets his disguised father at the swineherd’s shelter, and while Eumaeus is away informing Penelope of her son’s return, Odysseus reveals himself to his overjoyed son; the two then commence hatching out a plan for the suitors’ death.

After Eumaeus has returned, Telemachus returns to his household and the suitors, who have since abandoned their hope for ambushing their host. Shortly thereafter, Eumaeus and Odysseus head toward the main city. Along the way, they meet with the scurrilous Melanthius the goatherd, who rudely accosts Odysseus. Odysseus and Eumaeus arrive at last at Odysseus’ palace, where Odysseus enters and begs from the suitors. While many of the suitors pity his appearance, some of them abuse him severely. Among those who abuse him most are the two leaders of the suitors, Antinoös and Eurymachos.

After the suitors return to their homes for the evening, Odysseus and Telemachus hide the armor and weapons that are normally kept in the main hall. Penelope then summons Odysseus in his beggar guise to her presence so that she may question him concerning his alleged claim to knowledge of her lost husband’s whereabouts. During the interview, Penelope never suspects the beggar’s identity. She is pleased by his talk of Odysseus, however, and orders the aged servant, Eurycleia, who nursed both Odysseus and Telemachus, to wash Odysseus’ feet. While doing so, Eurycleia notices a scar on Odysseus’ leg that he had received during a hunting incident while visiting the family of his maternal grandfather, Autolycus. Eurycleia almost reveals Odysseus’ identity, but he quickly silences her.

The suitors arrive the next day, as do Eumaeus and Philoitius, an oxherd who has remained loyal to Odysseus. The suitors are soon gripped by a divinely sent, though temporary, hysteria. Theo-cly-menus, who has returned to the household, interprets this as a foreboding of doom. The fugitive prophet is ignored, however, so he leaves in despair. Penelope arrives bearing Odysseus’ famous bow, which he did not carry with him to Troy, and proposes that the one suitor who can string it and shoot an arrow through twelve axe handles may marry her. Telemachus sets up the axe handles, and attempts to string the bow himself, but eventually fails. One by one the suitors attempt to string the bow but with no success.

It is at this point that Odysseus pulls Eumaeus and Philoitius into another room and reveals himself to them. Now part of his conspiracy, the two loyal thralls agree to bar the doors and prepare to arm themselves at the critical moment. Penelope is sent away, and Eumaeus brings Odysseus the bow, much to the disapproval of the suitors. Odysseus quickly strings the bow and shoots through the axe handles. He next takes an arrow and shoots Antinoös through the throat. He finally reveals himself to them fully, and begins picking them off one by one with his bow and arrows. Meanwhile, Telemachus, Eumaeus, and Philoitius arm themselves, and when Odysseus runs out of arrows, he does likewise. However, Melanthius the goatherd sneaks out of the room and starts bringing equipment to the remaining suitors. He is eventually stopped and bound by Eumaeus and Philoitius, who then rejoin Odysseus and Telemachus in the final battle against the suitors.

Odysseus and his allies overcome and slay all the suitors, then execute Melanthius and the bondswomen who were loyal to the suitors. The palace is cleaned of bloodshed, and Penelope is brought into Odysseus’ presence. However, she refuses to believe that it is her husband until she craftily tricks him into revealing himself. She then embraces and accepts him, and they are reunited at last.

Meanwhile, the souls of the suitors arrive in the Underworld, and there Agamemnon asks them to relate the nature of their deaths. When he discovers that Odysseus has won back his home, the murdered general both rejoices and expresses envy at his friend’s success. In the morning, Odysseus leaves the palace and visits his father, Laertes. After some delay, Odysseus reveals his identity to his rejoicing father, who brings him and his followers into his house. However, the families of the suitors, having performed the funeral rites for their dead, seek to avenge their kinsmen’s deaths. They don armor and weaponry and march out to Laertes’ farm. Odysseus and his companions ready themselves for battle, but the skirmish has only begun when Athene intervenes and stifles any bloodshed. Odysseus then reconciles himself with his enemies and reestablishes himself in the land.

