Mr7ro Odysseus’ long-awaited
return from the Trojan War to his homeland, Ithaca, after ten years of
wandering. The current action of The Odyssey occupies the last six weeks of
the ten years, and the narrative includes many places – Olympus, Ithaca, Pylos,
Pherae, Sparta, Ogygia, and Scheria. In Books 9-12, Odysseus narrates the
story of his travels in the years after the fall of Troy, and this narrative
includes other far-flung places, such as the island of the Cyclops. The main
action of the poem takes place in Ithaca, after a disguised Odysseus reaches
there in Book 13. In Books 13 to 24, Odysseus is slowly reunited with his
family and takes revenge on the suitors that have been wooing his wife and
Odysseus – the protagonist and hero of the poem. Odysseus is the King of
Ithaca, a small, rugged island on the western coast of Greece. He takes part in
the Trojan War on the side of Agamemnon. Of all the heroes who return from
the war, his homeward voyage is the longest and most perilous. Although
Odysseus is in many ways a typical Homeric hero, he is not perfect, and his
very human flaws play an important role in the work.
Penelope – the “much-enduring” wife of Odysseus and the patient mother of
Telemachus. If travel is Odysseus’ test, staying home is Penelope’s. She keeps
home and family intact until Odysseus can return to claim his rights. The
suffering she undergoes and the tricks that she employs to keep her suitors at
bay bear testimony to her power of endurance and love for her son and
Telemachus – Odysseus’ son. A mere child when his father left for the Trojan
War, Telemachus is, at the beginning of The Odyssey, an inexperienced,
unhappy, and helpless young man. His travels in search of his father help him
to mature, and, on Odysseus’ return, he fulfills his duties, as the son of a hero
Athene – the goddess of wisdom and the daughter of Zeus. She is Odysseus’
champion amongst the gods, and she aids him and Telemachus throughout the
poem, displaying great tact, intelligence, and cleverness in all her endeavors.
Nestor – the King of Pylos. He had fought on the side of Agamemnon in the
Trojan War. When Telemachus sails off to find news of Odysseus, he first
visits Nestor at Pylos. Nestor contributes very little to Telemachus’ knowledge
of his father, though he is generous and helpful.
Menelaus – the King of Sparta. The Trojan War was fought to rescue his wife,
Helen, who was abducted by Paris. In The Odyssey, both husband and wife are
back at Sparta. An old friend of Odysseus, Menelaus welcomes Telemachus
Helen – the wife of Menelaus and the cause of the Trojan War. Helen’s
portrayal is more striking than that of Menelaus. She is back with Menelaus at
Sparta, happy and at peace, having learned from her sufferings. The
tenderness which she possesses in The Iliad is turned to new purposes here in
Antinous – the most vociferous and proud of the suitors. He plots Telemachus’
death and often leads the suitors in their mistreatment of Odysseus and his
Eurymachus – another outspoken and powerful suitor. In Book 22, he begs
Odysseus for forgiveness on behalf of all the suitors.
Athene in the disguise of Mentes – in the first Book, Athene encourages
Telemachus to go in search of news about his father. She does this in the guise
Aegyptus – one of the noble Ithacans. He speaks first at the assembly called
Halitherses – an Ithacan soothsayer. He is one of the few Ithacans in the
assembly who remain loyal to Odysseus.
Mentor – another Ithacan who is loyal to Odysseus. When Odysseus departed,
he had given charge of his house to this man. Athene often disguises herself as
Mentor in order to aid Odysseus and Telemachus.
Leocritus – one of the contemptible, villainous suitors who voices his opinion
Peisistratus – the son of Nestor and Telemachus’ companion for much of his
Echephron, Stratius, Perseus, Aretus, Thrasymedes – the other five sons of
Nestor at Gerenia, who help their father in looking after the guest,Telemachus.
Eurydice – Nestor’s wife, eldest of the daughters of Clymenus.
Polycaste – the youngest daughter of Nestor. She bathes Telemachus when he
stays at her father’s house in Pylos.
Diocles – son of Orsilochus and ruler of Pherae. Telemachus and Peisistratus
stop at his place for the night on their way to and from Sparta.
Lord Elconeus – the squire of Menelaus. He announces the arrival of
Telemachus and Peisistratus to his king.
Asphalion – another squire of Menelaus. He helps to look after Telemachus
Eidothii – daughter of the mighty Proteus. She helps Menelaus to trap her
father so that he may hear about the past and future from him.
Noemon – an Ithacan. Athene borrows his ship for Telemachus to take to
Pylos for finding news of Odysseus. It is through Noemon that the suitors
realize Telemachus has left Ithaca and has gone to Pylos.
Medon – a herald in Odysseus’ home at Ithaca. He is loyal to Penelope and
often overhears the vicious plans of the suitors and reports them to Penelope.
Calypso – a goddess. She abides on a distant isle, Ogygia, and, when
Odysseus reaches there after a shipwreck, he stays with her for eight years. It
is from her isle that Odysseus leaves for Phaecia, from which he finally
reaches Ithaca. Calypso loves Odysseus sincerely, but has no choice but to let
Ino – daughter of Cadmus. She was initially a mortal, but is now a goddess
who resides in the deep sea. She helps Odysseus to reach Phaecia after his
ship is wrecked by Poseidon by giving him a magical veil which prevents him
Nausicaa – the daughter of Alcinous, the King of Phaecia. She is the first to
meet Odysseus when he reaches Phaecia. She guides him to the city and
advises him to approach her mother Arete if he wishes to get help to return
Alcinous – the king of Phaecia. He is a hospitable host to Odysseus, who stays
with him for a few days. Odysseus relates the stories of his adventures to
Alcinous, who helps him return home.
Arete – the wife of Alcinous. She is a well-respected woman at Phaecia.
When Odysseus reaches the Phaecian capital’s palace, he clasps her knees and
asks for help to get back to his home. She is obliging.
Demodocus – the divine minstrel at Alcinous’ palace. Upon hearing his songs
of the heroes of Troy, Odysseus begins to cry.
Pontonous – a servant at Alcinous’ palace. He helps to lead the blind
Demodocus into the hall and performs other miscellaneous duties.
Laodamas – son of Alcinous. He suggests that Odysseus should also take part
in the Phaecian games and try his hand at some sport.
Euryalus – a strong and handsome Phaecian youth. He insults Odysseus when
he refuses to take part in the Phaecian games, but later apologizes on
Halius – the second son of Alcinous. He and Laodamas dance to entertain
Clytoneus – the third son of Alcinous. A swift runner, he wins the race in the
The giant Polyphemus – a Cyclops and the son of the god Poseidon.
Odysseus enters his cave with his companions after leaving Troy and is
trapped. While escaping, he blinds the eye of this giant, for which he is
Aeolus – keeper of the winds. He resides on a floating island along with his
large family. After the adventure with the Cyclops, Odysseus and his men stay
with Aeolus for a whole month and then are sent on their way to Ithaca.
Aeolus gives Odysseus a bag of winds that his men foolishly open, causing
them to be driven back to the Aeolian isle.
Antiphates – a Laestrygonian noble. He is as bulky as a mountain peak and
kills many of Odysseus’ men when they arrive at Lamos and Telepylos after
Circe – a goddess. She resides on the Aegaean isle. After the Laestrygonian
encounter, Odysseus and his men reach her place and stay with her for a year.
She begins as a malevolent witch who turns his men into pigs, but later helps
Elpenor – the youngest of Odysseus’ crew. When Odysseus and his men are
about to leave Circe’s isle in order to descend into the underworld, Elpenor
falls from the roof of Circe’s dwelling and dies. His soul meets Odysseus in
the underworld and asks for a burial.
Eurylochus – the most vociferous of Odysseus’ crew. He plays a significant
part in the Circe and Thrinacian isle episodes but perishes in the sea with the
rest of the crew when Odysseus’ ship is destroyed.
Tiresias – a legendary Greek seer. His soul prophesies the future for Odysseus
in the Hall of Hades and warns him of the dangers that he may face on his
Anticleia – Odysseus’ mother. Her soul meets him briefly in the Hall of
Hades. Mother and son wish to embrace but cannot, as she is a spirit.
Agamemnon – the King of Mycenae and Menelaus’ brother. A heroic leader
in the Trojan War, he was killed by Aegisthus, his wife’s lover, upon his
return home. His soul meets Odysseus in the Hall of Hades and warns him of
Achilles – a hero of the Trojan War. His soul meets Odysseus in the Hall of
Hades and says that he would prefer to be a serf in the land of the living than a
great prince in the land of the dead.
Ajax – another Trojan hero. His soul appears in the Hall of Hades when
Odysseus goes there but refuses to speak to Odysseus as the latter had won a
battle against him. This battle was fought for the arms of Achilles at the end of
Heracles – the son of Zeus and a great hero. Odysseus meets and talks to his
soul in the Hall of Hades. Heracles recounts his own destiny.
Eumaeus – Odysseus’ chief swineherd at Ithaca. Eumaeus is loyal to his
master and helps him in the slaughter of the suitors.
Theoclymenus – a soothsayer. A fugitive, he sails with Telemachus from
Pylos to Ithaca. He interprets signs and omens at Ithaca which indicate that
Odysseus will soon slaughter the suitors.
Amphinomus – one of the suitors. He is the only one who is somewhat
compassionate, but he, too, is slaughtered in the end.
Eurycleia – a respected, old servant at Odysseus’ palace. She is loyal to the
household and exhibits a clever and sensible mind.
Antiphus – one of the noblemen at Ithaca. He remains loyal to Odysseus and
Melanthius – Odysseus’ chief goatherd. He is a rude, pompous man and is
disloyal to Odysseus. He is cruelly killed by Odysseus’ loyal servants in the
Phemius – the bard at Odysseus’ palace at Ithaca. He remains loyal to his
king, though he is forced to sing for the suitors while they feast in the halls.
Eurynome – a maidservant of Odysseus. She is loyal to Penelope and
Irus – a common beggar at Ithaca. He challenges the disguised Odysseus to a
fight. Odysseus accepts and defeats him easily.
Melantho – a shameless and rude maidservant at Odysseus’ place in Ithaca.
She is Eurymachus’ paramour and insults the disguised Odysseus more than
Ctessipus – another arrogant suitor. He throws an ox’s foot at the disguised
Leiodes – the soothsayer among the suitors. He is the first to attempt
Odysseus’ bow, but he fails miserably.
Philoetius – Odysseus’ chief cowherd. He helps Odysseus in the slaughter of
the suitors and displays a quick, efficient mind.
Agelaus – another impudent suitor. He urges his companions to attack
Laertes – Odysseus’ old father. He no longer resides at Ithaca, but at a farm in
the country. Odysseus meets him in the last Book, and Athene gives this old
warrior strength to fight with the suitors’ kinsmen.
Dolius – this old man stays with his sons at the same vineyard where Laertes
dwells. He embraces Odysseus warmly and welcomes his return.
Eupeithes – Antinous’ father. He persuades the suitors’ kinsmen to avenge the
wooers’ death. He leads the townspeople to Laertes’ farm to confront
Odysseus and is killed by Laertes himself.
Hermes – one of the gods. He often acts as a messenger of Zeus. He is sent to
ask Calypso to release Odysseus, and he later leads the suitors’ souls to the
Zeus – the supreme god and Athene’s father. His word is the ultimate dictum,
and he often appears in this epic, casting thunderbolts and speaking to Athene.
The protagonist of this epic poem is Odysseus, the pivot of most of the action.
After his ten years of war at Troy, Odysseus is away from home another ten
years. He is kept away for so long by the wrath of Poseidon, who is angered
by the blinding of his son, Polyphemus. The Odyssey is about Odysseus’
struggle and final return home. The Trojan War lies in the background as
Odysseus leaves Ogygia, reaches Phaecia, where he narrates his adventures up
until that point, and returns home to Ithaca. Once at Ithaca, he slays the suitors
who have been wooing his wife. Odysseus is the chief of the surviving heroes
of the Trojan War, and the story of his adventures and return is the most
famous of many. He himself is an enlarged and elaborated version of what he
The antagonist of Odysseus is the series of trials, inflicted by many individual
antagonists; in order to successfully return home and regain his rightful place,
he must overcome each of them. The god of the sea, Poseidon, keeps
Odysseus wandering for ten weary years, forcing him to arrive in Ithaca in a
pitiable condition, with trouble waiting for him at home. He has punished
Odysseus for blinding his one-eyed giant son, Polyphemus. Through the
eventful course of these ten years, Odysseus is pitted against varied forces –
the Cicones, the Lotus-Eaters, the Cyclops, the Laestrygonians, the goddess
Circe, the Sirens, Scylla, Charybdis, sea storms raised by gods, Calypso’s
temptation of immortal love, and, finally, the suitors at Ithaca. The suitors
may be his worst enemies, but they are not the only ones to cause conflicts in
Odysseus’ travels, and their slaying, though it provides a climax to the work,
is only one episode in the long list of struggles Odysseus endures. He needs to
be cunning and resourceful throughout, even while winning over friends such
as the Phaecians. So, while Odysseus is clearly the protagonist, a single
antagonist does not exist. Instead, this brave hero fights against odds and
antagonistic situations more than antagonists themselves.
The Odyssey reaches its climax in the combination of two events – the
stringing of the great bow by Odysseus and the slaughter of the suitors. At the
end of Book 21, Odysseus, still disguised as a beggar, lifts the heavy bow,
bends it, picks up an arrow, and sends it effortlessly through a line of twelve
axes. The suitors are greatly surprised at this incredible feat. In Book 22,
Odysseus strips himself of his rags and reveals his true identity to all after
killing Antinous. Eurymachus begs for forgiveness on behalf of all the
wooers, but Odysseus refuses, and a bloody battle follows in which the suitors
are slain. Odysseus finally establishes his superiority in his own house. He
gets rid of the young men who were wasting his wealth and corrupting the
environment by sleeping with the maidservants. These twelve disloyal women
are hung by Telemachus on Odysseus’ instructions. Finally, the house is
purified with sulfur and fire, symbolizing the re-establishment of order in
Ithaca after the return of the king and the punishment of the evil doers.
The epic poem ends in comedy for Odysseus; he manages to reach his
homeland despite all odds and slay the suitors of his wife, who far outnumber
him. He is recognized and accepted by his family after initial doubts and is
once again master of his house and leader of his people. In the last Book,
Athene reconciles the feud between the kinsmen of the slain suitors and
At Odysseus’ palace in Ithaca, the suitors of his wife, Penelope, are wasting
his wealth during his long absence. Odysseus had left Ithaca to battle against
the Trojans in the Trojan War, which lasted twelve years. The battle had been
won, and most warriors have long since returned home. Odysseus and his
men, however, are still missing. The reader learns that he is living in captivity
at the isle of Ogygia with the nymph Calypso, who loves him dearly. In a
council of the gods, Athene obtains permission to have Odysseus freed. She
then appears at Ithaca in front of Odysseus’ son, Telemachus, in disguise and
urges him to go looking for news of his father. Telemachus visits Pylos and
Sparta and learns about his father’s heroic acts from Nestor, Menelaus, and
In the meantime, Odysseus is released from his captivity on Calypso’s isle and
reaches the kingdom of Phaecia. He recounts the tales of his adventures after
the battle of Troy to the Phaecians, after which the Phaecians aid him in
reaching his homeland. Upon reaching Ithaca, Athene disguises him as a
beggar. He stays at his swineherd’s house, to which Athene brings his son,
Telemachus. She reveals the hero’s true identity to his son and together they
plot the slaying of the suitors. Telemachus goes back to the palace while the
disguised Odysseus follows him later to town. He sees the suitors’
misbehavior for himself and also ascertains which of his servants have been
loyal to him and which have not. Penelope announces that she will marry the
suitor who is able to string Odysseus’ bow and then shoot an arrow through a
row of twelve axes. The suitors try and fail miserably. The disguised
Odysseus strings the bow and shoots the arrow through all the axes. With the
aid of Telemachus and a few loyal servants, Odysseus kills the evil suitors.
Odysseus is reunited with his family. A feud erupts between the slain suitors’
kinsmen and Odysseus, but is hastily stopped by a flaming bolt thrown by
The Odyssey, like The Iliad, is pre-eminently a poem of action. It resembles
other heroic poetry, as well as sub-heroic oral narrative verse, in the way it
engages the listeners or readers with the poem and involves them
imaginatively in it. In such poems the thrill of action is important, but it is
attended by a notable concern for what humans do and suffer and the many
ways in which they face their challenges. While the plot is advanced by
strong, dramatic action, the poem also goes into detail about the characters’
thoughts, words, and feelings. Indeed, there is almost no human emotion
which Homer does not present in his characters or arouse in his
listeners/readers. Human emotions are an important theme of the epic.
As in The Iliad, the framework of myth is used here to discuss such themes as
endurance, courage, pride, vengeance, and the role of destiny in human lives.
The plot of The Odyssey recounts Odysseus’ supernatural adventures on his
way home from the Trojan War and his epic battle with the suitors who have
plagued his wife during his absence. But, it is also the story of Odysseus’ own
development, especially his gaining of humility and patience. Each of his
encounters changes him and teaches him more about himself, until he is ready
at the end to prove himself to his enemies.
