Illustration of Odysseus tied to a ship's mast

The Odyssey

by Homer

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Essential Quotes by Character: Odysseus

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Essential Passage 1: Book 1

And Zeus said, “My child, what are you talking about? How can I forget Odysseus than whom there is no more capable man on earth, nor more liberal in his offerings to the immortal gods that live in heaven? Bear in mind, however, that Poseidon is still furious with Odysseus for having blinded an eye of Polyphemus king of the Cyclopes. Polyphemus is son to Poseidon by the nymph Thoosa, daughter to the sea-king Phorcys; therefore though he will not kill Odysseus outright, he torments him by preventing him from getting home. Still, let us lay our heads together and see how we can help him to return; Poseidon will then be pacified, for if we are all of a mind he can hardly stand out against us.”


The gods have gathered on Olympus to discuss events that have followed the Trojan War. Zeus laments the death of Agamemnon, who was killed by his wife Clytemnestra and her lover Aegisthus. The goddess Athena reminds Zeus that Odysseus is stranded on an island, imprisoned by Calypso, who is holding him until he should marry her. Athena chides Zeus that such a faithful follower as Odysseus should be forgotten by the god he worships. Zeus responds that he has not forgotten him. It would be impossible to forget Odysseus, who is wiser than all men and surpasses everyone in honoring the gods. However, the sea god Poseidon is enraged at Odysseus for blinding his son, Polyphemus the Cyclops. Zeus agrees that all the gods and goddesses should join together to come up with a plan to convince Poseidon to cease his rampage against Odysseus so that the hero can return home.

Essential Passage 2: Book 12

“Is there no way," said I, "of escaping Charybdis, and at the same time keeping Scylla off when she is trying to harm my men?"
“You dare devil," replied the goddess, "you are always wanting to fight somebody or something; you will not let yourself be beaten even by the immortals. For Scylla is not mortal; moreover she is savage, extreme, rude, cruel and invincible. There is no help for it; your best chance will be to get by her as fast as ever you can, for if you dawdle about her rock while you are putting on your armor, she may catch you with a second cast of her six heads, and snap up another half dozen of your men; so drive your ship past her at full speed, and roar out lustily to Crataiis who is Scylla's dam, bad luck to her; she will then stop her from making a second raid upon you."


Circe, on whose island Odysseus has been held, warns Odysseus of the dangers to come. She tells him to be careful of the Sirens, whose singing will tempt men to their deaths if they should listen to them. She warns him that his men must stop up their ears with wax. If Odysseus wants to hear the Sirens sing, he should tie himself to the mast so that he will not be tempted to jump overboard. She then advises him to beware of Scylla and Charybdis. The one is a monster who will swallow his men; the latter is a whirlpool that will swallow his ship. Odysseus asks if there is some way to fight Scylla and end the danger. Circe chides him for his pride and his recklessness, that he would dare even to fight against the gods. She warns him to do no such thing, but to sail as fast as possible between the two dangers and cry out to Scylla’s mother, who will not allow Scylla to go after the ship again.

Essential Passage 3:Book 27

...There was a grove of water-loving poplars planted in a circle all round it, and the clear cold water came down to it from a rock high up, while above the fountain there was an altar to the nymphs, at which all wayfarers used to sacrifice. Here Melanthius son of Dolius overtook them as he was driving down some goats, the best in his flock, for the suitors' dinner, and there were two shepherds with him. When he saw Eumaeus and Odysseus he reviled them with outrageous and unseemly language, which made Odysseus very angry.
“There you go,” cried he, “and a precious pair you are. See how heaven brings birds of the same feather to one another. Where, pray, master swineherd, are you taking this poor miserable object? It would make anyone sick to see such a creature at table. A fellow like this never won a prize for anything in his life, but will go about rubbing his shoulders against every man's door post, and begging, not for swords and cauldrons like a man, but only for a few scraps not worth begging for. If you would give him to me for a hand on my station, he might do to clean out the folds, or bring a bit of sweet feed to the kids, and he could fatten his thighs as much as he pleased on whey; but he has taken to bad ways and will not go about any kind of work; he will do nothing but beg victuals all the town over, to feed his insatiable belly. I say, therefore—and it shall surely be—if he goes near Odysseus' house he will get his head broken by the stools they will fling at him, till they turn him out.”
On this, as he passed, he gave Odysseus a kick on the hip out of pure wantonness, but Odysseus stood firm, and did not budge from the path. For a moment he considered whether or not to fly at Melanthius and kill him with his staff, or fling him to the ground and beat his brains out; he resolved, however, to endure it and keep himself in check, but the swineherd looked straight at Melanthius and rebuked him, lifting up his hands and praying to heaven as he did so.


