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Odyssey, The

Odyssey, The

One of the great epics of ancient Greece, the Odyssey tells the story of the struggles and triumphs of the hero Odysseus as he made his way home after the Trojan War*. Pursued by the sea god Poseidon*, but aided both by his own cunning and by the goddess Athena*, Odysseus overcame countless obstacles during his long journey home. Along the way, he lost his ships, his crew, and the riches he had gained at Troy. The Odyssey is believed to be the work of the Greek poet Homer, who also composed the Iliad.

epic long poem about legendary or historical heroes, written in a grand style

* See Names and Places at the end of this volume for further information.

The Story Begins. The Odyssey opens with Odysseus stranded on Ogygia, the island home of the enchantress Calypso. Almost ten years had passed since the end of the Trojan War. All the other Greek heroes were either dead or safely back in their homelands. Only Odysseus had yet to return home. Calypso was holding the hero captive, hoping that her beauty and offer of immortality would make him forget his wife, Penelope, and marry her.

Finally the gods took pity on Odysseus. Athena encouraged his son Telemachus to go on a quest in search of his father. The young man traveled to Pylos and then to Sparta, where he met Helen and Menelaus. Telemachus was proud when he learned of his father's fame. Meanwhile Zeus* sent Hermes* to command Calypso to let the hero leave. She reluctantly agreed, and Odysseus sailed from the island on a raft. While the hero was at sea, Poseidon sent a great storm that destroyed the raft. Saved by a sea goddess, Odysseus finally reached the land of the Phaeacians. The Phaeacians welcomed the stranger and treated him as an honored guest. In return, Odysseus revealed his name and told the Phaeacians about the adventures he had had since leaving Troy many years before.


immortality ability to live forever

Odysseus's Tale. When the Trojan War ended, Odysseus set sail for his homeland of Ithaca with a number of companions in several ships. They first stopped in the land of the Cicones. After sacking the city there, they were driven off and suffered significant losses. Next they arrived at the land of the lotus-eaters, so named because the people there ate the honey-sweet fruit from the lotus plant. This fruit acted like a drug, and when some of the Greeks ate it, they lost all desire to return home. Odysseus had to drag them to the ships and tie them down before he could set sail again.

The Greeks next arrived at the land of the Cyclopes, a race of one-eyed savage giants. When Odysseus and some of his men went into a large cave, the Cyclops Polyphemus trapped them inside by rolling a huge stone across the entrance. Polyphemus, a son of Poseidon, proceeded to kill and eat several of Odysseus's men, and the survivors lost nearly all hope of escaping. Odysseus came up with a plan. After blinding Polyphemus with a stake, he and his men escaped the cave by clinging to the undersides of the giant's sheep as they were let out to graze. The Greeks ran to their ships and set sail. Polyphemus hurled rocks at them and called on Poseidon to take revenge against Odysseus.

The Greeks landed next on the island of Aeolus, the keeper of the winds. Aeolus listened eagerly to Odysseus's tales of the Trojan War and gave the hero a bag containing all the storm winds. With these winds, Odysseus would be able to sail safely and quickly to Ithaca. After setting sail, however, his men became curious about the bag. Thinking that it might contain gold and jewels, they opened it and released the winds. The winds tossed the ships about and blew them back to the island of Aeolus. Aeolus refused to help Odysseus again and ordered the ships to leave.

After sailing for some time, Odysseus came to the land of the Laestrygonians, a race of cannibal giants. The giants destroyed all but one of his ships and ate many of his men. Barely escaping these dreadful creatures, Odysseus and his surviving companions traveled on to the island of Circe, a powerful enchantress. Circe cast a spell on some of Odysseus's men and turned them into pigs. Protected by a magical herb given to him by Hermes, Odysseus forced the enchantress to reverse her spell, and his men resumed their human form. Circe then invited Odysseus and his men to remain as her guests.

The Greeks stayed with Circe for a year. She told Odysseus that he must visit the underworld and consult the blind prophet Tiresias before returning to his homeland. Reluctantly and full of dread, Odysseus went to the kingdom of the dead. While there, he met his dead mother, Anticlea, and the spirits of Agamemnon*, Achilles*, and other Greek heroes. Tiresias told Odysseus what to expect and do during the rest of his journey and after he returned home to Ithaca.

