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The Odyssey (Greek: Ὀδύσσεια, Odysseia) is one of two major ancient Greek epic poems attributed to Homer. It is, in part, a sequel to the Iliad, the other work traditionally ascribed to Homer. The poem is fundamental to the modern Western canon. Indeed it is the second—the Iliad being the first—extant work of Western literature. It was probably composed near the end of the 8th century BC, somewhere in Ionia, the Greek-speaking coastal region of what is now Turkey.
The poem mainly centers on the Greek hero Odysseus (or Ulysses, as he was known in Roman myths) and his long journey home following the fall of Troy. It takes Odysseus ten years to reach Ithaca after the ten-year Trojan War. In his absence, it is assumed he has died, and his wife Penelope and son Telemachus must deal with a group of unruly suitors, the Mnesteres (Greek: Μνηστῆρες) or Proci, competing for Penelope's hand in marriage.
It continues to be read in the Homeric Greek and translated into modern languages around the world. The original poem was composed in an oral tradition by an aoidos (epic poet/singer), perhaps a rhapsode (professional performer), and was more likely intended to be sung than read. The details of the ancient oral performance, and the story's conversion to a written work inspire continual debate among scholars. The Odyssey was written in a regionless poetic dialect of Greek and comprises 12,110 lines of dactylic hexameter. Among the most impressive elements of the text are its non-linear plot, and that events seem to depend as much on the choices made by women and serfs as on the actions of fighting men. In the English language as well as many others, the word odyssey has come to refer to an epic voyage.
The Odyssey begins ten years after the end of the ten-year Trojan War, and Odysseus has still not returned home from the war. Odysseus' son Telemachus is twenty and is sharing his absent father’s house on the island of Ithaca with his mother Penelope and a crowd of 108 boisterous young men, "the Suitors", whose aim is to persuade Penelope to marry one of them, all the while enjoying the hospitality of Odysseus' household and eating up his wealth.
Odysseus’ protectress, the goddess Athena, discusses his fate with Zeus, king of the gods, at a moment when Odysseus' enemy, the god of the sea Poseidon, is absent from Mount Olympus. Then, disguised as a Taphian chieftain named Mentes, she visits Telemachus to urge him to search for news of his father. He offers her hospitality; they observe the Suitors dining rowdily while the bard Phemius performs a narrative poem for them. Penelope objects to Phemius' theme, the "Return from Troy" because it reminds her of her missing husband, but Telemachus rebuts her objections.
That night Athena, disguised as Telemachus, finds a ship and crew for the true Telemachus. The next morning, Telemachus calls an assembly of citizens of Ithaca to discuss what should be done with the suitors. Accompanied by Athena (now disguised as his friend Mentor), he departs for the Greek mainland and the household of Nestor, most venerable of the Greek warriors at Troy, now at home in Pylos. From there, Telemachus rides overland, accompanied by Nestor's son, Peisistratus, to Sparta, where he finds Menelaus and Helen, now reconciled. He is told that they returned to Sparta after a long voyage by way of Egypt. There, on the island of Pharos, Menelaus encountered the old sea-god Proteus, who told him that Odysseus was a captive of the nymph Calypso. Incidentally, Telemachus learns the fate of Menelaus’ brother Agamemnon, king of Mycenae and leader of the Greeks at Troy: murdered on his return home by his wife Clytemnestra and her lover Aegisthus.
Escape to the Phaeacians
Then the story of Odysseus is told. He has spent seven years in captivity on Calypso's island. She is persuaded to release him by Odysseus' great grandfather, the messenger god Hermes, who has been sent by Zeus in response to Athena's plea. Odysseus builds a raft and is given clothing, food and drink by Calypso. The raft is wrecked by Poseidon, but Odysseus swims ashore on the island of Scherie, helped by a veil given by the sea goddess Ino, the home of the Phaeacians, where, naked and exhausted, he hides in a pile of leaves and falls asleep. The next morning, awakened by the laughter of girls, he sees the young Nausicaa, who has gone to the seashore with her maids to wash clothes, after Athena appeared to her in a dream and told her to. He appeals to her for help. She encourages him to seek the hospitality of her parents, Arete and Alcinous. Odysseus is welcomed and is not at first asked for his name. He remains for several days, takes part in a pentathlon, and hears the blind singer Demodocus perform two narrative poems. The first is an otherwise obscure incident of the Trojan War, the "Quarrel of Odysseus and Achilles"; the second is the amusing tale of a love affair between two Olympian gods, Ares and Aphrodite. Finally, Odysseus asks Demodocus to return to the Trojan War theme and tell of the Trojan Horse, a stratagem in which Odysseus had played a leading role. Unable to hide his emotion as he relives this episode, Odysseus at last reveals his identity. He then begins to tell the story of his return from Troy.
