Last Reviewed on June 23, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1211
The Odyssey opens with the narrator invoking the Muse, asking her to sing of Odysseus’s long journey home to Ithaca after the end of the Trojan War.
Ten years after the fall of Troy, Odysseus is being held as a captive guest on the island of Ogygia by the nymph Calypso. The goddess Athena implores her father, Zeus, to pity Odysseus and send the god Hermes to Ogygia to command Calypso to release him. Athena then comes to Ithaca in order to rouse Telemachus, Odysseus’s son, into action.
Disguised as Odysseus’s friend Mentes, Athena arrives at a banquet at Odysseus’s house, where Telemachus receives her hospitably. Telemachus privately complains to Athena about the current state of affairs: his father never returned from Troy, and young suitors have flocked to his mother, Penelope, each hoping to replace Odysseus as her husband. Moreover, the suitors have been eating up the stock of their estate. Athena assures Telemachus that Odysseus is alive and will soon return. She encourages Telemachus to stand up to the suitors and demand that they go home, then to embark on a voyage to speak with Nestor of Pylos and Menelaus of Sparta for news of his father. Telemachus addresses the suitors and insists that though he might not succeed his father as king, he should remain the ruler of his own house.
The next morning, Telemachus calls for an assembly, during which he chastises the suitors for destroying his home and wealth. Antinous, one of the suitors, replies that Penelope is to blame for having deceived them: she had promised to marry one of the suitors after she had finished weaving a shroud for Laertes, Odysseus’s father, but at night she had secretly undone her weaving, and had carried on this subterfuge for three years. The suitors demand that Penelope either be expelled from the house or forced to marry one of them. Telemachus refuses, explaining that he could never do this to his mother, especially as Penelope’s father, Icarius, would make him pay, and Penelope herself would call upon the Furies. He threatens that if the suitors continue to slaughter his livestock for nothing in return, they, too, shall be slaughtered. Then Zeus sends an omen in the form of two eagles, which the elderly leader Halitherses prophesies as a sign of the close return of Odysseus and a massacre falling upon the suitors. Eurymachus, a suitor, dismisses the omen and goes on to say that they are unafraid of anyone and will continue their activities until Penelope relents and chooses a husband.
Telemachus prays to Athena for guidance; Athena, in the guise of Odysseus’s friend Mentor, asks Telemachus to ready a ship while she scouts for a crew. Telemachus asks the servant Eurycleia, his old nurse, to prepare provisions for his trip that night. Eurycleia weeps, asking why he has to leave on such a dangerous journey. He explains that a god is on his side and makes her swear to make no mention of it to his mother, at least until after twelve days have passed or Penelope has discovered the news herself. Meanwhile, after having rounded up a crew while disguised as Telemachus, Athena causes all the suitors to fall asleep in Odysseus’s hall. Appearing as Mentor once again, she calls to Telemachus that his ship is ready to sail.
The next day they arrive at Pylos, the home of Nestor, where Telemachus hesitates about disembarking. Athena, as Mentor, steels his courage, assuring him that he will find the words he needs. Nestor and his sons are feasting in the center of town, and when Nestor asks Telemachus’s reason for visiting, Telemachus replies that he is searching for news of his lost father and has come to hear whatever stories Nestor has about him. Nestor explains that it would take years to tell all the stories of what occurred at Troy but remarks that Odysseus’s stratagems during the war were unmatched. However, he has heard no news of Odysseus since the war. The last he saw of him was when Menelaus and Agamemnon had a fight. Menelaus had wanted to sail back to Greece as quickly as possible, and Nestor went with him, while Agamemnon and Odysseus wanted to delay in order to make sacrifices to Athena. Nestor explains that he and others managed to return home, including Agamemnon, who was murdered by Aegisthus and Agamemnon’s wife, Clytemnestra. Nestor wishes for Telemachus to find the honor that Agamemnon’s son Orestes found in avenging his father. He tells him to visit Menelaus and asks his son Pisistratus to escort Telemachus to Sparta.
The very first adjective Homer applies to Odysseus is the Greek word polytropos, which comes from poly- (meaning “many”) and trope (meaning “turn”). This adjective has a certain complexity to it that does not carry over easily to English translations. In the Fitzgerald translation, polytropos is rendered as “skilled in all ways of contending,” and in the Fagles, it is “a man of many twists and turns.” The word carries with it the connotation of cleverness (as one who has many “twists and turns” will tend to find unexpected ways around obstacles), but it also carries with it the suggestion of a lost wanderer, as Odysseus is (the “turns” in this case meaning that Odysseus is constantly “turned” about by the whims of the gods). There is also the connotation of “turn” as “becoming,” as in “he turned bad,” and so there is also some nod here to the complexity and changing nature of Odysseus’s reputation and character.
The word polytropos captures much of the spirit of The Odyssey: invention and cleverness, journeys and changes and transitions, lies and stories, caprice and destiny and responsibility. And in the lines that follow, one of the central questions of the poem arises: the implicit question of Odysseus’s failure to come home safely with his original spoils and compatriots. After all, if he is so clever, then how did he come to lose so much? Part of this, as the narrative explains, can be attributed to the gods and, as some of the language suggests, to the foolishness and greed of his own men. But as Zeus quickly points out in the beginning (though it is a point broadly applicable in the story), quite often the failings of men fall squarely on their own shoulders, however they like to blame the heavens. In later books, Odysseus himself will recount these disasters—a fact that in itself creates room for critical doubt, given that Odysseus presents his misfortunes in a situation where he has to frame them in a way that builds up his own reputation.
Another feature worth discussing in these books is the decision to begin at home with Telemachus and Penelope, rather than immediately with Odysseus. For one thing, this creates the opportunity for Odysseus to tell his story in retrospect, allowing the tale to be more compact and well-shaped (as well as filtered by his own motivations). It also puts the end point of the story in clear view, as the reader is liable to infer that Odysseus will return just in time to put things right.
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