A Very Quick Introduction to The Odyssey
My book-by-book summary of The Odyssey is below; but first, a short introduction.
The Odyssey is the oldest work of literature set in Europe. It’s a sort of sequel to The Iliad – its hero, Odysseus, was one of The Iliad’s supporting characters. The Odyssey and The Iliad are the link between the lost world of the Bronze Age on the one hand, and on the other, the classical Greek civilisation that Western culture is built on. Every educated Greek and Roman knew both of these masterpieces intimately, giving them a massive impact on our literature and culture.
The history of these two epic poems is deeply complicated and mysterious. We know that by about 600 BC they were revered masterpieces across the Greek world, and that we also know that there are historically-accurate details reflecting the Greek Bronze Age civilisation that collapsed around 1100 BC. Scholars believe that legends and poems set in the Bronze Age were passed down in an oral tradition by bards. The Odyssey and The Iliad seem to take for granted that their audience already knows various stories about the ten-year Trojan War, so the poems appear to be based on these existing stories. The best guess is that the two epics were composed in the eighth or seventh centuries BC. They may or may not have been composed by the same person, who may or may not have been a blind bard called Homer. Archaeologists have proved that several places in the stories – including Troy – did exist; whether the Trojan War really happened, and whether any of the characters were based on historical individuals, is unknowable.
The Odyssey is about 12,000 lines long, but it breaks down neatly into six sections of four “books,” or chapters, each. My favourite translation is the new Emily Wilson version (you can read what’s so great about it here). The thing about The Odyssey that everyone knows is the long, perilous journey encountering fantastical monsters. In fact, this part of the epic only takes up four of the poem’s twenty-four books. The main story is really about the homecoming of the wily Odysseus, ten years after the end of the Trojan War, and the coming of age of his son Telemachus, as the two of them plot to rescue their island kingdom from the evils that have befallen it in Odysseus’s absence. The island of Ithaca is in desperate need of the cunning king who left for the Trojan War twenty years earlier, and he must seize back power before it is too late to save his household and his family…
The Odyssey I: Travels
Part 1: The Journey of Telemachus
It is ten years since the end of the Trojan War. Of all the Greeks who took part in the siege of Troy, Odysseus is the only one who has neither made it home nor perished on his travels. He is trapped on the island of a nymph called Calypso, unable to leave because he is hated by Poseidon, God of the Sea.
But while Poseidon is away, Athena persuades the other gods that it is time for Odysseus to be allowed to leave his island prison. To prepare for Odysseus’s return, Athena flies to Ithaca, Odysseus’s home, where in disguise she meets Telemachus, Odysseus’s unhappy son. Telemachus was only a baby when Odysseus left, so now he is a troubled, fatherless twenty-year-old who doesn’t know how to make the transition from boyhood to manhood. Telemachus is convinced that Odysseus must be dead by now. He is depressed because, in Odysseus’s absence, everything on Ithaca is slipping into disorder. In particular, dozens of odious suitors are living in his halls and abusing the laws of hospitality, consuming Odysseus’s patrimony in lavish feasts and pestering Odysseus’s wife, Penelope, to marry one of them. Athena tells Telemachus that he needs to get a handle on the situation and go on a journey seeking news of his father. When she leaves, Telemachus realises she must have been a god in human form. Inspired by Athena’s visit, he speaks boldly to his mother and the suitors, who are startled by the sudden change in the normally passive, gloomy boy. Telemachus plans to hold a meeting the next day.
Telemachus calls an assembly of the leading men of Ithaca, where he describes the wrongs that the suitors are doing to him by consuming his family resources and badgering his mother. The suitors arrogantly defend themselves, complaining that Penelope has been resisting their efforts to persuade her to marry one of them. One of the suitors tells the story of how Penelope tricked them by saying she would remarry after she had finished weaving a burial shroud for Odysseus’s father, Laertes; but the task seemed to take forever, and after three years they discovered that she was undoing her weaving at night so that it would never be ready. In the face of the suitors’ unapologetic lawlessness, Telemachus announces that he is going to go travelling, to see if he can find news of his father, rather than waiting in ignorance while the suitors consume his inheritance.