Odysseus' account of his adventures
After a piratical raid on Ismaros in the land of the Cicones, he and his twelve ships were driven off course by storms. They visited the lethargic Lotus-Eaters who gave two of his men their fruit which caused them to forget their homecoming, and then were captured by the Cyclops Polyphemus, escaping by blinding him with a wooden stake. While they were escaping, however, Odysseus foolishly told Polyphemus his identity, and Polyphemus told his father, Poseidon, who had blinded him. Poseidon then curses Odysseus to wander the sea for ten years, during which he would lose all his crew and return home through the aid of others. After their escape, they stayed with Aeolus, the master of the winds and he gave Odysseus a leather bag containing all the winds, except the west wind, a gift that should have ensured a safe return home. However, the sailors foolishly opened the bag while Odysseus slept, thinking that it contained gold. All of the winds flew out and the resulting storm drove the ships back the way they had come, just as Ithaca came into sight.
After pleading in vain with Aeolus to help them again, they re-embarked and encountered the cannibalistic Laestrygonians. Odysseus’s ship was the only one to escape. He sailed on and visited the witch-goddess Circe. She turned half of his men into swine after feeding them cheese and wine. Hermes warned Odysseus about Circe and gave Odysseus a drug called moly, a resistance to Circe’s magic. Circe, being attracted to Odysseus' resistance, agreed to bargain with him. His men will be changed back to their human form in exchange for Odysseus' love. They remained with her on the island for one year, while they feasted and drank. Finally, guided by Circe's instructions, Odysseus and his crew crossed the ocean and reached a harbour at the western edge of the world, where Odysseus sacrificed to the dead and summoned the spirit of the old prophet Tiresias to advise him of how to apease the gods upon his return home. Next Odysseus met the spirit of his own mother, who had died of grief during his long absence. From her, he learned for the first time news of his own household, threatened by the greed of the suitors. Here, too, he met the spirits of famous women and famous men. Notably he encountered the spirit of Agamemnon, of whose murder he now learned, who also warned him about the dangers of women (for Odysseus' encounter with the dead, see also Nekuia).
Returning to Circe’s island, they were advised by her on the remaining stages of the journey. They skirted the land of the Sirens, passed between the six-headed monster Scylla and the whirlpool Charybdis, and landed on the island of Thrinacia. There, Odysseus’ men ignored the warnings of Tiresias and Circe, and hunted down the sacred cattle of the sun god Helios. This sacrilege was punished by a shipwreck in which all but Odysseus drowned. He was washed ashore on the island of Calypso, where she compelled him to remain as her lover for seven years before he escaped.
Return to Ithaca
Having listened with rapt attention to his story, the Phaeacians, who are skilled mariners, agree to help Odysseus get home. They deliver him at night, while he is fast asleep, to a hidden harbour on Ithaca. He finds his way to the hut of one of his own former slaves, the swineherd Eumaeus. Athena disguises Odysseus as a wandering beggar in order to learn how things stand in his household. After dinner, he tells the farm laborers a fictitious tale of himself: he was born in Crete, had led a party of Cretans to fight alongside other Greeks in the Trojan War, and had then spent seven years at the court of the king of Egypt; finally he had been shipwrecked in Thesprotia and crossed from there to Ithaca.
Meanwhile, Telemachus sails home from Sparta, evading an ambush set by the suitors. He disembarks on the coast of Ithaca and makes for Eumaeus’s hut. Father and son meet; Odysseus identifies himself to Telemachus (but still not to Eumaeus) and they determine that the suitors must be killed. Telemachus gets home first. Accompanied by Eumaeus, Odysseus now returns to his own house, still pretending to be a beggar. He experiences the suitors’ rowdy behaviour and plans their death. He meets Penelope and tests her intentions with an invented story of his birth in Crete, where, he says, he once met Odysseus. Closely questioned, he adds that he had recently been in Thesprotia and had learned something there of Odysseus’s recent wanderings.
