The Odyssey Additional Summary



(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Read at its most basic level, the Odyssey recounts Odysseus’s struggles to return to his native island of Ithaca after ten years of fighting at Troy. It appears to be a highly particularized account of one warrior’s struggles and sufferings. No doubt exists that Odysseus remains the focus; though names of his crew appear at intervals, they collectively constitute a vehicle that gets their master part of the way home, and all of them die long before their master reaches home. Even the mythic Phaeacians, who literally place the sleeping hero on his remote western island, remain peculiarly nameless, except for the family that rules them, but Alcinous, Areté, and Nausicaä merely approve this final phase of the journey. The seafaring Phaeacians themselves suffer permanent hardship for their good deed: Poseidon landlocks their harbors in retribution for Odysseus’s having blinded Polyphemus the Cyclops, the sea-god’s monster son.

Once Odysseus finally realizes that the Phaeacians have actually returned him to Ithaca, and not merely abandoned him on a forsaken island in order to steal the treasure that their king had given to him, the hero proceeds to test everyone he meets, starting with Eumaeus, his swineherd, and Telemachus, the son whom he had to abandon in infancy in order to honor his commitment to fight at Troy. He tests his old nurse, Eurycleia, who, when she recognizes his scar received in youth during a boar hunt, appropriately venerates him. He tests his wife, Penelope, who has waited for Odysseus more than nineteen years, resisting more than a score of much younger suitors. Her stratagem of weaving and unweaving a funeral shroud for the aging Laërtes, Odysseus’s father, allows her to delay choosing a new husband, but it also allows this assortment of brash young men with decidedly uncourtly manners to move into Odysseus’s great hall and deplete the wealth of his household through their ceaseless banquets and irresponsible behavior. This irresponsibility extends to the moral sphere as well, for the suitors, in short order, corrupt the handmaidens of the household.

True to form, Odysseus arrives disguised as a beggar, tests the suitors, finds that they have abused the laws of hospitality, and kills them all. He ratifies this action by pronouncing moral judgment on the handmaidens, as well. Once they have cleaned the great hall of the suitors’ blood, he orders the handmaidens to be collectively hanged in the courtyard. While this mass slaughter is in progress, Phemius, the court rhapsode, is ordered by Odysseus to sing as loudly as possible to the loudest of musical accompaniments in order to cover the screams of those being killed. Furthermore, Odysseus enlists both Telemachus and Eumaeus as accomplices. The first thing that Odysseus and his nineteen-year-old son do together is, in effect, commit mass murder, then retreat to the suburban vineyard at which old Laërtes is awaiting the arrival of the fathers of the suitors, who are avid for vengeance. Another slaughter is about to begin when the goddess Athene, the mentor of Odysseus from the outset, calls a halt, and the Odyssey ends.

Seen in this way, Odysseus does not appear to be a very nice man, and certainly not very heroic. Even so, his epithet polutropos (many-wiled) implies that there is more to his character, and correspondingly to Homer’s poem, than this rather negative reading implies. Indeed, virtually every action of Odysseus admits of positive and negative interpretations. In this respect, Homer’s Odysseus mirrors humanity at large. To assess Odysseus positively, it is necessary to consider external particulars more carefully than has been done above. It is also important to bear in mind details that Homer assumes his audience knows and therefore does not, given the limited parameters of epic poetry, feel particularly obligated to supply.

First of all, Odysseus had never wanted to fight at Troy. He had been perfectly happy as king of his rural island with his young wife, Penelope, and infant son, Telemachus. He had even feigned madness by sowing his fields with salt instead of seed in order to escape his obligation to restore Helen to Menelaus. Canny Agamemnon, brother of Menelaus, recognized immediately, however, that this was a typical Odyssean ruse. To test Odysseus’s sanity, Agamemnon placed Telemachus in the path of the plowshare, and of course Odysseus had to turn the plow aside to spare the “seed” that he prized most of all: his son and heir. Homer knows that his audience will recognize immediately the disparate values of Odysseus and Agamemnon, for the latter would be willing to sacrifice his own daughter Iphigeneia in order to ensure a favorable wind for the departing armada. Agamemnon would, of course, pay the price for his moral lapse. Having escaped ten years of war with barely a scratch, his wife Clytemnestra, ironically Helen’s half sister, would murder him on the day of his return as he emerged from his bath.

Placing these sets of events beside each other shows the essential difference between Odysseus and Agamemnon. Odysseus privileges the values of home and family; Agamemnon quickly recognizes affronts to the honor of his clan but is willing to avenge these at the cost of his immediate family. Yet it is clear that the Trojan War has no positive effect on Odysseus. It forces him...

