THE ODYSSEY: SUMMARY, KEY PASSAGES, AND
| Books 1-4 focus upon Odysseus’ son,
Telemachos, his efforts to expel the suitors of his mother, Penelope,
from their house, and his journey to Pylos and Sparta in search of news
of his father.
Homer asks the Muse to tell the story of Odysseus and his
wanderings. Among the gods on Mount Olympos, Zeus remarks on the
folly of Aigisthos
who ignored divine warnings, seduced Agamemnon’s wife, Klytaimestra,
plotted his murder, only to be killed in revenge by Orestes,
son. The goddess, Athene, persuades her father, Zeus, that
should be allowed to return home, despite the anger of the god of the
Poseidon, over Odysseus’ blinding of his son, Polyphemos, the
Athena goes to Ithaka in disguise to give advice to Odysseus' son,
Telemachos. She urges him to visit the Greek kings, Nestor and
Menelaos, in search of news of Odysseus. Telemachos calls an
assembly for the next day and threatens to expel the suitors of his
mother, Penelope, from the house.
|THE DIALOGUE BETWEEN THE ILIAD AND THE
ODYSSEY: A moral order?
In the opening lines, the poet describes the fate of
"...he could not save his companions,
he strove to; they were
destroyed by their own wild recklessness.
fools, who devoured the oxen of
Helios, the Sun God." (Odyssey
-Compare this emphasis on the folly of the men - and its consequences -
with the emphasis on the "will of Zeus" and the protagonism of Apollo
in the opening lines of the Iliad.
Zeus comments on the fate of Agamemnon's murderer, Aigisthos, who was
killed by Agamemnon's son, Orestes:
"Men are so quick to blame the gods:
that we devise their misery.
themselves - in their depravity
griefs greater than the griefs
that fate assigns.
So did Aigisthos act when he
the boundaries that fate and
reason set" (Odyssey 1.32-35/Mandelbaum
-Compare Zeus' remarks with Achilleus' story of the urns of Zeus
in which he ascribes human suffering to the whimsical action of Zeus.
Telemachos complains to the assembly about the conduct of the suitors,
and he asks them to return to their own homes. Two of the leading
suitors, Antinoos and Eurymachos, blame Penelope for not choosing one
the suitors to be her husband; Antinoos describes how Penelope tricked
and delayed her promised decision by weaving by day - and undoing by
- a shroud for Odysseus’ father, Laertes. With Athene's help,
gets a ship and sails for Pylos, the city of Nestor, one of the aged
of the Trojan War.
At Pylos, Telemachos is received by king Nestor who tells him stories
of the departure from Troy, the murder of Agamemnon and the homecoming
of Menelaos. Prompted by Telemachos’ questions, Nestor describes
in more detail the story of Aigisthos and Klytaimestra, their plot
against Agamemnon, and Orestes’ avenging of his father’s murder.
Nestor sends his son, Peisistratos, to accompany Telemachos to Sparta,
the city of Menelaos.
Telemachos and Peisistratos arrive at Menelaos' palace at Sparta where
the king is celebrating the two weddings of his children, Hermione and
Megapenthes. Menelaos welcomes them and is joined by his wife,
Helen. They recall Odysseus' exploits at Troy with a pair of
stories that provide contrasting views of Helen’s own role at
Troy. The next day, Menelaos describes his encounter with
Proteus, the Old Man of the Sea, who had told him of
the death of Aias Oileus at sea, of the murder of his own brother
and of the captivity of Odysseus on Ogygia, the island of the nymph,
Kalypso. Meanwhile, at Ithaka, the suitors hear of Telemachos'
departure and prepare an ambush for him. Penelope learns of
Telemachos’ journey, grieves, and is comforted by a vision of Athene in
BETWEEN THE ILIAD AND THE ODYSSEY: Two poems, true and false tales
Helen and Menelaos tell Telemachos back-to-back stories of his
father's exploits at Troy. Helen describes Odysseus's secret
expedition, disguised as a beggar, into the city of Troy; Menelaos
tells how Odysseus maintained the troops' discipline as they waited
inside the Trojan horse. While both stories portray Odysseus as a bold,
strong, and crafty hero, they present sharply contrasting views of
Helen recalls her own feelings of joy when Odysseus slaughtered many
Trojans before leaving the city:
"The Trojan women raised a cry - but
sang - for I had come round,
to dreams of sailing home, and
the mad day Aphrodite
drew me away from my dear
forsaking all - child, bridal
bed, and husband -
a man without defect in form or
mind." (Odyssey 4.259-64/Fitzgerald
Menelaos, by contrast, described how Helen circled the Trojan horse
with her second husband, Deiphobos, imitating the voices of the wives
of the Greek warriors, to determine whether the Greeks were hiding in
"You must have been incited by some
who wanted to give glory to the
Handsome Deiphobos had followed
upon the Danaan chieftains,
you mimed in turn the voice of
all the wives
of Argives in that horse."