Odysseus’s identity is discovered by the housekeeper, Eurycleia, as she is washing his feet and discovers an old scar Odysseus had received during a boar hunt. He'd received the scar when he was hunting with the sons of Autolycus. They had been told to go boar hunting so that they could prepare a meal with the meat. The three climbed Mount Parnassus and eventually came across a boar in a large and deep meadow. Because of the meadow's depth, the three hunters were ambushed by the seemingly invisible boar and when Odysseus first saw the animal, he rushed at it but the animal was too fast and slashed him in the right thigh. Despite being gored by the boar, Odysseus still hit his mark and stabbed the boar through the shoulder. Odysseus' bleeding was staunched by a spell that was chanted by the sons of Autolycus and he received great glory and treasure for his bravery. Having seen this scar, Eurycleia tries to tell Penelope about Odysseus' true identity, but Athena makes sure that Penelope cannot hear Eurycleia. Meanwhile, Odysseus swears her to secrecy, and she promises not to tell.
Slaying of the suitors
The next day, at Athena’s prompting, Penelope maneuvers the suitors into competing for her hand with an archery competition using Odysseus' bow. The man who can string the bow and shoot it through a dozen axe heads would win. Odysseus takes part in the competition himself: he alone is strong enough to string the bow and shoot it through the dozen axe heads, making him the winner. He then turns his arrows on the suitors and with the help of Athena, Telemachus, Eumaeus and Philoteus the cowherd, he kills all the suitors. Odysseus and Telemachus hang twelve of their household maids, who had betrayed Penelope or had sex with the suitors, or both; they mutilate and kill the goatherd Melanthius, who had mocked and abused Odysseus. Now at last, Odysseus identifies himself to Penelope. She is hesitant, but accepts him when he mentions that their bed was made from an olive tree still rooted to the ground. Many modern and ancient scholars take this to be the original ending of the Odyssey, and the rest to be an interpolation.
The next day he and Telemachus visit the country farm of his old father Laertes, who likewise accepts his identity only when Odysseus correctly describes the orchard that Laertes had previously given him.
The citizens of Ithaca have followed Odysseus on the road, planning to avenge the killing of the suitors, their sons. Their leader points out that Odysseus has now caused the deaths of two generations of the men of Ithaca: his sailors, not one of whom survived; and the suitors, whom he has now executed. The goddess Athena intervenes and persuades both sides to give up the vendetta, a deus ex machina. After this, Ithaca is at peace once more, concluding the Odyssey.
Character of Odysseus
Odysseus' heroic trait is his mētis, or "cunning intelligence": he is often described as the "Peer of Zeus in Counsel." This intelligence is most often manifested by his use of disguise and deceptive speech. His disguises take forms both physical (altering his appearance) and verbal, such as telling the Cyclops Polyphemus that his name is Ουτις, "Noman", then escaping after blinding Polyphemus. When asked by other Cyclopes why he is screaming, Polyphemus replies that "No man" is hurting him, so the others assume that, "If alone as you are [Polyphemus] none uses violence on you, why, there is no avoiding the sickness sent by great Zeus; so you had better pray to your father, the lord Poseidon". The most evident flaw that Odysseus sports is that of his arrogance and his pride, or hubris. As he sails away from the island of the Cyclopēs, he shouts his name and boasts that no one can defeat the "Great Odysseus". The Cyclops then throws the top half of a mountain at him and prays to his father, Poseidon, saying that Odysseus has blinded him. This enrages Poseidon, causing the god to thwart Odysseus' homecoming for a very long time.
The Odyssey opens in medias res (in the middle of things), meaning that the plot begins in the middle of the overall story, and that prior events are described through flashbacks or storytelling. This device is imitated by later authors of literary epics, for example, Virgil in the Aeneid, as well as modern poets such as Luís de Camões in Os Lusíadas or Alexander Pope in The Rape of the Lock.
