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The Odyssey (Greek: Ὀδύσσεια, Odusseia) is one of the two major ancient Greek epic poems attributed to the poet Homer. The poem is commonly dated circa 800 to 600 BC. The poem is, in part, a sequel to Homer's Iliad and mainly concerns the events that befall the Greek hero Odysseus in his long journeys after the fall of Troy and when he at last returns to his native land of Ithaca.

It takes Odysseus ten years to reach Ithaca after the ten year Trojan War.[1] During this twenty-year absence, his son Telemachus and his wife Penelope must deal with a group of unruly suitors who have moved into Odysseus' home to compete for Penelope's hand in marriage, since most have assumed that Odysseus has died.

The poem is a fundamental text in the Western canon and continues to be read in both Homeric Greek and translations around the world. While today's version of The Odyssey is usually a printed text, the original poem was an oral composition sung by a trained bard, in an amalgamated Ancient Greek dialect, using a regular metrical pattern called dactylic hexameter. Each of the 12,110 hexameter lines of the original Greek consists of six feet; each foot is a dactyl or a spondee. Among the most impressive elements of the text are its strikingly modern non-linear plot, and the fact that events are shown to depend as much on the choices made by women and serfs as on the actions of fighting men. In the English language as well as many others, the word odyssey has come to refer to an epic voyage.


Character of Odysseus

Main article: Odysseus.

Odysseus' main heroic trait is his mētis, or "cunning intelligence"; he is often described as the "Peer of Zeus in Counsel". This intelligence is most often manifested by Odysseus' use of disguise and deceptive speech. His disguises take forms both physical (altering his appearance) and verbal, such as telling the Cyclops Polyphemus that his name is "Nobody" (Ουτις), then escaping after blinding Polyphemus (When queried by other cyclops about why he is screaming, Polyphemus replies that "Nobody" is hurting him).


The Odyssey begins in medias res, meaning that the action begins in the middle of the plot, and that prior events are described through flashbacks or storytelling.[2] In the first episodes we trace Telemachus' efforts to assert control of the household, and then, at Athene's advice, to search for news of his long-lost father. Then the scene shifts: Odysseus has been a captive of the beautiful nymph Calypso, with whom he has spent 7 of his 10 lost years. Released by the intercession of his patroness Athena, he departs, but his raft is destroyed by his divine enemy Poseidon, who is angry because Odysseus blinded his son, Polyphemus. When Odysseus washes up on Scherie, home to the Phaeacians, he is assisted by the young Nausicaa and is treated hospitably. In return he satisfies the Phaeacians' curiosity, telling them - and us - of all his adventures since departing from Troy. This renowned, extended "flashback" leads Odysseus back to where he stands, his tale told. The shipbuilding Phaeacians finally loan him a ship to return to Ithaca, where he is aided by the swineherd Eumaeus, meets Telemachus, regains his household, kills the suitors, and is reunited with his faithful wife Penelope.

In nearly all modern editions and translations the Odyssey (like the Iliad) is divided into 24 books. This division is handy but it is not original; it was developed by Alexandrian editors of the 3rd century BC. Aside from this, the first four books, focusing on Telemachus, are sometimes known as the "Telemachy". Within Odysseus's narrative, the section describing his meeting with the spirits of the dead is known as the "Nekuia".

The last 550 lines of the Odyssey, corresponding to book 24, are believed by many scholars to have been added by a slightly later poet. For more about varying views on the origin, authorship and unity of the poem see Homeric scholarship.

Outline of the plot

Telemachus, Odysseus’s son, was a baby when Odysseus set out for Troy. At the point where the Odyssey begins, ten years after the Trojan War ended, Telemachus is about twenty and is sharing his missing father’s house on the island of Ithaca with his mother Penelope and with a crowd of boisterous young men, "the Suitors", whose aim is to persuade Penelope to accept her husband’s disappearance as final and to marry one of them.

The goddess Athene (who is Odysseus’s protector) discusses his fate with Zeus, king of the gods, at a moment when Odysseus's enemy, the sea-god Poseidon, is absent from Mount Olympus. Then, disguised as a male stranger, she visits Telemachus to urge him to search for news of his father. He offers her hospitality; they observe the Suitors dining rowdily, and the singer Phemius performing a narrative poem for them. Penelope objects to Phemius's theme, the "Return from Troy"[3] because it reminds her of her missing husband, but Telemachus rebuts her objections.

