Illustration of Odysseus tied to a ship's mast

The Odyssey

by Homer

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The Poem

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Of the Greek heroes who survive the Trojan War only Odysseus does not return home, because he is detained by the god of the sea, Poseidon, for an offense that he committed against that god. At a conclave of the gods on Olympus, Zeus decrees that Odysseus should at last be allowed to return to his home and family in Ithaca. The goddess Athena is sent to Ithaca where, in disguise, she tells Telemachus, Odysseus’s son, that his father is alive. She advises the youth to rid his home of the great number of suitors suing for the hand of his mother, Penelope, and to go in search of his father. The suitors refuse to leave the house of Odysseus, but they give ready approval to the suggestion that Telemachus begin a quest for his father, since the venture will take him far from the shores of Ithaca.

The youth and his crew sail to Pylos, where the prince questions King Nestor concerning the whereabouts of Odysseus. Nestor, a wartime comrade of Odysseus, advises Telemachus to go to Lacedaemon, where King Menelaus can possibly give him the information he seeks. At the palace of Menelaus and Helen, for whom the Trojan War was waged, Telemachus learns that Odysseus is a prisoner of the nymph Calypso on her island of Ogygia in the Mediterranean Sea.

Zeus in the meantime sends Hermes, the messenger of the gods, to Ogygia, with orders that Calypso is to release Odysseus. When the nymph reluctantly complies, the hero constructs a boat in four days and sails away from his island prison. Poseidon, ever the enemy of Odysseus, sends great winds to destroy his boat and to wash him ashore on the coast of the Phaeacians. There he is found by Nausicaa, daughter of King Alcinoüs of the Phaeacians, when she goes down to the river mouth with her handmaidens to wash linen. When the naked Odysseus awakens and sees Nausicaa and her maidens, he asks them where he is. Frightened at first by the stranger hiding behind the shrubbery, Nausicaa soon perceives that he is no vulgar person. She tells him where he is, supplies him with clothing, and gives him food and drink. Then she conducts him to the palace of King Alcinoüs and Queen Arete. The royal pair welcome him and promise to provide him with passage to his native land. At a great feast the minstrel Demodocus sings of the Trojan War and of the hardships suffered by the returning Greeks; Alcinoüs sees that the stranger weeps during the singing. At the games that follow the banquet and songs, Odysseus is goaded by a young Phaeacian athlete into revealing his great strength. Later, at Alcinoüs’s insistence, Odysseus tells the following story of his wanderings since the war’s end.

When Odysseus left Ilium he was blown to Ismarus, the Cicones’ city, which he and his men sacked. Then they were blown by an ill wind to the land of the Lotus-eaters, where Odysseus had difficulty in getting his men to leave a slothful life of ease. Arriving in the land of the Cyclops, the one-eyed monsters who herded giant sheep, Odysseus and twelve of his men were caught by a Cyclops, Polyphemus, who ate the men one by one, saving Odysseus until last. That wily hero tricked the giant into a drunken stupor, however, and then blinded him with a sharpened pole and fled back to his ship. On an impulse, Odysseus disclosed his name to the blinded Polyphemus as he sailed away. Polyphemus called upon his father, Poseidon, to avenge him by hindering Odysseus’s return to his homeland.

Odysseus’s next landfall was Aeolia, where lived Aeolus, the god of the winds. Aeolus gave Odysseus a sealed bag containing all the contrary winds, so that they could not block his homeward voyage. However, the crew, thinking that the bag contained treasure, opened it, releasing all the winds, and the ship was blown back to Aeolia. When he learned what had happened, Aeolus was very angry that Odysseus’s men had defied the gods by opening the bag of winds. He ordered them to leave Aeolia at once and denied them any winds for their homeward journey. They rowed for six days and then came to the land of the Laestrigonians, half-men, half-giants, who plucked members of the crew from the ship and devoured them. Most managed to escape, however, and came to Aeaea, the land of the enchantress Circe. Circe changed the crew members into swine, but with the aid of the herb Moly, which Hermes gave him, Odysseus withstood Circe’s magic and forced her to change his crew back into men. Reconciled to the great leader, Circe told the hero that he could not get home without first consulting the shade of Teiresias, the blind Theban prophet. In the dark region of the Cimmerians Odysseus sacrificed sheep. Thereupon spirits from Hades appeared, among them the shade of Teiresias, who warned Odysseus to beware of danger in the land of the sun god.

