The following story comes entirely from Homer’s other great epic, the Odyssey. Though Athena and Poseidon helped the Greeks during the Trojan War, a Greek warrior violates Cassandra in Athena’s temple during the sack of Troy, so Athena turns against the Greeks and convinces Poseidon to do the same. The Greeks are beset by terrible storms on the way home; many ships are destroyed and the fleet is scattered. Odysseus and his crew are blown off course, which starts a decade-long series of adventures for the great Greek chief.
The war and his troubles at sea keep Odysseus away from his home, Ithaca, for twenty years. In his absence, his son, Telemachus, has grown into a man, and his wife, Penelope, is besieged by suitors who assume Odysseus is dead. Penelope remains faithful to Odysseus, but the suitors feast at her house all day and live off her supplies. She holds them off by promising to marry after she finishes weaving a shroud for Laertes, Odysseus’s father. Every night she secretly undoes the day’s work, leaving the job perpetually unfinished. One day, near the end of Odysseus’s voyage, the suitors discover Penelope’s ruse and become more dangerously insistent.
Athena’s anger subsides and her old affection for Odysseus renews, so she decides to set things right. While Poseidon, still angry with Odysseus, is away from Olympus, she convinces the other gods to help Odysseus return home. In disguise in Ithaca, she convinces Telemachus to search for his father. Telemachus goes to Pylos, the home of Nestor, who sends him to Menelaus in Sparta. Menelaus says he has captured Proteus, the shape-shifting sea god, who says Odysseus is being held prisoner of love by the sea nymph Calypso.
At that moment, Hermes is visiting Calypso and relaying Zeus’s command that Odysseus be allowed home. Odysseus sets sail on a makeshift raft and is in sight of land when Poseidon catches sight of him, unleashing a storm that again wrecks the homesick Greek. The kind goddess Ino sweeps down and gives him her veil, protecting him from harm in the water. After two days of swimming, Odysseus reaches the land of the Phaeacians and their kind king, Alcinoüs. The king’s daughter, Nausicaä, finds Odysseus, naked and filthy from sleeping on the ground, and leads him to the king. Received warmly, Odysseus tells the story of his wanderings.
He and his crew first encountered the Lotus-Eaters, who eat the narcotic lotus flower and live in stupefied bliss. A few men try the drug and do not want to leave, but Odysseus drags them back to the ship. They sail on and dock in front of an inviting cave, where they search for food. There is wine, food, and pens full of sheep in the cave, but the cave’s owner, the giant Cyclops Polyphemus, returns. He seals the entrance with a giant boulder, spots the intruders, and eats two of Odysseus’s men. He keeps the others trapped in the cave and eats two more at each meal. Odysseus plans an escape, giving Polyphemus wine until he passes out drunk. The men then take a giant red-hot sharpened stake they have made and poke out the monster’s only eye. Blinded, Polyphemus cannot find the men and finally rolls back the boulder blocking the entrance and puts his arms in front of it, figuring he will catch the men as they try to run outside. Odysseus has already thought of this, so the Greeks go to the pens and each tie three rams together. The next day the Greeks hang onto the undersides of the sheep as they go out to pasture. As they pass the entrance, Polyphemus feels only the sheep’s backs to make sure there are no Greeks riding them, enabling them to escape.
Next, Aeolus, the keeper of the Winds, gives Odysseus a priceless gift, a leather sack that holds all the storm winds. Odysseus can sail home safely as long as he keeps the bag closed, but his inquisitive crew opens the bag, unleashing a fierce storm that blows them to the land of the Laestrygons, cannibals who destroy every ship in the fleet except one. At their next stop, several men scout ahead and encounter the sorceress Circe, who turns them all into pigs except one man lucky enough to escape. Warned, Odysseus sets out for Circe’s house armed with an herb Hermes has given him. When Circe cannot affect him with her magic, she falls in love with him. She returns his crew to human form and they live in luxury at her house for a year. She then uses her magic to tell them how to get home: they must travel to Hades and speak to the dead prophet Teiresias. In the world of the dead, Odysseus and his men lure Teiresias’s spirit with blood—a favorite drink of the dead—and ask his help. He says that Odysseus will eventually reach home. He advises them not to harm the oxen belonging to the Sun, as terrible things would happen. Before departing Hades, the Greeks talk with some of their old war comrades, including Achilles and Ajax.