The Odyssey by Homer

The Odyssey book cover
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At a Glance

  • Homer titled his epic poem The Odyssey after the Greek hero Odysseus. Today, the word "odyssey" means an epic journey like that of Odysseus, whose ten-year struggle to return home to Ithaca is considered one of the greatest journeys in all of literature. Millenia after Homer wrote The Odyssey, the poem is still being taught in schools worldwide.
  • Homer depicts the gods and various divine creatures as flawed characters, prone to jealousy, violence, and flights of fancy. The gods regularly involve themselves in the lives of Greek heroes like Odysseus, who is prevented from returning home by the vengeful Poseidon, held captive by the nymph Calypso, enchanted by the evil Circe, and championed by the wise Athena.
  • Odysseus' defining character trait is his intelligence. He's a man who lives by his wiles, using logic to assess difficult situations and dreaming up creative ways to defeat his enemies, as he did with the Trojan Horse. Unlike other heroes, Odysseus engages in many activities, such as lying and stealing, that aren't considered "heroic" but do reveal him to be a complicated character.

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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...

(The entire section is 8,448 words.)