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The Odyssey ( , Odýsseia) is one of two major ancient Greek epic poem attributed to Homer. It is, in part, a sequel to the Iliad, the other work traditionally ascribed to Homer. The poem is fundamental to the modern Western canon. Indeed it is the second—the Iliad being the first—extant work of Western literature. It was probably composed near the end of the eighth century BC, somewhere in Ionia, the Greek-speaking coastal region of what is now Turkeymarker.

The poem mainly centers on the Greek hero Odysseus (or Ulysses, as he was known in Roman myths) and his long journey home following the fall of Troymarker. It takes Odysseus ten years to reach Ithacamarker after the ten-year Trojan War, twenty years in total. In his absence, it is assumed he has died, and his wife Penelope and son Telemachus must deal with a group of unruly suitors, the Mnesteres (Greek: Μνηστῆρες) or Proci, competing for Penelope's hand in marriage.

It continues to be read in the Homeric Greek and translated into modern languages around the world. The original poem was composed in an oral tradition by an aoidos, perhaps a rhapsode, and was intended more to be sung than read. The details of the ancient oral performance, and the story's conversion to a written work inspire continual debate among scholars. The Odyssey was written in a regionless poetic dialect of Greek and comprises 12,110 lines of dactylic hexameter. Among the most impressive elements of the text are its strikingly modern non-linear plot, and the fact that events are shown to depend as much on the choices made by women and serfs as on the actions of fighting men. In the English language as well as many others, the word odyssey has come to refer to an epic voyage.

Synopsis

Telemachus, Odysseus's son, is only a month old when Odysseus sets out for Troy to fight a war he wants no part of. At the point where the Odyssey begins, twenty years after the end of the ten-year Trojan War, Telemachus is twenty and is sharing his absent father’s house on the island of Ithaca with his mother Penelope and a crowd of 117 boisterous young men, "the Suitors", whose aim is to persuade Penelope that her husband is dead and that she should marry one of them.

Odysseus’s protector, the goddess Athena, discusses his fate with Zeus, king of the gods, at a moment when Odysseus's enemy, the god of the sea Poseidon, is absent from Mount Olympusmarker. Then, disguised as a Taphian chieftain named Mentes, she visits Telemachus to urge him to search for news of his father. He offers her hospitality; they observe the Suitors dining rowdily, and the bard Phemius performing a narrative poem for them. Penelope objects to Phemius's 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 to the suitors. Accompanied by Athena (now disguised as his friend Mentor), he departs for the Greek mainland and the household of Nestor, most venerable of the Greek warriors at Troy, now at home in Pylosmarker. From there, Telemachus rides overland, accompanied by Nestor's son, to Spartamarker, where he finds Menelaus and Helen, now reconciled. He is told that they returned to Greecemarker after a long voyage by way of Egyptmarker; there, on the magical 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 Mycenaemarker and leader of the Greeks at Troy, murdered on his return home by his wife Clytemnestra and her lover Aegisthus.

Then the story of Odysseus is told. He has spent seven years in captivity on Calypso's island. She is persuaded to release him by 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. The raft is wrecked by Poseidon, but Odysseus swims ashore on the island of Scherie, 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. He appeals to her for help. She encourages him to seek the hospitality of her parents, Arete and Alcinous. 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 amazing story of his return from Troy.
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 and were captured by the Cyclops Polyphemus, only escaping by blinding him with a wooden stake. They stayed with Aeolus, the master of the winds; 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 pleading in vain with Aeolus to help them again, they re-embarked and encountered the cannibal Laestrygones. Odysseus’s ship was the only one to escape. 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, a resistance to Circe’s magic. Circe, being attracted to Odysseus' resistance, fell in love with him and released his men. Odysseus and his crew remained with her on the island for one year, while they feasted and drank. Finally, Odysseus' men convinced Odysseus that it was time to leave for Ithaca. 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. 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, who also warned him about the dangers of women (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, passed between the many-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 escaping.