(Odyssey 4. 274-79/Mandelbaum translation)
| Books 5 -12 describe Odysseus’ release by
Kalypso, and his arrival and reception in the land of the Phaiakians,
an idealized kingdom. There he tells the story of his wanderings
At Athene's urging, Zeus sends the messenger god, Hermes, to the nymph,
Kalypso, to tell her to allow Odysseus to go home. Odysseus makes
a raft and sails towards Scheria, the land of the Phaiakians. The
sea-god, Poseidon, still angry at Odysseus, wrecks his raft, but
Odysseus reaches shore
safely with the help of Athene and the sea nymph, Ino.
BETWEEN THE ILIAD AND THE ODYSSEY: Two heroes, two sets of values
Threatened by shipwreck at sea, Odysseus wishes he had
died at Troy, winning fame, on the day when he fought the Trojans for
the body of slain Achilleus:
"Three and four times more blessed
were all the Greeks
who died in the vast land of
Troy to please
the sons of Atreus. Would that
I had met
a death like theirs, had shared
upon the day when crowds of
bronze shafts at me, while
battling around the body
of Peleus' slaughtered son. I
would have gained
funeral rites; I would have
earned much fame." (Odyssey 5.306-311/Mandelbaum translation)
Ironically, Odysseus wins fame not by dying a glorious death, but by
surviving to tell the story of his journeys and regain his wife, son,
and household. In fact, he even visited the land of the dead, and,
reminded the shade of Achilleus of the honor he had while alive, and
authority he holds among the dead:
"...Before, when you were alive, we
Argives honored you
as we did the gods, and now in
this place you have great authority
over the dead. Do not grieve,
even in death, Achilleus." (Odyssey 11.484-486/Lattimore
Achilleus' sharp reply offers a final reflection on his struggle for
immortality, and his decision to accept a short life with glory:
"O shining Odysseus, never try to
console me for dying.
I would rather follow the plow
as thrall to another
man, one with no land allotted
him and not much to live on,
than be a king over all the
perished dead." (Odyssey 11. 488-491/Lattimore translation)
The next morning, Nausikaa, the daughter of the Phaiakian king and
queen, is inspired by Athene to go to the river to wash clothes.
Odysseus appears, startles Nausikaa and her attendants, and begs for
her help. She gives him clothes, and advises him how to reach the
palace of her father, Alkinoos.
Odysseus arrives at the palace of Alkinoos and appeals to queen Arete
for help. He is given a place at the feast. Alkinoos orders
a feast for the next day and promises to arrange Odysseus' return to
his own country. Without identifying himself, Odysseus describes
his stay on Kalypso's island and his journey to Scheria. Inviting
him to stay, Alkinoos offers a marriage with his daughter, Nausikaa,
but he pledges that the Phaiakians will
escort Odysseus to his home, if that is what he wishes.
