Odysseus - The protagonist of the Odyssey. Odysseus fought among the other Greek heroes at Troy and now struggles to return to his kingdom in Ithaca. Odysseus is the husband of Queen Penelope and the father of Prince Telemachus. Though a strong and courageous warrior, he is most renowned for his cunning. He is a favorite of the goddess Athena, who often sends him divine aid, but a bitter enemy of Poseidon, who frustrates his journey at every turn.
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Telemachus - Odysseus's son. An infant when Odysseus left for Troy, Telemachus is about twenty at the beginning of the story. He is a natural obstacle to the suitors desperately courting his mother, but despite his courage and good heart, he initially lacks the poise and confidence to oppose them. His maturation, especially during his trip to Pylos and Sparta in Books 3 and 4, provides a subplot to the epic. Athena often assists him.
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Penelope - Wife of Odysseus and mother of Telemachus. Penelope spends her days in the palace pining for the husband who left for Troy twenty years earlier and never returned. Homer portrays her as sometimes flighty and excitable but also clever and steadfastly true to her husband.
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Athena - Daughter of Zeus and goddess of wisdom, purposeful battle, and the womanly arts. Athena assists Odysseus and Telemachus with divine powers throughout the epic, and she speaks up for them in the councils of the gods on Mount Olympus. She often appears in disguise as Mentor, an old friend of Odysseus.
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Poseidon - God of the sea. As the suitors are Odysseus's mortal antagonists, Poseidon is his divine antagonist. He despises Odysseus for blinding his son, the Cyclops Polyphemus, and constantly hampers his journey home. Ironically, Poseidon is the patron of the seafaring Phaeacians, who ultimately help to return Odysseus to Ithaca.
Zeus - King of gods and men, who mediates the disputes of the gods on Mount Olympus. Zeus is occasionally depicted as weighing men's fates in his scales. He sometimes helps Odysseus or permits Athena to do the same.
Antinous - The most arrogant of Penelope's suitors. Antinous leads the campaign to have Telemachus killed. Unlike the other suitors, he is never portrayed sympathetically, and he is the first to die when Odysseus returns.
Eurymachus - A manipulative, deceitful suitor. Eurymachus's charisma and duplicity allow him to exert some influence over the other suitors.
Amphinomus - Among the dozens of suitors, the only decent man seeking Penelope's hand in marriage. Amphinomus sometimes speaks up for Odysseus and Telemachus, but he is killed like the rest of the suitors in the final fight.
Eumaeus - The loyal shepherd who, along with the cowherd Philoetius, helps Odysseus reclaim his throne after his return to Ithaca. Even though he does not know that the vagabond who appears at his hut is Odysseus, Eumaeus gives the man food and shelter.
Eurycleia - The aged and loyal servant who nursed Odysseus and Telemachus when they were babies. Eurycleia is well informed about palace intrigues and serves as confidante to her masters. She keeps Telemachus's journey secret from Penelope, and she later keeps Odysseus's identity a secret after she recognizes a scar on his leg.
Melanthius - The brother of Melantho. Melanthius is a treacherous and opportunistic goatherd who supports the suitors, especially Eurymachus, and abuses the beggar who appears in Odysseus's palace, not realizing that the man is Odysseus himself.
Melantho - Sister of Melanthius and maidservant in Odysseus's palace. Like her brother, Melantho abuses the beggar in the palace, not knowing that the man is Odysseus. She is having an affair with Eurymachus.
Calypso - The beautiful nymph who falls in love with Odysseus when he lands on her island-home of Ogygia. Calypso holds him prisoner there for seven years until Hermes, the messenger god, persuades her to let him go.
Polyphemus - One of the Cyclopes (uncivilized one-eyed giants) whose island Odysseus comes to soon after leaving Troy. Polyphemus imprisons Odysseus and his crew and tries to eat them, but Odysseus blinds him through a clever ruse and manages to escape. In doing so, however, Odysseus angers Polyphemus's father, Poseidon.
Circe - The beautiful witch-goddess who transforms Odysseus's crew into swine when he lands on her island. With Hermes' help, Odysseus resists Circe's powers and then becomes her lover, living in luxury at her side for a year.
Laertes - Odysseus's aging father, who resides on a farm in Ithaca. In despair and physical decline, Laertes regains his spirit when Odysseus returns and eventually kills Antinous's father.
Tiresias - A Theban prophet who inhabits the underworld. Tiresias meets Odysseus when Odysseus journeys to the underworld in Book 11. He shows Odysseus how to get back to Ithaca and allows Odysseus to communicate with the other souls in Hades.
Nestor - King of Pylos and a former warrior in the Trojan War. Like Odysseus, Nestor is known for being a clever speaker. Telemachus visits him in Book 3 to ask about his father, but Nestor has little information on Odysseus's whereabouts.
Menelaus - King of Sparta and brother of Agamemnon, he helped lead the Greek forces in the Trojan War. Menelaus is the husband of Helen. He offers Telemachus assistance in his quest to find Odysseus when Telemachus visits him in Book 4.
Helen - Wife of Menelaus and queen of Sparta. Helen's abduction from Sparta by the Trojans sparked the Trojan War. Her beauty is without parallel, but she is sometimes criticized for giving in to her Trojan captors and thereby costing many Greek men their lives. She offers Telemachus assistance in his quest to find his father.
Agamemnon - Former king of Mycenae, brother of Menelaus, and commander of the Achaean forces at Troy. Odysseus encounters Agamemnon's spirit in Hades. Agamemnon was murdered by his wife, Clytemnestra, and her lover, Aegisthus, upon returning from the war. He was later avenged by his son Orestes. The story of their fate is constantly repeated in the Odyssey and offers an inverted image of the fortunes of Odysseus and Telemachus.
Nausicaa - The beautiful daughter of King Alcinous and Queen Arete of the Phaeacians. Nausicaa discovers Odysseus on the beach at Scheria and, out of budding affection for him, ensures his warm reception at her parents' palace.
Alcinous - King of the Phaeacians, who offers Odysseus hospitality in his island kingdom of Scheria. Alcinous hears the story of Odysseus's wanderings and provides him with safe passage back to Ithaca.
Arete - Queen of the Phaeacians, wife of Alcinous, and mother of Nausicaa. Arete is intelligent and influential. Nausicaa tells Odysseus to make his appeal for assistance to Arete.
Analysis of Major Characters
Odysseus - Odysseus has the defining character traits of a Homeric leader: strength, courage, nobility, a thirst for glory, and confidence in his authority. His most distinguishing trait, however, is his sharp intellect. Odysseus's quick thinking helps him out of some very tough situations, as when he escapes from the cave of the Cyclops in Book 9, or when he hides his slaughter of the suitors by having his minstrel strike up a wedding tune in Book 23. He is also a convincing, articulate speaker and can win over or manipulate his audience with ease. When he first addresses Nausicaa on the island of Scheria, for example, his suave, comforting approach quickly wins her trust.
Like other Homeric heroes, Odysseus longs to win kleos ("glory" won through great deeds), but he also wishes to complete his nostos ("homecoming"). He enjoys his luxurious life with Circe in an exotic land, but only to a point. Eventually, he wants to return home, even though he admits that his wife cannot compare with Circe. He thinks of home throughout the time he spends with the Phaeacians and also while on Calypso's island. Sometimes his glory-seeking gets in the way of his home-seeking, however. He sacks the land of the Cicones but loses men and time in the process. He waits too long in the cave of Polyphemus, enjoying the free milk and cheese he finds, and is trapped there when the Cyclops returns.
