The Odyssey by Homer.

1853 edition.
When I first read the Odyssey in 2011 I'd not long started reading classics and I'd not yet read an epic, and so, unsurprisingly, I found the experience rather difficult. The second time around (and I've been meaning to do since probably 2012!) I did get on a lot better with it. It's a dense read, but very enjoyable and consequently very satisfying! I wouldn't say I was confident with it (I'm hoping just by writing this post that I'll pull my thoughts together a bit better), but I do have a lot of affection for it now.

It's estimated that Homer composed the Odyssey (Ὀδύσσεια) in the 8th Century B.C. It's an epic poem divided into 24 books of varying lengths and it tells the story of Odysseus (whose Latin name is Ulysses) returning from the Trojan War (which is the subject of Homer's Iliad), so is set during the Bronze Age (around 1260–1180 B.C.). By the time the Odyssey begins, Troy had fell some ten years ago and Odysseus still has not returned home.

The Odyssey begins,
Sing to me of the man, Muse, the man of twists and turns
driven time and again off course, once he had plundered
the hallow heights of Troy.
Many cities of men he saw and learned their minds,
many pains he suffered, heartsick on the open sea,
fighting to save his life and bring his comrades home.
But he could not save them from disaster, hard as he strove -
the recklessness of their own ways destroyed them all,
the blind fools, they devoured the cattle of the Sun
and the Sungod blotted out the day of their return.
Launch out on his story, Muse, daughter of Zeus,
start from where you will - song of our time too.
[Robert Fagles' translation, 1996]
His palace is now overrun with a mob of suitors for his wife Penelope and his son Telemachus is young and experienced and unable to rid of them. Athena, goddess of wisdom and courage, wishes to intervene, telling Zeus,
... my heart breaks for Odysseus,
that seasoned veteran cursed by fate for so long -
far from his loved ones still, he suffers torments
off on a wave-washed island rising at the centre of the seas.
A dark wooded island, and there is a goddess makes her home,
daughter of Atlas, wicked Titan who sounds the deep
in all its depths, whose shoulders lift on high
the colossal pillars thrusting earth and sky apart.
Atlas' daughter it is who holds Odysseus captive,
luckless man - despite his tears, forever trying
to spellbind his heart with suave, seductive words
and wipe all thought of Ithaca from his mind.
But he, straining for no more than a glimpse
of hearth-smoke drifting from his own land,
Odysseus longs to die...
Zeus replies, telling of how Poseidon is angry with Odysseus for blinding his son Polyphemus (the Cyclops), however he consents with Athena's wish and she travels to Ithaca (disguised) to inspire Telemachus. He orders the suitors to leave and plans to find his father. Penelope meanwhile is in a deep depression, missing her husband and continuously harassed by suitors. She promises she will make a decision on who to marry when she has finished weaving a shroud, however each night she unpicks what she has weaved so that her task will never be finished.

Penelope and the Suitors by John William Waterhouse (1912).
For the first four books of the Odyssey we see Telemachus' attempts to find his father. Accompanied by Athena (disguised as Mentor) he speaks with Nestor, who only knows that Odysseus remained with Agamemnon (who had fallen out with his brother Menelaus, with whom Nestor travelled). He then relays a short history of Agamemnon hoping to inspire Telemachus. It is decided that Telemachus must travel to Sparta, and he will be joined by Nestor's son Pisistratus.

In Sparta they are met by Menelaus and Helen, the king and queen, and the two tell of their experiences with Odysseus during the Trojan War. He learns that his father is alive and is a prisoner of Calypso. Meanwhile, back in Ithaca, the suitors plan to ambush Telemachus on his return. Penelope is distraught but reassured by Athena (again in disguise).

Book V begins with the council of the gods (with the exception of Poseidon). Athena tells Zeus of what has happened, that she fears for the lives of Odysseus and Telemachus. Zeus reassures her and,
With those words, Zeus turned to his own son Hermes.
"You are our messenger, Hermes, sent on all our missions.
Announce to the nymph with lovely braids our fixed decree:
Odysseus journeys home - the exile must return.
But not in the convoy of the gods, or mortal men.
No, on a lashed, makeshift raft and wrung with pains,
on the twentieth day he will make his landfall, fertile Scheria,
the land of Phaeacians, close kin to the gods themselves,
who with all their hearts will prize him like a god
and send him off in a ship to his own beloved land,
giving him bronze and hoards of gold and robes -
more plunder than he could ever have won from Troy
if Odysseus had returned intact with his fair share.
So his destiny ordains. He shall see his loved ones,
reach his high-roofed house, his native land at last."
Calypso is ordered to release Odysseus and, as ordained by Zeus, he leaves on a make-shift boat (his own ship having already been destroyed). After many days at sea he spots Scheria, however he is seen by Poseidon who causes a storm that would kill him were it not for the help of Ino and Athena. He finally lands and is helped by Nausicaa (inspired by Athena), who advises him to meet Arete, queen of the Phaeacians. Scheria, however, is not noted for its hospitality of strangers and so Odysseus must travel to the palace protected in mist. He arrives to discover a feast is being held in honour of Poseidon so he conceals his identity. At the feast he tells of how he escaped Calypso and how their daughter Nausicaa helped him reach the palace.

It is not until Book IX that he reveals his true identity and tells his story. In this he tells of how he left Troy and, having ransacked Ismarus, the city of the Cicones, however the Cicones defend themselves and they escape, driven by the wind to the land of the lotus-eaters, in which sailors who drink from the lotus become intoxicated and lose the desire to return home. Once more they must escape, and they find themselves in the land of the Cyclopes - here we learn of how Odysseus defeats and blinds Polyphemus, son of Poseidon.

