Michael J. Cummings...©
Odyssey is an epic poem, a long narrative work about heroic exploits
that is elevated in tone and highly formal in its language. It was composed
in ancient Greek and transmitted orally before it was written down. Many
modern translators present the Odyssey in prose, making it read
like a novel.
and Place of Composition
composed The Odyssey between 900 and 800 BC, probably in Ionia,
a Greek settlement on the western coast of present-day Turkey.
About 3,200 years ago in recorded history's infancy, when humankind's imagination
peopled the known world with great heroes and villains and nature reflected
the mood of the gods inhabiting the mountain tops, the seas, the forests,
and the unseen worlds above and below.
Lands and seas in the Mediterranean region. The tale begins on an island
in the Ionian Sea between southern Greece and southern Italy.
of the Muse
Odyssey recounts the adventures of the Greek hero Odysseus (Roman name:
during his ten-year voyage home after the Trojan War. Homer begins with
a one-paragraph invocation requesting the Muses to inspire him in the telling
of his tale. Such an invocation was a convention in classical literature,
notably in epics, from the time of Homer onward. In the invocation, Homer
alludes to the heroics of Odysseus during the Trojan War. There, Odysseus
fought valiantly and conceived the idea of presenting the Trojans a gift
of a great wooden horse~ez_mdash~a gift that resulted in triumph for the Greeks
and death and destruction for the Trojans. Homer then begins telling the
specific information about the life of Homer exists. It is not even certain
whether the writer of The Odyssey was one person or several persons.
However, a tradition arose in ancient Greece that he was a blind poet who
lived on Chios, an island in Ionia, a Greek settlement on the western coast
of present-day Turkey. What can be said for certain about Homer is that
he was one of the most important writers in world literature, for he established
writing standards and conventions that other authors embraced and imitated
down through the ages and into the present day. He also catalogued and
popularized (in both The Odyssey and his other great epic poem,
Iliad) the divine and human heroes and heroines of Greek myth. Great
writers, musicians, sculptors, and painters of every age since Homer have
used his characters as symbols, metaphors, and archetypes to convey profound
ideas and evoke emotional and intellectual responses.
Characters: Humans, Gods and Beasts
(Roman name, Ulysses, as translated from the Latin, Ulixes ): King
of Ithaca and hero of the Trojan War who is unsurpassed in cunning.
Odyssey centers on his perilous adventures as he sails home from the
Faithful wife of Odysseus.
Loyal son of Odysseus. He was a child when Odysseus went off to war but
is a young man when his father returns.
King of Pylos who was a Greek participant in the war at Troy. Telemachus
visits him in search of information about his father.
Peisistratus: Sons of Nestor.
Sea nymph who is the daughter of the Titan Atlas. After Odysseus washes
ashore on her island, she falls in love with him and attempts to prevent
him from continuing his journey home.
King of a race of one-eyed giants.
Sorceress who turns crewmen of Odysseus into pigs. After Odysseus overcomes
her magic, she cooperates with him, telling him he must visit the Underworld
to confer with the prophet Tiresias.
Blind seer in the Underworld. He provides Odysseus valuable information
about how to find his way back to Ithaca.
Father of Odysseus.
Alcinous: King of
Arete: Wife of Alcinous
and mother of Nausicaa.
poet at the court of Alcinous.
(or Ciconians): Inhabitants of a Balkan city who fight Odysseus and
his crewmen after Odysseus sacks their chief city, Ismarus.
A priest of the Cicones who gives Odysseus wine that he later uses against
King of the winds.
who devour most of Odysseus' men.
Sea nymphs who sing a deadly song.
Sea monster that creates a whirlpool by gulping water.
Greatest of the Greek warriors in the Trojan War. In the Underworld, he
appears to Odysseus.
of Odysseus who dies on Circe's island and appears to Odysseus in the Underworld.
who warns Odysseus about Circe's powers.
(Roman name, Jupiter): King of the gods who prefers to remain neutral
in the war but intervenes after a plea for help.
(Roman name Minerva): Goddess of wisdom and war and patron of Odysseus.
(Roman name, Neptune): God of the sea who favors the Greeks.
God of the sun.
(Roman name, Mercury): Messenger god.
Suitors: Evil men
who occupy the palace and lands of Odysseus while he is away. Believing
he is dead, they hope to marry his wife, Penelope, and gain control of
his kingdom. They include Eurymachus, Amphinomus, Demoptolemus, and Antinous,
who plots to kill Telemachus.
in Ithaca who sides with the suitors.
of Melanthius and duplicitous servant in the palace of Odysseus. She is
the paramour of Eurymachus.
who warns the suitors to cease their evil behavior.
in Ithaca, the home of Odysseus. When Odysseus arrives home in disguised
as a beggar, Eumaeus invites him into his hut and provides him food. He
does not realize who Odysseus is. He later helps Odysseus and Telemachus
when they slay the suitors.
