*Ithaca. Odysseus’s home, a mountainous island to the west of mainland Greece, and the primary setting of the first two and last twelve books of the twenty-four-book poem. The two key locations on Ithaca are the palace of Odysseus and the hut of the swineherd Eumaeus. Odysseus’s twenty-year absence has finally resulted in the palace being overrun by 108 suitors for the hand of his wife and supposed widow, Penelope. Ironically, while the greedy and disrespectful suitors have turned the formerly noble palace into a place of lawlessness and disorder, the humble hut of the apparently lowly Eumaeus exemplifies the courtesy and hospitality that the suitors fail to observe.
*Troy. City on the west coast of Asia Minor (now part of Turkey) and the site of the Trojan War, where Odysseus and the Greek armies spend ten years fighting the Trojans to recover Helen, the wife of the Greek leader Menelaus. The final year of that war serves as the focus of The Iliad (c. 800 b.c.e.; English translation, 1616), the narrative of life during wartime that serves as a companion piece to The Odyssey.
*Pylos and *Sparta. Greek kingdoms visited by Odysseus’s son, Telemachus, in books 3, 4, and 15 of the poem, which constitute a sort of miniature, parallel version of Odysseus’s much longer journey. These kingdoms also offer a contrast to Ithaca in that they are models of the proper observance of social decorum and order. Pylos is ruled by Nestor, the wisest of the Greeks, and Sparta is ruled by Menelaus, the husband of Helen, whose abduction by Paris had begun the war. His introduction to these men, both great heroes of the Trojan War, and his ability to win their approval, serve as symbolic markers of the young man’s psychological and social “voyage” from adolescence to maturity. While the “Telemachia,” as it is sometimes called, has a relatively minor plot function, it does allow for considerable exposition, as the rulers inform Telemachus about key sections of the story of Troy and Odysseus’s wanderings.
*Argos (AR-gohs). Greek home of Agamemnon, brother of Menelaus and leader of the Greek armies in the Trojan War. Agamemnon’s own homecoming from the war, which results in his murder by Aigisthos, lover of his unfaithful wife, Clytemnestra, is frequently mentioned in the poem as a contrast to the homecoming of Odysseus to his own faithful wife, Penelope. A further parallel is developed between Orestes, the son of Agamemnon, who revenges him by killing Aigisthos and Clytemnestra, and Telemachus, who will assist his own father in the massacre of the suitors.
Skheria (skeh-REE-ah). Land of the Phaeacians, where Odysseus arrives after having been freed from Ogygia. There, Odysseus relates the full story of his ten-year journey to the Phaeacians, who then provide him with gifts and transportation to Ithaca. The Phaeacians, identified as kin of the gods, are distinguished by their respect for established custom, hospitality, and generosity, and Odysseus pointedly contrasts their civilized behavior with the barbaric treatment he receives at several places he visits on his journey.
Cave of the Cyclops
Cave of the Cyclops. Island dwelling of Polyphemos, a member of the race of Cyclopes—giant cannibals who exemplify the dystopian world of savagery and barbarism that the poem frequently juxtaposes with examples of civilized societies. The Cyclopes dwell in caves rather than crafted structures and do not farm their land or build ships. Odysseus and ten companions find themselves trapped within the cave of the Cyclops Polyphemos, who eats his guests rather than providing them with aid and gifts as is the custom...
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at such exemplars of civilized behavior as Pylos, Sparta, and Skheria. Odysseus and some of his men escape after blinding Polyphemos. Polyphemos’s request that his father, the sea god Poseidon, revenge him against Odysseus, results in Odysseus’s ten years of forced wandering.
Aiaia (ay-EE-ah). Home of the enchantress Circe, a place of seductive beauty and ease, in which Odysseus is detained for more than a year on his journey home. Circe’s custom is to turn visitors into wolves, lions, and swine, in a symbolic reversal of proper hospitality, which makes the proper treatment of guests one of the highest attributes of true humanity. Even though he is not literally transformed into an animal, Odysseus is seduced by Circe’s hospitality into forgetting his mission to return home. As always, however, Odysseus chooses the hardships of the return home over the temptations of an easy life away from society and his duty.
Nekuia (neh-kew-ee-ah). Underworld home of the dead. It is presented somewhat inconsistently as a remote northern location on the earth’s surface and as an underground realm. Odysseus journeys there in book 11 to get instructions from the prophet Tiresias and meets the shades, or ghosts, of several figures from his past and from Greek mythology. The shades of the dead suitors appear there at the end of the poem as well.
Island of the Sirens
Island of the Sirens. Home of the Sirens, whose irresistible songs enchant sailors into running their ships ashore, with usually disastrous results.
Scylla and Charybdis. Mythical monsters that guard a strait through which Olysseus’s ship must pass. Scylla, a monster with twelve legs and six heads, and Charybdis, a gigantic whirlpool, flank a narrow strait between headlands. Their significance lies in the idea that Odysseus cannot possibly get home without passing between them and losing some of his crew. In modern parlance, their names have come to signify any dilemma in which a person is forced to choose between two unavoidable yet thoroughly unpleasant alternatives.