Ulysses Deriding Polyphemus by J. M. W. Turner (1829)
From here they sail to the home of Aeolus, keepers of the winds. There,
He [Aeolus] gave me a sack, the skin of a full-grown ox,
binding inside the winds that howl from every quarter,
for Zeus had made that king the master of all winds,
with power to calm them down or rouse them as he pleased.
Aeolus stowed the sack inside my holds, lashed so fast with a burnished silver cord
not even a slight puff could slip past that knot.
Yet he set the West Wind free to blow us on our way
and waft our squadron home. But his plan was bound to fail,
yes, our own reckless folly swept us to ruin...
He speaks of the suspicion and jealousy that ran through the soldiers - they believed Odysseus was given treasures so they tear the bag open and unleash a storm that drives them back to Aeolus. This time he refuses to help them and they are row to Laestrygonians, the land of the giants who kill and eat many of Odysseus' crew. Only Odysseus' ship is left, and it heads to Aeaea, home of Circe, a sorceress who turns his men into pigs. Hermes protects Odysseus when Circe tries to drug him - she offers him a cup of poison and he takes it, then overpowers her and forces her to undo her spell and turn his crew back into human form. 

Circe Offering the Cup to Ulyssesby John William Waterhouse (1891).
For a year they stay at Aeaea living in luxury until the crew persuade him to continue the journey back to Ithaca. Circe tells him he must travel to Hades, the underworld, to see the blind prophet Tiresias who will tell them the way home. She then instructs him on how to reach Hades. During this time one of Odysseus' soldiers, Elpenor, is killed and he appears to Odysseus during a ritual and asks him to give him a proper burial. Tiresias then appears and tells him he will return to Ithica, and that he has a battle to do there with Penelope's suitors, and that he must appease Poseidon. He meets other souls of the dead in a scene not unlike Dante's Divine Comedy.

Ulysses and the Sirens by John William Waterhouse (1891).
His task complete he returns to Circe who then tells him of this difficulties he faces returning home. He leaves, and first encounters sirens, then he navigates Scylla the monster and Charybdis and whirlpool, and then arrives at Thrinacia, the island of the Sun. Having been warned by Tiresias he wishes to avoid it entirely but his crew are exhausted. They stay for a month, trapped by a storm, and the crew run out of provisions so they decide to kill the Cattle of the Sun. Furious, the god of the sun, Hyperion, asks Zeus to punish them all, so Zeus sends another storm which kills every member of the crew except Odysseus who is swept back to Charybdis. He manages to escape and he lands on Calypso's island.

And here we are effectively brought up to date. Odysseus makes his plans to leave Scheria and he is helped, however Poseidon finds out and is furious at the Phaeacians for helping him. They are punished, though Odysseus does manage to return to Ithaca. Athena goes in search of Telemachus and Pisistratus to tell them of Odysseus' return. There is, as was told earlier, a plot hatched by the suitors to ambush Telemachus and Odysseus, and when father and son are reunited at last, they plot to kill the suitors. A great battle takes place after much preparation as Odysseus and Telemachus spend time with the suitors and essentially come to know their enemy. Odysseus eventually reveals himself to Penelope who, for a time cannot believe he has truly come home.

Eventually the suitors are defeated by Odysseus' bow and arrow (the history of the bow is told in Book XXI). Penelope finally accepts that it is truly him, and Hermes summons the souls of the suitors and leads them to Hades. Odysseus then travels to see his father Laertes to tell him of his return. Eupeithes, father of Antinous, one of the suitors seeks revenge for the death of his son. Laertes kills him, but in order to stop any further bloodshed Athena intervenes:
Athena breathed enormous strength in the old man.
He lifted a prayer to mighty Zeus's daughter,
brandished his spear a moment, winged it fast
and hit Eupithes, pierced his bronze-sided helmet
that failed to block the bronze point tearing through -
down Eupithes crased, his armor clanging against his chest.
Odysseus and his gallant son charged straight at the front lines,
slashing away with swords, with two-edged spears and now
they would have killed them all, cut them off from home
if Athena, daughter of storming Zeus, had not cried out
in a piercing voice that stopped all fighters cold,
"Hold back, you men of Ithaca, back from brutal war!
Break off - shed no more blood - make peace at once!"
They obey, peace is restored, and there ends the Odyssey.

It is one of the great epics ever written, all about fame and glory, honour and strength, and not least perseverance. It contains many lessons on, for example, avoiding temptation, knowing one's enemies, and using one's head when engaging in battle. It has gone to influence countless other writers from the time it was composed to the present day: this far-reaching influence is an important reason I think to read the Odyssey, but though dense, it is above all else a greatly entertaining and gripping read. I'm so glad I've finally re-read it and come to love it!

Further Reading 


  1. There are some great moments in The Odyssey...I first read it in high school, and liked the parts with the cyclops and Scylla and Charybdis...but when I read it again last summer I found I was not as sympathetic for Odysseus; in fact, I didn't really like him. He certainly wasn't as faithful to his wife as she was to him. But it is an epic adventure, isn't it?

    1. On the whole I think I did like Odysseus, but you're right about him compared with Penelope, I was a little disappointed! But yes, it's an epic adventure not a romance :)

  2. There is a great tradition of disliking Odysseus. Euripides absolutely loathes Odysseus.

    1. I don't think Sophocles was too keen either - I just read Philoctetes - Odysseus doesn't come out too well in that one...


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