Meter and Style in the Odyssey

The Greek text of the Odyssey as we have it is written predominantly in Dactyllic Hexameter: each line consists of six metrical feet, each of which consists of a stressed syllable followed by two unstressed syllables. By no means are dactyls used exclusively. In fact, the last foot of every line usually ends in either a spondee (two stressed syllables) or a troche (one stressed syllable followed by one unstressed syllable). Spondees frequently replace dactyls in other parts of certain lines as well.

Homer’s style is famous for its flow and pacing. It is easy to follow and meant to be read briskly, unlike much modern poetry which is designed to be read carefully one line at a time. There are a wealth of details in descriptions, unlike other contemporary writings such as the Bible, which are reticent on all details but the most essential. Characterization is strong in Homer’s writing; each character, large or small, is a distinctive individual with independent motivations. On the other hand, character development over the course of the narrative is minimal; characters are what they are and changes in personality are usually insignificant. Finally, one should not be surprised by the frequent use of formulaic repetition and contextually unseemly epithets, for Homer’s narratives are the product of oral development, and these ingredients were essential to the spontaneous composition of oral poetry.

Estimated Reading Time
There are several excellent translations of the Odyssey in both poetry and prose; two of the most noted modern translations are those by Richmond Lattimore and Robert Fitzgerald. Each Book or chapter of the Odyssey can probably be read in an hour or two, so that a range of 25 to 50 hours span the average reading time of the poem as a whole.

The Odyssey Summary

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Read at its most basic level, the Odyssey recounts Odysseus’s struggles to return to his native island of Ithaca after ten years of fighting at Troy. It appears to be a highly particularized account of one warrior’s struggles and sufferings. No doubt exists that Odysseus remains the focus; though names of his crew appear at intervals, they collectively constitute a vehicle that gets their master part of the way home, and all of them die long before their master reaches home. Even the mythic Phaeacians, who literally place the sleeping hero on his remote western island, remain peculiarly nameless, except for the family that rules them, but Alcinous, Areté, and Nausicaä merely approve this final phase of the journey. The seafaring Phaeacians themselves suffer permanent hardship for their good deed: Poseidon landlocks their harbors in retribution for Odysseus’s having blinded Polyphemus the Cyclops, the sea-god’s monster son.

Once Odysseus finally realizes that the Phaeacians have actually returned him to Ithaca, and not merely abandoned him on a forsaken island in order to steal the treasure that their king had given to him, the hero proceeds to test everyone he meets, starting with Eumaeus, his swineherd, and Telemachus, the son whom he had to abandon in infancy in order to honor his commitment to fight at Troy. He tests his old nurse, Eurycleia, who, when she recognizes his scar received in youth during a boar hunt, appropriately venerates him. He tests his wife, Penelope, who has waited for Odysseus more than nineteen years, resisting more than a score of much younger suitors. Her stratagem of weaving and unweaving a funeral shroud for the aging Laërtes, Odysseus’s father, allows her to delay choosing a new husband, but it also allows this assortment of brash young men with decidedly uncourtly manners to move into Odysseus’s great hall and deplete the wealth of his household through their ceaseless banquets and irresponsible behavior. This irresponsibility extends to the moral sphere as well, for the suitors, in short order, corrupt the handmaidens of the household.

True to form, Odysseus arrives disguised as a beggar, tests the suitors, finds that they have abused the laws of hospitality, and kills them all. He ratifies this action by pronouncing moral judgment on the handmaidens, as well. Once they have cleaned the great hall of the suitors’ blood, he orders the handmaidens to be collectively hanged in the courtyard. While this mass slaughter is in progress, Phemius, the court rhapsode, is ordered by Odysseus to sing as loudly as possible to the loudest of musical accompaniments in order to cover the screams of those being killed. Furthermore, Odysseus enlists both Telemachus and Eumaeus as accomplices. The first thing that Odysseus and his nineteen-year-old son do together is, in effect, commit mass murder, then retreat to the suburban vineyard at which old Laërtes is awaiting the arrival of the fathers of the suitors, who are avid for vengeance. Another slaughter is about to begin when the goddess Athene, the mentor of Odysseus from the outset, calls a halt, and the Odyssey ends.