Homeric characters are generally static. Though they may be very complex and realistic, they do not change over the course of the work as characters in modern novels and stories do. Odysseus and especially Telemachus break this rule. Early in his adventures, Odysseus's love of glory prompts him to reveal his identity to the Cyclops and bring Poseidon's wrath down on him. By the end of the epic, he seems much more willing to temper pride with patience. Disguised as a beggar, he does not immediately react to the abuse he receives from the suitors. Instead, he endures it until the traps he has set and the loyalties he has secured put him in a position from which he can strike back effectively.
Telemachus - Just an infant when his father left for Troy, Telemachus is still maturing when the Odyssey begins. He is wholly devoted to his mother and to maintaining his father's estate, but he does not know how to protect them from the suitors. After all, it has only been a few years since he first realized what the suitors' intentions were. His meeting with Athena in Book 1 changes things. Aside from improving his stature and bearing, she teaches him the responsibilities of a young prince. He soon becomes more assertive. He confronts the suitors and denounces the abuse of his estate, and when Penelope and Eurycleia become anxious or upset, he does not shy away from taking control.
Telemachus never fully matches his father's talents, at least not by the Odyssey's conclusion. He has a stout heart and an active mind, and sometimes even a bit of a temper, but he never schemes with the same skill or speaks with quite the same fluency as Odysseus. In Book 22, he accidentally leaves a weapons storeroom unlocked, a careless mistake that allows the suitors to arm themselves. While Odysseus does make a few mistakes in judgment over the course of the epic, it is difficult to imagine him making such an absentminded blunder. Telemachus has not yet inherited his father's brassy pride either. The scene with the bow captures the endpoint of his development perfectly. He tries and tries to string it, and very nearly does, but not quite. He walks away feeling disappointment and exasperation, but shows no signs of the rage or wounded pride that Odysseus would likely have felt under similar circumstances.
Penelope - Though she has not seen Odysseus in twenty years, and despite pressure the suitors place on her to remarry, Penelope never loses faith in her husband. Her cares make her somewhat flighty and excitable, however. For this reason, Odysseus, Telemachus, and Athena often prefer to leave her in the dark about matters rather than upset her. Athena must distract her, for instance, so that she does not discover Odysseus's identity when Eurycleia is washing him. Athena often comes to her in dreams to reassure or comfort her, for Penelope would otherwise spend her nights weeping in her bed.
Though her love for Odysseus is unyielding, she responds to the suitors with some indecision. She never refuses to remarry outright. Instead, she puts off her decision and leads them on with promises that she will choose a new husband as soon as certain things happen. Her astute delaying tactics reveal her sly and artful side. The notion of not remarrying until she completes a burial shroud that she will never complete cleverly buys her time. Similarly, some commentators claim that her decision to marry whomever wins the archery contest of Book 21 results from her awareness that only her husband can win it. Some even claim that she recognizes her husband before she admits it to him in Book 23.
Athena - As goddess of wisdom and battle, Athena naturally has a soft spot for the brave and wily Odysseus. She helps him out of many tough situations, including his shipwreck in Book 5 and the mismatched battle of Book 22. She does not merely impart sense and safety to her passive charge, however. She takes an interest in Odysseus for the talents he already has and actively demonstrates. Although she reassures Odysseus during the battle with the suitors, she does not become fully involved, preferring instead to watch Odysseus fight and prevail on his own.
She also often helps Telemachus—as when she sends him off to Pylos and Sparta to earn a name for himself—but she has the most affection for Odysseus. Athena is confident, practical, clever, a master of disguises, and a great warrior, characteristics she finds reflected in Telemachus. Her role as goddess of the womanly arts gets very little attention in the Odyssey. Penelope works at the loom all the time but rarely sees Athena, and then usually only in dreams.
Themes, Motifs, and Symbols
Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
The Power of Cunning over Strength - If the Iliad is about strength, the Odyssey is about cunning, a difference that becomes apparent in the very first lines of the epics. Whereas the Iliad tells the story of the rage of Achilles, the strongest hero in the Greek army, the Odyssey focuses on a "man of twists and turns" (1.1). Odysseus does have extraordinary strength, as he demonstrates in Book 21 by being the only man who can string the bow. But he relies much more on mind than muscle, a tendency that his encounters showcase. He knows that he cannot overpower Polyphemus, for example, and that, even if he were able to do so, he wouldn't be able to budge the boulder from the door. He thus schemes around his disadvantage in strength by exploiting Po1yphemus's stupidity. Though he does use violence to put out Polyphemus's single eye, this display of strength is part of a larger plan to deceive the brute.
Similarly, Odysseus knows that he is no match for the host of strapping young suitors in his palace, so he makes the most of his other strength—his wits. Step by step, through disguises and deceptions, he arranges a situation in which he alone is armed and the suitors are locked in a room with him. With this setup, Achilles' superb talents as a warrior would enable him to accomplish what Odysseus does, but only Odysseus's strategic planning can bring about such a sure victory. Some of the tests in Odysseus's long, wandering ordeal seem to mock reliance on strength alone. No one can resist the Sirens' song, for example, but Odysseus gets an earful of the lovely melody by having his crew tie him up. Scylla and Charybdis cannot be beaten, but Odysseus can minimize his losses with prudent decision—making and careful navigation. Odysseus's encounter with Achilles in the underworld is a reminder: Achilles won great kleos, or glory, during his life, but that life was brief and ended violently. Odysseus, on the other hand, by virtue of his wits, will live to a ripe old age and is destined to die in peace.
The Pitfalls of Temptation - The initial act that frustrated so many Achaeans' homecoming was the work of an Achaean himself: Ajax (the "Lesser" Ajax, a relatively unimportant figure not to be confused with the "Greater" Ajax, whom Odysseus meets in Hades) raped the Trojan priestess Cassandra in a temple while the Greeks were plundering the fallen city. That act of impulse, impiety, and stupidity brought the wrath of Athena upon the Achaean fleet and set in motion the chain of events that turned Odysseus's homecoming into a long nightmare. It is fit that the Odyssey is motivated by such an event, for many of the pitfalls that Odysseus and his men face are likewise obstacles that arise out of mortal weakness and the inability to control it. The submission to temptation or recklessness either angers the gods or distracts Odysseus and the members of his crew from their journey: they yield to hunger and slaughter the Sun's flocks, and they eat the fruit of the lotus and forget about their homes.
Even Odysseus's hunger for kleos is a kind of temptation. He submits to it when he reveals his name to Polyphemus, bringing Poseidon's wrath upon him and his men. In the case of the Sirens, the theme is revisited simply for its own interest. With their ears plugged, the crew members sail safely by the Sirens' island, while Odysseus, longing to hear the Sirens' sweet song, is saved from folly only by his foresighted command to his crew to keep him bound to the ship's mast. Homer is fascinated with depicting his protagonist tormented by temptation: in general, Odysseus and his men want very desperately to complete their nostos, or homecoming, but this desire is constantly at odds with the other pleasures that the world offers.
Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, or literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text's major themes.
