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Odyssey

Odyssey

Odyssey, the leading New Age periodical in South Africa, was founded in 1977 by Jill Iggulden as a networking organ for the emerging New Age scene in the country. Iggulden continued as editor until June 1984 when the magazine was turned over to Rose de la Hunt, then the part-time leader of a small New Age center in the Cape Town area. In August 1986 the editorial offices moved into a new building in suburban Wynberg called The Wellstead. Within a short time, The Wellstead emerged as the center of the New Age Movement in the Cape region and offered a full range of programs. It is generally the first stopping place of spiritual teachers visiting the Cape. At first, the magazine was published informally with a staff consisting only of de la Hunt and one other. In addition, for several years the pair headed the annual "Health for Africa" holistic health conferences, though these were discontinued in the early 1990s. Then in 1994, de la Hunt was asked to take over the Cape Town Mind Body Spirit Festival, the largest New Age gathering in South Africa. She revamped the festival as the Art of Living Festival, now presented biannually in Cape Town. Odyssey has emerged as a 60-page periodical featuring articles of general interest to the post-New Age community, ranging from channelling and crystals to the wide variety of holistic health practices. South African metaphysical groups are regularly highlighted and their leaders and teachers profiled. In addition, a running list of up-coming events are included. Odyssey is published bimonthly. On alternate months, a second periodical, Link-Up, is issued as a newsletter carrying announcements of upcoming events and ongoing services offered by various esoteric/metaphysical and holistic health organizations. Link-Up is issued in six regional editions specific to the different areas of the country. The Wellstead and the editorial offices of Odyssey and Link-Up are at 1 Wellington Ave., Wynberg 7800, South Africa. Its website can be found at http://www.odyssey.org.za/.

Sources:

de la Hunt, Rose. "Odyssey Comes of Age." Odyssey 22, no.4 (August/September 1998): 2.

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Odyssey

Od·ys·sey / ˈädəsē/ a Greek epic poem traditionally ascribed to Homer, describing the travels of Odysseus during his ten years of wandering after the fall of Troy. He eventually returned home to Ithaca and killed the suitors who had plagued his wife Penelope during his absence. DERIVATIVES: Od·ys·se·an / ädəˈsēən/ adj.

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Odyssey

Odyssey. Orch. work lasting 90 mins. by Nicholas Maw, comp. between 1972 and 1987. F.p. (incomplete) London 1987 (BBC Prom., cond. Elder), f. complete p. London 1989, BBCSO cond. Bernas. Rev. with opt. cuts, perf. Birmingham 1990 (CBSO, cond. Rattle).

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odyssey

odyssey long adventurous journey. XIX. transf. use of the name of the Homeric poem describing the ten years' wandering of Odysseus. — L. Odyssēa — Gr. Odússeia, f. Odusseús.

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Odyssey

Odyssey (ŏd´Ĭsē): see Homer.

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odyssey

odysseyChrissie, Cissy, kissy, missy, prissy, sissy •dixie, pixie, tricksy, Trixie •chintzy, De Quincey, wincey •efficiency, proficiency, sufficiency •Gypsy, tipsy •ditzy, glitzy, itsy-bitsy, Mitzi, ritzy, Uffizi •Eurydice •odyssey, theodicy •sub judice • prophecy • anglice •chaplaincy • policy • baronetcy •governessy • Pharisee • actressy •clerisy, heresy •secrecy • statice • captaincy •courtesy •dicey, icy, pricey, spicy, vice •stridency • sightsee •bossy, Flossie, flossy, glossy, mossy, posse •boxy, doxy, epoxy, foxy, moxie, poxy, proxy •bonxie •poncey, sonsy •dropsy, popsy •biopsy • heterodoxy • orthodoxy •autopsy

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odyssey

od·ys·sey • n. (pl. -seys) a long and eventful or adventurous journey: fig. his odyssey from military man to politician. DERIVATIVES: od·ys·se·an adj.

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Odyssey

Odyssey

by Homer

THE LITERARY WORK

An epic Greek poem set around 1200 b.c. in Greece and surrounding lands; probably written in the eighth century b.c.

SYNOPSIS

The Odyssey recounts the wanderings of the hero Odysseus through the Mediterranean region, where he encounters a fantastic array of Bronze Age monsters and heroes on his journey homeward from the Trojan War.

Events in History at the Time the Poem Takes Place

The Poem in Focus

Events in History at the Time the Poem Was Written

For More Information

Homer is one of the most romantic figures in the history of Western literature. According to popular belief, he was a blind poet who orally composed and recited both the Odyssey and the closely related Greek epic, the Iliad (also covered in Literature and Its Times). Today there is considerable doubt that the same poet wrote both of these poems. Some scholars also think it likely that Homer was not blind and that he had traveled extensively. Scholars also debate whether he wrote down the poem himself or just created the oral version that was later written down by others. It is widely believed, however, that the written poems are polished examples of the type of epic tales that existed in ancient Greece. Herodotus, the Greek historian of the fifth century b.c., claims that Homer was writing around 850 b.c., but modern critics contend that he flourished between 700 and 750 b.c. In view of the poem’s ancient setting some 500 years earlier, only a few details of the tale can be confirmed as historical. Others are either the product of Homer’s imagination or the remnants of epic tradition.

Events in History at the Time the Poem Takes Place

The Bronze Age

The events in the Odyssey occur in the Bronze Age, a period of ancient history from 1900-1150 b.c. The age takes its name from the metal that people of the era used for their weapons and household tools. In Greece and surrounding areas, Bronze Age civilization was highly sophisticated; kings lived in opulent palaces and commissioned artists to produce beautiful ceramics, mosaics, and metalwork. Well-made roads and a highly developed trading system linked Greece with the Near East, northern Africa, and Italy.

Large, partially walled cities dotted the landscape. The kings, whose palaces and citadels towered over these communities, made certain that the region’s food supply was secure and provided a basic framework of law and order. A simple system of writing emerged, but subsequently disappeared when the large cities were destroyed shortly after 1200 b.c. Archaeologists speculate that a series of local disputes as well as climatic changes and possibly earthquakes probably led to the fall of the cities.

Troy’s demolition heralded the end of the brilliant culture of Bronze Age Greece. Legends of a great war in Troy (located in modern-day Turkey) portray it as the most remarkable battle of the Bronze Age, drawing fighting men from all over the eastern Mediterranean region. It is this war to which Homer’s hero Odysseus is called from his native island of Ithaca.

The legendary Trojan War

According to the story, the war in Troy began when Paris, son of Troy’s king, abducted the beautiful Helen, the Queen of Sparta, and took her home to Troy with him. In retaliation, Helen’s husband, Menelaus, assembled a huge fleet that included Odysseus and his followers. The Greeks initiated a ten-year siege against the Trojan stronghold of Troy. They finally won the city through a clever ploy devised by Odysseus himself. The attackers built a huge wooden horse, filled its hollow belly with armed warriors, and then made a show of sailing away, as if defeated. The Trojans did not know what to make of this lone horse outside their walls, but they were eventually persuaded that it was left by the Greeks as a gift. Despite the warnings of a prophet and other signs of doom, the Trojans were reassured by their enemy’s departure and dragged the horse inside the city. Under cover of night, the hidden warriors streamed out of the horse, opened the gates for their fellow Greeks (who had sailed back into the harbor), and sacked Troy.

