The Odyssey: A Study Guide

The Sirens and Ulysses by William Etty, 1837
BBC Your Paintings/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

The Odyssey is an epic poem, attributed to the ancient Greek poet Homer, most likely composed in the late 8th Century B.C. It is the second-oldest known work in Western literature (the oldest being The Iliad, also attributed to Homer; The Odyssey is in many ways a sequel to The Iliad and is considered a more complex and mature work) and has had a singular influence on writing in the Western tradition that continues to this day.

Many of the writing techniques we take for granted in the modern age were first used in The Odyssey, and its plot structure is still used as a template for modern stories.

There is some disagreement about Homer’s authorship; some scholars believe more than one poet worked on what we know today as The Odyssey; there is evidence that the final section of the poem was added much later than the previous books.

Another complicating factor in appreciating and studying The Odyssey is translation; The Odyssey first appeared in English in the 17th century and has been translated in major works more than sixty times; however, many of the words and phrases employed by Homer are open to a wide range of interpretation, and thus translations can vary greatly in the way characters and events are portrayed. For example, a recent modern translator, Emily Wilson, offered the example of the single word polytropos, the first word used to describe Odysseus.

This word literally means ‛much turned.’ But whether this is translated in the passive, describing how Odysseus is ‛much turned’ from his journey home by powers beyond his control, or more actively, meaning that Odysseus is manipulative and capable of turning situations to his advantage. These sorts of decisions color different translations and can have a great impact on the overall interpretation of the story and characters.

Plot

At the start of The Odyssey, the author addresses the Muse, asking her to tell him about Odysseus, the hero who spent more time traveling back to his Greek home than any other Greek hero at the Trojan War. Odysseus has been kept captive by the goddess Calypso. The other gods, except Poseidon (god of the sea) fell sympathy for Odysseus. Poseidon hates him because he blinded his son, Polyphemus.

The goddess Athena, Odysseus’ protector, convinces her father, Zeus, that Odysseus needs assistance. She disguises herself and travels to Greece to meet with Odysseus’ son, Telemachus. Telemachus is unhappy because his home is beset by suitors who wish his mother, Penelope, to admit Odysseus is dead and marry again. Athena, disguised as an old friend of Odysseus’ father, tells Telemachus that the gods are keeping Odysseus from returning home, and that Telemachus should take a ship and search for his father; if he finds no sign of him he can declare him dead, kill the suitors, and put things right in his household. If he hears good news, he can tolerate them until Odysseus is found.

Telemachus begins to search for his father, visiting other veterans of the Trojan War. One of his father’s old comrades, Menelaus, tells him that Odysseus is being held by Calypso.

Meanwhile, Calypso is finally persuaded to release Odysseus, and he sets out on a boat. Poseidon, however, still holds a grudge, and wrecks his boat; Odysseus swims to a nearby island where he is warmly greeted by King Alcinous and Queen Arete of the Phaeacians. Odysseus tells his story: Leaving Troy on twelve ships, he and his companions visited the island of the lotus-eaters, and how eating the lotus would erase your memory. He and his men were then captured by Poseidon’s son, the cyclops Polyphemus. In making their escape Odysseus blinded Polyphemus. They then almost made it home, but were blown off course at the last moment. They encounter a cannibal, and then the witch Circe who turns half his men into pigs, but Odysseus was protected from her magic by sympathetic gods. Leaving Circe’s island after a year, they reached the edge of the world and Odysseus summoned spirits for advice and learned of the suitors living in his home.

They made their way past more threats, including the Sirens, a many-headed sea monster, and an enormous whirlpool. Hungry, they ignore warnings and hunt the sacred cattle of the god Helios, and are punished with yet another shipwreck, stranding Odysseus on Calypso’s island.

The Phaeacians help Odysseus disguise himself and travel, finally, home. He meets his son and the two agree that the suitors must be killed. His wife arranges for an archery competition, which Odysseus easily wins, and then he slaughters the suitors and reveals himself. Odysseus is initially seen as a murderer, but Athena intervenes one last time and saves him from punishment.

Major Characters

Odysseus. Portrayed as an ideal Greek man, Odysseus is the main character, a Greek warrior who is delayed a decade in getting home from the Trojan War because he has angered the gods.

Telemachus. Son of Odysseus who attempts to defend his father’s interests and eventually searches for him.

Penelope. Wife of Odysseus and mother of Telemachus.

Zeus. King of the gods.

Calypso. A goddess who detains Odysseus for 7 years because she loves him.

Poseidon. God of the sea who is angry with Odysseus and doesn't want to let him return to Ithaca.

Athena. A war goddess who favors Odysseus and other heroes.

Polyphemus. One-eyed cyclops son of Poseidon whom Odysseus blinded.