At the Phaiakian feast, the singer, Demodokos, sings of Troy, and
athletic contests are held. Alkinoos’ son, Laodamas, invites
Odysseus to participate and, after he is rudely challenged by Euryalos,
another of the Phaiakians, he proves his ability with a throw of the
discus. Demodokos sings of
the adulterous love of Ares, god of war, and Aphrodite, goddess of
how Hephaistos, Aphrodite's husband, caught them and exposed them to
ridicule of the other gods. Odysseus is given splendid gifts by
Phaiakians. At his request, Demodokos sings of the Trojan
horse. When Odysseus is moved to tears, he is asked to reveal his
name and tell why
he wept over the stories of Troy.
Odysseus identifies himself, and begins the story of his
wanderings. He describes his departure from Troy, beginning with
the raid on the Kikonians, during which, he alleges, his men’s folly
to the loss of many of his companions. Then, he tells of the
visit to the land of the Lotus-Eaters whose food made his men forget
their home. Finally, he describes his adventures in the land of
the Cyclops. He tells how he and some of
his men were held captive by Polyphemos, the Cyclops, and how
ate some of his men before Odysseus and his remaining companions got
drunk, blinded him and escaped his cave by a trick. After
boasted of his success, Polyphemos prayed to his father, Poseidon, god
the sea, for revenge, and this provoked Poseidon's deep anger with
Order and chaos
The Phaiakian court offers an idealized model of civilized behavior in
which the guest is properly welcomed, the banquet is graced with song,
and generous gifts are given. By contrast, Odysseus' wanderings take
him through lands in which the practices of civilized life - as the
early Greeks understood it - were unknown, ignored, or perverted. The
land of the giant Cyclops, described in wholly negative terms, provides
the most famous example:
"That race is arrogant: they have no
and trusting in the never-dying
their hands plant nothing and
they ply no plows...
Nor do they meet in council,
nor hand down laws; they live
in deep caves; each one rules
his wife and children,
and every family ignores its
hilltops and woods, the hunters
toil; but here
they do not come. Nor are there
sheep or cows;
and that land always stays
The Cyclops have no ships with
no shipwrights who might
fashion sturdy hulls
that answer to the call, that
to other peoples' towns that
men might want
to visit." (Odyssey
Odysseus tells how he and his men reached the island home of Aiolos, a
king to whom the gods had given control over the winds. Aiolos
gave Odysseus a bag containing the winds to guarantee him a safe
journey home. His men, however, believed that the bag held
treasure. As they approached Ithaka, Odysseus slept, and the men
opened the bag. As a result,
they were blown back to Aiolos' island, but he refused to help
They sailed on and reached the land of the Laistrygonians. These
giants savagely attacked them and destroyed all of the ships except
own. Then, Odysseus landed on the island of Circe, an
who turned a group of his men into pigs. With a charm from the
Hermes, Odysseus escaped from Circe's spell, and she returned his men
him again. Odysseus and his men were entertained for a year on
island. Before they left, Circe told him he had to visit the land
the dead and gave him instructions on how to consult the prophet,
At the land of the dead, Teiresias, told him of his homecoming, warned
him not to touch the herds of the sun god, Helios, and described one
last journey that he would have to make. Then, he spoke with his
mother, Antikleia, and a series of ancient noblewomen. Here,
Odysseus pauses in his story, and is praised by queen Arete. For
his part, Alkinoos urges him to continue and tell of his meeting with
the shades of the Greek heroes. He recounts his conversations
with Agamemnon and Achilleus, and describes the
other mythological heroes he saw.
Odysseus tells how he and his men returned to Circe's island; she
warned him of the dangers ahead. They sailed past the Sirens and
Odysseus, tied to the mast, heard their song. Then, they passed
the whirlpool, and Skylla, the monster, who ate six of Odysseus'
At the insistence of one of Odysseus’ companions, Eurylochos, they
on Thrinakia, the island of Helios, the sun-god. Storms held them
there for over a month and, despite Odysseus’ warnings, his men
the cattle of the sun god while Odysseus slept. Zeus punished
with a storm at sea, and only Odysseus was spared. He reached the
island of Kalypso and, with that, he ends his story.
