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The Odyssey

Terms in this set (35)

Reluctantly, Odysseus tells the Phaeacians the sorry tale of his wanderings. From Troy, the winds sweep him and his men to Ismarus, city of the Cicones. The men plunder the land and, carried away by greed, stay until the reinforced ranks of the Cicones turn on them and attack. Odysseus and his crew finally escape, having lost six men per ship. A storm sent by Zeus sweeps them along for nine days before bringing them to the land of the Lotus-eaters, where the natives give some of Odysseus's men the intoxicating fruit of the lotus. As soon as they eat this fruit, they lose all thoughts of home and long for nothing more than to stay there eating more fruit. Only by dragging his men back to the ship and locking them up can Odysseus get them off the island.


Odysseus and his men then sail through the murky night to the land of the Cyclopes, a rough and uncivilized race of one-eyed giants. After making a meal of wild goats captured on an island offshore, they cross to the mainland. There they immediately come upon a cave full of sheep and crates of milk and cheese. The men advise Odysseus to snatch some of the food and hurry off, but, to his and his crew's detriment, he decides to linger. The cave's inhabitant soon returns—it is the Cyclops Polyphemus, the son of Poseidon. Polyphemus makes a show of hospitality at first, but he soon turns hostile. He devours two of Odysseus's men on the spot and imprisons Odysseus and the rest in his cave for future meals.

Odysseus wants to take his sword to Polyphemus right then, but he knows that only Polyphemus is strong enough to move the rock that he has placed across the door of his cave. Odysseus thus devises and executes a plan. The next day, while Polyphemus is outside pasturing his sheep, Odysseus finds a wooden staff in the cave and hardens it in the fire. When Polyphemus returns, Odysseus gets him drunk on wine that he brought along from the ship. Feeling jovial, Polyphemus asks Odysseus his name. Odysseus replies that his name is "Nobody" (9.410). As soon as Polyphemus collapses with intoxication, Odysseus and a select group of his men drive the red-hot staff into his eye. Polyphemus wakes with a shriek, and his neighbors come to see what is wrong, but they leave as soon as he calls out, "Nobody's killing me" (9.455). When morning comes, Odysseus and his men escape from the cave, unseen by the blind Polyphemus, by clinging to the bellies of the monster's sheep as they go out to graze. Safe on board their ships and with Polyphemus's flock on board as well, Odysseus calls to land and reveals his true identity. With his former prisoners now out of reach, the blind giant lifts up a prayer to his father, Poseidon, calling for vengeance on Odysseus.
The Achaeans sail from the land of the Cyclopes to the home of Aeolus, ruler of the winds. Aeolus presents Odysseus with a bag containing all of the winds, and he stirs up a westerly wind to guide Odysseus and his crew home. Within ten days, they are in sight of Ithaca, but Odysseus's shipmates, who think that Aeolus has secretly given Odysseus a fortune in gold and silver, tear the bag open. The winds escape and stir up a storm that brings Odysseus and his men back to Aeolia. This time, however, Aeolus refuses to help them, certain that the gods hate Odysseus and wish to do him harm.


Lacking wind, the Achaeans row to the land of the Laestrygonians, a race of powerful giants whose king, Antiphates, and unnamed queen turn Odysseus's scouts into dinner. Odysseus and his remaining men flee toward their ships, but the Laestrygonians pelt the ships with boulders and sink them as they sit in the harbor. Only Odysseus's ship escapes.

From there, Odysseus and his men travel to Aeaea, home of the beautiful witch-goddess Circe. Circe drugs a band of Odysseus's men and turns them into pigs. When Odysseus goes to rescue them, Hermes approaches him in the form of a young man. He tells Odysseus to eat an herb called moly to protect himself from Circe's drug and then lunge at her when she tries to strike him with her sword. Odysseus follows Hermes' instructions, overpowering Circe and forcing her to change his men back to their human forms. Odysseus soon becomes Circe's lover, and he and his men live with her in luxury for a year. When his men finally persuade him to continue the voyage homeward, Odysseus asks Circe for the way back to Ithaca. She replies he must sail to Hades, the realm of the dead, to speak with the spirit of Tiresias, a blind prophet who will tell him how to get home.

The next morning, Odysseus rouses his men for the imminent departure. He discovers, however, that the youngest man in his crew, Elpenor, had gotten drunk the previous night, slept on the roof, and, when he heard the men shouting and marching in the morning, fell from the roof and broke his neck. Odysseus explains to his men the course that they must take, which they are displeased to learn is rather meandering.
Odysseus returns to Aeaea, where he buries Elpenor and spends one last night with Circe. She describes the obstacles that he will face on his voyage home and tells him how to negotiate them. As he sets sail, Odysseus passes Circe's counsel on to his men. They approach the island of the lovely Sirens, and Odysseus, as instructed by Circe, plugs his men's ears with beeswax and has them bind him to the mast of the ship. He alone hears their song flowing forth from the island, promising to reveal the future. The Sirens' song is so seductive that Odysseus begs to be released from his fetters, but his faithful men only bind him tighter.


Once they have passed the Sirens' island, Odysseus and his men must navigate the straits between Scylla and Charybdis. Scylla is a six-headed monster who, when ships pass, swallows one sailor for each head. Charybdis is an enormous whirlpool that threatens to swallow the entire ship. As instructed by Circe, Odysseus holds his course tight against the cliffs of Scylla's lair. As he and his men stare at Charybdis on the other side of the strait, the heads of Scylla swoop down and gobble up six of the sailors.