Medon: Herald who,
unlike the suitors, treats Penelope kindly. Odysseus spares him.
servant in Penelope's household. When Odysseus was a child, she was his
nursemaid. She performed the same service for the son of Odysseus, Telemechaus.
Attendant of Penelope.
Helmsman on the ship of Odysseus.
Attendant of Telemachus.
Sister of Odysseus.
Supervisor of Telemachus when the latter was a boy.
One of the crewmen of Odysseus.
Ithacan poet who sings songs for the suitors against his will. When Odysseus
is killing the suitors, he has Phemius sing songs to drown out the screams.
Michael J. Cummings...©
yearns to return home after spending seven years on the island of Ogygia
as a captive love object of the sea nymph Calypso. As the daughter of the
Titan Atlas, she has exercised her divine powers to keep Odysseus on the
island against his wishes. Odysseus has already experienced many perilous
adventures before landing on Ogygia, situated in the Ionian Sea between
southern Greece and southern Italy.
one of these adventures, Odysseus angers the great sea god, Poseidon, by
blinding his son, Polyphemus, king of a race of one-eyed giants who inhabit
the island of Sicily. In retaliation, Poseidon relentlessly torments Odysseus
after he leaves Sicily, imperiling his voyage at every turn. ©
2003 By Michael J. Cummings 2003 By Michael J. Cummings
another adventure, Odysseus incurs the wrath of the sun god, Hyperion,
after Odysseus~ez_rsquo~ crew slaughters and feasts on cows sacred to the god. To
appease Hyperion, the mighty king of the gods, Zeus, sunders Odysseus~ez_rsquo~
ship with thunderbolts. As the ship sinks, the sea swallows the crew, but
Odysseus survives by clinging to flotsam. Winds and waves buffet and toss
him for nine days. On the night of the tenth day, fatigued and choked with
brine, he washes ashore on Ogygia.
island~ez_rsquo~s only inhabitant, Calypso, greets him kindly and shelters him in
her cave. Smitten by her noble guest, she begs him to marry her and remain
on the island, offering him immortality if he accepts her suit. Hoping
he will one day accede to her wishes, she uses her powers as a goddess
to deprive him of the means to resume his voyage home. But Odysseus~ez_mdash~longing
for the arms of his beloved wife, Penelope, and the joys of life in his
homeland of Ithaca, an island off the western coast of Greece~ez_mdash~steadfastly
refuses her advances, even rejecting the offer of immortality. Weeks become
months, and months become years~ez_mdash~seven years. Still Odysseus thinks of only
home and Penelope.
it is, at the beginning of Homer~ez_rsquo~s epic, that Odysseus languishes on Calypso~ez_rsquo~s
island as her love captive. But the Olympian gods finally take pity on
him thanks to the intercession of Odysseus~ez_rsquo~ patroness, Athena, the goddess
of wisdom and war. She speaks on behalf of Odysseus, telling Zeus, her
father, that her heart breaks for forlorn Odysseus. Odysseus longs to see
the curls of smoke rising from his home fires in Ithaca, she says, but
Calypso will not loose her hold on him. She reminds Zeus that Odysseus
dedicated many burnt offerings to him at Troy. Swayed by her words, Zeus
sends the messenger god, Hermes, to Ogygia with a command to release Odysseus.
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in Ithaca, suitors for the hand of Penelope encamp on the estate of Odysseus,
feeding on his oxen and sheep and playing draughts, as they press her to
accept one of them as her husband. Odysseus is lost, they believe; it is
time for Penelope to choose a new husband. They are a greedy, boisterous
lot~ez_mdash~rogues who covet wealth and Penelope~ez_rsquo~s beauty. Athena, attired in her
magnificent golden sandals, races to Ithaca across the clouds like the
swiftest of winds. In disguise, she urges Odysseus~ez_rsquo~ son, Telemachus, to
forestall the suitors and keep alive the hope that his father will return.
response, Telemachus attempts to thwart the suitors, to no avail, then
travels abroad to glean news of his father. He visits veterans of the Trojan
war, who regale him with stories of Odysseus~ez_rsquo~ exploits but cannot provide
information about Odysseus~ez_rsquo~ whereabouts or fate.
Telemachus searches for information about his father, Calypso bows to the
will of Zeus and helps Odysseus build a raft to carry him forth on the
churning seas. But, alas, vengeful Poseidon dances the seas into a fury.
