The Odyssey Characters
The main characters of The Odyssey are Odysseus, Penelope, Telemachus, and Athena.
- Odysseus is a hero of the Trojan War and the king of Ithaca. After the war, he spends ten years trying to return home, encountering many trials along the way.
- Penelope is Odysseus’s devoted wife. She delays her suitors by refusing to marry until she has finished weaving a shroud that she cleverly unravels every night.
- Telemachus is Odysseus’s son. An infant when his father left for Troy, he is now a young man.
- Athena, the goddess of wisdom and battle, watches over Odysseus and Telemachus and aids them in defeating Penelope’s suitors.
Last Updated on June 25, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1509
Odysseus, son of Laertes and Anticleaia, is the king of Ithaca and hero of The Odyssey. After playing an instrumental role in the victory of the Achaeans at Troy, he struggles to return home. He roams the seas for almost two decades, encountering monsters and other perils along the way. When he finally arrives on Ithaca, he must reckon with the wicked suitors who have overrun his household.
In some ways, Odysseus is a prime example of a Homeric hero: he exhibits strength, skill, determination, courage, and moral responsibility throughout the epic. His most valuable skill, however, is his intellect, which allows him to manipulate and triumph over situations that would confound a hero like Hercules, whose power lies in physical strength only. While Odysseus is physically powerful, it is primarily his wit that enables him to accomplish feats such as escaping from the Cyclops Polyphemus in book 9 and fooling the suitors near the end of the epic.
Odysseus’s intelligence makes him the favorite mortal of the goddess Athena, who guides him on his journey and aids his revenge upon the suitors and reunion with his family. His pride, however, incurs the wrath of the god Poseidon, who attempts to keep Odysseus lost at sea. By the time he reaches Ithaca, Odysseus seems less inclined to act on his pride, instead choosing to remain patient until the time comes to reveal himself and reclaim his estate.
Telemachus is the son of Odysseus and Penelope. He grew up without a father, as Odysseus went off to fight in Troy when he was an infant. Over the course of The Odyssey, Telemachus grows to manhood with the assistance of the goddess Athena, who protects him and instructs him in the responsibilities of a prince.
With Athena’s assistance, the helplessness Telemachus demonstrates at the beginning of the epic gradually subsides. He displays a newfound confidence when he confronts the suitors, condemning the way they have taken over his home and abused his mother’s hospitality. Telemachus is still young, however, and lacks his parents’ slyness and experience. In book 22, he accidentally leaves a storeroom full of weapons unlocked, allowing the suitors to arm themselves. Telemachus remains somewhat careless, reflecting some of the rashness Odysseus displayed on the isle of the Cyclops.
When Odysseus returns to Ithaca, Telemachus helps his father slaughter the suitors. His fierce loyalty during the battle shows that Telemachus has the potential to equal his father as a warrior and eventually, perhaps, a king.
Penelope is Odysseus’s wife; she faithfully waits for him on Ithaca for almost two decades. Although constantly weeping from grief over her husband’s absence, she is also portrayed as possessing a cunning which matches that of Odysseus. For many years, she keeps the suitors at bay with a wily plot: she tells the suitors she will choose a husband when she has finished weaving a burial shroud for her father-in-law, Laertes, but each night she undoes her weaving so that the shroud will never be complete. Due to her position in society, Penelope cannot simply refuse to remarry, and by instead delaying her suitors until Odysseus’s return, she demonstrates a great deal of craftiness. Penelope’s cleverness is also apparent when she tests Odysseus’s knowledge of their marriage bed in order to prove his identity. In her unwavering loyalty to Odysseus, Penelope is contrasted with Clytemnestra, who joined her lover in murdering her husband, Agamemnon, upon his return from the Trojan War.
Laertes is Odysseus’s father. He lives on Ithaca and only appears in the final book of The Odyssey, book 24, when Odysseus visits him to tell him he has returned. He is portrayed as weakened by his grief over his son’s long absence.
Anticleaia is Odysseus’s mother. She appears only in book 11 of The Odyssey, when Odysseus journeys to the Land of the Dead and speaks with her spirit. There, she reveals to him that she died from her extreme grief and longing for his return.
Athena is the daughter of Zeus and often referred to in The Odyssey with the epithet “the grey-eyed goddess Athena.” She is one of the most important characters, as she consistently and discreetly assists both Odysseus and Telemachus in their journeys. In book 14, she reveals to Odysseus that he is her favorite among mortals.
