The Odyssey is an epic poem about the Greek mythic hero* Odysseus. It was composed by Homer in the 700s B.C. The Odyssey has always been an extremely popular work of literature. Among ancient books, only the Bible has been read more than the Odyssey.
Organized into 24 books, the Odyssey is a very long poem, containing about 12,000 verses. The poem relates Odysseus’s ten-year voyage back to his native island of Ithaca after fighting in the Trojan War, which lasted ten years. Homer describes Odysseus as a “resourceful man,” one who possesses courage, determination, and endurance. The story itself is basically a folktale with typical folk themes, such as romance, adventure, and the triumph of virtue over evil. It is a masterfully crafted work with descriptive language that lends beauty and grace to the narrative.
The epic begins in medias res, a literary technique in which a story opens in the middle of the action and then returns to the start. As the epic begins, Odysseus has left Troy for his journey homeward, but he is a prisoner of Calypso, a sea nymph* who has held him captive for more than seven years. During Odysseus’s long absence from Ithaca, his wife Penelope and son Telemachus have awaited his return. A group of suitors, each of whom hopes to marry Penelope and obtain the throne for himself, pursues her and tries to convince her that Odysseus is dead. They also scheme to find ways to get rid of Telemachus. The goddess Athena intervenes to protect Odysseus and his household. She counsels Telemachus to banish the suitors from his home and to leave Ithaca to seek news of his father.
* hero in mythology, a person of great strength or ability, often descended from a god
* nymph in classical mythology, one of the lesser goddesses of nature
Eventually, the god Hermes forces Calypso to release Odysseus, and Calypso helps him build a makeshift raft in order to set sail for home. But he is blown off course by a storm sent by the sea god, Poseidon, and he washes up on the shore of the Phaeacians. While there, Odysseus tells the Phaeacians about the adventures he and his crew have encountered since leaving Troy.
First, he tells them about the land of the lotus eaters, whose food cures one of homesickness. Some of Odysseus’s men ate the food and wanted to remain there, but Odysseus forced them to continue on their journey. Next, Odysseus and his crew found themselves on the island of the cyclopes,the one-eyed giants. They were held captive there by the Cyclops Polyphemus, and Odysseus tells how he and some of his men escaped after blinding the giant. Their next stop was on the island of Aeolia, where the Lord of the Winds gave Odysseus a bag containing all the winds except the west wind, which continued to blow in order to help them sail home. Odysseus’s sailors, however, thinking the bag contained gold, opened it, and the winds escaped, blowing the men off course yet again.
Soon they arrived at the land of the Laestrygonians. The Laestrygonians were man-eating giants who crushed ships with large rocks and ate the crews. Odysseus escaped with just one ship, which he sailed to the island of Circe, a powerful witch who changed Odysseus’s few remaining men into pigs. Circe later transformed the crew back into human beings, but she told Odysseus that in order to reach his home, he would first have to visit the underworld*. There Odysseus saw the ghosts of his mother and several heroes of the Trojan War. He also saw how sinners were punished. While in Hades, Odysseus met a prophet who told him the best route to take to Ithaca.
But Odysseus’s adventures were far from over. He and his men sailed past the island of the Sirens, sea nymphs whose beautiful singing was said to lure sailors to their death. Circe had warned Odysseus about the Sirens, so he plugged the ears of his men with beeswax and had himself tied to the mast until they were out of earshot of the Sirens’ song. Circe had also told them how to sail past the sea monsters Scylla and Charybdis. Just as they had avoided these dangers and home seemed near, some of Odysseus’s men ate the sacred cattle of the sun god. As punishment, a thunderbolt struck the ship and the crew drowned. This time only Odysseus survived, and he found himself on Calypso’s island.
* underworld kingdom of the dead; also called Hades
The adventures and exploits of the Greek mythological hero Odysseus are best illustrated in Homer’s epic poem the Odyssey. A work of monumental proportions, the epic tells the tale of the hero’s ten-year journey home after fighting for ten years in the Trojan War. This scene shows Odysseus’s men in the land of the Laestrygonians.
Moved by his tcile, the Phaeacians take Odysseus home to the shores of Ithaca. There Athena appears to him, warning him of the suitors in his palace. She advises Odysseus to disguise himself as a beggar and instructs him to go to a swineherd’s hut in the countryside before returning to the palace. There Odysseus and his son are reunited, and they plot vengeance on Penelope’s suitors. Odysseus’s old dog, Argos, recognizes his master in spite of his disguise. Penelope, believing Odysseus to be dead, is about to choose a new husband. She announces a competition, and she says that she will marry the winner. The man who can string her husband’s bow and perform a very difficult feat of archery will be her new husband. Odysseus enters the competition and wins. Odysseus cries victoriously, “Now I shoot at another mark, and let Apollo aid me,” and, with the help of his son and two servants, massacres all of the suitors. With peace restored, Odysseus finally reveals his true identity to Penelope, and he and his faithful wife are reunited.
The Odyssey is both a simpler and more complicated poem than the Iliad. It is simpler because it tells the story of only one man and his companions. But it is more complex in that it moves forward and backward in time and across many regions of the mythological world. Little is known about the author of this great work. Homer may have been a bard who sang or recited his work at the palace of an ancient king or nobleman. He and other poets of his day sang about an idealized past—an age of heroes and close communion with the gods. It is not known if Homer wrote down the verses himself or if others, long after his death, wrote down the verses that had been preserved by the Greek tradition of public recitations. (See also Epic, Greek; Literature, Greek; Myths, Greek.)