The craft succumbs, but Odysseus survives, swimming to the shores of Scheria,
the land of the Phaeacians. There, a beautiful maiden, Nausicaa, discovers
and escorts the stranger to her father, Alcinous, the king of the Phaeacians.
Even though Odysseus does not immediately reveal his identity, Alcinous
warmly receives him and promises him a ship manned by 52 sailors to speed
him home. After a great feast on roasted sheep, pigs and oxen, a blind
poet, Demodocus, plays his lyre and sings of the exploits of the Greek
heroes in the Trojan War. Odysseus weeps nostalgically upon hearing the
song, but only Alcinous notices. Athletic contests~ez_mdash~boxing matches, footraces,
wrestling, and other events~ez_mdash~follow the feasting. Odysseus, tired and careworn,
does not participate. But after an arrogant athlete taunts him, Odysseus
throws the discus well beyond the marks of any other participant. As the
onlookers stand dumbstruck, Odysseus tells of his other skills and reveals
that he fought at the walls of Troy.
then sings a story of Olympus~ez_mdash~of how the blacksmith god, Hephaestus, ensnared
his beautiful wife, Aphrodite, the goddess of love, during an assignation
with Mars, the god of war. At supper in the evening, Demodocus again sings
of Troy, and Odysseus again weeps. When Alcinous asks his name, Odysseus
at long last reveals his identity and unabashedly boasts of his accomplishments:
~ez_ldquo~I am Odysseus, son of Laertes, so admired among men for my craft and cunning
that my fame ascends even to heavenly Olympus.~ez_rdquo~ He then describes
his homeland and, finally, in one of the most important narrative sections
of the Odyssey, tells the story of his adventures from the day he
left Troy with a fleet of ships to the present. Here, in brief, is the
2003 By Michael J. Cummings 2003 By Michael J. Cummings
sacks Ismarus, the city of the Cicones on the Balkan Peninsula, carrying
off treasure. But an army of neighboring Cicones arrives, far outnumbering
the forces of Odysseus. After many of Odysseus~ez_rsquo~ men die in a hard-fought
battle, Odysseus and the rest of his forces escape in their fleet of ships.
Before he leaves, Odysseus receives skins of excellent wine from Maro,
a priest of the Cicones, who is grateful that none of his family died in
the sacking of Ismarus. Odysseus later uses this wine to besot the one-eyed
giant Polyphemus (as described in Number 3, below).
storm carries the voyagers to the land of the lotus-eaters. When the crewmen
eat of the lotus, the fruit induces lethargy and forgetfulness. The men
want only to laze in their stupor, but Odysseus manages to muster them
an island just off Sicily, where goats graze in abundance, Odysseus and
his men kill more than one hundred of the animals and store the meat on
the twelve ships in the fleet. Curious about the one-eyed giants on Sicily,
Odysseus and his crew row there aboard his flagship. Taking along twelve
crew members and a skin of wine, he sets outs and finds the cave of Polyphemus,
the king of the giants, who is out tending his sheep and goats. He is a
Cyclops, meaning ~ez_ldquo~round-eyed,~ez_rdquo~ because of the single eye which he and his
kind have in the middle of the forehead. In the cave are stores of cheese
and whey, as well lambs and kids, and the crewmen urge Odysseus to steal
these provisions and leave.
Odysseus~ez_mdash~ever curious about the world and its wonders~ez_mdash~decides to await
the return of Polyphemus, thinking that perhaps the giant will present
him a gift. When the Cyclops returns and enters the cave, he blocks the
entrance with a massive boulder and eats two of the crew. The next morning,
he eats two more crewmen, then leaves to tend his flocks, setting the boulder
in place behind him. In the
evening, after his return,
he drives his sheep into the cave, then eats two more men and drinks wine
offered by Odysseus. He wants more wine and promises Odysseus a gift. When
Odysseus refills the bowl, Polyphemus asks him to identify himself. But
not until the giant drinks his third bowl of wine does Odysseus answer.
am Noman,~ez_rdquo~ he says.
giant then announces his gift: He will eat Odysseus last. However, drunk
with wine, the giant collapses and falls asleep. Odysseus then heats a
shaft of wood~ez_mdash~cut from the giant~ez_rsquo~s club and sharpened at one end~ez_mdash~in the
glowing coals of a fire and plunges it into Polyphemus~ez_rsquo~ only eye. When
he cries out, other giants gather outside the cave and call questions to
Polyphemus. He says, ~ez_ldquo~Noman is slaying me.~ez_rdquo~ They disperse, believing Polyphemus
is in a fit of madness. In the morning, after removing the boulder, Polyphemus
posts himself at the entrance of the cave to feel the sheep as they go
out to graze. But Odysseus and his men escape by clinging to the fleece
on the bottom side of the stoutest rams.
next experiences more wondrous adventures. At the island of Aeolus, the
king of the winds, he sojourns for a month and receives an ox-hide sack,
bound with a silver thread, that contains winds to use when the need arises.