Athena comes to him in the form of Mentor, a wise old friend of Odysseus, and promises to provide Telemachus with a ship and a crew. Telemachus tells nobody about the plan except Eurycleia, an old serving-woman who had once been Odysseus’s nurse. He makes Eurycleia promise not to tell his mother unless twelve days pass, or his mother finds out about his absence from someone else. Then Telemachus joins the disguised Athena in the dead of night, and the two of them set off on their secret voyage.
Telemachus and Athena arrive at Pylos to find the very old king, Nestor, performing a religious rite on the beach in the name of Poseidon, who is Nestor’s grandfather. Nestor welcomes them warmly, and Telemachus says he has come to learn how his father died. Nestor says he hasn’t heard news of Odysseus since they went in different directions during the arguments that followed the fall of Troy. He is, however, able to convey news about what befell many of the other Greek kings, including Menelaus and Helen, who only recently made it home to neighbouring Sparta. Nestor offers Telemachus hospitality, and suggests that he visit Menelaus, who might know more. The next morning, Nestor oversees a sacrifice in Athena’s name, perceiving that she is helping Telemachus. Then Telemachus and Nestor’s youngest son, Pisistratus, set off on one of Nestor’s chariots towards Menelaus’s kingdom.
Menelaus is celebrating a double wedding feast for his son and his daughter when Telemachus and Pisistratus arrive, and he offers them appropriately generous hospitality. Menelaus has become extremely rich as a result of the treasures he collected during his eight years of travelling through distant lands – especially Egypt – on his way home. Menelaus and Helen realise that one of their guests is the son of Odysseus. The two hosts and the two guests emotionally reminisce about the fallen heroes of the Trojan War, and Menelaus and Helen both tell Telemachus stories about Odysseus’s quick wits and bold schemes.
The next morning, away from the others, Menelaus asks Telemachus what he’s really doing there. Telemachus says he is seeking news of his father’s fate. Menelaus tells a story about an incident near Egypt, when he had to capture an ancient shape-shifting sea god called Proteus to find out how to save his fleet from starvation and get safely home. Proteus told Menelaus the offerings he needed to make to the gods to earn their blessings – and he also mentioned that Odysseus was trapped on an island by a nymph called Calypso. For the first time, Telemachus finds out that Odysseus may not be dead after all…
Meanwhile, on Ithaca, the suitors discover Telemachus’s absence and angrily plan to murder him on his way home. They send a ship to cut off his homeward route. Penelope is shocked to find out that Telemachus has gone on such a dangerous voyage; Eurycleia tries to soothe her, but she remains deeply distressed. Athena sends Penelope a dream to reassure her that Telemachus will be safe; Penelope asks the dream about Odysseus, and the dream gives no answer.
Part 2: Return to the Human Realm
While Poseidon is still away, Athena persuades Zeus, King of the Gods, to finally order Odysseus’s release. Hermes comes to Calypso’s island to bring her the message. Her home is a paradise, beautiful and stocked with divine food and drink; and a vast expanse of unfriendly ocean stretches between the island and the nearest human realm. Nonetheless, Odysseus is desperate to leave, preferring his little rugged kingdom of Ithaca and longing to see his wife again. Calypso bitterly gives in to Zeus’s command, but because she wants her beloved Odysseus to think kindly of her, she pretends to be releasing him of her own free will. One final time, she offers him immortality as her husband, and she points out that Penelope is less beautiful than her and will age. Nonetheless, Odysseus is not put off.
He builds a raft and sets off on his voyage. On the eighteenth day, as he nears his destination, Poseidon returns and sees him. Furious, the Sea-God sends a storm which Odysseus only narrowly survives. After three days of battling the elements – and protected from drowning by the magical scarf of the goddess Ino, who takes pity on him – he makes it to the shore of Phaeacia. He collapses, exhausted, in a sheltered spot.
Athena comes to Nausicaa, the Phaeacian princess, in a dream and tells her to go to the river to do the palace laundry. Nausicaa and her maidservants unwittingly wake up Odysseus, who comes before her to respectfully ask for her help. Nausicaa’s maidservants clothe and feed Odysseus, marking his return to the human realm. Nausicaa modestly decides not to be seen in public with Odysseus, so she advises him how to get to her city, and to earn her parents’ trust by supplicating himself at the feet of her mother, Queen Arete, rather than her father, King Alcinous. Phaeacia, she says, is far out on the edge of human habitation, a long journey to its nearest neighbour.