The Odyssey includes a scene in which a singer relates the story of Troy’s destruction and the slaughter that took place there. Hearing this song on his long journey home, Odysseus breaks down and weeps, but not because the hero feels guilty about the havoc he caused in Troy. Instead, Odysseus laments his long absence from home and his separation from friends. He even mentions that, upon leaving Troy, he sacked yet another city, known as the city of the Ciconians: “I sacked their city and killed their people, / and out of their city taking their wives and possessions / we shared them out” (Homer, Odyssey, 8.40-2). Such events illustrate the day-to-day life of a warrior in the world of Homeric epic.

Mycenaean navigation

The people of Mycenae and other towns on the southern Greek mainland spread their influence throughout much of the area. Their impact on the region was so great that an era in Greek history—the Mycenaean Age (1400-1150 b.c.)—was named after them. Memories of seafaring in the western Mediterranean at this time may provide the background for Odysseus’s wanderings after he leaves Troy. A standard trade route went past Odysseus’s island home of Ithaca, located off the northwest coast of Greece. The route continued toward the “heel” of Italy and then extended to Sicily and Malta.

Greek sailors regularly voyaged more than five hundred miles from home, and Mycenaean artifacts and influences have been traced as far away as Sweden, Italy, and Slovakia. Such findings suggest that the stories of Odysseus’s journeys may not have been merely fables; perhaps they were based in part on reports of actual journeys. When, near the end of the Odyssey, the sorceress Circe tells Odysseus how to return from her enchanted island to his home, her directions are so specific that some historians believe that Homer relied upon an actual sailing manual of sorts. Historians have long battled over the exact geographic location of Odysseus’s wanderings, but no one is really certain about the route that he allegedly took. Homer’s own eighth-century society did not explore or trade nearly to the same extent as the previous society, so much of the geographic material contained in the Odyssey may have been preserved and passed down in legends.

ORAL POETRY AND THE HEROIC ACE

Many of the subjects of Greek oral poetry come from events of the so-called Heroic Age, the legendary age in which Homer’s heroes lived (imagined to be 1250-1150 b.c.). The main function of the oral poet was to preserve the memory of the great deeds of a society’s heroes by composing and transmitting in song a narrative of their exploits. Such songs were usually embellished with the passage of time.

The Poem in Focus

The plot

The epic opens with a dialogue between the gods Zeus and Athena, who discuss the fate of Odysseus, who has been struggling to return home from the Trojan War for ten years. He has been kept from his goal by the wrath of the god Poseidon, whose son (the one-eyed Cyclops) Odysseus had injured. Because of Poseidon’s grudge, Odysseus has been forced to wander the known world, experiencing countless adventures along the way. These include encounters with the sorceress Circe and the beautiful and seductive nymph Calypso. He also visits the Land of the Dead, where he speaks to the spirits of his mother and slain comrades.

While Odysseus sails through these foreign lands in his struggle to return to his beloved family, his wife—the beautiful, clever, and wealthy Penelope—is courted by 108 suitors who are hopeful that Odysseus has died. Each of these men would like nothing more than to seize Odysseus’s power and property for himself. Vague threats are leveled at Telemachus, Odysseus’s son, who is coming of age and will soon be able to assume his father’s place. The suitors all move into Penelope’s palace at the same time and refuse to budge, pressing her for a decision, but she remains faithful (as she has for twenty years) to the hope that Odysseus will one day return.

All along Penelope has manipulated the suitors in an effort to keep her options open and acquire valuable gifts. The suitors, however, caught her at one of her tricks. Penelope had claimed that before she remarries she must finish weaving a funeral shroud for Laertes, Odysseus’s aging father. But although she wove all day, at night she undid her own progress, secretly unraveling the work accomplished in public the previous day. When the Odyssey opens, the suitors have now learned from this episode and are forcing Penelope to make daily progress in her weaving.

Odysseus, whose name in Greek means “man of pain,” finally returns to Ithaca, although he has been stripped of every possession. Odysseus dons a disguise and, with the help of his now-adult son, disposes of the suitors. In a touching recognition scene, Penelope comes to realize that the disguised stranger is her long-lost husband. Odysseus then is finally reunited with the wife he has sought for so long to rejoin.

The gods

In the beginning of the Odyssey, Odysseus is trapped in the “hollowed caverns” of the nymph Calypso, who wants the warrior to be her husband. She promises to make him immortal should he stay with her. But Odysseus remains adamant in his desire to rejoin his family—and indeed this is the fate that has been decided for him by the immortal gods: “But when in the circling of the years that very year came / in which the gods had spun for him his time of homecoming / to Ithaca, not even then was [Odysseus] free of his trials / nor among his own people” (Odyssey, 1.16-18).

The gods speak to Calypso, who reluctantly allows Odysseus to leave her island. In the Odyssey, gods and goddesses are often involved in events that affect the hero. But Zeus, the father of the gods, insists that the gods themselves are not responsible for what happens to human beings. Instead, humans bring misery on themselves: “Oh for shame, how the mortals put the blame upon us / gods, for they say evils come from us, but it is they, rather, / who by their own recklessness win sorrow beyond what is given” (Odyssey, 1.32-4).

In the Odyssey, the Greek gods are portrayed as “anthropomorphic”—that is, they take the form and attributes of human beings. Athena, the goddess of wisdom, for example, dons different human disguises and takes frequent walks among the mortals. Like human beings, the gods and goddesses have unique personalities and motivations, fighting battles among themselves as well as with human beings. Athena and Zeus, her father, support Odysseus and try to help him reach home. Poseidon, the god of the sea, strives against him, seeking vengeance because Odysseus put out the eye of one of Poseidon’s sons.

The religious aspect of the relationship between the gods and the mortals of the Odyssey remains rather shadowy. Sacrifices to the gods are the strongest element of worship shown in the poem. It is, in fact, because Odysseus has sacrificed more to the gods than any other man has that he wins the support of the father of the gods, Zeus, in his struggles to return to Ithaca.

Sacrifice involved the ritual slaying of an animal, generally a cow or a sheep, in the name of a god or goddess. One of the most detailed descriptions of a sacrifice in the Odyssey occurs when Nestor, to whom Odysseus’s son Telemachus goes for advice, sacrifices a heifer to Athena. The ritual combines painstaking preparations, such as dipping the cow’s horns in gold, with determined blood-letting:

Stratios and the noble Echephron led the cow
by the horns, and Aretos came from the inner
chamber carrying
lustral water in a flowered bowl, and in
the other hand
scattering barley in a basket. Steadfast
Thrasymedes
stood by with the sharp ax in his hand, to
strike down the heifer.
Perseus held the dish for the blood, and the
aged horseman
Nestor began with the water and the barley,
making long prayers,
to Athene [Athena], in dedication, and threw
the head hairs in the fire.
          (Odyssey, 3.439-46)

Hades

In a section of the poem, Odysseus visits the Greek underworld, which is ruled by the Greek god of death, Hades, and his bride Persephone. The hero speaks there to the spirits of his mother and his companion Elpenor, who recently died. He also converses with a variety of Greek heroes of both sexes.