After leaving the underworld, Odysseus went back to Circe's island for a short stay. Before he set sail again, the enchantress warned him about some of the dangers he still faced and advised him how to survive them. The first of these dangers was the Sirens, evil sea nymphs who lured sailors to their deaths with their beautiful singing. Odysseus ordered his men to plug their ears with wax so they would not hear the Sirens' song. Wanting to hear their songs himself, he had his men tie him to the ship's mast so that he could not be lured away.

underworld land of the dead

prophet one who claims to have received divine messages or insights

Odysseus and his men next faced the monsters Scylla and Charybdis, who guarded a narrow channel through which their

* See Names and Places at the end of this volume for further information.

ship had to pass. Odysseus barely escaped the monsters, and he lost some of his men to them. The survivors reached the island of Helios with its herds of sacred sheep and cattle. Both Tiresias and Circe had warned Odysseus not to harm any of these animals, but his men ignored the warning and killed some of them as a sacrifice and for food. When Helios complained to the gods, Zeus sent a storm that destroyed Odysseus's ship and drowned all his remaining companions. Alone, the hero reached the island of the enchantress Calypso, the point at which the Odyssey began.


Return to Ithaca. After hearing the story of Odysseus's adventures, the Phaeacians gave him a ship, and he set sail for Ithaca. This time Poseidon put aside his anger and allowed Odysseus to reach home, but he punished the Phaeacians for helping him. In Ithaca, the goddess Athena appeared before Odysseus and reassured him that his wife, Penelope, had been faithful. She had resisted the attentions of many suitors who desired both her and his kingdom and were occupying his house. Disguised as a beggar by Athena, Odysseus stayed with a loyal swineherd while the goddess went to fetch his son Telemachus from Sparta.

When Telemachus returned, Odysseus revealed himself to his son, and together they plotted the undoing of Penelope's suitors. Still disguised as a beggar, Odysseus went to the palace and walked among the suitors. Later that night, Penelope asked to speak with the beggar, whom she did not recognize as her husband. She asked what he knew of Odysseus and told him how she had fended off the suitors. She had refused to marry until she finished weaving a shroud for Odysseus's father, Laertes. She would weave the shroud by day and then unravel her work at night. This worked until her trick was discovered. While they were talking, an old nurse came in to wash the beggar's feet. Recognizing a scar on his leg, she knew him to be Odysseus, but he swore her to secrecy.

Penelope announced to the suitors that she would marry the man who could string the bow of Odysseus and shoot an arrow through 12 axes placed in a row. The suitors all failed. Telemachus then demanded that the beggar be allowed to try. The beggar accomplished the feat. Then throwing off his disguise, he and Telemachus fought and killed all the suitors.

At first Penelope could not believe that this man was truly her long-absent husband. Only when Odysseus revealed a secret that only they knewthat their bed was carved from a tree and remained rooted in the grounddid she acknowledge and embrace him.

The Death of Odysseus

During Odysseus's visit to the underworld, the prophet Tiresias spoke of the hero's death. He said that his death would come from the sea when he was old and living in prosperity. According to some legends, Odysseus died at the hands of Telegonus, the son of Odysseus and the enchantress Circe. Urged by Circe, Telegonus sailed the seas looking for his father. Whe n he arrived in Ithaca, Odysseus mistook Telegonus and his men for pirates and fighting broke out. During the battle, Telegonus accidentally killed Odysseus with a spear tipped with the spine from a stingray's tail, thus bringing death from the sea.

On the day following this reunion, Odysseus visited his father, Laertes, and learned that the families of the dead suitors were planning to attack. When the battle was about to begin, Athena frightened the attackers away She then assured Odysseus that his reign would be long and would bring lasting peace to Ithaca. The Odyssey ends with this promise of peace and happiness.

See also Aeolus; Athena; Calypso; Circe; Cyclopes; Greek Mythology; Homer; Iliad, The; Odysseus; Penelope; Poseidon; Scylla and Charybdis; Sirens; Tiresias; Trojan War.