Next morning Telemachus calls an assembly of citizens of Ithaca and demands a ship and crew. Accompanied by Athene (now disguised as Telemachus’s friend Mentor) he departs for the Greek mainland and the household of Nestor, most venerable of the Greek warriors at Troy, now at home in Pylos. From there Telemachus rides overland to Sparta, where he finds Menelaus and Helen, now reconciled. He is told that they returned to Greece after a long voyage by way of Egypt; there, on the magical island of Pharos, Menelaos encountered the old sea-god Proteus, who told him that Odysseus is a captive of the mysterious goddess Calypso. Incidentally Telemachus learns the fate of Menelaus’s brother Agamemnon, king of Mycenae and leader of the Greeks at Troy, murdered on his return home by his wife Clytemnestra and her lover Aegisthus.

Meanwhile Odysseus, after wanderings about which we are still to learn, has spent seven years in captivity on the goddess Calypso’s distant island. She is now persuaded by the messenger god Hermes to release him. Odysseus builds a raft. It is wrecked (the sea-god Poseidon is his enemy) but he swims ashore on the island of Scherie, where, naked and exhausted, he falls asleep. Next morning, awakened by the laughter of girls, he sees the young Nausicaa, who has gone to the seashore with her maids to wash clothes. He appeals to her for help. She encourages him to seek the hospitality of her parents Arete and Alcinous. Odysseus is welcomed and is not at first asked for his name. He remains several days with Alcinous, takes part in an athletic competition, and hears the blind singer Demodocus perform two narrative poems. The first is an otherwise obscure incident of the Trojan War, the "Quarrel of Odysseus and Achilles"; the second is the amusing tale of a love affair between two Olympian gods, Ares and Aphrodite. Finally Odysseus asks Demodocus to return to the Trojan War theme and tell of the Wooden Horse, a stratagem in which Odysseus had played a leading role. Unable to hide his emotion as he relives this episode, Odysseus at last reveals his identity. He then begins to tell the amazing story of his return from Troy.

After a piratical raid on Ismarus in the land of the Cicones, he and his twelve ships were driven off course by storms. They visited the lazy Lotus-Eaters and were captured by the Cyclops Polyphemus, escaping by blinding him with a wooden stake. They stayed with Aeolus the master of the winds; he gave Odysseus a leather bag containing all the winds, a gift that should have ensured a safe return home, had not the sailors foolishly opened the bag while Odysseus slept. All the winds flew out and the resulting storm drove the ships back the way they had come.
After pleading in vain with Aeolus to help them again, they re-embarked and encountered the cannibal Laestrygones. Odysseus’s own ship was the only one to escape. He sailed on and visited the witch-goddess Circe, whose magic potions turned most of his sailors into swine. Odysseus was given by the god Hermes an antidote to Circe's potion, a drug called moly. He persuaded Circe to release his men, and himself slept with her. They stayed on Circe’s island for a year. Then, guided by her instructions, they crossed the Ocean and reached a harbour at the western edge of the world, where Odysseus sacrificed to the dead and summoned the spirit of the old prophet Teiresias to advise him. Here Odysseus learned for the first time news of his own household, threatened by the greed of the suitors. Here, too, he met the spirits of famous women and famous men; notably he encountered the spirit of Agamemnon, of whose murder he now learned.
Returning to Circe’s island, they were advised by her on the remaining stages of the journey. They skirted the land of the Sirens, passed between the many-headed monster Scylla and the whirlpool Charybdis, and landed on the island of Thrinacia. There Odysseus’s men – ignoring the warnings of Teiresias and Circe – hunted down the sacred cattle of the sun god Helios. This sacrilege was punished by a shipwreck in which all but Odysseus himself were drowned. He was washed ashore on the island of Calypso, where she kept him as her lover, and he had only now escaped.

Having listened with rapt attention to his story, the Phaeacians, who are skilled mariners, agree to help Odysseus on his way home. They deliver him at night, while he is fast asleep, to a hidden harbour on Ithaca. He finds his way to the hut of one of his own former slaves, the swineherd Eumaeus. Odysseus now plays the part of a wandering beggar in order to learn how things stand in his household. After dinner he tells the farm labourers a fictitious tale of himself: he was born in Crete, had led a party of Cretans to fight alongside other Greeks in the Trojan War, and had then spent seven years at the court of the king of Egypt; finally he had been shipwrecked in Thesprotia and crossed from there to Ithaca.