The Odyssey serves in some sense as a sequel to The Iliad, and the
relationship between the two poems is obvious throughout. At the very
beginning of The Odyssey, when the gods are discussing Odysseus’ fate as he
languishes on Calypso’s island, they turn almost immediately to the fate of his
old comrade, Agamemnon, who has been murdered by his wife’s lover. This
episode broaches the topic of what happens to the heroes of Troy. The original
audience would have known all about the Trojan War and would have
understood any reference to it. So now it lies in the background as the tale of
Odysseus and Ithaca is recounted. Other Iliadic events are often related, and
certain characters appear here who have played a substantial part in The Iliad
as well. There is a constant interpolation of the past and the present, which
includes not only events from The Iliad and the Trojan War, but also
occurrences involving other humans and gods.
An important theme, which cannot be ignored, is the role of gods and fate in
human lives. In the very first Book, there is a council of the gods, at which
Zeus says that mortal men must not blame the gods for their misfortune, as it
is they themselves who bring about their own downfall through misdeeds.
This remains a contentious issue throughout the epic. Most of Odysseus’
adventures seem to be ordained, and he is constantly aided by Athene. But at
the same time, it is he himself who has brought about his long absence from
home by inciting the wrath of Poseidon. In The Odyssey, fate, interference by
the gods, and human action combine to form an epic that is gigantic in scale.
The Odyssey deals also with the normal conditions of society in peacetime and
the importance of the “oikos,” or household. The household is almost a self-
contained unit with its head, family, dependents or retainers, heralds, and
slaves. Odysseus comes back to such a set-up. He slays the suitors in order to
re-establish order in his own “oikos,” which was being corrupted. The first
four Books and Books 13-27 deal with household and form a substantial
An epic deals with a large canvas, and, as such, there are numerous minor
themes. While Odysseus dominates the poem, his wife and son play important
roles as well. The growth and development of Telemachus from an
inexperienced, naive youth to a hero is a minor theme. His mother Penelope’s
endurance and prudence, in contrast to Clytemnestra’s infidelity and cruelty in
The Iliad, is another theme of some importance.
The suitors occupy quite a large part of the epic, and their unheroic, impudent
behavior is in great contrast with the noble qualities of the heroic ideal. They
are a part of the generation that did not fight at Troy, and they have not
learned the lessons that war teaches. The descriptions of their transgressions
and the necessity of their punishment are a minor theme.
The Odyssey deals twice with the ancient theme of the witch who detains the
hero on his return by making him live with her. She need not be malevolent,
but she hinders his desire to go home. In The Odyssey, she appears in two
quite different forms as Circe and Calypso. Circe has a ruthless, cruel side,
while Calypso is more gentle and charming, although she keeps Odysseus
Another minor theme is the loyalty of some of the servants to Odysseus.
Odysseus’ relationship with Eumaeus is especially delineated. Later, Eurycleia
and Philoetius are also presented as loyal to the hero. Odysseus is capable of
winning steadfast faithfulness, and this contributes to his heroic stature.
The mood is exciting, which is typical of an ancient epic. The excitement is
seen especially in the first half, when the canvas is very large and includes
numerous fabulous events. There is adventure, mystery, suspense, and even
terror, especially in the recounting of Odysseus’ supernatural adventures on
the way home from the Trojan War. In the second half of The Odyssey, from
Book 13 onward, the age-old tale of the wanderer’s return is told, and the
mood becomes more low-keyed and domestic. Thus, the tale of an enduring
wife, a revengeful husband, a maturing son, and villainous suitors is combined
with stories of monsters, ghosts, nymphs, and giants. Two distinct moods, one
of supernatural, epic excitement and another of human drama, are merged
effectively in The Odyssey to produce an epic poem that possesses diverse
By the 8th century BC, Greece had passed through her “Dark Age” and had
re-emerged a strong force. Colonies burgeoned northeastward towards the
Black Sea and westward to Sicily and Southern Italy. Homer was active in
Ionia during this time. No authentic biography can be attached to him, except
that he is said to have composed both The Iliad and The Odyssey. He was
supposed to have been an “aoidos,” a singer, for the age of true literacy was
Accurate and complete works of Homer took a long time to be produced, and
not for several generations did anything like an official text exist. As there
was not a reading public, Homer’s poems were learned by heart by boys at
school. The texts owned by cultivated Athenians in the 5th century BC were
merely memory aides, rather than versions to be continuously studied.
Some critics consider it unlikely that the same man wrote both The Odyssey
and The Iliad, or that either is the work of a single poet. It is most likely that
both poems combined and remodeled earlier poems, which were in turn
enlarged and remodeled by others. Of the two poems, The Odyssey has a
closer structural unity and is generally held to consist of a substantial core
poem with some later additions. The 3rd century Greek scholar Longinus
believed that both these poems were composed by the same author and that
the discrepancies that do exist between the two can conceivably by ascribed
either to a difference of kind established by tradition or to the difference of
outlook and temper which a single poet may develop with the advance of
years. Whether the reader chooses to believe that these are indeed Homer’s
works or not, the fact remains that they possess the qualities which are
Homer occupied a central position in the culture of ancient Greece. His works
provided everyone’s elementary education. His reputation as the greatest poet
of antiquity survived even in the Latin West, where his works were mostly
unknown. The humanists in the 15th century were eager to study The Iliad,
but when they obtained copies, they were disappointed by its realism and
directness. The study of Homer stagnated, and no serious interest was shown
in his work until Hobbes’ and Dryden’s attempts at translation towards the end
The most widely read English translations in the 20th century are those of E.
V. Rieu. His prose version of The Odyssey was the first Penguin Classic in
1946. There have been several attempts at verse too, including those of
The Iliad and The Odyssey are ancient Greek poems that are concerned with
the events and consequences of the Trojan War. Nothing conclusive can be
said about the actual history of that war. It is conjectured that some contest
between peoples of more or less kindred stocks, who occupied the isles and
the eastern and western shores of the Aegean, left a strong impression on the
popular fancy. Many older myths, stories, and legends which previously
floated unattached now gathered around the memories of this contest. Later,
minstrels, poets, and priests shaped all these materials into a definite body of
tradition. Thus, scattered stories were united into national legends.
When The Odyssey was composed, the poet must have had before him a well-
arranged mass of legends and traditions from which to select his material.
Homer had an extremely consistent knowledge of the local traditions of
Greece and of the memories that were cherished by Thebans, Pylians,
Mycenaeans, and others. He assumed that his audience shared this knowledge,
as well as that of certain legends, such as the Argonautic Expedition. One of
the chief proofs of the unity of authorship of The Odyssey is the extraordinary
skill with which originally unconnected legends and myths are woven into a
single poetic plot so that the marvels of savage and barbaric fancy have
become indispensable parts of an artistic whole.
The Odyssey opens with the traditional invocation to the Muse of poetry, in
which the poet asks for her assistance in telling his story and presents the
theme of his poem, which is about a man who suffers through years of
wandering before he is able to return home.
At the beginning of the story, Odysseus is being held prisoner on the island of
Ogygia by the nymph Calypso, who wishes to marry him. At a council of the
gods on Mt. Olympus, in which Poseidon, who is angry at Odysseus, is
absent, Athene appeals for Odysseus’ release. She then flies down to assist
Telemachus, Odysseus’ son. At Odysseus’ house in Ithaca, the scene is chaos.
His wife, Penelope, is being courted by suitors who, believing him to be dead,
have taken over his house and lounge about wasting his wealth on endless
feasts, which Telemachus is unable to stop.
Athene, disguised in human shape as Odysseus’ friend Mentes, ruler of the
Taphians, greets Telemachus, who apologizes for the condition of the house
and asks for news of his father. Athene assures him that Odysseus is alive and
advises him to go to Pylos and Sparta in search of news of his fate. She also
asks him to call the Ithacan lords to an assembly in which he must ask
Penelope’s wooers to return to their own homes.
After Athene leaves, Penelope enters the hall, where a bard is singing about
the pitiful return of the Achaeans (the ancient Greeks name for themselves)
from Troy. She asks him to stop, as it reminds her of Odysseus. But
Telemachus sends her back to her chamber and himself addresses the suitors,
asking them to attend an assembly the next day in which he might ask them to
leave his house. Eurymachus, one of the suitors, asks him who the visitor was.
Telemachus replies that the guest was Mentes, though he knows in his heart
that it was really Athene in disguise. Telemachus is unable to sleep that night
and keeps thinking of Athene’s advice of a journey in search of news of
The Odyssey, like The Iliad and other ancient Greek poems, begins with an
invocation to the Muse. The opening lines here, however, are much less
descriptive than those of The Iliad. The fantastic adventures of Odysseus are
inadequately suggested in the reference to his encountering various cities and
minds. The Cyclops and other monsters do not really have minds, and the only
city seen by Odysseus is the capital of Phaecia. The poet emphasizes
Odysseus’ brave struggle to survive, but underplays Odysseus’ failure to
secure the return of his men. While Odysseus does look after them, he also
takes risks with their lives and is often responsible for their deaths. Finally,
the suitors and Odysseus’ ultimate vengeance on them are not mentioned. The lapse is odd, as this conflict provides a central theme and occupies more than
Ancient epics traditionally began “in media res” – in the middle of things.
Thus, it may seem that Books 1- 4 could have been omitted by bards who
wished to begin the tale with the more thrilling adventures of Odysseus. But
the opening Books do serve a dramatic purpose. They show the general state
of Ithaca and the plight of Penelope in the absence of Odysseus. This is
important to any understanding of his difficulties on his return and of the
necessity for him to extract vengeance on the suitors. These Books also show
how little is known of Odysseus’ fate and how anticipation of his return varies.
This creates the suspense at which Homer excels. The other characters with
which Odysseus will be associated are also introduced in these Books, adding
to the epic’s range and richness and helping to set its plot to work.
Book 1 prepares the way for much that comes later. It introduces the theme of
the role of fate and the gods in human destiny through the decision of the gods
to allow Odysseus to return home and Athene’s helping of Telemachus. It also
anticipates the dual nature of The Odyssey, in which elements of domestic
comedy and elements of fable and fancy are combined into a unified whole.
Telemachus’ development also begins here. Cast for a large part and unready
for it, he begins to face his responsibilities and even to test his powers after
being visited by Athene. His courage takes the suitors by surprise, and before
long they are sufficiently afraid of him to plot his death. He, therefore,
becomes an important participant in the action and later helps his father in
Telemachus calls the Achaeans to an assembly. He complains in vain about
the wasting of his property by the suitors. Though he asks them to leave and
feast in their own houses, they refuse flatly; instead, led by Antinous, they
blame Penelope for deceiving them by false messages and hopes. Only
Halitherses, a seer, Mentor, and an old companion of Odysseus take
Telemachus’ side. The assembly breaks up without having reached a definite
conclusion. Telemachus is disillusioned but is encouraged once again by
Athene, this time disguised as Mentor. She helps him to make arrangements in
order to leave in a ship for Pylos. He returns to his house for supplies, where
he is mocked by the suitors and helped by his nurse Eurycleia. He tells her to
keep his departure a secret from Penelope, so as not to worry her. Telemachus,
the crew, and Athene disguised as Mentor leave Ithaca secretly in the middle
of the night after having made drink offerings to the gods.
Telemachus takes a step forward to maturity by assuming responsibility. At
the assembly, he actually occupies his father’s seat, and the elders do not
challenge him. However, he has not yet acquired the self-control and presence
of mind of his father. When he makes a speech asking the suitors to leave his
house, they refuse; as a result, he dashes his staff to the ground and begins to
weep. This event highlights the utter helplessness of Odysseus’ family in his
absence. Their crisis is heightened by Penelope’s having exhausted her
resources in putting off the suitors. For the last three years, she has been
weaving and unweaving a funeral shroud meant for Laertes, Odysseus’ father,
having promised to choose one of the suitors upon its completion. At the
assembly, Antinous condemns her deception and demands that she make a
decision. The poet, therefore, creates a situation where everything hinges on
the possible return of Odysseus. This is genius at work.
The role of gods and fate plays an important part once again. Zeus sends forth
two eagles in answer to Telemachus’ threat in the assembly as punishment for
the suitors. Halitherses interprets this sign as doom for the suitors and reminds
them that he has predicted all these events and that all his past prophecies
have come true. In response, Eurymachus denies fate brutally and mocks the
seer. Athene, Zeus’ daughter, intervenes to make Telemachus’ task easier,
leaving the reader to wonder whether Odysseus and his son would ever have
accomplished heroic feats without her divine help.
It is important to mention Eurycleia’s role here. She is a loyal servant of the
family and helps Telemachus to collect food and wine for the journey.
Telemachus trusts her even more than his own mother. His decision to inform
Eurycleia and not Penelope of his impending journey not only shows his trust
in his servant, but also shows that despite all his naivet, Telemachus, like his
father, possesses a shrewd, suspicious mind and is capable of acting on the
Telemachus, Athene disguised as Mentor, and the crew reach Pylos, the
capital of Nestor’s kingdom. They are greeted at the seashore by Nestor and
his sons, who are performing a sacrifice to the gods. Telemachus introduces
himself as Odysseus’ son and asks for news of his father. Nestor praises
Odysseus and relates how the heroes of Troy went their separate ways after a
dispute between Agamemnon, the leader of the expedition, and Menelaus, his
brother, over whether they should sail for home immediately or stay and make
sacrifices to the gods. Odysseus had originally sailed for home with Nestor
and Menelaus, but after a dispute decided to rejoin Agamemnon, whereupon
Nestor then tells the stories of the return home of various heroes, including
Agamemnon and Menelaus. Agamemnon was murdered upon his return home
by Aegisthus, his wife’s lover, and Nestor praises Orestes, Agamemnon’s son,
who avenges his father’s murder by killing Aegisthus. Telemachus wishes to
have similar strength so that he might take vengeance on his mother’s suitors.
Nestor suggests that Telemachus go to Sparta to speak to Menelaus, who,
having only recently returned home, may have some more recent news of
After the stories of Agamemnon and Menelaus are told and libations poured to
the gods, Athene-Mentor leaves for the ship in the semblance of a sea-eagle,
while Telemachus is taken to Nestor’s house. He sleeps there comfortably and
the next morning is given a chariot to leave for Sparta with Peisistratus,
Nestor’s youngest son, as companion. He leaves only after Nestor has
performed another sacrifice to Athene. They reach Pherae, stay there for the
night, and the next day drive onwards once again.
The Odyssey serves as a sequel to The Iliad in several ways. The Trojan War
lies in the background as the reader learns about Odysseus and Ithaca. In this
Book, Nestor talks about the war, and the large canvas of an epic comes alive
with the mention of other heroes and events. Odysseus’ valor obtains a special
meaning for Telemachus when he hears it praised by Nestor, who has been a
friend and companion of his father in war. These stories provide Telemachus
with the inspiration to mature and act out his role as a hero.
Nestor is garrulous, generous, helpful, and wise. He has no precise
information about Odysseus’ fate but is able to relate the stories of
Agamemnon’s and Menelaus’ return in great detail. His grand sacrifice to
Athene when he realizes that it is she disguised as Mentor is indicative of the
importance of the need to please the gods. The role of Athene deserves a
special mention here. It is she who helps Telemachus to introduce himself in
an articulate manner to Nestor and his people. And it is she who reminds him
that a god can bring a man home safe even from afar. She helps him now as
she had helped Odysseus during the Trojan War.
The details of the sacrifices performed contribute to the vivid portrayal of the
life and customs of the ancient Greeks. Mention of where Telemachus slept
and how he was bathed accounts for a controlling realism that gives the poem
much of its special flavor. There is a certain quiet poetry to these domestic
scenes that makes The Odyssey familiar and friendly.
Telemachus and Peisistratus reach the city of Lacedaemon in Sparta and drive
to Menelaus’ house, where they are identified as traveling strangers. Menelaus
is busy feasting, but he welcomes them and looks after them. He tells them
about his own travels and his grief at the sad fate of his friends at Troy,
especially that of Odysseus, who he is not sure is alive or dead. Telemachus
sheds tears at the mention of his father, and Menelaus wonders whether to
question him about his family now or wait until he is ready to speak. Helen,
Menelaus’ wife (whose abduction by Paris was the cause of the Trojan War),
appears in the hall and notes a distinct resemblance to Odysseus in
Telemachus’ features. At this, Peisistratus introduces himself and Telemachus
to Menelaus, and together they all lament the fate of Odysseus and
Peisistratus’ brother, Antilochus. Helen casts a soothing drug into their wine
and then tells them how Odysseus had entered the Trojan city in a beggar’s
disguise. Menelaus in turn relates the famous Trojan horse episode and
applauds Odysseus’ cleverness. They finally retire for the night.
The next morning, Telemachus tells Menelaus how his house is being misused
by the suitors and asks for news of his father. Menelaus recounts the long tale
of his encounter at Pharos with the god Proteus, the old man of the sea, who
told him the fates of his comrades. Odysseus, Menelaus recounts, is alive but
being kept prisoner at the nymph Calypso’s house at Ogygia. Menelaus asks
Telemachus to stay longer at his palace, but the young man refuses.
At Ithaca, Antinous and Eurymachus are told that Telemachus has indeed left
for Pylos. They are angered and hatch a plot to kill him on his way back
home. Penelope’s herald, Medon, overhears them and tells her of their plan.
She is surprised to learn that her son is not at home and is deeply worried
about his safety. As she laments, Eurycleia asks her to pray to Athene.
Penelope does, and the goddess consoles her by sending her a dream in which
her sister Iphthime assures her that Telemachus is safe. Meanwhile, the suitors
sail to Asteris, a little isle, in order to ambush Telemachus.