On his homeward journey, Odysseus was forced to sail past the isle of the sirens, maidens who by their beautiful voices drew men to their death on treacherous rocks. By sealing the sailors’ ears with wax and by having himself tied to the ship’s mast, Odysseus passed the sirens safely. Next, he sailed into a narrow sea passage guarded by the monsters Scylla and Charybdis. Scylla’s six horrible heads seized six of the crew, but the ship passed safely through the narrow channel. On the island of the sun god, Hyperion, the starving crew slaughtered some of Hyperion’s sacred cows, despite a warning from their leader. The sun god thereupon caused the ship to be wrecked in a storm, all of the crew being lost but Odysseus, who was ultimately washed ashore on Ogygia, the island of Calypso.

When he concludes his story, Odysseus receives many gifts from Alcinoüs and Arete. They accompany him to a ship they provide for his voyage to Ithaca and bid him farewell, and the ship brings him at last to his own land.

Odysseus hides in a cave the vast treasure he receives from his Phaeacian hosts. The goddess Athena appears to him and counsels him on a plan by which he can avenge himself on the rapacious suitors of his wife. The goddess, after changing Odysseus into an old beggar, goes to Lacedaemon to arrange the return of Telemachus from the court of Menelaus and Helen.

Odysseus goes to the rustic cottage of his old steward, Eumaeus, who welcomes the apparent stranger and offers him hospitality. The faithful servant discloses the unpardonable behavior of Penelope’s suitors and tells how Odysseus’s estate was greatly reduced by their greed and love of luxury.

Meanwhile, Athena advises Telemachus to leave the ease of the Lacedaemon court and return home. On his arrival, he goes first to the hut of Eumaeus to get information from the old steward. There, Athena transforming Odysseus back to his heroic self, son and father are reunited. After pledging his son to secrecy, Odysseus describes his plan of attack. Eumaeus and Odysseus, again disguised as a beggar, go to Odysseus’s house where a meal is in progress. Reviled by the suitors, who forget that hospitality to a stranger is a practice demanded by Zeus himself, Odysseus bides his time, even when arrogant Antinous throws a stool that strikes Odysseus on the shoulder.

Odysseus orders Telemachus to lock up all weapons except a few that are to be used by his own party; the women servants are to be locked in their quarters. Penelope questions Odysseus concerning his identity but Odysseus deceives her with a fantastic tale. When Eurycleia, ancient servant of the king, washes the beggar’s feet and legs, she recognizes her master by a scar above the knee, but she does not disclose his identity.

Penelope plans an impossible feat of strength to free herself of her suitors. One day, showing the famous bow of Eurytus, and twelve battle-axes, she says that she will give her hand to the suitor who can shoot an arrow through all twelve ax handles. Telemachus, to prove his worth, attempts but fails to string the bow. One after another the suitors fail even to string the bow. Finally Odysseus asks if an old beggar might attempt the feat. The suitors laugh scornfully at his presumption. Then Odysseus strings the bow with ease and shoots an arrow through the twelve ax hafts. Throwing aside his disguise, he next shoots Antinous in the throat. There ensues a furious battle, in which all the suitors are killed by Odysseus and his small party. Twelve women servants who were sympathetic to the suitors are hanged in the courtyard. When Penelope, in her room, hears what the purported beggar did, husband and wife are happily reunited.


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Background: The Homeric Tradition

The authorship of the Iliad and the Odyssey has been disputed heavily for decades. Previous tradition held that Homer the ancient, blind poet who sang of a heroic age that was long past even in his own day, composed these magnificent poems. The epics were then handed down through the generations until they acquired an immortal fame that no other work could ever hope to equal, no less exceed.

Today, these traditions have been blanketed by more than a century of scholarship disputing not only Homer’s claim to complete authority over the poems, but even the poet’s historical existence. To best understand the arguments on both sides (for indeed the consensus has not swayed unanimously into the realm of total doubt), we must first understand the basis for the Homeric tradition itself.

That the details of Homer’s supposed existence vary widely is not surprising, considering the tradition is two and half millennia old. Still, the common theory dictates that Homer lived on the western coast of Asia Minor (in modern-day Turkey) in the city of Smyrna circa the eighth or ninth century B.C. The tradition of the Trojan War, with many of its related stories and episodes, was already several centuries old in Homer’s day; his characters and the action that surrounded them would have been known to his contemporaries. Indeed, both poems assume their audience possesses a knowledge of at least the general storyline of Troy.

