Ten years have passed since the fall of Troy, and the Greek hero Odysseus still has not returned to his kingdom in Ithaca. A large and rowdy mob of suitors who have overrun Odysseus’s palace and pillaged his land continue to court his wife, Penelope. She has remained faithful to Odysseus. Prince Telemachus, Odysseus’s son, wants desperately to throw them out but does not have the confidence or experience to fight them. One of the suitors, Antinous, plans to assassinate the young prince, eliminating the only opposition to their dominion over the palace.
Unknown to the suitors, Odysseus is still alive. The beautiful nymph Calypso, possessed by love for him, has imprisoned him on her island, Ogygia. He longs to return to his wife and son, but he has no ship or crew to help him escape. While the gods and goddesses of Mount Olympus debate Odysseus’s future, Athena, Odysseus’s strongest supporter among the gods, resolves to help Telemachus. Disguised as a friend of the prince’s grandfather, Laertes, she convinces the prince to call a meeting of the assembly at which he reproaches the suitors. Athena also prepares him for a great journey to Pylos and Sparta, where the kings Nestor and Menelaus, Odysseus’s companions during the war, inform him that Odysseus is alive and trapped on Calypso’s island. Telemachus makes plans to return home, while, back in Ithaca, Antinous and the other suitors prepare an ambush to kill him when he reaches port.
On Mount Olympus, Zeus sends Hermes to rescue Odysseus from Calypso. Hermes persuades Calypso to let Odysseus build a ship and leave. The homesick hero sets sail, but when Poseidon, god of the sea, finds him sailing home, he sends a storm to wreck Odysseus’s ship. Poseidon has harbored a bitter grudge against Odysseus since the hero blinded his son, the Cyclops Polyphemus, earlier in his travels. Athena intervenes to save Odysseus from Poseidon’s wrath, and the beleaguered king lands at Scheria, home of the Phaeacians. Nausicaa, the Phaeacian princess, shows him to the royal palace, and Odysseus receives a warm welcome from the king and queen. When he identifies himself as Odysseus, his hosts, who have heard of his exploits at Troy, are stunned. They promise to give him safe passage to Ithaca, but first they beg to hear the story of his adventures.
Odysseus spends the night describing the fantastic chain of events leading up to his arrival on Calypso’s island. He recounts his trip to the Land of the Lotus Eaters, his battle with Polyphemus the Cyclops, his love affair with the witch-goddess Circe, his temptation by the deadly Sirens, his journey into Hades to consult the prophet Tiresias, and his fight with the sea monster Scylla. When he finishes his story, the Phaeacians return Odysseus to Ithaca, where he seeks out the hut of his faithful swineherd, Eumaeus. Though Athena has disguised Odysseus as a beggar, Eumaeus warmly receives and nourishes him in the hut. He soon encounters Telemachus, who has returned from Pylos and Sparta despite the suitors’ ambush, and reveals to him his true identity. Odysseus and Telemachus devise a plan to massacre the suitors and regain control of Ithaca.
When Odysseus arrives at the palace the next day, still disguised as a beggar, he endures abuse and insults from the suitors. The only person who recognizes him is his old nurse, Eurycleia, but she swears not to disclose his secret. Penelope takes an interest in this strange beggar, suspecting that he might be her long-lost husband. Quite crafty herself, Penelope organizes an archery contest the following day and promises to marry any man who can string Odysseus’s great bow and fire an arrow through a row of twelve axes—a feat that only Odysseus has ever been able to accomplish. At the contest, each suitor tries to string the bow and fails. Odysseus steps up to the bow and, with little effort, fires an arrow through all twelve axes. He then turns the bow on the suitors. He and Telemachus, assisted by a few faithful servants, kill every last suitor.
Odysseus reveals himself to the entire palace and reunites with his loving Penelope. He travels to the outskirts of Ithaca to see his aging father, Laertes. They come under attack from the vengeful family members of the dead suitors, but Laertes, reinvigorated by his son’s return, successfully kills Antinous’s father and puts a stop to the attack. Zeus dispatches Athena to restore peace. With his power secure and his family reunited, Odysseus’s long ordeal comes to an end.
