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 not 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.


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