This lecture provides a rough outline of the exploits of Odysseus in Homer’s epic poem ”The Odyssey”. You’ll learn plot details about this epic poem, in addition to hearing about how this important tale relates to Greek culture and literary works throughout history.
Introduction to The Odyssey
Homer’s second epic, The Odyssey, is a sequel to The Iliad. If The Iliad is all about the wrath of Achilles, The Odyssey is all about the cunning of Odysseus. The Odyssey follows three story lines, which overlap and interweave throughout the epic:The story of Odysseus’ son, Telemachus, trying to find his father.The story of Odyseus’ wife, Penelope, trying to hold off her many suitors.But the heart of The Odyssey is the story of Odysseus’ long and perilous journey home.
In this respect, The Odyssey offers a sharp contrast to the Epic of Gilgamesh, which is all about Gilgamesh leaving home to find adventure. All Odysseus wants is to go home. For purpose of clarity, this lecture will focus on Odysseus’s story line, as it comes to encompass the other two at the end. Yet before we follow Odysseus’ long, perilous journey home, I imagine you all want to learn who Odysseus is, and how he brought about the end of the Trojan War.
Ajax and Odysseus
After the death of Achilles, the greatest surviving Greek heroes, Odysseus and Ajax, compete for Achilles’ fabulous armor, and, symbolically, the role as the new champion of the Greeks. The contest is resolved by Odysseus and Ajax delivering speeches on who is the greatest warrior. Though Ajax is considered the better warrior by most, Odysseus is the better speaker, and he wins the armor, despite the fact that it was Ajax who recovered Achilles’ body and armor from the battlefield in the first place. Ajax is so dishonored, he decides to kill Odysseus.
But Athena, who really likes Odysseus, drives Ajax mad. Instead of killing Greeks, Ajax kills a bunch of livestock. In his shame, he commits suicide, while clever Odysseus goes on to lead the Greeks to victory.It is interesting to note that Agamemnon, the king who is supposedly the leader of this expedition, is not even in the running for Achilles’ armor. Combine this fact with his earlier shameful behavior – sacrificing his daughter for calm seas, taking Briseis away from Achilles, and generally being a pompous ass – and one begins to get a picture of what the Greeks thought of centralized authority: that it put lesser men in charge of their betters. Compare this to the Epic of Gilgamesh, in which the imperial king is the hero.
While Odysseus is clearly a better choice than Agamemnon, it is odd that he should’ve bested Ajax as well. Ajax is very similar to Achilles: prideful as he is powerful. As such, Ajax would seem the natural successor to Achilles as champion of the Greeks. Yet it is not another Achilles that the Greeks need to succeed. They don’t need another proud killing machine.
They need a brilliant strategist and clever schemer. They need Odysseus.
Odysseus and Achilles
Thus, from the first, we realize that Odysseus is a different sort of hero.
The differences between Odysseus and Achilles are clear. Achilles is pure brute strength, an invincible warrior. Odysseus is intelligent, a clever schemer. To emphasize this point, Odysseus is protected by Athena, the goddess of wisdom, and herself a child of Zeus and Mentis (literally, thought). Like Gilgamesh, whose mind was enlarged by Anu, Enlil, and La, Odysseus’ brilliance is considered a touch of the divine.Another difference is that where Achilles lives only for honor and immortal fame, Odysseus has a much more practical goal in mind. He wants to get home to his wife and family.
With such a goal, his approach to honor tends to be a bit more pragmatic. Odysseus is not about to die an honorable death if he can think up an opportunistic way to survive.Though we might find some of what Odysseus gets up to disgusting, he is a much more relatable character than Achilles. Some of us may day dream of immortal fame and honor from time to time, but every human being can understand Odysseus’ desire to return home to his family after ten years of brutal war.
The Trojan Horse
That war came to an end when Odysseus comes up with the idea of the Trojan Horse. The Greeks build a gigantic horse of wood, and fill it with a squadron of elite fighters. The rest of the army pretends to sail away, leaving the Trojan Horse behind. The Trojans, thinking this great gift a peace offering, drag the massive horse into the city and begin to celebrate. When the Trojans are good and drunk, the Greeks descend from their hiding place in the belly of the horse, attack the guards, and open the gates. A slaughter ensues, which few Trojans survive.