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Odyssey, The

Odyssey, The Epic poem of 24 books attributed to Homer. The story of Odysseus tells of his journey home from the Trojan Wars after 10 years of wandering. He wins back his wife Penelope and his kingdom, after killing her suitors.

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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, The

Odyssey, The

Nationality/Culture

Greek

Pronunciation

AH-dis-ee

Alternate Names

None

Appears In

Homer's Odyssey

Myth Overview

One of the great epic poems of ancient Greece, the Odyssey tells the story of the struggles and triumphs of the hero Odysseus (pronounced oh-DIS-ee-uhs) as he made his way home after the Trojan War. Pursued by the sea god Poseidon, but aided both by his own cunning and by the goddess Athena, Odysseus overcame countless obstacles during his long journey home. Along the way, he lost his ships, his crew, and the riches he had gained at Troy. The Odyssey is believed to be the work of the Greek poet Homer, who also composed the Iliad.

The story actually opens in the middle of his journey, with Odysseus stranded on Ogygia (pronounced oh-GIG-ee-uh), the island home of the enchantress Calypso (pronounced kuh-LIP-soh). Almost ten years had passed since the end of the Trojan War. All the other Greek heroes were either dead or safely back in their homelands. Only Odysseus had yet to return home. Calypso was holding the hero captive, hoping that her beauty and offer of immortality—the ability to live forever—would make him forget his wife, Penelope (pronounced puh-NEL-uh-pee), and marry her instead.

Finally the gods took pity on Odysseus. The goddess Athena (pronounced uh-THEE-nuh) encouraged Odysseus's son Telemachus (pronounced tuh-LEM-uh-kuhs) to go on a quest in search of his father. The young man traveled to Pylos and then to Sparta, where he met Helen and Menelaus (pronounced men-uh-LAY-uhs), the king and queen. Telemachus was proud when he learned of his father's fame. Meanwhile Zeus (pronounced ZOOS), the leader of the gods, sent Hermes (pronounced HUR-meez) to command Calypso to let the hero leave. She reluctantly agreed, and Odysseus sailed from the island on a raft. While the hero was at sea, the sea god Poseidon (pronounced poh-SYE-dun) sent a great storm that destroyed the raft. Saved by a sea goddess, Odysseus finally reached the land of the Phaeacians (pronounced fee-AY-shunz). The Phaeacians welcomed the stranger and treated him as an honored guest. In return, Odysseus revealed his name and told the Phaeacians about the adventures he had had since leaving Troy many years before.

Odysseus's Tale When the Trojan War ended, Odysseus set sail for his homeland of Ithaca (pronounced ITH-uh-kuh) with a number of companions in several ships. They first stopped in the land of the Cicones (pronounced SI-kuh-neez). After sacking the city of Ismara, they were driven off and suffered significant losses. Next they arrived at the land of the lotus-eaters, so named because the people there ate the honey-sweet fruit from the lotus plant. This fruit acted like a drug, and when some of the Greeks ate it, they lost all desire to return home. Odysseus had to drag them to the ships and tie them down before he could set sail again. The Greeks next arrived at the land of the Cyclopes (pronounced sigh-KLOH-peez), a race of one-eyed savage giants. When Odysseus and some of his men went into a large cave, the Cyclops Polyphemus (pronounced pol-uh-FEE-muhs) trapped them inside by rolling a huge stone across the entrance. Polyphemus, a son of Poseidon, proceeded to kill and eat several of Odysseus's men, and the survivors lost nearly all hope of escaping. Odysseus came up with a plan. After blinding Polyphemus with a stake, he and his men escaped the cave by clinging to the undersides of the giant's sheep as they were let out to graze. The Greeks ran to their ships and set sail. Polyphemus hurled rocks at them and called on Poseidon to take revenge against Odysseus.