Just after this Book, Odysseus shall be introduced in person, but for now his
heroic qualities are highlighted even more by praise from Menelaus and
Helen. The reader has heard so much about him by now that there is a
curiosity to see the brave hero in action, which is satisfied from Book 5
Telemachus’ growing maturity is a theme of this epic, and part of his
instruction occurs through the stories that he hears from Nestor, Menelaus,
and Helen. These tales go back to the heroic world of Troy, as when Helen
tells how she recognized Odysseus when he came to spy disguised as a
beggar, or forward to the world of marvels, as when Menelaus tells how he
tricked Proteus, the old man of the sea, into revealing Odysseus’ fate. The
concrete information about Odysseus’ tearful existence at Calypso’s isle
creates a growing assurance in his return and heightens the reader’s
The rich house at Sparta first appears imposing, but it soon reveals the sad
adventures of which it has been a part. Menelaus has lost his brother and his
friends, and neither his wealth nor Helen can make up for the loss. Helen’s
portrayal is more vivid than that or Nestor or Menelaus. She is a woman of
intensity and of powers beyond human coping. Although she is divine, she has
no peace, since she is filled with sorrow and guilt. Telemachus sees the
contrast between her and the long-suffering and faithful Penelope; he senses
that his mother will eventually earn her peace.
While at Ithaca, the suitors are sufficiently afraid of Telemachus to plot his
death. This evil decision justifies the necessity of their eventual punishment
and slaughter. Penelope’s dismay at the danger to her son’s life humanizes her.
At the same time, Eurycleia shows her worth by acting more rationally, asking
her to pray to Athene instead of needlessly crying. The goddess gets into
action once again by consoling Penelope through the dream she sends her.
Athene again appeals for pity on Odysseus at the council of the gods. Zeus
asks Hermes to go to Calypso in Ogygia and command Odysseus’ release.
When Hermes delivers Zeus’ command, Calypso becomes angry, telling
Hermes that the gods are jealous of goddesses mating with men, but, as she
cannot defy Zeus, she agrees to release Odysseus.
Calypso goes down to the sea shore, where Odysseus is weeping, and tells
him that she will help him build a raft to carry him home. He is initially
suspicious of her intentions, but is convinced when she swears an oath that she
means him no harm. It takes four days to build the raft. On the fifth day,
Odysseus leaves the isle and travels peacefully for seventeen days. On the
eighteenth day, Poseidon sees him and rouses great storms in anger. Odysseus
curses his fate and wonders why he did not die on the battlefield. In the midst
of his trouble, Ino, a goddess, takes pity on him and gives him a veil, which
will not let him drown. He leaves his raft and swims for two days and two
nights before he sees land. After great difficulty, he finally reaches the shore
with the help of Athene and a nameless river god. He throws Ino’s veil back
into the sea and goes to sleep on a heap of dry leaves in a thick wood away
The middle section of The Odyssey starts with Book 5, which has a notably
distinctive character. Odysseus’ departure from Ogygia and arrival in Phaecia
are told in the third person with an outstanding objectivity. Odysseus emerges
in all his glory and dominates the scene. The events in this Book provide a
skillful transition to the wonders that are to follow later. Here the events are
not yet marvelous, nor are there any monsters, but Odysseus does show his
physical powers and his endurance in building the raft, braving the storm, and
then swimming for two days and nights. Rather than appear as a stock hero,
however, Odysseus emerges as a complex being, capable of both
homesickness and wanderlust, bravery and cowardice, despair and hope,
nobility and deceitfulness, and, as such, becomes not only an interesting
character in and of himself, but can stand as a symbol of either individual man
The Odyssey deals twice with the ancient theme of a female superhuman who
detains the hero by making him live with her. She appears in two quite
different forms, as Circe (in Book 10) and Calypso. Both live alone on remote
isles. Apart from this, the differences between the two are great. Circe keeps
Odysseus for a year and releases him without complaint. Calypso keeps him
for eight years, hoping to make him immortal, but is told by the gods to give
him up, which she does unhappily, but graciously. Circe has a sinister
glamour while Calypso does not. The adventure with Circe is exciting,
whereas the sojourn with Calypso has much charm and beauty, but lacks
dramatic variety. However, it is needed to fill a gap in the story. Odysseus is
away from home for a total of twenty years. By the time of his shipwreck and
the loss of all his companions, only twelve years have passed, and the
remaining eight have to be accounted for. This is done by confining him to
Calypso’s island where nothing can be heard of him. His fate remains a
mystery to his family and his friends, and he is almost forgotten by the gods.
Gods again play an important role in this Book. It is Athene who initiates the
action by asking the other gods to help Odysseus. Zeus agrees and sends
Hermes to Calypso. Calypso is a goddess herself. Poseidon, the god of the sea,
makes things difficult for Odysseus, and Ino, a sea nymph, aids him. Finally, a
river god and Athene once again help the hero to reach the shore. But
Odysseus, a mere mortal, does manage to hold his own in comparison to these
Odysseus has arrived at Scheria, land of the Phaecians. While he sleeps,
Athene visits the sleeping Nausicaa, daughter of the king, appearing to her in
a dream in the semblance of one of her close friends, the daughter of a sea
captain, Dymas. Hinting that Naucisicaa is soon to be married, Athene asks
her to carry the palace laundry for washing in a river near the sea. Nausicaa
awakens and asks her father for a wagon to carry the clothes there. He agrees,
and the princess leaves with her maidens and attendants. After washing
clothes, bathing themselves, and eating the midday meal, the maidens start
playing ball. The ball falls into the deep, eddying current, and they raise a
piercing cry, awakening Odysseus, who is sleeping nearby. He wonders
whether the cries are that of wild beings or humans. As he creeps out of his
shelter, all the women move away in fright, except the lovely Nausicaa. He
addresses her with smooth words and asks for directions to town as well as a
garment to cover himself. She answers sensibly and asks him to bathe, dress,
and eat before she can take him to the city. After bathing, Odysseus looks like
Nausicaa instructs him to follow her chariot until they reach a grove dedicated
to Athene outside the city gates. From there, he will make his own way to her
father Alcinous’ house, so as not to cause gossip. She further advises him to
plead to her mother Arete for help if he really wishes to make it back to his
own country. They reach the grove as the sun is setting, and Odysseus stays
there and prays to his protector. Though the goddess hears his prayers, she
cannot appear in front of him for fear of Poseidon’s wrath.
If the atmosphere in Ogygia was one of timelessness, Scheria has the
brightness and some of the sorrows of youth. Nausicaa, tall, beautiful, and
daughter of the king, has a dream of approaching marriage that Athene sends
her. Athene appears in the shape of a friend of Nausicaa and suggests she go
to the river to wash clothes. Athene wishes that this lovely girl may lead
Odysseus to Phaecia. The goddess is always forming plans to help her favorite
A scene of activity follows; there are clothes being washed, maidens playing
ball, the ball falling into a deep eddy. The girls’ cries wake the suspicious
Odysseus, and Nausicaa becomes the spirited mirror of late girlhood in facing
his disheveled appearance bravely. After he has washed and dressed, the
princess rather ingeniously confides to her friends her feelings about the
transformed man, though she later hides her secret hopes from her parents.
Nausicaa has a charmingly practical mind. She describes her city with
thoughtful factuality and will have Odysseus accompany her while they are
still in the country but no further, since she fears gossip. Important as she is for the plot and for the mood of renewal that Odysseus will experience at
Scheria, there is something more to her character. Her love for Odysseus
comes to nothing, but her disappointed hope is softened by her natural health
and vitality. She will someday lose her youth, as Odysseus has, but he will
retain the memory of her as a youthful being. From the poem’s point of view,
her youth conveys what older figures like Odysseus and Penelope have moved
beyond, yet remember. Nausicaa’s moment of life stays only as memory, a
static image in the changing narrative, touched with both sweetness and
Odysseus, of course, displays his resourcefulness in the manner in which he
addresses Nausicaa at the river. He wins her over by his charming speech.
Through his words, he shows her that he appreciates her beauty and youth and
indicates that he was once a man of position. His moving praise of marriage
equally fits her youthful thoughts, his desire for home, and the theme of the
poem. At first, his naked plight is amusing to the reader and frightening to the
maidens, but his skill in extricating himself from this embarrassing situation
highlights his ability to master difficult situations.
Nausicaa reaches the home of her father at the same time Odysseus leaves the
grove to go to the city. Athene casts a deep mist about him and aids him in
finding Alcinous’ palace. On arrival, he admires the splendor of the place and
finally goes through the hall and casts his hands around the knees of the
queen, Arete. He pleads for help in getting home; Alcinous raises him from
the floor and offers him food and wine. He agrees to aid Odysseus, but also
wonders aloud whether this hero is really a god in disguise. Odysseus says
that he is not and is in fact troubled by the real gods. After eating and
drinking, Odysseus is left alone with Arete and Alcinous. Arete asks the long-
suffering hero how he has come to be wearing clothes which she herself has
stitched. In answer, he relates the story of his passage from Ogygia and his
encounter with Nausicaa. Alcinous offers his daughter’s hand in marriage to
Odysseus if he so desires but is also ready to arrange for his passage home in a
fast-sailing ship. Odysseus rejoices at his good fortune and prays to Zeus.
They all retire for the night in comfortable beds.
Athene again aids Odysseus, this time in helping him reach Alcinous’ palace.
Odysseus himself shows his resourcefulness by winning the favor of the
Phaecian royal family to the extent that Nausicaa is offered to him in
marriage. Phaecia is an ideal land, yet it is not real in the same sense as Ithaca.
The seasons allow crops to be gathered all the year round; the palace servants
are made by the god Hephaestus from metal; the Phaecians rarely mingle with
other peoples and are consciously aware and proud of being favored by the
gods. The wild wonders which Odysseus will relate of his travels will seem
less improbable here than they would in Ithaca.
Both Alcinous and Arete are gracious, clever, and observant. Alcinous
wonders whether Odysseus is a god in disguise, come to create trouble, and
Arete is quick to notice that the famous hero is wearing clothing woven by
her. Both king and queen are intelligent and worldly, and it seems right that
Odysseus should be sent to Ithaca by such civilized people. The splendor and
prosperity of the Phaecian palace provide a striking contrast to Odysseus’ own
palace in Ithaca, which is being wasted and misused by the suitors. The
contrast justifies the need for the cruel punishment of Penelope’s wooers.
The Phaecians gather together at an assembly. Alcinous arranges for a convoy
to accompany Odysseus over the seas to Ithaca. After the ship is moored near
the shore and sacrifices have been made to the gods, Demodocus, the divine
minstrel, sings of the quarrel between Odysseus and Achilles. Odysseus,
deeply moved, sheds tears under the cover of his cloak. Alcinous notices him
weeping and immediately calls forth everybody to participate in sports of
every kind. After some games, Laodamas, one of Alcinous’ sons, asks
Odysseus to try his skill in some sport, but he replies that his heart is too
sorrowful to do so. Euryalus, one of the competitors, rebukes him for this
answer, saying that he is like a merchant whose only interest is in his greedily
gotten gains. Odysseus’ pride is hurt by this insult, and he proceeds to prove
his strength by throwing a heavy disc much further than any Phaecian. He also
talks about his skill in other sports, and when he stops, Alcinous decides to
show him the Phaecians’ skill in both dancing and singing. Demodocus sings
of the love of Ares and Aphrodite and then Laodamas and his brother Halios
dance together with a ball. Odysseus praises their dance and Alcinous is
pleased. He asks all the princes in Phaecia to present gifts to Odysseus and
also asks Euryalus to apologize with sweet words and a gift as well. When the
presents are packed in a beautiful coffer and Odysseus himself has tied a
curious knot on the lid, they sit together to feast in the hall. Odysseus offers a
portion of meat to Demodocus and asks him to sing about the Trojan horse
that Odysseus himself had designed. When the minstrel sings, Odysseus starts
weeping again, and this time Alcinous asks the hero what his name is and why
he cries. Alcinous also mentions a prophecy of his father, Nausithous,
according to which Poseidon would get angry with the Phaecians one day and
overshadow the Phaecian city with mountains.
This is a long Book, and the lively entertainment at Phaecia provides an
interlude before Odysseus recounts the tale of his sufferings. The canvas of
the epic comes alive with Demodocus’ songs of incidents in the Trojan War
and of the love between gods. The songs make Odysseus nostalgic, and he
reveals his vulnerability when he cries. The reader is filled with compassion
on seeing this tender side of a strongman. At the same time, Odysseus proves
his physical strength in his response to Euryalus’ rebuke. Odysseus comes
across as a hero who is both genteel and sentimental but who can rise to a
challenge with strength and eloquence. The gifts that he receives from the
Phaecians signifies their acceptance of him as a hero and ensures that, as such,
he does not return home empty-handed. The Phaecian episode, therefore,
allows the poet to have Odysseus, despite his suffering and losses, to return
home in the manner befitting the heroic tradition.
The Phaecians themselves are unlike any other race. They are blessed by the
gods and enjoy comforts throughout the year. They have magical ships and
live in isolation. They live not for war, but for dance and song, in which they
excel. The games, dancing, and singing are a great contrast to the grave
adventures that Odysseus relates from the next Book onwards.
Alcinous himself comes across as a capable, diplomatic leader. He arranges
for Odysseus’ departure and is the only one to notice his tears. He placates
Odysseus’ anger at Euryalus by proposing dancing and singing. He makes
Euryalus apologize to the god-like hero and asks the princes to give gifts to
Odysseus. Later, he notices again Odysseus’ tears and finally stops the
minstrel from singing any further. The poem has eventually reached the point
where Odysseus will have to reveal his true identity to the noble Phaecians.
Odysseus reveals his true name and identity to King Alcinous and his people.
He then describes some of the troubles he and his men faced in their journey
back from Troy. First they sack Ismarus, the city of the Cicones. After an
initial success, they linger too long feasting, by which time the Cicones are
able to call in reinforcements, who defeat them and drive them from their
island. After surviving a fierce storm, they reach the land of the Lotus-Eaters.
All the men who eat the lotus plants provided by the natives forget their
homeland and do not want to leave the island. Odysseus must force these men
against their will back onto their ships.
Odysseus then relates in detail the famous episode with Polyphemus, the
Cyclops. After having feasted on abundant flesh and sweet wine on an isle
near the island of the Cyclops, Odysseus leads one ship to their land, wanting
to see for himself whether the Cyclops, a race of savage, one-eyed giants, are
as wild and rude as men say. He leaves the ship on the shore and goes to one
of the giants’ cave with twelve of his men. Polyphemus is not there, and the
men help themselves to the cheese kept in his basket. They wish to leave, but
Odysseus has them await the giant’s return, hoping for a “stranger’s gift.”
When Polyphemus comes back, he blocks the entrance with a huge rock.
Discovering the men, he immediately eats two of them for dinner. Before
leaving with his flocks for the hills the next morning, he eats two more men.
Odysseus devises a plan to escape and sharpens the tip of a long stick. When
the Cyclops comes back, Odysseus offers him intoxicating wine and gives his
name as “No-Body.” While the giant is sleeping, the men thrust the stick in
the fire and then into the giant’s eye. He raises a terrible cry, but when the
other Cyclops ask him what’s wrong, he says that “No-Body” is killing him,
and they leave in disgust. The next morning, the hero and his companions
manage to escape by hiding themselves below the bellies of the rams. On
reaching the ship with the flock, Odysseus incites the fury of the giant by
taunting him. Incited, the giant in return throws huge stones at the ship and
prays to his father, Poseidon, to punish the hero by killing him or, failing that,
killing all his men and keeping him from home for a long time. Finally,
Odysseus’ ship reaches the others at the nearby isle, and the men divide the
sheep amongst themselves and have a feast. Then they once again sail away.
The much-awaited tales of Odysseus’ adventures finally begin in this Book.
The Achaeans sack the city of the Cicones, but their greed proves to be their
downfall. Several times in the book, Odysseus’ companions will get into
trouble because of their gluttony and feasting. Here they are busy eating sheep
and drinking wine when the Cicones re-gather, plan a surprise attack, and kill
The Cyclops episode is one of the most famous in The Odyssey. The Cyclops,
who live wildly without the benefit of laws, cities or agriculture, are the
antithesis of civilized men. Rather than welcoming strangers, they eat them
(perhaps the ultimate act of “inhumanity”). They also mock the power of both
men and gods. Odysseus’ encounter with the Cyclops highlights the conflict
between man and nature. Odysseus is able to trick the Cyclops through his
cleverness, but he is punished by Poseidon for his act and his subsequent
The Cyclops episode acts at the moral center of the tale, for it is here that the
reader learns why Odysseus is forced to wander for so many years before he
reaches home. One of the themes of the epic is the moral development of the
character of Odysseus. He needs to be humbled and made more patient. In this
episode, the reader gets a glaring view of his follies. His greed for gifts takes
him to the giant’s cave, and his stubborn refusal to return when his
companions ask him to do so shows his foolhardiness. Moreover, his proud,
boasting words to the giant when they are sailing away further endangers the
lives of his men. He is far from being perfect, and the reader begins to
understand Odysseus himself may have brought on some of the terrible
ordeals that he has to endure before reaching Ithaca.
Homer has made changes in the traditional tale of the Cyclops. He introduces
the trick by which Odysseus says that his name is “No-Body.” Outwitting the
Cyclops makes Odysseus more formidable; but at the same time, it increases
the danger to himself. The trick, however, saves Odysseus at a critical
moment. In the escape from the cave, the more traditional version has
Odysseus and his companions kill the sheep and clothe themselves in their
skins. In this Homeric version, they to cling their bellies of the sheep, which
brings them advantages. Homer, therefore, is seen successfully juxtaposing
traditional epic material with folklore.