Thrinakia (THREE-nah-kee-ah). Island of the cattle of Helios, lord of the sun. Odysseus’s men unwisely slaughter some of the sacred cattle, for which transgression Zeus hits their ship with a thunderbolt. Odysseus is the only survivor.
Ogygia (OH-gee-jee-uh). Edenic island of the nymph Calypso, on which Odysseus is shipwrecked after the destruction of his ship by Zeus. This episode constitutes Odysseus’s most powerful temptation to abandon his journey home, as Calypso offers him not only worldly pleasure and luxury, but immortality: He will neither die nor grow old if he stays.
Olympus. Mountain in northern Greece traditionally believed to be the home of the gods. The poem narrates several meetings the gods have to discuss and direct Odysseus’s fate. The civilized societies and customs depicted in the poem are always in some sense versions of this Olympian society.
Since it is one of the first works in its genre to have survived, the Odyssey does not so much display the mechanics of epic poetry as help to define them. For at least 500 years after it was written, only minor modifications were made to the epic form as we see it in the Odyssey.
In general, the Odyssey is more technically advanced than the Iliad. The flashbacks that seemed so awkward in the earlier poem are handled much more subtly, for example; the action jumps seamlessly from one place to another even in the middle of a book and is itself much more lively than the formalized battle scenes in the Iliad.
English meter involves patterns of stressed and unstressed syllables. Greek meter, on the other hand, involves patterns of long and short syllables where, as a general rule, two short syllables equal one long syllable. Greek poetry does not rhyme, either, although it does make use of alliteration and assonance (repeated use of the same or similar consonant patterns and vowel patterns, respectively).
The Odyssey is written in dactylic hexameters, which is the "standard" form for epic poetry: in fact, this particular meter is sometimes referred to as "epic meter" or "epic hexameter." Hexameter means that there are six elements, or "feet," in each line; dactylic refers to the particular metrical pattern of each foot: in this case, the basic pattern is one long syllable followed by two shorts, although variations on that basic pattern are allowed. The final foot in each line, for example, is almost always a spondee (two long syllables, instead of one long and two shorts). The meter is sometimes varied to suit the action being described, using more dactyls when things are moving quickly (horses galloping, for example), and more spondees when things are slow or sad.
The similes that were such common features of the Iliad are used much more sparingly in the Odyssey, which makes them all the more striking when they do appear. Often this seems to underscore the importance of a particular passage, as at the beginning of Book 20, where the following two similes are used of Odysseus plotting the downfall of the scheming maids and the suitors, respectively, within 15 lines:
The heart inside him growled low with rage, as a bitch mounting over her weak, defenseless puppies growls, facing a stranger, bristling for a showdown—so he growled from his depths, hackles rising at their outrage. (XX.13-16, Fagles). . . But he himself kept tossing, turning, intent as a cook before some white-hot blazing fire who rolls his sizzling sausage back and forth, packed with fat and blood—keen to broil it quickly, tossing, turning it, this way, that way—so he cast about. . . . (XX.24-26, Fagles)
Foreshadowing, the practice of "hinting" at future developments in the plot either explicitly (in the form of prophecies, etc.) or implicitly, is fairly common in the Odyssey. It is seen most commonly in the form of the frequent "wishes'' or prayers that the gods will punish the suitors for their insolence (which of course they do), and especially in Book 11, when Odysseus recounts his trip into the underworld to consult the shade of Tiresias.
Another example is the eventual destruction of the suitors in Books 21 and 22. Their doom is explicitly foretold by at least one prophet (Theoclymenus, at XX.350-57). It is also hinted at by several omens and portents. For example, the suitors are killed on a feast day of Apollo: who is, among other things, the god of archery. Furthermore, when Odysseus eventually strings his bow it gives off a "sound like the voice of a swallow" (XXI.411): a bird which, as Homer's audience knew well, both migrates and always returns to its previous nest.
Homer makes very heavy use of symbolism throughout the Odyssey. For example, the olive trees under which Odysseus falls asleep in Book 5, and under which he and Athena thrash out their plan of action in Book 13, are symbolic of Athena, the goddess of wisdom, craft, weaving (hence the expression at XIII.386, "weave a scheme"), and war. Most of the names encountered in Books 6-12 are symbolic as well: "Alcinous" means "sharp-witted" or "brave-witted," while his queen, Arete, has a name that means "virtue." The Phaeacians's names are, almost without exception, connected in some way with the sea or with sailing, and the nymph Calypso's name is closely related to the Greek verb meaning "to hide" or "conceal." There has been some speculation that the name "Odysseus'' may be related to another Greek verb meaning "to cause pain'' (or, in the middle or passive voice,"to suffer pain").