Athena’s interventions on behalf of Odysseus take many forms. In book 5, she stills the waters Poseidon has whipped into a frenzy in his attempt to destroy Odysseus’s ship, and Odysseus and his crew are able to reach the shore. Later, on Ithaca, Athena comes to Odysseus’s aid to conspire with him in overthrowing the suitors and to disguise him as a beggar. Though she doesn’t fight the suitors herself, she urges Odysseus on, reminding him of his deeds at Troy, and deflects the suitors’ spears.
In her guise as Mentor and Mentes, Athena is equally supportive of Telemachus. She encourages him to stand up to the suitors, assuring him that his father is indeed alive; and she sends him to Pylos and Sparta to establish hospitable relationships with their ruling families, helping him to grow in confidence and experience.
In addition to being the goddess of wisdom and war, Athena is goddess of the arts traditionally associated with women, such as weaving. Penelope’s work at the loom reflects the dreams Athena brings her, which encourage Penelope to believe that Odysseus will return.
Zeus is the most powerful god on Mount Olympus. He approves of Odysseus’s revenge on the suitors, regularly sending signs and omens of his favor. Urged by his daughter Athena, Zeus also sends Hermes to free Odysseus from the goddess Calypso.
Poseidon is the powerful Olympian god of the sea. Because Odysseus angered Poseidon by blinding his son, the Cyclops Polyphemus, Poseidon sabotages Odysseus’s journey homeward again and again. When the Phaeacians ferry Odysseus to Ithaca, it angers Poseidon so much that he turns their ship to stone.
Hermes, the messenger of the gods, appears at multiple points in The Odyssey to assist Odysseus. On Zeus’s instructions, he orders Calypso to free Odysseus from her island. He also visits Odysseus on Aeaea and helps him outwit the goddess Circe.
Circe, daughter of the sun god Helios, is the steward of the island of Aeaea. She is portrayed as a powerful enchantress who is able to transform men into swine. When Odysseus outwits and woos her, however, she assists him in his journey homeward.
Calypso, daughter of the Titan Atlas, is the steward of the island of Ogygia. She falls in love with Odysseus and keeps him prisoner on Ogygia for seven years until Hermes compels her to let him go.
Aeolus, master of the winds, is the steward of the island of Aeolia. He shows hospitality to Odysseus and his men and even gifts Odysseus an ox-skin pouch of winds to help him journey homeward. The second time Odysseus asks for his help, however, Aeolus turns him away.
Eumaeus is Odysseus’s swineherd on Ithaca, often referred to in The Odyssey with the epithet “the loyal swineherd Eumaeus,” as he remains loyal to Odysseus even in Odysseus’s long absence. In the latter half of The Odyssey, he shows kindness to Odysseus, who is at the time disguised as a beggar. When Odysseus reveals himself to Eumaeus, Eumaeus helps him slaughter the suitors.
Philoetius is Odysseus’s cattle foreman on Ithaca. He appears only in the latter books of The Odyssey, as he assists Odysseus in slaughtering the suitors.
Melanthius is Odysseus’s goatherd on Ithaca. During the slaughter in the great hall, he tries to assist the suitors by giving them weapons and armor. In the end, he is gruesomely slaughtered by Eumaeus and Philoetius.
Eurycleia is an aged maidservant of Penelope. She served as Odysseus’s wet nurse and recognizes the scar on his thigh when she washes his feet. At the time, however, Odysseus wishes to maintain his disguise and urges Eurycleia to keep silent.
Antinous is one of Penelope’s greediest and most arrogant suitors. He spearheads the suitors’ plot to assassinate Telemachus.
Eurymachus is one of Penelope’s suitors and, like Antinous, is portrayed as exceedingly greedy and arrogant. He is also deceitful, as he lies to Penelope when she asks him if the suitors plan to harm Telemachus.
Amphinomous is Penelope’s only suitor who is portrayed as goodhearted and sincere in winning her hand. He often tries to sway the other suitors from their plans of hurting Telemachus. In the end, however, he perishes along with the other suitors.
King Alcinous and Queen Arete
King Alcinous and Queen Arete rule over the Phaeacians in the kingdom of Scheria. Both are portrayed as generous and hospitable rulers, ferrying Odysseus to Ithaca in a ship laden with splendid gifts.
King Menelaus and Queen Helen
King Menelaus and Queen Helen are the rulers of Sparta. They show hospitality to Odysseus’s son, Telemachus, when he visits them to seek news of his father.
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