Seen in this way, Odysseus does not appear to be a very nice man, and certainly not very heroic. Even so, his epithet polutropos (many-wiled) implies that there is more to his character, and correspondingly to Homer’s poem, than this rather negative reading implies. Indeed, virtually every action of Odysseus admits of positive and negative interpretations. In this respect, Homer’s Odysseus mirrors humanity at large. To assess Odysseus positively, it is necessary to consider external particulars more carefully than has been done above. It is also important to bear in mind details that Homer assumes his audience knows and therefore does not, given the limited parameters of epic poetry, feel particularly obligated to supply.

First of all, Odysseus had never wanted to fight at Troy. He had been perfectly happy as king of his rural island with his young wife, Penelope, and infant son, Telemachus. He had even feigned madness by sowing his fields with salt instead of seed in order to escape his obligation to restore Helen to Menelaus. Canny Agamemnon, brother of Menelaus, recognized immediately, however, that this was a typical Odyssean ruse. To test Odysseus’s sanity, Agamemnon placed Telemachus in the path of the plowshare, and of course Odysseus had to turn the plow aside to spare the “seed” that he prized most of all: his son and heir. Homer knows that his audience will recognize immediately the disparate values of Odysseus and Agamemnon, for the latter would be willing to sacrifice his own daughter Iphigeneia in order to ensure a favorable wind for the departing armada. Agamemnon would, of course, pay the price for his moral lapse. Having escaped ten years of war with barely a scratch, his wife Clytemnestra, ironically Helen’s half sister, would murder him on the day of his return as he emerged from his bath.

Placing these sets of events beside each other shows the essential difference between Odysseus and Agamemnon. Odysseus privileges the values of home and family; Agamemnon quickly recognizes affronts to the honor of his clan but is willing to avenge these at the cost of his immediate family. Yet it is clear that the Trojan War has no positive effect on Odysseus. It forces him to place domestic considerations to one side and use his wiles in order to survive. Odysseus is, above all, a survivor, and his stratagems of the theft of the Palladium (the great statue of Athene in the citadel of Troy) and of the wooden horse ultimately bring victory to the Greek forces. Without them, the war would have continued even beyond the ten years specified in the myths.

That is the knowledge that Homer assumes, and the first item that he includes among Odysseus’s postwar exploits is that, after leaving Troy, Odysseus and his crew sack a town, that of the Cicones, who had been Trojan allies. Like many warriors, Odysseus has trouble laying aside the ways of war. What would have been acceptable behavior in the context of war becomes unacceptable afterward, yet Odysseus cannot recognize this fact. When he and his men arrive on the island of the Cyclops, the first thing that he and his men do is raid the stores of the Cyclops Polyphemus. Polyphemus is hardly a sympathetic creature. He is a giant, nonphiloprogenitive son of the sea-god Poseidon; like all Cyclops, he has in the middle of his forehead an eye the size of a wheel. This heterotopic eye effectively makes Polyphemus a symbol of irrationality, corresponding to the displaced moral environment in which Odysseus has functioned in the years since leaving Ithaca.

As Odysseus had eaten the food of Polyphemus without leave to do so, it is justifiable by the irrational standards of Polyphemus for the Cyclops to eat some of Odysseus’s crew, and he does so. When Polyphemus asks to know the name of their leader, Odysseus appropriately calls himself Outis (nobody), for he has, in effect, lost the dignity of a name derived from the infinitive odyssasthai (to be angry, wrathful). Wrath implies righteousness and reasonable cause, but the immediate history of Odysseus has allowed little chance for righteous anger. Once he blinds the Cyclops, however, Odysseus has neutralized one symbol of unreason in his world. When he follows this act by devising his crew’s escape from the Cyclops’s cave, strapping them to the undersides of Polyphemus’s sheep, he declares not only his name but also his patronymic and epithet to the monster: He is Odysseus, son of Laërtes, the sacker of cities.

Ironically, Odysseus’s bold insistence on his proper identity allows the anger of Poseidon to find its mark. Still, Odysseus has to identify himself fully in this way, even as he and his crew have to accept the consequences: long and hard struggles for the master and death by attrition for the crew. The crew, like the mass of humanity, satisfies itself with apparently easy courses of action and thereby defines life as existence that precedes death. As Homer kills them, singly and in groups, his audience wastes no mourning upon them; nor does Odysseus.