The next stop for Odysseus is the island of Aeolus, where he stays for a
month. Upon his departure, Aeolus, who has been given power over the
winds, gives Odysseus an ox-hide bag in which he has sealed all the winds
except the gentle Western one, which is to carry him home. On the tenth day
of sailing, Ithaca is in sight, and Odysseus falls into a grateful sleep. While he
is sleeping his men, jealous of the gifts Odysseus has received and thinking
the bag contains treasures, open it, and the escaping blasts drive them back to
the Aeolian land. There Odysseus asks for help once again, but Aeolus
rebukes him as one cursed by the gods and refuses.
Without any wind to sail by, Odysseus’ men are forced to row. After a week,
they reach the land of the Laestrygonians. All the ships anchor in the harbor,
excepting Odysseus’ own. He sends three men to find out about the people
there, but they meet with disaster. A Laestrygonian named Antiphates eats one
of them, and then all the Laestrygonians attack the ships. Most of the
Achaeans are killed, and only Odysseus’ ship manages to escape and reach the
After spending two days on the shore, Odysseus ventures up a hill and sees
smoke rising from Circe’s home. The next day, the men draw lots and
Eurylochus along with twenty-two men, half of his remaining crew, are sent to
Circe’s halls. There they are bewitched by her and turned into swine. Only
Eurylochus escapes. Odysseus, going alone to rescue his companions, is met
by the god Hermes, who gives him a magic herb to prevent bewitchment and
instructs him how to deal with the goddess. Circe is unable to bewitch
Odysseus, and he makes her take an oath not to harm him. His companions are
also saved and turned back into men. They stay with her in luxury for a year.
Finally, the men express the desire to get back home, and Odysseus asks Circe
to let them go on their way. She agrees, but explains that before they can get
home they must first go to Hades, the land of the dead, and speak to Tiresias,
the blind soothsayer. She explains the route of the journey and the manner by
which they may converse with Tiresias. While the men prepare to sail,
Elpenor, the youngest, meets a tragic end when he falls from Circe’s roof and
breaks his neck. Before the men leave, Circe ties a ram and a black ewe to
their ship for the sacrifice that Odysseus will have to perform on reaching the
Odysseus continues his narrative, and the reader learns of his bad luck. The
Aeolians send him on his way home after having looked after him, but
Odysseus’ companions are the cause of his misfortune this time. Their folly is
highlighted once again when they open the bag and release the ruinous winds
that take them back to the Aeolian land. Odysseus and his companions often
get into trouble because of their impatience, and they exhibit absolutely
The episode with the Laestrygonians is a fatal blow to Odysseus, showing that
Poseidon is indeed punishing him thoroughly. Polyphemus’ prayer that
Odysseus should reach home alone seems to be getting fulfilled. Only one
ship is saved, and the remaining men reach Circe’s isle. Circe first appears as a
malevolent witch, but once Odysseus subdues her she helps him and his men,
showing no signs of her sinister past. She then takes up another part, which
may belong to her original character: foretelling the future. Seers are quite
common in heroic tales, and in The Odyssey, Homer presents two traditional
characters that prophesy. The first is Circe; but she insists that Odysseus
should consult the other, the ghost of the seer Tiresias. This is a very ancient
theme and bears some resemblance to the Epic of Gilgamesh, where the hero
crosses the waters of death to consult Uta-Napishtim. Odysseus’ men are
dismayed at the prospect of going into the underworld, but Circe is convinced
that they must and starts preparing for their departure. The difference between
gods and men is made clear here. Where the former act decisively, the latter
are often scared and reluctant to take action.
Towards the end of the Book, there is the small episode of Elpenor’s death. He
dies by falling from the roof and, thus, meets an unheroic and untimely end.
Later in the poem, the importance of a heroic death will be emphasized. An
Iliadic hero would rather die in battle than by any other means.
Odysseus himself comes off well in this Book as his concern for his men is
clearly depicted. He kills a huge stag on Circe’s island for his men. Later,
when Eurylochus comes back alone from Circe’s dwelling, Odysseus insists
on going alone to rescue his men. After befriending the goddess, Odysseus
refuses to eat until he sees his companions safe and sound. The scene of their
reunion is a compassionate one, and the goddess herself is moved. The only
actions of Odysseus that might be considered questionable are his willingness
to take to Circe’s bed and the length of his stay on the island. Even after a
year, it is his men that remind him of his native land, Ithaca. Odysseus has a
typical Homeric hero’s appetite for wealth, wine, and women.
Odysseus relates the details of his journey to Hell. After crossing Oceanus, the
river at the end of the world, he and his crew come to the place that Circe had
told them about. They perform sacrifices to the mighty Hades and to
Persephone. Many spirits of the dead come to drink the blood of the sacrificed
animals, but Odysseus keeps them away as he awaits Tiresias. The first spirit
to come is the recently deceased Elpenor, followed by Anticleia, Odysseus’
mother. Then Tiresias’ spirit arrives. After drinking the blood, the seer
prophesies Odysseus’ future and advises him on his upcoming journey. If he
does as directed, he will eventually arrive at Ithaca alone and take revenge on
the suitors, but he will not be able to rest until he has appeased Poseidon.
After Tiresias has spoken, there is a compassionate scene in which Odysseus
talks to his dead mother. He also sees the spirits of many famous women,
including Phaedra, Ariadne, and Leda, and hears their respective stories.
Odysseus stops his narrative here and asks the Phaecians to let him retire for
the night. Alcinous, however, is eager to hear about the other spirits that
Odysseus might have met. Odysseus continues his story and tells of his
conversations with Agamemnon and Achilles and of the sight that Tityos,
Tantalus, Sisyphus, and Heracles presented. After Heracles departs, myriad
tribes of the dead throng up together, making a great clamor, and Odysseus is
scared that Gorgon, a monster of the underworld, might appear as well. He
asks his men to mount the ship, and they sail away down the river of Oceanus,
Odysseus sails to the edge of the world and meets many ghosts, among them
some chief figures in The Iliad. Agamemnon has been murdered by his wife,
in marked contrast to Odysseus, whose faithful Penelope holds out bravely
against the suitors. While shedding no new light on his personality, his story
emphasizes the dangers that await those who return from Troy. Ajax, in a
brief appearance, adds a new dimension to his simple character in The Iliad.
In the interval, he has killed himself, because his honor has been wounded by
Odysseus. Odysseus does his best to appease him, but Ajax takes no notice
and does not answer. Achilles is the most striking figure and his poetic words
have a deep impact. He says that he would rather work on the land as a serf
than reign over all the perished dead. His son Neoptolemus is his only
consolation, as he has turned out to be a stout warrior. These three ghosts form
a link with The Iliad, and when Odysseus speaks to them, he speaks to his
peers, as he does nowhere else in The Odyssey.
The main purpose for which Odysseus enters the world of the dead is to
consult the ghost of the seer Tiresias. Tiresias says very little about the
immediate future, except in warning Odysseus not to eat the cattle of the sun
god Hyperion at Thrinacia. However, he does give him a precise forecast of
his last days and quiet ending, with advice on the ritual that will appease
Poseidon. In earlier versions, Tiresias might have said more than this and his
warning about the cattle might only be a part of a larger set of warnings and
forecasts. These are transferred to Circe instead. When Odysseus comes back
to her, she will give him a careful and lengthy forecast of the dangers that lie
before him. This device keeps Circe powerful, but at the cost of a lengthy
“pre-vision” of what will come soon afterwards. Everything happens
according to plan, but without the element of surprise.
This Book possesses a distinctive epic style. The tales of famous mortals and
gods add color and give the reader a glimpse of the background against which
Odysseus operates. Through Agamemnon’s story, Odysseus learns that he
must be discreet when he reaches Ithaca, and he is. Penelope is once again
contrasted with Clytemnestra, Agamemnon’s wife; it is once again states that
Penelope has been loyal to her husband. It is still emphasized, however, that
women are not generally trustworthy.
Apart from the variety of mortals, god, and destinies, there are some moving
scenes in this Book, especially when Odysseus meets his mother. He wishes to
embrace her but cannot, as she is merely a spirit, and the reader feels
sympathy for his pathetic plight. Overall, however, this Book describes
Odysseus as admirable for the courage he shows in reaching the Hall of Hades
Odysseus continues his narrative and tells the Phaecians how he and his
companions sail away and reach Circe’s isle once again. They bury Elpenor
and then feast by their ships. Circe gives Odysseus a careful forecast of the
dangers that lie before him. Odysseus tells his men some of the prophecies,
First they pass the island of the Sirens, women who lure sailors to their deaths
by enchanting them with their songs. Following Circe’s advice, Odysseus
plugs his crew’s ears with wax. Wanting to hear the Sirens’ songs, however, he
leaves his own ears unplugged, but has his men bind him to the ship’s mast,
with orders not to set him free, no matter how much he begs, until the danger
is past. Though Odysseus is enchanted by the Sirens’ songs, his crew ignores
his cries, and they pass the island safely.
Next they pass a narrow strait, on the one side of which is Scylla, a six-
headed, man-eating monster, and the other side of which is Charybdis, a ship-
destroying whirlpool. There is no way to pass this hazard without harm. As
their choice is between losing six men to Scylla or having the entire ship
destroyed by Charybdis, they sail close by Scylla, who, as forecast, eats six of
the terror-stricken crew as they pass.
They reach the isle of Thrinacia, where Hyperion, the sun god, keeps his
cattle. Odysseus makes his men take an oath that they will not harm the cattle,
as Circe has warned that if they do so, none of them will get home alive. They
stay there for a month, as the storms and winds are unfavorable for journeying
ahead. While the food stocks on the ship last, the men keep their oath, but
when the supplies dwindle and they are hungry, trouble begins to brew. When
Odysseus falls asleep while praying to the gods, his men sacrifice the best of
the cattle and eat the meat. Hyperion is outraged and asks Zeus to punish
Odysseus’ men. After six days of feasting, Odysseus and his men finally get
onto the ship to sail away. A storm arises and the ship is destroyed by one of
Zeus’ thunderbolts. All the men perish except Odysseus, who lashes the keel
and mast of the ship together and, sitting on them, is swept away. He manages
to get past Scylla and Charybdis and finally reaches the isle of Ogygia, home
of Calypso. Now Odysseus addresses his Phaecian hosts and tells them that
there is no use in his speaking any longer, as he has already told them of his
This is the last Book in which Odysseus relates his adventures, for in the next
he reaches Ithaca. The contrast between Books 12 and 13 is great; there is
fantastic adventures in the first and domestic strife in the second.
The sources of The Odyssey are different from those of The Iliad, giving each
work a different character. Both deal with marvels and monsters to some
extent, and in both poems gods interfere with the course of human events. The
Odyssey, however, belongs more to legend and folklore than history. The
wind-bag of Aeolus, the transformations of Circe, and the monstrosity of
Scylla are marvels of a greater order than those appearing in the strictly heroic
Odysseus conducts himself heroically here, but the monsters which he has to
face are outside both human and heroic experience. The poet, however,
creates a sense of realism through graphic descriptions; he also gives his
monsters some human characteristics to make them appear a little less
inhuman and supernatural. Polyphemus, for example, talks kindly to his sheep
and appears almost pitiful when he implores his father, Poseidon, for revenge.
In this Book, the poet employs a similar strategy. The Sirens, despite their
luring songs and the bones of decaying bodies found around them, are careful
to do no more than politely invite Odysseus to come and listen to them sing
prophetic songs. Scylla is a grotesque horror, and yet one small touch brings
her into the realm of living things. Her voice is like that of a puppy, which is
quite unexpected, and the trait makes her tangible.
Eurylochus is one of the only members of Odysseus’ crew whose character is
clearly delineated. It is he who urges the men to slay and eat Hyperion’s cattle
at Thrinacia, rather than die of starvation. This act brings doom upon them.
They all perish in the sea, and only Odysseus manages to reach Ogygia. While
Odysseus acts resourcefully and wisely, a sign of his growing maturity, the
impatience and greed of his men causes their downfall.
When Odysseus stops his narration, Alcinous asks the princes to bestow more
gifts on the brave hero. They agree and then retire for the night. The next
morning, after sacrifices and feasting, Odysseus bids farewell to the Phaecians
and climbs aboard the ship they have prepared for him. The boat reaches
Ithaca without any trouble, and Odysseus is left on the shore with all his gifts.
While he is still sleeping, Poseidon sees the Phaecian ship leaving Odysseus.
The god is angered that Odysseus should come back home so comfortably and
with so many gifts. He speaks to Zeus, who allows him to turn the Phaecian
ship into stone as it is coming back into port. When the Phaecians see their
ship transformed, they become alarmed. Alcinous, recalling an old prophecy,
asks them to sacrifice bulls and pray to Poseidon in order to prevent him from
burying the city under a great mountain.
Meanwhile, Odysseus awakens at Ithaca and is unable to recognize his own
land, as it is covered with mist. He wonders where he is and checks his gifts to
see whether the Phaecians have stolen any. Athene comes to him in the
disguise of a young man and tells him that he is at Ithaca. Odysseus does not
reveal his true identity, making up an incredible story about himself. Athene
smiles at his cunning and changes into her original form. They converse and
Odysseus asks for further proof that he is really at Ithaca. Once convinced, he
rejoices; then Athene helps him to hide his wealth in a cave. She disguises
him so that he looks like an old beggar and advises him to seek out his
swineherd, Eumaeus, so that he can learn more about what is going on.
Athene goes to Lacedaemon to fetch Telemachus, while Odysseus goes to find
In Books 13-24, the action takes place in Ithaca. This is a familiar world for
the hero. Yet here, too, much in the story is derived from old folktales
exploited with novelty by the poet.
Unlike previous sea voyages, Odysseus’ voyage from Phaecia to Ithaca is
uneventful, and he actually sleeps the entire way. He is deposited in Ithaca by
the Phaecians, along with the gifts that are so important for any hero’s return.
Poseidon, who has not forgotten his wrath for Odysseus, is angry that he has
come back with gifts even more luxurious than he might have been able to
win at Troy. Zeus allows Poseidon to punish the Phaecians by turning their
ship into stone, and Alcinous remembers that this was destined to happen. The
role of gods and fate in the entire epic is unmistakable. The last vision of the
Phaecians is of them praying to the earth shaker, Poseidon.
Odysseus in this Book is his usual suspicious, clever, and cunning self. As
soon as he awakens, he wonders where he is, but is unable to recognize his
own land. He does not trust the Phaecians and counts his gifts to ascertain
whether any have been stolen. When Athene meets him in the disguise of a
young man, Odysseus is careful not to reveal his identity. He makes up a long,
fantastic story about himself, and Athene is amused by his guile. He does not
let his guard down even in his own land, and it is this quality that makes him
truly exceptional and enduring. It is in this Book that Athene and Odysseus
finally come face to face, and their meeting is as one between equals. Athene
shows affection towards Odysseus, while he wishes to make the most of her
help in punishing the suitors. After he flatters her, she formulates a plan
whereby Odysseus will first stay with his swineherd as a beggar. This is a part
of Odysseus’ humbling. Polyphemus’ prayer has been answered, and Odysseus
has indeed reached home alone, with trouble reigning in his house.
Athene is the only god who helps Odysseus throughout The Odyssey. While
talking to Odysseus, she reiterates that Penelope has been constant, but she
knows that he will test his wife before accepting her. Odysseus has not
forgotten Agamemnon’s fate nor the words of Agamemnon’s spirit warning
him to be wary of women. As a result, the hero has to disguise himself until he
has avenged the suitors. In this, too, he is helped by Athene yet again.
Odysseus reaches Eumaeus’ hut in the disguise of a beggar and is almost
attacked by the hounds. Eumaeus welcomes him hospitably, while also
lamenting the loss of his master, Odysseus, and the evil deeds of the suitors.
Odysseus tries to convince the swineherd about his master’s imminent return,
but Eumaeus asks him not to speak false words in the hope of receiving gifts.
Odysseus then relates a long and fanciful tale of his history and whereabouts.
He claims to be the son of a wealthy man from Crete and to have fought at
Troy. He again claims to have heard tidings of Odysseus, but Eumaeus refuses
to believe him. Eumaeus sacrifices the best of the swine for Odysseus’ dinner,
and Odysseus is pleased by his swineherd’s treatment of a stranger. That night
it rains heavily, and Odysseus decides to test whether his swineherd will be
good enough to give him his own cloak. He relates a fictitious story in which
Odysseus succeeds in getting him a cloak when he is without one in the battle
of Troy. The swineherd, happy that Odysseus is being praised, gives his guest
his cloak readily. Odysseus is made comfortable for the night, while the
swineherd goes out to sleep with the boars, beneath the hollow of a rock.
Books 13-24 tell the tale of the hero’s return. The setting is domestic and the
mood is very different from that which dominates Books 9-12. The adventures
now are less fantastic and more concerned with the behavior of humans at a
familiar and not very exalted level.
Odysseus, disguised as an old beggar, reaches the hut of Eumaeus, his chief
swineherd, and is greeted there hospitably. He learns details of the suitor’s
transgressions through the complaints of Eumaeus. Odysseus’ Iliadic gift of
eloquence continues unabated here. He claims to be born at Crete, and the
fictitious adventures that he relates prove that he has a fertile imagination. He
repeatedly promises Eumaeus that his master, Odysseus, will return, but
Eumaeus has been fooled before and refuses to believe him. Eumaeus is a
loyal servant and comes across as a sensible man.
