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The Odyssey (ΟΔΥΣΣΕΙΑ) is the second of the two great Greek epic poems ascribed to Homer, the first being the Iliad. The book follows the events of the voyage of Odysseus, king of Ithaca, returning from the Trojan War and the story of Odysseus' son Telemachus who sets out to find his father. During two nights in the company of the Phaeacians Odysseus describes his adventures during the ten year-long voyage home, before returning to Ithaca. Once in Ithaca, Odysseus, after a twenty year absence reasserts himself as king of Ithaca, father of Telemachus, and husband of Penelope. In contrast to the Iliad, with its extended sequences of battle and violence, Odysseus is able to complete his journey using his cleverness, under the sponsorship of the goddess Athena. This cleverness is most often manifested by Odysseus' use of disguise and, later, recognition. This disguise takes both physical forms (altering his appearance) and verbal forms (Odysseus tells the Cyclops that his name is No One and later escapes after injuring the Cyclops because no one comes to help him when he yells that he has been attacked by 'no-one'.

In the English language as well as in many other languages, the word odyssey has come to refer to an epic voyage.

The poem is considered one of the foundational texts of the Western canon and continues to be read, in the original and in translation, around the world. Despite the fact that most people read a printed text, the original poem was an oral composition performed by a trained bard speaking in an amalgamated dialect (Homeric Greek is different than all other forms of Ancient Greek) and using a regular metrical pattern called dactlyic hexameter. Each line of the original Greek was composed of six feet; each foot was composed of either a dactly or a spondee.

The Odyssey as known today consists of twenty-four books or chapters. The first four books give the background to the epic and are known as the Telemachy.


Plot summary

Book 1

The story opens with Odysseus held on the island of Calypso and unable to return home to his wife Penelope. All the gods, except for Poseidon, are sympathetic to his plight. With Poseidon away in Ethiopia for a feast, the others gather and Athena asks Zeus to allow Odysseus to return. Poseidon has kept Odysseus away from home on account of the blinding of his son Polyphemus and Odysseus's claiming to have tricked the Trojans by himself, but Zeus agrees to let him return. Hermes is to be sent to Calypso to ask for his release. Athena travels to the island of Ithaca, advising Odysseus's son Telemachus to call an assembly of the Achaeans to speak out against the suitors of Penelope, then to travel to Pylos and Sparta to seek tidings of his father's return.

Book 2

In Book 2, Telemachus assembles the people and makes a weak appeal to the suitors' consciences. They answer with scorn and are warned of their fate by Halitherses, but refuse to take any notice. Telemachus borrows a ship and travels by night to Pylos accompanied by Athena.

Book 3

In Book 3, they arrive in Pylos and are received by Nestor. However he has no news about Odysseus and Athena disappears.

Book 4

In Book 4 Telemachus drives a chariot to Pherae, halfway to Sparta, accompanied by Nestor's son, Peisistratus. They arrive in Sparta and are received by Menelaus and Helen. Menelaus describes his return from Troy and says that he has heard from Proteus, the old man of the sea, that Odysseus is still alive and held captive on an island. Menelaus invites Telemachus to stay for 11 or 12 days, which he declines. Later in the book it turns out that Telemachus made an even longer stay in Sparta after all. Meanwhile, back in Ithaca, the suitors learn that Telemachus is searching for his father and they decide to lay an ambush for him on his return.

Book 5

Book 5 is set amongst the gods of Olympus. Athena again urges the release of Odysseus and Hermes is sent to Calypso, where he presents the message. Zeus prophesies that Odysseus will reach the Phaeacians at Scheria after 20 days sailing, who will take him to Ithaca. Calypso releases Odysseus.

Odysseus constructs a raft, which he uses to leave the island on the twelfth day. After sailing for 18 days he sees the peninsula of Scheria. However, Poseidon raises a storm against him in revenge for Odysseus blinding his son, Polyphemus and his landing on the island of the Phaeacians is postponed. His raft is destroyed but he is saved by the demi-god/Nymph Ino who gives him a magic scarf to protect him from drowning. He is told to throw the scarf back into the sea when he reaches land.

Books 6 and 7

In books 6 and 7, Odysseus meets Nausicaa, daughter of Alcinous, the Phaeacian King. With the help of Athena and Nausicaa he is favourably received in the palace. He describes how he arrived from Calypso's island. The next day, after the conduct of sports, he describes the two year voyage between the fall of Troy and his captivity in the island of Calypso.