Though the crew appears largely as a collective entity, Homer makes clear that its individuals freely choose their doom. For example, the Lotos Eaters offer Odysseus’s crew lotos-fruit, which, when eaten, causes them to forget home and enjoy the earthly paradise of the present in which they find themselves. Forgetting one’s past is tantamount to abandoning the cause that produced the present and the impetus that impels the future. It is apparently easier to live in the eternal present, but doing so robs life’s journey of reason. The crew members who eat the lotos-fruit accept a form of the irrational with the excuse of world-weariness, but the drug culture of the Lotos Eaters is merely death in life.

When Odysseus’s crew taste the potion of the witch Circe, she transforms them into swine. Their almost unanimous collective identity had at least been human. After their transformation, they lose rationality, the highest human faculty; that happens because they had made insufficient use of the faculty. Hermes, Zeus’s messenger but also, fittingly, the guide to the Underworld, warns Odysseus to prepare himself for Circe’s magic by applying the molü (wild garlic), which he finds at his feet, before encountering the witch. Hermes also admonishes Odysseus to extract a promise from Circe not to emasculate him. In both respects, Hermes’ advice focuses on the weed to preserve a sense of personal identity and power. The herbal drug is as secondary in importance to the state of mind that it produces as the lotos-fruit had been in the Lotos Eaters episode. What is important is its obvious availability and the self-assurance that follows its use. It is worth noting that Odysseus temporarily loses sight of his personal mission to continue life’s journey, for he remains on Circe’s island until pressured to resume his adventures. In doing so, he comes dangerously close to accepting the paradisiacal present, essentially what the Lotos Eaters had offered. This lapse from obligation characterizes even the most heroic, however, and it underscores the fact that life’s journey is nonlinear; it rather assumes varying degrees of circularity that resemble the past, which spring from it but always differ. Life returns to its origins at its end, though the origins themselves appear other than what they had been.

Perhaps the Aeolus episode emphasizes the difference between Odysseus and his crew most profoundly of all. The king of the winds entrusts Odysseus with a sack filled with all winds, which could conceivably oppose Odysseus’s homeward journey. Aeolus appears to offer Odysseus an easy passage to his destination, but Odysseus must stay at the tiller nine days and nine nights, since he needs all his faculties to maintain his course. Within sight of Ithaca, Odysseus falls asleep, and this temporary loss of reason is enough to allow the jealousy and curiosity of his crew to surface. The crew resents the universal recognition that Odysseus receives and opens the sack thinking that it contains some special treasure that Odysseus does not wish to share. Immediately, the hostile winds blow Odysseus and his crew away from his homeland, and when the Ithacans reappear before Aeolus to request a second sack, the king refuses. This refusal is only right: Any benefaction requires personal responsibility for its proper use. Absent this responsibility, it becomes an imposed control that predetermines an outcome. Reaching the goal of the journey ultimately requires the skill of the traveler, not counting on the good fortune of meeting one’s personal equivalent of a sympathetic Aeolus to smooth the passage.

Even as the Phaeacians are returning Odysseus to Ithaca, Telemachus, at the instructions of Athene disguised as the traveler Mentes, is about to set sail in search of Odysseus’s whereabouts. The first four books of Homer’s poem thus belong firmly to Telemachus and represent the young man’s personal odyssey. Telemachus has never known his father, has seen only the aberrant, extended family that the arrival of the suitors has caused. His adventures in Odyssey 1 to 4 show him one family that respects moral values (that of Nestor of Pylos) and one that is entirely secular (that of Menelaus and Helen). Menelaus and Helen appear content, though the unease of their relationship is plain. It is only through an anodyne, which Helen adds to their wine, that they maintain this fragile equilibrium. They, like the crew members who had succumbed to the lotos-fruit or Circe’s potion, have chosen existence rather than life. Telemachus also refines his understanding of the laws of hospitality through gifts mutually offered and tactfully refused, as well as through his sagacity, the polytropic quality that characterizes his father. He manages to elude the suitors, who plan his assassination upon his return, and returns to the other side of his island and to the hut of Eumaeus, to be reunited with Odysseus and plot the extermination of the suitors.

