The Odyssey is the second of the two great Greek epic poems ascribed to Homer, the first of which is the Iliad.
The 11,300 line poem follows Odysseus, king of Ithaca, on his voyage home after an heroic turn in the Trojan War. It also tells the story of Odysseus' wife Penelope who struggles to remain faithful, and his son Telemachus who sets out to find his father. In contrast to the Iliad, with its extended sequences of battle and violence, all three are ultimately successful through use of cleverness, and the support of the goddess Athena. This cleverness is most often manifested by Odysseus' use of disguise and, later, recognition. His disguises take forms both physical (altering his appearance) and verbal (telling the Cyclops Polyphemus that his name is "Nobody" then escaping after blinding the Cyclops because Polyphemus cries foul at the hands of "nobody").
The poem is considered one of the foundational texts of the Western canon and continues to be read in both Homeric Greek and translations around the world. While today's Odyssey is usually a printed text, the original poem was an oral composition sung by a trained bard, in an amalgamated Ancient Greek dialect, using a regular metrical pattern called dactylic hexameter.
Each line of the original Greek was composed of six feet; each foot a dactyl or a spondee. Among the most impressive elements of the text are its strikingly modern non-linear plot, and its elevation of the status of women and the lower classes. In the English language as well as many others, the word odyssey has come to refer to an epic voyage.
Today's Odyssey consists of twenty-four books, or chapters. The first four books, known as the Telemachy, trace Telemachus' efforts to maintain control of the palace in the face of suitors who would have his inheritance, and his mother Penelope's hand in marriage.
Failing that, he sets off to find his father. In book 5, we find Odysseus near the end of his journey, a not entirely unwilling captive of the beautiful nymph Calypso, with whom he's spent 7 of his 10 lost years. Released from her wiles by the intercession of his patroness Athena and her father Zeus, he departs. His raft is destroyed by his nemesis Poseidon, who is angry because Odysseus blinded his son, Polyphemos. When Odysseus washes up on Scheria, home to the Phaeacians, the naked stranger is treated with traditional Greek hospitality even before he reveals his name.
Odysseus satisfies the Phaeacians' curiosity, telling them - and us - of all his adventures since departing from Troy. This renowned, extended "flashback" leads him back to where he stands, his tale told. The shipbuilding Phaeacians finally loan him a ship to return to Ithaca, where, home at last, he regains his throne, reunites with his son, metes out justice to the suitors, and reunites with his faithful wife Penelope.
"Oh Goddess of Inspiration, help me sing of wily Odysseus, that master of schemes!" So Homer begins his epic, though the hero himself is still offstage. We are treated to a glimpse of life among the supreme gods on Mount Olympus. Urged on by Athena, the goddess of war, they decide that Odysseus has been marooned too long on the island of the nymph Calypso. Athena also decides to pay a visit to Telemachus who is Odysseus's son.
Meanwhile, the mansion of Odysseus is infested with suitors for the hand of his wife Penelope. Everyone assumes Odysseus is dead. Encouraged by Athena who arrives in the form of Mentes, Telemachus calls an assembly to ask for help. He breaks down and cries and is pushed off the platform by Athena. Antinous mocks Telemachus. He issues and ultimatum to Telemachus: "Either you force your mother to marry a suitor, or we ruin your house." Telemachus refuses to comply. Zeus sends an omen of the suitors' doom. Two eagles swoop down, tearing each other's throats and necks with their talons. The suitors mock Halitherses, who makes the prophecy. Afterwards, Telemachus, accompanied by Athena, sets sail for Pylos to seek news of his father.
Telemachus travels to Pylos to consult Nestor, accompanied by Athena, who is disguised as Mentor, a man from Ithaca. When they arrive at the shore of Pylos, they find Nestor and the men of Pylos performing sacrifices to Poseidon. Nestor tells what he knows of the Greeks' return from Troy: "It started out badly because of Athena's anger. Half the army, your father included, stayed behind at Troy to try to appease her. The rest of us made it home safely--all except Menelaus, who was blown off course to Egypt, where he remained for seven years. Seek advice from Menelaus. I'll lend you a chariot to travel to his kingdom." Athena flies away in the form of an eagle. The very next morning, Nestor performs a sacrifice to Athena and Telemachus is borne away, accompanied by Nestor's son.
Menelaus tells what he learned of Odysseus while stranded in Egypt after the war. He was advised by a goddess to disguise himself and three members of his crew in seal pelts and then pounce on the Old Man of the Sea. If they could hold him down while he transformed himself into various animals and shapes, he would send them on their homeward way and give news of their companions. Menelaus did as instructed and was informed that Odysseus was presently being held against his will by the nymph Calypso.