The dead spirits are summoned to Odysseus by a blood sacrifice that seeps into the ground; the spirits flock around the blood in order to drink it, and only then may Odysseus speak to the souls of the dead:

[Now gathered] brides, and young unmarried
men, and long-suffering elders,
virgins, tender and with the sorrows of young
hearts upon them,
and many fighting men killed in battle,
stabbed with brazen
spears, still carrying their bloody armor upon
them
These came swarming around my pit from
every direction
with inhuman clamor, and green fear took
whold of me.

(Odyssey, 11.34-43)

The land of the dead appears to be a place of despair and unhappiness. Even the names of places in Hades are sorrowful, as shown by the names of the mythic rivers in the underworld: Grief Flood, Fireblast River, Wailing Stream, and Loathing Water (Odyssey, 10.513-14). Homer’s grim picture of the afterworld is reinforced by the words of Odysseus’s mother, who has died of grief at the prolonged absence of her son. Her spirit appears and tells Odysseus what happens to human beings after death:

The sinews no longer hold the flesh and the
bones together,
and the spirit has left the white bones, all the
rest
of the body is made subject to the fire’s
strong fury,
but the soul flitters out like a dream, and flies 
away.
                   (Odyssey, 11.219-22)

RELEVANT DATES AND AGES

Bronze Age: 1900-1150 b.c.

Mycenaean culture: 1400-1150 b.c.

Troy is destroyed: c. 1200 b.c. (traditional dates—1184 b.c. or 1250 b.c.

Greek Dark Ages: 1150-800 b.c.

Homer writes the Odyssey: 750-700 b.c.

According to Homer, the spirits of all people, whether good or evil in life, wind up in the same place. The Greek word psuche (psyche), which means “soul,” is used in the Odyssey to refer to the image of a person visible in Hades or in dreams. According to the poem, this visual image, which always goes to Hades, is all that remains after the death of the body.

The land of Hades is a dark world of sorrowful shadows where the spirits of the dead lament forever. Odysseus’s visit reinforces the seriousness of his choice to leave Calypso to rejoin his beloved family. His decision indicates that he prefers the temporary joys and pains of a human life with family and a home on earth, even if it means eventual residence in Hades, to an eternal life of bliss with an immortal nymph.

Family ties

In many respects, the center of the Odyssey is the hero’s wife back in Ithaca, Penelope. Odysseus struggles to be reunited with her, but uncertainty about their relationship runs through the poem. Questions about whether Odysseus will return home in time and whether Penelope will have waited for him are raised throughout the Odyssey. Odysseus’s long absence has put their marriage in jeopardy because he had previously given her permission to do as she pleases regarding future matches should he fail to return:

I do not know if the god will spare me...
there in Troy; here let everything be in your
charge.
You must take thought for my father and
mother here in our palace,
As you do now, or even more, since I shall be
absent.
But when you see our son grown up and
bearded, then you may
marry whatever man you please, forsaking
your household.

(Odyssey, 18. 265-70)

If Penelope had gone ahead and married another man—for example, one of the suitors—without knowing whether Odysseus were dead or alive, that second marriage would have been valid in the eyes of society at that time, even if Odysseus returned at a later date. Marriage was approached from a practical, rather than legal, perspective. If a relationship between a man and a woman had the appearance of marriage, then the partnership was viewed as a marriage by others in the community. A long-absent husband, or one who failed to provide for his wife, called the validity of marriage into question. Penelope’s future, however, was not entirely in her control because of the limits placed on women in her society.

“Homeric” society, the society of the poet’s characters, was organized according to the oikos, or family unit. An oikos consisted of a male, a female, children, and other people or animals that fell under the protection of the male. There was an emphasis on continuing the family unit in the future, and thus it was important for the sons of the family to produce male heirs. The leader of the oikos was always the most prominent male, generally the father/husband, but in the event of his death that responsibility fell on the eldest son. If the sons were too young to assume the family leadership, the wife was permitted to control the possessions and home of the oikos.

Penelope was in just such a situation. If, having concluded that her husband was actually dead, Penelope had decided to leave Odysseus’s house, she was free to return to the house of her father and rejoin his oikos. She was in fact free to do this at any time in their marriage; to do so constituted getting a divorce. When Telemachus, son of Penelope and Odysseus, was old enough to assume the role of leader of the oikos, he could also send his mother back to her father, although he would be obligated to pay for that option. If the death of Odysseus was confirmed, Telemachus would be able to marry his mother off as he liked.

Sources

Homer was part of a mainly oral culture by which people received most of their information not from written sources but from word of mouth. As a member of a migrant people who had been driven out of their sophisticated cities by war and other misfortunes, it is almost inevitable that Homer would have heard tales about heroes of the glorious past such as Odysseus: “In Homer... the oral tradition which went back to Mycenaean times reached its culmination and its end.... Centuries of history have gone into the making of... [the] Odyssey” (Ehrenberg, p. 10).

Reviews

The Odyssey became the first Greek text to be translated for use by Roman schoolboys, and its fame continues unabated. For the Greeks, Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey became a primary source for the mythology and legend that dominated much of their artistic culture. At least one Greek, however, remained torn about the value of Homer’s work: some three hundred years after the Odyssey was written, Plato blames Homer for telling unpleasant tales about the gods, heroes, and Greek underworld.

Plato had positive comments about Homer as well. For instance, he praised the poet for presenting images of self-control in Odysseus, particularly when the hero, in a moment of rage, wants to slay all the suitors himself rather than wait for assistance. He wisely waits, saying “Endure, my heart, you have suffered more shameful things than this” (Odyssey, 20.18). This declaration is significant, as throughout Odysseus’s long journey he has been a victim of his own lack of self-control, giving in to emotional reactions without considering the consequences. In contrast, near the end of the Odyssey, Odysseus has finally gained a great degree of self-mastery.

In the fifth century b.c., the Greek historian Herodotus credited Homer with having “made” the great gods and heroes about which he wrote; in fact, the word poet comes from the Greek verb “to make.” Herodotus singled out Homer as the finest transmitter of the Heroic Age that ancient Greece had produced.

PLATO ON HOMER’S HADES

Three centuries after Homer wrote the Odyssey, Plato reacted strongly to the lines in which the hero Achilles claims: “I would rather labor on earth in service to another, / to a man who is landless, with little to live on, / than be king over all the dead” (Odyssey, 11,489-91). Plato responds to this declaration in the Republic (also covered in Literature and Its Times), which features Socrates as the primary speaker:

What if [men] are to be brave? Should not one tell them things that will make them least afraid of death? Or do you think anyone ever becomes brave if this fear possesses him?... Further, can he be without fear of death, and prefer it to defeat in battle and to slavery, if he believes in an underworld full of terrors?... We must then... supervise such tales and those who undertake to tell them, and beg them not to rail at things in the underworld in the unrestrained manner they do, but rather to praise them, as their stories are neither true nor beneficial to future warriors.