The Odyssey Summary

The Background to the Story
After ten years, the Trojan War is over and the Achaeans head for home—with varying...

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The Odyssey Summary and Analysis

The Odyssey Book 1 Summary and Analysis

New Characters
Poseidon: god of the sea, enemy of Odysseus

Zeus: king of the gods

Athene: goddess of wisdom, Odysseus’ patron

Telemachus: Odysseus’ son

Phemius: bard forced to sing for the suitors

Penelope: Odysseus’ wife, mother of Telemachus

Antinoös: leader and most brazen of the suitors

Eurymachus: crafty co-leader of the suitors

Eurycleia: aged maid who nursed both Odysseus and Telemachus

The narrator calls upon the Muse to help him narrate the story of Odysseus’ wanderings and homecoming. We learn that he is imprisoned on...

(The entire section is 852 words.)

The Odyssey Book 2 Summary and Analysis

New Characters
Mentor: aged protector of Odysseus’ property

Halitherses: prophetic Ithacan who predicts Odysseus’ homecoming

Telemachus arises in the morning and calls the people of Ithaca together for an assembly. This is the first time since Odysseus’ departure for Troy that such a gathering has taken place. With a divine air of grace bestowed on him by Athene, Telemachus addresses the people, who are impressed by his speech. He demands that they take some action against the suitors and their outrages against his household and possessions.

Antinoös retorts that the cause of Telemachus’ troubles lies not in the suitors but in...

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The Odyssey Book 3 Summary and Analysis

New Characters
Nestor: the aged counselor of the Greeks during the Trojan War

Peisistratus: the youngest son of Nestor

Telemachus’ ship arrives safely on the Greek mainland at the city of Pylus. This is the domain of Nestor, the aged counselor of the Greek forces at Troy; he is renowned for his wisdom and strategy. The Pylians are in the midst of celebrating a feast dedicated to Poseidon, the Earthshaker. Seeing Telemachus and Athene (still disguised as Mentor) approaching from the shore, Nestor’s sons greet them heartily and invite them to the feast. Foremost among the sons in greeting the new arrivals is Peisistratus, Nestor’s youngest son who is...

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The Odyssey Book 4 Summary and Analysis

New Characters
Menelaus: the king of Sparta

Helen: his wife, instigator of the Trojan War

Eidothea: daughter of Proteus

Proteus: sea god interrogated by Menelaus during his travels

Ajax Oïleus: blasphemous Greek who pulled Cassandra from Athene’s temple

Medon: a herald who remains loyal to Penelope and Telemachus

Telemachus and Peisistratus arrive in Sparta and enter Menelaus’ palace. They are warmly received during a wedding celebration in honor of Menelaus’ two children. Megapenthes, the king’s son through a bondswoman, is about to marry a Spartan woman, and Hermione, the only child of Helen, is...

(The entire section is 1260 words.)

The Odyssey Book 5 Summary and Analysis

New Characters
Hermes: the messenger of Zeus

Calypso: nymph who holds Odysseus captive for seven years

Odysseus: the epic hero of the narrative

Leukothea: sea goddess who aids Odysseus in his plight

At a council of the gods, Athene renews her suit to Zeus to free Odysseus from Calypso’s isle. Zeus complies, and sends Hermes on his way to break the news to Calypso. Hermes descends to earth from Mount Olympus, and alights on Calypso’s isle. There, he tells the beautiful goddess that Zeus wills her to release Odysseus. Though distraught and angry over Zeus’s decree, Calypso obeys. After Hermes has...

(The entire section is 1165 words.)

The Odyssey Book 6 Summary and Analysis

New Characters
Nausikaa: princess of the Phaeaceans who greets Odysseus on Scheria

Alcinoös: king of the Phaeaceans

Arete: queen of the Phaeaceans

While Odysseus sleeps peacefully out in the wilderness of Scheria, Athene appears to Nausikaa, princess of the Phaeaceans and daughter of King Alcinoös, in a dream vision. Disguised as one of Nausikaa’s young friends, Athene suggests that Nausikaa be a dutiful daughter and potential wife, and go to wash the palace laundry. Upon awakening, Nausikaa requests a mule-drawn cart from her father, who allows her to bring the wash down to the river with some of her...