BETWEEN THE ILIAD AND THE ODYSSEY: Two poems, true and false tales
The poet of the Odyssey explores the ways stories can be
told from different points of view, like the images of Helen at Troy or
the different versions of the story of Agamemnon's murder. With
Odysseus' many tales and disguises, he offers examples of true and
false stories, and challenges his audience to tell them apart. Surely,
this fascination with the differences among stories arises from
the poet's own efforts to establish his poem's independence from the
Iliad, and to establish his own hero, Odysseus, with a different set of
values from Achilleus. Occasionally, we may see more direct
criticisms or comments upon the story of the Trojan War...and perhaps
Nestor, never one to shy from a long story, begins to summarize the
Trojan War for Telemachos, but gives up, exclaiming:
"Other miseries, and many, we endured
Could any mortal man tell the
Not if you stayed five years or
six to hear
how hard it was for the flower
of the Achaians;
you'd go home weary, and the
tale untold." (Odyssey 3.113-17/Fitzgerald translation)
Later, Odysseus' describes the Song of the Sirens around whom lie "heaped bones and shriveled skin of
putrefying men" (Odyssey 12.45-46/Mandelbaum translation): those
stopped to hear their song. Their dangerously seductive and
destructive song turns out to be - like the Iliad - the tale of
"...we know everything that the
Argives and Trojans
did and suffered in wide Troy
through the gods' despite." (Odyssey 12.189-90)
| In books 13 to 16, Odysseus and his son,
Telemachos, return separately to Ithaka; Odysseus reveals himself to
his son and plots revenge on the suitors before returning to his palace.
The Phaiakians bring Odysseus to Ithaka and leave him sleeping on the
island. On their return, Poseidon turns their ship to
stone. Athene comes to Odysseus in disguise, and tells him that
he has landed on Ithaka. He conceals his identity and tells her a
false story of how, after the Trojan War, he killed Idomeneus' son on
Crete and fled the island. She reveals herself to him, advises
him on how to overcome the suitors, and disguises him as an old tramp.
Odysseus goes to house of Eumaios, his loyal swineherd, who receives
him well. Odysseus tells him a false story of his life, claiming
was a Cretan warrior who led troops to Troy and, afterwards, journeyed
to Egypt, Phoenicia and other places, experiencing many
adventures. Later, he tells him another false story of an
adventure at Troy to win
a cloak from him.
Urged by Athene, Telemachos leaves Menelaos' palace at Sparta.
When he sails home from Pylos, he takes Theoklymenos, a fugitive
prophet, with him. At Ithaka, Eumaios urges the disguised
Odysseus to wait for Telemachos before going to beg from the suitors at
their banquet. He answers Odysseus'
questions about his house and his father, and tells Odysseus the story
how he was kidnapped by a Phoenician servant, enslaved and purchased by
Laertes. Meanwhile, Telemachos escapes the ambush of the suitors
reaches Ithaka safely.
Telemachos visits Eumaios, and sends him to inform Penelope of his
arrival. Odysseus reveals himself to Telemachos, and they plan
their revenge against the suitors. Penelope and the suitors learn
that Telemachos has returned, and the suitors consider whether they
should kill him. Penelope rebukes the suitors for their plots.
| In books 17-23, Odysseus returns to his
palace, disguised as a beggar, and he is abused by the suitors.
His wife, Penelope,
proposes a contest with Odysseus’ bow to determine which of the suitors
she will marry, and, after all fail, the disguised Odysseus strings the
bow, shoots his mark, reveals himself, and attacks the suitors.
of the suitors are slaughtered, the disloyal servants are punished and
and Penelope are reunited.
Telemachos returns to his house, and tells Penelope about his
journey. The seer, Theoklymenos, prophesies Odysseus’ imminent
return. Odysseus, disguised as a beggar, goes to the house with
Eumaios. They meet
Melanthios, the goatherd, who abuses him. When they reach the
Odysseus' old dog, Argos, recognizes him before he dies. Odysseus
begs from the suitors, and tells them a false story of his
Antinoos, the leading suitor, abuses Odysseus and hurls a stool at
Eumaios tells Penelope of the “stranger” and his stories.