In the first episodes, we trace Telemachus' efforts to assert control of the household, and then, at Athena’s advice, to search for news of his long-lost father. Then the scene shifts: Odysseus has been a captive of the beautiful nymph Calypso, with whom he has spent seven of his ten lost years. Released by the intercession of his patroness Athena, through the aid of Hermes, he departs, but his raft is destroyed by his divine enemy Poseidon, who is angry because Odysseus blinded his son, Polyphemus. When Odysseus washes up on Scherie, home to the Phaeacians, he is assisted by the young Nausicaa and is treated hospitably. In return, he satisfies the Phaeacians' curiosity, telling them, and the reader, of all his adventures since departing from Troy. The shipbuilding Phaeacians then loan him a ship to return to Ithaca, where he is aided by the swineherd Eumaeus, meets Telemachus, regains his household, kills the suitors, and is reunited with his faithful wife, Penelope.
All ancient and nearly all modern editions and translations of the Odyssey are divided into 24 books. This division is convenient but it may not be original. Many scholars believe it was developed by Alexandrian editors of the 3rd century BC. In the Classical period, moreover, several of the books (individually and in groups) were given their own titles: the first four books, focusing on Telemachus, are commonly known as the Telemachy. Odysseus' narrative, Book 9, featuring his encounter with the cyclops Polyphemus, is traditionally called the Cyclopeia. Book 11, the section describing his meeting with the spirits of the dead is known as the Nekuia. Books 9 through 12, wherein Odysseus recalls his adventures for his Phaeacian hosts, are collectively referred to as the Apologoi: Odysseus' "stories". Book 22, wherein Odysseus kills all the suitors, has been given the title Mnesterophonia: "slaughter of the suitors". This concludes the Greek Epic Cycle, though fragments remain of the "alternative ending" of sorts known as the Telegony.
This Telegony aside, the last 548 lines of the Odyssey, corresponding to Book 24, are believed by many scholars to have been added by a slightly later poet. Several passages in earlier books seem to be setting up the events of Book 24, so if it were indeed a later addition, the offending editor would seem to have changed earlier text as well. For more about varying views on the origin, authorship and unity of the poem see Homeric scholarship.
Geography of the Odyssey
Events in the main sequence of the Odyssey (excluding Odysseus' embedded narrative of his wanderings) take place in the Peloponnese and in what are now called the Ionian Islands. There are difficulties in the apparently simple identification of Ithaca, the homeland of Odysseus, which may or may not be the same island that is now called Ithake. The wanderings of Odysseus as told to the Phaeacians, and the location of the Phaeacians' own island of Scherie, pose more fundamental problems, if geography is to be applied: scholars, both ancient and modern, are divided as to whether or not any of the places visited by Odysseus (after Ismaros and before his return to Ithaca) are real.
Dating the Odyssey
In 2008, scientists Marcelo O. Magnasco and Constantino Baikouzis at Rockefeller University used clues in the text and astronomical data to attempt to pinpoint the time of Odysseus's return from his journey after the Trojan War.
The first clue is Odysseus's sighting of Venus just before dawn as he arrives on Ithaca. The second is a new moon on the night before the massacre of the suitors. The final clue is a total eclipse, falling over Ithaca around noon, when Penelope's suitors sit down for their noon meal. The seer Theoclymenus approaches the suitors and foretells their death, saying, "The Sun has been obliterated from the sky, and an unlucky darkness invades the world." The problem with this is that the 'eclipse' is only seen by Theoclymenus, and the suitors toss him out, calling him mad. No-one else sees the sky darken, and it is therefore not actually described as an eclipse within the story, merely a vision by Theoclymenus.
Doctors Baikouzis and Magnasco state that "[t]he odds that purely fictional references to these phenomena (so hard to satisfy simultaneously) would coincide by accident with the only eclipse of the century are minute." They conclude that these three astronomical references "'cohere,' in the sense that the astronomical phenomena pinpoint the date of 16 April 1178 BC" as the most likely date of Odysseus' return.
