“Sing in me, Muse, and through me tell the story of that man skilled in all ways of contending, the wanderer, harried for years on end.” — Homer
The Odyssey is one of the most recognized titles in the world, believed to have been composed somewhere around the 8th or 7th century BCE. It’s the tale of Odysseus, the king of Ithica and a Greek hero of the infamous Trojan War, and chronicles his plight as he bitterly struggles to reach his homeland, where his son Telemachus and wife Penelope contend with 108 suitors. Believing Odysseus dead, each of the suitors vies for Penelope’s hand in marriage in the hope of ascending the throne of Ithaca.
The Odyssey is one of two infamous works told by the blind poet Homer — the other being The Iliad which chronicles the exploits of kings and generals, such as Agamemnon, Achilles, and Hector in the 10 year-siege of Troy. Odysseus is a hero in both epic poems, however, in the Odyssey, instead of sharing the spotlight with other kings and generals, he’s the main protagonist. And just as the war itself stripped Odysseus of 10 years of his life, his perilous journey back home would snatch away yet another decade.
Structurally, the Odyssey is composed of 12,109 lines in dactylic hexameter, known as Homeric hexameter. In the time that the Odyssey was first shared throughout the ancient lands, it was sung by poets like Homer who memorized the tale. This is similar to the more modern “corrido,” a Mexican musical genre that was used during the times of the Revolution to share news and the exploits of heroes to a mostly illiterate peasantry.
The epic poem opens in medias res in Ithaca with Telemachus, who is 20 years old, sharing his father’s house with Penelope and an enclave of suitors. Events that precede this moment are told as flashbacks by Odysseus.
The Odyssey was split into multiple books which were grouped together by perspective. For example, books 1–4 were known as Telemachy, books 9–21 were Apologoi, and the final 22nd book was called Mnesterophonia, which means ‘slaughter of the suitors.’
The first of the books, told from Telemachus’ perspective, serves as exposition, setting up the narrative. The Trojan War has ended but Odysseus has not yet returned home as he had provoked the wrath of Poseidon. As mentioned, Odysseus’s house is overrun with suitors depleting his wealth like a small army of freeloaders. Penelope, Odysseus’s wife, to that point had staved off choosing a husband, still believing that her beloved husband will return. But as her endless procrastinating methods are discovered, Telemachus journeys to find assistance on the Greek mainland. There he finds that his father has been held captive by the nymph Calypso. Meanwhile, when the suitors realize that Telemachus is gone, they plan to ambush and murder him upon his return.
The true hero and savior of the Odyssey is the goddess Athena, who over the course of the epic, pleads with Zeus for Odysseus’ safe return while also taking on the form of countless people and using her godly powers to assist Odysseus and Telemachus.
Odysseus is held for 7 years by Calypso who has fallen deeply in love with him. Odysseus rejects her love and the chance of immortality as her husband. Thanks to Athena’s plea to Zeus, Hermes is sent and orders that Calypso release Odysseus. Poseidon quickly learns of Odysseus’ escape on a raft and he’s yet again shipwrecked on a nearby island of the Phaeacians. However, they are the first to treat Odysseus as venerable hosts.
J.B. Hainsworth describes the significance of the guest-friendship experience by ideal hosts of the ancient world. When a guest lands, the host should receive them, offer means to bathe and clothe said guest, along with food and drink. Then, questions may be asked to the guest while the host provides entertainment. The guest should then be given a place to sleep, whereby afterward the host and guest exchange gifts and the guest be granted safer passage home.
As he receives the hospitality of his hosts, Odysseus shares his harrowing tale, which begins the flashback from his view.
His tale recounts the beginning of his journey where he had 12 ships and a crew that he oversaw. After a failed raid and dealing with the lotus-eaters, they landed on an island near the land of the Cyclopes where Odysseus and his men entered a cave that was the home of the cyclops Polyphemus. Odysseus lost men to the hungry cyclops, but luckily our crafty hero devised a plan, referring to himself as “Nobody” and proceeding to get Polyphemus drunk then blinding him. When the other cyclopes arrived outside the cave to check on him, Polyphemus proclaimed that Nobody attacked him. By hiding under the bellies of the cyclops’s sheep, Odysseus and his men were able to escape, but the overconfident Odysseus revealed himself by his true name after his daring getaway which prompted Polyphemus to pray to his father Poseidon to curse Odysseus to wander for 10 years.