(Plato, Republic, 386B-C)

Events in History at the Time the Poem Was Written

Homer’s culture

Homer’s culture emerged out of the Dark Ages, a historical period of obscurity and decline that ended around 800 b.c. It was formed by exiles who migrated away from the Greek mainland toward Asia Minor after the fall of the Mycenaean cities. During this period of destruction, the Greek mainland underwent a devastating decline in population, as well as the almost complete disintegration of urban life. Those who remained tended to huddle together in small hamlets that were probably organized around a tribal system called the ethnos.

People resettled in the general vicinities of the great Mycenaean cities over time, but in an entirely different way from their predecessors. They encircled the entire city, or polis, with a wall; earlier designs featured walls that only enclosed the area where the aristocracy lived. Inside the walls, people were able to remain organized within a tribal system. This polis was the forerunner of the later Greek city-state; “it was in fact, both more and less than a state, rather a human community, often very small indeed, always held together by narrow space, by religion, by pride, by life” (Ehrenberg, p. 7).

In the eighth century b.c., the period when Homer probably composed the Odyssey, the polis underwent a political change. Those people in control of the land surrounding and within the city walls began to concentrate their power. Since kings and royal families were no longer a feature of these societies, powerful landowners emerged as a new aristocracy. The towns in which the landowners lived began to grow in importance. A new type of human community wherein citizens were ruled by a class of noble landowners gradually formed. The emergence of this new noble class may have inspired the reappearance of tales such as the Odyssey, which depicts the exploits and problems of wealthy leaders. In all probability the noble class liked to trace its ancestry to the same legendary heroes that Homer’s tales depict.

The people of Homer’s culture, whose ancestors were almost certainly Mycenaean-era refugees, were largely responsible for reviving the legends of the Heroic Age. This cultural revival took various forms, including the production of lengthy poems that recounted the heroic exploits of earlier days. From Homer’s descriptions of cities in the Odyssey, historians have speculated that he must have lived in one of the walled cities that were sprouting up in this era. Smyrna is often mentioned as a possible home of the poet.

The alphabet

In the eighth century b.c., the Greeks were in regular contact with the Phoenician culture that was based in present-day Syria. Important trading partners with the Greeks, the Phoenicians brought with them what was probably their most significant contribution to Greek culture and ultimately to the history of the world: the alphabet. The Phoenician alphabet, which had characters for consonants only, first appeared in Greece around 850 b.c. Building on this base, the Greeks modified it by adding symbols for vowel sounds and for other sounds that were uniquely Greek. In fact, the word alphabet comes from the first two letters—the vowel alpha (a) and the consonant beta (b)—of the Greek alphabet. In time the system of writing became fairly uniform throughout the land. The writing of Homer’s poem, which occurred sometime in the eighth century b.c., thus dates from shortly after the introduction of the alphabet.

For More Information

Ehrenberg, Victor. From Solon to Socrates: Greek History and Civilization during the 6th and 5th Centuries b.c. London: Methuen, 1973.

Hammond, N. G. L. A History of Greece to 322 b.c. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1959.

Higgins, Reynold. Minoan and Mycenaean Art. New York: Oxford University Press, 1981.

Homer. Odyssey. Translated by Richmond Lattimore. New York: HarperPerennial, 1991.

Lacey, W. K. The Family in Classical Greece. London: Thames and Hudson, 1968.

Plato. Republic. Translated by G. M. A. Grube. Indianapolis: Hackett, 1974.

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Odyssey

Odyssey

by Homer

THE LITERARY WORK

An epic poem set around 1200 bce in the Mediterranean region; composed in Greek c, 725 bce

SYNOPSIS

As he wanders back from the Trojan War, Odysseus encounters a fantastic array of monsters, heroes, and gods, before encountering daunting threats at home.

Events in History at the Time of the Epic

The Epic in Focus

Events in History at the Time the Epic Was Composed

For More Information

Homer is one of the most romantic and most debated figures in the history of Western literature. The ancients identified him as the author of the Iliad as well as the Odyssey, two major epics of ancient Greece (also in Classical Literature and Its limes). Although he is popularly believed to have been a blind man who lived on the west coast of Asia Minor, scholars have questioned whether one poet composed both works and even if Homer ever existed. Today many classicists agree that the Iliad was in-deed composed by a single male author, but whether he was a blind storyteller named Homer is another matter. While most agree that one author also composed the Odyssey, debate continues over whether the same man composed both epics. The author of the Odyssey seems to have worked from an in-depth knowledge of the Iliad. Without solid evidence to the contrary, most scholars fall into step with ancient Greek tradition in naming Homer the author of both epics. The more one researches the Homeric epics, the more one realizes that other details about the poems are fraught with uncertainty as well. There is little consensus among scholars regarding when Homer composed them. According to Herodotus, the Greek historian of the fifth century bce, Homer produced the epics about 850 bce, but most modern critics locate him between 750 and 700 bce. In any case, there is no dispute over the wealth of oral tradition that gave rise to both epics or the importance of their impact on the Greeks and Western civilization in general. Of the two, the Odyssey reveals more about the domestic life, and much about the beliefs and values of some of the earliest Greeks.

Events in History at the Time of the Epic

Layers of history in the Odyssey

The Odyssey centers on prevailing Greek values, such as hospitality and the sanctity of marriage, rather than on events that transpired in a historical time period. In fact, while the events in the epic take place during the Mycenaean Age (1600-1200 bce), the narrative details show that it actually interweaves layers of time up to the composition of the epic, from the Mycenaean Age through the Dark Age (1150-750 bce) to the Greek Renaissance (750-700 bce). There are seeming anachronisms in the Odyssey that bear witness to the centuries over which it evolved. In Homer’s accounts of death, the bodies are cremated rather than buried in the beehive-shaped tombs characteristic of the Mycenaean period. Though his weapons are mostly made of bronze, many of the tools are iron, a popular metal of the later Dark Age. Even Homer’s own time finds its way into the story; a surge of real exploration begun shortly before the epic was composed recalls the wanderings of Odysseus.

The larger period of world history in which Mycenaean civilization thrived was the late Bronze Age, which takes its name from the metal that people used for their weapons and household tools. Much of what we know about the civilization itself comes from Linear B tablets, that is, tablets containing writing in Linear B script, a pre-alphabetic script that consists of roughly 90 signs, each of which stands for a syllable. Large numbers of Linear B tablets were discovered by archaeologists in ruins from the cities of Pylos (at the “palace of Nestor” ruins) and Knossos. The evidence indicates that Greek civilization during the late Bronze Age was highly sophisticated; kings lived in opulent palaces and commissioned artists to produce carefully wrought ceramics, mosaics, and metalwork. There existed well-built roads and a highly developed trading system linking Greece to the Near East, northern Africa, and Italy. Society at its most developed was arranged in a hierarchy. At the top stood the wanax (the word refers to the king, but may mean “lord” or “master”), followed by an army commander, then a high-status group of perhaps priests and military officers. Next came lesser officials and maybe some wealthy merchants and traders. Underneath was the mass of commoners, who lived in rural villages and labored as farmers, herders, and artisans. At the bottom toiled slaves, generally captives from foreign lands. Agamemnon is called a wanax in the Odyssey. Odysseus, whose own society seems somewhat unsophisticated, is not. If such a hierarchy existed in his land, he could be seen as the equivalent of a wanax, but this would demand drawing strict parallels between the legendary and real worlds, an impossible task since Homer mixes time periods.