The Greeks landed next on the island of Aeolus (pronounced EE-uh-luhs), the keeper of the winds. Aeolus listened eagerly to Odysseus's tales of the Trojan War and gave the hero a bag containing all the storm winds. With these winds, Odysseus would be able to sail safely and quickly to Ithaca. After setting sail, however, his men became curious about the bag. Thinking that it might contain gold and jewels, they opened it and released the winds. The winds tossed the ships about and blew them back to the island of Aeolus. Aeolus refused to help Odysseus again and ordered the ships to leave.

After sailing for some time, Odysseus came to the land of the Laestrygonians (pronounced les-tri-GOH-nee-uhnz), a race of cannibal giants. The giants destroyed all but one of his ships and ate many of his men. Barely escaping these dreadful creatures, Odysseus and his surviving companions traveled on to the island of Circe (pronounced SUR-see), a powerful enchantress. Circe cast a spell on some of Odysseus's men and turned them into pigs. Protected by a magical herb given to him by Hermes, Odysseus forced the enchantress to reverse her spell, and his men resumed their human form. Circe then invited Odysseus and his men to remain as her guests.

The Greeks stayed with Circe for a year. She told Odysseus that he must visit the underworld , or land of the dead, and consult the blind prophet Tiresias (pronounced ty-REE-see-uhs), who could see the secrets of the gods, before returning to his homeland. Reluctantly and full of dread, Odysseus went to the kingdom of the dead. While there, he met his dead mother, Anticlea (pronounced an-tuh-KLEE-uh), and the spirits of Agamemnon (pronounced ag-uh-MEM-non), Achilles (pronounced uh-KILL-eez), and other Greek heroes. Tiresias told Odysseus what to expect and do during the rest of his journey and after he returned home to Ithaca.

After leaving the underworld, Odysseus went back to Circe's island for a short stay. Before he set sail again, the enchantress warned him about some of the dangers he still faced and advised him how to survive them. The first of these dangers was the Sirens , sea nymphs who lured sailors to their deaths with their beautiful singing. Odysseus ordered his men to plug their ears with wax so they would not hear the Sirens' song. Wanting to hear their songs himself, he had his men tie him to the ship's mast so he could not be lured away.

Odysseus and his men next faced the monsters Scylla (pronounced SIL-uh) and Charybdis (pronounced kuh-RIB-dis), who guarded a narrow channel through which their ship had to pass. Odysseus barely escaped the monsters and he lost some of his men to them. The survivors reached the island of Helios (pronounced HEE-lee-ohs) with its herds of sacred sheep and cattle. Both Tiresias and Circe had warned Odysseus not to harm any of these animals, but his men ignored the warning and killed some of them as a sacrifice and for food. When Helios complained to the gods, Zeus sent a storm that destroyed Odysseus's ship and drowned all his remaining companions. Alone, the hero reached the island of the enchantress Calypso, the point at which the Odyssey began.

Return to Ithaca After hearing the story of Odysseus's adventures, the Phaeacians gave him a ship, and he set sail for Ithaca. This time Poseidon put aside his anger and allowed Odysseus to reach home, but he punished the Phaeacians for helping him. In Ithaca, the goddess Athena appeared before Odysseus and reassured him that his wife, Penelope, had been faithful. She had resisted the attentions of many suitors who desired both her and his kingdom and were occupying his house. Disguised as a beggar by Athena, Odysseus stayed with a loyal swineherd while the goddess went to fetch his son Telemachus from Sparta.

When Telemachus returned, Odysseus revealed himself to his son, and together they plotted the undoing of Penelope's suitors. Still disguised as a beggar, Odysseus went to the palace and walked among the suitors. Later that night, Penelope asked to speak with the beggar, whom she did not recognize as her husband. She asked what he knew of Odysseus and told him how she had fended off the suitors. She had refused to marry until she finished weaving a shroud for Odysseus's father, Laertes (pronounced lay-UR-teez). She would weave the shroud by day and then unravel her work at night. This worked until her trick was discovered. While they were talking, an old nurse came in to wash the beggar's feet. Recognizing a scar on his leg, she knew him to be Odysseus, but he swore her to secrecy.