But as the fleet nears Ithaca, Odysseus~ez_rsquo~ men~ez_mdash~believing the sack holds gifts
of gold and silver~ez_mdash~open it while their leader sleeps and release the winds.
Alas, the winds blow the fleet back to the island of Aeolus. This time,
however, Aeolus refuses to help, believing Odysseus and his men are cursed
by the gods. Odysseus and his men put out to sea again, using oars because
of the loss of their winds.
the seventh day, they reach the city of the Laestrygonians, who~ez_mdash~unknown
to Odysseus~ez_mdash~are another race of giants who feed on men. After Odysseus
makes inquiries, thousands of the giants converge on the Greeks from all
sides. They devour the crews of all of Odysseus~ez_rsquo~ ships save one, Odysseus~ez_rsquo~
own ship. He and his crew narrowly escape.
lands at Aeaea, the abode of the sorceress Circe. When certain of his crew
members explore the environs, they happen upon her. After all but one of
them, Eurylochus, eat her food, they turn into pigs but retain the mind
and intelligence of a human. When Eurylochus reports the news, Odysseus
sets out to investigate. The god Hermes appears to him and gives him an
herb that will protect him from Circe~ez_rsquo~s power. After eating at her table,
he remains human in body and mind, then orders her at the point of a sword
to restore his men. She complies, then treats her guests cordially~ez_mdash~so cordially,
in fact, that they remain with Circe a full year. Before Odysseus leaves,
Circe tells him he must visit the realm of the dead to receive a prophecy
from Tiresias, a blind seer.
sailing to a land of mist and darkness at the edge of the world, Odysseus
follows a river to the entrance of the Underworld, Hades. There, after
sacrificing sheep, he sees the ghost of Elpenor, one of his crew members,
who died falling off a roof on Circe~ez_rsquo~s island. At Elpenor~ez_rsquo~s request, Odysseus
agrees to return to the island later to conduct proper funeral rites and
cremate Elpenor~ez_rsquo~s corpse. Then he sees the spirit of his mother, who died
after he left for the Trojan war, and weeps for her. Finally, Tiresias
emerges carrying his golden scepter, and Odysseus gives him the blood of
the sheep to drink. The seer tells him many trials remain to test Odysseus,
for Poseidon~ez_mdash~that wrathful sea god who had already caused so many of the
hero~ez_rsquo~s misadventures~ez_mdash~means to imperil him further. But, says Tiresias,
Odysseus will reach Ithaca eventually, avenge himself against the suitors,
live on into old age, and die peacefully. Before leaving, Odysseus sees
some of his dead comrades-in-arms, including proud Achilles, the mightiest
of warriors, who says he would rather be a poor servant on earth than the
king of kings in the Underworld.
returning to Aeaea and presiding at Elpenor~ez_rsquo~s funeral, Odysseus approaches
the island of the Sirens. These are sea nymphs who sing a song so alluring
that it attracts to their shore all passing sailors who hear it~ez_mdash~and then
they sit, transfixed by the song, until they die. But Odysseus plugs the
ears of his men with wax, so that they are unable to hear, after ordering
them to tie him to a mast. Thus, as they pass the island, Odysseus himself
hears the song but cannot go ashore, though he wants to, because he cannot
break free of his bonds.
ship then enters a narrow channel, the Strait of Messina, between the western
shore of the Italian mainland and the eastern shore of Sicily. Odysseus
knows this channel as the Straits of Scylla and Charybdis. On a rock on
the Italian side is a six-headed monster, Scylla; opposite the rock, near
the Sicilian shore, is a whirlpool created when a sea monster, Charybdis,
gulps water. When the ship passes between the twin perils, Scylla stretches
its necks down and devours six of the crew.
ship nears Trinacia, the island of the sun god, Hyperion, where graze cattle
sacred to the god. Because Circe and Tiresias had warned Odysseus not to
stop there against the possibility that his men would feed on the cattle,
he plans to sail on. But his men, hungry and weary, beg him to anchor there.