Meanwhile Telemachus, whom we left at Sparta, sails home, evading an ambush set by the suitors. He disembarks on the coast of Ithaca and makes for Eumaeus’s hut. Father and son meet; Odysseus identifies himself to Telemachus (but still not to Eumaeus) and they determine that the suitors must be killed. Telemachus gets home first. Accompanied by Eumaeus, Odysseus now returns to his own house, still disguised as a beggar. He experiences the suitors’ rowdy behaviour and plans their death. He meets Penelope: he tests her intentions with an invented story of his birth in Crete, where, he says, he once met Odysseus. Closely questioned, he adds that he had recently been in Thesprotia and had learned something there of Odysseus’s recent wanderings.

Odysseus’s identity is discovered by the housekeeper, Eurycleia, when he undresses for a bath and reveals an old thigh wound; he swears her to secrecy. Next day, at Athene’s prompting, Penelope manoeuvres the suitors into competing for her hand with an archery competition using Odysseus’s bow. He takes part in the competition himself; he alone is strong enough to string the bow and therefore wins. Immediately he turns his arrows on the suitors, and all are killed. Odysseus and Telemachus kill (by hanging) twelve of their household maids, who had slept with the suitors; they mutilate and kill the goatherd Melanthius, who had favoured them. Now at last Odysseus identifies himself to Penelope. She is hesitant, but accepts him when he correctly describes to her the bed he built for her when they married.

Next day he and Telemachus visit the country farm of his old father Laertes, who likewise accepts his identity only when Odysseus correctly describes the orchard that Laertes once gave him.

The citizens of Ithaca have followed Odysseus on the road, planning to avenge the killing of the Suitors, their sons. Their leader points out that Odysseus has now caused the deaths of two generations of the men of Ithaca – his sailors, not one of whom survived, and the suitors, whom he has now executed. The goddess Athene intervenes and persuades both sides to give up the vendetta.[4]

The geography of the Odyssey

Events in the main sequence of the Odyssey (excluding the narrative of Odysseus) take place in the Peloponnese and in what are now called the Ionian Islands (Ithaca and its neighbours).

The journey of Telemachus to Pylos and Sparta raises no geographical problems. Incidental mentions of Troy and its neighbourhood, Phoenicia, Egypt and Crete hint at geographical knowledge equal to, or perhaps slightly ahead of, that of the poet who narrated the Iliad story.[5]

The geographical description of Ithaca and its neighbours seems confused and has given rise to much scholarly argument, beginning in ancient times. Odysseus's Ithaca is usually identified with the island traditionally called Thiaki and now officially renamed Ithake, but some scholars have argued that Odysseus's Ithaca is actually Leucas, and others identify it with the whole or part of Cephalonia.[6] For further information on these debates see Homer's Ithaca.

The geography of the tale that Odysseus told to the Phaeacians (and the location of the Phaeacians' own island of Scherie) pose quite different problems. Scholars both ancient and modern are divided as to whether or not any of the places visited by Odysseus (after Ismarus) were real. Eratosthenes, the third century BC Alexandrian geographer, ridiculed attempts to identify them, saying "you will find the scene of the wanderings of Odysseus when you find the cobbler who sewed up the bag of winds." Similarly, the modern Greek Homerist Ioannis Kakridis championed the view that the Odyssey is a work of poetry and not a travel log; it is useless to try to locate the places mentioned in Odysseus's narrative on the map. We cannot confuse the narrative of Odyssey with history unless we believe in the existence of gods, giants and monsters. One might indeed ask what real locations inspired these imaginary places, but it has to be borne in mind that geography is not the main concern either of Odysseus (as narrator) or of the poet.[7]

By contrast, those who argue for real locations point to the high degree of realism in the poem generally, for example in the description of sailing; but even among these scholars there is endless dispute over actual identifications. The most common view, treated as fact or probable fact in some reference works, sees Odysseus driven far off course into the western Mediterranean, with most of his landfalls taking place between north Africa, Sardinia, Italy and Sicily but without any very coherent route from one to the next. The following identifications are commonly made:

  • The island of Calypso, referred to in the Odyssey as Ogygia, is associated locally with Gozo, which is part of the Maltese archipelago.
  • The Lotus Eaters are located in Tunisia, or elsewhere on the north African coast, on the basis that this would be the expected landfall for a sailing vessel blown off course at Cape Malea.
  • The island of the Cyclopes was in ancient times commonly thought to be Sicily.
  • Aeolus is traditionally placed north of Sicily in the Aeolian Islands (hence their name).
  • The Laestrygones are sometimes placed in Sardinia.
  • The home of Circe was believed by many in ancient times to be at or near Circeii on the coast of Latium (central Italy). Others placed Circe on an island at the western end of the Mediterranean, because:
  • The crossing of Ocean, which followed Odysseus's first visit to Circe, is often understood as an excursion beyond the Pillars of Hercules into the Atlantic Ocean.[8] Odysseus's brief visit to the Underworld, with its three rivers Acheron, Phlegethon and Cocytus, is not usually looked for on the real map of the world (but see below).
  • Scylla and Charybdis are traditionally located on either side of the Straits of Messina.
  • A connection between Thrinacia, the island home of Helios' cattle, and Sicily was already made in Antiquity; the poetic name of Sicily in later Greek literature was Trinacria.
  • The kingdom of the Phaeacians on the island of Scherie, described as a recent colony established "far from barley-eating men", has traditionally been identified with some confidence as Corcyra (Corfu).

Not all reconstructions are based purely on readings in the classics: Tim Severin sailed a replica Greek sailing vessel (originally built for his attempt to retrace the steps of Jason and the Argonauts) along the 'natural' route from Troy to Ithaca, following the sailing directions that could be teased out of Homer. Along the way he found locations at the natural turning and dislocation points which fit the pattern much more closely than the usual identifications above. However, he also came to the conclusion that the sequence of adventures from Circe onwards derived from a separate voyage to the sequence that ended with the Laestrygones, possibly derived from the stories of the Argonauts. He placed many of the later episodes on the northwest Greek coast, where there is a real river Acheron. Along the way he found on the map Cape Skilla and other names that implied strong mythological links to the Odyssey. His adventure is recounted in The Ulysses Voyage: Sea Search for the Odyssey.

There exists an aberrant theory according to which all of Odysseus's travels took place in the Atlantic.[9]

Near Eastern influences

Scholars have seen strong influences from Near Eastern mythology and literature in the Odyssey. Martin West has noted substantial parallels between the Epic of Gilgamesh and the Odyssey.[10] Both Odysseus and Gilgamesh are known for travelling to the ends of the earth, and on their journeys go to the land of the dead. On his voyage to the underworld Odysseus follows instructions given to him by Circe, a goddess who is the daughter of the sun-god Helios. Her island, Aiaia, is located at the edges of the world, and seems to have close associations with the sun. Like Odysseus,Gilgamesh gets directions on how to reach the land of the dead from a divine helper: in this case she is the goddess Siduri, who, like Circe, dwells by the sea at the ends of the earth. Her home is also associated with the sun: Gilgamesh reaches Siduri's house by passing through a tunnel underneath Mt. Mashu, the high mountain from which the sun comes into the sky. West argues that the similarity of Odysseus' and Gilgamesh's journeys to the edges of the earth are the result of the influence of the Gilgamesh epic upon the Odyssey.

