Illustration of Odysseus tied to a ship's mast

The Odyssey

by Homer

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What challenges did Odysseus face on his journey home?

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Odysseus faces many challenges on his journey home. To name a few: his sailors are captivated by teh lotus-eaters, he engages in battle with Polyphemus the cyclops, he is caught in a storm sent by Poseidon, and he is captivated by the Sirens. His entire journey home is ridden with challenges.

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Odysseus faces a number of challenges on his way home, including:

  • sailors captivated by the lotus-eaters
  • a battle with Polyphemus, a cyclops
  • a storm sent by Poseidon
  • an encounter with a witch
  • being captivated by the Sirens
  • encounters with the monsters Scylla and Charybdis
  • punishment by Zeus 

On the way home from war, Odysseus's soldiers are captivated by the lotus-eaters, who try to feed the men fruit that will cause them to forget their desire to go home.

Next, Odysseus and his men get trapped in the lair of Polyphemus, who eats some of the men. Odysseus blinds Polyphemus, and the cyclops calls out to his father Poseidon, who sends a storm to punish Odysseus. Later, Odysseus refers to the encounter with Polyphemus when he tries to encourage and bolster his men, saying, 

Dear friends, surely we are not unlearned in evils. This is no greater evil now than it was when the Cyclops had us cooped in his hollow cave by force and violence, but even there, by my courage and counsel and my intelligence, we escaped away. I think that all this will be remembered some day too. Then do as I say, let us all be won over.

Odysseus's ship travels to the island of a witch named Circe, who turns many of his sailors into swine. He goes out to find an herb that counteracts her magic and convinces her to turn his men back into people. After that, Odysseus and his men choose to stay on the island for a long time.

Once it is ready to continue the journey to Ithaca, the crew is forced to sail by the land of the Sirens, beautiful monsters who sing to attract ships toward rocks where they will be smashed. The men plug their ears and tie Odysseus to the mast to help avoid the danger and temptation. They also avoid the whirlpool of Charybdis, but this forces them to sail near Scylla, who lives across from Charybdis. Consequently, six men are killed.

On the island of Thrinacia, Odysseus's men hunt sacred cattle that belong to Helios, the sun god. Helios demands his father Zeus to punish Odysseus and his men for the action.  Zeus obliges, sending Odysseus's ship into Charybdis. Odysseus is the only survivor. He says, 

At this time Charybdis sucked down the sea's salt water, but I reached high in the air above me, to where the tall fig tree grew, and caught hold of it and clung like a bat; there was no place where I could firmly brace my feet, or climb up it, for the roots of it were far from me, and the branches hung out far, big and long branches that overshadowered Charybdis. Inexorably I hung on, waiting for her to vomit the keel and mast back up again. I longed for them, and they came late; at the time when a man leaves the law court, for dinner, after judging the many disputes brought him by litigious young men; that was the time it took the timbers to appear from Charybdis.

He spends the next seven years as the prisoner and lover of Calypso. He is only able to continue his journey home when Athena intervenes with Zeus and convinces him to free Odysseus.

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This is a good question. However, there are too many problems to mention in any detail. I will give you a brief summary of the difficulties that Odysseus had to face to make it back home to Ithaca. 

First, Odysseus is a captive of Calypso. He is stranded on her island and cannot go home. However, Zeus intervenes and forces her hand to allow him to leave. As he leaves, Poseidon does not like him very much and almost kills him. He barely makes it to the Phaeacians. 

While he is with the Phaeacians, he hears the story of the Trojan War and he begins to weep. After he calms down, he recounts his hardships. This is where we hear of his travels. First, he is on the land of the lotus-eaters, where some of his men eat the fruit of the lotus, which makes them forget. He barely makes them go back to their ships. Then his crew is almost eaten on the island of Cyclopes. Only through his cleverness do they escape.  Also on his journey he also had to face Circe, the witch, and other hardship on the sea, such as Scylla and Charybdis. He loses men in the process. Finally, the men gain the ire of Zeus and they all die, as Zeus strikes their ship. Odysseus is the only survivor. 

When the Phaeacians hear of these tales, they decided to help him. He finally arrives at home, and he realizes that it is overrun with suitors. He has to face them as well. He eventually kills them all. In short, Odysseus faces many hardships. He is a veritable man of sorrows.