In 1914, paleontologist Othenio Abel reasoned that the Greeks may have created the myth of the cyclopes by confusing an elephant skull and its large nasal cavity for an eye socket. However, classical scholars recognized that the cyclopes myth existed independently of the Odyssey, and the cyclopes at the time were believed to be folk figures akin to ogres or giants.
Just as Odysseus and his men were in view of the island Ithica, they opened a leather bag given to Odysseus by Aeolus containing three of the four winds, thinking gold was inside. They were blown completely back to the direction they had just traveled, hundreds of miles off course.
Odysseus’s subsequent adventures involved cannibals destroying all but one of his ships, and losing a year along with much of his men to the witch-goddess Circe. Hermes had given Odysseus the herb ‘moly’ to make him resistant to Circe’s magic. After finally leaving Circe, they traveled to the foremost western edge of the world where Odysseus made a sacrifice to the dead and received an omen warning him not to eat the sacred cattle of Helios.
Following their journey to the underworld, Odysseus and his men made a B-line back to Circe, where she advised them on their remaining journey. This brought them through the land of the Sirens where the entire crew plugged their ears with beeswax with the exception of Odysseus, who was tied to the mast so he could listen to their song without drowning himself. They then had to survive the six-headed monster Scylla and the whirlpool Charybdis where another six men are claimed.
They then land on the island Thrinacia, where a storm traps them on the island. Depleting all of their rations, Odysseus’s men, against his warning, hunt the sacred cattle. This angers the sun god and Zeus punishes them by sinking their ship, claiming the rest of Odysseus’s men and thus leaving him shipwrecked on the island of Calypso.
This story doesn’t only enrapture the Phaeacians, but they gift Odysseus treasure that outweighs what he received from the spoils of Troy. He’s delivered at night while asleep to a hidden harbor on Ithica and his new treasure is kept in a nearby cavern. From there, he’s disguised as an elderly beggar by Athena. Simultaneously, Telemachus had sailed back and avoided the deadly ambush. Finally, father and son are reunited and they decide that the Suitors must be killed.
Telemachus is the first to return home followed by Odysseus who remains disguised as the beggar. He’s ridiculed by the suitors but is able to find Penelope who doesn’t recognize him. He questions her about her intentions. Once he reveals his identity, Penelope tells Odyssey that she will move the bed into the other room for him. However, this is a test as the bed is made from a living olive tree and couldn’t be moved.
Odysseus’s homecoming is much different from another Greek King. Agamemnon. Upon his return, he was slain by his wife Clytemnestra and her new lover Aegisthus. This probably had something to do with what Agamemnon had done to their daughter, but we’ll leave that for another time.
The next morning at the behest of Athena, Penelope proclaims that the suitor who can string the bow of Odysseus and shoot an arrow through a dozen ax heads will win her hand in marriage. When comes Odysseus’s turn, he alone is able to accomplish the trial to everyone’s amazement. He then tosses off his rags unveiling himself and together with Telemachus, they slaughter all of the suitors.
Though the Odyssey is one of the oldest tales to survive the ages, it’s not the first or only of its kind. In fact, according to Martin West, the Epic of Gilgamesh, which predates the Odyssey, seems to have influenced the Greek work. For example, the heroes from both tales traveled to the ends of the world and each enters the underworld. Just as Odysseus had received directions from Circe, Gilgamesh had his own divine helper, the goddess Siduri who dwells by the sea and is associated with the sun.
There are many universal themes and patterns like homecomings, wandering, guest-friendship etiquette, testing, and omens which highlight certain features of antiquity along the Mediterranean. Both the Odyssey and the Iliad were widely copied and used as school texts throughout the Hellenic world. And commentaries on the works are believed to have been written as early as the 4th century BCE, in the time of Aristotle and Alexander.
The work’s popularity continued into the Middle Ages with the Byzantine Empire. From the oral tradition all the way to the internet and beyond, the Odyssey continues to endure as an essential piece of the Western canon and gives future generations a glimpse of what life was like in antiquity.