Odysseus reluctantly heeds their wishes. One day, when Odysseus is off
praying for divine favor, the crewmen~ez_mdash~though well aware that the cattle
are sacred to Hyperion~ez_mdash~drive the best of them into the ship and feast on
them. Angry Hyperion complains to Zeus and, after the ship leaves Trinacia,
the king of the gods sinks it with thunderbolts. Everyone dies except Odysseus,
who clings to wreckage until he reaches Calypso~ez_rsquo~s island, as described
in Paragraph 3 of this summary.
completed his story, Odysseus receives the promised ship and crew from
King Alcinous and sails to Ithaca. There, in disguise as an old beggar,
he plots against the suitors. Penelope, meanwhile, announces a contest:
First, each competitor must bend and string the bow of Odysseus, which
he left behind before debarking for Troy. Then, he must shoot an arrow
through the handle holes of twelve ax heads set in a row. Whoever can do
so will earn the right to marry her. She knows, of course, that only one
man has the strength and skill to win the contest: Odysseus himself. But
she is unaware that Odysseus has returned. The contest is merely a ruse
to stall the suitors. When no suitor can meet the challenge, the ~ez_ldquo~old beggar~ez_rdquo~
steps forth, doffs his rags, bends and strings the bow, and sends an arrow
through the ax heads.
the help of Telemachus, he slays the suitors.
Penelope finds it difficult to believe that Odysseus has really returned.
After all, he is much changed after twenty years. Could he be an impostor?
So she conducts a test. After Odysseus bathes and puts on fresh clothes,
Penelope orders a servant, Euryclea, to remove the bed from the room and
outfit it with blankets and fleeces. Penelope well knows that the bed cannot
be moved, for Odysseus built the bedroom around an olive tree still rooted
in the ground~ez_mdash~and made the tree itself part of the bed. Odysseus, becoming
angry, says it is impossible to move the bed. Then he describes how he
built the bedroom around the olive tree, then fashioned part of the tree
into a bedpost, adorning it with gold and silver.
only Odysseus would know about the bed and its unusual construction, Penelope
is satisfied that Odysseus truly stands before her. She breaks down, throws
her arms around him, and kisses him, saying she had been worried that a
dissembler would come forth and claim the right to lie next to her. All
next day Odysseus goes to the farm of his father, Laertes, who does not
yet know his son has returned. After Odysseus embraces the old man and
reveals his identity, Laertes wants further proof. Odysseus shows him a
scar and identifies vineyard trees Laertes had given him: thirteen pear
trees, ten apple trees, and forty fig trees. As Odysseus recites more proofs,
Laertes throws his arms around his son, his legs giving out. With the help
of Athena, Odysseus then makes peace with the relatives of the slain suitors.
is a great adventure fraught with perils and abounding with rewards.
Odyssey, in a way, symbolizes every human being's journey through life.
There are many setbacks, to be sure, but there are also many triumphs for
those with the courage and fortitude to stay the course.
and ingenuity are superior to physical strength. One of the greatest assets
of Odysseus is his intellect. He uses it time and again to overcome foes
of superior strength, such as the Cyclops, Polyphemus.
remains committed to Penelope even though a sea goddess offers herself
and immortality to Odysseus. For her part, Penelope refuses the offers
of all the suitors at her doorstep, remaining faithful to Odysseus even
after decades have passed since Odysseus left for Troy.
the suitors, she tells them she will not marry again until she has woven
a shroud for Laertes, the father of Odysseus. Every day, she weaves and
every night she unravels what she has woven. This scheme works for three
years. Then a disloyal serving maid betrays the scheme.
theme, which is related to the previous one, demonstrates that familial
love and happiness are more desirable than glory, sexual conquest, and
everlasting ease. Odysseus rejects pleasures of every kind~ez_mdash~and even an
offer of immortality~ez_mdash~so that he may go home and grow old with his wife.
realizes that great risk is often the price of knowledge and wisdom. Consequently,
he repeatedly risks everything to learn about the world and its ways.
never gives up in his struggle to return home. Penelope and Telemachus
never abandon their dream that Odysseus will one day return.
discussed under "Fidelity," Odysseus and Penelope remain loyal to each
other. In addition, Telemachus remains loyal to his father, going out to
search for him at Pylos and Sparta instead of pursuing his own interests.
The Universal Man
Odysseus possesses admirable qualities~ez_mdash~including wisdom, bravery, leadership,
craftiness, loyalty, perseverance, and endurance~ez_mdash~he is quite human. For
example, he frequently takes unnecessary risks to satisfy his insatiable
curiosity, imperiling his and his crew's safety. He also brags about his
accomplishments. In this respect, he is like the rest of us: flawed, imperfect.
