- Created by Yanping Zhang, last modified by Nahal Naz Bahri on May 06, 2015
Written in the 8th century BC, The Odyssey is an epic poem written by Homer, which depicts the journey of the central character, Odysseus, as he travels throughout ancient Greece and the Mediterranean in an attempt to get back home to his family. Odysseus’ travels lead him to the Trojan War, and on his journey home to be reunited with his wife, Penelope, he encounters terrifying mythical creatures, gods and goddesses, along with trials and tribulations.[i]
Biography of Homer
Not much is a known certainty about the man named Homer, but scholars believe that he was the poet responsible for authoring The Odyssey and The Iliad, and he may have lived in and around Asia Minor or the Aegean islands during the 8th century BC.[ii] Given the difficulty in providing accurate statements with certainty about Homer’s life and works, most of what is known about Homer by contemporary scholars is generally accepted as true but many mysteries still remain. There are questions about “the date and authorship of the poems, the date(s) at which the author set the events in the story, whether the Trojan war actually happened as described (its ‘historicity’), . . . and so on.”[iii]As a result of the debate surrounding when Homer was alive, some scholars believe that Homer was born closer to the time of the Trojan war, if it was an event that actually took place.[iv] Others believe Homer was a descendent of Odysseus, believing that he was the hero’s grandson, “born of Telemakhos and a daughter of Nestor.”[v]Several images and busts of Homer depict him without eyes, prompting historians to believe that Homer was in fact blind.
Time period during which Homer "wrote"
The time period during which Homer wrote down the epics of The Odyssey and The Iliad was marked by widespread illiteracy in Greece.[vi] The Greek alphabet was adopted around 800 BC in part “for the very purpose of writing down epic poetry, which would therefore have been recorded right at the beginning of the century.”[vii]
The Trojan War
While scholars disagree as to the accuracy of the event known as the Trojan war, there is evidence that “in the bronze age there stood indeed where Homer says Troy stood (and the town called Ilium stood in Roman times) a strong walled city which was utterly destroyed by fire in the latter part of the thirteenth century BC.”[xvii]
Odysseus fought in the Trojan war and was a captain of a fleet of 12 ships, stationed along the Greek line of soldiers.[xviii] Other prominent characters in the Trojan war include Helen, Paris, Achilles, Menelaus, Patrocles, and Hector.
Helen of Troy, the woman who launched a thousand ships
Poetic Form of the Odyssey
Unlike most contemporary works of literature, The Odyssey was constructed as a poem with verses. The poetic form allows the story to come alive as a performance with singing and dancing. The Odyssey was performed during the 5th century BC by a rhapsode (rhapsôidos), or a professional singer who performed epic poems.[viii] Professional rhapsodes would perform the verses, and some even formed guilds; one group of rhapsodes was called “The Sons of Homer” and they performed throughout Chios.[ix] These epic poems would be performed “at major religious festivals, and one every four years, at the Great Panathenaia, a relay of rhapsodes performed the whole of the Iliad and Odyssey.”[x]
In addition, scholars note that the construction of The Odyssey exhibits a style of writing that includes “the principal strand of narrative [that] interrupts itself to admit a long retrospective parenthesis, and has prefixed to its beginning the beginning of a subordinate strand which will later be brought into combination with it.”[xi] Unlike the Iliad, The Odyssey includes a diverse range of characters and settings including “princes and beggars, fond parents and cherished offspring, giant, witch, and fairy, nurse and foster-children, mistress and maids, brutal villain and sly villain” and the like.[xii]
Ancient Greek Amphoras, or vases, would depict images from the epic poem as seen to the right.
Odysseus, the protagonist and hero after whom the Odyssey is named, leaves his home in Ithaca to fight in the Trojan War. On his way back home, Odysseus is shipwrecked on an island where Calypso, a sea nymph who forces him to love and please her, keeps him prisoner. After being gone from his wife and child, Penelope and Telemachus, respectively, friends and family alike begin to believe that Odysseus is either lost or dead and will never return to Ithaca. Suitors attempt to convince Penelope to forget about Odysseus but she stands firm and loyal to her husband.
