Odyssey  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
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Odyssey (disambiguation)

The Odyssey (Greek Οδύσσεια (Odússeia)) is one of two major ancient Greek epic poems attributed to the Ionian poet Homer. The poem is commonly dated circa 800 to circa 600 BC. The poem is, in part, a sequel to Homer's Iliad and mainly centers on the Greek hero Odysseus (or Ulysses in Latin, which is what the Romans called him after they were told of his journeys) and his long journey home to Ithaca, following the fall of Troy.

Contents

Synopsis

Exposition

The Odyssey begins ten years after the end of the ten-year Trojan War, and Odysseus has still not returned home from the war. Odysseus' son Telemachus is 20 and is sharing his absent father’s house on the island of Ithaca with his mother Penelope and a crowd of 108 boisterous young men, "the Suitors", whose aim is to persuade Penelope to marry one of them, all the while enjoying the hospitality of Odysseus' household and eating up his wealth.

Odysseus’ protectress, the goddess Athena, discusses his fate with Zeus, king of the gods, at a moment when Odysseus' enemy, the god of the sea Poseidon, is absent from Mount Olympus. Then, disguised as a Taphian chieftain named Mentes (otherwise known as “Mentor”), she visits Telemachus to urge him to search for news of his father. He offers her hospitality; they observe the Suitors dining rowdily while the bard Phemius performs a narrative poem for them. Penelope objects to Phemius' theme, the "Return from Troy" because it reminds her of her missing husband, but Telemachus rebuts her objections.

That night Athena, disguised as Telemachus, finds a ship and crew for the true Telemachus. The next morning, Telemachus calls an assembly of citizens of Ithaca to discuss what should be done with the suitors. Accompanied by Athena (still disguised as Mentor), he departs for the Greek mainland and the household of Nestor, most venerable of the Greek warriors at Troy, now at home in Pylos. From there, Telemachus rides overland, accompanied by Nestor's son, Peisistratus, to Sparta, where he finds Menelaus and Helen, now reconciled. He is told that they returned to Sparta after a long voyage by way of Egypt. There, on the island of Pharos, Menelaus encountered the old sea-god Proteus, who told him that Odysseus was a captive of the nymph Calypso. Incidentally, Telemachus learns the fate of Menelaus’ brother Agamemnon, king of Mycenae and leader of the Greeks at Troy: he was murdered on his return home by his wife Clytemnestra and her lover Aegisthus.

Escape to the Phaeacians

Then the story of Odysseus is told. He has spent seven years in captivity on Calypso's island, Ogygia. Calypso falls deeply in love with him but he has consistently spurned her advances. She is persuaded to release him by Odysseus' great-grandfather, the messenger god Hermes, who has been sent by Zeus in response to Athena's plea. Odysseus builds a raft and is given clothing, food and drink by Calypso. When Poseidon finds out that Odysseus has escaped, he wrecks the raft, but Odysseus swims ashore on the island of Scherie (helped by a veil given by the sea nymph Ino), the home of the Phaeacians, where, naked and exhausted, he hides in a pile of leaves and falls asleep. The next morning, awakened by the laughter of girls, he sees the young Nausicaa, who has gone to the seashore with her maids to wash clothes, after Athena appeared to her in a dream and told her to do so. He appeals to her for help. She encourages him to seek the hospitality of her parents, Arete and Alcinous, or Alkinous. Odysseus is welcomed and is not at first asked for his name. He remains for several days, takes part in a pentathlon, and hears the blind singer Demodocus perform two narrative poems. The first is an otherwise obscure incident of the Trojan War, the "Quarrel of Odysseus and Achilles"; the second is the amusing tale of a love affair between two Olympian gods, Ares and Aphrodite. Finally, Odysseus asks Demodocus to return to the Trojan War theme and tell of the Trojan Horse, a stratagem in which Odysseus had played a leading role. Unable to hide his emotion as he relives this episode, Odysseus at last reveals his identity. He then begins to tell the story of his return from Troy.