Zeus, the King of the Gods, sends his messenger Hermes skimming over the waves on magic sandals to Calypso's island. She promises Odysseus immortality, but he refuses. At last all fails. Though the nymph isn't happy about it, she agrees to let Odysseus go. But the raft on which he sets sail is destroyed by his enemy, the god Poseidon, who lashes the sea into a storm with his trident. Odysseus barely escapes with his life and washes ashore days later, half-drowned. He staggers into an olive thicket and falls asleep.
Odysseus wakes up to the sound of maidens laughing. Princess Nausicaa of the Phaeacians has come down to the riverside to wash some clothes because Athena came to her in a dream and instructed her to do so. Now she and her handmaids are frolicking after the chore. Odysseus approaches as a supplicant, and Nausicaa is kind enough to instruct him how to get the king's help in returning to his home.
Odysseus stops on the palace threshold, utterly dazzled. The very walls are covered in shining bronze and trimmed with lapis lazuli. The blacksmith god Hephaestus has even provided two brazen hounds to guard the queen. Odysseus puts his case to her as a suppliant. The king knows better than to refuse hospitality to a decent petitioner. He invites Odysseus to the banquet which is in progress and promises him safe passage home after he has been suitably entertained.
The next day is declared a holiday in honor of the guest, whose name the king still does not know. An athletic competition is held, with foot races, wrestling and the discus. Odysseus is invited to join in but begs off, prompting someone to suggest that he lacks the skills. Angered, he takes up a discus and throws it with such violence that everyone drops to the ground. That night at a banquet, as the court bard entertains with songs of the Trojan War, Odysseus is heard sobbing. "Enough!" shouts the king. "Our friend finds this song displeasing. Won't you tell us your name, stranger, and where you hail from?"
"My name is Odysseus of Ithaca, and here is my tale since setting out from Troy. We sacked a city called Ísmaros first off, but then reinforcements arrived and we lost many comrades. Next we visited the Lotus Eaters, and three of my crew tasted this strange plant. They lost all desire to return home and had to be carried off by force. On another island we investigated a cave full of goat pens. The herdsman turned out to be as big as a barn, with a single glaring eye in his forehead. This Cyclops promptly ate two of my men for dinner. We were trapped in the cave by a boulder in the doorway that only the Cyclops could budge, so we couldn't kill him while he slept. Instead we sharpened a pole and used it to gouge out his eye. We escaped his groping by clinging to the undersides of his goats."
"Next we met the Keeper of the Winds, who sent us on our way with a steady breeze. He'd given me a leather bag, which my crew mistook for booty. They opened it and released a hurricane that blew us back to where we'd started. We ended up among the Laestrygonians, giants who bombarded our fleet with boulders and gobbled down our shipmates. The few survivors put in at the island of the enchantress Circe. My men were entertained by her and then, with a wave of her wand, turned into swine. Hermes the god gave me an herb, called moly, that protected me. Circe told me that to get home I must travel to the land of Death."
"At sea once more we had to pass the Sirens, whose sweet singing lures sailors to their doom. I had stopped up the ears of my crew with wax, and I alone listened while lashed to the mast, powerless to steer toward shipwreck. Next came Charybdis, who swallows the sea in a whirlpool, then spits it up again. Avoiding this we skirted the cliff where Scylla exacts her toll. Each of her six slavering maws grabbed a sailor and wolfed him down. Finally we were becalmed on the island of the Sun. My men disregarded all warnings and sacrificed his cattle, so back at sea Zeus sent a thunderbolt that smashed the ship. I alone survived, washing up on the island of Calypso."
When Odysseus had finished his tale, the king ordered him sped to Ithaca. The sailors put him down on the beach asleep. Athena cast a protective mist about him that kept him from recognizing his homeland. Finally the goddess revealed herself and dispelled the mist. In joy Odysseus kissed the ground. Athena transformed him into an old man as a disguise. Clad in a filthy tunic, he went off to find his faithful swineherd, as instructed by the goddess.
Eumaeus the swineherd welcomed the bedraggled stranger. He throws his own bedcover over a pile of boughs as a seat for Odysseus, who does not reveal his identity. Observing Zeus's commandment to be kind to guests, Eumaeus slaughters a prime boar and serves it with bread and wine. Odysseus, true to his fame as a smooth-talking schemer, makes up an elaborate story of his origins. That night the hero sleeps by the fire under the swineherd's spare cloak, while Eumaeus himself sleeps outside in the rain with his herd.
Athena summons Telemachus home and tells him how to avoid an ambush by Penelope's suitors. Meanwhile back on Ithaca, Odysseus listens while Eumaeus recounts the story of his life. He was the child of a prosperous mainland king, whose realm was visited by Phoenician traders. His nursemaid, a Phoenician herself, had been carried off by pirates as a girl and sold into slavery. In return for homeward passage with her countrymen, she kidnapped Eumaeus. He was bought by Odysseus' father, whose queen raised him as a member of the family.
