Odyssey

The Odyssey is the second of the two great Greek epic poems ascribed to Homer, the first being the Iliad. The book follows the events of the last 42 days of the voyage of Odysseus returning from the Trojan War. During two nights in the company of the Phaeacians he describes his entire voyage.

In the English language, the word odyssey has come to refer to an epic voyage.

Table of contents
1 Plot summary
2 Geography in the Odyssey
3 Derivative works
4 External links

Plot summary

The story opens with Odysseus held on the island of Calypso and unable to return home to his wife Penelope. All the gods, except for Poseidon, are sympathetic to his plight. With Poseidon away in Ethiopia for a feast, the others gather and Athena asks Zeus to allow Odysseus to return. Poseidon has kept Odysseus away from home on account of the blinding of his son Polyphemus and Odysseus' claiming to have tricked the Trojans by himself, but Zeus agrees to let him return. Hermes is to be sent to Calypso to ask for his release. Athena travels to the island of Ithaca, advising Odysseus' son Telemachus to call an assembly of the Achaeans to speak out against the suitors of Penelope, then to travel to Pylos and Sparta to seek tidings of his father's return.

On the second day, Telemachus assembles the people and makes a weak appeal to the suitors' consciences. They answer with scorn and are warned of their fate by Halitherses, but refuse to take any notice. Telemachus borrows a ship and travels by night to Pylos accompanied by Athena. On the third day, they arrive in Pylos and are received by Nestor. However he has no news about Odysseus and Athena disappears. The next day Telemachus drives a chariot to Pherae, halfway to Sparta, accompanied by Peisistratus. On the fifth day they arrive in Sparta and are received by Menelaus and Helen. On the sixth day Menelaus describes his return from Troy and says that he has heard from Proteus, the old man of the sea, that Odysseus is still alive and held captive on an island. Menelaus invites Telemachus to stay for 11 or 12 days, which he declines. Later in the book it turns out that Telemachus made an even longer stay in Sparta after all. Meanwhile, back in Ithaca on the sixth day, the suitors learn that Telemachus is searching for his father and they decide to lay an ambush.

On the seventh day, back with the gods of Olympus, Athena again urges the release of Odysseus and Hermes is sent to Calypso, where he presents the message. Zeus prophecies that Odysseus will reach the Phaeacians at Scheria after 20 days sailing, who will take him to Ithaca.

From the eighth day Odysseus constructs a raft, which he uses to leave the island on the twelfth day. After sailing for 18 days he sees Scheria on the 29th day of the story. However Poseidon raises a storm against him and he cannot land on the island until the 32nd day.

On the 33rd day, Odysseus meets Nausicaa, daughter of Alcinous, the Phaeacian King. With the help of Athena and Nausicaa he is favourably received in the palace. He describes how he arrived from Calypso's island. The next day, after the conduct of sports, he describes the two year voyage between the fall of Troy and his captivity in the island of Calypso.

He recounts departing with his crew from the Trojan War, sacking Ismarus and sailing to Malea, the southern point of Greece. However from there they were driven by winds to the Lotus-Eaters, most likely in an unexplored part of the world. They sailed to the land of the Cyclopes, where they were forced to escape from Polyphemus, thus drawing the wrath of Poseidon. They sailed to the island of Aeolus, who tried to help them return. Then to Telepylos, a city of the cannibal Laestrygonians. Odysseus could escape with only a single ship to the Island of Circe, where they spent a year. Circe commanded them to visit Hades to learn the way home from the ghost of Teiresias. Odysseus learnt that they must avoid injuring the cattle of Helios, god of the Sun, on the island of Thrinacia, if the crew were to return home. Returning to Circe, then sailing on, they avoided the Sirens, Scylla and Charybdis, although with the loss of some crew to reach Thrinacia. On account of hunger they devoured the sacred cattle of Helios, for which they were punished with shipwreck. Only Odysseus survived, and after floating for ten days on a raft, reached the island of Calypso where he spent the next eight years.

The following day, the 35th, the Phaeacians take Odysseus to Ithaca in a magical barque.

On the 36th day, Odysseus awakes in Ithaca and learns from Athena of the suitors of his wife. Disguised as an old man by Athena, he goes to the hut of his loyal swineherd Eumaeus. Athene goes to fetch Telemachus from Lacedaemon where he has resided for a month. The next day is spent by Odysseus in the swineherd's hut while Telemachus reaches Pherae, halfway to Pylos. On the 38th day Telemachus reaches Pylos and boards a ship without visiting Nestor, taking with him Theoclymenus. The ship evades the ambush of the suitors at night. Odysseus meanwhile is listening to the history of Eumaeus.

On the 39th day, Telemachus reaches Ithaca and sends his ship to the city, while himself directed by Athena to the hut of Eumaeus. There he meets his disguised father, whom nobody yet recognises. After Eumaeus is sent to Penelope, Athena reveals Odysseus to Telemachus and the two plot the death of the suitors. In the evening Eumaeus returns to the hut, where Odysseus is again disguised.