(The entire section is 645 words.)

The Odyssey Book 7 Summary and Analysis

Nausikaa returns to the palace, where a maid prepares her a meal. Odysseus himself eventually heads toward the city and is greeted by Athene, who is disguised as a young girl. Athene offers to guide Odysseus to the palace of Alcinoös. In order to avoid rude inquiry, she forms a magical mist around Odysseus which renders him invisible to his surroundings. Leading him to the palace, Athene tells Odysseus that he will be accepted by the Phaeaceans if he is able to win the favor of the queen, Arete, whose people love her well. Athene then departs from Scheria, and journeys to Athens.

Odysseus admires Alcinoös’ splendid palace, which is worked in finely...

(The entire section is 782 words.)

The Odyssey Book 8 Summary and Analysis

New Characters
Demodocus: the blind bard who entertains Odysseus and the Phaeaceans

Laodamas: the son of Alcinoös and one of the greatest athletes of Scheria

Euryalus: a Phaeacean athlete who insults Odysseus

The next morning, Alcinoös orders a grand feast to be held in Odysseus’ honor. Disguised as Alcinoös’ herald, Pontonoös, Athene summons the mighty men of Scheria, including the twelve kings who reside on the island, to come to the feast. Alcinoös orders that a ship and companions be readied to speed Odysseus on his way. After his orders have been fulfilled, the Phaeacean king continues to entertain...

(The entire section is 1015 words.)

The Odyssey Book 9 Summary and Analysis

New Character
Polyphemus: a Cyclops who devours Odysseus’ men

Odysseus reveals his identity to the Phaeaceans, and then begins recounting his tales from the time of his departure from Troy. Sailing to the northwest along the coast of the Aegean Sea Odysseus and his fleet of twelve ships raided the Ciconian people, taking much booty and plunder. However, despite Odysseus’ entreaties for his men to take to sea, his men did not obey him. The coastal Ciconians summoned their inland brothers, who came and waged a fierce battle against Odysseus’ men, a struggle which eventually turned against the raiding Greeks. Odysseus lost over...

(The entire section is 1441 words.)

The Odyssey Book 10 Summary and Analysis

New Characters
Aeolus: the keeper of the magical bag of winds

Antiphates: king of the giant Laistrygones

Eurylochus: the leader of the expedition to Circe’s dwelling

Circe: the sorcerous goddess of the isle Aeaea

Elpenor: a young crewman of Odysseus who dies after a drunken fall

Aeolus, a king charged with caring for the world’s winds, entertained Odysseus and his men for a month on his island. He lent Odysseus the magical bag that keeps the winds so that his fleet might move under the steady West Wind until it reached Ithaca. However, as the fleet was within sight of its home...

(The entire section is 1034 words.)

The Odyssey Book 11 Summary and Analysis

New Characters
Teiresias: prophet of Thebes who retained his prescience after death

Anticleia: Odysseus’ mother

Agamemnon: commander of the Greek forces at Troy

Achilles: greatest hero of the Trojan War

Ajax Telamonius: burly hero of the Trojan War

Odysseus departed from Aeaea and sailed to the ends of the earth in search of Hades’ realm. Passing through the realm of the Cimmerians, which the sun never illuminates Odysseus and his men arrived on the outskirts of Hades’ kingdom. They disembarked and prepared a drink offering for the dead spirits in a shallow pit. Following Circe’s...

(The entire section is 1302 words.)

The Odyssey Book 12 Summary and Analysis

New Characters
Scylla: a horrendous monster with six heads extended on elongated necks

Charybdis: a terrible creature that takes the form of a devouring whirlpool

Helius: god of the sun

Odysseus’ men, having left the Underworld, arrived once more on Circe’s isle, Aeaea. There they immediately set about retrieving and burning Elpenor’s body, as his spirit had requested. Circe met Odysseus and crew down by their ship, and pulled Odysseus aside to advise him on his upcoming journey home.