With Troy sacked, and the pillage divided, it is time to go home. The Greeks are departing to their respective kingdoms. Odysseus decides to do a little pillaging on the way home.
The Journey Home Begins
He lands at Ismarus, land of the Cicones (also known as the Hittites).
Odysseus’ men destroy the city, kill all the men, and take all the women. Odysseus thinks it is time to leave, but his men don’t listen and get drunk. The Cicones (a.k.a. Hittites) bring reinforcements in chariots, and chase them out to sea.This sets the basic pattern for most of Odysseus’ problems.
Clever Odysseus knows what to do, but his stupid men ignore him and get him into trouble. It is admirable that Odysseus continues to care for these idiots and doesn’t just leave them ashore somewhere.As Odysseus and his men are fleeing the Cicones, Zeus sends a storm, which blows for ten days, sending Odysseus and his crew far past their island home of Ithaca, to the land of the lotus-eaters. Apparently lotus was an ancient euphemism for opium, because Odysseus’ men who eat the lotuses lose any desire to go anywhere or do anything but sit and eat more lotuses. Odysseus rounds up his crew of lotus junkies and sails on to the island of the Cyclopes.
The Land of the Cyclopes
The land of the Cyclopes is lush but uncivilized. Apparently the Cyclopes are too stupid to farm, but too powerful to let starve.
A hungry Cyclops is a terrifying thing, so the gods keep them fed, and thereby keep them content. While hunting for food on this island, Odysseus notes a fire. He and some of his men go to investigate, to see if there is someone there to offer them hospitality. Again we see the importance of xenia in Greek culture.What they find is a giant cave full of giant lambs and giant cheeses. They help themselves to the food until the return of the cave’s occupant: a Cyclops named Polyphemus, an uncivilized, one-eyed giant.
Polyphemus leads in his flock and seals the entrance to the cave. Finding themselves trapped, Odysseus appeals to Polyphemus to honor Zeus and respect the rights of a guest. The Cyclops laughs, picks up two of Odysseus’ men, and smashes their brains out. Faced with such overwhelming force, the humans hide and wait for clever Odysseus to come up with a new plan.
They don’t have long to wait. Odysseus tricks Polyphemus into thinking he is still seeking the rights of hospitality by telling the Cyclops his name and offering him wine. Yet he lies to the Cyclops, telling him his name is ‘Nobody’. Odysseus’ real plan is to get the Cyclops drunk.
This he accomplishes rather quickly; apparently, Cyclopes are total lightweights. While the monster sleeps, Odysseus and his men jam a red-hot pole from the fire into his eye. Polyphemus shrieks in pain, attracting the other concerned Cyclopes. But when his neighbors ask him if he’s all right, if someone is attacking him, Polyphemus screams ‘Nobody! Nobody is attacking me!’, and the confused Cyclopes depart. Odysseus and his men then escape the cave by clinging to the bottom of Polyphemus’ sheep as the blind Cyclops herds them out in the morning.Once again we see the importance of xenia in the Greek world, and once again we see the theme developed of Odysseus’ clever brain beating barbaric brawn.
Even Polyphemus’ divine lineage cannot protect him from an intelligent fellow like Odysseus.Yet Odysseus is too cocky. Having escaped the Cyclops, he cries out his name, so that Poyphemus might tell others who had blinded him. Unbeknownst to Odysseus, Polyphemus is a son of Poseidon, the god of the sea. Poseidon now knows Odysseus’ name, and he will make the hero of Troy pay for blinding his son. For a sailor, there is no worse god to make angry.
The Bag of Wind
But for now things seem to be going pretty well. Odysseus sails to the island of Aeolus, the keeper of the winds. Aeolus gives Odysseus a bag full of wind, which he uses to push his ships toward Ithaca. He is within sight of his home when his idiotic crew, thinking that the bag full of gold and jewels, open it and release the winds. The wild winds drive them all the way back to the island they’d just left.
