In our last episode, we talked about the ancient Greek poet Homer, and his epic poem The Iliad. The Iliad told the story of the hero Achilles, and how he had to overcome his anger to help his people win the Trojan War. The Odyssey is a very different story, but just as full of adventure. It tells the story of one of the kings who fought in the Trojan War. His name was Odysseus and the story is about his adventures as he tries to return home.
The Odyssey starts after the war and far away from the war and even far from Odysseus himself. It starts in Ithaca, Odysseus’ home island, where he was king before leaving for the Trojan War. There, we meet his son, Telemachus, who was just a baby when Odysseus went off to the fight at Troy, but who is now nearly grown up. Odysseus has been gone almost twenty years – ten years at war, and ten years trying to get home. Telemachus and his mother, Penelope, don’t know whether he survived the war or not. Other men have come to Odysseus’ house, demanding that Penelope choose one of them to marry. They behave very rudely, eating all the food in the house and making messes, and staying even when they’re told to leave.
Penelope waits on choosing a new husband, hoping Odysseus will return home soon. She tells her suitors that she must weave a funeral blanket for her father-in-law before she can choose a new husband. So every day she weaves the cloth at her loom, and every night she unravels it, so the blanket is never finished.
Her son, Telemachus decides he must find out whether his father is still alive, so he sets out on his own quest. He learns from one of Odysseus’ friends that his father had been imprisoned by a goddess named Calypso. She wanted to marry him, but Odysseus only wanted to return to Penelope and Telemachus in Ithaca. Finally, after seven years, the other gods convinced Calypso to let Odysseus go.
Odysseus builds a raft and leaves the island. He lands on an island called Phaecia. The king of Phaecia is kind and offers Odysseus food, gifts, and a place to stay. In return, Odysseus tells him the story of the many trials he faced on his quest to return home, and how he ended up alone on Calypso’s island instead. So Odysseus is now the bard, telling his own epic within Homer’s story!
After Odysseus and his crew leave Troy, their ships are quickly thrown off course.
Soon, they are captured by a one-eyed giant called a cyclops. He plans to eat them! But crafty Odysseus comes up with a plan to trick the monster, whose name is Polyphemus. First, Odysseus talks to Polyphemus, pretending that he’s trying to convince him to let him go free. Polyphemus is not swayed though, and only promises that he’ll eat Odysseus last. While they’re talking, the cyclops asks Odysseus his name. But instead of telling him his real name, Odysseus replies that his name is “Nobody.”
This is part of Odysseus’ real plan!
As Polyphemus sleeps that night, Odysseus ties each of his men to the underside of a sheep. Then he takes a stake, and blinds the cyclops, plunging it into his eye. Polyphemus begins to scream, calling out to the other cyclops on the island to help him. But when they come to the cave entrance and ask who is hurting him, he replies “Nobody!” (the pretend name Odysseus gave himself) The other cyclops leave, thinking their friend is just goofing around. At last, Polyphemus calms down, and rolls away the stone that covers the door to the cave so his sheep can leave to graze. When the animals leave, they take the men with them, tied to their bellies.
After escaping the cyclops, Odysseus’ troubles are far from over. You see, Polyphemus came from a powerful family: His father is the sea god Poseidon. Poseidon wasn’t too happy with Odysseus for blinding his son. And, you can probably imagine, it’s not great to have the god of the sea angry with you when you’re trying to sail home in a boat.
Odysseus finds that, because of Poseidon’s anger, the gods will no longer send helpful winds to blow him back to Ithaca. They wander, and all but one of his ships sinks in a disaster.
Finally, he is blown to the island of Circe, the home of a powerful witch. At first, Circe turns Odysseus’ men into pigs. But with some help from the god Hermes, Odysseus is able to steal Circe’s magic wand. He says he will only give it back if she turns his men back. Circe is impressed with Odysseus, and agrees. Even better, she offers to help him!
Circe tells Odysseus of the many dangers they will face sailing back to Ithaca, and how he should deal with each one. The last thing Circe warns Odysseus of is the Island of the Sun God. This island is where the Sun God’s cattle eat grass. If even one cow is eaten by Odysseus or his men, they will be punished severely. Circe tells him not to even stop there.
So Odysseus and his men set out from Circe’s island. At first, they follow her advice as they pass through each danger.
But after all these trials and challenges, the men are getting frustrated and tired. They insist on stopping at the Island of the Sun God. You can probably guess what happens next. Despite Odysseus pleading with them not to, his men kill and eat the cattle on the island. Odysseus is angry with them, but it’s too late. As they sail away from the island, the gods send a storm that sinks the ship.
Only Odysseus survives the shipwreck. He clings to boards from his wrecked ship, drifting for days, until he finally comes ashore on the island of Calypso, who of course captures and holds him prisoner.
This is the end of the story that Odysseus tells his new friends the Phaecians, but of course, it’s not the end of the epic. He’s still not home with his family in Ithaca. The Phaecian king helps Odysseus get a new ship and return home to set things straight.
Once he reaches his home of Ithaca, the goddess Athena disguises Odysseus as an old beggar. He returns to his house to see what’s been happening. By this time, Telemachus has returned home, and he and Penelope treat him kindly, not realizing he is actually Odysseus in disguise.
While they are talking, Penelope tells him all about the men trying to marry his wife – how rude, wasteful, and selfish they are. She says that she’s decided to hold a contest.Twelve axes will be set up in a row. The axes each have a hole in their blades. Penelope says she will marry the person who shoots an arrow through the hole in the ax. She knows none of the suitors will be up to the task. Odysseus, still in disguise, encourages her to follow through on this plan.
The next day, each suitor takes the challenge , stringing an arrow and trying to shoot through all twelve axe-heads. Each one fails. When none are left, the old beggar (who is Odysseus in disguise) steps up and asks to try. The gathered suitors all laugh, but they let him try, sure he cannot possibly succeed where they have all failed. But they are wrong: Odysseus strings his bow and shoots. The arrow whistles through all twelve axe-heads, sticking in the wall behind them. Everyone is stunned that this old, feeble man has beaten all the young, strong suitors.
At this point, Athena reveals the beggar’s true identity. It is Odysseus! Penelope and Telemachus are overjoyed that not only has Odysseus returned home, he also beat the suitors in the contest. The suitors are terrified and realize they need to get out of there fast, knowing Odysseus isn’t going to be happy about how they’ve treated his family and home.
Stories like The Odyssey tell us about how the ancient Greeks thought. The poem warns people that they should treat others with respect and honor the gods, or else face terrible consequences. Though the consequences in real life might not be as harsh as they are in the poem, treating others with respect is a good idea no matter when or where you live. That’s another thing about Homer’s epics — they show us that people have always been people, even the ones we think of as heroes. They make mistakes. They might do or believe things we disagree with. But people have always needed the same things we do now: Respect, the love of family, and a place to come home to after a long, hard journey.
Homer. The Iliad. Translated by Richard Lattimore. University of Chicago Press, 1951
Homer. The Odyssey. Translated by Emily Wilson. Norton & Company, 2020.