On the 40th day, Telemachus travels to the city and calls Theoclymenus to the palace. In the afternoon, Odysseus and Eumaeus reach the city, where Odysseus pretends to be a beggar. After some minor conflicts he meets Telemachus and they obtain weapons. Odysseus talks to Penelope, who does not recognise him. She explains that she does not believe that he is dead, and doesn't want to remarry: she has put the suitors off by insisting that she must first weave her husband a burial shroud, and every night she undoes that day's weaving. However she says that the following day, the feast of the archer Apollo, she will agree to wed the man who can send an arrow through the holes in twelve axe-blades set up in a row, using the bow of Odysseus.

On the 41st day the suitors decline to kill Telemachus on the holy day of Apollo. However none of them can draw the bow of Odysseus. Odysseus, revealing himself to two of his servants, has them lock the doors. After sending an arrow through the axe-blades with his bow, he and Telemachus slaughter the suitors.

On the 42nd day, the kin of the suitors unsuccessfully attempt revenge. Athene reconciles the feud.

Geography in the Odyssey

The text of the Odyssey itself does not contain many modern placenames that can immediately be located on a map. Scholars are divided as to whether or not the locations were in any way real places or mere inventions. Those who tend towards real locations point to the high degree of reality present throughout the poem, especially in Homer's description of sailing. It seems most likely that Homer strung together tales of one or more sea voyages and that some locations at least should follow a logical sequence. Even amongst those scholars who believe the locations to have some basis of reality there is much dispute.

The traditional orthodox theory, which has unfortunately been taken as accurate by many including some encyclopedias and other reference works, sees Odysseus driven into the western Mediterranean with most of his adventures taking place between Tunisia, Sardinia, Italy and Sicily. However this theory has a number of flaws which make little sense either from a sailing or identification point of view. Ancient Greek ships were small, rarely ventured out onto the open sea and did not go exploring unknown territories but instead sought to regain their course if blown off it. The orthodox route includes the following questionable locations:

  • The Lotus Eaters are located in Tunisia on the basis that this is where a sailing vessel blown off course at Cape Malea could reach at full speed. However a vessel blown off course would have been more cautious and not ventured so far away, especially if trying to reach home.

  • Aeolus is traditionally located in the Aeolian Islands to the north of Sicily. However for Odysseus' vessels to have caught a favourable wind all the way to Ithaca and hen have an unfavourable wind blow them all the way back they would have had to sail through the Straits of Messina - a very unlikely navigational feat.

  • The river Acheron is very clearly located on the map. It is in north west Greece. However its location has been ignored by many, since the orthodox theory makes no allowances for Odysseus being near here.

  • Scylla and Charybdis are traditionally located in the Straits of Messina, however the channel they inhabit is said to be narrow. The Straits are over two miles wide at their narrowest point, and even wider at the rock traditionally identified at Scylla's. The whirpools around the straights are not even in the "narrows" and are nothing more than gyrating patches of water caused by the cross-section of two currents. It is impossible to conceive of them producing the legend of Charybdis.

  • Thrinicia, the island home of Helios' cattle, is said to have been Sicily since the name Thrinicia implies an island connected to the number 3 and Sicily has three corners. However Sicily is huge by ancient Greek standards and so its three corners are only noticeable on the map, not at sea, and it is more likely that the name Thrinicia would have come about because sailors could use it to easily identify an island as they could see it.

More generally the orthodox theory assumes that the ancient Greeks knew about Italy, however there are very few references at all in the Odyssey to any part of the world to the west of Greece itself.

Several alternative theories have been proposed. One of the strongest was deduced by Tim Severin who sailed a replica Greek sailing vessel along the natural route from Troy to Ithaca looking for clues. Along the way he fund locations at the natural turning and dislocation points which fit the pattern much closely. However he also came to the conclusion that the sequence of adventures from Circe onwards derived from a separate voyage to those that ended with the Laestrygonians, possibly coming via the stories of the Argonauts. He placed many of the later adventures on the north west Greek coast, near to the river Acheron. Along the way he found on the map Cape Skilla and other names that implied strong mythological links to the Odyssey.

The debate looks set to continue.

Derivative works

Some of the tales of Sindbad the Sailor from The Book of One Thousand and One Nights (Arabian Nights) were taken from Homer's Odyssey.

A modern book inspired by the Odyssey is James Joyce's Ulysses (1922).

Nikos Kazantzakis wrote The Odyssey: A Modern Sequel, an incredible 33,333 line epic poem which continues Odysseus' journeys past the point of his arrival in Ithaca.

The movie O Brother, Where Art Thou has the basic plot of The Odyssey; Joel and Ethan Coen admit basing the movie loosely on The Odyssey but insist that they haven't read it.

R. A. Lafferty retold the story in a science fiction setting in his novel Space Chantey.

Progressive metal group Symphony X based a 24-minute epic track The Odyssey on the story in their 2002 album, The Odyssey.

External links




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