The beggar, Iros, arrives, challenges Odysseus, and is beaten by him in
a boxing match. Odysseus warns one of the suitors, Amphinomos, of
reckless behavior. Penelope comes down and complains about the
behavior. The feast breaks up in disorder, after Odysseus angers
one of the suitors.
Odysseus and Telemachos remove the arms and armor from the hall.
Penelope questions Odysseus. He tells her a false story, and they
converse. The nurse, Eurykleia, washes Odysseus' feet and
recognizes his scar. She almost gives away his identity.
Penelope proposes to set up a contest for the suitors with Odysseus'
bow. She will marry the winner.
The next day, the suitors gather in the house of Odysseus.
Odysseus meets Philoitios, his faithful cowherd, and he prophesies his
own return. The suitors put off their plot to murder
Telemachos. The prophet,
Theoklymenos, foresees the doom of the suitors.
Penelope announces the contest to the suitors, but they fail to string
the bow. Meanwhile, Odysseus quietly reveals himself to his two
loyal servants, Eumaios and Philoitios. Despite the suitors'
protests, Odysseus is given the bow. He strings it and shoots
through the row of axes.
Odysseus shoots Antinoos and reveals himself. The battle begins,
and, with Athene's help, the suitors are killed. The unfaithful
maids and Melanthios are brutally punished.
Eurykleia reveals to Penelope that Odysseus has returned and defeated
the suitors. Penelope is sceptical, and she tests Odysseus with a
story of their bed. She recognizes him by his response, they are
joyfully reunited, and they tell one another about their trials.
| BOOK 24 seems to some an odd appendix or
epilogue to the text. In it, the scene shifts to the underworld
as Hermes leads the shades of the suitors to the land of the dead.
There, Agamemnon and Achilleus are talking about each other's deaths,
and Agamemnon describes the funeral of Achilleus. The ghosts of the
suitors arrive and describe their fate to the heroes of Troy.
Agamemnon praises Odysseus' wife, Penelope, for her faithfulness, and
curses his own wife, Klytaimestra. Meanwhile, Odysseus goes to the farm
of his father, Laertes, and, after telling a
false story, reveals himself. The suitors' relatives plan
revenge. After one of them is killed, Athene
intervenes to make peace.
BETWEEN THE ILIAD AND THE ODYSSEY: the last word
It might seem odd that the shade of Agamemnon recalls the
funeral of Achilleus near the end of the Iliad, but it is consistent
with the effort in both the Iliad and the Odyssey to frame a particular
story of one hero within the larger context of the Trojan War and its
aftermath. In the Odyssey, this ending marks the last word in the
poet's struggle with the Iliad: by describing Achilleus' death and
funeral, the poet of the Odyssey "completes" the Iliad. That this final
episode is told by the shade of Agamemnon to the shade of Achilleus, in
the land of the dead, only underscores the contrast between Achilleus'
choice of a short life and Odysseus' struggle to survive. Of course, we
might also read a final tribute to the Iliad in the poet's description
of the nine Muses singing a dirge over Achilleus' corpse. We may never
be sure what the poet of the Odyssey's final verdict on the Iliad is,
but that, after all, is the conclusion we should expect from an epic
that invites us to compare different stories, to hear different voices,
and to distinguish truth from lies. As Hesiod's Muses would say, "We know enough to make up lies which are
convincing, but we also have the skill, when we've a mind, to speak the
truth." (Theogony 26-28). With this, we look backwards to
the world of the ever-changing oral epic, and forwards to the
individual, named poets of the lyric age and their diverse personae.
Short quotations are taken from the
Homer: the Odyssey,
translated by Robert Fitzgerald. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux,
1998. (© 1961/1989 Fitzgerald family).
The Odyssey of Homer.
A Modern Translation by Richmond Lattimore. New York: Harper & Row,
The Odyssey of Homer. A verse translation by Allen
Mandelbaum. New York: Bantam Classics, 1991 (©Allen
Hesiod and Theognis.
Translated by Dorothea Wender. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1973.