Eumaeus, a slave who has remained faithful to his absent master Odysseus, has joined Odysseus on his journey back to his palace to reveal himself to Penelope and her suitors. On the way, they encounter Melanthius, a goatherd, driving goats to the palace to make the suitors’ dinner. Melanthius is a faithful servant of the suitors and matches them in disposition and unpleasantness. Seeing Odysseus and Eumaeus, he breaks into a torrent of abuse and curses, asking Eumaeus (the swineherd) where he is taking “this poor miserable object” (Odysseus), warning them that if they come near the house of Odysseus, they will encounter nothing but a stool thrown at their heads. As he passes by Odysseus, Melanthius kicks him on the hip, though he cannot move him from the road. Odysseus considers retaliating, but holds his patience and restrains himself. In turn, Eumaeus curses Melanthius.

Analysis of Essential Passages

In an unusual progression of events for the hero of Greek epic poetry, Odysseus does not remain a static figure. His journeys provide him with many opportunities to demonstrate his best and his worst, and so he does. Odysseus emerges from the Trojan War a hero, filled with the pride of the glory that he has won, and with little patience for those who cower in the face of danger. As his pride leads him into recklessness, he experiences the loss of his loyal men, until he alone is left to return to Ithaca, a more humble man.

The action of the poem starts in medias res, or in the middle of the action. Odysseus has been gone from home twenty years—ten years fighting the Trojan War, and ten more on his meandering voyage. While he will relate his adventures in a series of flashbacks as he regales different audiences with his exploits, at the opening he is stranded on Calypso’s island. The goddess Athena, ever his patroness, is appealing to Zeus to intervene with Poseidon, who has constantly savaged Odysseus on the journey. Odysseus, often from pride, has consistently placed himself in danger after danger, unheeding of the consequences. His sole goal is glory, no matter what the cost. His honor is based on bravery in the face of impossible odds; therefore, he gladly accepts and actually seeks situations in which he could lose it all.

It is Circe, another goddess, who begins to open his eyes to the willfulness of this adventure-seeking. Not only is it an unnecessary risk for himself and his men, it is an affront to the gods, for he dares them to rescue him again and again. His search for glory has evolved into hubris. As such, Odysseus is brave in part because he expects the gods to protect him. Alone, he would quickly fail. He is constantly testing the gods, some of whom lose patience with him, such as Poseidon. Athena alone is constantly by his side, sometimes visible, sometimes invisible, and at other times in the forms of someone else. Yet even the gods grow weary of being at the beck and call of a hero. Odysseus soon realizes that he has taxed the patience of Olympus.

Odysseus’s ego, based on his extraordinary accomplishments, is quick to protect itself. When slighted, he retaliates. However, at the end of his journey, he has learned some humility, which he demonstrates through patience. When Melanthius treats him as a beggar, his natural response to retaliate is held in check. With patience, he submits to the abuse, trusting that in all good time he will have his revenge. Odysseus waits, knowing that Melanthius will get his due when his masters, the suitors, get theirs.

In an age when heroes were larger than life and above the gods when it comes to appropriate behavior, Odysseus is presented as an exception. His flaws and his vulnerabilities are plainly revealed by Homer, making Odysseus a thoroughly likable hero. It is for this reason, as well as for his amazing adventures, that he has remained a standard fixture in world literature.

