Cycladic, Minoan, Mycenaean, and Archaic Greek Mythology

The Odyssey

What is the plot of the Odyssey?

The first four books are known as the Telemachia. They narrate the adventures of Odysseus’s son Telemachos as he goes on the hero’s archetypal search for his father. Odysseus has been away for some twenty years, and in his palace at Ithaca unruly suitors are demanding marriage with his supposed “widow,” Penelope. The suitors are eating their way through Telemachos’s inheritance, leaving the boy in a state of depression until the goddess Athene urges him to act as his “father’s son” against the intruders.

From the very beginning of the epic the dominance of the gods over humans—heroes and menials alike—is established. The king of the gods, Zeus, acts as a mediator between his daughter Athene, always an admirer of Odysseus, who wants the hero to be allowed to return home, and his brother Poseidon, who holds a grudge against Odysseus and wants to prevent his return. Zeus takes Athene’s side, and sends the messenger god Hermes to the island of Ogygia commanding the nymph Calypso to free Odysseus, who has been trapped there as a kind of love slave. Meanwhile, Athene travels to Ithaca, disguised as Odysseus’s old friend Mentor, and as such helps Telemachos to leave Ithaca in search of his father. The boy stops at Pylos, where he is greeted warmly by his father’s old friend, another famous Trojan War hero, Nestor. Nestor sends Telemachos to Sparta to see Menelaus and his forgiven wife, the beautiful Helen. Menelaus and the once notorious, now gentle and wise, Helen tell the young traveler about the great deeds of his father. Most importantly, they report that Odysseus is said to be still alive. Homer now returns the scene to Ithaca, where the suitors plan to kill Telemachos when he returns home.

It is only in Book V that we finally meet Odysseus, and the man we see could not be more different from the hero we observed in the Iliad. He sits on the island’s shore weeping and sighing, hopelessly longing for home. Although reluctant to give up the hero, since she greatly enjoys their lovemaking, Calypso has no choice but to bow to the demands of Zeus via Hermes. So she helps Odysseus to depart on a raft. But Poseidon is still angry, and he destroys the raft at sea. Once again, however, Odysseus is helped by Athene and a sea nymph, and, in a bedraggled state, he is thrown onto the island of Scheria, the home of the Phaiakians. Odysseus is discovered by the gentle teenaged Nausikaa, the daughter of the king, who is doing laundry with friends near the shore. This is one of the more touching scenes in the epic: the naked and battered Odysseus juxtaposed against the innocent and unblemished Nausikaa, who nevertheless summons the courage to help the stranger, leading him to her father, Alcinous.

The king receives Odysseus without knowing who he is. Then, at a feast, the blind minstrel Demodokos appears and answers the mysterious stranger’s request for a story about the Trojan War. The saga affects the hero emotionally, and the king notices the stranger’s tears and demands that he reveal his identity. Odysseus now does reveal himself and is asked to tell his own story. In this story within a story, contained in Books 9 through 12, Odysseus tells of his fairytale-like adventures leading up to Calypso’s island. There is the tale of the Land of the Lotus Eaters, where unwary visitors forget their homeland. The story of the confrontation with Poseidon’s monstrous one-eyed son, the Cyclops Polyphemos, is next. It is the fact that Odysseus escapes from the monster by tricking and blinding him that has so turned the god of the sea against the hero. In Book 10 Odysseus tells how the wind god Aeolus gave him the bag of winds which if kept closed would prevent errant winds from blocking the passage to Ithaca. When Odysseus’s suspicious companions open the bag, the winds escape, and the ship is blown off course. Giant cannibals, called the Laestrygonians, devour some of Odysseus’s crew. Then, on the island of Aeaea, the witch Circe turns the men into swine. Only Odysseus, with Hermes’ help, is able to withstand Circe’s power, and the witch and the hero become lovers. After some time, Odysseus and his restored men obtain Circe’s help in continuing their journey. Following her instructions, Odysseus visits the Land of the Dead to seek his destiny from the prophet Tiresias. There he meets Achilles and other dead heroes and learns from Tiresias that he will return to Ithaca, but that his entire crew will perish on the way. In a moving scene, Odysseus meets his mother’s shade, who informs him of conditions at home.

As they make their way toward Ithaca, Odysseus and his crew must face the Sirens, the terrible femmes fatales who lure sailors to their death. To avoid this fate Odysseus places wax in the ears of his crew and has himself tied to his mast so that he alone can hear the famous siren songs without being able to leap to his death. After also surviving the boat-swallowing monsters Scylla and Charybdis, Odysseus arrives at the land of the sun god Helios, where, against his orders, his men eat the god’s sacred cattle. Zeus punishes the entire crew but Odysseus by killing them with a thunderbolt, and Odysseus alone makes his way to Calypso’s island and then to Phaiakia. So it is that Odysseus, in the role of a bard himself, brings his story up to date, leaving Homer to tell what happens next.

The second half of the epic is devoted to the hero’s return home. After the Phaiakians sail him to Ithaca, Odysseus, on Athene’s advice, takes on the disguise of a beggar. He is received well by his old faithful swineherd, Eumaeos. Telamachos now arrives, too, fresh from his stay with Menelaus and Helen. Only when Athene magically restores Odysseus to his youthful state does Telemachos recognize his father. After an emotional reunion, the group makes plans. Again disguised as a beggar, Odysseus, with Telemachos and Eumaeos, descends upon his own palace to find that Penelope is still desperately holding off the suitors. The suitors taunt the beggar, but Penelope, even though she does not recognize him, is kind to him and listens with joy as he tells her a soothsayer has told him Odysseus is still alive. It is Odysseus’s faithful old nurse, Eurycleia, who first recognizes him when, while bathing him, she notices a tell-tale scar. Odysseus swears the nurse to secrecy. He watches with great interest when Penelope announces that she will marry the man who can string Odysseus’s great bow and use it to shoot an arrow through iron axe-helve sockets. After all the the suitors fail, Odysseus, who has now revealed himself to the swineherd and another faithful servant, asks for a turn. Even though the suitors mock the lowly beggar, Penelope insists that he be allowed the bow. Odysseus, still unrecognized by Penelope, strings the bow with ease, shoots an arrow through the axe-helves, and now joined by the two loyal servants and his son, attacks and kills all the suitors as well as the maids who have given them sexual favors.

Book 23 reveals the tender reunion between Penelope and Odysseus, who have been made young and attractive by Athene. In the final book, Odysseus meets with his grieving father, Laertes. After that meeting Athene ends the potential blood feud between Odysseus and the families of the dead suitors, and peace returns to Ithaca.

Odysseus and his crew are seduced by the Sirens on this piece of pottery circa 475 B.C.E.


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