Books 8-13

In Books 8-13 Odysseus tells of his Trojan adventures including the Trojan Horse. He recounts departing with his crew from the Trojan War, sacking Ismarus and sailing to Malea, the southern point of Greece. However from there they were driven by winds to the Lotus-eaters, most likely in an unexplored part of the world. They sailed to the land of the Cyclopes, where they were forced to escape after blinding Polyphemus, thus drawing the wrath of Poseidon. They sailed to the island of Aeolus, who tried to help them return by confining all the contrary winds in a bag. Then to Telepylos, a city of the cannibal Laestrygonians. Odysseus could escape with only a single ship to the Island of Circe, where they spent a year. Circe commanded them to visit Hades to learn the way home from the ghost of Tiresias. Odysseus learnt that they must avoid injuring the cattle of Helios, god of the Sun, on the island of Thrinacia, if the crew were to return home. Returning to Circe, then sailing on, they avoided the Sirens, Scylla and Charybdis, although with the loss of some crew to reach Thrinacia. On account of hunger they devoured the sacred cattle of Helios, for which they were punished with shipwreck. Only Odysseus survived, and after floating for ten days on a raft, reached the island of Calypso where he spent the next eight years.

The following day the Phaeacians take Odysseus to Ithaca in a magical barque loaded with gifts. Odysseus awakens in Ithaca and learns from Athena of the suitors of his wife.

Books 14 and 15

In Books 14 and 15 Odysseus disguises himself as an old man with the assistance of Athena, he goes to the hut of his loyal swineherd Eumaeus. Eumaeus does not recognise his master but tells of the abuses of his hospitality by the suitors. In Book 15 Athena goes to fetch Telemachus from Lacedaemon where he has resided for a month. The next day is spent by Odysseus in the swineherd's hut while Telemachus reaches Pherae, halfway to Pylos. On the 38th day Telemachus reaches Pylos and boards a ship without visiting Nestor, taking with him Theoclymenus, a prophet who is on the run after killing a man. Telemachus lets Theoclymenus hide on his ship and then leaves him in the care of a friend . The ship evades the ambush of the suitors at night. Odysseus meanwhile is listening to the history of Eumaeus.

Book 16

In Book 16, Telemachus reaches Ithaca and sends his ship to the city, while he himself is directed by Athena to the hut of Eumaeus. There he meets his disguised father, whom nobody yet recognises. After Eumaeus is sent to Penelope, Athena reveals Odysseus to Telemachus and, reunited, the two plot the death of the suitors. In the evening Eumaeus returns to the hut, where Odysseus is again disguised.

Books 17-19

In Books 17-19, Telemachus travels to the city and calls Theoclymenus to the palace. In the afternoon, Odysseus and Eumaeus reach the city, where Odysseus pretends to be a beggar. After some minor conflicts he meets Telemachus and they obtain weapons. Odysseus talks to Penelope, who does not recognise him. She explains that she does not know whether Odysseus is dead, and doesn't want to remarry: she has put the suitors off by insisting that she must first weave her husband's father, Laertes, a burial shroud, and every night she undoes that day's weaving. However she says that the following day, the feast of the archer Apollo, she will agree to wed the man who can send an arrow through the holes in twelve axe-blades set up in a row, using the bow of Odysseus. Exactly how these axes were set up is still a matter of uncertainty with at least three different possible scenarios, including one where the arrow would penetrate all of the axe handles.

Books 20-22

In Books 20-22 the suitors decline to kill Telemachus on the holy day of Apollo. However none of them can draw the bow of Odysseus, largely because they do not know the proper method. Odysseus, revealing himself to Eumaeus and Philoetius, another loyal servant, has them lock the doors. Odysseus easily strings the bow, and after sending an arrow through the axe-blades with his bow, he, Telemachus and the two servants slaughter the suitors. Odysseus also has Telemachus execute all of the slave women who have been unfaithful in his absence by treating the suitors better than his wife and son.

Book 23

In Book 23, Odysseus reveals himself to Penelope. At first she doubts him, but eventually she rejoices and the couple are re-united in love. Odysseus tells Penelope that Tiresias has prophesied that he has one more voyage to make before settling into peaceful old age.