This dating places the destruction of Troy, ten years before, to 1188 BC, which is close to the archaeologically dated destruction of Troy VIIa circa 1190 BC
Near Eastern influences
Scholars have seen strong influences from Near Eastern mythology and literature in the Odyssey. Martin West has noted substantial parallels between the Epic of Gilgamesh and the Odyssey. Both Odysseus and Gilgamesh are known for traveling to the ends of the earth, and on their journeys go to the land of the dead. On his voyage to the underworld, Odysseus follows instructions given to him by Circe, a goddess who is the daughter of the sun-god Helios. Her island, Aeaea, is located at the edges of the world, and seems to have close associations with the sun. Like Odysseus, Gilgamesh gets directions on how to reach the land of the dead from a divine helper: in this case, she is the goddess Siduri, who, like Circe, dwells by the sea at the ends of the earth. Her home is also associated with the sun: Gilgamesh reaches Siduri's house by passing through a tunnel underneath Mt. Mashu, the high mountain from which the sun comes into the sky. West argues that the similarity of Odysseus' and Gilgamesh's journeys to the edges of the earth are the result of the influence of the Gilgamesh epic upon the Odyssey.
The cyclop's origins have also been surmised to be the results of Ancient Greeks finding an elephant skull, by paleontologist Othenio Abel in 1914. The enormous nasal passage in the middle of the forehead, could have looked like the eye socket of a giant, to those who had never seen a living elephant.
- The Athenian tyrant Peisistratos, who ruled between 546 and 527 BC, is believed to have established a Commission of Editors of Homer to edit the text of the poems and remove any errors and interpolations, thus establishing a canonical text.
- The earliest papyrus fragments date back to the 3rd century BC.
- The oldest complete manuscript is the Laurentianus from the 10th or 11th century.
- The editio princeps of both the Iliad and the Odyssey is by Demetrius Chalcondyles in Florence, most likely from 1488.
Cultural impact through the ages
- Cyclops by Euripides, the only extant satyr play, retells the respective episode with a humorous twist.
- True Story, written by Lucian of Samosata in the 2nd century AD, is a parody of the Odyssey describing a journey beyond the Pillars of Hercules and to the moon.
- Some of the tales of Sinbad the Sailor from The Book of One Thousand and One Nights were taken from the Odyssey.
- Merugud Uilix maicc Leirtis ("On the Wandering of Ulysses, son of Laertes") is an eccentric Old Irish version of the material; the work exists in a 12th-century manuscript that linguists believe is based on an 8th-century original.
- Dante Alighieri has Odysseus append a new ending to the Odyssey in canto XXVI of the Inferno.
- Il ritorno d'Ulisse in Patria, first performed in 1640, is an opera by Monteverdi based on the second half of Homer's Odyssey.
- Every episode of James Joyce's modernist novel Ulysses (1922) has an assigned theme, technique and correspondences between its characters and those of Homer's Odyssey.
- The first canto of Ezra Pound's The Cantos (1922) is both a translation and a retelling of Odysseus' journey to the underworld.
- Nikos Kazantzakis aspires to continue the poem and explore more modern concerns in The Odyssey: A Modern Sequel (1938).
- The 1954 Broadway musical The Golden Apple by librettist John Treville Latouche and composer Jerome Moross is freely adapted from the Iliad and the Odyssey, re-setting the action to the American state of Washington in the years after the Spanish-American War, with events inspired by the Iliad in Act One and events inspired by the Odyssey in Act Two.
- In Jean-Luc Godard's film Le Mépris (1963), German film director Fritz Lang plays himself attempting to direct a film adaptation of the Odyssey.
- The Japanese-French anime Ulysses 31 (1981) updates the ancient setting into a 31st century space opera.
- Omeros (1991), an epic poem by Derek Walcott, is in part a retelling of the Odyssey, set on the Caribbean island of St. Lucia.
- The Odyssey (1997), a made-for-TV movie directed by Andrei Konchalovsky, is a slightly abbreviated version of the epic.
- Charles Frazier's Cold Mountain (1997) borrows much from the Odyssey to tell the story of an American Civil War veteran's homecoming.
- Similarly, Daniel Wallace's Big Fish: A Novel of Mythic Proportions (1998) adapts the epic to the American South, while also incorporating tall tales into its first-person narrative much as Odysseus does in the Apologoi (Books 9-12).
- The Coen Brothers' 2000 film O Brother, Where Art Thou? is loosely based on Homer's poem.
