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The Odyssey
By Homer (9th or 8th Century BC)
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Type of Work
Time, Place of Composition
Invocation of the Muse
Principal Characters
Plot Summary
Odysseus as Universal Man
Role of Nonhuman Enemies
Homeric Epithet
Epic Conventions
The Gods of Olympus
Abode of the Gods
Attitude Toward Afterlife
Study Questions
Essay Topics
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The Iliad
By Michael J. Cummings...© 2003

Type of Work
.......The 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.

Time and Place of Composition
.......Homer composed The Odyssey between 900 and 800 BC, probably in Ionia, a Greek settlement on the western coast of present-day Turkey.

Time: 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.
Places: Lands and seas in the Mediterranean region. The tale begins on an island in the Ionian Sea between southern Greece and southern Italy.

Invocation of the Muse
.......The Odyssey recounts the adventures of the Greek hero Odysseus (Roman name: Ulysses) 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—a gift that resulted in triumph for the Greeks and death and destruction for the Trojans. Homer then begins telling the story.
.......Little 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, The 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. 
Principal Characters: Humans, Gods and Beasts
Odysseus (Roman name, Ulysses, as translated from the Latin, Ulixes ): King of Ithaca and hero of the Trojan War who is unsurpassed in cunning. The Odyssey centers on his perilous adventures as he sails home from the war.
Penelope: Faithful wife of Odysseus.
Telemachus: Loyal son of Odysseus. He was a child when Odysseus went off to war but is a young man when his father returns.
Nestor: King of Pylos who was a Greek participant in the war at Troy. Telemachus visits him in search of information about his father.
Echephron, Peisistratus: Sons of Nestor.
Calypso: 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.
Polyphemus: King of a race of one-eyed giants.
Circe: 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. 
Tiresias: Blind seer in the Underworld. He provides Odysseus valuable information about how to find his way back to Ithaca. 
Laertes: Father of Odysseus.
Alcinous: King of the Phaeacians.
Nausicaa: Daughter of Alcinous.
Arete: Wife of Alcinous and mother of Nausicaa.
Demodocus: Blind poet at the court of Alcinous.
Cicones (or Ciconians): Inhabitants of a Balkan city who fight Odysseus and his crewmen after Odysseus sacks their chief city, Ismarus.
Maro: A priest of the Cicones who gives Odysseus wine that he later uses against Polyphemus.
Aeolus: King of the winds.
Laestrygonians: Giants who devour most of Odysseus' men.
Sirens: Sea nymphs who sing a deadly song.
Scylla: Six-headed monster.
Charybdis: Sea monster that creates a whirlpool by gulping water.
Achilles: Greatest of the Greek warriors in the Trojan War. In the Underworld, he appears to Odysseus. 
Elpenor: Crewman of Odysseus who dies on Circe's island and appears to Odysseus in the Underworld.
Eurylochus: Crewman who warns Odysseus about Circe's powers.
Zeus (Roman name, Jupiter): King of the gods who prefers to remain neutral in the war but intervenes after a plea for help.
Athena (Roman name Minerva): Goddess of wisdom and war and patron of Odysseus.
Poseidon (Roman name, Neptune): God of the sea who favors the Greeks.
Hyperion: God of the sun.
Hermes (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.
Eupeithes: Father of Antinous.
Melanthius: Goatherd in Ithaca who sides with the suitors.
Melantho: Sister of Melanthius and duplicitous servant in the palace of Odysseus. She is the paramour of Eurymachus. 
Halitherses: Prophet who warns the suitors to cease their evil behavior.
Eumaeus: Swineherd 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.
Mesaulius: Servant of Eumaeus. 
Medon: Herald who, unlike the suitors, treats Penelope kindly. Odysseus spares him.
Eurycleia: Elderly 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.
Eurynome: Attendant of Penelope.
Baius: Helmsman on the ship of Odysseus.
Clytius: Attendant of Telemachus.
Ctimine: Sister of Odysseus.
Mentor: Supervisor of Telemachus when the latter was a boy.
Permimedes: One of the crewmen of Odysseus.
Phemius: 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.

Plot Summary
By Michael J. Cummings...© 2003
.......Odysseus 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.
.......On 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
.......During another adventure, Odysseus incurs the wrath of the sun god, Hyperion, after Odysseus’ crew slaughters and feasts on cows sacred to the god. To appease Hyperion, the mighty king of the gods, Zeus, sunders Odysseus’ 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.
.......The island’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—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—steadfastly refuses her advances, even rejecting the offer of immortality. Weeks become months, and months become years—seven years. Still Odysseus thinks of only home and Penelope. 
.......So it is, at the beginning of Homer’s epic, that Odysseus languishes on Calypso’s island as her love captive. But the Olympian gods finally take pity on him thanks to the intercession of Odysseus’ 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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.......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.

Familial Love

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.

Taking Risks

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.

Odysseus: The Universal Man

.......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. 
.......Like his comrade-in arms Achilles—that ruthless killing machine who at Troy wanted only one thing, battlefield glory—Odysseus also wants recognition for his feats and brazenly tells Alcinous: “I am Odysseus, son of Laertes, so admired among men for my craft and cunning that my fame ascends even to heavenly Olympus.” 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.
Role of Odysseus's Nonhuman Enemies

.......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.

The Homeric Epithet

.......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.
Epic Conventions

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 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—as well as many great writers in later times, including Shakespeare—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 Gettysburg
  • 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 Epithet," above.

.......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
.......Encyclopedias 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.
.......The 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. 
.......The names of the chief Olympian deities are listed below. Writers in ancient Greece—such as Sophocles, Aeschylus, and Euripides—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. 
.......Some 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:.
Zeus (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.
Hera (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.
Athena 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.
Ares (Mars) God of war and the son of Zeus and Hera. 
Poseidon (Neptune) God of the sea and brother of Zeus.
Hades (Pluto) God of the underworld and brother of Zeus.
Hephaestus (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.
Apollo, 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 of Apollo.
Artemis (Diana) Goddess of the hunt. She was the daughter of Zeus and Leto (see Apollo) and the twin sister of Apollo.
Aphrodite (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. 
Hermes (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.
Hestia (Vesta) Goddess of the home and hearth and sister of Zeus.

.......Other 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 elite twelve.

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. 
.......Minor 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. 
.......In 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. 
.......Other 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 conscience......

Influence of Greek Mythology and Characteristics of the Gods
.......Since 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—or to perfume them with the breath of Venus.
.......The 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—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’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. 
.......Every great writer since Hesiod and Homer—including Sophocles, Vergil, Ovid, Dante, Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Milton—has climbed Olympus to retrieve metaphorical divinities or one of their qualities to illumine, clarify, or beautify his or her language.
.......Though 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.

[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. 

Study Questions and Essay Topics

  • Does Odysseus represent or symbolize every human being on his or her journey through life? Explain your answer.
  • What quality of Odysseus do you most admire? What quality of Odysseus do you least admire? Explain your answers. 
  • In your opinion, what do the Sirens symbolize? 
  • Write an informative essay that identifies modern Sirens that endanger men and women.
  • What quality of Penelope do you most admire? 
  • What quality of Telemachus do you most admire?
  • Why does the goddess Athena favor Odysseus? 
  • When Odysseus goes to the Underworld, he sees the ghost of Elpenor, a crewman 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. How important were proper funeral rites to the ancient Greeks? 
  • Write an essay that describes the kind of ship Odysseus used on his voyage home.

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Apuleis, Aristophanes, St. Augustine, Caesar, Cicero, Demosthenes, Dio Cassius, Euripides,
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