She warned him of the Sirens, whose singing lured men to their island, where they would listen to the women’s...

(The entire section is 1218 words.)

The Odyssey Book 13 Summary and Analysis

Odysseus ends his tale, and the Phaeaceans, highly impressed, return to their homes for the evening. The next morning, at Alcinoös’ behest, the Phaeacean lords return to the palace to render Odysseus even costlier gifts than they had before. These are loaded aboard the ship reserved for Odysseus’ journey home. Alcinoös then begins another feast in Odysseus’ honor.

Odysseus, impatient to be on his way home, waits anxiously for evening to arrive. As Alcinoös yet again toasts Odysseus on his journey, the adventurer does not even stop to drink; he hands Arete his cup, says a quick farewell, and strides out of the hall and down to the ship. The Phaeaceans...

(The entire section is 1142 words.)

The Odyssey Book 14 Summary and Analysis

New Character
Eumaeus: Odysseus’ loyal swineherd

Odysseus sets out for the shelter of Eumaeus the swineherd as per Athene’s instructions. The faithful and loyal swineherd has kept Odysseus’ pigs in order and has tended them skillfully. As Odysseus approaches the crude dwelling, he is accosted by Eumaeus’ dogs; the swineherd himself, however, quickly comes to his rescue and brings him to his dwelling.

Eumaeus cares for Odysseus’ needs, feeding him immediately upon bringing him into his house. As he speaks to the disguised Odysseus, Eumaeus constantly makes references to his beloved master, whom he asserts is lost...

(The entire section is 1098 words.)

The Odyssey Book 15 Summary and Analysis

New Characters
Theoclymenus: a fugitive prophet from Argos

Peraeus: a loyal friend of Telemachus

Athene travels to Sparta and visits Telemachus in a dream. She tells him to take his leave of Menelaus quickly and return home so that he need not fear for the welfare of his goods. She informs him that Eurymachus has given the most presents to Icarius, Penelope’s father; Telemachus had best return home in case Penelope decides to give some of her son’s wealth to her prospective husband.

Telemachus awakens, and in the morning he and Peisistratus take their leave of Menelaus and Helen. However, the Spartan king first bestows a golden goblet and...

(The entire section is 1159 words.)

The Odyssey Book 16 Summary and Analysis

New Character
Amphinomus: the least violent of the suitors

Telemachus enters the dwelling of Eumaeus as the swineherd and Odysseus take their morning meal. Eumaeus, overjoyed to see Telemachus safely returned to Ithaca, embraces his master and weeps tears of joy. Telemachus questions Eumaeus about his guest, and the swineherd explains Odysseus’ fictional situation. Telemachus agrees to send the guest where he desires to go, but admits that present circumstances prohibit him from entertaining his guest at his own hall.

Telemachus sends Eumaeus off to secretly tell Penelope of her son’s return and relieve her of her...

(The entire section is 981 words.)

The Odyssey Book 17 Summary and Analysis

New Characters
Melanthius: a scornful goatherd

Argos: Odysseus’ faithful old dog

Eurynome: Penelope’s maidservant

In the morning, Telemachus leaves Eumaeus’ dwelling and returns to the palace, where he is greeted warmly by his mother and the many servants who feared for his life. Telemachus commands his mother to vow sacrifices to the gods should their hardships be avenged. Penelope obeys, while Telemachus himself goes to the place of assembly. There Telemachus meets Peraeus with Theoclymenus the prophet. Telemachus tells Peraeus to hold onto his Spartan treasures until the conflict with the suitors is resolved. Telemachus then returns...

(The entire section is 850 words.)

The Odyssey Book 18 Summary and Analysis

New Characters
Iros: a quarrelsome beggar

Melantho: an unkind maidservant

After Eumaeus has left, an angry beggar nicknamed Iros approaches the palace and threatens Odysseus with bodily harm should he fail to leave the place immediately. Odysseus resists the overbearing vagabond, and the suitors entertain themselves with the conflict. They set up a contest between the two of them, and Odysseus quickly knocks his fellow out and drags him away through the courtyard, much to the delight of the suitors.