Telemachus evades the suitors' ambush. Following Athena's instructions, he proceeds to the farmstead of Eumaeus. There he makes the acquaintance of the tattered guest and sends Eumaeus to his mother to announce his safe return. Athena restores Odysseus' normal appearance, enchanting it so that Telemachus takes him for a god. "No god am I," Odysseus assures him, "but your own father, returned after these twenty years." They fall into each other's arms. Later they plot the suitors' doom. Concerned that the odds are fifty-to-one, Telemachus suggests that they might need reinforcements. "Aren't Zeus and Athena reinforcement enough?" asks Odysseus.
Disguised once more as an old beggar, Odysseus journeys to town. On the trail he encounters an insolent goatherd named Melantheus, who curses and tries to kick him. At his castle gate, the hero is recognized by a decrepit dog that he raised as a pup. Having seen his master again, the old hound dies. At Athena's urging Odysseus begs food from the suitors. One man, Antinous, berates him and refuses so much as a crust. He even hurls his footstool at Odysseus, hitting him in the back. This makes even the other suitors nervous, for sometimes the gods masquerade as mortals to test their righteousness.Book 18Now a real beggar shows up at the palace and warns Odysseus off his turf. This man, Irus, is always running errands for the suitors. Odysseus says that there are pickings enough for the two of them, but Irus threatens fisticuffs and the suitors egg him on. Odysseus rises to the challenge and rolls up his tunic into a boxer's belt. The suitors goggle at the muscles revealed. Not wishing to kill Irus with a single blow, Odysseus breaks his jaw instead. Another suitor, Eurymachus, marks himself for revenge by trying to hit Odysseus with a footstool as Antinous had done.
Odysseus has a long talk with his queen Penelope but does not reveal his identity. Penelope takes kindly to the stranger and orders her maid Eurycleia to bathe his feet and anoint them with oil. Eurycleia, who was Odysseus' nurse when he was a child, notices a scar above the hero's knee. Odysseus had been gored by a wild boar when hunting on Mount Parnassus as a young man. The maid recognizes her master at once, and her hand goes out to his chin. But Odysseus silences her lest she give away his plot prematurely.
The next morning Odysseus asks for a sign, and Zeus sends a clap of thunder out of the clear blue sky. A servant recognizes it as a portent and prays that this day be the last of the suitors' abuse. Odysseus encounters another herdsman. Like the swineherd Eumaeus, this man, who tends the realm's cattle, swears his loyalty to the absent king. A prophet, an exiled murderer whom Telemachus has befriended, shares a vision with the suitors: "I see the walls of this mansion dripping with your blood." The suitors respond with gales of laughter.
Penelope now appears before the suitors in her glittering veil. In her hand is a stout bow left behind by Odysseus when he sailed for Troy. "Whoever strings this bow," she says, "and sends an arrow straight through the sockets of twelve ax heads lined in a row--that man will I marry." The suitors take turns trying to bend the bow to string it, but all of them lack the strength. Odysseus asks if he might try. The suitors refuse, fearing that they'll be shamed if the beggar succeeds. But Telemachus insists and his anger distracts them into laughter. As easily as a bard fitting a new string to his lyre, Odysseus strings the bow and sends an arrow through the ax heads. At a sign from his father, Telemachus arms himself and takes up a station by his side.
Antinous, ringleader of the suitors, is just lifting a drinking cup when Odysseus puts an arrow through his throat. The goatherd sneaks out and comes back with shields and spears for the suitors, but now Athena appears. She sends the suitors' spearthrusts wide, as Odysseus, Telemachus and the two faithful herdsmen strike with volley after volley of lances. They finish off the work with swords. Those of the housemaids who consorted with the suitors are hung by the neck in the courtyard, while the treacherous goatherd is chopped to bits.
The mansion is purged with fire and brimstone. Odysseus tells everyone to dress in their finest and dance, so that passers-by won't suspect what's happened. Even Odysseus could not hold vengeful kinfolk at bay. Penelope still won't accept that it's truly her husband without some secret sign. She tells a servant to make up his bed in the hall. "Who had the craft to move my bed?" storms Odysseus. "I carved the bedpost myself from the living trunk of an olive tree and built the bedroom around it." Penelope rushes into his arms.
The next morning Odysseus goes upcountry to the vineyard where his father, old King Laertes, labors like a peasant. Meanwhile, the kin of the suitors have gathered at the assembly ground, where the father of the suitor Antinous fires them up for revenge. Odysseus, his father, and Telemachus meet the challenge. Laertes casts a lance through the helmet of Antinous' father, who falls to the ground in a clatter of armor. But the fighting stops right there. Athena tells the contending parties to live together in peace down through the years to come.
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