Homer emphasizes the need for Odysseus’ return through Eumaeus’
complaints; the pathetic plight of Penelope is the main complaint. She has
welcomed anyone in the past twenty years who has claimed to have heard of
Odysseus’ fate, and there have been many who have lied and taken advantage
of her vulnerability. As Eumaeus elaborates on the suitors’ misbehavior,
Odysseus silently seethes. Keeping these events in mind, his anger in the
slaughter scene that comes later is understandable.
Ithaca itself appears in strong contrast to Phaecia. The terrain is rocky and fit
for goats, not horses. The climate is not as pleasant, but there is plenty of
water and many domestic animals. It is a place that raises tough men such as
Odysseus, who is the most enduring and cunning of all warriors. Odysseus
himself never ceases to be conniving, and he relates a fabulous tale just to test
Eumaeus’ hospitality. Eumaeus, of course, passes the test with flying colors.
He appears as a large-hearted, yet prudent, man, concerned for both his master
and his master’s property. He is most concerned about the welfare of
Odysseus’ family and property, and Odysseus appreciates him for that.
Athene goes to Telemachus, who is staying with Menelaus, and asks him to
go back home to Ithaca to look after his property. She also warns him about
the suitors’ plans to ambush him on his way home. Telemachus wants to leave
at once, but his companion Peisistratus advises him to wait until the next day,
so as not to be discourteous to their host. In the morning, Telemachus speaks
to Menelaus about his departure and he allows him to go once he has been
presented with glorious gifts and given his midday meal. Just before
Telemachus and Peisistratus leave, an eagle carries a goose off from the
farmyard, and Helen interprets this as an omen of Odysseus’ long-awaited
When they reach Pylos, Telemachus apologizes to Peisistratus for not having
time to visit his father Nestor and asks him to help him prepare for his
departure. At the docks, they meet Theoclymenus, a soothsayer, who asks
Telemachus to help him by giving him place on his ship. Telemachus agrees,
and Theoclymenus sails with Telemachus and his men.
At this point, the scene shifts back to the swineherd’s hut at Ithaca. Odysseus
tells Eumaeus that he wishes to go to the city to beg and perhaps visit
Odysseus’ house to obtain work as a servant. Eumaeus advises against this,
saying that the suitors are violent and inhospitable. After further conversation,
in which Eumaeus talks of Odysseus’ parents and of his own origins, they
Meanwhile, Telemachus’ company reaches the Ithacan shore. The young man,
obeying Athene’s instructions, asks the men to go to the city while he himself
plans to go to the herdsmen. As for Theoclymenus, Telemachus asks him to
go to the suitor Eurymachus’ house. At this point a hawk with a dove in its
talons flies by on Telemachus’ right hand. Theoclymenus interprets this as an
auspicious omen, and Telemachus now instructs his friend Piraeus, who is
part of his crew, to take Theoclymenus home and look after him. As the ship
sails toward the city, Telemachus walks to the swineherd’s dwelling.
Athene plays an important role throughout the epic. She plans all the
important moves for Odysseus and Telemachus. In this Book, she persuades
Odysseus’ son to come home and also advises him about the details of his
return to Ithaca. Telemachus is sensible enough to obey each of her
instructions judiciously. Telemachus’ growth in maturity and his development
in heroic stature is one of the themes of the poem. He conducts himself well at
Menelaus’ house, and he is decisive in refusing Menelaus’ offer of collecting
more wealth by visiting other lands nearby. In his eagerness to embark on his
ship at Pylos and get home, he decides to do so without seeing Nestor, since
this would waste a lot of time. He sends the young Peisistratus instead to fix
The seer Theoclymenus asks Telemachus for protection, since he is guilty of
murder. Telemachus agrees to take him on the ship. On arriving at Ithaca,
Theoclymenus asks where he is to stay, and Telemachus, rather strangely,
says with Eurymachus. Eurymachus is one of the suitors and a prominent
enemy. This response conveys the depressed and defeated mood of
Telemachus. When Theoclymenus interprets the hawk as a favorable omen,
Telemachus changes his mind and sends him to his friend Piraeus’ house
instead. Theoclymenus’ task is to forecast events by augury and vision, but the
reader suspects that, in some other version, he might have done more. He may
have played a more prominent part in letting Penelope know of her husband’s
presence or in driving the suitors to their destruction. The element of the
supernatural which he represents adds something to the story, but it is not
Odysseus continues to exhibit one of his major characteristics, namely,
curiosity. He wishes to know about his father and mother and later patiently
hears Eumaeus’ long story about his childhood and ill-fated journey to Ithaca.
Odysseus is eloquent when he consoles Eumaeus by saying that Zeus has
given the swineherd good as well as evil. The brave-hearted hero shares a
warm relationship with the swineherd, and it is this tenderness that makes him
especially admirable. It humanizes the god-like Odysseus.
This Book builds the suspense about the imminent reunion between Odysseus
and Telemachus. While the father is conversing with the swineherd, the son is
nearing the Ithacan shore. The Book ends with Telemachus having reached
Eumaeus’ house, leaving the reader curious to know how the long-awaited
While Odysseus and Eumaeus are making breakfast, Telemachus arrives.
Eumaeus is very happy that Telemachus has reached Ithaca safely, and his
feelings are as a father towards a son. Telemachus is keen to hear about
Penelope and whether she still remains loyal to Odysseus or has already
wedded another. He meets Odysseus, but is unaware of who he is. Odysseus
questions Telemachus about the wooers and claims that he would have fought
them if he had been Odysseus’ son or Odysseus himself. Telemachus answers
his questions and then asks Eumaeus to go to Penelope and let her know of his
safe return. Eumaeus thinks that it would be proper to let Laertes know as
well. Telemachus agrees and asks the swineherd to tell Penelope to send a
maid with this news to Laertes. Eumaeus departs for the city.
Athene comes to the beggar Odysseus and touches him with her golden wand
to bring him back to his earlier form. Telemachus is amazed at the
metamorphosis and believes this stranger to be a god. Odysseus convinces
him that he is not a god but is his father. There is a tearful reunion, and then
father and son discuss the transgressions of the suitors and how they might be
punished. Meanwhile, Telemachus’ ship reaches the city and both Telemachus’
herald and the swineherd together reach Penelope’s place. The swineherd
informs Penelope of Telemachus’ arrival and the wooers are dismayed to learn
that he is safe. Antinous comes back with his ship and tells his companions
that some god must have helped Telemachus in escaping death.
The suitors hold a discussion of what to do about Telemachus. Penelope
comes among them to rebuke Antinous for his insolence in devising a plot to
kill her son. Eurymachus convinces her that Telemachus will come to no
harm, but, in truth, he himself is plotting her son’s death. She retires to her
chamber. In the evening, Eumaeus comes back to Odysseus and his son, by
which time Athene has already disguised Odysseus as a beggar again.
Telemachus inquires after the plans of the suitors, but Eumaeus can only tell
him about one of their ships that he had seen in the harbor. They then eat their
The pace of the story increases with many events clustered into this Book.
Telemachus arrives at the swineherd’s dwelling and his first question is about
his mother’s fidelity to Odysseus. Throughout the epic, women are cast as
being fickle and disloyal. Agamemnon’s slaughter by his wife’s lover is well-
known, and Helen is held responsible for the Trojan War and the death of
numerous Achaeans. As a result, both Telemachus and Odysseus are wary of
women and do not trust Penelope entirely. This is interesting to note,
especially in the light of the fact that she has been chaste and honorable
Eumaeus’ love for Telemachus is obvious, and the latter calls the former
“father.” It is important to note that both Odysseus and Telemachus are
capable of winning great affection and respect from their inferiors and equals,
as well superiors such as the gods. They are not proud and ill-mannered as the
suitors are and are, therefore, true heroes. Eumaeus displays his sensibility
when he insists that Laertes, too, be informed of Telemachus’ return.
At some point, the wandering hero must be recognized. Homer moves through
a series of recognitions, each marking a step forward. The first is when
Odysseus, transformed into a shrunken old beggar, is for a short time given
back his true shape and reveals himself to Telemachus. Athene makes it
possible, and so to a great extent, it is a supernatural event. What matters is
that Odysseus must not start on his vengeance entirely alone, and his obvious
companion is his son, who stays with him for the rest of the poem.
Telemachus shows his growing maturity. He answers intelligently the
criticism implicit in Odysseus’ suggestion that if he were Telemachus, he
would have taken revenge, explaining that he is an only son without a father
and without allies in his home. In talking to Odysseus about what to do about
the suitors, he displays his independence of thought. He has his own views,
which are sometimes at variance with those of Odysseus. He has certainly
The suitors display their villainy in planning to do away with Telemachus and
usurp his property. Penelope makes one of her rare appearances in front of
them to reprimand them. It is clear that she is attached to her son and feels
strongly for him. Eurymachus’ lies to her and the reader display the acute need
for Odysseus’ return. The Book ends with the loyal servant Eumaeus having
returned to his masters and telling of seeing the suitors’ ship. Telemachus,
knowing that he has foiled the suitors’ plans to kill him, gives a conspiratorial
smile to his father. A firm bond has already been formed between father and
The next morning, Telemachus plans to leave for the city and asks Eumaeus to
bring along the disguised beggar Odysseus later, so that he may beg for his
food himself. Penelope greets her son lovingly and asks him what he has
learned of his father. He does not answer her questions; instead he asks her to
go wash herself and pray to Zeus. He then goes to the hall and sits with
Mentor, Antiphus, and Halitherses. Piraeus arrives with Theoclymenus. When
Telemachus and Theoclymenus have been bathed, Penelope asks her son once
again for news of his father. Telemachus tells that he has heard that Odysseus
is at the nymph Calypso’s isle. Theoclymenus, too, reassures her that
Odysseus’ return is close at hand. The suitors, having had their pleasure in
Meanwhile, Odysseus and Eumaeus begin their journey from the fields to the
city. They meet Melanthius, the goatherd, at a spring near the city. He insults
both of them and kicks Odysseus, who holds his temper. Melanthius then
arrives at the house earlier than Odysseus and Eumaeus and sits amongst the
suitors. When Odysseus and Eumaeus arrive, they find Odysseus’ dog Argus
lying neglected atop a pile of dung by the gates. The dog recognizes his
master and dies; Odysseus has to hide his tears.
Eumaeus enters first and sits down to eat by Telemachus. When Odysseus
enters, Telemachus has Eumaeus take him some food and tells him to beg
from the suitors. Odysseus does so, and most of them give him morsels,
except for the vain and stingy Antinous. Odysseus begs him for some bread,
telling him a fictitious story of his travels. When Antinous refuses, Odysseus
condemns his ill-breeding, and Antinous responds by hitting him with a
footstool. The other suitors are displeased by this, and one warns Antinous
that gods often disguise themselves to test humans.
When Penelope hears of the episode, she expresses a desire to meet the
stranger. Eumaeus takes her message to the disguised Odysseus, who agrees
to meet her, but only after the sun has gone down, so that he may escape the
wrath of the suitors. She appreciates his good sense. Meanwhile, Eumaeus
prepares to depart for the farm, but only after having warned Telemachus to
be careful of the suitors’ mischief.
This is another long Book, and much happens here. Telemachus is clever in
not letting Eumaeus know that the old beggar is really Odysseus in disguise.
At the palace, the two maintain a facade of respectful formality, giving no
clue that they know each other. Odysseus’ purpose in begging the suitors, of
course, is to see what kind of man each one is, and while berating Antinous
for his stinginess, he controls his temper. Both father and son are capable
Telemachus is received lovingly by the women in the household, Penelope in
particular. But he is not all that attentive to her and appears to take her for
granted on occasion. When she first questions him about Odysseus, he tells
her to go to her own chamber and pray to Zeus. Only after she presses him
does he answer, relieving her worry.
Odysseus’ lesson in humility continues when he returns to his house in the
pathetic disguise of a beggar. There is no grand welcome. He begs for his food
and is actually hit on two occasions. Sandwiched between these two failures
to recognize Odysseus is a recognition scene. When Odysseus arrives at his
palace, he sees his dog Argus, whom he had trained and hunted twenty years
earlier. The dog is old and full of insects, but he wags his tail and struggles
towards his old master before collapsing dead, giving the impression that he
has been living only for his master’s return. This recognition, based on
affection and loyalty, conveys swiftly and surely how Odysseus belongs to
Ithaca and how deep his roots there are.
Homer builds suspense in several ways. He puts off the meeting between
Penelope and Odysseus, leaving the reader to wonder whether she will be able
to see through his disguise. He also heightens the tension between Odysseus
and the suitors. The latter are as usual feasting and wasting Odysseus’
property. Odysseus begs among them and is insulted by Melanthius and
Antinous. Telemachus is powerless to do anything. These events show the
degree to which the normal order of things has been reversed in King
Odysseus’ absence and the necessity of the upcoming revenge. Elements of
the supernatural also move the poem toward its climax. Theoclymenus repeats
his interpretation of the omen of Odysseus’ return, and, later, when Penelope,
speaking to Eumaeus of her wish for that return, hears Telemachus sneeze, she
takes it as an omen that Odysseus will soon arrive.
Irus, a beggar from town, comes upon Odysseus and orders him to be on his
way. They speak angry words to each other, and the suitors are amused by
their quarreling. Antinous offers goats’ bellies to the one who will show
himself to be the better man. Odysseus agrees to fight Irus, but only after
having extracted an oath from the suitors that they will not hit him. Athene
increases Odysseus’ size, and he deals Irus a crushing blow. Antinous gives
him meat as a prize, while Amphinomous offers him two loaves. Seeing that
he is a reasonable man, the disguised Odysseus encourages him to leave the
house before Odysseus returns. Amphinomous considers his words but, fated
Athene inspires Penelope to appear before the suitors, and, as she sleeps, she
enhances her beauty. When she enters the hall, all are impressed. She rebukes
Telemachus for not looking after the beggar-guest. Speaking to the suitors,
she recalls Odysseus’ last words to her before leaving Ithaca . Hinting that she
must marry, she both chastises and flatters the suitors, telling them that in her
own country the custom is for suitors to woo women with presents. Utterly
impressed by her speech, the suitors ask their henchmen to bring her splendid
gifts. She retires to her chamber with her gifts, and Odysseus rejoices at her
When it grows dark, Odysseus offers to help the maids hold the torches while
the suitors feast and dance. They laugh at him, and Melantho, Eurymachus’
mistress, in particular speaks very rudely. Odysseus is angered and frightens
them away by saying that he will complain to Telemachus. While Odysseus
tends the torches, Eurymachus makes fun of Odysseus’ head and also offers
him work on a farm but then adds that such a greedy, lazy beggar would never
work for a living. Odysseus is furious at such rebukes and gives a long speech
about his strength in comparison to that of Eurymachus. The suitor is shocked
by the beggar’s boldness and throws a footstool at him, which misses and
knocks down the cup-bearer. The general mood of the suitors is spoiled, and
Telemachus boldly asks them to leave for their respective homes. They are
surprised but agree, and, after pouring libations to the gods, they retire for the
A common beggar named Irus rebukes Odysseus, and the hero is unable to
contain his anger. Athene as usual comes to her favorite’s help and increases
Odysseus’ already impressive stature. Odysseus may be in the disguise of a
beggar but is still very much the hero, and here he displays his physical
strength once again. But he is not a cruel person, and the reader must take note
of the fact that Odysseus does not kill Irus. He instead carries him away and
rests him against the courtyard wall. The suitors, in contrast, are frivolous and
mean. They encourage the bloody fight and laugh loudly when Irus falls
down. They represent the villainous nature of man, while Odysseus and
Telemachus represent the heroic aspect. Amphinomous is the only suitor who
is still somewhat noble, but he refuses to leave the hall as Odysseus advises
Penelope’s appearance in front of the suitors is prompted by Athene, and she
comes off well. The reader learns that Odysseus himself has asked her to
marry if he did not return home. His last words to her before leaving for Troy
were gentle ones, showing his understanding nature. Odysseus is all the more
heroic in that he possesses this gentler side. However, this gentle side is
combined with an eye for wealth. He rejoices when he sees that Penelope
succeeds in drawing gifts from the suitors after having beguiled their minds.
All three members of the family – Odysseus, Penelope, and Telemachus –
possess cunning, endurance, and eloquence. Penelope is articulate in
expressing her sorrow at a fight taking place within her own house and chides
Telemachus for allowing it to occur. It shows that she has a clear liking and
preference for propriety, in contrast to the havoc the suitors create through
When Penelope retires to her chamber, Odysseus’ plight as a beggar worsens.
He is rebuked by his own maids and by Melantho in particular. Her disloyalty
in becoming Eurymachus’ mistress is a further sign of the corruption in the
house. To make matters worse, Odysseus is teased and insulted by
Eurymachus as he tends the torches. These events further justify the need for
The role of gods in human affairs is especially apparent in this Book, as
Athene directs the actions of the characters throughout. She has destined
Amphinomous to die, so he does not heed Odysseus’ advice. She places the
idea in Eurymachus’ head to mock Odysseus, so that he will be incited to
revenge, and she further inspires Penelope to speak to the suitors. The reader
may wonder if her actions are just gentle nudges encouraging the characters
true selves, or whether the poem’s heroes could even be heroic without her
When the suitors have left the hall, Odysseus asks Telemachus to remove the
weapons from there. The young man is to say that they are being marred by
the fire in the hall, and that furthermore he is removing them in order to avoid
bloodshed in the event of a quarrel. Eurycleia is asked to shut the women in
the chambers while this task is being completed. Odysseus and Telemachus
then take away the arms, after which Telemachus retires for the night.
