The Odyssey Study Guide
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.