Essential Quotes by Theme: Temptation

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Essential Passage 1: Book 4

“Menelaus, son of Atreus, and you my good friends, sons of honorable men (which is as Zeus wills, for he is the giver both of good and evil, and can do what he chooses), feast here as you will, and listen while I tell you a tale in season. I cannot indeed name every single one of the exploits of Odysseus, but I can say what he did when he was before Troy, and you Achaeans were in all sorts of difficulties. He covered himself with wounds and bruises, dressed himself all in rags, and entered the enemy's city looking like a menial or a beggar, and quite different from what he did when he was among his own people. In this disguise he entered the city of Troy, and no one said anything to him. I alone recognized him and began to question him, but he was too cunning for me. When, however, I had washed and anointed him and had given him clothes, and after I had sworn a solemn oath not to betray him to the Trojans till he had got safely back to his own camp and to the ships, he told me all that the Achaeans meant to do. He killed many Trojans and got much information before he reached the Argive camp, for all which things the Trojan women made lamentation, but for my own part I was glad, for my heart was beginning to yearn after my home, and I was unhappy about the wrong that Aphrodite had done me in taking me over there, away from my country, my girl, and my lawful wedded husband, who is indeed by no means deficient either in person or understanding.”


Telemachus, on the journey to find his father after twenty years, stops at the home of Menelaus and his wife, Helen, whose beauty started the Trojan War. Now reunited with her husband, and seemingly happy, she is nonetheless remorseful of the grief she caused. She tells Telemachus how she had helped his father after the war, when he entered Troy disguised as a beggar. After he secured Helen’s promise not to betray him, he warned her of all that the Greeks planned to do. Having killed many of the Trojans, Odysseus returned to the Greek camp with information. By this time, Helen was desirous of going home. Rather than blaming herself or Paris for their adultery, Helen blames the goddess of love, Aphrodite, whom she believed swept her away from her home and family in order to start a war between the Greeks and the Trojans.

Essential Passage 2: Book 5

“Odysseus, noble son of Laertes, so you would start home to your own land at once? Good luck go with you, but if you could only know how much suffering is in store for you before you get back to your own country, you would stay where you are, keep house along with me, and let me make you immortal, no matter how anxious you may be to see this wife of yours, of whom you are thinking all the time day after day; yet I flatter myself that I am no whit less tall or well-looking than she is, for it is not to be expected that a mortal woman should compare in beauty with an immortal.”
“Goddess,” replied Odysseus, “do not be angry with me about this. I am quite aware that my wife Penelope is nothing like so tall or so beautiful as yourself. She is only a woman, whereas you are an immortal. Nevertheless, I want to get home, and can think of nothing else. If some god wrecks me when I am on the sea, I will bear it and make the best of it. I have had infinite trouble both by land and sea already, so let this go with the rest.”


Odysseus, imprisoned on Calypso’s island, has long resisted her advances, which she cannot understand. At last, she allows him to leave, though against her desires. She warns him that he will undergo many dangers and tragedies before he arrives home. Once again she asks him to stay. She offers him not only herself but the gift of immortality. She suggests that it is impossible that a mortal woman should be more beautiful than a goddess. Odysseus agrees that Penelope falls short in comparison with Calypso. Yet she is his wife, to whom he will be loyal, and he wants to go home. If it should be that the gods torment him on his journey home, he will accept it as their right. He has been patient with their toying with him thus far; he can submit a while longer, as long as he reaches home.

Essential Passage 3: Book 12

“I had hardly finished telling everything to the men before we reached the island of the two Sirens, for the wind had been very favorable. Then all of a sudden it fell dead calm; there was not a breath of wind nor a ripple upon the water, so the men furled the sails and stowed them; then taking to their oars they whitened the water with the foam they raised in rowing. Meanwhile I look a large wheel of wax and cut it up small with my sword. Then I kneaded the wax in my strong hands till it became soft, which it soon did between the kneading and the rays of the sun-god son of Hyperion. Then I stopped the ears of all my men, and they bound me hands and feet to the mast as I stood upright on the cross piece; but they went on rowing themselves. When we had got within earshot of the land, and the ship was going at a good rate, the Sirens saw that we were getting in shore and began with their singing.
“‘Come here,’ they sang, ‘renowned Odysseus, honor to the Achaean name, and listen to our two voices. No one ever sailed past us without staying to hear the enchanting sweetness of our song—and he who listens will go on his way not only charmed, but wiser, for we know all the ills that the gods laid upon the Argives and Trojans before Troy, and can tell you everything that is going to happen over the whole world.’
“They sang these words most musically, and as I longed to hear them further I made signs by frowning to my men that they should set me free; but they quickened their stroke, and Eurylochus and Perimedes bound me with still stronger bonds till we had got out of hearing of the Sirens' voices. Then my men took the wax from their ears and unbound me."