Athena cloaks Odysseus from view and guides him to King Alcinous’s palace. He does as Nausicaa instructed, clasping Arete’s knees in supplication and winning the admiration of the Phaeacians. Their realm is unimaginably rich and they show various signs of divine favour. Alcinous shows Odysseus hospitality. Arete stays quiet in the presence of the court until everyone goes home, whereupon she asks Odysseus about the clothes he is wearing, which she made herself. Odysseus explains about the storm and his meeting with Nausicaa. When Alcinous complains that Nausicaa shouldn’t have let Odysseus enter the city alone, Odysseus tactfully pretends that it was he who insisted on the two of them entering the city separately. Alcinous goes so far as to offer him Nausicaa’s hand in marriage, though Odysseus is interested in nothing except getting home.
Alcinous assembles the Phaeacian lords and they resolve to send Odysseus home, though he has not yet revealed his identity. Then in the king’s hall, the blind bard Demodocus sings of a quarrel between Odysseus and Achilles, the protagonist of The Iliad who later died in the Trojan War. On hearing his song, Odysseus starts quietly crying.
When Alcinous notices, he calls off the singing and leads everyone out to watch athletic competitions. After the athletes have almost finished competing, Odysseus is invited to join in, but he says his heart is too heavy. A youth called Euryalus taunts him, saying he is surely just a merchant and not a physically capable man. Angered, Odysseus throws a discus further than any of the discus throwers managed in their earlier competition, and offers to prove his other physical capabilities. Alcinous defuses the situation, calling for Demodocus to play music again as dancing takes place.
Demodocus sings the comic story of Aphrodite’s love affair with Ares, and how they were caught by her cunning husband Hephaestus. Alcinous and all his lords give Odysseus splendid presents to honour him, and Euryalus gives Odysseus his sword as an apology for his earlier rudeness. Arete gives Odysseus a chest to store the gifts in. At supper, Odysseus challenges Demodocus to sing of the Trojan Horse, to see if the gods have truly blessed him with accuracy in all that he sings. But when Demodocus does so, Odysseus is overcome with emotion and weeps until Alcinous ends the song and asks his guest to reveal his true identity and the causes of his torment.
Part 3: Odysseus’s Tale
Odysseus reveals himself, and unwittingly picks up his tale from where Nestor left off in Book 3. He tells of his ten adventures before he reached Calypso’s island: three per book, except for his most unsettling experience, which takes up the whole of Book Eleven.
On his way home from Troy with his twelve ships, Odysseus raided a place called Ismarus, but lost a number of men in their counter-attack; then he was blown far off-course to the land of the Lotus-eaters, but managed to get away unharmed.
Then they anchored by a plentiful island, from where they could see signs of habitation on the other side of a strait. Intrigued, Odysseus made a fatal mistake – he took one ship and crossed to explore this other land, not knowing it was the home of the one-eyed Cyclopes. He took twelve companions to seek hospitality from the locals, and they waited in a cave to meet the shepherd who lived there. But the shepherd turned out to be the monstrous Cyclops, Polyphemus, who sealed the cave shut with a massive rock, trapping Odysseus and his men inside. Polyphemus ate two of the men for supper and two again for breakfast before heading out with his flock; and when he returned in the evening he ate two more.
Odysseus and his men were trapped there, and they knew that if they killed Polyphemus while he slept, they would never be able to escape from the cave. So Odysseus got Polyphemus drunk with some very potent wine he had acquired in Ismarus, and then blinded him with a sharpened stick. Polyphemus was agonised and enraged, but unable to find Odysseus in the cave. The next morning, Polyphemus had to let the sheep out, and Odysseus and his men escaped on the undersides of the sheep. As they sailed away, Odysseus could not resist shouting out his name to Polyphemus and heaping abuse on the blind Cyclops. Polyphemus responded by calling on his father, Poseidon, to curse Odysseus and all his men. This was the origin of Poseidon’s hatred for Odysseus.
Odysseus tells how he and his men received warm hospitality on the island of Aeolus, the King of the Winds. Aeolus secretly gave Odysseus his bag of winds to help the fleet sail home. But when Ithaca was in sight, Odysseus – who had been guarding the bag for the whole journey – fell asleep, and his men opened the bag, believing it contained treasure that Odysseus was not sharing with them. Instead, the winds escaped and blew the ships all the way back to Aeolus’s island. This time Aeolus and his people turned Odysseus away, realising that he was cursed.