Penelope comes to the hall and is made comfortable near the fire. Melantho
reviles Odysseus, again angering him. Penelope chides the rude maid. She
then converses with Odysseus, asking him where he comes from. He praises
her instead of answering her, while she tells him about her failed trick of
weaving and unweaving Laertes’ shroud. When she further questions him, he
finally tells her a false story of his past adventures, adding that he had met
Odysseus when he was on his way to Troy twenty years ago. Penelope seeks
to test him to ascertain whether he is speaking the truth, and he manages to
convince her by relating in detail the nature of the garments that Odysseus had
worn in that fateful year. He further tells her not to lament, as Odysseus will
soon return. Penelope is doubtful about this, but is pleased with the disguised
beggar and asks the handmaids to look after him well. Eurycleia is assigned
the task of washing his feet, and she recognizes the scar of an old wound,
which he had received while hunting boar as a young man with his
grandfather Autolycus. The entire tale of Odysseus’ naming and the adventure
by which he was scarred is now told. Eurycleia is about to tell Penelope that
the beggar is really Odysseus, but he stops her with the threat of death.
Eurycleia leaves, and Penelope voices her predicament to her disguised
husband. She does not know whether she should stay with her son in the
house and keep her husband’s possessions safe or leave with the best of the
Achaeans and get married, leaving the property to Telemachus. She also
relates the details of a symbolic dream to him, in which an eagle kills the
geese in her yard, and he answers by saying that the dream means sure death
for the suitors at the hands of her husband. She then tells him about her plan to
offer a contest to the suitors. Whoever can string Odysseus’ bow most easily
and repeat his trick of shooting through a row of twelve axes will win her
hand. Odysseus encourages her to announce the contest soon, promising that
her husband will return before any of the suitors can string the bow. After
lamenting once again for her husband, Penelope retires to her chamber to
Odysseus moves forward with his plans for the suitors’ punishment. He
removes the weapons from the hall with his son’s help. The fictitious reasons
that he gives to Telemachus for explaining the removal to the suitors is very
clever. Odysseus has been rightly called “the man of many devices.” It is
imperative that careful preparations be made in advance, as the suitors are
greater in number, and defeating them might prove to be an arduous task.
Odysseus is in command. He asks Telemachus to keep his thoughts in check
and go to sleep while he converses with Penelope. Melantho reviles him for
the second time, and, in Odysseus’ reply to her there is a clear foreboding of
the maid’s future punishment. It is interesting to see Odysseus and Penelope
converse, for she is unaware that she is talking to the one she has waited so
long for. Odysseus’ affection for her is apparent in his tender words of praise.
She confides in him, and the reader learns more about the trick by which she
has fooled the suitors for three long years. The way she placates them while
weaving Laertes’ still unfinished shroud bears testimony to her power of
endurance and love for her son and husband. The long years of waiting and
sorrow, however, have made her distrustful of men, fate, and even gods. She
no longer believes in the stories of travelers from abroad who claim to have
seen Odysseus. Even the wise Odysseus in the disguise of a beggar cannot
fully win her confidence and make her look hopefully towards the future. In
spite of his assurance that her dream of the eagle and the geese is true, she
says that it issued from the ivory gates of deceptive dreams, not the horn gates
of true ones. Although her suffering has chastened her out of superficial
optimism, it has not sunk her in incapacitating melancholy. Though she does
doubt the beggar’s prediction about Odysseus’ homecoming, she acts upon it
and soon afterwards declares her intention of marrying the man who can string
Odysseus’ bow and shoot through the twelve axes.
The scene in which Penelope weeps and her melting flesh is compared to the
thawing snow is a very poetic one. Odysseus hides his own tears with
difficulty, and their true reunion is delayed for a more appropriate moment.
Before Odysseus is recognized by his wife, there is a third recognition, and it
is by his old nurse, Eurycleia. It is dark, and Penelope is sitting in the
shadows, not far away. The nurse recognizes a scar, which Odysseus had
gotten long ago on a boar hunt and is on the point of crying out when
Odysseus puts his hand on her throat and ensures her silence. This is the most
dramatic of the recognitions so far.
The long tale of Odysseus’ naming by Autolycus and the story of his scarring
is in keeping with the epic tradition. Epics almost always contain numerous
smaller stories and legends, which are woven together inside the greater tale.
This tale highlights Odysseus’ heroic past. Almost all heroes get scarred, and
this bears testimony to their bravery and to the fact that they are active, while
Penelope’s dream of the eagle and the geese is a clear indicator of things to
come. Homer is building an atmosphere in which the suitors’ punishment is a
certainty. The story is slowly but surely moving towards the climax, and the
Book ends with Odysseus urging Penelope to no longer delay the contest of
Odysseus prepares to sleep but is unable to. He lies awake with evil thoughts
for the suitors. He sees some of the maids coming forth from their chamber
laughing, on their way to lie with the suitors. He is furious at this sight, but
restrains his anger. Athene appears and tells him not to worry about the suitors
and go to sleep instead. While he sleeps, Penelope awakens and prays to
Artemis that she might be taken away by death rather than marry another man.
She speaks about yet another dream that she had dreamed and starts weeping.
In the morning, Odysseus awakes, hears Penelope weeping, and asks Zeus to
show him some good omen so that he may be reassured. Zeus obliges, and
Odysseus is comforted by a thunderous sound and an ominous prayer uttered
by a weary woman grinding at the mill.
The household begins to stir. Telemachus awakes and asks Euryclea whether
the beggar has been looked after properly. Meanwhile, the maids prepare for
yet another day of feasting. Eumaeus and the disloyal Melanthius arrive at the
palace, and the latter insults Odysseus yet again. Philoetius, a loyal cowherd,
comes to the palace and greets the disguised Odysseus with kind words. The
suitors make plans to kill Telemachus but defer their plot after Antinous sees
an eagle fly by on their left hand with a dove in its talons.
As they dine, the mood is tense. Telemachus sits Odysseus at his own table
and tells the suitors to leave him alone. One of the suitors, Ctessipus, throws
an ox’s foot at Odysseus, but he avoids it. After Telemachus delivers another
threatening speech, the suitors are momentarily silenced. Then Agelaus asks
Telemachus to tell Penelope to choose the best man and wed him. Telemachus
answers that he cannot drive away his own mother without her consent. The
men begin laughing, but it is a forced laughter, and the seer Theoclymenus
suddenly sees shrouds of death covering their bodies and the walls dripping
with blood. They laugh at his warnings, and he leaves the doomed company.
Meanwhile, Penelope has heard the words of each one of the men in the halls,
for she had set her chair near them.
Odysseus’ endurance is tested here when he sees the insolent maids laughing
on their way to sleep with the suitors. He controls his anger with great
difficulty, and, in a brilliant epic simile, his growing anger is compared to that
of a dog guarding her young ones from a stranger. Later, he endures the
goatherd Melanthius’ taunts and escapes an ox’s foot that is thrown at him by
one of the suitors. All these incidents serve to increase his anger and are
needed to justify the cruel slaughter of the suitors soon afterwards. Athene
often encourages such taunts, so that they may wound Odysseus’ pride and
increase his desire for revenge. An important theme of the epic is Odysseus’
humbling, and these episodes serve this theme’s purpose.
The suitors are deplorable beyond belief. They have inflated opinions of
themselves and no scruples about getting what they want. Antinous differs
from Eurymachus only in being more outspokenly brutal. The others conform
to type, except, perhaps, Amphinomus, who has some relics of decency,
though not enough to escape death. In the suitors, it is hard not to see an
embodiment of a heroic society in decay. This is the generation that did not
fight at Troy, and their lack of heroic qualities fits the relatively unheroic
temper of The Odyssey. When the doom of the suitors is near and Ctessipus
has just thrown an ox’s foot at Odysseus, they are seized with a frenzy of
madness, and Theoclymenus in ringing tones foresees their doom. It is an
apocalyptic moment, but they are too far gone to recognize their predicament.
This is the last scene for Theoclymenus. He has completed his task, which is
to forecast events by augury and vision.
The element of the supernatural is more dominant here than anywhere else in
the epic. Odysseus prays to Zeus for a good omen, and it is granted. Penelope
dreams of a man such as Odysseus lying next to her in bed. The suitors see an
eagle with a cowering dove in its clutches, and Theoclymenus has his bloody
vision. The doom that is to come upon the suitors is not only brought about by
Odysseus, but by the will of the gods themselves. In a chilling commentary at
the end of the Book, the poet indicates that they have had a fine lunch in
which they have sacrificed many victims and, in doing so, have earned a
gruesome supper which will be served to them by “a god and a man.”
In addition to showing the suitors’ folly, the dinner scene also reveals the
mood of Odysseus’ family. Odysseus bides his time, Telemachus grows angry
and impatient, and Penelope is allowed to hear each word the suitors speak,
solidifying her distaste for them. Homer brings together all three members of
the family in their desire for vengeance on the arrogant, audacious suitors.
In a small but important scene, Odysseus meets another well-wisher,
Philoetius. He needs all the help he can get in the final slaying of the suitors.
There are only a few men to help him in this, but they are loyal and
dependable, and Philoetius is no exception.
Penelope goes to the storeroom to get the famous bow and a quiver of arrows
so that the contest may begin. As she does this, the poet interweaves the
history of the bow. She appears among the suitors and addresses them,
agreeing to marry the one who shall most easily string Odysseus’ bow and
shoot through all twelve axes. Eumaeus and Philoetius weep on seeing their
master’s bow, and Antinous rebukes them. Telemachus digs a trench for all
the axes. He nearly strings the bow himself but is stopped by a frowning
The suitors decide the order that they will attempt to string the bow. Leiodes
tries his hand, but fails. Antinous asks Melanthius to bring a great ball of lard
and to light a fire so that they may warm and grease the bow with it. He does
this, but none of the suitors are able to bend the bow enough to string it.
Meanwhile, Eumaeus, Philoetius, and Odysseus leave the hall. Odysseus tests
their loyalties before showing them his scar and revealing his true identity.
They are overjoyed to see their master and kiss him lovingly. Odysseus asks
Eumaeus to bring him the bow and quiver when they return to the hall and
asks Philoetius to bolt and bar the doors.
They return as Eurymachus is giving up. Antinous suggests postponing the
contest to the next day. After the men agree, Odysseus asks to be allowed to
test his strength by stringing the bow. Antinous refuses. Penelope thinks that
the beggar should be allowed, as he is a guest, but Telemachus stops her from
speaking any further and asks her to go back to her household duties, as the
bow is a man’s business. She obeys him. Eumaeus brings the bow to Odysseus
and tells Eurycleia to bar the doors of the women’s chamber. Philoetius bars
the outer gates of the court. Finally, Odysseus lifts the bow and, after viewing
it from every side, easily strings the bow. Zeus thunders forth a blessing, and
Odysseus, heartened at the omen, sends a shaft through all twelve axes.
Odysseus, signaling with his eyebrows, tells his son it is time for supper.
Telemachus grasps his sword and spear and comes and stands by his father.
The epic reaches its climax. Penelope goes to fetch the bow, and, in true epic
fashion, its history is related before Penelope brings it into the hall before the
suitors. Eumaeus and Philoetius display their affection for their master when
they actually cry upon seeing the bow. Antinous continues to be brash and
rude and rebukes the two servants for their tears.
Telemachus has benefited from his travels and shows his maturity. He urges
the suitors not to delay the trial of the bow, and his efficient setting up of the
axes impresses everyone. He is on his way to becoming as heroic as his father
Odysseus. After a few unsuccessful tries, he nearly strings the bow himself,
but this feat is reserved for his father, and he is stopped abruptly by a frown
from Odysseus. A difference has to be maintained between Odysseus and
Telemachus, and the former still has pre-eminence over the latter. Later in the
Book, Telemachus displays his leadership qualities once again, when he stops
his mother from speaking any further about the bow. He claims that the power
to give or deny the bow rests solely with him. His assumption of responsibility
and his self-confidence here are in great contrast to his inexperienced, hesitant
self at the start of the epic. At the end of this Book, when he stands beside
Odysseus, he seems worthy of a position next to his esteemed father.
The fourth recognition of Odysseus takes place in this Book. Odysseus reveals
himself to Eumaeus and Philoetius, but only after he has tested their sincerity
and loyalty. Odysseus has learned from his wanderings, and he is clever
enough not to trust even friends too easily. It is this trait that has enabled him
to survive his many adventures and has earned him the adjective “enduring.”
Once again, his scar plays an important role in this recognition.
Odysseus strips himself of his rags and kills Antinous with a shot to the throat.
The suitors are enraged by this act and threaten to slay him. Odysseus
announces who he really is, and the suitors are scared. Eurymachus begs for
forgiveness on behalf of all the suitors and promises to recompense him for all
the food and drink that has been consumed in the halls. Odysseus refuses and
gives the suitors the choice of fighting or fleeing to avoid death. Eurymachus
and Amphinomus are the next to die.
Telemachus brings shields, spears, and helmets for Odysseus, Philoetius,
Eumaeus, and himself. Melanthius, who is on the side of the suitors, brings
them arms from the storeroom. Upon seeing this, Odysseus is alarmed and
asks Eumaeus and Philoetius to stop him from getting any more weapons.
These two tie up Melanthius. Athene appears in the disguise of Mentor to
encourage Odysseus, but, wishing to test his strength, she does not give him a
clear victory. Agelaus urges the wooers to together throw their spears at
Odysseus, but none hit their intended mark. The battle continues and
Amphimedon, another suitor, succeeds in wounding Telemachus before the
latter kills him. Philoetius strikes the vain Ctessipus. In the midst of the
fighting, Athene holds up her destroying aegis – a shield with the Medusa’s
head on it – high from the roof. The wooers are scared and flee to the far end
of the hall, where they are slaughtered. Leiodes asks for mercy, but Odysseus
does not grant it. Only Medon and Phemius, a bard, are spared.
Once Odysseus sees that all the enemies are dead, he asks for Eurycleia. She
is about to cry aloud for joy but is checked by her master. He wishes to know
which of the women have been disloyal and which have kept the honor of the
house. The twelve shameless women are brought forth and are made to carry
the dead outside and to clean the tables. When the hall has been cleaned and
set in order once again, these twelve women are hung by Telemachus on
Odysseus’ instructions. Melanthius is led out and killed cruelly. Odysseus then
washes himself and purifies the house with sulfur and fire. Meanwhile,
Eurycleia goes through the halls to call out the women. They come out and
welcome Odysseus with embraces and kisses. He is moved and longs to weep,
The epic reaches its climax in the suitor-slaying scene in this Book. The
warrior of The Iliad, who has become the wanderer of The Odyssey, needs all
his powers of decision, command, and improvisation to beat the suitors. These
he amply displays. The man who kills Dolon in the battle of Troy is not likely
to spare the suitors or the servants, male or female, who have worked for
them. Odysseus in The Odyssey is a magnified version of Odysseus in The
Iliad, but he remains substantially the same man. It is significant that when
Odysseus kills the suitors, he has every advantage over them, and though this
is due to his foresight, it is not the way in which Achilles would have taken on
an enemy. Odysseus does start with something like Achilles’ unforgiving
wrath and spurns Eurymachus’ offer to repay his loss. His anger, however,
unlike Achilles’, does not last. He spares Phemius and Medon and forbids
Eurycleia to whoop in triumph. “It is not holy to exult over dead men,” he
says. He sees himself only as the enactor of just punishment.
The bloody slaughter of the suitors may dismay the reader slightly, but one
has to understand that their punishment is well-deserved and supported by the
gods. The hanging of the unfaithful women show that Odysseus is master and
king and that no treachery shall be tolerated. The re-establishment of order is
completed with the cleaning of the house with sulfur and fire, which
symbolizes purification and renewal. Odysseus is once again the rightful
master of the house; his mission has finally been accomplished despite many
Eumaeus and Philoetius prove to be dependable and are a great help to
Odysseus in his battle with the suitors. It is they who tie up Melanthius as he
is about to bring out more arms for the suitors. They also fight bravely and are
responsible for the deaths of a few suitors. Their presence shows that
Odysseus is capable of winning great loyalty. Indeed, the party of Odysseus in
Ithaca is held together by loyalty to him and hatred of the suitors.
It is interesting to note that Athene aids Odysseus so long as he is courageous
and heroic. She chides him with wrathful words when she sees him
weakening. While she does offer him help, she does not allow his victory to
be too easy. Odysseus is being tested, and this fight against the suitors, who
are greater in number than Odysseus’ party, is a part of his test.