With the warnings of Circe about the dangers ahead, Odysseus and his remaining men set out for Scylla and Charybdis, the obstacles they must battle if they are to find Elpenor’s body and bury him so that he may rest in the Underworld. Before they can encounter these, however, they must pass the Sirens, awesome creatures whose songs lure men to their doom. No longer resting totally on their own strength, the men take Circe’s advice and place wax in their ears so that they will be deaf to the Sirens’ call. Odysseus, however, longs to hear what the Sirens will sing to him, so he has his men tie him to the mast, leaving his ears unplugged. As the ship passes the Sirens, he hears them calling to him, saying that if he will stay a while, he will gain wisdom and omnipotence. Odysseus longs to hear more, but his men row faster before he can escape. Only when they are safely out of earshot do they release Odysseus.

Analysis of Essential Passages

Temptation is a prevalent theme that runs through The Odyssey. Each character is faced with it at some point, for various reasons and for various rewards. Their response to temptation reflects their strength of character in the face of overwhelming circumstances. Some fall, and some hold true.

The ultimate tale of temptation occurs prior to the action of The Odyssey, in fact in the Trojan War as told in Homer’s other epic, The Iliad. Helen, “the face that launched a thousand ships,” had deserted her husband, Menelaus, and eloped with Paris to Troy, thus starting the Trojan War. Rather than love or passion, the usual causes of such temptation, Helen instead blames the goddess Aphrodite, the goddess of love. The gods were prone to interfere in the relationships of humans for their own amusement; in this case, Helen places the blame where it is undeserved. It is her own weakness, and that of Paris, that is the cause of her betrayal of her husband and daughter. Her later realization of this has made her penitent, and by all accounts she returned to Menelaus’s home as a loyal and faithful wife. But her actions had repercussions far beyond the physical relationship of a man and woman who yield to temptation. The deaths of scores of men, the destruction of a city, the desolation of homes and family are all to be laid at the feet of Helen and Paris.

In juxtaposition with Helen’s infidelity, Penelope and Odysseus portray the faithful husband and wife, even after twenty years separation and uncertainty of the survival of the other partner. Penelope, as a woman alone, would have more than adequate justification to yield to the temptation of giving up hope of Odysseus’s return. Yet she remains faithful, confident that Odysseus will return; and if he does not, she will remain alone until it is certain that he is dead. Odysseus likewise has many opportunities to yield to the pressures of the many women and goddesses whose paths he crosses. Although there is some indication that he makes love to Circe, he refuses to stay with her, intending always to return home to Penelope. For Odysseus, the justification for resisting temptation is loyalty and love, which he considers the marks of highest honor. To succumb to the lower nature of a man he would give up the higher purpose of a man.

Realizing that he is not the invulnerable, god-like hero that he had previously insisted on playing, Odysseus accepts his limitations as his ship approaches the land where the Sirens dwell. As the Sirens’ call has become synonymous with temptation, Odysseus accepts its pull and his own weakness. He relies on the help and the faithfulness of his men to tie him to the mast and refuse to untie him, no matter how much he pleads. Transparent in his weakness, he does not join the men by plugging his ears, which would make him immune to the temptations of the Sirens' song. Perhaps unwisely, he places himself in jeopardy. Yet his reliance on his men, rather than on his own strength, illustrates the necessity of accountability to another. He demonstrates that temptations will always exist; it is only through acceptance of weakness and the reliance on others than one can overcome them.

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