Illustration of Odysseus tied to a ship's mast

The Odyssey

by Homer

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History of the Text

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Last Updated on July 12, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 401

A Cornerstone of Western Literature: The Odyssey was first recorded around the 8th century BCE, when a contemporary of Homer first transcribed the myths that comprised his oral repertoire. Homer, and many other bards, lived during the early classical Greek period, when literacy was on the rise and the theology, art, and philosophy that would go on to inspire western culture through the ages was just beginning to blossom. 

  • The Odyssey recounts the adventures of Odysseus (Ulysses, in the Roman) after the Trojan War. The war most likely occurred around 1200 BCE in the Bronze Age, several centuries before Homer’s time. The verisimilitude of the geopolitical events surrounding the Trojan War in Homer’s epic remain uncertain. There is archaeological evidence to suggest there was a thriving city on the western coast of modern-day Turkey during the Late Bronze Age, and that it was destroyed by fire around the probable time of Homer’s Trojan War. 
  • There is ample evidence in the historical record from Greek civilizations during the same era indicating that the Bronze-Age Greeks were a sea-faring people with trading interests and expansionist tendencies in the Mediterranean region. The mythologized version of events that survived in the oral tradition represented a shared, glorious history that united Mediterranean culture during the classical Greek era and the Roman Empire. 
  • The Odyssey and its sister epic, The Iliad, are rivaled only by the Bible in their influence on Western culture and art. With their unique positions as early written texts, the Homeric epics have been literary touchstones for the educated classes throughout Western history. The European Renaissance of the 15th and 16th centuries CE ushered in a revival of Greco-Roman mythology in art, architecture, and philosophy. While the texts were originally used to teach Latin and Greek, they were increasingly translated into common languages during the Renaissance. As a result, the act of translating the Homeric epics has been a relatively common pursuit for scholars through time. 
  • The Odyssey endures in popular culture as well as academia. Because of its universal subject matter—war, displacement, love, monsters—The Odyssey provides a lens through which to analyze the human experience. From playwrights like Euripides in 400 BCE to scholars like Emily Wilson—who in 2018 became the first woman to translate the epic into English—generations have used The Odyssey as a tool to understand society, culture, and human behavior. 

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Key Plot Points


Significant Myths and Structure of the Text