The Odyssey Summary & Study Guide
SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides for challenging works of literature. This 77-page guide for “The Odyssey” by Homer includes detailed chapter summaries and analysis covering 24 chapters, as well as several more in-depth sections of expert-written literary analysis. Featured content includes commentary on major characters, 25 important quotes, essay topics, and key themes like Reciprocity as Virtue and Obligation and Intersection of Fate, the Gods, and Human Choices.
The Odyssey is an ancient Greek epic poem attributed to Homer, though “Homer” is now generally believed to refer more to an epic tradition than to a specific or single person. Scholars debate when and how the poem was composed. It seems to have come into existence contemporaneously or shortly after the adaptation of the ancient Greek alphabet, which places it in the late 8th century BC. It was most likely composed orally, and even after it was written down, its earliest audiences would have heard the poem performed. The text as it is now experienced was likely arranged sometime in the 2nd century BC by scholars at the Library of Alexandria and preserved by the scholars of Constantinople in the Eastern Roman Empire.
Often referred to as the beginning of Western literature, the Odyssey draws on conceits and concepts from Near Eastern epics, most notably the Homecoming Husband. The narrative revolves around the restoration of a family after a prolonged separation, exploring themes of home and family as identity, the virtue of reciprocity, and the intersection of fate, gods, and human choices in determining outcomes.
This study guide refers to the 2018 paperback edition translated by Emily Wilson. Her 2017 translation, released in hardcover, is the first full-length translation by a woman to be published in English. Wilson has stated that her publisher permits her to update her translation with each new edition; the hardcover and paperback translations are not identical. The ancient Greek text was composed in dactylic hexameter, the meter of archaic Greek narrative poetry. Wilson’s translation is in iambic pentameter. Though it features the same number of lines as the original, it is not a line-for-line translation. Chapter divisions exist in the Greek text, but the chapter titles are Wilson’s own.
At the start of the poem, Odysseus has been away from Ithaca for 20 years—10 fighting at Troy and 10 attempting to return home—but his fate is to return. At the start of the poem, the goddess Athena prompts Zeus to set Odysseus’s return in motion, but the gods must do so against the wishes of Poseidon. He holds a grudge against Odysseus for having blinded his son, the Cyclops Polyphemus.
The first four books take place in Ithaca, where Odysseus’s wife Penelope is besieged by aggressive young suitors from Ithaca and neighboring islands. Insisting that Odysseus must be dead, they demand that Penelope select one of them as her new husband. They feast on Odysseus’s herds, offering nothing in return, while Penelope stalls for time. Her son with Odysseus, Telemachus, who was an infant when his father left, is too young and inexperienced to assume control. Both Penelope and Telemachus exist in a state of suspended anticipation, longing for Odysseus’s return but unsure whether they can rely on it.
Books 5 through 13 concern Odysseus’s wanderings after leaving Troy. Book 5 finds Odysseus on Calypso’s island. The messenger god Hermes informs her that she must let Odysseus leave. She grudgingly agrees, but Poseidon stirs up the sea to shipwreck Odysseus. Sea nymph Ino helps him reach the Phaeacians’ island, an intermediary space between the human and divine realms. In Books 6 through 8, the Phaeacians accept Odysseus’s request for help, feeding and bathing him and promising to help him return to Ithaca. In return, he tells them his story in Books 9 through 12.
Odysseus narrates the trials he has undergone, including escaping the Lotus Eaters (whose fruit causes men to forget their desire to return home), the Cyclops Polyphemus (who ate six of his men), and the Laestrygonians (human-eating giants). On Circe’s island, she initially turned his men into pigs but eventually helped him devise a plan to return home by consulting with Tiresias, a prophet Odysseus spoke with at the border between earth and the underworld. Odysseus’s men died at sea after failing to follow Tiresias’s order not to eat the Sun God Helius’s sacred cattle. Only Odysseus escaped.
The Phaeacians bring Odysseus to Ithaca, where Books 13 through 24 take place. Athena disguises him so that he can enter the palace by stealth and test his slaves to determine who is loyal. Believing Odysseus is impoverished, Eumaeus provides food and shelter. Odysseus reveals himself only to Telemachus. Athena helps Odysseus plot how to overthrow the suitors despite their numbers. Odysseus and Telemachus put the plan into motion, aided by Eumaeus and another loyal herdsman.
With Athena’s help, Odysseus slaughters the suitors at their feast, then hangs 12 enslaved women who are accused of entertaining the suitors. Penelope and Odysseus reunite after she secretly tests him and he proves his identity. The suitors’ surviving male family members threaten Odysseus, but Athena intervenes to ensure peace and prosperity in Ithaca.