Homer

The Odyssey

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The Odyssey Summary

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The Odyssey, an ancient Greek epic poem, is attributed to the blind poet Homer, whom many scholars believe did not exist. Though scholars think several poets collaborated to produce this work and its prequel, The Iliad, the poems remain a tour-de-force of poetic accomplishment. The Odyssey is the story of General Odysseus, his wife Penelope, and his son, Telemachus, following the conclusion of the Trojan War. The poem is divided into twenty-four books, some focused on Odysseus’ ten-year journey home and some focused on what was happening in Ithaca, his home, during that time.

The poem opens on Mount Olympus. Athena shows Zeus that Odysseus, one of her favorite mortals, has been detained on Calypso’s island. Zeus sends Hermes on a mission to secure Odysseus’ release from the island, while Athena goes to Ithaca. In disguise, she convinces Telemachus that he must journey to find out what has happened to his father. At home, suitors who wish to marry Penelope and claim Ithaca for their own have besieged him and Penelope. Telemachus goes to in Sparta, where Menelaus tells him that Odysseus is trapped on Calypso’s island.

To leave the island, Odysseus must construct his own raft. However, the raft is destroyed at sea by the god Poseidon, ruler of the seas and Zeus’ brother. Odysseus lives, and is transported to land by a nymph. Once on land, Nausikaa finds him and tells him to go to her the house of her father, Alcinous. That night, Odysseus tells them the tale of his adventures thus far.

After leaving Troy, a raiding party cost him some of his men. Then, with the remaining crew, Odysseus ended up on the island of the Lotus-eaters where he almost lost his men as they became addicted to eating the lotus. They escaped, but landed on the island of the Cyclops. Odysseus used his cunning to trick the Cyclops and orchestrate their escape. The King of the Winds gave Odysseus a bag of storm winds, which Odysseus thought would propel him home; when he opened the bag near Ithaca, the winds pushed him back to the King of the Winds’ island again, and he was refused further help.

From there, Odysseus and his men landed on Circe’s island. Circe, a sorceress, turned some of his crew into pigs. Hermes helped release the men from the spell with the agreement that Odysseus and his men stay on Circe’s island for another year. When they left, she insisted they go to the Underworld, or land of the dead. There, Tiresias told them how to get home, but before they could leave, their ship was destroyed. Odysseus alone survived and floated to Calypso’s island. Moved by Odysseus’ tale and his sorrows, Alcinous sends his men to bring Odysseus home. However, Poseidon turns the ship to stone once it reaches the harbor.

Athena comes to Odysseus and tells him to wait two days in disguise to return home, and that she will fetch Telemachus in the meanwhile. Once reunited, they form a plan to get rid of the suitors who have been pestering Penelope. Penelope, who has been delaying marrying one of the suitors with a clever trick of her own involving her weaving, tells the suitors that whomsoever among them can string and shoot Odysseus’ bow through twelve axe heads will have her hand in marriage.

None of the suitors are able to string the bow, but Odysseus can. He kills the suitors with Telemachus’ help. Athena joins the battle and many are killed. Afterward, Odysseus proves to Penelope that he is her husband—they’ve not seen one another in twenty years (ten years for the war, and another ten for his travels). The people, angered that Odysseus killed so many, rise against him, but Athena stops the fight and convinces them to declare him King of Ithaca.

The name Odysseus means something close to “one who suffers the pain of birth.” Indeed, when Odysseus leaves the Underworld, his journey is meant to symbolize his rebirth. While readers may enjoy the various challenges he is forced to undergo, they should also know that Odysseus and his men were delayed getting home because Odysseus refused to make proper tribute and sacrifice to Poseidon, thus angering the sea god. This introduces the idea of hubris, which in Greek mythology occurs when humans overstep their bounds. Thinking he was too great to have to make a sacrifice to Poseidon, Odysseus angers the god and delays his return home another ten years—not to mention losing the lives of his entire crew by the time he returns to Ithaca. The fact that he must disguise himself as a beggar represents his newfound humility.