Nearly three thousand years after they were composed, the Iliad and the Odyssey remain two of the most celebrated and widely read stories ever told, yet next to nothing is known about their author. He was certainly an accomplished Greek bard, and he probably lived in the late eighth and early seventh centuries b.c. Authorship is traditionally ascribed to a blind poet named Homer, and it is under this name that the works are still published. Greeks of the third and second centuries b.c., however, already questioned whether Homer existed and whether the two epics were even written by a single individual.
Most modern scholars believe that even if a single person wrote the epics, his work owed a tremendous debt to a long tradition of unwritten, oral poetry. Stories of a glorious expedition to the East and of its leaders’ fateful journeys home had been circulating in Greece for hundreds of years before the Iliad and Odyssey were composed. Casual storytellers and semiprofessional minstrels passed these stories down through generations, with each artist developing and polishing the story as he told it. According to this theory, one poet, multiple poets working in collaboration, or perhaps even a series of poets handing down their work in succession finally turned these stories into written works, again with each adding his own touch and expanding or contracting certain episodes in the overall narrative to fit his taste.
Although historical, archaeological, and linguistic evidence suggests that the epics were composed between 750 and 650 b.c., they are set in Mycenaean Greece in about the twelfth century b.c., during the Bronze Age. This earlier period, the Greeks believed, was a more glorious and sublime age, when gods still frequented the earth and heroic, godlike mortals with superhuman attributes populated Greece. Because the two epics strive to evoke this pristine age, they are written in a high style and generally depict life as it was believed to have been led in the great kingdoms of the Bronze Age. The Greeks are often referred to as “Achaeans,” the name of a large tribe occupying Greece during the Bronze Age.
But Homer’s reconstruction often yields to the realities of eighth- and seventh-century b.c. Greece. The feudal social structure apparent in the background of the Odyssey seems more akin to Homer’s Greece than to Odysseus’s, and Homer substitutes the pantheon of deities of his own day for the related but different gods whom Mycenaean Greeks worshipped. Many other minor but obvious anachronisms—such as references to iron tools and to tribes that had not yet migrated to Greece by the Bronze Age—betray the poem’s later, Iron Age origins.
Of the two epics, the Odyssey is the later both in setting and, probably, date of composition. The Iliad tells the story of the Greek struggle to rescue Helen, a Greek queen, from her Trojan captors. The Odyssey takes the fall of the city of Troy as its starting point and crafts a new epic around the struggle of one of those Greek warriors, the hero Odysseus. It tells the story of his nostos, or journey home, to northwest Greece during the ten-year period after the Greek victory over the Trojans. A tale of wandering, it takes place not on a field of battle but on fantastic islands and foreign lands. After the unrelenting tragedy and carnage of the Iliad, the Odyssey often strikes readers as comic or surreal at times. This quality has led some scholars to conclude that Homer wrote the Odyssey at a later time of his life, when he showed less interest in struggles at arms and was more receptive to a storyline that focused on the fortunes and misadventures of a single man. Others argue that someone else must have composed the Odyssey, one who wished to provide a companion work to the Iliad but had different interests from those of the earlier epic’s author.
Like the Iliad, the Odyssey was composed primarily in the Ionic dialect of Ancient Greek, which was spoken on the Aegean islands and in the coastal settlements of Asia Minor, now modern Turkey. Some scholars thus conclude that the poet hailed from somewhere in the eastern Greek world. More likely, however, the poet chose the Ionic dialect because he felt it to be more appropriate for the high style and grand scope of his work. Slightly later Greek literature suggests that poets varied the dialects of their poems according to the themes that they were treating and might write in dialects that they didn’t actually speak. Homer’s epics, moreover, are Panhellenic (encompassing all of Greece) in spirit and, in fact, use forms from several other dialects, suggesting that Homer didn’t simply fall back on his native tongue but rather suited his poems to the dialect that would best complement his ideas.
