The Odyssey

by: Homer


The Mediterranean Coast during the Bronze Age (approximately the 12th century B.C.E.)

The Odyssey was composed around the year 700 B.C.E. The poem is set about 500 years earlier, around 1200 B.C.E., a period known as the Bronze Age. The poet imagines this time as a golden age in which kings enjoy extraordinary wealth, warriors possess almost superhuman strength, and women are supernaturally beautiful. The gods walk among humans. Monsters pose a threat to any traveler who strays off the map. In many respects, however, the world of The Odyssey reflects the era in which it was written rather than the era in which it is set. The feudal society of Ithaca belongs to the eighth century B.C.E. rather than the twelfth. Sometimes, the poem’s armor and weapons are made of bronze, as they would have been in its Bronze Age setting, but at other times they are made of iron. In some respects, the two worlds are the same. When Odysseus tells stories of piracy and slave-trading, he is describing the reality that faced seafarers on the Aegean right up to the nineteenth century. Above all, the values which motivate the poem’s characters, like respect for the guest-host relationship, would also have motivated the poem’s earliest readers.

The Odyssey repeatedly contrasts two kinds of setting: domestic and wild. The poem’s characters often find themselves in luxurious domestic settings, the palaces of kings and goddesses. In these locations Odysseus and Telemachus negotiate the subtleties of the guest-host relationship, and often the sheer wealth and luxury of the settings makes this negotiation difficult. Telemachus proves his growing maturity when he tactfully explains that his own homeland is too rocky for the chariot he is offered by the spectacularly wealthy Menelaus. Odysseus is lulled by the incredible luxury of Circe’s home into wasting a year on her island. At other times, the poem’s characters find themselves in unknown, untamed spaces, where they face serious threats. At sea they are threatened by storms and the wrath of gods and monsters. In unknown lands they face hostile armies. Odysseus’ most dangerous encounter comes when he mistakes a wild setting for a domestic one. He seeks out the home of Polyphemus the Cyclops because he expects a guest-gift, only to find that the Cyclops pays no heed to human laws.