Storytelling - Storytelling in the Odyssey, in addition to delivering the plot to the audience, situates the epic in its proper cultural context. The Odyssey seems very conscious of its predecessor, the Iliad: Odysseus's wanderings would never have taken place had he not left for Troy; and the Odyssey would make little sense without the Iliad and the knowledge that so many other Greek heroes had to make nostoi, or homeward journeys, of their own. Homer constantly evokes the history of the Odyssey through the stories that his characters tell. Menelaus and Nestor both narrate to Telemachus their wanderings from Troy. Even Helen adds some anecdotes about Odysseus's cunning during the Trojan War. Phemius, a court minstrel in Ithaca, and Demodocus, a Phaeacian bard, sing of the exploits of the Greek heroes at Troy. In the underworld, Agamemnon tells the story of his murder, while Ajax's evasion prompts the story of his quarrel with Odysseus. These stories, however, don't just provide colorful personal histories. Most call out to other stories in Greek mythology, elevating the Odyssey by reminding its audience of the epic's rich, mythic tradition.
Disguises - The gods of Greek literature often assume alternate forms to commune with humans. In the Odyssey, Athena appears on earth disguised as everything from a little girl to Odysseus's friend Mentor to Telemachus. Proteus, the Old Man of the Sea whom Menelaus describes in Book 4, can assume any form, even water and fire, to escape capture. Circe, on the other hand, uses her powers to change others, turning an entire contingent of Odysseus's crew into pigs with a tap of her wand.
From the first line of the epic, Homer explains that his story is about a "man of twists and turns" (1.1). Quick, clever, and calculating, Odysseus is a natural master of disguise, and the plot of the epic often turns on his deception. By withholding his true identity from the Cyclops and using the alias "Nobody," for example, Odysseus is able to save himself and his crew. But by revealing his name at the end of this episode, Odysseus ends up being dogged by the god Poseidon. His beggar disguise allows him to infiltrate his palace and set up the final confrontation with the suitors. It also allows Homer to distinguish those who truly love Odysseus—characters like Eurycleia, Penelope, and even his dog, Argos, begin to recognize their beloved king even before he sheds his disguise.
Seductresses - Women are very important figures in the Odyssey, and one of the most prominent roles they fulfill is that of seductress. Circe and Calypso are the most obvious examples of women whose love becomes an obstacle to Odysseus's return. Homer presents many other women whose irresistible allure threatens to lead men astray. The Sirens enchant Odysseus with their lovely song, and even Penelope, despite all of her contempt for the suitors, seems to be leading them on at times. She uses her feminine wiles to conceal her ruse of undoing, every night, her day's work on the burial shroud, and even gets the suitors to give her gifts, claiming that she will marry the one who gives her the nicest things. While these women do gain a certain amount of power through their sexual charms, they are ultimately all subject to divine whim, forced to wait and pine for love when it is absent.
Symbols are objects, characters, figures, or colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.
Food - Although throwing a feast for a guest is a common part of hospitality, hunger and the consumption of food often have negative associations in the Odyssey. They represent lack of discipline or submission to temptation, as when Odysseus tarries in the cave of the Cyclops, when his men slaughter the Sun's flocks, or when they eat the fruit of the lotus. The suitors, moreover, are constantly eating. Whenever Telemachus and Penelope complain about their uninvited guests, they mention how the suitors slaughter the palace's livestock. Odysseus kills the suitors just as they are starting their dinner, and Homer graphically describes them falling over tables and spilling their food. In almost all cases, the monsters of the Odyssey owe their monstrosity at least in part to their diets or the way that they eat. Scylla swallows six of Odysseus's men, one for each head. The Cyclops eats humans, but not sheep apparently, and is gluttonous nonetheless: when he gets drunk, he vomits up wine mixed with pieces of human flesh. The Laestrygonians seem like nice people—until their queen, who is described as "huge as a mountain crag," tries to eat Odysseus and his men (10.124). In these cases, excessive eating represents not just lack of self-control, but also the total absence of humanity and civility.
The Wedding Bed - The wedding bed in Book 23 symbolizes the constancy of Penelope and Odysseus's marriage. Only a single maidservant has ever seen the bed, and it is where the happy couple spends its first night in each other's arms since Odysseus's departure for Troy twenty years earlier. The symbolism is heightened by the trick that Penelope uses to test Odysseus, which revolves around the immovability of their bed—a metaphor for the unshakable foundation of their love.
Full title - The Odyssey
Author - Homer; some critics argue for multiple authorship
Type of work - Poem
Genre - Epic
Language - Ancient Greek (Ionic dialect mixed with archaic forms and other dialects)
Time and place written - Unknown, but probably mainland Greece, approximately 700 B.C.
Date of first publication - Unknown
Narrator - The poet, who invokes the assistance of the Muse; Odysseus narrates Books 9-12
Point of view - The narrator speaks in the third person and is omniscient. He frequently offers insight into the thoughts and feelings of even minor characters, gods and mortals alike; Odysseus narrates Books 9-12 in the first person. Odysseus freely gives inferences about the thoughts and feelings of other characters.
Tone - Celebratory and nostalgic; the poet views the times in which the action is set as glorious and larger than life
Tense - Past; large portions of the poem (especially Books 9-12) are narrated in flashbacks
Setting (time) - Bronze Age (approximately twelfth century B.C.); the Odyssey begins where the Iliad ends and covers the ten years after the fall of Troy
Setting (place) - Odysseus's wanderings cover the Aegean and surrounding seas and eventually end in Ithaca, in northwestern Greece; Telemachus travels from Ithaca to southern Greece
Protagonist - Odysseus
Major conflict - Odysseus must return home and vanquish the suitors who threaten his estate; Telemachus must mature and secure his own reputation in Greek society
Rising action - The return of Odysseus to Ithaca; the return of Telemachus to Ithaca; their entrance into the palace; the abuse Odysseus receives; the various omens; the hiding of the arms and locking of the palace doors; Penelope's challenge to the suitors; the stringing of the bow
Climax - The beginning of Book 22, when the beggar in the palace reveals his true identity as Odysseus
Falling action - Odysseus and Telemachus fight and kill the suitors; they put to death the suitors' allies among the palace servants
Themes - The power of cunning over strength; the pitfalls of temptation; the tension between goals and obstacles; the misery of separation; maturation as a journey
Motifs - Disguises; storytelling; seductresses
Symbols - Food; the wedding bed; the great bow; symbols of temptation (Circe, the lotus, the Sirens' song, the cattle of the Sun)
Foreshadowing - Agamemnon's fate at the hands of his wife and his vindication by his son foreshadow the domestic troubles and triumphs Odysseus faces when he returns to Ithaca; Odysseus is nearly recognized by his wife and servants several times in Books 18-19, foreshadowing the revelation of his identity in Book 22
Study Questions and Suggested Essay Topics –
1. How does Homer portray the relationship between gods and men in the Odyssey? What roles do the gods play in human life? How does this portrayal differ from that found in the Iliad?
- In theIliad, the gods relate to human beings either as external powers that influence the lives of mortals from without, as when Apollo unleashes plague upon the Achaeans, or from within, as when Aphrodite incites Helen to make love to Paris or when Athena gives Diomedes courage in battle. In the Odyssey, the gods are often much less grand. They function more as spiritual guides and supporters for their human subjects, sometimes assuming mortal disguises in order to do so. The actions of the gods sometimes remain otherworldly, as when Poseidon decides to wreck the ship of the Phaeacians, but generally they grant direct aid to particular individuals. In a sense, the change in the behavior of the gods is wholly appropriate to the shift in focus between the two epics. The Iliad depicts a violent and glorious war, and the gods act as frighteningly powerful, supernatural forces. The Odyssey, in contrast, chronicles a long journey, and the gods frequently act to guide and advise the wandering hero.
