'The Odyssey' Quotes Explained

"Sing to me of the man, Muse, the man of twists and turns"

The Odyssey, an epic poem by Homer, tells the tale of war hero Odysseus and his long journey home to Ithaca after the Trojan War. Odysseus is known for his wit, craft, and cunning, traits he uses to escape danger and eventually return to Ithaca. The quotes that follow contain some of the most important examples of Odysseus' cunning, as well as the importance of other key characters and the significance of poetry and storytelling throughout the text.

“Sing to me of the man, Muse, the man of twists and turns
driven time and again off course, once he had plundered
the hallowed heights of Troy.
Many cities of men he saw and learned their minds,
many pains he suffered, heartsick on the open sea,
fighting to save his life and bring his comrades home.
But he could not save them from disaster, hard as he strove —
the recklessness of their own ways destroyed them all,
the blind fools, they devoured the cattle of the Sun
and the Sungod wiped from sight the day of their return.
Launch out on his story, Muse, daughter of Zeus,
start from where you will —sing for our time too.”
(1.1-12)

These opening lines provide a brief synopsis of the plot of the poem. The passage begins with an invocation of the muse and a request for the story of "the man of twists and turns." As readers, we learn that we are about to hear the tale of Odysseus—“the man of twists and turns"—who went on a long, difficult journey and attempted (but failed) to bring his comrades home. 

The unidentified narrator then requests, “Launch out on his story, Muse, daughter of Zeus, / start from where you will.” Indeed, The Odyssey starts not at the beginning of Odysseus' journey but in the middle of the action: 20 years after his initial departure from Ithaca. By jumping forward and backward in time, Homer provides important details at crucial moments without interrupting the narrative flow.

“Odysseus, master of many exploits, praised the singer:
I respect you, Demodocus, more than any man alive —
surely the Muse has taught you, Zeus’s daughter,
or god Apollo himself. How true to life,
all too true . . . you sing the Achaeans’ fate,
all they did and suffered, all they soldiered through,
as if you were there yourself or heard from one who was.
But come now, shift your ground. Sing of the wooden horse.
Epeus built with Athena’s help, the cunning trap that
good Odysseus brought one day to the heights of Troy,
filled with fighting men who laid the city waste.
Sing that for me —true to life as it deserves —
and I will tell the world at once how freely
the Muse gave you the gods’ own gift of song.”
(8.544-558)

In these lines, Odysseus asks the blind bard Demodocus to regale him with his own story—the story of the Trojan War. Odysseus praises Demodocus for his skill as a storyteller, which "surely the Muse has taught [him]," and his ability to express powerful, "true to life" emotions and experiences. Later on in this scene, Odysseus himself weeps as he listens to the tale Demodocus tells.

This scene offers insight into the performance of epic poems during Homer's era. Poetry was considered a divine gift, bestowed upon storytellers by the muses and capable of inspiring powerful emotions. At the same time, poetic activity was also considered a type of rote work, as storytellers had vast repertories of tales that listeners could request. These lines convey the power and importance of storytelling in the world of The Odyssey, which is itself one of the most famous epic poems in world literature.

“So, you ask me the name I’m known by, Cyclops?
I will tell you. But you must give me a guest-gift
as you’ve promised. Nobody —that’s my name. Nobody —
so my mother and father call me, all my friends.
But he boomed back at me from his ruthless heart,
‘Nobody? I’ll eat Nobody last of all his friends —
I’ll eat the others first! That’s my gift to you!”
(9.408-14)

In this scene, Odysseus uses his wit to escape death by telling the cyclops Polyphemus that his name is “nobody." After Polyphemus falls asleep, Odysseus and his comrades stab and blind him. Polyphemus cries for help, shouting that "Nobody's killing me now by fraud and not by force," but the other Cyclopes misunderstand the statement, believing that Polyphemus is not being killed at all.

This scene is representative of Odysseus' characteristic trickery. Unlike other classical heroes who overpower their antagonists through brute force, Odysseus uses wordplay and clever schemes to escape danger. The scene is also significant because it provokes the wrath of Polyphemus' father Poseidon, who serves as Odysseus' primary antagonist for the remainder of his journey.

“Any man —any god who met you —would have to be
some champion lying cheat to get past you
for all-round craft and guile! You terrible man,
foxy, ingenious, never tired of twists and tricks —
so, not even here, on native soil, would you give up
those wily tales that warm the cockles of your heart!
Come, enough of this now. We’re both old hands
at the arts of intrigue. Here among mortal men
you’re far the best at tactics, spinning yarns,
and I am famous among the gods for wisdom,
cunning wiles, too.
Ah, but you never recognized me, did you?
Pallas Athena, daughter of Zeus —who always
stands beside you, shields you in every exploit:
thanks to me the Phaeacians all embraced you warmly.
And now I am here once more, to weave a scheme with you
and to hide the treasure-trove Phaeacia’s nobles
lavished on you then —I willed it, planned it so
when you set out for home —and to tell you all
the trials you must suffer in your palace...”
(13.329-48)

Athena speaks these lines, revealing her identity, after Odysseus has finally returned to the shores of Ithaca. Athena defines herself as Odysseus' helper, ally, and protector; as the goddess presiding over intelligent warfare and the crafts, she is eager to “weave a scheme” in order to get rid of the suitors threatening Odysseus' domain over Ithaca. During the reunion, Athena is full of admiration, categorizing both herself and the cunning Odysseus as “old hands at the arts of intrigue."

“Give the boy the name I tell you now. Just as I
have come from afar, creating pain for many —
men and women across the good green earth —
so let his name be Odysseus...
the Son of Pain, a name he’ll earn in full.”
(19.460-464)

These lines, spoken by Odysseus' grandfather Autolycus, offer insight into the origins of Odysseus' name. We learn that Autolycus named Odysseus when the hero was an infant. The passage includes another example of word play: the name “Odysseus” is associated with the Greek verb odussomai—to feel anger toward, to rage or hate. True to his own name, Odysseus both causes and experiences pain throughout his travels.

"Strange man,
wary Penelope said. “I’m not so proud, so scornful,
nor am I overwhelmed by your quick change...
You look —how well I know —the way he looked,
setting sail from Ithaca years ago
aboard the long-oared ship.
Come, Eurycleia,
move the sturdy bedstead out of our bridal chamber —
that room the master built with his own hands,
Take it out now, sturdy bed that it is,
and spread it deep with fleece,
blankets and lustrous throws to keep him warm."
(23.192-202)

At this point in the poem, Penelope has already tricked the suitors by weaving and unweaving Laertes’ funeral shroud, as well as by making them compete in a rigged game of bow and arrows that only Odysseus could win. Now, in these lines, Penelope tests her very own husband.

Odysseus has returned to Ithaca, but Penelope does not yet believe that it's really him. As a test, she slyly asks the housekeeper Eurycleia to move their marital bed from her chambers. This is an impossible task, as the bed is built out of an olive tree and cannot be moved, and Odysseus' immediate reaction confirms to Penelope that he is indeed her husband. This final trial proves not only that Odysseus has returned at last, but also that Penelope's cunning equals that of her husband.