Themes, Motifs & Symbols
Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
The Power of Cunning over Strength
If the Iliad is about strength, the Odyssey is about cunning, a difference that becomes apparent in the very first lines of the epics. Whereas the Iliad tells the story of the rage of Achilles, the strongest hero in the Greek army, the Odyssey focuses on a “man of twists and turns” (1.1). Odysseus does have extraordinary strength, as he demonstrates in Book 21 by being the only man who can string the bow. But he relies much more on mind than muscle, a tendency that his encounters showcase. He knows that he cannot overpower Polyphemus, for example, and that, even if he were able to do so, he wouldn’t be able to budge the boulder from the door. He thus schemes around his disadvantage in strength by exploiting Po1yphemus’s stupidity. Though he does use violence to put out Polyphemus’s single eye, this display of strength is part of a larger plan to deceive the brute.
Similarly, Odysseus knows that he is no match for the host of strapping young suitors in his palace, so he makes the most of his other strength—his wits. Step by step, through disguises and deceptions, he arranges a situation in which he alone is armed and the suitors are locked in a room with him. With this setup, Achilles’ superb talents as a warrior would enable him to accomplish what Odysseus does, but only Odysseus’s strategic planning can bring about such a sure victory. Some of the tests in Odysseus’s long, wandering ordeal seem to mock reliance on strength alone. No one can resist the Sirens’ song, for example, but Odysseus gets an earful of the lovely melody by having his crew tie him up. Scylla and Charybdis cannot be beaten, but Odysseus can minimize his losses with prudent decision-making and careful navigation. Odysseus’s encounter with Achilles in the underworld is a reminder: Achilles won great kleos, or glory, during his life, but that life was brief and ended violently. Odysseus, on the other hand, by virtue of his wits, will live to a ripe old age and is destined to die in peace.
The Pitfalls of Temptation
The initial act that frustrated so many Achaeans’ homecoming was the work of an Achaean himself: Ajax (the “Lesser” Ajax, a relatively unimportant figure not to be confused with the “Greater” Ajax, whom Odysseus meets in Hades) raped the Trojan priestess Cassandra in a temple while the Greeks were plundering the fallen city. That act of impulse, impiety, and stupidity brought the wrath of Athena upon the Achaean fleet and set in motion the chain of events that turned Odysseus’s homecoming into a long nightmare. It is fit that the Odyssey is motivated by such an event, for many of the pitfalls that Odysseus and his men face are likewise obstacles that arise out of mortal weakness and the inability to control it. The submission to temptation or recklessness either angers the gods or distracts Odysseus and the members of his crew from their journey: they yield to hunger and slaughter the Sun’s flocks, and they eat the fruit of the lotus and forget about their homes.
Even Odysseus’s hunger for kleos is a kind of temptation. He submits to it when he reveals his name to Polyphemus, bringing Poseidon’s wrath upon him and his men. In the case of the Sirens, the theme is revisited simply for its own interest. With their ears plugged, the crew members sail safely by the Sirens’ island, while Odysseus, longing to hear the Sirens’ sweet song, is saved from folly only by his foresighted command to his crew to keep him bound to the ship’s mast. Homer is fascinated with depicting his protagonist tormented by temptation: in general, Odysseus and his men want very desperately to complete their nostos, or homecoming, but this desire is constantly at odds with the other pleasures that the world offers.
Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, or literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.