2. In what ways does Odysseus develop as a character during the course of the narrative? Does he develop at all?
- Odysseus does not change remarkably during the course of the narrative, especially in comparison to Telemachus, who undergoes a rite of passage from naive adolescence to manhood. Odysseus, already a famed soldier at the beginning of theIliad, continues his role as the most intelligent and courageous of all the Achaean heroes. But this is not to say that Odysseus exhibits no signs of growth. Just as Achilles is confronted in the Iliad with the problem of balancing his honor with his pride, Odysseus repeatedly faces situations in which self-restraint and humility must check bravado and glory-seeking. In his early adventures, he often fails these tests, as when he boastfully taunts Polyphemus, enflaming Poseidon.
As the epic progresses, Odysseus becomes increasingly capable of judging when it is wise to reveal himself and when it is appropriate to exult in his accomplishments. At Scheria, he prudently waits until late in his visit before declaring his identity to the king and queen. By the time he reaches Ithaca, he can endure the insults of the suitors for the better part of two days. The ability to hold his passions and pride in check make his swift and total revenge upon the suitors possible. Odysseus's internal conflict is not nearly as consuming as that of Achilles in the Iliad, making up a relatively small part of his overall journey, but he too is a wiser and stronger man at the end of his epic.
- 3. One of the most important cultural values in the Odyssey is that of xenia, a Greek concept encompassing the generosity and courtesy shown to those who are far from home. Why might hospitality have held more significance in Homer's time than it does in today's world? How is hospitality established as a key value in the epic?
Odysseus's journey takes place in a world in which vast swaths of uninhabited land separate human civilizations. Traveling between those settlements involves facing both natural and supernatural perils, as well as logistical problems like shortages in provisions. The code of hospitality operates as a linchpin that allows individuals such as Odysseus to undertake these kinds of journeys at all. It is a set of reciprocal expectations and obligations that not only mitigate the privations of travel but forge and reinforce bonds of friendship and goodwill. Not surprisingly, the Odyssey doles out harsh punishments to those who do not respect this sacred social code. Polyphemus, the suitors, and the Achaean soldiers at Ismarus all suffer for violating it. By the same token, individuals such as Eumaeus and the Phaeacian royalty prove their worth to Odysseus by showering him with selfless generosity and kindness. Within the Odyssey, adherence to the code functions as a kind of imperfect currency. If one acts in accordance with the rules, one will generally, but not always, be rewarded.
- Suggested Essay Topics
1. What is the role of family in the Odyssey? What values characterize the relationship between fathers and sons? You may wish to compare and contrast some of the father and son pairs in the epic (Odysseus and Telemachus, Laertes and Odysseus, Poseidon and Polyphemus, Nestor and Pisistratus, Eupithes and Antinous). How does Homer portray the idea of continuity between generations?
2. What is the role of women in the Odyssey? Focusing especially on Penelope, Calypso, or Anticleia, discuss how women are portrayed in this epic.
3. Compare and contrast Telemachus's journey with that of Odysseus. How does the younger man's experience enable him to grow as a character? What role does Athena play in his success?
4. Looking at Odysseus's narrative in Books 9 through 12, think about the techniques Homer uses to portray the magical and fantastical aspects of Odysseus's adventures. How does he handle what we might call special effects? That is, how does he make his monsters fearsome, his goddesses stunning, the dangers frightening, etc.?
Important Quotations Explained
With these words the Odyssey begins. The poet asks for inspiration from the Muse and imagines her singing through him. An ancient epic poem generally states at the outset, in capsule form, the subject of the work to follow, and this epic is no exception. The Odyssey announces its subject matter in a very different fashion from Homer's other epic, the Iliad, however. Whereas Homer's first epic sets out to treat Achilles's rage, this one focuses on a "man of twists and turns." It chronicles not battles, the stuff of Achilles' brief life, but a long journey through "[m]any cities" and "many pains," the kind of test more geared toward a resourceful hero like Odysseus. The opening lines also foreshadow how the epic will end, with all of Odysseus's men dead except for Odysseus himself, and provide a reason for these deaths: the recklessness and blindness of his crew members, who do not realize that by slaughtering the Sun's cattle they seal their own dooms. The opening leaves unmentioned the many other temptations the Achaeans will face, and it says nothing of the situation in Ithaca, which consumes nearly half the epic. It thus treats the subject matter of the epic in an abbreviated form, but it faithfully captures the themes those subjects will explore. As Knox notes in the introduction to the Fagles translation, the Odyssey, in contrast to the Iliad, asks the Muse to choose where to begin. Giving the Muse this freedom prepares us for the more complex narrative structure of the Odyssey, which relies on flashbacks as it moves through many settings during its ten-year scope.
royal son of Laertes, Odysseus, man of exploits,
still eager to leave at once and hurry back
to your own home, your beloved native land?
Good luck to you, even so. Farewell!
But if you only knew, down deep, what pains
are fated to fill your cup before you reach that shore,
you'd stay right here, preside in our house with me
and be immortal. Much as you long to see your wife,
the one you pine for all your days …
Explanation for Quotation 2
Calypso makes this final plea to Odysseus in Book 5, begging him to stay with her, and her temptation trumps all those Odysseus has seen before (5.223-232). She not only promises to save him from having to face future woes but to give him what no other human character in the Odyssey has: immortality. But Odysseus is not interested. All he wants is his home and wife, even though he admits in ensuing lines that Penelope cannot match Calypso in beauty. Calypso's plea embodies the tension in Odysseus's journey. He wants to see his wife and home again, but he also presumably wants all the tempting things Calypso has to offer. That she asks him one last time whether he wants to leave suggests (even if the question is just rhetorical) that she knows her offer is tempting, but the fact that Odysseus can refuse it and embrace all the "pains" she foretells shows how compelling his homecoming really is.
3."But you, Achilles,
there's not a man in the world more blest than you—
there never has been, never will be one.
Time was, when you were alive, we Argives
honored you as a god, and now down here, I see,
you lord it over the dead in all your power.
So grieve no more at dying, great Achilles."
Explanation for Quotation 3
I reassured the ghost, but he broke out, protesting,
"No winning words about death to me, shining Odysseus!
By god, I'd rather slave on earth for another man—
some dirt-poor tenant farmer who scrapes to keep alive—
than rule down here over all the breathless dead."
This exchange comes as part of the conversation between Achilles and Odysseus when the latter journeys to the underworld in Book 11 (11.547-558). (The entire event is told as a flashback to the Phaeacians by Odysseus.) The heroes muse on the differences between the two worlds they now inhabit, and each finds the grass greener on the other side. Odysseus envies Achilles' strength and the glory that it won him; Achilles envies Odysseus for being alive. The differences reflect the change in outlook between the Iliad and the Odyssey. The first epic celebrates the glory (kleos) that comes from winning battles, and the mighty Achilles is naturally the focus. In the Odyssey, whose focus is the wily Odysseus, that earlier outlook is implicitly criticized. Achilles did win great glory, but it came at the cost of an early death, and he would do anything now to return to earth and live a life without glory. His indignant reply, "No winning words about death to me," suggests that he does not believe Odysseus is speaking sincerely, but Odysseus means what he says and thus needs a warning like this so badly. Like other Greek heroes, Odysseus has a glory-loving streak. He too would like to be "honored … as a god," but he must not lose his wits in his pursuit of glory.
