ODYSSEUS

Odysseus was one of the most prominent heroes* in Greek mythology. He is best known from Homer’s epic* poem the Odyssey, which relates Odysseus’s ten-year journey home after the Trojan War. Odysseus was a popular subject for other Greek writers as well, and his exploits were frequently featured in Greek works of art. The Romans referred to him as Ulixes, from which his English name, Ulysses, is derived.

Odysseus was the only son of Laertes, the king of Ithaca, and his wife, Anticleia. He married Penelope, the daughter of the king of Sparta, who bore him a son, Telemachus. After Laertes voluntarily abdicated* his throne, Odysseus became king. When the Trojan War began, Odysseus, accompanied by 12 shiploads of men, reluctantly joined his fellow Greek warriors in their battle against the Trojans.

Odysseus also plays a prominent role in the Iliad, Homer’s epic about the events of the Trojan War. Here Homer portrays him as a skilled and courageous fighter and a man known for his diplomacy and wisdom. In the Odyssey, however, Odysseus more frequently uses cunning and deceit to defeat stronger opponents, such as the one-eyed, giant Cyclops. He not only resorts to tricks and lies to escape trouble, but he seems to tell tall tales simply for enjoyment.

* hero in mythology, a person of great strength or ability, often descended from a god

* epic long poem about legendary or historical heroes, written in a grand style

* abdicate to give up the throne voluntarily or under pressure

One of the most famous heroes of Greek mythology, Odysseus was a popular subject for both writers and artists. At the end of his long journey, Odysseus is said to have returned to his wife, Penelope, in disguise and unrecognized, as this sculpture suggests.

Odysseus’s cunning is best illustrated by the story of the Trojan horse. The Greeks had laid siege* to Troy for ten years without success. Odysseus suggested the idea of building a hollow wooden horse large enough for Greek warriors to hide inside. The horse was left outside the gates of Troy, supposedly as a religious offering. When the curious Trojans pulled the horse inside the gates of Troy, the Greek warriors emerged from the horse, opened the gates, and captured the city.

At the beginning of the Odyssey, Telemachus praises his father as the ideal king who must return home to Ithaca to reestablish peace and order. Homer portrays Odysseus as a noble, strong, enduring man, who has been loyal to his wife for 20 long years. In many other early Greek poems and plays, however, Odysseus is presented in a much less favorable light. In one poem, Odysseus pretends to be insane in order to get out of his responsibility to fight in the Trojan War, and he is a villain in the play Philoctetes by Sophocles. The Roman poet Vergil (who idealized the vanquished Trojans) referred to Odysseus in a similar way. Odysseus appears in many later works of literature, almost always playing the role of a trickster. {See also Homer; Iliad; Literature, Greek; Literature, Roman; Myths, Greek; Odyssey.)

* siege long and persistent effort to force a surrender by surrounding a fortress with armed troops, cutting it off from aid

ODYSSEUS AND THE CYCLOPS

On his way home to Ithaca, Odysseus was blown off course and landed on the island of the Cyclopes, who were one-eyed giants. One of the giants, named Polyphemus, captured Odysseus and his men in a cave and blocked their exit with a huge rock. Odysseus told the giant that his name was Outis, which means "Nobody" After making the giant drunk, Odysseus blinded Polyphemus with a hot stake. The giant cried out for help, but since he said that Nobody was attacking him, the other Cyclopes ignored him. The next morning the blinded giant opened the entrance of the cave, and Odysseus and his men escaped.

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