Storytelling in the Odyssey, in addition to delivering the plot to the audience, situates the epic in its proper cultural context. The Odyssey seems very conscious of its predecessor, the Iliad: Odysseus’s wanderings would never have taken place had he not left for Troy; and the Odyssey would make little sense without the Iliad and the knowledge that so many other Greek heroes had to make nostoi, or homeward journeys, of their own. Homer constantly evokes the history of the Odyssey through the stories that his characters tell. Menelaus and Nestor both narrate to Telemachus their wanderings from Troy. Even Helen adds some anecdotes about Odysseus’s cunning during the Trojan War. Phemius, a court minstrel in Ithaca, and Demodocus, a Phaeacian bard, sing of the exploits of the Greek heroes at Troy. In the underworld, Agamemnon tells the story of his murder, while Ajax’s evasion prompts the story of his quarrel with Odysseus. These stories, however, don’t just provide colorful personal histories. Most call out to other stories in Greek mythology, elevating the Odyssey by reminding its audience of the epic’s rich, mythic tradition.
The gods of Greek literature often assume alternate forms to commune with humans. In the Odyssey, Athena appears on earth disguised as everything from a little girl to Odysseus’s friend Mentor to Telemachus. Proteus, the Old Man of the Sea whom Menelaus describes in Book 4, can assume any form, even water and fire, to escape capture. Circe, on the other hand, uses her powers to change others, turning an entire contingent of Odysseus’s crew into pigs with a tap of her wand.
From the first line of the epic, Homer explains that his story is about a “man of twists and turns” (1.1). Quick, clever, and calculating, Odysseus is a natural master of disguise, and the plot of the epic often turns on his deception. By withholding his true identity from the Cyclops and using the alias “Nobody,” for example, Odysseus is able to save himself and his crew. But by revealing his name at the end of this episode, Odysseus ends up being dogged by the god Poseidon. His beggar disguise allows him to infiltrate his palace and set up the final confrontation with the suitors. It also allows Homer to distinguish those who truly love Odysseus—characters like Eurycleia, Penelope, and even his dog, Argos, begin to recognize their beloved king even before he sheds his disguise.
Women are very important figures in the Odyssey, and one of the most prominent roles they fulfill is that of seductress. Circe and Calypso are the most obvious examples of women whose love becomes an obstacle to Odysseus’s return. Homer presents many other women whose irresistible allure threatens to lead men astray. The Sirens enchant Odysseus with their lovely song, and even Penelope, despite all of her contempt for the suitors, seems to be leading them on at times. She uses her feminine wiles to conceal her ruse of undoing, every night, her day’s work on the burial shroud, and even gets the suitors to give her gifts, claiming that she will marry the one who gives her the nicest things. While these women do gain a certain amount of power through their sexual charms, they are ultimately all subject to divine whim, forced to wait and pine for love when it is absent.
Symbols are objects, characters, figures, or colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.
Although throwing a feast for a guest is a common part of hospitality, hunger and the consumption of food often have negative associations in the Odyssey. They represent lack of discipline or submission to temptation, as when Odysseus tarries in the cave of the Cyclops, when his men slaughter the Sun’s flocks, or when they eat the fruit of the lotus. The suitors, moreover, are constantly eating. Whenever Telemachus and Penelope complain about their uninvited guests, they mention how the suitors slaughter the palace’s livestock. Odysseus kills the suitors just as they are starting their dinner, and Homer graphically describes them falling over tables and spilling their food. In almost all cases, the monsters of the Odyssey owe their monstrosity at least in part to their diets or the way that they eat. Scylla swallows six of Odysseus’s men, one for each head. The Cyclops eats humans, but not sheep apparently, and is gluttonous nonetheless: when he gets drunk, he vomits up wine mixed with pieces of human flesh. The Laestrygonians seem like nice people—until their queen, who is described as “huge as a mountain crag,” tries to eat Odysseus and his men (10.124). In these cases, excessive eating represents not just lack of self-control, but also the total absence of humanity and civility.
The Wedding Bed
The wedding bed in Book 23 symbolizes the constancy of Penelope and Odysseus’s marriage. Only a single maidservant has ever seen the bed, and it is where the happy couple spends its first night in each other’s arms since Odysseus’s departure for Troy twenty years earlier. The symbolism is heightened by the trick that Penelope uses to test Odysseus, which revolves around the immovability of their bed—a metaphor for the unshakable foundation of their love.