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The Odyssey

by Homer

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What are three framing stories in Homer's Odyssey?

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O'Sullivan, R. (2012). The Odyssey. In The Norton Anthology of World Masterpieces , 3rd Ed., Vol. F, pp. 956-1057. W.W. Norton & Company O'Sullivan, R. (2012). The Odyssey . In The Norton Anthology of World Masterpieces , 3rd Ed., Vol. F, pp. 956-1057 . W . W . Norton & Company

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Although contemporary readers encounter Homer's Odyssey as a single book, the ancient audience would have heard the epic recited by rhapsodes in segments roughly corresponding to what are now book divisions. Because only part of the story was heard at a given time, and also due to the lack of "backward scanning" possibility in oral performance, much of the backstory is told within frames. Often the same plot elements are recounted multiple times within the epic in different frames, something that fills in audiences who might have missed parts of the story.

The opening of the Odyssey has the gods meeting on Mount Olympus. This serves as a frame for reminding the audience of important events in the Trojan war and the current set of relationships among the gods and the returning heroes.

Telemachus tells the story of the suitors and how they have overrun the palace in the absence of Odysseus. This helps fill the reader in concerning the length Odysseus has been away and what has happened in his absence.

Book IX tells much of the story of the wanderings of Odysseus framed as a narrative told to the Phaeaceans. The story of Polyphemus is told within this frame, contrasting the hospitality of Alcinoös with the violation of the laws of hospitality by the Cyclops.

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To begin, I would say that the most significant framing story of all is the story of Odysseus's adventures on his way back from Troy. The Odyssey actually begins at a point in time during which time Odysseus has been held captive by Calypso. After Odysseus's release, Odysseus gets caught in a storm and washes up on the island of Phaeacia. While enjoying the hospitality of the Phaeacians, Odysseus tells them of his adventures after the Trojan War. All of this represents a story within a story (and this story within a story includes many of the most famous episodes within the poem).

These framing stories can be more complicated and multilayered, however. We have instances within the narrative where we see stories being told within a still larger story, all bound within the still larger story that is The Odyssey itself. For example, when Odysseus travels to the Underworld, we start hearing stories regarding the dead: consider Agamemnon telling Odysseus the story of his own murder at the hands of Aegisthus and Clytemnestra. This is, of course, all taking place within the larger context of Odysseus telling his own story to the Phaeacians.

For one final example, consider Telemachus's encounter with Menelaus, during which Menelaus recounts for Telemachus the story of how, stranded on the island of Pharos, he had to best the sea god Proteus. What follows is the story of how, with the help of Proteus's daughter, he's able to capture the god. At that point, however, we get another layer to the story, as Proteus himself becomes a storyteller of sorts, recounting to Menelaus the deaths of Ajax and Agamemnon, before telling him that Odysseus remains alive, entrapped by Calypso.

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One of the songs Demodocus sings while Odysseus is at the court of Alcinous actually functions like its own little story within a story. In Book VII, he sings a song about the illicit affair between Ares and Aphrodite, who was married to Hephaestus, the "lame" god. Hephaestus, dishonored and humiliated, then catches them in a net until Poseidon asks him to let Ares go, promising that he will make sure Ares pays recompenses Hephaestus. Hephaestus cannot refuse Poseidon, and so lets them go; Aphrodite goes to Cypress and Ares to Thrace.

Agamemnon recounts his experiences when he returns home from the Trojan War, as told to Odysseus when the hero goes to the Underworld, and this presents another such story. He describes how his disloyal wife, Clytemnestra, plotted his death and how her lover, Aegisthus, and Aegisthus slew both Agamemnon and his men when he returned. Agamemnon cautions Odysseus about being too trusting of his wife when he returns home.

The story of Calypso's love of Odysseus presents another such framing story. When Zeus sends Hermes to tell Calypso to let Odysseus go, she points out the terrible double standard that the immortal gods have. Gods are allowed to keep mortal female lovers, but goddesses are not allowed to keep mortal male lovers.

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Homer's Odyssey contains a number of stories that appear within the larger framework of this epic poem.

Early in Odyssey 1, when Zeus and Athena are discussing Odysseus' situation, they also recall the story of Agamemnon, his return home after the Trojan War, and how Agamemnon was killed by Aegisthus. This story prepares us for the challenges that Odysseus himself will face when he returns home from Troy.

The Odyssey also contains within it the story of Telemachus' adventures. The first four books of the Odyssey are sometimes called the Telemachia, because they relate the adventures of Telemachus as he searches for his father. Telemachus' adventures also frame other stories, such as the one that Menelaus tells Telemachus about the time he spent in Egypt.

Finally, of course, the Odyssey as a whole serves as the frame for the adventures of Odysseus himself. In Odyssey 9-12, Odysseus tells the people of Phaeacia about the trials and tribulations he himself faced after he left Troy.

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