Odysseus' account of his adventures

After a piratical raid on Ismaros in the land of the Cicones, he and his twelve ships were driven off course by storms. They visited the lethargic Lotus-Eaters who gave two of his men their fruit which caused them to forget their homecoming, and then were captured by the Cyclops Polyphemus, escaping by blinding him with a wooden stake. While they were escaping, however, Odysseus foolishly told Polyphemus his identity, and Polyphemus told his father, Poseidon, that Odysseus had blinded him. Poseidon then curses Odysseus to wander the sea for ten years, during which he would lose all his crew and return home through the aid of others. After their escape, they stayed with Aeolus, the master of the winds and he gave Odysseus a leather bag containing all the winds, except the west wind, a gift that should have ensured a safe return home. However, the sailors foolishly opened the bag while Odysseus slept, thinking that it contained gold. All of the winds flew out and the resulting storm drove the ships back the way they had come, just as Ithaca came into sight.

After unsuccessfully pleading with Aeolus to help them again, they re-embarked and encountered the cannibalistic Laestrygonians. All of Odysseus’s ships except his own entered the harbor of the Laestrygonians’ Island and were immediately destroyed. He sailed on and visited the witch-goddess Circe. She turned half of his men into swine after feeding them cheese and wine. Hermes warned Odysseus about Circe and gave Odysseus a drug called moly which gave him resistance to Circe’s magic. Circe, being attracted to Odysseus' resistance, agreed to bargain with him. She agreed to change his men back to their human form in exchange for Odysseus' love. They remained with her on the island for one year, while they feasted and drank. Finally, guided by Circe's instructions, Odysseus and his crew crossed the ocean and reached a harbor at the western edge of the world, where Odysseus sacrificed to the dead and summoned the spirit of the old prophet Tiresias to advise him of how to appease the gods upon his return home. Next Odysseus met the spirit of his own mother, who had died of grief during his long absence. From her, he learned for the first time news of his own household, threatened by the greed of the Suitors. Here, too, he met the spirits of famous women and famous men. Notably he encountered the spirit of Agamemnon, of whose murder he now learned, and Achilles, who told him about the woes of the land of the dead (for Odysseus' encounter with the dead, see also Nekuia).

Returning to Circe’s island, they were advised by her on the remaining stages of the journey. They skirted the land of the Sirens, who sang an enchanting song that normally caused passing sailors to steer toward the rocks, only to hit them and sink. All of the sailors except for Odysseus, who was tied to the mast, had their ears plugged up with beeswax. They then passed between the six-headed monster Scylla and the whirlpool Charybdis, and landed on the island of Thrinacia. There, Odysseus’ men ignored the warnings of Tiresias and Circe, and hunted down the sacred cattle of the sun god Helios. This sacrilege was punished by a shipwreck in which all but Odysseus drowned. He was washed ashore on the island of Calypso, where she compelled him to remain as her lover for seven years before she was ordered by Zeus to release Odysseus.

Return to Ithaca

Having listened with rapt attention to his story, the Phaeacians, who are skilled mariners, agree to help Odysseus get home. They deliver him at night, while he is fast asleep, to a hidden harbour on Ithaca. He finds his way to the hut of one of his own former slaves, the swineherd Eumaeus. Athena disguises Odysseus as a wandering beggar in order to learn how things stand in his household. After dinner, he tells the farm laborers a fictitious tale of himself: he was born in Crete, had led a party of Cretans to fight alongside other Greeks in the Trojan War, and had then spent seven years at the court of the king of Egypt; finally he had been shipwrecked in Thesprotia and crossed from there to Ithaca.

