Odysseus, king of Ithaca, subdues a revolt against him soon after his return from the Trojan War. Growing discontent with the routine obligations of lawgiver, husband, and father, he builds a ship, forms a crew of similarly individualistic characters, and begins another journey—of no return. In Sparta, Odysseus tempts Helen to abandon, once again, her life of sumptuous boredom and accompany him. The shipmates next anchor in Crete, where, outraged by the disparity of wealth between the hedonistic court elite, presided over by the indolent King Idomeneus, and the impoverished kingdom, Odysseus leads an uprising of slaves and invading barbarians. Helen becomes the lover of one of the Dorian invaders and chooses to remain in Crete, to rear her child—a symbol for Kazantzakis of the golden age of Greece yet to come—when the conquering shipmates sail on.
In contrast to the triumphant overthrow of the Cretan court, Odysseus and his crew next join forces with revolutionaries and barbarians in Egypt to fight against a much larger and stronger army, at whose hands they meet bloody defeat, barely surviving. They become prisoners in an Egyptian dungeon. Odysseus eventually manages to terrify the superstitious Pharaoh, who banishes him into the desert. Having observed the corruption and injustice of various civilizations, Odysseus determines to create a type of utopian society for the ranks of the lawless and dejected who had followed him into exile, and for his remaining crew. Enduring a slow, painful desert flight, and skirmishes with fierce African tribes, Odysseus formulates plans for an ideal city.
At the moment he concludes the exodus to the sea, Odysseus withdraws from his followers to fast and meditate, commencing an inward, spiritual journey from which he emerges with a new concept of God—the epitome of the evolutionary force present in all life. Great celebrations set to mark the foundation of the city are halted by a devastating earthquake. Odysseus’s efforts to create an ideal society are laid waste and, for the first time, he is without companionship.
Repudiating his long attempts to clarify a concept of God, Odysseus substitutes the creative power of the human mind as the object of his intense religious devotion and invokes an image of death—anthropomorphized as his identical twin—for his constant companion. Odysseus presses his journey toward the southern tip of Africa, as word of Odysseus the ascetic spreads across the land.
Before leaving on a last sea voyage, Odysseus meets prominent religious figures, unique thinkers, and literary characters, such as Christ, Buddha, Faust, and Don Quixote. Odysseus spends his final moments in human company in an Eskimo village (where he is hailed as a god). Although for the humble Eskimos hope means merely clinging to the will to survive until spring, as spring arrives, it brings death and wholesale destruction. As Odysseus paddles away from the village, he watches as once again the sudden, inescapable churning of the earth decimates the society that had nurtured him.
Once alone on the frozen seas, Odysseus paddles toward the unsetting sun, and bids a mystical farewell to life. When his skiff rams an iceberg, he leaps onto its frigid surface and hangs there. As his life slips away, Odysseus thanks his five senses for the earthly aid they had...
(The entire section is 821 words.)