Finally, the women come forth from the chamber to greet Odysseus with
embraces and kisses. The conspicuous absence of Penelope builds anticipation
for the reunion of husband and wife, which finally takes place in the next
Eurycleia goes to the upper chamber to awaken Penelope and to let her know
of her husband’s long-awaited return. Penelope refuses to believe her initially
and is only somewhat convinced when told that the beggar guest was actually
Odysseus in disguise, noting that it may very well be a god finally taking
vengeance upon the suitors. She is not even convinced by the mention of
Odysseus’ scar. She now goes down to the hall but stands apart from
Odysseus. Telemachus rebukes her for being hard-hearted, but Penelope
replies that she will only recognize Odysseus when they share some secret
unknown to the others. Odysseus smiles at this and tells Telemachus to bathe
and then arrange for a feast and dancing so that the slaughter of the suitors
may remain hidden. Penelope tests Odysseus by telling Eurycleia to move
Odysseus’ bed and set it up for him outside the bridal chamber. This is not
possible as, Odysseus had himself constructed the bridal chamber around an
olive tree and had made the bed out of its stump. When Odysseus describes
the chamber in detail, Penelope accepts him to be truly her husband and
finally embraces him. As they talk and weep, Athene stays the dawn for them
so that they can have more time together. Odysseus tells Penelope about
Tiresias’ predictions and warns her that their troubles are not over. They take
to their bed, make love, and tell each other of their suffering and adventures
before falling asleep. Finally, Athene has the sun rise and awaken Odysseus.
He asks Penelope to look after the house and remain in the upper chamber
with the other women while he goes to see his father Laertes at his farm. He
arms himself with weapons of war and goes along with Telemachus,
Eumaeus, and Philoetius. Though there is light over the earth, Athene hides
them in night and quickly conducts them out of the town.
The suitors have been slain and it is now time for the fifth and most important
recognition to take place. It is that between Odysseus and Penelope. An entire
Book is devoted to the reunion between husband and wife. The signs that have
satisfied others do not satisfy Penelope. It is not without reason that she is
called “wise” and “enduring.” The long years of waiting have made her
suspicious, and rightly so. While Telemachus rebukes her for being hard-
hearted, the reader can somewhat sympathize with this woman who does not
wish to be fooled either by mortals or gods. She tests the stranger by telling
Eurycleia to move Odysseus’ bed, but the stranger knows that Penelope and he
have their own special, secret bed made from the stump of an olive tree in the
heart of the palace. This is highly appropriate, as Odysseus and Penelope are
man and wife, and the bed is an intimate symbol of their union. When
Penelope finally accepts Odysseus, the reader is gladdened. They retire to the
bed, and now Penelope exhibits the same curiosity that characterizes her
husband. She wants to know all about his adventures, and he obliges her with
the tale, although he tactfully omits his infidelities. It is not difficult to
imagine, however, that Penelope will get the full story sooner or later.
Two great Alexandrine scholars, Aristarchus and Aristophanes, have regarded
the union of Odysseus and Penelope in the place of their old bed as the proper
end of The Odyssey. They may have had external evidence that some good
manuscripts ended at this point, or they may have made their decision on the
strength of anomalies of narrative and language in the text after this point. It
cannot be denied that the text takes on a different tone once they retire to bed,
and it is unlikely that the primary poet of The Odyssey composed this part.
Still, that does not deprive it of significance. It shows that someone felt that
the end of The Odyssey called for some sort of an epilogue. The Odyssey
might have had a satisfactory end when Odysseus and Penelope go to bed, but
the added passages and the Book that follows do have their own advantages
Athene once again plays the role of the guardian angel effectively. She
lengthens the duration of the night so that Odysseus and Penelope can prolong
the joy of talk and love, a generous and touching gesture. The next morning,
she has the sun rise only when she feels Odysseus and Penelope have had
enough sleep. She further aids Odysseus by helping him and his party leave
Hermes leads the souls of the suitors to the Hall of Hades. The souls of
Achilles, Partroclus, Antilochus, and Ajax watch as they arrive. Agamemnon
tells Achilles about Achilles’ death and funeral, which he witnessed, and
laments his own uncelebrated death. When the suitors come up to them,
Agamemnon questions Amphimedon about his and the others’ death, and
Amphimedon recounts the long tale. Agamemnon praises Penelope’s loyalty
to Odysseus in contrast to Clytemnestra’s treachery.
In the land of the living, Odysseus and his company reach Laertes’ house.
Odysseus asks Telemachus to prepare for the midday meal while he goes to
the vineyard to see whether his father will recognize him. He finds his father
digging a plant and only reveals himself to him after relating a false story
about himself and saying that he had met the hero Odysseus five years prior.
When Laertes groans at the mention of his son, Odysseus embraces and kisses
him and tells him who he really is. Now Laertes tests his son, and Odysseus
convinces him by showing him his scar and telling him about the trees that
Laertes had given him when he was a child. Both go back to the house, and
Laertes bathes. He is made to look more impressive by Athene. They sit down
to eat, and Dolius and his sons embrace Odysseus.
Meanwhile, in the city, the people bury the suitors and then gather together at
the assembly place. Eupeithes, Antinous’ father, urges the Achaeans to avenge
the death of the noble young men. Medon and Halitherses try to persuade the
people not to fight with Odysseus and his company, but they are more inclined
towards Eupeithes’ suggestion. Athene asks Zeus what he has in mind
concerning the Ithacans, and he replies that he would like to see the feud end
and the two opposing sides to be brethren once again. The townspeople now
arrive at the farm to fight and Odysseus’ party comes out to meet them.
Athene, disguised once again as Mentor, urges Laertes to throw his spear, and
he does. It kills Eupeithes, and then Odysseus and Telemachus fall upon their
attackers and begin slaughtering them. Athene stops the fighting, but
Odysseus hurls himself on the fleeing enemy with a terrible cry. Zeus casts
forth a flaming bolt of lightning at Athene’s feet, and she stops Odysseus with
a threat. The hero obeys her, and she sets a covenant between the two
opposing parties in the guise of Mentor.
This is the last and final Book of the epic. It wraps up the few remaining
threads of the story. Some feel that it is a sort of epilogue and that the epic
could have logically ended when Odysseus and Penelope go to bed. The
reader may ask what advantages, if any, are gained by the addition.
There are in The Odyssey two passages where Homer presents ghosts of the
dead, and each includes some chief figures of The Iliad. This Book contains
the second passage, where the ghosts of the suitors are escorted by Hermes to
the land of the dead. This passage does have a part in the whole plan of The
Odyssey, though it is a later addition; it clearly reinforces several themes of
the work. First of all, the importance of Penelope’s virtue is underscored by
Agamemnon’s comment that Odysseus is indeed fortunate to have a wife like
Penelope and very unlike Clytemnestra. Secondly, the parade of the ghosts of
Troy provides a final curtain for great figures of The Iliad and of the heroic
age itself. Thirdly, there is a striking contrast between the glorious death of
the heroic Achilles and the miserable careers of the suitors. They are at the
other extreme from the true nobility of the heroic ideal. The Odyssey, like The
Iliad, stresses what real heroes are.
Odysseus meets Laertes in the country. The reader feels that Odysseus carries
his suspicion and curiosity too far when he wishes to test his own father.
Odysseus still has the energy and inclination to recite yet another long and
false tale about himself in order to gauge Laertes’ reaction. It is only when
Laertes groans that his son takes pity on him and reveals his true identify. He
proves himself first by the scar and then by his knowledge of Laertes’ orchard,
which he had helped to plant. All these recognitions have a certain simplicity.
The scar does the most work because it arises from the oldest tradition. The
accumulation of six recognitions suggests that there were many variants in the
traditional story and that Homer gave a subordinate purpose to some which
might have been of primary importance in earlier versions.
Although Odysseus emerges as a hero in his own right in these final Books,
the importance of the role of the gods and fate cannot be ignored. Athene asks
Zeus what he plans for the Ithacans, and whatever he decides will take place.
Eupeithes has managed to convince the people into a desire for revenge on the
suitors’ slayers. Despite Halitherses’ and Medon’s arguments, the townspeople
march towards the farm. It is here that the irregularity in this Book becomes
apparent. Athene has just talked to Zeus and knows that he desires peace at
Ithaca, but it is she who first draws near them in the guise of Mentor.
Odysseus is encouraged by this and asks Telemachus to uphold his ancestors’
honor in the subsequent battle. Moreover, Athene encourages Laertes to throw
the spear that kills Eupeithes. Only after Odysseus and his men are destroying
the enemy does she stop the fighting. One wonders why she has encouraged it
in the first place. Odysseus still needs to be controlled. He hurls himself at the
opposing party, and only Athene’s threat, after Zeus throws forth a bolt of
lightning, can stop him. It is the gods who finally control events, and the Book
ends with Athene setting a covenant of peace.
The fight between the suitors’ kinsmen and Odysseus indicates that the slaying
was not as final as it seemed, and it may have provided a start for new
adventures in which Odysseus leaves Ithaca. The continuation suggests that
the poet would like to prolong the story. He clearly has a gift for touching
narrative, as shown by the scene between Laertes and Odysseus. But this
Book as a whole is at variance with the main poem, and the reader realizes
that this final Book lacks strength.
Odysseus is driven to many wanderings during which he sees many wonders
and endures many sufferings. Part of the poet’s theme is the vicissitudes that
have fostered the hero’s multi-faceted character. Yet, Odysseus’ adventures are
not random, for they reach a goal that in him implies unity of character. Many
various strands, however, are interwoven to reveal the various traits of this
hero. He can be clever, as seen when he tricks the Polyphemus by calling
himself No-Body. He can be deceitful, as seen when he disguises himself as a
beggar in Ithaca. He is always enduring, as seen in his refusal to give up
during any of his struggles. The cleverness, deceitfulness, and endurance
Odysseus also has an eye for wealth and adventure, traits that are common to
all Homeric heroes. He welcomes the Phaecian gifts with unconcealed
pleasure and enthusiasm; he is also pleased to see Penelope trick the suitors
into presenting her with gifts. Just as he welcomes riches, Odysseus also
welcomes adventure, often seeking it out. He chooses to go to Polyphemus’
cave and refuses to plug his ears, for he wants to hear the song of the Sirens.
In truth, it is a search for wealth and glory that causes Odysseus to ever leave
A wide variety of epithets are used to describe Odysseus. He is “wise
hearted,” “bold,” “glorious,” and “god-like,” but is also “son of Laertes” and
“Ithacan.” The latter two epithets are more basic to the story. The former traits
are seen in the suitor-slaying episode, where Odysseus starts with something
like Achilles’ unforgiving wrath and spurns Eurymachus’ plea for forgiveness.
His anger, unlike Achilles’, however, does not last. He spares the herald
Medon and the bard Phemius, and he forbids Eurycleia to whoop in triumph
Odysseus’ dual character, as both wise man and hero, persists in the climax.
After long trials, Odysseus realizes the value and sanctity of home. The
sanctity of these ephemeral securities can only be understood by a man like
him who can measure them in the context of the wide world – its perils,
glories, and temptations. He is the hero, defending the last human possibility,
and the epithets “Ithacan” and “son of Laertes” assert that he is not simply
vindicating common civil order. In having seen the underworld and
renouncing Calypso’s proffered immortality, he alone has fully regained what
the other fated Iliadic heroes lost. In the climactic suitor-slaying scene, he acts
as a powerful man, but he also understands as the tested man.
The trait of endurance that marks Odysseus is mirrored in his wife Penelope,
who is unwilling either to reject or to accept marriage. The former choice
would endanger her son’s life and property, while the latter would end her
hope of reunion with her husband. It is for this loyalty to her husband’s
memory that she is praised in comparison to Clytemnestra’s infidelity. Like
her husband, Penelope is also seen as clever. She is able to trick the suitors
and delay a decision of marriage by carefully knitting Laertes’ shroud by day
and removing the stitches at night. Since the shroud is never finished, she is
able to postpone a decision about matrimony.
Penelope does not allow herself to sink into black despair at the thought of
Odysseus’ misfortune. She rises from her inertia when the time comes for
action and decision. She appears before the suitors and announces that she
will marry the one who can string Odysseus’ bow and send the arrow through
the twelve axes. Her primary purpose is to try and get rid of the suitors and to
buy time, for she knows that none of them can pass the test.
While her suffering does chasten her out of superficial optimism, it does not,
however, sink her into an incapacitating melancholy. Though she doubts the
beggar’s prediction about Odysseus’ homecoming, she acts upon it, declaring
her intention of marrying the man who can string Odysseus’ bow. This
expresses her inspired compromise between doubt and hope, between her
memory of Odysseus’ old command and her faith in today’s signs. Her
thoughts and dreams each night oscillate between duty and desire, and she
Penelope is not just heroic, beautiful, chaste, and commanding; she is also
human and sometimes filled with doubt. She loves her son and is anxious for
his safety. It is for his sake, in fact, that she even thinks of re-marrying. She is
also doubtful, especially about Odysseus’ return. Even after he reveals himself
to her, Penelope wants proof, which he provides in knowing about the olive
In characterizing Penelope, Homer gives up his normal device of describing
characters through their setting. As with Achilles, Homer penetrates her mind.
The mystery of her girl-like laughs, her impulsive appearances before the
suitors, her beautifying sleep, and her wish to die speak of her complete
inwardness, which is seen even through the last scene. In this respect, she
offers a striking contrast to Odysseus, whose responses are conveyed through
his setting and through what he sees around him. Homer also paints Penelope
at a higher level than most of his female characters, who are described as
At the beginning of the story, Telemachus is young, inexperienced, unhappy,
and helpless. He tells Athene in the guise of Mentes that he is the son of the
worst fated of men, and the goddess sketches for him a plan of action. Athene
gives Telemachus vitality and confidence and enlivens his father’s memory.
On rejoining the suitors after Athene-Mentes’ strange departure, he shows his
new confidence by rebuking Penelope. As the goddess has advised, he calls
the suitors to an assembly the next day, an act implying kingship. Telemachus
has decided to rule at least in his own house. However, at the assembly the
next day, his gesture is weak and desperate. The gathering is largely hostile to
his plans, and the futile assembly dissolves. Telemachus, however, is not
Telemachus travels through much of the poem, and his voyages teach him
piety, manners, a sense of a greater past, a hope for a better future, and, by
implication, an inkling of what is demanded of a hero. Nestor teaches him to
be pious by giving him an idea of what it means to live under the loving
guidance of a father. Through his account of Orestes’s revenge of
Agamemnon’s murder, Nestor shows him where his duty lies vis–vis the
suitors. And the same story related in detail by Menelaus also teaches him
how to value Penelope, his silent, suffering, and heroic mother. He will also
learn before long what hardships have made of his father. He will see in him
the severity of a man who has come to meaningful terms with life, home, and
even death. He learns that those who seek adventure will turn out to be heroes
and wise men, and those who remain at home will degenerate like the suitors,
who live meanly and die disgracefully. His encounter with Helen will also
show him how she, a woman of intensity and Iliadic dimension, is also a
woman of sorrow and guilt. She is divine, but has no peace, whereas the
unhappy but faithful Penelope obtains peace after cruel trials. Through his
travels and his reunion with his father, Telemachus learns what true heroism
is. By the end of the poem, he understands the active heroism of Odysseus,
who seeks to conquer the world, and the passive heroism of Penelope, who
preserves the home for the hero. On Odysseus’ return, Telemachus proves he
has matured into a heroic young man, worthy of being Odysseus’ son and
The gods are treated with a different intention in The Odyssey than in The
Iliad. In the latter epic, their interventions and frivolous actions provide a
contrast to the destructiveness and dangers of heroic life. In this poem, the
gods are treated in a more calculated way. While the gods do occasionally
judge human actions, the dominant role played by them is to offer challenge
and protection to Odysseus. The goddess Athene becomes his chief protector,
and she is seldom far away from her hero or his son. She instills confidence
into Telemachus and aids him in his travels. She continually aids Odysseus,
giving him advice and practical assistance. In the climactic scene of the
slaughter of the suitors, she actually deflects weapons aimed at him and
frightens his adversaries by flashing her shield from the roof. Although her
character as a virgin goddess does not allow for a romantic relationship with
Odysseus, she does hold him in great admiration and affection. At many
places it may seem that she is in love with this enduring mortal, but she is not.
They treat each other as equals, as when he recalls her kindness to him at
Troy, or she praises him for his cunning.
Athene’s role is not just that of aiding Odysseus; she also helps in his
development as a character, teaching him patience, humility, and restraint.
From her first act of assistance to her final peacemaking, she is largely
responsible for the development and conclusion of the plot.
On certain occasions, the reader wonders whether Odysseus and his son could
ever be heroes without Athene’s help. It is important to consider, however,
that at many critical points they do act alone and that they would not be
helped by her at all unless they were worthy of it. Indeed, some critics feel
that Odysseus’ relationship with Athene enhances his position as a heroic
survivor in an unheroic world. The reader may decide otherwise, but the fact
remains that the Homeric poems have no other parallel to so close a
relationship between a goddess and a mortal. Though later Greek literature
occasionally allows such friendships, it makes much less of them than Homer.
Calypso’s island, the reader learns at the start of the poem, has grown tedious
to Odysseus. He would gladly die if he could see the smoke leaping up in his
native land. For eight years, Odysseus has lived in Ogygia, an enchanted land
of marvelous beauty. Yet Odysseus longs to leave Calypso for the world of his
home – the world that shows beneath Penelope’s clouded beauty.
Calypso loves Odysseus deeply and sincerely. She expresses a chaffing regret
when she learns that the gods at Olympus disapprove of her love for a mortal
and that Zeus commands that she release Odysseus. She offers to help him
leave her island; yet she also wants him to live with her forever, ageless and
immortal. There is an endearing simplicity about her in her reliance on her
love and beauty. Despite her charms and the promise of immortality,
Odysseus chooses Penelope and Ithaca. He acknowledges the privilege of
living with her, but cannot remain with her. He is a mortal and must choose a
mortal life, even though it promises sorrow and pain.