Derivative works

  • The contemporary play Highway Ulysses by Rinde Eckert tells the story of the journey of a Vietnam veteran travelling to his son, meeting modern day characters akin to characters or monsters in the Odyssey (including the Sirens and Cyclops).
  • "Telemachus Clay" by Lewis John Carlino is a contemporary play about the travels of a young man, Telemachus, in search of the father he never knew in the big city as he meets many strange characters along the way.
  • The 1954 Broadway musical The Golden Apple by librettist John Treville Latouche and composer Jerome Moross was freely adapted from the Iliad and the Odyssey, re-setting the action to the American state of Washington in the years after the Spanish-American War, with events inspired by the Iliad in Act One and events inspired by the Odyssey in Act Two.
  • Some of the tales of Sindbad the Sailor from The Book of One Thousand and One Nights (Arabian Nights) were taken from Homer's Odyssey.
  • A modern novel inspired by the Odyssey is James Joyce's Ulysses (1922).
  • Nikos Kazantzakis wrote The Odyssey: A Modern Sequel, a 33,333 line epic poem which continues Odysseus' journeys past the point of his arrival in Ithaca.
  • Andrew Lang and H. Rider Haggard collaborated on The World's Desire in which Odysseus and Helen meet in Egypt at the time of the Exodus.
  • "The Odyssey", a made for TV movie from 2001 made by Hallmark Entertainment and directed by Andrei Konchalovsky is a slightly abbreiviated version of the tale which encompasses Homer's epic. It stars Armand Assante, Greta Scacchi, Isabella Rossellini and Vanessa Williams.
  • The movie O Brother, Where Art Thou? has the basic plot of The Odyssey; Joel and Ethan Coen admit to basing the movie loosely on the Odyssey (and explicitly reference it in the opening credits) but insist that they haven't read it.
  • R.A. Lafferty retold the story in a science fiction setting in his novel Space Chantey. Another science fiction retelling of the Odyssey is R L Fanthorpe's novel Negative Minus, in which all the names are spelled backwards (for example "Suessydo", "Ecric" and "Acahti").
  • Progressive metal group Symphony X based a 24-minute epic track The Odyssey on the story in their 2002 album, The Odyssey.
  • The animated cartoon Ulysses 31 featured a science-fiction tale of a hero trying to get back to his wife Penelope.
  • The first half of Virgil's Aeneid parallels the Odyssey in structure.
  • Ulysses, a poem by Alfred Lord Tennyson, and also The Lotos-Eaters.
  • Tank Girl: Odyssey borrows freely and irreverently from Homer and from James Joyce's Ulysses, casting targets in the contemporary media as the trials the heroine must overcome to get back to her mutant kangaroo boyfriend.
  • Odyssey: A Stage Version, 1993 play, divided into two acts (respectively broken up into 14 and 6 scenes) written by Derek Walcott and originally performed by the Royal Shakespeare Company.
  • The 1997 novel Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier, about a confederate war deserter returning home, is based on The Odyssey
  • In Jean-Luc Godard's film Le Mépris (Contempt) (1963) German film director Fritz Lang plays himself trying to direct a film adaptation of Homer's Odyssey.
  • In Dante's Divine Comedy ("Inferno XXVI"), Odysseus is punished as a fraudulent advisor in Hell, talking about the Hubris of his last voyage (over the edge). (Yet this story is not taken from Homer's Odyssey.)
  • Odds Bodkin has published a retelling of the Odyssey, featuring vocal storytelling and musical accompaniment, entitled "The Odyssey." This work includes most of the plot of Homer's "Odyssey," and is narrated from Odysseus' point of view.
  • The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood retells the story from the point of view of Penelope.
  • The Desmond Hume storyline on Lost may be based partly on The Odyssey; Desmond goes on a "race around the world" in order to win back his honor and marry his girlfriend Penelope.
  • The main character of Hayao Miyazaki's movie Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind is named after the princess in the Odyssey.
  • The short story The Ulyssey by uruguayan writer Rodrigo Tisnés, tells in a humoristic way, the frustrated attempt of two friends both named Ulysses in Eastern Holidays, to travel from Montevideo in Uruguay to Florianopolis in Brazil.


  1. The dog Argos dies autik' idont' Odusea eeikosto eniauto ("seeing Odysseus again in the twentieth year"), Odyssey 17.327; cf. also 2.174-6, 23.102, 23.171.
  2. This device is imitated by later authors of literary epics, e.g. Virgil in the Aeneid.
  3. This theme once existed in the form of a written epic, Nostoi, now lost.
  4. Outline originally based on Template:Harvard reference pp. xx-xxiv.
  5. Setting aside the geographical knowledge shown in the Catalogue of Ships and Trojan Battle Order, which are extremely detailed and precise, but may have a different history from the remainder of the Iliad narrative.
  6. For Robert Bittlestone's recent work, identifying the Paliki peninsula with Homer's Ithaca, see Odysseus Unbound.
  7. Ελληνική Μυθολογία, vol. 5: The Trojan War (1986) Ekdotike Athenon, Athens. Kakridis compares the effort to locate Circe's island to locating the castle of Bluebeard or the hut of the seven dwarves.
  8. The Greek geographer Strabo noted that "Homer was not ignorant about the ebb and flow of Okeanos": Strabo, Geography, 1.7.8.
  9. Theophile Cailleux, Pays Atlantiques décrits par Homère, 1879, Maisonneuve & Cie, Paris
  10. West, Martin. The East Face of Helicon: West Asiatic Elements in Greek Poetry and Myth. (Oxford 1997) 402-417.

External links

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Interlinear translations

English translations

Template:Trojan War Cycle

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