By the grace of the gods, Odysseus is able to leave the island of Calypso and he fashions a raft and sets sail on the rocky seas. Poseidon recognizes Odysseus on the raft and conjures up Scylla and Charybdis and subjects Odysseus to turmoil on the high seas. Odysseus is saved by other gods and ultimately ends up in the land of the Phaecians where he is received by King Alcinoüs who “promises to have him carried safely home to Ithaca.”[xiii] After Odysseus retells the tale of his wild adventures and his encounters with mythical beasts and creatures of the known world and underworld, Odysseus returns to Ithaca, “disguised as a castaway.”[xiv]
Once back in Ithaca, Odysseus becomes aware that his former friends and soldiers have been attempting to sway Penelope and get her hand in marriage. Odysseus is reunited with his son, but he continues to wear his disguise. After years of avoiding her suitors, Penelope finally devises a contest whereby the winner will receive her hand; the suitors are tested by having to “string Odysseus’ bow and perform with a certain feat of archery.”[xv] Obviously none of the suitors can successfully string Odysseus bow and ultimately the bow comes down the line of suitors and “into the hands of Odysseus himself.”[xvi] Naturally Odysseus is able to string and utilize his own bow and arrow to the detriment of the suitors. Penelope and Odysseus are reunited after the tense scene between Odysseus and the suitors.
Odysseus' wife; she remains in Ithaca at Odysseus' home as he leaves to fight in the Trojan War. She takes care of her son while suffering the absence of her husband for nearly two decades.
This is the Cyclops that Odysseus encounters in Book IX. During his encounter, Odysseus' xenophobic tendencies are revealed through his verbal exchange. Polyphemus locks up Odysseus and his men in a cave while he goes out during the day to tend his sheep. Odysseus taunts Polyphemus, calls him a brute, and uses crafty words about the meaning of his name when asked to explain it.
She is a sea nymph goddess who keeps Odysseus trapped on her island for some time, forcing him to sleep with her. The gods intervene and help Odysseus escape and pursue his journey back home to Ithaca.
Divine Apparatus-The gods and fate
The Odyssey raises several questions related to how the divine apparatus determines events in the lives of mortals. All of the misfortunes that befall Odysseus prompt the reader to question whether the gods care about human beings and justice. The gods constantly intervene into the lives of mortals which raises the issue of free will and fate.
Odysseus’ journey is filled with adventure, lust, fear, death, bizarre creatures, longing for home, and Olympic deities. With so many trials and tribulations, one is left asking where and when does free will come into play—Odysseus exclaims, “I am destined to die a miserable death” because of the actions of the gods (Book V: 262-312; “Poseidon Raises a Storm”). There is so much talk of escaping fate and death, but who is the puppet master in this theatre? Is it Zeus, or any of the other gods or goddesses that Odysseus encounters throughout the entirety of his journey? Is Odysseus just traipsing along at the whim of the Divine? It’s unclear if the relationship between the gods and mortals is meant to serve as a teaching instrument for the reader.
Furthermore, the gods are not portrayed as either friend or foe but a combination of both. Unlike deities in other religions, the deities in The Odyssey, and to some extent the deities in the Epic of Gilgamesh, suffer and benefit from their own vices and virtues, respectively. The conception of a god or goddess in The Odyssey is closely related to having some extraordinary power over the mortal realm. Mount Olympus is not a bastion of morality or inspiration for mortals; rather it’s a palace for the elite. Rather than serve as a role model for how mortals should behave, the gods incentivize mortals to please them by sleeping with them, as in the case of Calypso and Odysseus, which leaves mortals to act solely to appease the gods for fear of death or harm.
What remains a puzzle about the gods at Olympus is that when Odysseus is in need of help, he prays to some unknown deity; he says, “Hear me, Lord, whoever you might be. I come to you . . . Pity me, Lord, I am your suppliant.” Using the term “Lord” may be an issue related to translation, but it’s interesting to compare the deities in The Odyssey and the Epic of Gilgamesh to the deities of the main world religions that people follow in the contemporary world. This passage also suggests that Odysseus does not know who the Lord is, in fact. It appears that Zeus is not actually “the Lord” proper, but just a powerful god.
If the gods at Olympus have some role to play in the lives of mortals, is there any room for free will? It’s unlikely that Odysseus can be said to have much free will, if any at all, given the circumstances of his journey. In attempting to understand Homer’s intent behind writing The Odyssey, or rather assembling stories together to construct this work, Odysseus’ journey is meant to enlighten readers to explore concepts of free will and determination and destiny, themes which are ever present throughout the various Books of The Odyssey. This parallels Voltaire's Candide, which raises the issue of free will and determinism in a Leibnizian universe (the best of all universes) at every corner. Candide provides an excellent comparison to The Odyssey in demonstrating how the universe is constructed by some creator while mortals are pushed along through tragedy and strife at the whim of some divine force or entity. Unlike "God" in Candide, the gods on Olympus are numerous and have humanistic elements and desires like lust and curiosity which brings them down to earth as they meddle in human affairs.
Some scholars argue that the concept of fate and the gods are inherently intertwined and identical, while others believe that the two are "radically distant religious principles which the poet has endeavored but failed to reconcile and coordinate into one uniform system."