Greek religious life appears to have depended more on the proper performance of rituals than anything else. Sacrifices, which involved the ritual slaying of an animal (generally a cow or sheep) in the name of a god, were the strongest element of worship. It is because Odysseus has sacrificed more to the gods than any other man that he wins the support of the king of the gods, Zeus, in his struggles to return home to Ithaca, a small rugged isle that the ancients identified with the land known today as Ithaca, located off the west coast of Greece in the Ionian Sea.

The late Bronze Age was a time of aggressive expansion for the Mycenaean Greeks. Fighting for territory, their top military men—their high-status warriors—rode chariots, or lightly wooded horse-drawn vehicles, to the front, then may have fought from the chariots or dismounted to do battle. Back home in their kingdoms, large walled cities dotted the landscape. The major cities had time-honored names—Mycenae, Thebes, and Pylos. Apparently they were the key dwelling places of the civilization’s kings, whose palaces and citadels towered over their communities. The kings made certain that the region’s food supply was secure and provided a basic framework of law and order. When they were not serving in the army or working at the palace in exchange for benefits, the men tended to their farming and their livestock. The women meanwhile spent most of their time spinning, weaving, cooking, and child rearing. A simple system of writing emerged—the Linear B script—only to disappear when the large cities were destroyed shortly after 1200 bce. Archeologists speculate that a series of local disputes as well as climate changes and possibly earthquakes led to the fall of the cities and ushered in the Dark Age.

Backdrop of the Trojan War—Odysseus’s ploy

At the time of the Trojan War, the Greeks were not a unified state but a collection of settlements. Due in large part to Homer’s works, the war came to be viewed as a defining moment in Greek history. Homer’s epics were performed publicly for centuries, becoming known to most inhabitants of these settlements, and developing into a standard by which all other works and values were measured.

The stories that made up the epics were not new to the Greeks. Homer’s original audiences would have known the details of the Trojan War, which called Odysseus away from his native Ithaca. They would have come to the story armed with information from popular legends portraying Odysseus as a fighter in the Trojan War. From these same legends, they knew that Odysseus left the war as one of its greatest heroes, largely because of his crafty ploy of building the wooden horse, the trick that finally helped the Greeks win the painstaking ten-year war.

Legend has it that the Trojan War began with the Judgment of Paris. Insulted at not being invited to a banquet, the goddess of discord, Eris, sought to cause trouble among the gods. She threw a golden apple labeled For the Fairest into the banquet hall. Zeus, knowing better than to bear responsibility for deciding which of the goddesses deserved the apple, called for the decision to be made by a mortal named Paris, the prince of Troy. Paris had to choose among Aphrodite, Hera, and Athena. Each of the goddesses sought to bribe him for his favor, and Aphrodite’s bribe—to reward Paris with the most beautiful mortal woman—worked. He chose Aphrodite. Now it was time for her to keep her end of the bargain. The problem was that the most beautiful woman in the world, Helen, was already married to a Greek king, Menelaus, of Sparta.

According to some accounts Paris kidnapped Helen; according to others, he seduced her. Either way, she was taken back to Troy and the enraged Menelaus assembled a huge fleet of Greek warriors, enlisting Odysseus in the effort. The Greeks initiated a ten-year siege against Troy, winning only after they enacted Odysseus’s plan to trick the Trojans by building a huge wooden horse, filling its hollow belly with armed Greek warriors, and then pretending to sail away, as if defeated. The Trojans did not know what to make of this lone horse out-side their walls, but they eventually dragged the horse inside the city. Under cover of night, the hidden Greeks streamed out of the horse, opened the gates for their fellow warriors (who had sailed back into the harbor), and sacked Troy. Again, all this would have been known to Homer’s first audience.

In the Odyssey readers encounter Odysseus in the tenth year of his return voyage from Troy, that is, 20 years after leaving home. He departs from the battlegrounds of Troy with several ships still intact, but loses them all (and the men in them) during his adventurous journey home; in fact, he loses all the men on his own ship too. The Odyssey contains a scene in which a singer relates the story of Troy’s destruction and the slaughter that took place there. Hearing the story, Odysseus weeps, perhaps over wartime memories, perhaps because he laments his long absence from home and separation from family and friends.

Monsters and gods

Greek mythology accounted for both benevolent and malevolent forces in the ancient world. By Homer’s day, many of the monsters and gods within the Odyssey had a rich oral history that existed outside Homeric epics and, as with legends of the Trojan War, was well known to the average Greek audience. Rhapsodes, people who professionally recited epic poetry by Homer and others in ancient Greece, told stories involving various kinds of supernatural figures that make appearances in the Odyssey.

The two main gods in the Odyssey, Athena and Poseidon, were familiar mythological figures. Athena, goddess not only of war and wisdom but also of arts and crafts, united the traditional roles of male and female. According to myth, Athena was born from the head of Zeus, the supreme ruler of the gods, and thereafter she remained his favorite. In statues, paintings, and other renderings, Athena is frequently represented as an armed warrior. The city of Athens honored her as its protector, and she gained distinction as a goddess who often came to the aid of humans. Athena served as helpmate and mentor to various Greeks, including Odysseus, his son Telemachus, and other impressive mortals, like Perseus (who beheaded Medusa) and Bellerophon (who harnessed the winged horse Pegasus).

Poseidon, god of the sea, was thought to be Zeus’s brother. Also the god of earthquakes and a tamer of horses, Poseidon could be both enemy and friend to man. It was said that he gave humans the first horse, but he was also dubbed “Earth-shaker” because of his tempestuous nature and his responsibility for earthquakes. He sided with the Greeks in the Trojan War but then developed a grudge against Odysseus, after he blinded the god’s son, Polyphemus. Poseidon becomes Odysseus’s primary antagonist. It is his curse that prolongs Odysseus’s return and causes such suffering. Odysseus has to somehow find his way back into the god’s good graces to reach home. When the story begins, Poseidon has already cursed the hero.

The monsters in the Odyssey also had a rich oral history. Polyphemus is a Cyclops, a one-eyed giant who dwells with others of his kind who raise sheep and goats on a distant island (later thought of as Sicily). In Homer’s epic, Polyphemus is a ruthless cannibal who traps Odysseus and his men in a cave and eats several of them alive. Later poets describe the giant falling madly in love with the sea nymph Galatea, who in some stories taunts him and in others respects him for being a son of the sea god, Poseidon. In the verse of one of these poets (Ovid), Polyphemus again behaves ruthlessly, crushing a rival for Galatea’s affections with a rock. The murder does the monster little good, however; in none of the stories does he win her love.

According to Greek myth, Scylla, the horrible six-headed monster in the Odyssey, was once a beautiful nymph. Glaucus—a fisherman who had become half-man, half-fish—fell in love with her, but she would not have him. He appealed for help to Circe, the enchantress, who fell in love with Glaucus and wanted him for herself. Still smitten with Scylla, however, he would not be swayed. Circe, driven by jealousy, poisoned Scylla, turning her into a monster with 12 doglike legs, six necks topped by fierce dogs’ heads, and three rows of teeth. Miserable, Scylla retreated into a cave (which tradition locates between Sicily and Italy in the Straits of Messina) and sought her revenge on passing sailors, whom she devoured, one for each of her six heads.