Consequently, we identify with him, and his voyage home from war becomes
our voyage through life. Many of his adventures end successfully; some
go terribly wrong. All the while, he never loses sight of his ultimate
goal: to reunite with his wife and son.
his comrade-in arms Achilles~ez_mdash~that ruthless killing machine who at Troy
wanted only one thing, battlefield glory~ez_mdash~Odysseus also wants recognition
for his feats and brazenly tells
Alcinous: ~ez_ldquo~I am Odysseus, son of
Laertes, so admired among men for my craft and cunning that my fame ascends
even to heavenly Olympus.~ez_rdquo~ However, unlike Achilles, Odysseus is a family
man at heart; his main goal is to live out his years
in the peace and contentment of ordinary family life. Even Calypso's offer
to make him immortal if he remains with her on her island does not keep
Odysseus from returning home. Thus, Odysseus is the universal man. True,
he wins great fame as a wily warrior. True, he goes to sea and sees the
world, participating in extraordinary adventures. But in the end he prizes
home and hearth above everything else. They are what really matter to him,
just as they are really what matter to most other men.
of Odysseus's Nonhuman Enemies
his voyage, Odysseus must overcome the wrath of gods, monsters, and beasts.
These opponents seem to represent the obstacles and the bad luck, or fate,
that humans must face on their voyage through life. Perhaps the most formidable
foe of Odysseus is the sea god Poseidon, who continually attempts to thwart
the efforts of Odysseus to make a safe journey home. Odysseus must also
do battle with giants, such as the Cyclops Polyphemus and the man-eating
monsters such as Scylla, a six-headed man-eater, and Charybis, and undersea
creature that creates a whirlpool; and with a sorceress, Circe, who casts
a spell that turns some of Odysseus's men into pigs. In addition, he must
overcome temptation in the person of the sea goddess Calypso, who entices
him with an offer of immortality. Odysseus, of course, survives all of
his perils, although his crewmen do not, and presumably lives to old age
with his wife, Penelope, and son, Telemachus, after his reunion with them.
of the hallmarks of the Homeric style is the epithet, a combination of
a descriptive phrase and a noun. An epithet presents a miniature portrait
that identifies a person or thing by highlighting a prominent characteristic
of that person or thing. In English, the Homeric epithet usually consists
of a noun modified by a compound adjective, such as the following: rosy-fingered
dawn, wine-dark sea, earth-shaking Poseidon, and gray-eyed
Athena. The Homeric epithet is an ancient relative of such later epithets
as Richard the Lion-Hearted, Ivan the Terrible, and America
the Beautiful. Homer repeated his epithets often, presumably so the
listeners of his recited tales could easily remember and picture the person
or thing each time it was mentioned. In this respect, the Homeric epithet
resembles the leitmotiv of opera composer Richard Wagner (1813-1883). The
leitmotiv was a repeated musical theme associated with a character, a group
of characters, an emotion, or an idea.
Homer established literary
practices, rules, or devices that became commonplace in epic poetry written
later. These rules or devices are now known as epic conventions. They include
The invocation of the muse,
in which a writer requests divine help in composing his work.
Beginning the main story in
the middle of a hero's adventures, then flashing back to recount previous
events. Such an epic device is known by a Latin term, in medias res,
meaning in the middle of things.
Telling a story with which readers
or listeners are already familiar; they know the characters, the plot,
and the outcome. Most of the great writers of the ancient world~ez_mdash~as well
as many great writers in later times, including Shakespeare~ez_mdash~frequently
told stories already known to the public. Thus, in such stories, there
were no unexpected plot twists, no surprise endings. If this sounds strange
to you, the modern reader and theatergoer, consider that many of the most
popular motion pictures today are about stories already known to the public.
Examples are The Passion of the Christ, Titanic, The Ten
Commandments, Troy, Spartacus, Pearl Harbor, and
Conflict in the celestial realm.
Divine beings fight and scheme against one another in the epics of Homer
and Vergil, and they do so in John Milton's Paradise Lost on a grand
scale, with Satan and his forces opposing God and his forces.
Use of epithets. See "Homeric
(rhythmic pattern of syllables) of Homer~ez_rsquo~s epic poems is dactylic hexameter.
A dactyl is a metrical foot consisting of one
accented syllable followed by two unaccented syllables, as in the words
technical (TEK nik l), allocate (AL oh kate), and harbinger (HAR bin jer).
is a line containing six metrical feet. Thus, dactylic hexameter is a scheme
containing six dactyls, as in the following line: MAKE me a BEAU ti ful
GOWN and a HAT fringed with TASS les of DOWN, good sir.
Gods of Olympus
and mythology books generally list twelve deities as the chief gods in
Greek mythology and as residents of Mount Olympus. However, two of
these important deities spent most of their time in the domains which they
governed, the sea and the underworld. In addition, the Greeks of one era
sometimes differed with the Greeks of another era on who were the most
important gods. Consequently, the list of the favored twelve sometimes
changed, omitting one god in favor of another.