Throughout the entire time that Odysseus is off fighting in the Trojan war and traveling around the Mediterranean, Penelope remains loyal and faithful to her husband. Despite being approached by so many suitors and wretched men who want to take Penelope as their wife, she resists and keeps the home and memory of Odysseus alive. Penelope is the model Greek wife because she keeps the home in order during the absence of the patriarch, Odysseus. She raises their son to be loyal to Odysseus and serves as a foil to some of the goddesses, like Calypso.
Odysseus travels around the Mediterranean throughout his journey. The following locations highlight the important stops along his travels:
- Starts off on Calypso's island
- Land of the Phaeacians: here Odysseus becomes a storyteller
- Ilion (Greek for Troy): in Asia minor near Turkey
- Ismarus: land of the Lotus eater on North shore of Africa
- Cyclops territory
- Aeolia: master of winds-take pity on Odysseus; he almost gets to Ithaca
- Aeolia: Odysseus thinks he's cursed and he's sent back
- Land of Giants
- Circe: great danger
- Hades: underworld; marginal in-between place; narrative: Odysseus learns the fate of Agamemnon through flashback of the Trojan War; he was killed by his wife and lover
- Odysseus wants to meet Tyreceus who might tell him something about the future
- back to Circe: she tells him about upcoming dangers
- Sirens: Odysseus blocks the ears of his rowers and ties himself to the mast because he wants to hear their song
- Scylla and Charybdis:
- Helios: cattle
- Scylla: all alone, hanging onto branch
- Calypso: back to tell his story
Homer disconnects syuzhet and fabula in order to portray how Odysseus is the teller of his own tale.
The epic poem that is The Odyssey has firmly rooted itself into human history and popular culture. References to the Odyssey and Odysseus’ journey are ubiquitous in modern times. Honda modeled one of its best-selling models after the Odyssey in an attempt to encourage drivers to travel and explore the U.S. with their cars.
the Honda Odyssey
Hollywood has popularized Odysseus’ legendary journey in films including Poseidon, Troy and the TV series called The Odyssey.
Statue of Poseidon
The Odyssey is still taught widely in schools throughout the world as one of the earliest works of world literature, exposing students and young minds to the fantastical realm of Greek mythology. Some writers have tried to talk back to Homer through their own national epics, like Luis de Camoens in The Lusiad, in an attempt to pay homage to this literary great and more importantly, in an attempt to raise national literature to the world scale. The Odyssey has impacted and influenced myriad writers of heroic tales and Homer's protagonist, Odysseus, will remain in the pantheon of literary heroes for centuries to come.
[i] Homer. The Odyssey. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998. Print. Translated by Walter Shewring.
[iii] Manning, Sturt W. “Archaeology and the World of Homer: Introduction to a Past and Present Discipline.” Homer: Readings and Images. Ed. C. Emlyn-Jones, L. Hardwick and J. Purkis. London: The Open University, 1992. 117-xxx. Print.
[iv] J.F. de Jong, Irene. Homer: Critical Assessments. Vol. 2. London: Routledge, 1999. Print. (p. 3).
[vi] J.F. de Jong, Irene. Homer: Critical Assessments. Vol. 2. London: Routledge, 1999. Print. (p. 3).
[viii] Id. at 6.
[xi] Camps, W.A. An Introduction to Homer. New York: Oxford University Press, 1980. Print. (p. 2-3).
[xii] Id. at 3.
[xiii] Id. at 12.
[xv] Id. at 13.
[xvii] Camps, W.A. An Introduction to Homer. New York: Oxford University Press, 1980. Print.
[xviii] Brann, Eva. Homeric Moments: Clues to Delight in Reading the Odyssey and the Iliad. Philadelphia: Paul Dry Books, 2002. Print. (p. 60).
The Whole Works of Homer; Prince of Poetts, In His Iliads, and Odysses, translated by George Chapman (1559-1634)
Bust of Homer from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, MA
Homer: Epic Poetry by Pierre Puvis de Chavannes (1824-1898), from the MFA, Boston, MA
Statute of a weeping Siren beating her breast, Classical or Hellenistic period, about 350-325 BC, Marble from Mount Pentelikon near Athens, MFA, Boston, MA
The Odyssey exhibit, MFA, Boston, MA
Amphoras, depicting scenes from the Odyssey, MFA, Boston, MA
Two-handled jar (amphora) with Achilles and Ajax playing a board game, Archaic period, about 525-20 BC, from the MFA, Boston, MA
Two-handled jar (pelike) with Odysseus and Elpenor in the Underworld, Classical period, about 440 BC, from the MFA, Boston, MA
Map of Odysseus' Journey
- No labels