Menelaus. King of Lacedaemon and comrade of Odysseus. Wanders 8 years before returning home after the Trojan War.

Literary Style

As an epic poem written in the 8th Century B.C., The Odyssey was almost certainly intended to be spoken, not read.

It was composed in an ancient form of Greek known as Homeric Greek, a poetic dialect specific to poetry compositions. It’s composed in dactylic hexameter (sometimes referred to as ‛epic meter’), which has six ‛feet’ composed of five feet with one long syllable and two short syllables, plus a final foot composed of one long syllable and then either a short or long syllable.

The Odyssey employs several literary techniques that have become standard techniques. It begins in media res, starting off in the middle of the story and delaying explanatory exposition until later. It employs flashbacks to fill in these gaps, and a non-linear plot that leaps back and forth in time, making some things clear only after you have experienced the whole story.

The Odyssey also mentions many characters who have small roles but are referenced several times, and so Homer uses epithets—e.g., ‛bright-eyed Athena.’ The repetition of these epithets serves to remind the reader/listener about the character.

The poem is also notable for its sexual politics in that the plot is driven as much by the decisions made by women and even slaves as it is by male warriors—and in fact, many of the men in the story, like Odysseus himself and his son Telemachus, are remarkably passive and frustrated through much of the story.

The poem is incredibly influential and is still referenced in the modern day. Classic postmodern novels like James Joyce’s Ulysses as well as more modern films like O Brother, Where Art Thou are based on The Odyssey, and countless other works have borrowed themes, plot points, and techniques from this nearly 3,000-year old poem.

Themes

Hospitality. A surprisingly central motif in Greek mythology, hospitality and the proper behavior of a host is a key element in The Odyssey. The heroic or villainous nature of many characters is telegraphed or revealed via their hospitality; for example, Telemachus is shown to be a good man by the fact that he treats the suitors, who have invaded his home and treat him poorly, with generosity and tolerance.

Disguises and Tricks. Odysseus is a great warrior, but most of his triumphs in The Odyssey are earned through guile or the resistance to guile. Disguises are a central motif, as many characters disguise themselves in order to conceal their true motivations or to manipulate others. The ability to see reality through trickery is seen as a key component of heroism and goodness.

Loyalty and Vengeance. One of the major themes is loyalty; good characters remain loyal (e.g., Telemachus and his loyalty to his father) even under duress, and part of that loyalty is being willing to exact vengeance, as Telemachus does when his father reveals himself and they kill the suitors. The suitors, of course, exhibited no loyalty whatsoever as they moved quickly to take Odysseus’ place even when he was thought to still be alive.

Spiritual Growth. Odysseus is the only character in the story who evolves in any way; however, his change is portrayed as significant, a journey from rash youth to maturity. In the early stories that Odysseus tells, he is brash, overconfident, and taunting, with the result that his life is turned-upside down and his homecoming delayed. When he finally returns home, however, he has learned to be more careful, gathering information in disguise before acting.

Quotes

  • “It is a wise child that knows his own father.”
  • “And wine can of their wits the wise beguile, Make the sage frolic, and the serious smile.”
  • “The blade itself incites to deeds of violence.”
  • “A man who has been through bitter experiences and traveled far enjoys even his sufferings after a time.”
  • “Sleep, delicious and profound, the very counterfeit of death.”

The Odyssey Fast Facts

  • Title: The Odyssey
  • Author: Homer
  • Date Published: 8th Century B.C.
  • Literary Genre: Epic poem
  • Language: Greek
  • Themes: Hospitality, loyalty, vengeance, reality vs. disguise, spiritual growth
  • Characters: Odysseus, Athena, Zeus, Poseidon, Telemachus, Penelope, Calypso

Sources

  • “The Odyssey - Homer - Ancient Greece - Classical Literature.” Oedipus the King - Sophocles - Ancient Greece - Classical Literature, www.ancient-literature.com/greece_homer_odyssey.html.
  • Mason, Wyatt. “The First Woman to Translate the 'Odyssey' Into English.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 2 Nov. 2017, www.nytimes.com/2017/11/02/magazine/the-first-woman-to-translate-the-odyssey-into-english.html.
  • Athens, AFP in. “Ancient Find May Be Earliest Extract of Epic Homer Poem Odyssey.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 10 July 2018, www.theguardian.com/books/2018/jul/10/earliest-extract-of-homers-epic-poem-odyssey-unearthed.
  • Mackie, Chris. “Guide to the Classics: Homer's Odyssey.” The Conversation, The Conversation, 15 July 2018, theconversation.com/guide-to-the-classics-homers-odyssey-82911.
  • “Odyssey.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 13 July 2018, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Odyssey#Structure.