Olympian gods were the successors of an earlier dynasty of gods known as
Titans. The Titan ruler, Cronos, believing that one of his children might
attempt to overthrow him, swallowed each of them after his or her birth.
However, one child, Zeus, was rescued by his mother and hidden on the island
of Crete. Later, Zeus forced his father to vomit the other children from
his stomach. Then, with the help of his siblings, he overthrew Cronus to
become lord of the universe.
names of the chief Olympian deities are listed below. Writers in ancient
Greece~ez_mdash~such as Sophocles, Aeschylus, and Euripides~ez_mdash~used the original Greek
names, the English transliteration of which appears at left in the list.
Writers in ancient Rome and its dominions used the Latin version of the
names, the English transliteration of which appears in parentheses.
English language writers, past and present, use the transliteration of
the Greek version; others prefer the transliteration of the Latin (or Roman)
version. For example, William Shakespeare uses the transliteration of the
Latin version in his plays and poems. Instead of referring to the king
of the gods as Zeus (the transliteration of the Greek name), he refers
to him as Jupiter and Jove, the transliterations of the Latin names (Iuppiter
and Iovis). Here are the names of the Olympian gods and a brief
description of each:.
(Jupiter and Jove) King and protector of the gods and humankind. As
ruler of the sky, he made rain and thunder and wielded lightning bolts.
Zeus was the youngest son of the Titans Cronus and Rhea.
(Juno) Queen of the gods and protector of marriage. She was the wife
of Zeus and, as the daughter of the Titans Cronus and Rhea, also his sister.
or Pallas Athena (Minerva)
Goddess of wisdom and war. She was born fully grown in a suit of armor,
issuing from the forehead of Zeus. The Greeks highly revered her and built
many temples in her honor.
(Mars) God of war and the son of Zeus and Hera.
(Neptune) God of the sea and brother of Zeus.
(Pluto) God of the underworld and brother of Zeus.
(Vulcan) God of fire and metalwork who built the palaces in which the
Olympian gods lived. He also forged their armor and made their jewelry.
He was the son of Zeus and Hera.
Phoebus Apollo, or Phoebus (Same as Greek Names) God of prophecy, music,
poetry, and medicine. His alternate name, Phoebus, means brightness, and
he was thus also considered the god of the sun. He was the son of Zeus
and Leto, the daughter of Titans. The Greeks highly revered him and built
many temples in his honor. One such temple at Delphi was the site of a
famous oracle, the Pythia, who pronounced prophecies as the mouthpiece
(Diana) Goddess of the hunt. She was the daughter of Zeus and Leto
(see Apollo) and the twin sister of Apollo.
(Venus) Goddess of love and beauty. According to Homer, she was the
daughter of Zeus and Dione, the daughter of a Titan; according to the Greek
poet Hesiod, she was born from the foam of the sea.
(Mercury) Messenger god who wore a winged hat and winged sandals. He
was also the god of science, luck, commerce, and cunning. He was the son
of Zeus and Maia, the daughter of a Titan.
(Vesta) Goddess of the home and hearth and sister of Zeus.
lists of the major Olympian gods omit Hades in favor of Hebe,
a cupbearer of the gods. Still others rank Dionysus (Roman name, Bacchus),
the god of wine and vegetation and a patron of the arts, as one of the
Abode of the Gods
Olympian gods lived in palaces constructed by Hephaestus on the summit
of Mount Olympus, the highest peak (9,570 feet) in a mountain range between
Macedonia and Thessaly near the Aegean Sea. Mount Olympus is sometimes
called Upper Olympus because it lies just north of a lesser peak (5,210
feet) known as Lower Olympus.
goddesses called the Seasons maintained watch at the entranceway of Mount
Olympus, a gate of clouds which opened and closed whenever a god left or
returned to Olympus.
their lofty domain, the gods breathed only pure air, or ether. They took
their meals in the palace of Zeus, eating ambrosia to sustain eternal life
and drinking a delicious beverage called nectar, served by Hebe. Near the
throne of Zeus sat lesser goddesses known as Muses, who were nine in number.
They regaled the gathering with songs of the gods and of earthly heroes
and history. These daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne, the goddess of memory,
learned under the tutelage of Apollo.
lesser gods on Olympus included the following: (1) Eros (Cupid), god of
love and son of Aphrodite who shot arrows that impregnated humans with
love. (2) Iris, messenger goddess of Zeus and Hera who created rainbows
when she flew across the sky. (3) Themis, a companion of Zeus who was the
goddess of justice. She holds scales on which she weighs the claims in
a suit of law. (4) The Charites, or Graces, goddesses of joy and beauty.