Meanwhile, Telemachus sails home from Sparta, evading an ambush set by the Suitors. He disembarks on the coast of Ithaca and makes for Eumaeus’s hut. Father and son meet; Odysseus identifies himself to Telemachus (but still not to Eumaeus) and they determine that the suitors must be killed. Telemachus gets home first. Accompanied by Eumaeus, Odysseus now returns to his own house, still pretending to be a beggar. He is ridiculed by the suitors in his own home, especially by one extremely impertinent man named Antinous. His son is beaten up by the larger men to show his "transition to manhood", and Odysseus attempts to stop the fight; as a result, Antinous throws a chair at him and laughs at him. Odysseus meets Penelope and tests her intentions with an invented story of his birth in Crete, where, he says, he once met Odysseus. Closely questioned, he adds that he had recently been in Thesprotia and had learned something there of Odysseus’s recent wanderings. Odysseus’s identity is discovered by the housekeeper, Eurycleia, as she is washing his feet and discovers an old scar Odysseus had received during a boar hunt. He had received the scar when he was hunting with the sons of Autolycus. They had been told to go boar hunting so that they could prepare a meal with the meat. The three climbed Mount Parnassus and eventually came across a boar in a large and deep meadow. Because of the meadow's depth, the three hunters were ambushed by the seemingly invisible boar and when Odysseus first saw the animal, he rushed at it but the animal was too fast and slashed him in the right thigh. Despite being gored by the boar, Odysseus still hit his mark and stabbed the boar through the shoulder. Odysseus' bleeding was staunched by a spell that was chanted by the sons of Autolycus and he received great glory and treasure for his bravery. Having seen this scar, Eurycleia tries to tell Penelope about Odysseus' true identity, but Athena makes sure that Penelope cannot hear Eurycleia. Meanwhile, Odysseus swears her to secrecy, and she promises not to tell.

Slaying of the Suitors

The next day, at Athena’s prompting, Penelope maneuvers the Suitors into competing for her hand with an archery competition using Odysseus' bow. The man who can string the bow and shoot it through a dozen axe heads would win. Odysseus takes part in the competition himself: he alone is strong enough to string the bow and shoot it through the dozen axe heads, making him the winner. He then turns his arrows on the Suitors and with the help of Athena, Telemachus, Eumaeus and Philoteus the cowherd, he kills all the Suitors. Odysseus and Telemachus hang twelve of their household maids, who had betrayed Penelope or had sex with the Suitors, or both; they mutilate and kill the goatherd Melanthius, who had mocked and abused Odysseus. Now at last, Odysseus identifies himself to Penelope. She is hesitant, but accepts him when he mentions that their bed was made from an olive tree still rooted to the ground. Many modern and ancient scholars take this to be the original ending of the Odyssey, and the rest to be an interpolation.

The next day he and Telemachus visit the country farm of his old father Laertes, who likewise accepts his identity only when Odysseus correctly describes the orchard that Laertes had previously given him.

The citizens of Ithaca have followed Odysseus on the road, planning to avenge the killing of the Suitors, their sons. Their leader points out that Odysseus has now caused the deaths of two generations of the men of Ithaca: his sailors, not one of whom survived; and the Suitors, whom he has now executed. The goddess Athena intervenes and persuades both sides to give up the vendetta, a deus ex machina. After this, Ithaca is at peace once more, concluding the Odyssey.

Cultural impact

Themes in the Odyssey

There is a strong theme of homecoming (nostos) in the Odyssey, because Odysseus is on a journey home after the Trojan war has finally ended.

The theme of temptation as a psychological peril is portrayed by the sirens who lure sailors to their deaths by seduction. They represent the ideal audience—they sing about the most glorious moment of your life, thus tempting you to stay the hero or warrior they are portraying you as. Your own weakness makes you vulnerable; your greatest weakness comes from inside you.

Another significant theme is that of disguise, in the case of the gods; they disguise themselves so that they can interact with mortals. Athena in particular assumes many disguises including a shepherd, a girl, Telemachus, and Mentor. Odysseus is also able to disguise his identity, though not physically, by telling Polyphemus his name is ‘Nobody’ so that he will not be identified as the one who blinded the Cyclops. He also disguises himself as a beggar when he returns to Ithaca to protect himself from being killed by the Suitors.

Hospitality (xenia) is also a recurring theme as fundamental as the heroic code in the Odyssey. During that time, beggars or travelers often knocked on a stranger’s door in hopes of procuring a place to stay. There are specific steps for proper hospitality beginning with the feeding of the guest, which is of utmost importance since food is rare at that time and beggars beg for food, not money. Before the food is given, a bath is offered to the stranger, done by a woman or a servant—often different depending on the status of the visitor. After the food is given, the beggar is asked who he is and where he is from and stories are exchanged. Next, they are offered a bed to sleep on and it is understood that they can stay overnight and at the most another night. When the beggar is leaving, there is an exchange of gifts, if the beggar does not have a gift to give, they will still be given one.

Finally, identity and exile are also themes present in the poem.





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