'The Odyssey' Summary

The Odyssey, Homer's epic poem, is comprised of two distinct narratives. One narrative takes place in Ithaca, an island whose ruler, Odysseus, has been absent for twenty years. The other narrative is Odysseus’ own journey back home, which consists both of present-day narrations and recollections of his past adventures in lands inhabited by monsters and natural wonders.

Books 1-4: Telemacheia

The Odyssey begins with an introduction that presents the theme and the protagonist of the work, Odysseus, emphasizing the wrath of Poseidon towards him. The Gods decide that it’s time for Odysseus, who is being held captive by the nymph Calypso on the island of Ogygia, to come home.

The Gods send Athena to Ithaca in disguise to speak with Odysseus' son, Telemachus. Ithaca's palace is occupied by 108 suitors all seeking to marry Penelope, who is Odysseus' wife and Telemachus' mother. The suitors constantly taunt and belittle Telemachus. The disguised Athena comforts a distressed Telemachus and tells him to go to Pylos and Sparta to learn of his father’s whereabouts from the kings Nestor and Menelaus.

Aided by Athena, Telemachus leaves in secret, without telling his mother. This time, Athena is disguised as Mentor, Odysseus’ old friend. Once Telemachus reaches Pylos, he meets the king Nestor, who explains that he and Odysseus parted ways shortly after the end of the war. Telemachus learns about the disastrous homecoming of Agamemnon, who, upon his return from Troy, was killed by his wife and her lover. In Sparta, Telemachus learns from Menelaus’ wife Helen that Odysseus, disguised as a beggar, managed to get into Troy’s stronghold before it capitulated. Meanwhile in Ithaca, the suitors find out that Telemachus departed and decide to ambush him. 

Books 5-8: At the Phaeacians’ Court

Zeus sends his winged messenger Hermes to the island of Calypso to convince her to release her captive Odysseus, whom she wanted to make immortal. Calypso consents and provides assistance by helping Odysseus build a raft and telling him the way. Yet, as Odysseus approaches Scheria, the island of the Phaeacians, Poseidon catches a glimpse of him and destroys his raft with a storm.

After swimming for three days, Odysseus makes it onto dry land, where he falls asleep under an oleander tree. He is found by Nausicaa (the princess of the Phaeacians), who invites him over to the palace and instructs him to ask her mother, queen Arete, for mercy. Odysseus arrives to the palace alone and behaves as he is told, without revealing his name. He is granted a ship to leave for Ithaca and is invited to join the Phaeacian’s feast as an equal.

Odysseus' stay culminates with the appearance of the bard Demodocus, who recounts two episodes of the Trojan War, interposed by the retelling of the love affair between Ares and Aphrodite. (Though not made explicit, Demodocus' storytelling ostensibly moves Odysseus to recount his own journey, as Odysseus' first-person narration begins in Book 9.)

Books 9-12: Odysseus’ Wanderings

Odysseus explains that his goal is to return home and begins to recount his previous voyages. He tells the following story:

After a disastrous first venture in the land of the Cycones (the only population in The Odyssey that is also mentioned in historical sources), Odysseus and his companions found themselves in the land of the Lotus-eaters, who attemped to give them food that would have made them lose the will to get home. Next came the land of the Cyclops, where nature was bountiful and food was plenty. Odysseus and his men became trapped the cave of the cyclops Polyphemus. Odysseus escaped by using his cleverness to trick Polyphemus, then blinding him. With this act, Odysseus inspired Poseidon's wrath, as Polyphemus was a son of Poseidon.

Next, Odysseus and his fellow seafarers met Aeolus, the ruler of the winds. Aeolus gave Odysseus a goatskin containing all the winds except Zephyr, which would blow them towards Ithaca. Some of Odysseus' companions believed the goatskin contained riches, so they opened it, which caused them to drift in the sea yet again.

They reached the land of the cannibal-like Laestrygonians, where they lost some of their fleet when the Laestrygonians destroyed it with rocks. Next, they met the witch Circe on the island Aeaea. Circe turned all the men but Odysseus into pigs and took Odysseus as a lover for a year. She also told them to sail west to communicate with the dead, so Odysseus spoke with the prophet Tiresias, who told him not to let his companions eat the Sun’s cattle. Upon his return to Aeaea, Circe warned Odysseus against the sirens, who lure sailors with their deadly songs, and Scylla and Charybdis, a sea monster and a whirlpool.

Tiresias’ warning went unheeded due to famine, and the sailors ended up eating the Sun’s cattle. As a consequence, Zeus brewed up a storm that caused all men but Odysseus to die. That’s when Odysseus arrived on the island of Ogygia, where Calypso kept him as a lover for seven years. 

Books 13-19: Back to Ithaca

After finishing his account, Odysseus receives even more gifts and riches from the Phaeacians. He is then transported back to Ithaca on a Phaeacian ship overnight. This enrages Poseidon, who turns the ship to stone once it’s almost back to Scheria, which in turn makes Alcinous swear that they will never help any other foreigner again.

On the shore of Ithaca, Odysseus finds the goddess Athena, who is disguised as a young shepherd. Odysseus pretends to be a merchant from Crete. Soon, though, both Athena and Odysseus drop their disguises, and together they hide the riches given to Odysseus by the Phaeacians while plotting Odysseus’ revenge.

Athena turns Odysseus into a beggar and then goes to Sparta to assist Telemachus in his return. Odysseus, in the beggar disguise, pays a visit to Eumaeus, his loyal swineherd who shows kindness and dignity to this apparent stranger. Odysseus tells Eumaeus and the other farmers that he is a former warrior and seafarer from Crete.

Meanwhile, aided by Athena, Telemachus reaches Ithaca and pays his own visit to Eumaeus. Athena encourages Odysseus to reveal himself to his son. What follows is a tearful reunion and the plotting of the suitors’ downfall. Telemachus leaves for the palace, and soon Eumaeus and Odysseus-as-a-beggar follow suit.

Once they arrive, suitor Antinous and goatherd Melanthius ridicule him. Odysseus-as-a-beggar tells Penelope that he met Odysseus during his previous travels. Tasked with washing the beggar’s feet, housekeeper Eurycleia recognizes him as Odysseus by detecting an old scar from his youth. Eurycleia tries to tell Penelope, but Athena prevents it.

Books 18-24: The Slaying of the Suitors

The following day, advised by Athena, Penelope announces an archery competition, cunningly promising that she will wed whoever wins. The weapon of choice is Odysseus’ bow, which means that he alone is strong enough to string it and shoot it through the dozen axe-heads.

Predictably, Odysseus wins the competition. Aided by Telemachus, Eumaeus, the cowherd Philoetius, and Athena, Odysseus kills the suitors. He and Telemachus also hang the twelve maids that Eurycleia identifies as having betrayed Penelope by engaging in sexual relations with the suitors. Then, finally, Odysseus reveals himself to Penelope, which she thinks is a ruse until he reveals that he knows that their marital bed is carved out of a live-in olive tree. The following day, he also reveals himself to his elderly father Laertes, who has been living in seclusion due to grief. Odysseus wins Laertes' trust by describing an orchard that Laertes had previously given him. 

The locals of Ithaca plan to avenge the killing of the suitors and the deaths of all of Odysseus’ sailors, and so follow Odysseus down the road. Once again, Athena comes to his aid, and justice is re-established in Ithaca.