- American progressive metal band Symphony X interprets multiple scenes of the epic in their song, The Odyssey (2002).
- Zachary Mason's The Lost Books of the Odyssey (2007) is a series of short stories that rework Homer's original plot in a contemporary style reminiscent of Italo Calvino.
- Dominic Allen's stage play 'Odyssey' loosely adapts the story into a post-apocalyptic setting, basing the Odysseus character on Ezra Pound.
Notable English translations
This is a partial list of translations into English of Homer's Odyssey. For a more complete list see English translations of Homer.
- George Chapman, 1616 (couplets)
- Alexander Pope, 1713 (couplets); Project Gutenberg edition; Gutenberg.net
- William Cowper, 1791 (blank verse)
- Samuel Henry Butcher and Andrew Lang, Project Gutenberg edition; Gutenberg.net
- William Cullen Bryant, 1871 (blank verse)
- Mordaunt Roger Barnard 1876 (blank verse)
- William Morris, 1887
- Samuel Butler, 1898 (prose), Project Gutenberg edition; Gutenberg.net or Perseus Project Od.1.1
- Padraic Colum, 1918 (prose), Bartleby.com
- A. T. Murray (revised by George E. Dimock), 1919; Loeb Classical Library ( ISBN 0-674-99561-9)
- George Herbert Palmer, 1921, prose. An audio CD recording read by Norman Deitz is available ( ISBN 1-4025-2325-4), 1989.
- T. E. Shaw ( T. E. Lawrence), 1932
- W. H. D. Rouse, 1937, prose
- E. V. Rieu, 1945, prose
- Robert Fitzgerald, 1963 ( ISBN 0-679-72813-9)
- Richmond Lattimore, 1965 ( ISBN 0-06-093195-7)
- Albert Cook, 1967 (Norton Critical Edition), the most accurate line by line poetic translation
- Walter Shewring, 1980 ( ISBN 0-19-283375-8), Oxford University Press (Oxford World's Classics), prose
- Allen Mandelbaum, 1990
- Robert Fagles, 1996 ( ISBN 0-14-026886-3); an unabridged audio recording by Ian McKellen is also available ( ISBN 0-14-086430-X).
- Stanley Lombardo, Hackett Publishing Company, 2000 ( ISBN 0-87220-484-7). An audio CD recording read by the translator is also available ( ISBN 1-930972-06-7).
- Martin Hammond, 2000, prose
- Rodney Merrill,2002, in dactylic hexameter: the most accurate poetic rendering in homeric metre, University of Michigan Press
- Edward McCrorie, 2004 ( ISBN 0-8018-8267-2), Johns Hopkins University Press.
Themes in the Odyssey
There is a strong theme of homecoming (nostos) in the Odyssey, because Odysseus is on a journey home after the Trojan war has finally ended.
The theme of temptation as a psychological peril is portrayed by the sirens who lure sailors to their deaths by seduction. They represent the ideal audience—they sing about the most glorious moment of your life, thus tempting you to stay the hero or warrior they are portraying you as. Your own weakness makes you vulnerable, your greatest weakness comes from inside you.
Another significant theme is that of disguise, in the case of the gods, they disguise themselves so that they can interact with mortals. Athena in particular assumes many disguises including a shepherd, a girl, Telemachus, and Mentor. Odysseus is also able to disguise his identity, though not physically, by telling Polyphemus his name is ‘Nobody’ so that he will not be identified as the one who blinded the Cyclops. He also disguises himself as a beggar when he returns to Ithaca to protect himself from being killed by the suitors.
Hospitality (xenia) is also a recurring theme as fundamental as the heroic code in the Odyssey. During that time, beggars or travelers often knocked on a stranger’s door in hopes of procuring a place to stay. There are specific steps for proper hospitality beginning with the feeding of the guest, which is of utmost importance since food is rare at that time and beggars beg for food, not money. Before the food is given, a bath is offered to the stranger, done by a woman or a servant—often different depending on the status of the visitor. After the food is given, the beggar is asked who he is and where he is from and stories are exchanged. Next, they are offered a bed to sleep on and it is understood that that they can stay overnight and at the most another night. When the beggar is leaving, there is an exchange of gifts, if the beggar does not have a gift to give, they will still be given one.