When sailors encounter Scylla in a narrow channel of water they must avoid a whirlpool on the opposite side created by the female sea monster Charybdis. The sailors face two equally threatening alternatives. Some scholars have theorized that Scylla and Charybdis represented actual nautical dangers: deadly countercurrents off the Strait of Messina (on the Sicilian side) may have been the inspiration for Charybdis, and Scylla may have been a huge squid of 3,000 years ago that inhabited the dangerously jagged rocks on the other side of the Strait, or perhaps she was simply the rocks themselves.

The Epic in Focus

Plot summary

Divided into 24 books, the story takes place during the tenth year of Odysseus’s journey home from the Trojan War. Odysseus has been living on an island with the sea nymph, Calypso, for most of the ten years. The delay causes tremendous despair among loved ones at home, who think Odysseus dead. At the root of the delay is Poseidon, the sea god, who is punishing Odysseus for blinding his one-eyed son, a Cylops named Polyphemus. When the poem opens, the gods are deliberating over his fate. Poseidon, reports Zeus, wants to continue the punishment, but Athena adamantly supports this homesick warrior. Ruling in her favor, Zeus orders Calypso to send Odysseus home.

The first four books feature Telemachus, the only son of Odysseus. Now close to 20 years old, Telemachus has not seen his father since infancy. Currently he and his mother, Penelope, are suffering from an onslaught of suitors who want to wed her. Previously, in hopes of Odysseus’s return, she craftily delayed them by saying she would remarry once she finished weaving a shroud for her father-in-law. She proceeded to shrewdly spend her days weaving and her nights undoing all the progress. But her deception has been discovered and the pressure to choose a new husband has grown. Since Odysseus’s absence, the suitors have been feasting at Odysseus’s home and otherwise abusing the family’s hospitality (hospitality being one of the highest Greek values, whether serving a relative or a stranger). Into this unhappy environment comes Athena disguised as Odysseus’s friend Mentes. In keeping with Greek hospitality, “Mentes” is welcomed into Odysseus’s house. Disguised as this family friend, Athena directs Telemachus to leave in search of information about his father: “Come now, listen closely. Take my words to heart” (Homer, Odyssey, book 1, line 312). She later takes the form of Mentor, one of Odysseus’s comrades in the Trojan War, and guides Telemachus as he ventures forth to seek news of his father, setting out for the homes of Nestor and Menelaus—two kings who fought with Odysseus in the Trojan War.

There is a break in the action “as the narrative shifts away from Odysseus’s family onto the hero himself. Book 5 centers on the hero in his current quarters. Odysseus is living with Calypso, the sea nymph, feeling miserably homesick, sitting out by the beach on a headland, “wrenching his heart with sobs and groans and anguish, / gazing out over the barren sea through blinding tears” (Odyssey, 5.94-95). Obeying Zeus, Calypso sends the mournful Odysseus home on a raft. Poseidon, still angry with Odysseus, causes the raft to be destroyed and Odysseus ends up with the Phaeacians, who, also in keeping with the high value placed on hospitality, invite Odysseus to stay and dine with them even before they know his name. Odysseus recounts his entire journey up to his stay with Calypso, establishing a reputation for himself through story.

He tells of rescuing his men from the Lotus Eaters (who make people forget about home), escaping Polyphemus (the man-eating Cyclops), being attacked by the Laistrygones (giants who ate some of Odysseus’s men and pummeled their fleet with boulders), spending a year in the bed of Circe (a sorceress who at first turned his men into swine), and many other fantastic adventures. Each provides a new lens through which to view Odysseus the hero; he is by turns proud, bold, crafty, reverent, and stalwart. Just before Odysseus reaches Calypso’s island, his band lands on the island of the Sun god. Circe has cautioned him to refrain from killing the Sun god’s cattle, but despite his warnings, his men sacrifice and then eat the cattle. Zeus punishes the wrongdoers by sending a thunderbolt to smash this last ship in Odysseus’s fleet. Only he survives.

The Phaeacians—a kindly if boastful seafaring people—sympathize with Odysseus after learning his story. Not only has it been 20 years since he has been home, but he is now making his way there alone, bereft of all the men and ships he lost along the way. Finally, with the aid of the Phaeacians, Odysseus reaches Ithaca. With Athena’s help, he disguises himself as an old beggar to rid his house of the menacing suitors who are vying for his wife’s hand and his fortune. Athena lifts his disguise when Odysseus reunites with his grown son, Telamachus, who has returned from his own journey for information about his father a more mature and knowledgeable young man. The son and father join forces. Back in his beggarly disguise, Odysseus makes his way into the palace. When the “beggar” arrives, the suitors ridicule the newcomer. Believing Odysseus to be dead, they then compete for Penelope in the contest of the bow. She promises that whoever can string Odysseus’s mighty bow and shoot an arrow through a dozen axes (probably through the ring on an ax handle used to hang it on a wall) will be the one to marry her. All of them fail, but then the beggar stuns them all by achieving the feat. Next Odysseus removes his disguise and shoots an arrow in the ringleader’s throat, then threatens the rest of the suitors: “Now life or death—your choice—fight me or flee / if you hope to escape your sudden bloody doom! / I doubt one man in the lot will save his skin!” (Odyssey, 22.69-71). Athena and two loyal servants help Odysseus and Telemachus finish off the suitors. Next, father and son have the female servants who were sleeping with the suitors clean up the bloody mess before hanging these faithless servants too.

Having reclaimed his palace, Odysseus reveals himself to Penelope. In a touching recognition scene, the long-suffering beauty bursts into tears after so many years of hoping for his return in vain. Penelope rushes to Odysseus, throwing her arms around his neck. Weeping, the warrior holds “the wife / he love[s], the soul of loyalty, in his arms at last” (Odyssey, 23.260-261). The morning after, the families of the slaughtered suitors gather to wreak revenge on Odysseus and Telemachus. Fighting erupts, but Athena, again in disguise, appears to force a truce: “Hold back, you men of Ithaca, back from brutal war! / break off—shed no more blood—make peace at once!” (Odyssey, 24.531-532). With these words, the goddess restores harmony and brings the action to a peaceful close.

Greeks and the afterlife

One of the greatest adventures that Odysseus recounts to the Phaeacians is his trip to the underworld, from which mortals rarely return in Greek mythology. The underworld was often referred to as Hades, after the Greek god of death who ruled over it along with his bride, Persephone. Odysseus meets with several spirits there, including that of the blind prophet Tiresias, from whom Odysseus receives assurances that he will reach Ithaca and rid the palace of the suitors.

In Hades, Odysseus seeks to converse with the dead spirits. He sacrifices a lamb and a ewe, whose blood gives the shades the strength to talk. Odysseus speaks with Elpenor, one of his men who recently died. The spirit asks Odysseus for a proper burial, a wish he promises to fulfill upon his return to the land of the living. Odysseus speaks in turn with his mother, Tiresias, and various Greek heroes. His mother’s speech reveals what the ancients thought happened to a human being after death:

Sinews no longer bind the flesh and bones together—
the fire in all its fury burns the body down to ashes
once life slips from the white bones, and the spirit,
rustling, flitters away… flown like a dream.

