Illustration of Odysseus tied to a ship's mast

The Odyssey

by Homer

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Significant Myths and Structure of the Text

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Significant Myths

The Trojan War: When the Trojan Prince Paris travels to Sparta, he falls in love with the queen of the island, Helen. The two leave Sparta for Troy, offending Zeus, the god of xenia, or hospitality, and Menelaus as the king of Sparta. Menelaus and his powerful brother, King Agamemnon, lead a fleet of Greek ships to Troy, where they fight for ten years before sacking the prosperous city. During those ten years, Agamemnon has a legendary feud with the Greek fighter and demigod Achilles, the details of which are recounted in Homer’s Iliad

Odysseus Reluctantly Joins the War: Initially, Odysseus avoids joining Menelaus and Agamemnon on their conquest of Troy. Having just become a father, Odysseus wants to stay at home in Ithaca. When the envoy from Agamemnon arrives to recruit him, Odysseus feigns insanity, incorrectly harnessing his plow and sowing salt in his field. When the envoy throws Telemachus, Odysseus’s son in front of the plow, Odysseus changes course, revealing his sanity. As a result, the envoy compels Odysseus to join the conquest of Troy. 

The Trojan Horse: The Trojan War rages for ten years until a clever plan from Odysseus breaks the stalemate between the Greeks and the Trojans. In accordance with his plan, the Greeks break camp so that it appears they have given up their siege and departed. In place of their camp, they leave a large wooden statue of a horse with a group of soldiers hiding inside. Mistaking the statue for a tribute to Poseidon, the Trojans bring the horse inside the protective walls of their city. Once night falls, the Greeks break out of the horse and open the walls from the inside of the city. The waiting Greek army enters and sacks Troy. (Note: Menelaus and Helen make a reference to the Trojan horse when they dine with Telemachus in book 4 of The Odyssey.) 

Structure of the Text

Epic Poetry: As one of the first written texts of its kind, The Odyssey captures in writing the structure of epic poetry from the oral tradition. As a result, Homer’s poetic devices are considered the hallmarks of Greek epic poetry. 

  • Dactylic hexameter: The lines comprising The Odyssey are written in dactylic hexameter—lines containing six feet, each of which follow the dactylic pattern of one stressed syllable followed by two unstressed syllables. 
  • Enumeratio: There are many instances of enumeratio—extended genealogies and catalogues—throughout the epic. 
  • Invocation: In the standard style of the Greek epic poem, the speaker begins The Odyssey by making an invocation, a request for divine inspiration from the muses. 
  • Epithets: Epithets are adjectives—often phrasal adjectives—that express a signature quality of a character. In Homer’s work, epithets for a given character or object often repeat numerous times throughout the poem and may have served as a mnemonic or metrical device for a bard composing extemporaneously. 
  • Refrains: Refrains are important descriptions, passages, and actions that are repeated verbatim throughout the text. 

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