But Aeolus will not help Odysseus again; he assumes the other gods must hate Odysseus to taunt him so, and he’s not going to make enemies like that.
The Island of Circe
Things go from bad to worse. Odysseus’ dwindling crew is eaten by cannibalistic giants called Laestrygonians. Then they sail on, only to be turned into pigs by the goddess Circe.
Odysseus is only able to secure the release of his men by sharing Circe’s bed. Still, the goddess manages to entangle Odysseus and his men for a year with her charms. When she finally releases them, she does not send them to Ithaca, as she does not know the way.
Instead, she tells them to travel to the underworld to ask for directions from the dead prophet Tiresias.
Journey to the Underworld
With a favorable wind from Circe, they journey to Oceanus, a place where the sun never shines, at the edge of the underworld. Homer likely drew inspiration for this journey from the dream of Enkidu in the Epic of Gilgamesh. The underworld is a sad, dreary place. Upon arrival, Odysseus performs the rite Circe taught him, pouring fresh ram’s blood on the ground, to which the shades of the undead greedily flock to drink.
The ghost of Tiresias gives him directions. He also reveals to Odysseus that Poseidon is angry with him. Tiresias tells Odysseus about his future, but I don’t want to spoil the story.Tiresias is not the only shade Odysseus encounters. He speaks to the ghosts of his fallen comrades, including Achilles and Agamemnon.
He also chats with his mother, as well as a whole cast of dead mythological figures: He sees Minos, the great king, dispensing judgment in the underworld; Tantalus, forever hungering for food just out of reach; and Sisyphus, doomed to forever push a boulder up a hill, only to have it roll down again. The stories Odysseus hears and the sights he sees would provide material and inspiration for countless authors to come from the Greek playwrights to Dante and beyond.
Sirens, Scylla, Charybdis, and Cows
Emerging from the underworld, Odysseus and his few men return to the island of Circe to bury their comrade Elpenor, lest he be buried at sea (a terrible fate for a Greek).
Circe warns them they are about to begin the most dangerous part of their journey. They must sail past the island of the sirens, whose song draws men to a watery grave. Then they must sail through a narrow passage, past the twin dangers of Scylla and Charybdis. Scylla is a many-headed monster who devours sailors from above.
Charybdis is a beast that sucks ships to their doom from a hollow deep below the rocks.To avoid the tempting song of the sirens, Odysseus stuffs the ears of his crew with wax, though Odysseus leaves his own ears open so that he might hear the song, and has his men tie him to the mast to keep him from leaping overboard. Yet there is no guarantee of safety from Scylla and Charybdis.
Odysseus must choose between Scylla, who will likely kill some, and Charybdis, who will surely kill them all. He chooses the former, and the passage costs the lives of 6 more men.Despite this loss, Odysseus is the closest he’s been to home, when his crew turn against him. They want to take a break on the island of Thrinacia, where the sun god, Helios raises his divine cattle. In the underworld, Tiresias had warned Odysseus that these Cattle of the Sun were not to be touched by mortal men.
Odysseus tries to persuade his men to push on just a little further, but they will not budge. They land on the island, and Odysseus forbids his hungry men to eat the cattle. They reluctantly agree.But that night a wind rises, driving away from Ithaca, and the men find themselves stranded on the island for a whole month.
Nearly starving, his men give in and slaughter the divine bovines. With that, the fate of Odysseus’ remaining crew is sealed. Like the bull of heaven from the Epic of Gilgamesh, if you kill the Cattle of the Sun, you must die.
Fooled by promising winds, the cursed men set sail again, only to be driven by Zeus back into the clutches of Charybdis, who crushes the ship and drowns the crew, leaving only Odysseus alive, to float west on a timber to the island of Calypso.
The Island of Calypso
He remains on that island paradise for five years. Yet he is not happy, trapped there by a goddess seeking to make him her husband. His nights he spends as her unwilling bedmate. His days he spends weeping on the beach for his home. At long last, Athena persuades her father Zeus to free Odysseus from Calypso’s clutches.