(Odyssey, 11.250-252)

The spirits of all people, whether good or evil in life, wind up in Hades, according to the tales of Homer.

In the Odyssey, the underworld is a bleak and shadowy place. Even the names of waterways in Hades are sorrowful—Flood of Grief, River of Fire, River of Tears, and Stream of Hate (Odyssey, 10.563-564). Homer’s grim portrayal of the after-life is reinforced through the words of the famous veteran of the Trojan War, the Greek hero Achilles, who remarks, “I’d rather slave on earth for another man—some dirt-poor tenant farmer who scrapes to keep alive—than rule down here over all the breathless dead” (Odyssey, 11.556-558).

Since no glory was promised in the afterlife, Greeks sought to be remembered by their great deeds in life. Heroes and would-be heroes spent their whole lives striving for kleos (remembered fame). This desire helps explain Odysseus’s refusal of Calypso’s offer of immortality. If he were to accept, not only would he never see his family again but he would lose the opportunity to perform a greater record of heroic deeds by which to be remembered.

Odysseus’s desire to remain mortal coincides with the fate that has been decided for him by the immortal gods. His return to Ithaca, “that year spun out by the gods when he should reach his home” is preordained, “though not even there would he be free of trials, / even among his loved ones” (Odyssey, 1.20-22). The idea of fate is complicated within the Odyssey by Zeus’s insistence that the gods alone are not to blame for what happens to human beings. Instead, human beings bring misery on themselves: “Ah how shameless—the way these mortals blame the gods. / From us alone, they say, come all their miseries, yes, / but they themselves, with their own reckless ways, / compound their pains beyond their proper share” (Odyssey, 1.37-40). It is through this combined idea of fate and free will that heroes find the opportunity to build kleos. The gods may control their ultimate fortunes, but the heroes are free to decide what to do with the time and the obstacles they are given.

It is probably the desire for kleos that prompts Odysseus to reveal his real name to the Cyclops Polyphemus, after slyly tricking him into believing that Odysseus’s name is “Nobody.” Odysseus outsmarts the Cyclops, plunging a stake in his single eye, whereupon the monster cries for help:

Hearing his cries, [the other Cyclops] lumbered up from every side
and hulking around his cavern, asked what ailed him:
“What Polyphemus, what in the world’s the trouble?
…surely no one’s trying to kill you now by fraud or force!”
Nobody, friends”…
“Nobody’s killing me now by fraud and not by force!”
“If you’re alone”…
and nobody’s trying to overpower you now

it must be a plague sent here by mighty Zeus
and there’s no escape from that.
You’d better pray to your father, Lord Poseidon.”

(Odyssey, 9.450-460)

With this the other Cyclops lumber off and Odysseus and his men make their escape. As they take to the sea, Odysseus brazenly taunts the still powerful but now eyeless brute: “Cyclops—if any man on the face of the earth should ask you who blinded you, shamed you so—say Odysseus, raider of cities, he gouged out your eye, Laertes’ son who makes his home in Ithaca!” (Odyssey, 9.558-561).

In the short run, when Odysseus divulges his real name, he harms himself and puts his crew in danger, for the revelation allows Poseidon to punish Odysseus for blinding Polyphemus, and the curse leads to shipwreck and a prolonged journey home. In the long run, though, the adventure adds to Odysseus’s kleos. He recounts the adventure along with others to the Phaeacians, thereby establishing and spreading his fame. It is through kleos that Odysseus seeks immortality. To gain such a reputation, to have one’s name preserved on the lips of men, is the ultimate goal of the ancient Greek hero.

Gender roles

While Greeks viewed marriage as a vital and respected institution, a double standard existed when it came to fidelity. Women were expected to be unquestionably monogamous while men could have numerous affairs. Although Penelope’s story serves as a backdrop to the adventures of her husband, her fidelity is highlighted as one of the central values to be taken from the Odyssey. To emphasize her faithfulness, Homer parallels her story with those of the legendary Helen—whose faithlessness led to the Trojan War—and of Helen’s sister, Clytemnestra. Clytemnestra was well known in oral tradition for having an affair with her husband’s cousin while Agamemnon, her husband, fought the Trojan War (Sophocles would later dramatize her treachery in Oresteia, also in Classical Literature and Its Times). Agamemnon survives the war only to be murdered by his wife upon his return. In the Odyssey, as if to punctuate the importance of female loyalty, Homer shares Agamemnon’s thoughts from the underworld:

Agamemnon’s ghost cried out. “Son of old Laertes—
mastermind—what a fine, faithful wife you won!
What good sense resided in your Penelope

A far cry from the daughter of Tyndareus, Clytemnestra—
what outrage she committed, killing the man she married once!”

(Odyssey, 24.211-220)

Clytemnestra is condemned for her actions. But no mention is made of the female slaves with whom Agamemnon had relations during the war, one of whom he claimed to value more than his wife. Similarly, although Penelope’s loyalty is commended, Odysseus is not blamed for the seven years he spent living with the nymph Calypso and the nearly one year that he shared a bed with the goddess Circe.

Although double standards clearly exist, the women portrayed in the Odyssey are neither incompetent nor powerless. Both Odysseus and Agamemnon leave their wives in charge of their separate kingdoms during the Trojan War. In Odysseus’s absence, Penelope shows wit and intelligence in the stratagems she devises to avoid marriage. But clearly men are meant to be in charge. Odysseus will not sleep with Circe, the powerful enchantress, until he has exerted control over her. Similarly order is not restored in Ithaca until his return; the suitors have been growing ever more disrespectful and Penelope cannot contain the situation without him. Her still maturing son cannot contain it either, although he does gain more authority over Penelope as the story progresses. Early in the tale, Telemachus begins to exert control as head of the household in his father’s absence, issuing directions: “Mother, / go back to your quarters. Tend to your own tasks, / ... As for giving orders, / men will see to that, but most of all: / I hold the reins of power in this house” (Odyssey, 1.410-413). Penelope, though surprised by her son’s newfound maturity, obeys without question despite her older age.

One of the only places where women appear to wield significant power is Scheria, the land of the Phaeacians, the ideal society, to which Odysseus recounts much of his story. Odysseus is advised to pay homage first to the queen, Arete: “If only the queen will take you to her heart, / then there’s hope that you will see your loved ones,/reach your own grand house, your native land at last” (Odyssey, 6.343-345). While Arete rules alongside her husband, she clearly possesses political clout of her own. Calypso and Circe wield authority in their magical lands, but both appear less powerful than Odysseus, since he overpowers Circe and rejects Calypso’s pleadings to stay by her side.

Sources and literary context

Literary Greek seems to start with Homer. He belonged to a mainly oral culture, in which people received most of their information by word of mouth: “In Homer the oral tradition which went back to Mycenaean times reached its culmination and its end.... Centuries of history have gone into the making of ... [the] Odyssey” (Ehrenberg, p. 10).