(5) Nemesis, the goddess of vengeance and punishment. (6) Aidos, the goddess
of Greek Mythology and Characteristics of the Gods
ancient times, western literature has lived at the foot of Mount Olympus,
the nearly two-mile high colossus that was believed to be home to important
Greek gods. Writers of every age and every genre have invoked the magic
of Olympus to make fire and thunder with words~ez_mdash~or to perfume them with
the breath of Venus.
Greek writers Hesiod (born in the 7th or 8th Century B.C.) and Homer (born
in the 8th or 9th Century B.C.) immortalized the Olympian gods~ez_mdash~Hesiod in
the Theogony and in Works and Days, Homer in The Iliad
and The Odyssey. The Theogony presents a creation myth and
a genealogy of the gods, along with accounts of their exploits. The Works
and Days advises farmers how to prosper, through honest
toil and righteous living, without incurring the disfavor of the gods.
Homer~ez_rsquo~s Iliad tells the story of the final year of the Trojan War,
between Greece and Troy, focusing on the greatest Greek warrior, Achilles,
and on the machinations of Olympian gods who take sides and attempt to
influence the outcome of the war. The Odyssey narrates the adventures
of Odysseus (known as Ulysses to the Romans), a hero of the war who designed
the famous Trojan horse to breach the walls of Troy, on his long sea voyage
home after the war. While sailing home, the Olympian gods alternately help
or hinder his progress. The Iliad and The Odyssey, both epic
poems, are among the greatest works in world literature.
great writer since Hesiod and Homer~ez_mdash~including Sophocles, Vergil, Ovid,
Dante, Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Milton~ez_mdash~has climbed Olympus to retrieve
metaphorical divinities or one of their qualities to illumine, clarify,
or beautify his or her language.
everlasting and supernal, the gods of Olympus exhibited humanlike behavior.
They could be loving and generous, wise and forbearing. They could also
be petty and base, fickle and vile. And, they could be quick to anger.
In Book I of The Iliad, the Olympian god Apollo descends the great
mountain in a rage after the Greek general Agamemnon captures a beautiful
maiden and refuses to give her up to her father, Chryses, a priest of Apollo.
came down furious from the summits of Olympus, with his bow and his quiver
upon his shoulder, and the arrows rattled on his back with the rage that
trembled within him. He sat himself down away from the ships with a face
as dark as night, and his silver bow rang death as he shot his arrow in
the midst of them. First he smote their mules and their hounds, but presently
he aimed his shafts at the people themselves, and all day long the pyres
of the dead were burning. (English translation by.Samuel
could also be quick to laugh. In Book 8 of The Odyssey, the blacksmith
god, Hephaestus (Vulcan)~ez_mdash~a lame and ugly hunchback~ez_mdash~fashions an invisible
chain to ensnare his beautiful wife, Aphrodite (Venus), and her inamorato,
Ares (Mars), after they rendezvous to make love. In bed, they become hopelessly
entangled in the chain. Hephaestus then invites other gods to look upon
his unfaithful wife and her paramour caught~ez_mdash~like wasps in a spider~ez_rsquo~s web~ez_mdash~in
this the gods gathered to the house of Vulcan. Earth-encircling Neptune
came, and Mercury the bringer of luck, and King Apollo. . . . Then the
givers of all good things stood in the doorway, and the blessed gods roared
with inextinguishable laughter, as they saw how cunning Vulcan had been.
. . . (English translation by Samuel Butler).Attitude
Toward the Afterlife
here and now concerns the human characters in The Odyssey more than
the afterlife, for they generally believe that the abode of the dead is
dark and dismal. Consequently, their main purpose in life is to achieve
immediate rewards and to live for the moment. The idea of a heaven that
will requite them for good deeds, whether on or off the battlefield, is
of less importance to them. However, they generally do revere the gods
of Olympus, who take sides in human conflicts. Offending the gods could
incur their wrath and affect the outcome of the conflicts.
Questions and Essay Topics
represent or symbolize every human being on his or her journey through
life? Explain your answer.
of Odysseus do you most admire? What quality of Odysseus do you least admire?
Explain your answers.
opinion, what do the Sirens symbolize?
an informative essay that identifies modern Sirens that endanger men and
of Penelope do you most admire?
of Telemachus do you most admire?
the goddess Athena favor Odysseus?
goes to the Underworld, he sees the ghost of Elpenor, a crewman
who died falling off a roof on Circe~ez_rsquo~s island. At.Elpenor~ez_rsquo~s
request, Odysseus agrees to return to the island later to conduct proper
funeral rites and cremate Elpenor~ez_rsquo~s corpse. How important were proper funeral
rites to the ancient Greeks?
an essay that describes the kind of ship Odysseus used on his voyage home.
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