4.Of all that breathes and crawls across the earth,
our mother earth breeds nothing feebler than a man.
So long as the gods grant him power, spring in his knees,
he thinks he will never suffer affliction down the years.
But then, when the happy gods bring on the long hard times,
bear them he must, against his will, and steel his heart.
Our lives, our mood and mind as we pass across the earth,
turn as the days turn …
Explanation for Quotation 4
Odysseus utters these words to the suitor Amphinomus shortly after defeating the "Beggar-King" Irus in Book 18 (18.150-157). Odysseus is himself in disguise as beggar, and his words here help maintain that cover. According to the story he has told, he once was a great warrior, plundering faraway lands, until one day he was captured. On one level, his words here reinforce those lies. The fatalism and helplessness he expresses—that a man only prospers while "the gods grant him power"—were frequently expressed sentiments of the Ancient Greek outlook, but they seem especially natural coming from a onetime king who has descended to the status of a beggar. Who better to comment on life's reversals than someone who has experienced them firsthand?
The words have additional meaning, however, for both Amphinomus and Odysseus. For Amphinomus, they foreshadow death. He is plundering the land of others, living a careless life, much as the beggar once did, but he too is a feeble man, and he is destined for a fall. The words are a prophecy to Amphinomus, and a warning; he does not miss their meaning, as he walks away "fraught with grave forebodings" (18.176). For Odysseus, on the other hand, the words do not foretell the future but recount the past and, perhaps, explain the lesson it has taught him. At the hour of his greatest triumph, the beginning of his nostos ("homeward journey") from the city he had helped sack, his life "turn[ed]" and the gods began his suffering. He endured only by "steel[ing] his heart," and he knows now that at such moments that is all that can be done.
5.Just as I
have come from afar, creating pain for many—
men and women across the good green earth—
so let his name be Odysseus …
the Son of Pain, a name he'll earn in full.
Explanation for Quotation 5
With these words in the middle of Book 19, Homer explains the origin of Odysseus's name (19.460-464). They are actually spoken by his grandfather Autolycus, who named the hero when he was an infant. The name implies that pain, like dark hair or some other physical attribute, is in some way in his blood, which may be true in two senses. First, as Autolycus happily brags, Odysseus is the grandson of someone who has created pain for many, and he might be expected to inherit this quality and grow up like his grandfather. Pain is part of his makeup because, like some kind of physical attribute, he is destined to live with it from birth. The name recognizes that pain will be a constant in his life. He may not always be on the receiving end of it (the Odyssey provides at least as many examples of Odysseus giving pain to others as feeling its sting himself), but it will always be there, like an extension of his body. From minor incidents like the goring that gives him his scar—which happens, not coincidentally, while he is on a hunting trip with his grandfather—to the massacre of the suitors, the Odyssey suggests that Odysseus has indeed earned his name "in full."
Web site to visit: http://faculty.ksu.edu.sa/
Author of the text: indicated on the source document of the above text
Note: This is meant as a supplement to fill in the holes between the excerpts we read. It is definitely not a substitute for the actual readings which you will be tested over.
Book I: A Goddess Intervenes
The Trojan war is over and the Greeks have come back victorious – all except Odysseus. His hometown, Ithaka (aka Ithaca), stands without its leader. As the book opens, he is being held captive by the sea nymph Kalypso (aka Calypso). She is in love with Odysseus and wants to keep him as her husband. Homer reveals that the reason that Odysseus is taking so long to get home is that he has angered the sea god, Poseidon. Athena is looking out for Odysseus, however. While Poseidon is off attending a banquet, Athena appeals to her father Zeus to help out Odysseus. She wants Hermes, the messenger god, to tell Kalypso to let Odysseus go. After she has taken care of that matter, she goes to visit Telemakhos, Odysseus’ son (aka Telemachus). He is about 20, and he is having his own problems. While Odysseus has been away, a group of suitors has come to win the hand of his wife, Penelope. Odysseus is rich and powerful and these men all want to marry his wife so they can take over that wealth and power – and it doesn’t hurt that Penelope is gorgeous. Penelope is diplomatically keeping them at bay, but she is obliged to entertain them while she stalls, and they are rude pigs. They eat Odysseus’ food, drink his wine, sleep in his home, and generally act like unwanted party guests who don’t know when to leave. Telemakhos is understandably frustrated, but Athena tells him to take courage. She reveals that his father is not dead and will return one day. In the meantime, she urges Telemakhos to act like a man and try to get rid of the suitors as well as make an effort to discover what has happened to his father.
Book 2: A Hero’s Son Awakens
Telemakhos doesn’t lose any time. He gathers together all the men of Ithaka and takes a stand against the suitors, demanding that they leave. The main suitors are Antinoos (aka Antinous) and Eurymakhos (aka Eurymachus). Along with the others, they respond that they will only leave when Penelope has chosen one of them to marry. Telemakhos suggests a compromise. If the suitors hold off, he will go and determine once and for all if Odysseus is dead. If he finds out that his father is indeed dead, he will force Penelope to make a decision. Telemakhos gets together a crew and sets sail for Pylos under the guidance of Athena.
Book III - Telemakhos Meets Nestor
Pylos is where Nestor lives (the wise counselor we first saw in the Iliad). Telemakhos tells him that he is looking for Odysseus, and Nestor recounts to him how everybody went their separate ways after the Trojan War ended. He states that the last time he saw Odysseus, he was in a ship and on his way home. Nestor advises Odysseus to inquire of Menelaos (aka Menelaus) in Sparta to see if he knows more.
Book IV – The Red-Haired King and His Lady
Telemakhos takes his advice and heads off to Sparta. When he gets there, Menelaos is hosting a wedding banquet for his son and daughter. Telemakhos waits until the next day to talk to him. When he does, Menelaos is horrified by the state of affairs at Odysseus’ home. He tells Telemakhos that Odysseus is still alive, but being held prisoner by Kalypso. Meanwhile, over in Ithaka, the suitors discover that Telemakhos has already gone on the journey to find out about his father’s fate. They decide to set a trap for him and kill him.
Book V - Sweet Nymph and Open Sea
At Athena’s repeated urging, Zeus finally sends Hermes to tell Kalypso to release Odysseus after his eight years of captivity as Kalypso’s unwilling lover. As a minor goddess, she has been using her powers to force Odysseus to sleep with her every night. We first see him staring towards the sea, weeping over his fate as Kalypso’s love slave. Yes, she has prevented him from aging, but she is not the one he wants. He yearns for his wife Penelope and home. Resigned to the will of Zeus, Kalypso gives Odysseus a boat to carry him away. However, Poseidon is back from his trip and discovers that Odysseus has been set free. Angry, he calls up a storm and wrecks Odysseus’ boat. Desperately clutching to a piece of the wreckage, Odysseus floats to the island of Skheria where the Phaiakians (aka Phaeacians) live.
Book VI – The Princess at the River
Odysseus is discovered buck naked and asleep by the young princess of the Phaiakians, Nausikaa (aka Nausicaa), as she and her friends are playing ball. At first she is scared of the wild-looking man, but he sweet talks her into giving him some bathing oils to clean up and some cloth to cover himself (she had been told by Athena in a dream that she needed to bring those things). Once he does, he looks incredibly handsome, and she is completely won over. He does not reveal who he is, but she tells him where she is from and encourages him to head there as well and ask her mother and father for hospitality.
