'The Odyssey' Characters: Descriptions and Significance

The Odyssey is a character-focused epic poem. The first word of The Odyssey in the original Greek text is andra, which means “man.” (By contrast, the first word of The lliad is menin, meaning wrath.) The characters of The Odyssey include royalty, deities, war heroes, monsters, witches, nymphs and more, spread all over the Mediterranean Sea. All of these characters, realistic and fantastical, play significant roles in the action of the epic poem.

Odysseus

The protagonist of The Odyssey, Odysseus, is the king of Ithaca and a Trojan War hero. He has been absent from his home for the past 20 years: the first ten spent at war, and the second ten spent at sea during his attempt to return home. However, Odysseus runs into countless obstacles along his journey that delay his travel to Ithaca.

In Homeric epics, characters' names are associated with an epithet that describes their personality. Odysseus' epithet, which recurs more than 80 times in the poem, is “with much cunning." Odysseus' name is etymologically associated with the concept of “trouble” and “annoyance.” Cunning and nimble-witted, Odysseus uses clever tricks to get himself out of tricky situations, most memorably when he escapes Polyphemus' cave by saying his name is "no-man" or "nobody." He is an anti-heroic hero, particularly when considered in contrast to Achilles, the classical hero of Homer'sThe Iliad.

Telemachus

The son of Odysseus and Penelope, Telemachus is on the brink of manhood. He knows very little about his father, who left for Troy when Telemachus was an infant. On the advice of Athena, Telemachus goes on a journey to learn more about his father, with whom he ultimately reunites. Together, Telemachus and Odysseus successfully plot the downfall of the suitors who are courting Penelope and seeking Ithaca's throne.

Penelope

Penelope, Odysseus' wife, is cunning and loyal. She has awaited her husband’s return for the past 20 years, during which time she devised various strategies to delay marrying one of her many suitors. In one such trick, Penelope claims to be weaving a burial shroud for Odysseus's elderly father, stating that she will choose a suitor when the shroud is finished. Every night, Penelope undoes part of the shroud, so the process never ends.

Penelope prays to Athena, the goddess of cunning and handicrafts. Like Athena, Penelope is a weaver. Penelope's affinity for Athena serves to reinforce the fact that Penelope is one of the poem's wisest characters.

Athena

Athena is the goddess of cunning, intelligent warfare, and handicrafts like carpentry and weaving. She helps Odysseus’ family throughout the poem, typically by disguising herself or disguising the identities of other characters. Penelope has a particular affinity to Athena, as Penelope is a weaver, an art form that Athena lords over.

The Suitors

The suitors is a group made up of 108 noblemen, each of whom is vying for Ithaca's throne and Penelope’s hand in marriage. Each suitor mentioned by name in the poem has distinct traits. For example, Antinous is violent and arrogant; he is the first suitor Odysseus slays. The wealthy and fair Eurymachus is sometimes referred to as “god-like.” Another suitor, Ctesippus, is rude and judgmental: he mocks Odysseus when he arrives in Ithaca disguised as a beggar.

Residents of Ithaca

Various residents of Ithaca, including servants in the home of Penelope and Odysseus, play a key role in the narrative.

Eumaeus is the faithful swineherd of Odysseus. When Odysseus arrives in Ithaca disguised as a beggar, Eumaeus does not recognize him, but still offers him his coat; this act is a sign of Eumaeus' goodness.

Eurycleia, the housekeeper and Odysseus' former wet nurse, recognizes the disguised Odysseus upon his return to Ithaca thanks to the scar on Odysseus' leg.

Laertes is Odysseus’ elderly father. He lives in seclusion, overwhelmed by grief at the disappearance of Odysseus, until Odysseus returns to Ithaca.

Melanthius the goatherd, betrays his household by joining the suitors and disrespects a disguised Odysseus. Likewise, his sister Melanthos, Penelope’s servant, has an affair with the suitor Eurymachus.

Witches, Monsters, Nymphs and Seers

During his adventures, Odysseus encounters creatures of all kinds, some being benevolent, others being downright monstrous. 

Calypso is a beautiful nymph who falls in love with Odysseus when he happens upon her island. She holds him captive for seven years, promising him the gift of immortality should he want to remain with her. Zeus sends Hermes to Calypso in order to convince her to let Odysseus go.

Circe is a witch presiding over the island of Aeaea, who promptly transforms Odysseus’ companions (but not Odysseus) into pigs. Afterwards, she takes Odysseus as her lover for a year. She also teaches him how to summon the dead in order to speak with the seer Tiresias.

The Sirens are songstresses who charm and kill the sailors that dock on their island. Thanks to Circe’s advice, Odysseus is immune to their song.

Princess Nausicaa helps Odysseus at the very end of his travels. When Odysseus arrives in Scheria, the land of the Phaeacians, Nausicaa gives him access to her palace, which allows him to reveal himself and make a safe passage to Ithaca. 

Polyphemus, a cyclops, is a son of Poseidon. He imprisons Odysseus and his comrades in order to eat them but Odysseus uses his wits to blind Polyphemus and save his companions. This conflict causes Poseidon to become the main divine antagonist.

Tiresias, a famed blind prophet devoted to Apollo, meets with Odysseus in the underworld. He shows Odysseus how to get back home and allows him to communicate with the souls of the departed, which would otherwise be prohibited.

Aeolus is the master of the winds. He presents Odysseus with a bag safely containing the adverse winds in order for him to finally reach Ithaca. However, Odysseus’ comrades mistake it for a bag full of gold and open it.