The scandalous affair is not lost on Penelope, who is angry that the stranger should be so mistreated in her house....

(The entire section is 762 words.)

The Odyssey Book 19 Summary and Analysis

After the suitors have departed Odysseus and Telemachus remove the weapons and armor from the great hall and stow them in the upper chamber of the palace. Telemachus retires to his room, but Odysseus remains in the great hall until Penelope arrives and sits with him before a roaring fire. She questions him as to his name and country. When he initially attempts to avoid the issue, she leads the conversation by relating her own situation among the suitors and her attempt to stall them for as long as possible. When she again requests his identity, he tells her his name is Aethon from Crete. Altering the story he told Eumaeus significantly, he claims to be the younger...

(The entire section is 1016 words.)

The Odyssey Book 20 Summary and Analysis

New Characters
Philoitius: a loyal oxherd

Agelaus: a chief suitor

Odysseus beds down on the floor but is soon bothered by the noise of the disloyal maidservants fleeing the palace to make love to the suitors. Odysseus feels the urge to destroy them on the instant but eventually gains control of himself and lets them go for the moment. He then suffers a night of anxiety and restlessness. He fears that he will be unable to defeat the suitors due to their overwhelming numbers. Athene descends from Olympus, however, and reassures him that with her aid, he is able to accomplish virtually anything. She then drifts him off into a...

(The entire section is 811 words.)

The Odyssey Book 21 Summary and Analysis

New Character
Leodes: a suitor who serves as a diviner to his companions

Penelope ascends to the upper chamber of the palace where Odysseus’ famous bow is kept. Odysseus had received the mighty weapon years ago from Iphitus, a friend whom he met shortly before Iphitus’ death at the hands of Heracles. Odysseus had kept the bow in Ithaca when he left for Troy. Now Penelope retrieves the bow, its arrows, and her husband’s strong axes. She brings them down into the main hall and offers her challenge to the suitors: whoever strings the bow and shoots an arrow through twelve axe handles may claim Penelope as his bride. Antinoös, though...

(The entire section is 1364 words.)

The Odyssey Book 22 Summary and Analysis

New Character
Amphimedon: a suitor who later describes his death to Agamemnon (in Book XXIV)

Odysseus bounds from his chair and scatters his arrows on the floor beneath himself. He then lets another arrow fly straight into the throat of Antinoös. The suitors, amazed, believe Odysseus shot the man by accident and threaten to kill him for his carelessness. It is at this moment that Odysseus reveals his identity to them at last, and the men are deeply afraid of his wrath. Eurymachus tells Odysseus that the men will make restitution for their evil deeds, but the vengeful man will not be satisfied. Eurymachus then tries to lead the men in a...

(The entire section is 1158 words.)

The Odyssey Book 23 Summary and Analysis

Eurycleia, acting upon Odysseus’ orders, ascends merrily up to Penelope’s chamber and wakens her with the news of her husband’s return and the suitors’ destruction. But, believing her servant to have lost her wits, Penelope scolds the aged nurse for playing such a cruel jest on her. Eurycleia swears that what she has said is true, and she stakes her life on that truth. Penelope, however, is unconvinced, and thinks a god has entered her palace to punish the suitors.

Penelope enters the great hall and sits opposite Odysseus staring at him inquisitively but saying nothing to him. Telemachus rebukes his mother for her obstinacy, but Odysseus silences his...

(The entire section is 875 words.)

The Odyssey Book 24 Summary and Analysis

New Characters
Laertes: Odysseus’ father

Dolius: an aged servant of Laertes

Eupeithes: the vengeful father of Antinoös

Hermes leads the souls of the dead suitors down to Hades’ realm. There, Agamemnon and Achilles have been discussing their deaths. Agamemnon envies Achilles, whose body was fought over by his companions, and whose funeral rites were grand and accompanied by great games as befits a dead hero. Agamemnon, on the contrary, died ignobly at the hands of his wife, Clytemnestra, and her lover, Aegisthus. As the suitors approach the gates of the Underworld, the surprised Greek heroes approach them. Agamemnon singles out Amphimedon,...

(The entire section is 1345 words.)