Book VII – Gardens and Firelight
King Alkinoos and Queen Arete of Phaiakia (aka Phaeacia) welcome the stranger. He tells them about his shipwreck and they offer to help him home.
Book VIII: Songs of the Harper
Alkinoos invites Odysseus to a banquet where stories will be told. He comes, and hears tales of the Trojan War which affect him visibly.
Book IX – New Coasts and Poseidon’s Son
Odysseus finally reveals his identity and tells his story. After he and his men had left Troy, his ships found themselves in the middle of a terrible storm. They wound up at an island where they discovered a people known as the “Lotos (aka Lotus)-Eaters.” Anyone who ate the lotos would forget who they were and what they were doing, and want nothing more than to stay on the island and consume more lotos. Two men and a runner had taken the lotos and wanted to stay, but they were dragged back to the ship kicking and screaming and bound to benches until they come to their senses (assuming they did).
His next stop was at the land of the Kyklopes (aka Cyclopes), one-eyed monsters with no laws. He took twelve men onshore with him to seek help on his journey, but instead the Kyklops he met, Polyphemos, grabbed two of his men and ate them. He stuffed the rest in his cave and the next morning had another two for breakfast. Odysseus got the monster drunk and then drove a stake through his eye. Blinded and in excruciating pain, he demanded Odysseus’ name. Odysseus told him that his name was “Nohbdy.” (Nobody.) Therefore, when the Kyklops yelled for help by saying that “Nohbdy’s tricked me,” his fellow Kyklopes tell themselves, “Well, if nobody is hurting him, what can we do?” They did not come to help. Odysseus and the remaining men escaped by binding themselves to Kyklopes’ sheep. Since Polythemos couldn’t see them, he only felt the wool of the sheep as they passed. As Odysseus and his men sailed away, Odysseus yelled back at Polyphemos that “Odysseus, raider of cities, took your eye!” Enraged, Polyphemos asked his father to seek revenge – and his father is Poseidon.
Book X – The Grace of the Witch
The next stop was the home of Aiolos (aka Aeolus), king of the winds. Aiolos was very helpful, and Odysseus stayed there a month. When Odysseus was ready to leave, Aiolos gave him a bag of the winds so that he could get the wind to blow just the right way to speed him along and prevent any adverse winds. Unfortunately, Odysseus’ crew was very greedy. When he would not tell them about what was in the bag, they thought the bag was full of treasure. Just as the boat neared Ithaka, some of the men ripped open the bag while Odysseus was sleeping. The winds, loosed and combined, blew them right back to Aiolos! This time Aiolos wanted nothing to do with them, thinking they were cursed.
Next stop: Laistrygonia (aka Laestrygonia). The men had to row there; thanks to Aiolos, they have no wind. The residents of Laistrygonia were giants and man-eaters. They ate the landing party Odysseus sent, then threw boulders as the rest of the ships tried to escape. Only Odysseus’s ship survived, because it had not pulled into the harbor.
Next stop: Aeaea where Kirke (aka Circe) lives. Kirke is a sorceress who is good with spells and potions. She also has a bad habit of turning men into pigs. Several of Odysseus’ men got captured and turned into pigs, but before it could happen to Odysseus, he was warned by Hermes and received a magic herb from him that counteracted Kirke’s spell. By offering to have sex with her if she complied, he convinced her to change his other men back. Kirke was so impressed with this sexy, powerful man that she fell in love with him. He stayed with her for a year. Finally, he left, but not before Kirke told him to visit the prophet Teiresias in the underworld and gave him directions on how to get there.
Book XI – A Gathering of Shades
Odysseus undertook the journey to Hades. Once he arrived, in order to attract the shades of the dead, Odysseus made animal sacrifices. The pool of blood the sacrifices created drew the “shades” or souls, all of whom craved fresh blood. Only when they drank the blood were they able to taste mortality enough to talk to the living. Many approached, but Odysseus held them at bay with a spear while he waited for Teiresias. When Teiresias finally arrived, he foretold that Odysseus would be able to go home, but he would not be free of Poseidon’s curse until he had undertaken his journey. Teiresis also told him that his death would come at a ripe old age. In addition, he warned Odysseus that if he and his men wished to return to Ithaka, they must not eat any of the sun-god Helios’ herd of cattle which resided on the island of Thrinakia.
Besides Teiresias, Odysseus also talked to a few other dead people. He saw Elpenor, a member of his crew who had died on Kirke’s island, unbeknownst to Odysseus. Odysseus promised to bury him. He saw his mother, who had been alive when he left Ithaka. He talked to heroes such as Herakles (aka Hercules), Akhilleus (aka Achilles) and Agamemnon. He also saw Aias (aka Ajax) from afar, but Aias refused to talk to him. Understandably, Aias was still angry at the man who had indirectly caused his suicide. After Akhilleus’ death during the Trojan War, his armor was to be given to the next greatest warrior. Odysseus had fast-talked the Greeks into giving him the armor instead of Aias. Aias was so shamed that he killed himself. Many famous women also came by – beauties, consorts of gods, and queens.
Finally, though, Odysseus could not take any more of the dead. He was overcome by dread when he saw more shades approaching, and he rushed away. Once he returned to Kirke’s island, he was warned about the dangers that remained on their path: the Seirenes (aka Sirens), Skylla (aka Scylla), and Kharydis (aka Charybdis). Before he left, Odysseus remembered to give Elpenor burial rites.
Book XII – Sea Perils and Defeat
Odysseus and his men first encountered the Seirenes. The Seirenes are half-bird, half-women and live on the island of Anthemoessa. They sing a beautiful song that draws every man who hears it irresistibly to his doom. Either their ships crash as they rush blindly towards the island, or they rot away on the island itself, unable to move because they are entranced by the song. As Kirke had advised, Odysseus ordered his men to fill their ears with wax so they could not hear the song. However, he wanted to hear the song. Knowing that even he could not resist their call, he again followed Kirke’s advice and ordered his men to bind him to the mast. They were told to ignore him when he pleaded to be released. Indeed, they were instructed to only bind him harder the more desperate he became, thereby ensuring he would not break his bonds no matter how wildly he struggled to go to the Seirenes. Sure enough, as he passed, he heard the Seirenes sing of past glory in their entrancing voices and felt a yearning so intense that he was mindless to the dangers or anything else. He ordered and then begged his men to let him go as the yearning continued to intensify the closer they got. The ropes held against his frenzied struggling, however, and they passed by in safety. Once they were out of earshot, Odysseus came back to himself and was released.
After passing by the Seirenes, Odysseus and his men had to successfully pass between Skylla and Kharybdis. Unfortunately, it was impossible to get by without being struck down by one of them. Skylla was a monster with six long tentacle-like necks, each with a dog’s head. (She used to be a beautiful woman, but when the sea-god Glaucus chose Skylla as a lover over Kirke, Kirke poured a potion into the water while Skylla bathed which turned her into an immortal man-eating monster). Whenever a ship went by Skylla, each of her six dog-head snapped out and grabbed a man. Kharybdis, on the other side, was a powerful whirlpool which sucked in everything around it in the water, then vomited it back up destroyed. Kirke had suggested that it was better to go by Skylla, and Odysseus agreed that losing six men was better than losing the entire ship. He sailed on Scylla’s side. Sure enough, he lost the men, but otherwise he and his ship escaped.
