By Homer (9th or 8th Century BC)
A Study Guide
By Michael J. Cummings...© 2003
Type of Work
Invocation of the Muse
.......Meanwhile, 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—rogues who covet wealth and Penelope’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’ son, Telemachus, to forestall the suitors and keep alive the hope that his father will return.
.......In 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’ exploits but cannot provide information about Odysseus’ whereabouts or fate.
.......While 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—boxing matches, footraces, wrestling, and other events—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.
.......Demodocus then sings a story of Olympus—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: “I am Odysseus, son of Laertes, so admired among men for my craft and cunning that my fame ascends even to heavenly Olympus.” 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 sequence:
One © 2003 By Michael J. Cummings 2003 By Michael J. Cummings
.......Odysseus 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’ 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).
.......A 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 and debark.
.......On 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 “round-eyed,” 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.
.......But Odysseus—ever curious about the world and its wonders—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.
.......“I am Noman,” he says.
.......The 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—cut from the giant’s club and sharpened at one end—in the glowing coals of a fire and plunges it into Polyphemus’ only eye. When he cries out, other giants gather outside the cave and call questions to Polyphemus. He says, “Noman is slaying me.” 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.
.......Odysseus 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’ men—believing the sack holds gifts of gold and silver—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.
.......On the seventh day, they reach the city of the Laestrygonians, who—unknown to Odysseus—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’ ships save one, Odysseus’ own ship. He and his crew narrowly escape.
.......Odysseus 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’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—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.
.......After 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’s island. At Elpenor’s request, Odysseus agrees to return to the island later to conduct proper funeral rites and cremate Elpenor’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—that wrathful sea god who had already caused so many of the hero’s misadventures—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.
.......After returning to Aeaea and presiding at Elpenor’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—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.
.......The 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.
.......The 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—though well aware that the cattle are sacred to Hyperion—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’s island, as described in Paragraph 3 of this summary.
.......Having 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 “old beggar” steps forth, doffs his rags, bends and strings the bow, and sends an arrow through the ax heads.
.......He has returned!
.......With the help of Telemachus, he slays the suitors.
.......But 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—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.
.......Because 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 is well.
.......The 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.
Life is a great adventure fraught with perils and abounding with rewards. The 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.
Brains Over Brawn
Intelligence 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.
Odysseus 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. To stall 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.
This 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—and even an offer of immortality—so that he may go home and grow old with his wife.
Odysseus 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.
Odysseus never gives up in his struggle to return home. Penelope and Telemachus never abandon their dream that Odysseus will one day return.
As 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.
.......Although Odysseus possesses admirable qualities—including wisdom, bravery, leadership, craftiness, loyalty, perseverance, and endurance—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.
.......During 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 Laestrygonians; with 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.
.......One 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 following:
.......The meter (rhythmic pattern of syllables) of Homer’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). Hexameter 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.
The Gods of Olympus
The Abode of the Gods
.......The 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.
Influence of Greek Mythology and Characteristics of the Gods
[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 Butler)The gods could also be quick to laugh. In Book 8 of The Odyssey, the blacksmith god, Hephaestus (Vulcan)—a lame and ugly hunchback—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—like wasps in a spider’s web—in his trap.
On 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
The 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.