The “Odyssey”

Background

The ancients believed that the Odyssey was composed by the blind poet Homer. Modern scholars debate when it was composed and by whom, but most agree it was written between 725 BCE and 675 BCE. It has almost always been held that that the Odyssey was written after the Iliad, because it refers to material in the Iliad frequently, while avoiding any direct duplication. Also, the character of Nestor, Menelaus, Helen, and Odysseus are very consistent.

Structure and Outline

The poem is about 12,000 lines of hexameter verse in the ancient Greek, and is split into 24 books. The opening summarizes the theme of the epic:

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. (1.1–10)

It is interesting that the poet tells the muse to “start from where you will.”

Here is an outline:

  1. The gods pity Odysseus; Athena inspires Telemachus
  2. The assembly at Ithaca; Telemachus secretly sets sail
  3. Nestor recalls his return; sacrifice to Athena; departure for Lacedaemon
  4. Menelaus recalls his return; the suitors plot their ambush
  5. Hermes visits Calypso; Odysseus builds a raft, sails, then swims to Phaeacia
  6. Athena guides the princess to bring aid to Odysseus
  7. King Alcinous promises to bring Odysseus home
  8. Athletic games; song of Ares and Aphrodite; songs of Troy
  9. Encounter in Cyclops’ cave; Odysseus is cursed
  10. The winds take Odysseus home and away again; Laestrygonians destroy most of the fleet; a year with Circe
  11. Odysseus talks to ghosts in the kingdom of the dead
  12. Return to Circe; the Sirens; Scylla and Charybdis; Helios’ cattle; Calypso

Justice, Morality, and the Gods

Early in book 1, the gods are in full assembly—curiously similar to the assemblies the Greeks held—and Zeus makes an interesting statement:

“Ah how shameless—the way these mortals blame the gods.

From us alone, they say, come all their miseries, yes,

but they themselves, with their own reckless ways,

compound their pains beyond their proper share.

Look at Aegisthus now …

above and beyond his share he stole Atrides’ wife,

he murdered the warlord coming home from Troy

though he knew it meant his own total ruin. (1.31–37)

From the start of the Odyssey, the gods seem more concerned with morals and justice than they did in the Iliad.

Zeus’ implication that men should have a “proper share” of pains is interesting. In the Abrahamic religions, pain and suffering are the result of the fall of man. After the fall, there doesn’t seem to be an expectation that these pains are distributed evenly. In the Greek religion, they had the myth of Pandora’s box, which is in someways similar to the story of Adam and Even, but even after the fall it appears there is a sense that pains should be spread evenly.

Shortly after Zeus’ comment, Athena responds:

“Let them all die so, all who do such things.

But my heart breaks for Odysseus …

he, straining for no more than a glimpse

of hearth-smoke drifting up from his own land,

Odysseus longs to die … Olympian Zeus,

have you no care for him in your lofty heart?

Did he never win your favor with sacrifices

burned besides the ships on the broad plain of Troy?” (1.46–63)

Zeus replies that, no, he is happy with Odysseus, but that Poseidon is the one to blame.

The Greeks’ explanation for the existence of pain and suffering appears to be three fold:

The assembly in book 2 provides some insight into justice in ancient Greece. Telemachus appears to escalate through three authorities. First, is his own strength, second is the people of Ithaca:

“Now we have no man like Odysseus in command

to drive this curse from the house. We ourselves?

We’re hardly the ones to fight them off. All we’d do

is parade our wretched weakness. A boy inept at battle.

Oh I’d swing to attack if I had the power in me.

By god, it’s intolerable, what they do—disgrace,

my house a shambles! You should be ashamed yourselves,

mortified in the face of neighbors living round about!

Fear the gods’ wrath—before they wheel in outrage

and make these crimes recoil on your heads.” (2.57-67)

And when the towns people refuse to do anything, Telemachus escalates to the third authority—the gods:

“But if you decide the fare is better, richer here,

destroying one man’s goods and going scot-free,

all right then, carve away!

But I’ll cry out to the everlasting gods in hopes

that Zeus will pay you back with a vengeance—all of you

destroyed in my house while I go scot-free myself!” (2.141–5)

It seems that fear of the gods was the main source of justice in Greek society. Since there were no contracts or court system to build trust between individuals, people relied on oaths—and the fear of the gods if one broke their oath—to build trust. Similarly, if one could not find justice through strength of your fellow men, you could threaten the wrongdoers with a curse. If they feared the gods, they may respond.

In such a society an atheist or godless person could not be trusted. Right after Telemachus threatens the suitors with a curse, Zeus sends a sign down in the form of two eagles. One of the old townsmen, who excelled in reading omens and bird signs, said that the eagles were a sign from Zeus that the suitors would get what is coming to them. And the suitors respond:

“Stop, old man!”

Eurymachus, Polybus’ son, rose up to take him on.

“Go home and babble your omens to your children—

save them from some catastrophe coming soon.

I’m a better hand than you at reading portents.

Flocks of birds go fluttering under the sun’s rays,

not all are fraught with meaning.” (2.177–83)

The Gods

Athena rebukes Telemachus for doubting the power of the gods to return his father:

“Hope, hope as I will,

that day will never dawn…

not even if the gods should will it so.” “Telemachus!”

Pallas Athena broke in sharply, her eyes afire—

“What’s this nonsense slipping through your teeth?