Calypso releases Odysseus at Zeus’ command, but refuses him any aid in his escape.
The Final Journey Home
Free at last, Odysseus builds a raft and sails for home, with the blessings of the gods behind him. But Poseidon has one last catastrophe up his sleeve. He wrecks Odysseus’ raft on the island of Phaecia. There, Odysseus recounts his tale of woe. The Phaecians are so moved, they offer to sail him to Ithaca themselves.
Excellent sailors, and descendents of Poseidon, the Phaecians are true to their word, and deliver Odysseus safely to his home. Though on their return journey, Poseidon punishes them by turning their boat to stone. Nevertheless, after 20 years away, Odysseus is home at last.
The Story of Penelope and Telemachus
On the shore he meets Athena, who catches him up on what’s been going on in Ithaca for the past two decades.
Odysseus’ wife, Penelope, is hounded day and night by suitors seeking to be the new lord of Ithaca. In their greed, they consume all the resources of his household. Worse yet, they are plotting to kill his son, Telemachus. As guests in his house, they have violated every precept of xenia, the law of hospitality.
Penelope, meanwhile, maintains the interest of all the suitors while choosing none. She dare not insult men so important, with no husband to protect her. She promises to pick a suitor once she has finished a large piece of embroidery. All day she spends embroidering at her hoop, and all night she spends picking out the stitches.
Before leaving, Athena disguises Odysseus as an old beggar. So disguised, Odysseus visits an old servant of his, a swine herd named Eumaeus, who gives Odysseus a place to sleep and plan. The next day, Odysseus’ son Telemachus returns from searching for his father abroad, only to find him in the hut of a swine herd.
At Athena’s advice, Odysseus reveals his true identity to his son and Eumaeus. Together, they hatch a plot to exact vengeance on the suitors.Odysseus enters his court incognito, disguised as a beggar. He is offered insult after insult by the suitors, but he bides his time. Seeing that Penelope has yet to make up her mind, and is unlikely to do so, the suitors are trying to decide among themselves who should have her.
Odysseus proposes an archery competition, and offers his bow for the suitors to use. The suitors cannot even string the thing. Once they’ve all tried and tired themselves out, Odysseus takes up his own bow, bends it, and strings it easily.
On cue, Telemachus steps up beside his father in full armor, and the two go on a killing spree. Eumaeus even locks the gates from the outside, so that not one suitor could escape.
The End of the Journey
Odysseus’ trials were long and arduous, but his victory is resounding and complete. Well, almost complete. When the people of Ithaca learn that the heads of their noble families have been summarily murdered, they take up arms against Odysseus. But Athena intervenes, by helping Laertes, Odysseus’ father, kill the rebel ringleader. Yet when Odysseus seeks to press his advantage and slay all those who stood against him, he is halted by a bolt of lightning from Zeus.
Even the lord of the land did not have the authority to kill his own people, even when they rose against him.Here, at the very end of The Odyssey, we find the central difference between Near Eastern and Greek culture clearly demonstrated. The cultures of the near east were centripetal. Whoever was strongest always attempted to centralize power.
The Greek culture, by contrast, was centrifugal. Driven by a fierce sense of independence and freedom, and emboldened by the protection of mountainous terrain, Greek city-states were always trying to pull away from centralized power and maintain their autonomy. What was true of Greek city-states as a whole was equally true for the citizens of Athens, who would take individual freedom to the highest levels ever known by founding the world’s first democracy.
History and The Odyssey
The Athenians were not the only ones to draw lessons from this epic. The Iliad and The Odyssey were not the first epics of history, nor would they be the last. Yet the depth of their characters, the timelessness of their themes, and the simple beauty of their tales, have established them as the foundation of Western literature.
Inspired by these epics, the Greeks would go on to invent the genres of tragedy, comedy and history.The Iliad and The Odyssey established epic as the core of civilization. Future cultures would return, again and again, to The Iliad and The Odyssey, knowing that if they wanted to be taken seriously, they would need an epic of their own.