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What challenges does Odysseus face on his journey back to Ithaca?

Odysseus's journey back to Ithaka at the end of the Trojan War is fraught with seemingly endless difficulties, which he describes to his Phaiakian hosts in Book IX of the Odyssey.

  • After leaving Troy, Odysseus and his men land at Ismaros and raid the city there. They stay long enough for the inhabitants to muster a counterattack, and Odysseus loses many of his crew before they can flee the island.
  • They sail for nine days, buffeted by storm winds, until arriving at the island of the Lotus Eaters. The lotus was used in the ancient world as a powerful narcotic, and the Lotus Eaters are addicted to it. Anyone who takes the drug becomes completely indifferent to life, and wishes only to have more and more lotus, forever. Three of Odysseus's men eat the lotus and he has to drag them back to his ships to get them off the island.
  • The crew sail on to the land of the Kyklopes, where they encounter Polyphemos, who eats several of Odysseus's men before Odysseus manages to blind the giant by stabbing him in his one terrible eye. Unfortunately, as Odysseus makes his escape, he can't help letting Polyphemos know exactly who outwitted him, and Polyphemos calls upon his father, the god Poseidon, to curse Odysseus. Poseidon's wrath towards Odysseus causes Odysseus to eventually lose all his ships and crew and remain trapped on Calypso's island for years.
  • The crew then sails to the island of Aiolos, the King of the Four Winds, who gives Odysseus a leather sack containing the winds, which Odysseus can use to drive his ships directly back to Ithaka. They are within landfall of the island when one of his men opens the leather sack and lets all the winds out at once. A terrible storm arises and blows the ships all off course, so Odysseus limps back to Aiolos and asks him if he can fill the leather sack again, but Aiolos refuses, saying Odysseus has clearly incurred the wrath of the gods.
  • Making their painful way back toward Ithaka, this time with no winds at all in their sails, Odysseus's crew sails up a strange fjord in a silent country. Odysseus sends a scout out to see if there are any inhabitants who might spare them some food. Alas, they've come to the land of the Laistrygonians, vicious cannibals who pour out of the seemingly silent landscape and manage to kill most of Odysseus's crew before he can escape with just one ship.
  • Odysseus and his remaining men next land on Aiaia, where the beautiful witch Kirke turns some of the men into pigs. Odysseus manages to overcome Kirke and forces her to undo her enchantment, and she becomes a friend and ally to him. They stay on Aiaia for a year to rest and recuperate before sailing onwards.
  • Their next destination is the land of the dead, for Odysseus must speak to the ghost of Tireisias, the old blind prophet of Thebes, in order to determine how to get home to Ithaka. Odysseus speaks to many ghosts, including Tireisias, who warns him that whatever happens, his men must not eat the Cattle of the Sun.
  • On their way back from the land of the dead, the crew stops at Aiaia again, and Kirke warns Odysseus of the perils of the Sirens, the monster Skylla, and the whirlpool Kharybdis.
  • Odysseus takes Kirke's warnings to heart and manages to get past the deadly Sirens by blocking his men's ears with beeswax so they cannot hear the Sirens' song. The monster Skylla manages to eat several of Odysseus's men as they skirt the edge of the whirlpool Kharybdis, but this fate cannot be avoided.
  • Having passed the monster, the ship lands at Thrinakia, where the Cattle of the Sun dwell. Odysseus warns the men never to kill these cattle, no matter how hungry they are, but once the food stores run out, the men get desperate, and kill the cattle and eat them. Odysseus immediately sets sail from the island, but his ship is destroyed by a lightning bolt, and he is the only survivor.
  • Cast adrift on the ocean in a terrible storm, Odysseus washes up on the island of the nymph Calypso. She takes care of him and falls in love with him, and keeps him prisoner on her island for seven years. She only lets him go when the gods order her to. She gives Odysseus a raft and provisions, and Odysseus sets sail once again. He nearly drowns in a storm sent by Poseidon before washing up on the Phaiakian shore.

The Phaiakians give Odysseus food, shelter, and many gifts and take him safely back to Ithaka in one of their own ships. It has taken Odysseus ten full years to reach Ithaka's shore.

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