Next, the demoralised fleet stumbled upon an inviting harbour; Odysseus’s ship moored outside it but the other eleven ships sailed inside. The locals turned out to be man-eating giants called Laestrygonians, who trapped the eleven ships in the harbour and ate all their crews. Only Odysseus’s ship escaped.
Their next landfall was Circe’s enchanted island. Odysseus and his men split into two groups and drew lots: Odysseus’s party stayed by the ship while the others went to find out who lived inland. They met Circe, who turned all of them into pigs, except for one man who escaped to inform the others. Odysseus went alone to rescue his men. Hermes appeared to him and gave him an antidote against Circe’s magic. Protected from her spells, Odysseus was able to overpower Circe and get her to vow not to plot against him or his crew. She turned the pigs back into men, and gave them hospitality for a year while they recovered from their grief and trauma. But when Odysseus and his men were ready to leave, she informed Odysseus that before he could go home, he had to make another journey… to the land of the dead.
Odysseus and his crew undertook their most extraordinary and harrowing journey of all: to the shores of the Underworld. Following Circe’s careful instructions, they performed a sacrifice which brought the shades of the dead to drink the blood. Odysseus was able to hold the spirits at bay with his sword, controlling which ones drank the blood – and when they did so, they were able to recognise and speak to him. He was startled to see one of his crewmates, Elpenor, who broke his neck on Circe’s island just before they set off; Elpenor’s shade begged Odysseus for a proper funeral. Then the prophet Tiresias came. He was the man whom Circe had sent Odysseus to speak to, knowing that only Tiresias could give him the answers he needed. Tiresias advised Odysseus about his way home and defeating the suitors – and how afterwards to propitiate Poseidon to remove the Sea-God’s curse. His mission accomplished, Odysseus lingered for an emotional reunion with his mother, followed by encounters with several important Greek women – including Nestor’s mother and grandmother.
Odysseus pauses in his story, and the Phaeacians marvel at his tale. Alcinous begs him to continue, asking whether he saw any of his comrades from the Trojan War. Odysseus relates his conversation with Agamemnon, who was bitter about being murdered by his wife; and with Achilles, who once accepted death gladly but who now melancholically longed for life again. Achilles was cheered up by Odysseus’s account of the exploits of his son, Neoptolemus. A third Greek hero, Ajax, who killed himself after being honoured less highly than Odysseus, still – to Odysseus’s regret – refused to speak to him. After seeing some other legendary dead spirits such as Sisyphus and Heracles, Odysseus lost his nerve and he and his crew cast off.
They returned to Circe’s isle for Elpenor’s funeral, and Circe told Odysseus about the three obstacles lying between him and home, and how to deal with them. First, he must avoid the song of the sirens, which irresistibly draws sailors to their deaths. Second, he must either risk all his men in the perilous passage between the Wandering Rocks, or he must sacrifice six of them by taking the route past Scylla – a six-headed monster – and Charybdis – a supernatural whirlpool. Third, he must not let his men harm the cattle of the Sun-God, Helios, which live on an island called Thrinacia.
Odysseus did his best to follow the instructions. He put beeswax in his men’s ears so they could not hear the sirens, but he couldn’t resist listening to their beautiful song, so he got his crew to tie him to the mast and not let him go until they were safely past. He chose the route past Scylla and Charybdis, but he hid from them the existence of Scylla; they got past, as Odysseus had planned, with the loss of six men. But the survivors were appalled and exhausted, and despite Odysseus’s warnings they insisted on landing on the island of Thrinacia.
The men initially agreed not to eat the cattle there, but after a wind trapped them there for a month, they grew desperate. They slaughtered and ate the cattle without Odysseus’s knowledge, dooming themselves in the process. When they put to sea, Helios had his revenge, as the gods conjured a storm that washed all of Odysseus’s crew overboard. Alone on his ship, Odysseus was sucked towards Charybdis; but he was able to grab hold of an olive tree just above the mouth of the whirlpool, and he clung on until the remnants of his ship were coughed back up. Clinging onto the wrecked ship, Odysseus eventually washed up on Calypso’s island.