Odysseus next comes to Thrinacia, the island of the Sun. He wants to avoid it entirely, but the outspoken Eurylochus persuades him to let his beleaguered crew rest there. A storm keeps them beached for a month, and at first the crew is content to survive on its provisions in the ship. When these run out, however, Eurylochus persuades the other crew members to disobey Odysseus and slaughter the cattle of the Sun. They do so one afternoon as Odysseus sleeps; when the Sun finds out, he asks Zeus to punish Odysseus and his men. Shortly after the Achaeans set sail from Thrinacia, Zeus kicks up another storm, which destroys the ship and sends the entire crew to its death beneath the waves. As had been predicted, only Odysseus survives, and he just barely. The storm sweeps him all the way back to Charybdis, which he narrowly escapes for the second time. Afloat on the broken timbers of his ship, he eventually reaches Ogygia, Calypso's island. Odysseus here breaks from his story, stating to the Phaeacians that he sees no reason to repeat to them his account of his experience on Ogygia.
Before the suitors realize what is happening, Odysseus shoots a second arrow through the throat of Antinous. The suitors are confused and believe this shooting to be an accident. Odysseus finally reveals himself, and the suitors become terrified. They have no way out, since Philoetius has locked the front door and Eumaeus has locked the doors to the women's quarters. Eurymachus tries to calm Odysseus down, insisting that Antinous was the only bad apple among them, but Odysseus announces that he will spare none of them. Eurymachus then charges Odysseus, but he is cut down by another arrow. Amphinomus is the next to fall, at the spear of Telemachus.

Telemachus gets more shields and swords from the storeroom to arm Eumaeus and Philoetius, but he forgets to lock it on his way out. Melanthius soon reaches the storeroom and gets out fresh arms for the suitors. He isn't so lucky on his second trip to the storeroom, however, as Eumaeus and Philoetius find him there, tie him up, and lock him in.

A full battle now rages in the palace hall. Athena appears disguised as Mentor and encourages Odysseus but doesn't participate immediately, preferring instead to test Odysseus's strength. Volleys of spears are exchanged, and Odysseus and his men kill several suitors while receiving only superficial wounds themselves. Finally, Athena joins the battle, which then ends swiftly. Odysseus spares only the minstrel Phemius and the herald Medon, unwilling participants in the suitors' profligacy. The priest Leodes begs unsuccessfully for mercy.


Odysseus has Eurycleia come out. She openly rejoices to see the suitors dead, but Odysseus checks her impropriety. She rounds up the disloyal servant women, who are first made to clear the corpses from the hall and wash the blood from the furniture; they are then sent outside and executed. Odysseus tells Telemachus to cut them down with a sword, but Telemachus decides to hang them—a more disgraceful death. Last of all, the traitor Melanthius is tortured and killed. After the bloodbath, Odysseus has the house fumigated.
With these words the Odyssey begins. The poet asks for inspiration from the Muse and imagines her singing through him. An ancient epic poem states at the outset, in capsule form, the subject of the work to follow, and this epic is no exception. The Odyssey announces its subject matter in a different fashion from the Iliad. Whereas Homer's first epic treats Achilles' rage, this one focuses on a "man of twists and turns." It chronicles not battles, the stuff of Achilles' brief life, but a long journey through "[m]any cities" and "many pains," the kind of test worthy of a resourceful hero like Odysseus. The opening lines foreshadow how the epic will end—with all of Odysseus's men dead except Odysseus himself—and provide a reason for these deaths: the recklessness and blindness of his crew, who do not realize that by slaughtering the Sun's cattle they seal their own dooms. The opening leaves unmentioned many other temptations the Achaeans will face and says nothing of the situation in Ithaca, which consumes nearly half the epic. It treats the subject matter of the epic in an abbreviated form but captures the themes those subjects will explore. As Knox notes in the introduction to the Fagles translation, in the Odyssey, in contrast to the Iliad, the Muse is asked to choose where to begin. Giving the Muse this freedom prepares us for the more complex narrative structure of the Odyssey, which relies on flashbacks as it moves through the many settings of the hero's ten-year journey.
Odysseus utters these words to the suitor Amphinomus shortly after defeating the "Beggar-King" Irus in Book 18 (18.150-157). Odysseus is himself in disguise as beggar, and his words here help maintain that cover. According to the story he has told, he once was a great warrior, plundering faraway lands, until one day he was captured. On one level, his words here reinforce those lies. The fatalism and helplessness he expresses—that a man only prospers while "the gods grant him power"—were frequently expressed sentiments of the Ancient Greek outlook, but they seem especially natural coming from a onetime king who has descended to the status of a beggar. Who better to comment on life's reversals than someone who has experienced them firsthand?
The words have additional meaning, however, for both Amphinomus and Odysseus. For Amphinomus, they foreshadow death. He is plundering the land of others, living a careless life, much as the beggar once did, but he too is a feeble man, and he is destined for a fall. The words are a prophecy to Amphinomus, and a warning; he does not miss their meaning, as he walks away "fraught with grave forebodings" (18.176). For Odysseus, on the other hand, the words do not foretell the future but recount the past and, perhaps, explain the lesson it has taught him. At the hour of his greatest triumph, the beginning of his nostos ("homeward journey") from the city he had helped sack, his life "turn[ed]" and the gods began his suffering. He endured only by "steel[ing] his heart," and he knows now that at such moments that is all that can be done.