Penelope announced to the suitors that she would marry the man who could string the bow of Odysseus and shoot an arrow through twelve axes placed in a row. The suitors all failed. Telemachus then demanded that the beggar be allowed to try. The beggar accomplished the feat. Then throwing off his disguise, he and Telemachus fought and killed all the suitors. At first Penelope could not believe that this man was truly her long-absent husband. Only when Odysseus revealed a secret that only they knew—that their bed was carved from a tree and remained rooted in the ground—did she acknowledge and embrace him.

On the day following this reunion, Odysseus visited his father, Laertes, and learned that the families of the dead suitors were planning to attack. When the battle was about to begin, Athena frightened the attackers away. She then assured Odysseus that his reign would be long and would bring lasting peace to Ithaca. The Odyssey ends with this promise of peace and happiness.

The Odyssey in Context

It would be nearly impossible to overstate the importance of the Odyssey to Greek literature and culture—and by extension Western literature and culture in general. The Iliad and Odyssey both served a fundamental role in shaping their political and cultural lives. The framers of Greece's famous governmental systems (the foundation of our modern democracy) used Homer's epics as precedent and support in much the same way a lawyer today would appeal to Supreme Court rulings in trying to argue a case. The events and language of the poems permeate subsequent ancient Greek literature, from the dialogs of Socrates to the plays of Euripides, and continue to echo strongly in today's literature.

Ancient Rome gradually seized control of Greece between the second and first centuries bce, and in the process appropriated much of what they found valuable about Greek culture. The great poems of Homer were considered chief among Greece's cultural gems. In writing his own national epic for Rome, the poet Virgil plainly admitted he was attempting to recreate the glory Homer's work. As Rome's military and political dominance spread north across Europe all the way to England, Greek culture (in Roman “packaging”) spread, too, and the Iliad and the Odyssey won more admirers. Countless artists, writers, philosophers, and politicians of the past two thousand years of Western history have acknowledged their debt to Homer, including such famous figures as the Italian artist Michelangelo, English poet John Milton, American politician Thomas Jefferson, American writer Ralph Waldo Emerson, and English writer James Joyce. Eminent eighteenth-century Irish author Samuel Johnson summed up the influence of Homer's work thus: “Nation after nation, century after century, has been able to do little more than transpose Homer's incidents, new-name his characters, and paraphrase his sentiments.”

Key Themes and Symbols

A key theme in the tale of Odysseus is cleverness. Although he is shown to be strong, Odysseus very often escapes trouble through shrewdness rather than brute force, as when he devises a plan to escape from the Cyclops Polyphemus by hiding under the giant's sheep as they are put out to graze. Another important theme in the tales of Odysseus is determination: although his journey takes ten years, he does not lose sight of his goal to return home to his wife and kingdom. His wife Penelope represents faithfulness, since she never gives up hope that her husband will return. The best symbol of their love is their bed, which Odysseus describes as a final test to prove his identity. The bed represents their marriage, a living and enduring thing with roots that give it strength even though they may not be seen.

The Odyssey in Art, Literature, and Everyday Life

The Odyssey has been adapted in many forms since its first appearance. The Roman poet Virgil even borrowed from the Odyssey in his own epic, the Aeneid. The Odyssey has also inspired many modern works, including James Joyce's landmark novel Ulysses (1922), and the 2000 Coen brothers' film O Brother, Where Art Thou? The term “odyssey” has even come to mean a great adventure that takes a long time and includes many different locations, such as in Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Read, Write, Think, Discuss

Odysseus embodies a spirit of adventure and travel, and the Odyssey takes him to the farthest reaches of the ancient world. In modern times, the entire globe is connected through communication systems, such as telephones and the Internet. It is a simple task to see an image of Mount Fuji or the Eiffel Tower without having to travel to Japan or France. Do you think this ability to connect with faraway places leads to an increase or decrease in a person's spirit of adventure and desire to travel? Why? Similarly, do you think the Odyssey inspired ancient audiences to travel, or do you think the terrifying stories would have the opposite effect and cause people to prefer the safety of their homes?

SEE ALSO Athena; Circe; Cyclopes; Greek Mythology; Iliad, The; Odysseus; Penelope; Poseidon; Sirens

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