The Odyssey is a Greek epic poem attributed to Homer and was composed around the end of the 8th century B.C (according to many scholars). In part a sequel to Homer’s other poem, the Iliad, it recounts the aftermath of the mythical Trojan War, and may have been based on historical events from around 1200 B.C.
King Odysseus, a hero in the Trojan War, encounters many deadly challenges and adventures on a ten-year quest to return to his home in Ithaca.
Odysseus slays the suitors
In the fourth century B.C., the Greek philosopher Aristotle summarized the poem in these words: “A certain man has been abroad many years; he is alone, and the god Poseidon keeps a hostile eye on him. At home the situation is that suitors for his wife's hand are draining his resources and plotting to kill his son. Then, after suffering storm and shipwreck, he comes home, makes himself known, attacks the suitors: he survives and they are destroyed.”
The story begins in media res, as Telemachus (the only child of Odysseus) struggles with how to deal with the suitors who have overtaken his home in pursuit of the presumed widow of Odysseus, Penelope. With their constant partying, the rude and boorish suitors are depleting the wealth that Odysseus had accumulated prior to leaving for the Trojan War two decades before.
The goddess Athena comes to Telemachus, suggests a course of action, and assures Telemachus that she will be with him. After speaking out against the suitors, Telemachus sails off to Pylos and Sparta in an effort to determine the fate of his father once and for all. In his absence, the suitors make plans to ambush and assassinate Telemachus upon his return.
At this point, Homer leaves the story of Telemachus and introduces Odysseus, whom the gods are setting free from Calypso, the goddess that held Odysseus captive for seven years. Odysseus is sailing toward home when the sea god Poseidon takes notice. Poseidon’s son Cyclops had been blinded by Odysseus in an earlier encounter and so the sea god takes revenge on Odysseus, by wrecking his ship on Phaeacia. The hospitable Phaeacians treat Odysseus kindly and encourage him to tell of his adventures, so he begins to recount all that has happened to him in the ten years since the Trojan War ended:
At the close of the Trojan War, Odysseus and his men start for home, but they pause to raid the land of the Cicones. They loot the town, but linger there too long, and the people launch a successful counter-attack, killing some of the Greeks before they can escape. A storm sent by the gods blows the flotilla off-course and to the land of the Lotus-eaters, where Odysseus has difficulty convincing his men to leave that land of complacent bliss.
Odysseus and Calypso, by Arnold Bocklin, 1883
After they do sail on, they reach the land of the Cyclops and stop to explore. These cannibalistic, one-eyed giants trap the Greeks and eat several of them. To escape, Odysseus blinds the monstrous Polyphemus, incurring the wrath of his father, Poseidon. But coming to the aid of Odysseus, the wind god Aeolus captures all adverse winds and puts them in a bag. Their ships comes to within sight of Ithaca, but while Odysseus sleeps his men become curious about the contents of the bag, thinking it holds treasure. The winds let loose from the bag send them back to Aeolus, who refuses to help anymore, believing the party must be cursed by the gods.
Their next encounter is with the cannibalistic Laestrygonians who destroy all of Odysseus’s ships except his own. When the survivors sail on to Aeaea, the beautiful enchantress turns several of the men into pigs. Aided by the god Hermes, Odysseus becomes the lover of Circe and lifts the spell from his men. One year later, Circe cooperates with the departure of the Greeks, on the condition that they sail to the Land of the Dead. Once there, he performs the sacred rites and is met by a procession of the dead, including various Greek heroes and his own mother, who died after his departure for the Trojan War.
Returning from the Land of the Dead, the Greeks sail past the temptations of the Sirens’ call and survive attacks by the six-headed monster Scylla and the whirlpool Charybdis. Landing on the island of Thrinacia, Odyssesus’ men ignore the warnings not to disturb the sacred cattle of the sun god Helios. But Odysseus awakens from his sleep to the odor of beef on the fire. As a divine punishment, later on, their ship is sunk and all but Odysseus drown. Washing ashore on Calypso, he is held there as her lover for seven years, until Zeus orders his release.
The Phaecians, having heard this account by Odysseus, agree to sail him home to Ithaca. They deliver him at night, while he is asleep, on a hidden shore of Ithaca. Athena then disguises him as an old beggar and he finds his way to the hut of one of his former slaves, the swineherd Eumaeus. He learns how things stand in his old household and tells a fictitious tale of his travails since the Trojan War. Meanwhile, Telemachus evades the ambush of the suitors on his return to Ithaca and himself goes to the hut of Eumaeus to prepare for his return to the palace. At the swineherd’s hut, the old beggar reveals his true identity to his son, Telemachus, and the two begin to plot the slaughter of the suitors that have infested their home.
Still under the disguise of an old beggar, Odysseus returns to his palace and is subject to the cruel taunts of the suitors. Penelope is still grieving the loss of Odysseus, but reluctantly agrees to hold an archery competition using Odysseus’ bow. The man who can string the bow and shoot it most accurately will win her hand. But even the strongest of the suitors lack the strength to string the bow. After their failure, the old beggar asks that he be given a chance. To the amazement of all, he strings the bow and shoots an arrow through a dozen axe heads.
He then turns his arrows on the suitors and aided by Telemachus, Eumaeus and the cowherd Philoteus, Odysseus slaughters all the suitors. At last, he identifies himself to Penelope and convinces her that he really is her long-lost husband. The next day, he goes visits the country farm where his father Laertes has retired to mourn the loss of his son. Odysseus teasingly reveals his identity and the father and son have a joyful reunion. Odysseus prepares to face the vengeful kinfolk of the men whose deaths he was responsible for – his sailors and the suitors – and a festering feud is averted with the intervention of Athena. A truce takes hold and Ithaca is at peace, with Odysseus restored to his home.
Homer, The Odyssey, translated by Robert Fagles.