It is generally believed that the Odyssey existed first as stories that were sung by generations of oral poets, traveling men who performed for entertainment. These singers relied on memory to recount their tales, but felt free to improvise in response to their audiences—thus, the assertion that centuries of history went into the making of the epic. The singers also used a number of repeated formulas to aid them in their musical storytelling. Epithets, descriptive words or phrases attached to a character’s name, such as “bright-eyed goddess” and “Dawn with her rosered fingers,” which can be found throughout the Odyssey, were among the primary formulas.

Besides the Iliad and the Odyssey, there were probably other epic poems telling other parts of the Trojan War story. These were the forerunners of the Epic Cycle, a later collection of poems that, together with the Iliad and the Odyssey, told a continuous history of the Trojan War from the wedding of Achilles’ parents (the mortal Peleus and the goddess Thetis) to the death of Odysseus. After the Odyssey comes the Telegony, which can be thought of as a sequel, for it treats Odysseus’s later travels and military adventures, including his demise. These last two works in the cycle center on Odysseus, moving from the tale of the Greek hero’s return home to his final adventures.

Events in History at the Time the Epic Was Composed

The Greek Renaissance

Traces of Homer’s own era can be found within the Odyssey. First, Odysseus’s adventures can be seen as mirroring the expansionist slant of Greece during the Greek Renaissance, the resurgence of cultural and social activity that began around 750 bce, shortly before Homer’s day. Odysseus is an experienced sailor who provides detailed observations of the people and geography of every land he visits, as sailors in Homer’s age would. Many scholars further believe that Odysseus’s travels led him through Sicily and Italy, two main sites of Greek colonization in the eighth century bce.

The political structure of Odysseus’s Ithaca mirrors the evolving polis or city-state of the Greek Renaissance. In real life, this was the period in which the polis emerged as one small village grew into one another and as society became stratified, or more distinctly stratified. Those people in control of the land within and around the city walls began to concentrate their power. Since kings and royal families were no longer a feature of these societies, powerful landowners emerged as a new aristocracy. The towns in which they lived gained importance. Gradually a new type of community formed, wherein citizens were ruled by a class of noble landowners. The emergence of this new noble class may have inspired the reappearance of tales such as the Odyssey, which depict the exploits and problems of wealthy leaders. In all probability, the noble class liked to trace its ancestry to the same legendary heroes that Homer features in his tales.

Reception and impact

The Odyssey became the first Greek text to be translated for use by Roman schoolboys, and its fame continues unabated. For the Greeks, Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey became primary sources for the mythology and legend that dominated much of their artistic culture. At least one Greek, however, remained torn about the value of Homer’s work: some 300 years after the Odyssey was composed, Plato accuses Homer of telling unpleasant tales about the gods, heroes, and underworld.

Plato has positive comments about Homer as well. In The Republic, Plato called Homer “the most poetic and first of the tragic poets” (Plato, 606e; also in Classical Literature and Its Times). More specifically, he praised Homer for presenting images of self-control in Odysseus, particularly when the hero, in a moment of rage, wants to slay all the suitors single handedly rather than wait for aid. He wisely restrains himself, saying, “Endure, my heart, you have suffered more shameful things than this” (Odyssey, 20.18). His declaration indicates his growth, since at times on the long journey he has been a victim of his own lack of self-control, giving in to emotional reactions without considering the consequences.

In the fifth century bce, the Greek historian Herodotus credited Homer with having “made” the great gods and heroes who people his compositions (poet in fact comes from the Greek for “to make”). It was a tribute Homer shared

THE ODYSSEY INSPIRES EDNA ST. VINCENT MII1AY (1892-1950)

An Ancient Gesture

I thought, as I wiped my eyes on the corner of my apron:
Penelope did this too.
And more than once: you can’t keep weaving all day
And undoing it all through the night;
Your arms get tired, and the back of your neck gets tight;
And along towards the morning, when you think it will never be light,
And your husband has been gone, and you don’t know where, for years,
Suddenly you burst into tears;
There is simply nothing else to do.
And I thought, as I wiped my eyes on the corner of my apron:
This is an ancient gesture, authentic, antique,
In the very best tradition, classic, Greek:
Ulysses did this too,
But only as a gesture, a gesture which implied
To the assembled throng that he was much too moved to speak.
He learned it from Penelope…
Penelope, who really cried.
(Millay)

with Hesiod, whom Herodotus credited as well (see Hesiod’s Theogony, also in Classical Literature and Its Times). Herodotus singled out Homer as the finest transmitter of the Heroic Age in ancient Greece. The historian refers here to the fifth-century bce belief in a prior age that was peopled by a race of larger, stronger, braver, and comelier looking men and women. In Poetics (fourth century bce), the philosopher Aristotle praises Homer for his uniquely creative accomplishments. The philosopher praises Homer for developing a unified plot—that of Odysseus’s homecoming—and recounting multiple episodes of this single plot instead of recounting all the actions and experiences of a hero, whether they are connected to that storyline or not.

Throughout the years, the Homeric epics have become two of the most influential works of Western literature. The Odyssey, in particular, has captivated many notable writers. Enchanted by the characters and themes surrounding Odysseus’s journey, writers from Alfred Lord Tennyson to John Keats to Edna St. Vincent Millay to Eudora Welty to Margaret Atwood, have penned poems and short stories exploring the work from various perspectives.

Homer’s epics have served as a blueprint for later epics, such as Virgil’s Aeneid and Milton’s Paradise Lost. The Odyssey would become the model for the archetypal hero’s journey (Odysseus) as well as the archetypal themes of coming-of-age (Telemachus) and the human search for one’s identity, all of which are continually explored in modern works. It is precisely these themes that James Joyce drew on in writing his masterpiece Ulysses (a name that is the Latin equivalent of the Greek Odysseus). Likewise, Charles Frazier drew on Homer’s epic to write Cold Mountain, which features a journey like that of Odysseus, placed against the backdrop of the American Civil War. Thanks no doubt to its dual focus on self-development and social relations in a setting more ancient than Classical Greece, the Odyssey continues to inspire audiences as a rare lens into one of humanity’s earliest societies and timeless humanity.

—Christina Nation

For More Information

Blundell, Sue. Women in Ancient Greece. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1995.

Burstein, Stanley M., Walter Donlan, Sarah B. Pomeroy, and Jennifer Tolbert Roberts. Ancient Greece: A Political, Social, and Cultural History. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Ehrenberg, Victor. From Solon to Socrates: Greek History and Civilization during the Sixth and Fifth Centuries bce. London: Methuen, 1973.

Eickhoff, R. L. The Odyssey. New York: Tom Doherty Associates, 2001.

Higgins, Reynold. Minoan and Mycenaean Art. New York: Oxford University Press, 1981.

Homer. Odyssey. Trans. Robert Fagles. New York: Penguin, 1996.

Lacey, W. K. The Family in Classical Greece. London: Thames and Hudson, 1968.

Millay, Edna St. Vincent. “An Ancient Gesture.” PoemHunter.com. http://www.poemhunter.com/p/m/poem.asp?poet=6999&poem=156241.

Plato. The Republic. Trans. G. M. A. Grube. Indianapolis: Hackett, 1974.

Pomeroy, Sarah B. Goddesses, Whores, Wives, and Slaves: Women in Classical Antiquity. New York: Shocken, 1975.

Powell, Barry B. Homer. Oxford: Blackwell, 2004.

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