It’s light work for a willing god to save a mortal

even half the world away. Myself, I’d rather

sail through years of trouble and labor home

and see that blessed day, than hurry home

to die at my own hearth like Agamemnon,

killed by Aegisthus’ cunning—by his own wife.

But the great leveler, Death: not even the gods

can defend a man, not even one they love, that day

when fate takes hold and lays him out at last.” (3.228–39)

Athena reveals herself to many people at once:

With that the bright-eyed goddess winged away

in an eagle’s form and flight.

Amazement fell on all the Achaeans there.

The old king, astonished by what he’d seen,

grasped Telemachus’ hand and cried out to the prince,

“Dear boy—never fear you’ll be a coward or defenseless,

not if at your young age the gods will guard you so.” (3.372–7)

Women

The Greeks did not treat women well.

“So, mother,

got back to your quarters. Tend to your own tasks,

the distaff and the loom, and keep the women

working hard as well. As for giving orders,

men will see to that, but I most of all:

I hold the reins of power in this house.” Astonished,

she withdrew to her own room. She took to heart

the clear good sense in what her son had sad. (1.355–62)

Agamemnon’s ghost’s rant against women:

“‘But she—

the queen hell-bent on outrage—bathes in shame

not only herself but the whole breed of womankind,

even the honest ones to come, forever down the years!’”

So he declared and I cried out, ‘How terrible!

Zeus from the very start, the thunder king

has hated the race of Atreus with a vengeance—

his trustiest weapon women’s twisted wiles.

What armies of us died for the sake of Helen…

Clytemnestra schemed your death while you were worlds away!’” (11.432–40)

The Good Life

Alcinous, majesty, shining among your island people,

what a fine thing it is to listen to such a bard

as we have here—the man sings like a god.

The crown of life, I’d say. There’s nothing better

than when deep joy holds sway throughout the realms

and banqueters up and down the palace sit in ranks,

enthralled to hear the bard, and before them all, the tables

heaped with bread and meats, and drawing wine from a mixing-bowl

the steward makes his rounds and keeps the winecups flowing.

This, to my mind, is the best that life can offer. (9.2–10)

The Muses

Homer, like Hesiod, implies that the Muse provides divine inspiration to bards.

“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.”

Stirred now by the Muse, the bard launched out

in a fine blaze of song, starting at just the point

where the main Achaean force, setting their camps afire,

hard boarded the oarswept ships and sailed for home … (8.486–501)

Other Interesting Quotes

Helen uses a strange drug while feasting with Menelaus, Telemachus, and Pisastratus:

The Zeus’s daughter Helen thought of something else.

Into the mixing-bowl from which they drank their wine

she slipped a drug, heart’s-ease, dissolving anger,

magic to make us all forget our pains…

No one who drank it deeply, mulled in wine,

could let a tear roll down his cheeks that day,

not even if his mother should die, his father die,

not even if right before his eyes some enemy brought down

a brother or darling son with a sharp bronze blade. (4.218–25)

In Odysseus’ speech to the princess Nausicaa, he describes the ideal marriage:

“And may the good gods give you all your heart desires:

husband, and house, and lasting harmony too.

No finer, greater gift in the world than that…

when man and woman possess their home, two minds,

two hearts that work as one. Despair to their enemies,

a joy to all their friends. Their own best claim to glory.” (6.180–4)

Odysseus’ description of hunger:

“But despite my misery, let me finish dinner.

The belly’s a shameless dog, there’s nothing worse.

Always insisting, pressing, it never lets us forget—

destroyed as I am, my heart racked with sadness,

sick with anguish, still it keeps demanding,

‘Eat, drink!’ It blots out all the memory

of my pain, commanding, ‘Fill me up!’” (7.214-20)

Odysseus is cursed by the Cyclops—causing his journey home to be so long:

“Hear me—

Poseidon, god of the sea-blue mane who rocks the earth!

If I really am your son and you claim to be my father—

come, grant that Odysseus, raider of cities,

Laertes’ son who makes his home in Ithaca,

never reaches home. Or if he’s fated to see

his people once again and reach his well-built house

and his own native country, let him come home late

and come a broken man—all shipmates lost,

alone in a stranger’s ship—

and let him find a world of pain at home!” (9.527–35)

Achilles in the underworld:

“‘But you, Achilles,

there’s not a man in the world more blest than you—

there never has been, never will be one.

Time was, when you were alive, we Argives

honored you as a god, and now down here, I see,

you lord it over the dead in all your power.

So grieve no more at dying, great Achilles.’

I reassured the ghost, but he broke out, protesting,

‘No winning words about death to me, shining Odysseus!

By god, I’d rather slave on earth for another man—

some dirt-poor tenant farmer who scrapes to keep alive—

than rule down here over all the breathless dead.’” (11.482–92)

Sisyphus in the underworld:

“And I saw Sisyphus too, bound to his own torture,

grappling his monstrous boulder with both arms working,

heaving, hands struggling, legs driving, he kept on

thrusting the rock uphill toward the brink, but just

as it teetered, set to topple over—time and again

the immense weight of the thing would wheel it back and

the ruthless boulder would bound and tumble down to the plain again—

so once again he would heave, would struggle to thrust it up,

sweat drenching his body, dust swirling above his head.” (11.593–600)

All quotations are taken from Robert Fagle’s 1996 excellent translation of the Odyssey. Line numbers are approximate.