Book 24

In Book 24, the suitors' ghosts reach Hades and so Agamemnon and Achilles hear of Odysseus' victory. Odysseus is reunited with his father and the kin of the suitors unsuccessfully attempt revenge. Athena, backed by the lightning bolts of Zeus, reconciles the feud.

Geography in The Odyssey

The text of The Odyssey does not contain many modern place names that can immediately be located on a map. Scholars both ancient and modern are divided as to whether or not the locations were in any way real places or mere inventions. Eratosthenes, the third century BC Alexandrian geographer, ridiculed attempts to identify places mentioned in The Odyssey, saying "you will find the scene of the wanderings of Odysseus when you find the cobbler who sewed up the bag of winds." Those who tend towards real locations point to the high degree of realism present throughout the poem, especially in Homer's description of sailing. It seems most likely that Homer strung together tales of one or more sea voyages and that some locations at least should follow a logical sequence. Even amongst those scholars who believe the locations to have some basis of reality there is much dispute.

The traditional orthodox theory, which has unfortunately been taken as accurate by many including some encyclopedias and other reference works, sees Odysseus driven into the western Mediterranean with most of his adventures taking place between Tunisia, Sardinia, Italy and Sicily. However this theory has a number of flaws which make little sense either from a sailing or identification point of view. Ancient Greek ships were small, rarely ventured out onto the open sea and their captains did not explore unknown territories but instead sought to regain their course if blown off it. The orthodox route includes the following questionable locations:

  • The island of Calypso is associated with Gozo, which is part of the Maltese archipelago. Odysseus is said to have landed on the Northern shore of the island, on the beach of Ir-Ramla.
  • The Lotus Eaters are located in Tunisia on the basis that this is where a sailing vessel blown off course at Cape Malea could reach at full speed. However a vessel blown off course would have been more cautious and would not have ventured so far away, especially if trying to reach home.
  • Aeolus is traditionally located in the Aeolian Islands to the north of Sicily. However for Odysseus' vessels to have caught a favourable wind all the way to Ithaca and then have an unfavourable wind blow them all the way back so that they would have had to sail through the Straits of Messina is extremely implausible.
  • There is a real river Acheron in north west Greece. However, its location has been ignored by many, since the orthodox theory makes no allowances for Odysseus being in that region.
  • Scylla and Charybdis are traditionally located in the Straits of Messina. However, the channel they inhabit is said to be narrow. The Straits are over two miles wide at their narrowest point, and even wider at the rock traditionally identified at Scylla's. The whirlpools around the straits are not even in the "narrows" and are nothing more than gyrating patches of water caused by the cross-section of two currents. It is impossible to conceive of them producing the legend of Charybdis.
  • Thrinicia, the island home of Helios' cattle, is said to have been Sicily since the name Thrinicia implies an island connected to the number 3 and Sicily has three corners. However Sicily is huge by ancient Greek standards and so its three corners are only noticeable on a modern map, not at sea, and it is more likely that the name Thrinicia would have come about because sailors could use it to easily identify an island as they could see it.

More generally the orthodox theory assumes that the ancient Greeks knew about Italy, but there are very few references at all in the Odyssey to any part of the world to the west of Greece, though lands in the east and south such as Egypt are mentioned in several places.

The historian of science and specialist in the cartography of Antiquity Tullio Catullo Stecchini makes interesting speculations in an essay "The Navigations of Odysseus', among several alternative theories that have been proposed in recent times. Not all are based purely on readings in the Classics: Tim Severin sailed a replica Greek sailing vessel (originally built for his attempt to follow Jason's argosy) along the 'natural' route from Troy to Ithaca, following the sailing directions that could be teased out of Homer. Along the way he found locations at the natural turning and dislocation points which fit the pattern much more closely than the orthodox theory. However he also came to the conclusion that the sequence of adventures from Circe onwards derived from a separate voyage to those that ended with the Laestrygonians, possibly coming via the stories of the Argonauts. He placed many of the later adventures on the north west Greek coast, near to the river Acheron. Along the way he found on the map Cape Skilla and other names that implied strong mythological links to The Odyssey. His adventure is recounted in The Ulysses Voyage: Sea Search for the Odyssey.

Derivative works

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The Odyssey

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