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(Epics for Students)

The Background to the Story
After ten years, the Trojan War is over and the Achaeans head for home—with varying results. Some, like Nestor, come home quickly to find things pretty much as they left them. Others, like Agamemnon, arrive home to find things considerably changed. Still others, like Menelaus, wander for a time but eventually return home safely and little the worse for wear.

Odysseus, on the other hand, has been having no end of trouble getting home. As the story opens, we find ourselves in the tenth year since the end of the war, a full 20 years since Odysseus first left his home and wife Penelope to sail off for Troy with the rest of the Achaean forces.

Book 1: Athena Inspires Telemachus
In a council of the gods, Athena asks her father Zeus why Odysseus is still stuck on Calypso's island ten years after the end of the war. Zeus responds that Poseidon is angry at Odysseus for having blinded his son, Polyphemus. But since Poseidon is temporarily absent, Zeus gives Athena permission to begin arrangements for Odysseus's return. Athena goes to Ithaca in disguise and inspires Odysseus's son Telemachus to go in search of news of his father. Heartened by her words, Telemachus announces his intention to sail to the mainland.

Book 2: Telemachus Sails to Pylos
Telemachus calls an assembly and asks for assistance in getting to the mainland. His independent attitude does not sit well with his mother Penelope's suitors, who oppose him in the assembly so that he does not receive the aid he sought. After making secret preparations, Telemachus and the disguised Athena depart for Pylos that same evening.

Book 3: Nestor Tells What He Knows
Telemachus and Athena arrive in Pylos, to find Nestor and his family offering sacrifice to Poseidon. After joining in the ritual, Telemachus introduces himself to Nestor and explains his purpose in coming. Nestor has heard news of the returns of both Menelaus and Agamemnon, which he relates to Telemachus, but has had no news of Odysseus since all of the Achaeans left Troy ten years previously. Nestor sends Telemachus, accompanied by one of his own sons, Pisistratus, to visit Menelaus in Sparta.

Book 4: In the Home of Menelaus and Helen
Telemachus and Pisistratus arrive at Menelaus's home during a celebration, and are warmly entertained by Menelaus and Helen. Menelaus tells a long story of his adventures on the way home from Troy, including news that he got from Proteus in Egypt that Odysseus was alive on Calypso's island. Meanwhile, back in Ithaca, the suitors learn of Telemachus's secret departure and are not pleased. They plot to ambush and kill him on his way home. Penelope also learns of her son's departure.

Book 5: Odysseus Sets Sail for Home— and is Shipwrecked
At another council of the gods, Zeus orders Hermes to go to Calypso and tell her to let Odysseus leave for Ithaca. Calypso is unhappy, but obeys the order. She offers Odysseus a chance to become immortal and to live with her forever; which he declines. Odysseus builds a raft with tools and materials she provides, and sails off. Poseidon comes back from feasting with the Ethiopians and wrecks the raft in a storm. Odysseus, with the help of a sea goddess, is washed safely ashore in the land of the Phaeacians.

Book 6: Nausicaa Encounters a Stranger
The Phaeacian Princess Nausicaa finds the shipwrecked Odysseus asleep behind a bush. Odysseus asks Nausicaa for help. She gives him some clothing to wear and sends him into town to find the palace of her father, Alcinous.

Book 7: Odysseus and the King of Phaeacia
Odysseus arrives at the palace and begs the assistance of King Alcinous and Queen Arete. He gives an edited version of his "adventures" to date, but does not disclose his identity. He deftly turns aside Alcinous's suggestion that he should remain in Phaeacia and marry Nausicaa.

Book 8: The Phaeacians Entertain Odysseus
The Phaeacians treat Odysseus to a day of feasting, song, and athletic events. When Odysseus begins weeping during Demodocus's tale of the Trojan War, Alcinous cuts the banquet short. At dinner that evening, Odysseus speaks highly of Demodocus's skill and offers him a prime cut of his own portion. When Demodocus sings the story of the Trojan Horse, Odysseus begins crying again, and Alcinous asks Odysseus who he is and why stories about Troy make him cry.

Book 9: Odysseus Tells His Story-Polyphemus and the Cyclopes
Odysseus reveals his identity and tells his story, beginning with his departure from Troy with 12 ships. He sacks Ismarus in Thrace, is blown off course to the land of the Lotus-Eaters, and eventually reaches the island of the Cyclopes, one-eyed giants who are sons of the sea god Poseidon.

Odysseus and the crew of his ship go to investigate this island and end up imprisoned in Polyphemus's cave. The giant finds the intruders and eats several of them for dinner. After a similar breakfast, he takes his flocks of sheep and goats to graze, leaving Odysseus and his remaining men penned in the cave. Upon Polyphemus's return, they manage to get the giant drunk and blind him. The next day they escape from his cave hiding under the...

(The entire section is 2204 words.)