There are also two masterful symbolic plays on words in the Greek original which unfortunately do not reproduce well in English. The first is in Book 9 when Odysseus and his men are blinding Polyphemus. Odysseus has told the Cyclops that his name is "Nobody," Outis in Greek, from the words for "no" and "someone." When it follows "if," as when Polyphemus's neighbors respond to his cries, the Greek negative changes from ou to me: ou tis then becomes trie tis which, though it still means "no one," sounds exactly like the Greek word for "scheme" or "plot," part of the epithet polumetis, "of many schemes," often applied to Odysseus.
The other play on words occurs whenever Penelope mentions Troy (XIX.260, 597, and XXIII.19). Since she herself says that the city's name is "unmentionable," whenever she has to mention it she combines its alternative name,"Ilion," with the word for "evil," making, in Greek, the word Kakoilion, "Eviltroy" or, as Fagles renders it, "Destroy."
The epic poem is the most ancient form of literature, and Homer is considered the father of Western epic. He established most of the epic conventions which would be adopted by later writers of epic. History produced many poets who would walk in Homer’s sandals, none more notable than the Roman poet Virgil whose Aeneid recounts the founding of Rome by Aeneas, one of the few survivors of Troy. Virgil’s poem is considered a Secondary Epic because it is a direct, written (not oral) imitation of Homer’s own. The Iliad and the Odyssey, then, because they are the products of accumulative tradition and are not strictly imitative of an existent genre, are considered to be Primary Epics. But Virgil’s greatness comes not only from his ability to imitate Homer, but from his ability to alter Homer’s genre to suit his own contemporary needs.
Virgil’s work would in turn have a profound effect upon the future of literature; this we note especially in Dante’s medieval epic, the Commedia, which features Virgil himself as the protagonist’s guide through the underworld. With the rise of Neoclassicism in the Renaissance, Tasso’s Gerusalemme Liberata and Milton’s Paradise Lost were also heavily influenced by Homer. This says nothing of the countless, lesser known epics written throughout the centuries based upon Homer’s style, both in Greece, Rome, and Medieval and Renaissance Europe.
There are many conventions established by Homer that were subsequently developed over the centuries. What follows is a list of those epic conventions, not only as they appear in Homer, but how they are manifested over centuries of Homeric imitation:
(1) Epic Hero—The protagonist of an epic poem is a figure who unmistakably represents his nation, culture, or race. He must also be a figure of noble mien, considerable military prowess, and undying virtue.
(2) Lengthy Narrative—An epic poem must be a work of considerable length, spanning several books, cantos, or chapters.
(3) Lofty Tone and Style—The poem itself must assume a grave and serious tone. Although many epics contain lighter moments, these are always secondary to the primarily somber mood of the entire work. The poem must also be written in a grandiose, exalted style to distinguish it from works of lower orders.
(4) Epic Similes—The epic simile is an extended comparison between one element or character of the poem and some foreign entity. The simile is highly visual, and either forces the reader to consider the object of the simile in a new light or helps reveal a secret about the element which would be too complex to detail didactically.
(5) Catalogs/Genealogies—An epic poem will often include copious inventories and catalogs of characters, equipment, or some other pertinent element of the plot. The poem will also supply expansive genealogies for important characters or artifacts, to lend an air of antiquity and authority to the respective element in the poem.
(6) Supernatural Involvement—The epic always features some form of divine intervention in the poem’s main action. These other-worldly figures will either assist or antagonize the epic hero, although their involvement in matters will always be limited to some degree (i.e. they cannot dominate the entire narrative).
(7) Invocation—Most epic poems begin with an invocation to some higher power that the epic poet desires to guide his pen on his lofty undertaking. The poet often invokes the Muses, or a particular Muse (usually Calliope, the Muse of epic poetry). Other times, the poet might summon a particular deity or great power to lend inspiration to his endeavor. No matter the object of the request, the invocation serves as an introduction to the action that is about to unfold.
(8) In Medias Res—Many epics commence in medias res, or “in the midst of things.” In other words, the narrative opens after a good deal of the important events of the epic have already transpired. As part of the convention, a character will recount the bypassed episodes later in the narrative, so that the reader may become familiar with the prehistory of the poem.
(9) Voyage Across the Sea—The epic hero and/or other characters will often journey across the sea to discover new lands or explore distant regions.The voyage serves to expand the setting of the drama considerably, and this helps to magnify the overall significance of the epic’s action.
(10) Trip to the Underworld—A visit to the underworld is also a common epic motif. The epic hero will often gain intelligence from the departed spirits that he encounters. The journey both to and from the nether regions is most often fraught with peril.
(11) Epic Battles—Vivid descriptions of mighty battles, either one-on-one duels between universal champions or the amassed engagement of powerful armies, are a common feature of the epic poem. These mighty contests may indeed appear to glorify war, but they also personify the conflicts endured by the given nation, culture, or race that the epic hero symbolizes.