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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.
Circe has also given them another piece of information—that they must not listen to the Sirens, women who lure men to death with singing that makes them forget everything. Passing the island of the Sirens, the crew plugs their ears with wax, but the insatiably curious Odysseus requests to be tied to the mast with his ears left open. The ship then passes between Scylla and Charybdis, the dreaded rock-and-whirlpool duo that destroys many ships. They finally arrive at the island of the Sun, where the famished men recklessly slaughter and eat one of the oxen while Odysseus is away. The Sun destroys their ship, drowning everyone but Odysseus. He is carried to the island of Calypso, where he is held for many years.
After hearing this long account, the kind Phaeacians have pity on Odysseus and quickly prepare a ship to take him home. He falls asleep on board and awakens on a beach in Ithaca. Athena comes to him, tells him he is home, and begins to craft a way for him to reclaim his wife and home with a surprise entrance. She transforms him into an old beggar and sends him to stay with Eumaeus, his faithful swineherd. Athena then goes to Telemachus and tells him to return home but to stop by the swineherd’s shack on the way. There, Athena transforms Odysseus back to his normal form. The father and son are reunited and come up with a plan to get rid of the suitors. Odysseus again disguises himself as a beggar and goes to his palace. Only Argos, his old dog, recognizes him. Argos dies when Odysseus, trying to preserve his disguise, ignores the dog.
Inside, the boorish suitors mock the beggar and one even hits him. Offended by this breach of hospitality, Penelope orders the old nurse of the house, Eurycleia, to attend to the stranger. As the old woman washes him, she notices a scar on his foot. As she has served the house for many years, she recognizes the scar and the beggar as Odysseus. He makes her promise not to tell a soul, even his wife. The next day, Penelope decides to hold a contest: whoever can string Odysseus’s gigantic bow and shoot an arrow through twelve rings can marry her. All the suitors try and fail, but then the beggar stands up and asks for a try. The suitors scoff, but the beggar quickly and easily strings the massive bow and shoots an arrow with dead aim. He then turns and begins shooting the suitors. Taken off guard, they reach for their weapons, but Telemachus has hidden them all. They try to run away, but Telemachus and Eumaeus, to whom Odysseus revealed himself earlier that morning, have locked all the doors. Soon all the suitors, even a priest, have been killed—only a bard is spared, as Odysseus remembers how much the gods favor song and poetry. Odysseus finally reveals himself to Penelope, and after twenty years of separation, they live happily ever after.
If the Iliad has given Western culture a model of heroic warfare, with mores of bravery, strength, and honor, the Odyssey has provided something else entirely. It is not an epic of social and political communities and relationships, but an epic portrayal of one man over the course of many years. As such, it is a closer ancestor to artistic forms more familiar to us, such as the novel or film. Even the word odyssey itself has entered the language, meaning a long wandering, voyage, or quest. While the Iliad is often characterized in terms of its grandeur and stately glory, the Odyssey, a far more seductive tale, has drawn readers by virtue of its sheer, engaging delight.
Odysseus has fascinated generations of writers, from Dante to James Joyce. He is perhaps the most complex and, in a way, modern character of all of Greek literature. His motivations are many, which makes us relate to him and believe his experience of emotion. It is not as easy to relate to Achilles, half-divine and invulnerable aside from his heel, or Agamemnon, willing to sacrifice his daughter based on a prophet’s advice and a vow he has made. Odysseus is more human and practical-minded, relying on his own sharp wits rather than trusting himself to divine aid, as other characters do.
As we are able to understand where Odysseus is coming from, we can also spot those actions of his that have less than virtuous motives. A prime example is his stay with Circe: basking in luxury with a beautiful mistress, he whiles away an entire year feasting and drinking, unfaithful to a wife and son who, at great danger and in much unhappiness, are trying to hold his house together. Likewise, Odysseus wishes to hear the Sirens’ song out of curiosity but also out of a desire for pleasure; to attain this wish, he is willing to abandon prudence and to put himself above his fellow sailors. This aspect of Odysseus has led some of the epic’s interpreters to see him as thirsty for experience, regardless of the cost to himself or to those, like Penelope and Telemachus, to whom he owes allegiance.
At its heart, the Odyssey is about the importance of memory—of one’s past and one’s true role. Forgetfulness recurs as an ever-tempting evil. It is easy to taste the lotus blossoms to feel happy and wish to stay forever, to sit feet of the singing Sirens, and to stay in beauty and luxury with Circe. These specific instances are symbolic echoes of the temptation of forgetfulness that permeates the entire epic. We may even wonder how Odysseus, after ten years of the despair and triumphant ecstasy of war, can go back to his old married life. This challenge resonates just as powerfully today, rooted not in a particular time or culture but in the human condition itself.
Ace your assignments with our guide to Mythology!