The irony of Homer’s place as the founder of Western literature is that, in all probability, the master bard was himself illiterate. He was a singer of tales in the oral tradition, most likely entertaining at feasts and court occasions to earn his keep. This does not mean that Homer composed a work and then memorized it by rote, for such a thing assumes that he wrote something down that could be memorized verbatim. The oral tradition was much more subtle and complex than that, as can be observed from Yugoslavian poets who still practice their art in our own century.

An apprenticed bard was taught to employ many tools to master the oral poetic medium. There were routine formulas that he manipulated to form the core of his narrative, and he shaped around these formulas a body of story material that he also inherited. He was taught to compose his story in meter, to the accompaniment of a musical instrument such as the lyre; he never composed his stories without the aid of music. When called upon to perform, the bard would often be asked to recite a particular story or episode that was popularly known, but he would in turn compose his own version of the tale extempore.

What this means is that the oral poet never told the same story twice. Every performance was an original one, as formulaic expressions were meshed with wholly original poetry within the structure of a particular story. As time wore on, a bard continually reciting a particular story would begin to tighten up his structure as he became aware of ingredients which were more effective than others, but the story could never be identical from one performance to the next.

What Homer composed, then, was a series of short episodes that could each be recited in a single evening. The entire mass of tradition that Homer accumulated became the core for the two epic poems as we now have them. Disciples of Homer carried on his tradition, adopting the formulaic arrangements that their master had originated and retelling the stories with essentially Homeric elements. It is supposed that a school of Homerites lived on the island of Chios, and from there they brought the Homeric tradition to the Greek mainland. Then, sometime before or during the sixth century B.C., Homer’s works reached their final form and were inscribed in writing.

Even within the Homeric tradition itself, we must accept the fact that what we are reading are not the exact words of Homer at all. Indeed, even if Homer himself had been capable of writing down his work, we would have only a single performance of Homer; the many variations of his work which took place over the course of his life would be lost to us. As it stands, Homer’s legacy consists solely of a tradition which underwent several centuries of revision by later poets. Yet, so integral were Homer’s personality and skill to that tradition that his fame as the poems’ founder never waned among his descendants.

The written versions of theIliad and Odyssey were widely disseminated and known in classical Greece and surrounding regions such as Egypt. The organization of each of the poems into twenty-four separate Books is the invention of later editors and certainly not the work of Homer or his descendants in the oral tradition. For the most part, the tradition of epic poetry in the West stems from these written versions of the Homeric poems. Classical epic poems in Greek and Latin were directly modeled on Homer, although the Augustan Virgil altered the genre in order to suit the needs of his time when he composed the AeneidDante knew Homer through Virgil, and both he and (two centuries later) Torquato Tasso Christianized Homeric elements when they composed their respective epics, the Commedia and Gerusalemme Liberata. Milton’s English epic, Paradise Lost, is also heavily laced with Christianized elements from Homer.

But consider now those earlier Greek epics, known familiarly as the Epic Cycle and including such poems as the Thebais, the Nostoi, the Little Iliad, the Destruction of Troy, and the Cypria. There are scattered passages in post-Aristotelian writings that ascribe to Homer the authorship of these works, though it is unlikely that Homer did indeed write them. Many scholars fear that, just as these works have been ascribed erroneously to Homer, so too might one or both of his epics be the work of other poets.

Many scholars, although believing Homer wrote the Iliad, propose that either a disciple of his or another poet familiar with his style wrote the Odyssey. One reason for this assertion is that the overall structure and style of the poems differs significantly, and the possibility of false authorship attributed to other classical poems strengthens the argument. Other scholars counterargue that any number of poets whose extant works are undoubtedly their own have created works of differing structures. Others have cited the symmetry and similarity of scope existing between the two works, which they assert outweighs any so-called differences in style and structure.

The more radical arguments come from those who believe that, due to the very nature of oral-formulaic poetry, the odds of a real person named Homer ever having existed are minimal. They assert that one or more schools of poets created a vast body of oral literature over the course of many years. These traditions were later compiled and organized by unifying hands. Then, after the Iliad, the Odyssey, and the various poems of the Epic Cycle had been written and disseminated, the Greeks attributed all of this work to a fictional poet named Homer, the blind poet of Smyrna.

The truth of the matter, of course, is beyond physical proof. Students of Homer should make themselves aware of these various theories, but it is with the poetry itself and not in the historicity of their supposed creator that we should most concern ourselves.

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