Once past, the men were tired and demoralized. Nearby, they saw the island of Helios with his sacred cattle. Odysseus did not even want to land, remembering Teiresius’ warning, but the men led by Eurylokhos protested. They insisted on landing. Odysseus made them swear not to touch the cattle and they agreed, but they got stuck on the island for over a month due to adverse winds (or lack of them entirely). The food Kirke had given them ran out. Odysseus went to make a sacrifice to the gods to get good winds so they could leave the island, but fell asleep afterwards. While he was away, the hungry men finally cooked a few of the cattle. Unsurprisingly, the gods were angered. When the men tried to leave the island soon afterwards, Zeus hurled a thunderbolt in the midst of a vicious storm which destroyed the ship after pushing it back towards Kharybdis. All of the men died except Odysseus. He hung on to some debris and drifted closer and closer to Charybdis. When the keel he was clinging to got sucked in to the whirlpool, he grabbed on to an overhanging branch and hung on for dear life. Eventually, the keel popped back up, and he was able to grab it and get away. Zeus helped him by keeping him hidden from Skylla as he went by. He drifted for nine more days and finally wound up on Ogygia Isle where Kalypso lived. This brings us back to when we first saw Odysseus, and concludes the flashback.
Book XIII – One More Strange Island
Finished with his story, Odysseus is told by King Alkinoos that he can and must return to Ithaka. He orders one of his ships to sail Odysseus home. Odysseus falls asleep in the ship and does not even awaken when they reach Ithaka, so the men lay him sleeping on his home shore. Unfortunately for the Phaiakians, Poseidon punishes them for helping out Odysseus by turning the ship into stone as it enters the Phaiakian port.
Odysseus awakens alone on the mist-covered shore, at first unable to recognize his home. Athena appears to him in the guise of a young man. Unsure who to trust, Odysseus makes up a story about being left on the beach by a mutinous crew. Amused by his easy lying, Athena reveals her true form. She assures Odysseus he is indeed at Ithaka, helps him hide the treasures the Phaiakians have left with him in a cave, and changes him into the form of an old beggar so that he can enter Ithaka unrecognized. She tells him to find his swineherd, Eumaios (aka Eumaeus), and ask about how things are in Ithaka. Athena then heads off to get Telemakhos from Lakedaimon.
Book XIV – Hospitality in the Forest
Odysseus arrives at Eumaios’ hut. Eumaios tells him a little about what is happening at his home. He is a kind man who gives great hospitality to this stranger, even giving him his cloak and sleeping outdoors so Odysseus can sleep in comfort inside. Odysseus is impressed by his generosity and loyalty. The old swineherd will not believe Odysseus when he tells him that his master is still living and will return, though.
XV – How They Came to Ithaka
After being warned by Athena about the suitors’ plans to ambush him on the way home, Telemakhos says goodbye to Menelaos and Helen and leaves for Ithaka. Meanwhile, at the swineherd’s hut, Odysseus has been pumping Eumaios for information by pretending he wants to go to his master’s house to seek employment. Eumaios tells him about how horrible the suitors are. The next morning, Telemakhos lands on Ithaka’s shore and goes to the hut of the swineherd per Athena’s instructions.
XVI – Father and Son
Telemakhos arrives at the hut to find Eumaios and the “stranger.” After talking together, Eumaios wants to go tell Laertes, Odysseus’ father and Telemakhos’ grandfather, that his grandson has arrived back safely. After he leaves, Odysseus reveals himself to Telemakhos with Athena’s help. After a tearful reunion, they devise a plan to take care of all those suitors. Odysseus will return home in disguise, telling no one his identity, and wait for the time where he and Telemakhos can exact revenge.
Meanwhile, back at the palace, the suitors hear that Telemakhos has gotten back safely before they could kill him. They plot to kill him once he returns, but Penelope overhears one of them, Antinoos, and berates him. Antinoos is generally considered their leader, but another suitor, Eurymakhos, convinces her that the suitors would never really hurt Telemakhos. However, we know differently.
Book XVII – The Beggar at the Manor
Telemakhos goes back home the next day and tells Penelope that Odysseus is alive and with Kalypso, but will return soon. Penelope is afraid to believe it is true, although she certainly wants it to be. Odysseus later arrives with Eumaios and on the way they meet up with Melanthios, Odysseus’ goatherd. Unlike Eumaios, Melanthios has not been loyal to Odysseus. He kisses up to the suitors instead. He is also a cruel man, insulting and violent towards the “beggar.” Odysseus bites back his rage and leaves his revenge for later.
Odysseus and Eumaios arrive at the palace. Near the gates, they see Argos, Odysseus’ old faithful dog, lying forgotten in a dung heap. He recognizes his master and barks joyfully, then dies happy. Odysseus can barely keep from crying at the touching display of loyalty and love.
Once at the palace, Odysseus sees the suitors in all their glory, feasting at his table. Telemakhos tells the “beggar” he can remain at the table to plead for food, and gives him some. Antinoos is not as generous. Not only does he insult Odysseus, he hits him with a footstool. Once again Odysseus privately vows revenge, but shows nothing on the outside.
Noticing the “beggar,” Penelope asks Eumaios about him. After she gets a little information, she approaches Odysseus and asks him if he has heard anything about her husband. He says he has and that he will tell her about it later.
Book XVIII – Blows and a Queen’s Beauty
A fellow beggar named Iros shows up at the banquet. He is a regular and the suitors like him. He argues with Odysseus, worried about another beggar encroaching on his territory. The suitors get a kick out of watching the two fight and offer a prize to whomever wins a physical confrontation. Odysseus takes off his tunic to fight. When Iros sees that Odysseus is a well-muscled, strong man, he gets scared. Despite the fact that Odysseus tries to take it easy on the inept Iros, he still breaks his jaw. One of the suitors, Amphinomous, is nice to Odysseus. Odysseus tries to convince him to leave but he does not, doomed to the same fate as all the others.
Penelope arrives, looking even more beautiful than usual thanks to enhancement by Athena. She is dismayed by the scene of the bloody beggar with the broken jaw and the ill-treatment of the new “beggar,” and considers it one more example of the way the suitors have turned her home into a circus. Once again she blames them for taking advantage of her husband’s estate, but to keep them from rioting, also hints that she plans to marry the one who woos her with the nicest gifts. Spurred on by her beauty, the suitors hurry to comply. Their efforts to get gifts from their homelands serves to delay her choice. Odysseus sees her ploy for what it is and is proud of her for being so cunning.
Later that night, the “beggar” Odysseus is insulted by Melantho, one of his maids. She has gotten cocky because one of the suitors, Eurymakhos, has taken her for his mistress. Odysseus calls her disloyal, and when Eurymakhos hears, he throws a footstool at Odysseus. Odysseus is about to get into a confrontation with him when Telemakhos interrupts and orders everyone to bed. Unused to Telemakhos ordering anyone to do anything, the suitors are taken aback, but obey.
Book XIX - Recognitions and a Dream
Once the suitors are safely in bed and Odysseus and Telemakhos are alone in the great hall, they begin to remove the weapons from it. If asked why the weapons are gone, Telemakhos is told to say that the fire has damaged them and that he fears they will be used if a quarrel breaks out among the suitors. After they have removed all the arms, Telemakhos says goodnight.
