The Odyssey Key Ideas and Commentary
by Homer

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The Poem

(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

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....

(The entire section is 2,755 words.)