Calypso represents the outer oblivion just as Circe represents the inner. To
accept the immortality that she offers is to forego one’s identity, and Odysseus
will not give this up after what he has learned about it. The quiet period of his
eight years with her conveys his near entrance into timelessness. His leaving
of the goddess and his subsequent recovering of his old heroic power at
Scheria indicates his rebirth into humanity. He now knows both timeless
nature and death, and he will act with this double knowledge when he reaches
If Ogygia was timeless, Scheria has the brightness (and some of the sorrows)
of youth. Nausicaa, Alcinous’ daughter, has a dream of approaching marriage
that Athene sends her. The goddess suggests she go to the river, on the pretext
of washing clothes, where she might find a husband. Nausicaa charmingly
conceals from her parents her real intention in going to the river. She displays
virtuous concern that her brothers should have clean linen for their dances and
asks her father for the mule cart. Alcinous can understand her reasons for
going. The father in him comes through clearly.
Nausicaa meets Odysseus and brings him towards the city. She shows a
charmingly practical mind when she asks Odysseus to accompany them only
to the edge of the city, but no further. This is because she fears gossip. She
imagines people looking through her hopes of marriage with the god-like
stranger. She also resents the affronts of local suitors. Yet she does admit that
she would herself think ill of a girl who thus brought home a stranger. She
ends her instructions to Odysseus with advice to seek out her mother. She, if
All happens as Nausicaa has said. When Odysseus is about to enter the
banquet, he sees her again, standing, as did Penelope, by a pillar, which
reminds him of home. She bids him not to forget her in his own country. He
replies that he will pray to her there all his days as to a goddess. Throughout
his travels, characters disappear as the hero moves on, but this final sight of
Nausicaa is exceptional. She is not only important for the plot, but also for the
mood of renewal at Scheria. Her love for Odysseus comes to nothing. But her
disappointed hope is more than made up for by her health, youth, and vitality.
She will someday lose what Odysseus has already lost, but he will retain the
The suitors are close to being the “antagonists” in the poem, but since
Odysseus does not know about them until the end, they become only one of
his many challenges in this epic drama. They are a group of noble princes
from Ithaca and nearby isles who begin to woo Penelope and, in the process,
stay at her palace. Their stay there corrupts the household and wastes the
property. For this, they blame Penelope herself for giving them false messages
The suitors are over a hundred in number and are described more in terms of
their collective qualities. They have an inflated opinion of themselves and no
scruples about getting what they want. Initially, they feast with Telemachus
and are not intimidated by him. Their attitude towards him is that of
amusement. They do not take his anger at their indulgences seriously and
often mock him. At an assembly at Ithaca, Telemachus feels so helpless in
comparison to them that he cries. The situation starts changing once
Telemachus leaves to find news of his father. The suitors and the other
Ithacans do not help him in obtaining a ship for his travels. They are surprised
to learn that he has arranged for a ship himself and is already at Pylos. At this
point, they begin to take him seriously and are sufficiently scared of him to
plot his death. The decision puts them grievously in the wrong.
The misbehavior of the suitors is a topic of conversation for both Eumaeus
and Telemachus, who separately inform Odysseus of their villainy. He sees it
for himself from Book 17 onwards, and his desire for vengeance increases.
They insult the disguised Odysseus and encourage his fight with Irus, another
common beggar. He, in turn, notes their indulgences and advises one of them,
Amphinomus, to leave the palace and stop wasting wealth that does not
belong to him. Amphinomus is one of the only suitors who possesses some
decency, but even he refuses to leave. The others conform to their typical
crass behavior. Antinous differs from Eurymachus only in being more brutally
outspoken. Ctessipus throws an ox’s foot at Odysseus, and Agelaus leads the
suitors against the hero in battle. Leiodes, a soothsayer, is the first among the
suitors to try and string Odysseus’ bow. He has refrained from outright
villainy but is nevertheless punished by Odysseus.
What in the suitor-slaying episode appears as justice is rather the proof and
manifestation of a god-given order. Odysseus is destined to find “trouble at
home” when he aggravates Poseidon’s wrath. In dealing with the suitors in the
guise of a beggar, Odysseus is humbled, but must still act as the powerful
In the last Book, the ghosts of the suitors meet some of the heroes of The
Iliad. Amphinomus relates the tale of their doom and admits that the suitors
were in the wrong. Though this passage is thought to be a later addition, it
does have a part in the whole plan of The Odyssey. Achilles hears of his own
death and funeral from Agamemnon. The Muses had sung of it and the
ceremony was a fitting climax to a heroic life. The suitors present a complete
antithesis to it. Their ignominious deaths are the proper end to their squalid
careers. The contrast between the death and glory of Achilles, immortalized in
song, and the miserable careers of the suitors is striking. The suitors are at the
other extreme from the true nobility of the heroic ideal.
Eumaeus is the most special among all the servants of Odysseus. His character
delineation by Homer is deliberate and serves the purpose of humanizing
Odysseus. The hero stays with Eumaeus upon reaching Ithaca, and the bond
that he shares with the swineherd is a compassionate and a touching one. They
talk at great length. While Odysseus relates fictitious tales about himself,
Eumaeus recounts his true life history. Odysseus consoles the servant.
Eumaeus reveals his love for and concern about his master Odysseus. He is
one of the few servants who genuinely prays for his master’s return. When
Odysseus stays with him, disguised as a beggar, Eumaeus talks about the
misbehavior of the suitors with disgust. He wishes that Odysseus would return
to seize his rightful place with Penelope. Eumaeus’ concern for the disguised
beggar Odysseus, his generosity in giving him a mantle, and his reluctance in
letting him go to the city to beg also indicate that he is a large-hearted, sincere
man. On recognizing Odysseus, he helps him dutifully. He becomes an
important part of Odysseus’ party against the suitors. Telemachus, too, treats
him with respect and addresses him as “father.” Eumaeus and Eurycleia
represent the loyalty that a hero such as Odysseus is capable of winning. At
the end, when Odysseus promises Eumaeus a house, a wife, and a higher
status in return for his help, the reader feels these rewards are well deserved.
At a cursory glance, it would seem that The Odyssey has a totally traditional
structure. The first four Books are largely expository and expound the themes
of the poem. The rising action begins in Book 5 and continues until the climax
in Book 22, when Odysseus slays the suitors. The falling action occurs in the
next chapter when Odysseus is reunited with Penelope. The final chapter,
which was probably added at a date late than the rest of the poem, is the
conclusion or denouement. Within this standard framework, however, there
are innovations that make this epic different. References to the past repeatedly
penetrate the present, especially in Books 9-12, where Odysseus narrates his
previous adventures. At these times, the linear narration is not maintained, and
the reader learns not only about the events that follow the council of the gods
that open the work but also about people and events of the past. Some critics
maintain that The Odyssey has a cyclic structure. Books 1-4 are concerned
with human drama, Books 5-12 are on a more fabulous, incredible, and
exalted scale, and Books 13-24 once again revert to human drama and tell the
age-old tale of the hero’s return and vengeance.
The Odyssey begins with the traditional invocation to the Muse, after which
the story begins. The first four Books emphasize the general plight of Ithaca
and the particular plight of Penelope and Telemachus in the absence of
Odysseus. They build up the need for Odysseus’ return and a growing
assurance of it. In Books 5 to 8, the tale of Odysseus’ departure from Ogygia
and his arrival and welcome in Phaecia are told in the third person with
outstanding objectivity. These Books provide a skillful transition to the
wonders that are to follow. The events are not yet marvelous. Odysseus shows
his physical prowess by swimming in a rough sea for two days and two nights
and his resourcefulness by winning the help of the Phaecian royal family. In
Books 9 to 12, the more extravagant actions are told by Odysseus himself. He
recounts those adventures in the two years between the fall of Troy and his
captivity on Calypso’s island. The reader is brought back to the present when
Odysseus reaches Ithaca in Book 13. He is disguised as a beggar and stays
with Eumaeus, a swineherd. His reunion with his son takes place in Book 16.
Now Homer moves through a series of recognitions, each separate and distinct
and marking a step forward. The climax is reached in Book 22, when
Odysseus reveals himself to the suitors and proceeds to slay them. The
outcome of Odysseus’ journey is wrapped up in the last two Books. Penelope
and Laertes accept him after initial doubts and the feud between the suitors’
kinsmen and Odysseus’ supporters is stopped by the gods. There is also
another view of the underworld, re-introducing characters from The Iliad. The
traditional plot has been elevated to an epic scale by the inclusion of this
larger canvas and the mention of other legends and stories outside Odysseus’
The major theme of this poem of action is stated in the Invocation to the
Muse. The Muse is asked to speak about the adventures of “the man of many
devices.” Since the hero of The Odyssey is not named at this stage, it indicates
that his story is a familiar one. It is true that Odysseus and the stories of his
adventures and final vengeance on the suitors are central to this epic poem, as
stated by the Muse, but The Odyssey is much more than a simple tale of
adventure. Odysseus’ character undergoes major changes through the
narrative. In the adventures with the Cicones, the Laestrygonians, and the
Cyclops, he is a typical Greek hero who is proud, even impatient, at times. By
the end, when disguised as a beggar at Ithaca, he has to restrain his anger and
patiently endure the impudent behavior of the suitors and the disloyal
servants. Throughout the poem he has been continually tested, and his trials
have taught him a lesson in humility and patience. In dealing with the suitors,
he is not as reckless as he was when he entered the cave of the giant,
Polyphemus. In the battle with the suitors, he is still not perfect, and Athene
chides him for his weakness and does not let him win too easily. Even at the
very end of the poem, the goddess intervenes against the proud Odysseus and
prevents him from striking the suitors’ kinsmen; the humbled Odysseus has no
choice but to obey. Homer, the poet of action, proves through this epic drama
that he also has great skill in developing characters. He gives meaningful
insight into the changes that occur in Odysseus through his adventures.
Odysseus’ growth and maturation is, therefore, an important theme of the epic.
Another very important theme of The Odyssey is the relationship that
Odysseus has to The Iliad. Nestor, Menelaus, and Helen relate episodes from
the Trojan War to his son Telemachus. Nestor recounts the tale of his return to
Pylos, whereas Menelaus tells of his own journey back to Sparta. Odysseus
himself goes to the Hall of Hades and meets some of the warriors he has
known during the Trojan fighting. He summons the ghosts with an offering of
blood. Among those who appear are Agamemnon, Achilles, and Ajax. The
parade of the ghosts of Troy provides a final curtain for great figures of The
Iliad and of the heroic age. Later, when the ghosts of the suitors are escorted
by Hermes to the land of the dead, they are also met by some of the heroes of
The Iliad, notably Achilles and Agamemnon. The contrast between the two
groups stresses what real heroes are and provides a final bow for the Iliadic
heroes. It is not without reason, therefore, that this epic has been considered a
sequel to The Iliad, for in The Odyssey the reader learns of the fate of the
Iliadic characters. Agamemnon’s cruel killing by Aegisthus especially
highlights the danger that Odysseus may face in his own return.
The supernatural elements in the epic constitute another distinct theme.
Foremost are the gods, who take part in the affairs of humans. Athene
especially plays a crucial role in assisting Odysseus throughout the poem. She
is there to aid in protect her hero in almost every adventure. Apart from the
role of the gods, the supernatural element takes the form of omens, signs, and
dreams. Telemachus and Peisistratus see an omen while leaving Sparta, and at
Ithaca nearly all the characters witness omens. Penelope also dreams symbolic
dreams. Both Circe and Tiresias prophesy, while Theoclymenus is a
soothsayer who whole purpose in the epic is to forecast events and interpret
signs. The last element of the supernatural is the role of fate. Many events take
place because they are ordained, and it is interesting to witness this larger
Telemachus’ growth is also fundamental to the work. At the beginning, he is
unhappy and helpless. His travels teach him to live and work like a hero, and,
on Odysseus’ return, he fulfills his duties as the son of a hero should. From a
helpless young man who breaks into tears at an assembly, he transforms into a
hero who nearly strings his father’s bow. Moreover, he appears ready to
compete with him in heroic capability. This development in his personality is
undoubtedly one of the themes of the poem.
The theme of endurance is also central to the epic. It is one of Odysseus’ chief
characteristics, but it is what marks Penelope and makes her special. Because
of her ability to endure, she knits the shroud by day and pulls out the stitches
by night, never finishing the garment because she does not want to reject or to
accept marriage. The first choice would endanger her son’s life and go against
her husband’s wishes, for he told her to remarry if he did not return; the
second choice would end her hope of reunion with her husband. It is this
steadfastness and loyalty to her husband’s memory that wins her praise from
Agamemnon’s soul. Throughout the epic her behavior is contrasted with that
of Clytemnestra, who caused her husband Agamemnon’s death. Odysseus, not
fully trusting women, is wary of Penelope’s behavior in his absence; but
Penelope proves to be loyal and enduring, and Odysseus need not fear her
treachery. Penelope’s endurance, accompanied by her chastity and courage,
makes her heroic in her own right and forms yet another theme of The
The suitors occupy more than half of the poem, and their degeneracy is one of
its themes. They are men of the younger generation who have not fought in
the Trojan War and who do not possess heroic traits; instead, they are island
chiefs and princes, who are impressed with themselves and who begin to woo
Penelope in the sixth year after the fall of Troy. They greedily use up her
property and vex her son Telemachus, who is too young to help. While
Penelope pines at home amidst her wasting possessions, the suitors spread
corruption in her household. They eat her food, sleep with her servants and
plot Telemachus’ death. They are depicted as truly despicable characters, a
total contrast to the brave and heroic Odysseus and the faithful Penelope.
Their punishment by Odysseus is well deserved and inevitable. The suitors’
ignominious deaths are the proper end to their squalid careers, and, in the end,
when their souls are in the Hall of Hades, their miserable qualities are
contrasted with the true heroism of the Iliadic heroes.
Circe and Calypso both belong to the ancient theme of the witch who detains
the hero’s return. The differences between the two are great. Circe is subdued
by the superior cunning and courage of Odysseus and, after admitting her
defeat, welcomes him into her home. Her devotion to him is complete.
Odysseus is with Circe for a year and then released without complaint. He is
with Calypso for eight years, and she lets him go graciously but unhappily.
There is nothing sinister about Calypso, while Circe possesses a sinister
glamour at the start. The adventure with Circe is exciting for its own sake and
appropriate to the hero on his wanderings. The sojourn with Calypso has
much charm and beauty, but lacks dramatic variety. It is needed to fill a gap of
time in the story, for Odysseus is to be away from home for twenty years. By
the time of his shipwreck and the loss of all his companions, only twelve years
have passed, and the remaining eight have to be accounted for. Homer does
this very cleverly by confining him to Calypso’s island, where nothing can be
heard of him and his fate remains a mystery.
The loyalty that Odysseus is capable of winning is another one of the themes
of the epic. Not only does he win the heart of the Phaecians at Scheria, who
help him to reach Ithaca, he is also helped in the slaughter of the suitors by his
faithful servants. Odysseus’ relationship with Eumaeus is distinctively
presented by Homer. The hero stays at the swineherd’s house, and they
converse a great deal. Later, the faithful Eumaeus plays a key role in the
slaying of the suitors. Aligned to Eumaeus is the cowherd Philoetius, who is
also loyal to Odysseus. Among the women servants, Eurycleia is the most
distinct. She had nursed Odysseus as a baby, and she recognizes him by his
scar. She is the only woman servant whom Odysseus trusts. She points out the
disloyal maidservants to Odysseus and nearly whoops with triumph when she
sees the dead suitors. All three, Eumaeus, Philoetius, and Eurycleia, represent
what Odysseus is capable of winning – love, respect, steadfastness, and
loyalty. Such loyal servants characteristically belong to an epic hero such as
Homer covers a wide range of human experiences in the poem and moves
easily among them, from the heroic and bold to the domestic and serene. He
would not have maintained his wonderful directness of approach if he had not
sung to a listening audience and felt himself bound to make everything
beautifully clear. In exploiting a wider range of themes than other heroic
poets, he may have been helped by the antiquity and wealth of the Greek
poetical tradition, which accumulated stories over a long period and reflected
In The Odyssey, Homer invites his audience to share the emotions at work and
enter into the spirit of the characters. He does this by concentrating on a single
mood at a time, which allows him to maintain a simplicity of poetic effect.
Every episode has, on the whole, a single character, but once it is finished, the
reader may expect something quite different in the next. When Odysseus
strings the bow, the reader is held in tense expectation, but the whole situation
moves forward with increasing excitement as he first shoots an arrow down
the line of the axes and then throws off his rags and announces his new task of
vengeance. The tone is suddenly changed and then maintained for the new
action. More exciting, but equally well maintained, is the small episode in
which Odysseus is attacked by the dogs and rescued by the swineherd. The
different elements are fused into a single whole that has a character different
both from what precedes and from what succeeds it.
The straightforward, direct movement of the narrative is enhanced by Homer’s
eye for detail and his small touches that throw a vivid light on what happens.
One such touch occurs when Menelaus tells how Helen walked around the
wooden horse at Troy and addressed the Achaean leaders by imitating the
voices of their wives. The reader can believe this of Helen, but the event is
told of so simply that the reader does not realize immediately how
illuminating it is. Another small touch, tragic, but deeply touching, is that of
the dog Argus, who recognizes Odysseus after twenty years and then dies.
Although he has suffered, his death is the appropriate end at the right time. In
such cases, a detail adds something highly individual and yet illuminating.
Such details are more effective when they strengthen some display of emotion
or affection. They are as necessary to the heroic outlook as any kind of
physical prowess, for they provide the hero with a solid background and bind