Penelope arrives in the hall and sits near the fire. Once again, Melantho insults Odysseus the beggar, but Penelope chastises her for her behavior. She gives attention to the “beggar,” asking where he is from and how he came to their palace. He does not answer her, instead complimenting her shrewdness. She admits that her greatest stalling technique, the weaving and unweaving of Laertes’ shroud, has been discovered. When Penelope presses the beggar about his past, Odysseus spins a tale that he had met Odysseus twenty years prior on the journey to Troy. Odysseus is easily able to “prove” his story by describing his own clothes in detail. He tries to encourage her and tell her that Odysseus is coming back, but Penelope can hardly be blamed for doubting what he says. Still, she likes the beggar, and instructs her handmaidens to take care of him. Odysseus’ old nurse Eurykleia is told to wash his feet. As she does so, she recognizes a scar - the result of a wound he had received in his youth while hunting boars with his grandfather. We now hear about how Odysseus was named. When Eurykleia wants to tell Penelope the good news, Odysseus makes her swear to keep his identity secret on pain of death.
After Eurykleia leaves, Penelope confides further in the mysterious stranger. She is torn between staying in Ithaka with Telemakhos to care for her husband’s possessions herself, or leave them to Telemakhos to care for entirely while she marries some other man. She says that she has had a dream where an eagle kills the geese in her yard. Odysseus quickly interprets the dream to mean the death of all of the suitors. Penelope tells Odysseus that she plans to have the suitors compete for her hand by stringing Odysseus’ bow. Whichever one can not only string the bow but can shoot an arrow through a row of 12 axes will be the one she marries. Odysseus likes this idea, and tells her she should hold the contest soon. He assures her that her husband will come back in time for the contest. Unbelieving and despairing, Penelope returns to bed.
Book XX – Signs and a Vision
Tossing and turning, Odysseus cannot sleep. All he can do is think about how much he hates the suitors. When he sees some maids heading off to sleep with some of the suitors, he once again has to choke back his rage. At this point, Athena appears to him. She urges him to forget about the suitors for a little while and sleep. After he finally sleeps, Penelope awakens. Still in despair, she says a prayer to Artemis wishing for death instead of a marriage to one of the suitors, then sobs as she remembers a dream that she recently had. She is still crying when Odysseus awakens the next morning. All of his worries return and he prays to Zeus for a positive sign. Zeus sends a thunderclap and Odysseus is encouraged. He also takes heart from a prophecy he hears an old woman mutter as she is grinding at the mill.
When Telemakhos awakens, his first concern is for his father. He checks with Eurykleia to make sure that he has been treated kindly. Over in the kitchen, a great feast is once again being prepared for the suitors (as usual). Once again Odysseus has to endure insults from Melanthios. However, the cowherd Philoitios is nice to Odysseus. The suitors continue to plot against Telemakhos but when they see an omen unfavorable to their enterprise – an eagle with a dove in its talons – they put off the plan for a more fortuitous time.
When dinner is served, Telemakhos shocks and offends the suitors by inviting Odysseus to sit at his table. Another suitor, Ktesippos, throws an ox’s foot at Odysseus (throwing things seems to be their way of dealing with anger). Quick Odysseus dodges it and stores it up as one more reason for revenge, but Telemakhos can’t let it pass and threatens the suitors again. Another suitor, Agelaos, responds with the request that Telemakhos end all of this by making his mother decide on one of them. His reply is that he refuses to force her mother to do something she does not want to do. The suitors scoff at this, laughing, but underneath the fake merriment they are seething. At this point, the seer Theoclymenos has a vision: the suitors wearing death shrouds as blood streams down the walls. More scoffing greets this prophesy, but Theoclymenos is smart enough to leave while he can. Nearby, Penelope hears everything.
Book XXI - The Test of the Bow
Penelope lays out the rules of the contest for the suitors. Odysseus has a special bow that only he has been able to string. If the one of the suitors can not only string the bow but also duplicate his feat of shooting an arrow through twelve axes, Penelope will consent to marriage. The suitors eagerly accept. Meanwhile, Odysseus takes Eumaios and Philoitios into his confidence, tells them his true identity, and lets them in on his deadly plan so that they can help.
Unsurprisingly, none of the suitors can string the bow. Not ready to give up, Antinoos wants to try again the next day. Odysseus steps up and says that he wants to try to string the bow. The suitors deny him, but the intrigued Penelope allows it. Telemakhos tells Penelope that she needs to leave before the “beggar” strings the bow. She obeys, and after she goes, Eumaios and Philoitios quietly lock all the doors.
Of course, Odysseus strings the bow and shoots an arrow through the axes with no problem. The suitors sit amazed and do not notice Telemakhos grabbing a sword in order to help Odysseus clean house.
Book XXII – Death in the Great Hall
And clean house he does. He whips out another arrow, turns around, and nails Antinoos with it. The panicked suitors believe that the beggar is a madman, but then Odysseus reveals his identity to them. They read murder in his eyes and Eurymakhos desperately tries to save them by blaming Antinoos for everything. Odysseus doesn’t even dignify that weak excuse with a reply, other than shooting Eurymakhos with the next arrow. The suitors jump up and try to fight back, but they have been taken by surprise and are no match for the well-prepared and deadly Odysseus. He starts picking them off with his arrows, and with the help of Telemakhos, Eumaios, and Philoitios, he kills them all in short order. Then, Odysseus turns on the traitorous maids that have slept with and aided the suitors. After Eurykleia identifies the twelve disloyal maids, Odysseus orders them to clean up the bloody hall and remove the dead bodies of their former lovers. He is not done with them, however. As soon as the place is clean, he has them all hanged. Finally, Odysseus kills and mutilates Melanthios. With all the traitors dead, Odysseus wipes out the stench of death by burning brimstone in the hall. The house has been purged in more ways than one.
Book XXIII - The Trunk of the Olive Tree
After the slaughter is over, Eurykleia goes to find Penelope and tell her that her husband is back and the suitors are dead. Penelope is in her bedroom, still mourning, and can’t believe that Odysseus is really home again. She descends to the hall to see what has indeed happened. Since the bodies have all been removed, all she sees is the “beggar” drenched in the blood of the suitors. She still is afraid to believe it is really Odysseus. She devises a test. The bed Odysseus built for them is a special one. It was made from an olive tree that goes up through the entire house, which was built around it. Obviously, it cannot be moved as a result. However, no one knows about their private bed but Penelope and Odysseus, so she tells him that the bed has been moved. His reaction is disbelief and anger – he knows the bed is immovable. When Penelope sees his reaction, she is overjoyed – he has passed the test. It IS Odysseus. Her husband has finally returned to her after twenty years. They hurry off to the bedroom to make up for lost time. Athena even delays the rising of the sun so that the two can have extra time to do so. After the sun finally does rise, Odysseus heads off to visit his father Laertes.
Book XXIV – Warriors, Farewell
Meanwhile, the whole gang of suitors is being led by Hermes to Hades. When all Odysseus’ dead friends from Troy see the victims of Odysseus’ rage coming to join them in the underworld, they commend his bravery and skill as a warrior. They also admire Penelope for being so true to Odysseus.
After Odysseus has a joyful reunion with his father, he has to deal with the relatives of the suitors. While he had been visiting Laertes, they had had an assembly and decided to seek revenge on Odysseus. Armed and angry, they head to Laertes’ farm to kill Odysseus. Athena sees them and asks Zeus if she can help out. When the relatives and Odysseus begin to fight, Zeus sends a thunderbolt to make them stop. Athena appears and demands that the fighting end and the relatives accept that the suitors deserved to die. After this has been settled, Odysseus returns victoriously to his former position as king of Ithaka.
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