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 harbor on Ithaca. He finds his way to the hut of one of his own former slaves, the swineherd Eumaeus. Athene 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 Cretemarker, 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 Thesprotiamarker 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 experiences the suitors’ rowdy behavior and plans their death. He 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 received during a boar hunt; he swears her to secrecy. 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 turns his arrows on the suitors and with the help of Athena, Telemachus, Eumaeus and Philoteus the cowherd, all the suitors are killed. Odysseus and Telemachus hang twelve of their household maids, who betrayed Penelope and/or had sex with the suitors; 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 is 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 once gave 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. After this, Ithaca is at peace once more, concluding the Odyssey.

Character of Odysseus

Odysseus' heroic trait is his mētis, or "cunning intelligence"; he is often described as the "Peer of Zeus in Counsel." This intelligence is most often manifested by his use of disguise and deceptive speech. His disguises take forms both physical (altering his appearance) and verbal, such as telling the Cyclops Polyphemus that his name is Ουτις, "Nobody", then escaping after blinding Polyphemus. When asked by other Cyclopes why he is screaming, Polyphemus replies that "Nobody" is hurting him, so the others assume that, "If alone as you are [Polyphemus] none uses violence on you, why, there is no avoiding the sickness sent by great Zeus; so you had better pray to your father, the lord Poseidon". The most evident flaw that Odysseus sports is that of his arrogance and his pride, or hubris. As he sails away from the island of the Cyclopēs, he shouts his name and boasts that no one can defeat the "Great Odysseus". The Cyclops then throws the top half of a mountain at him and prays to his father, Poseidon, saying that Odysseus has blinded him. This enrages Poseidon, causing the god to thwart Odysseus' homecoming for a very long time.

Structure

The Odyssey begins in medias res, meaning that the plot begins in the middle of the overall story, and that prior events are described through flashbacks or storytelling. This device is imitated by later authors of literary epics, for example, Virgil in the Aeneid, as well as modern poets such as Alexander Pope in The Rape of the Lock.

In the first episodes, we trace Telemachus' efforts to assert control of the household, and then, at Athena’s advice, to search for news of his long-lost father. Then the scene shifts: Odysseus has been a captive of the beautiful nymph Calypso, with whom he has spent seven of his ten lost years. Released by the intercession of his patroness Athena, through the aid of Hermes, he departs, but his raft is destroyed by his divine enemy Poseidon, who is angry because Odysseus blinded his son, Polyphemus. When Odysseus washes up on Scherie, home to the Phaeacians, he is assisted by the young Nausicaa and is treated hospitably. In return, he satisfies the Phaeacians' curiosity, telling them, and the reader, of all his adventures since departing from Troy. The shipbuilding Phaeacians then loan him a ship to return to Ithacamarker, where he is aided by the swineherd Eumaeus, meets Telemachus, regains his household, kills the suitors, and is reunited with his faithful wife, Penelope.

Nearly all modern editions and translations of the Odyssey are divided into 24 books. This division is convenient but not original; it was developed by Alexandrian editors of the 3rd century BC. In the Classical period, moreover, several of the books (individually and in groups) were given their own titles: the first four books, focusing on Telemachus, are commonly known as the Telemachy; Odysseus' narrative, Book 9, featuring his encounter with the cyclops Polyphemus, is traditionally called the Cyclopeia; and Book 11, the section describing his meeting with the spirits of the dead is known as the Nekuia. Books 9 through 12, wherein Odysseus recalls his adventures for his Phaeacian hosts, are collectively referred to as the Apologoi: Odysseus' "stories".Book 22, wherein Odysseus kills all the suitors, has been given the title Mnesterophonia: "slaughter of the suitors".

The last 548 lines of the Odyssey, corresponding to Book 24, are believed by many scholars to have been added by a slightly later poet. Several passages in earlier books seem to be setting up the events of Book 24, so if it were indeed a later addition, the offending editor would seem to have changed earlier text as well. For more about varying views on the origin, authorship and unity of the poem see Homeric scholarship.

Geography of the Odyssey

Events in the main sequence of the Odyssey (excluding the narrative of Odysseus) take place in the Peloponnesemarker and in what are now called the Ionian Islandsmarker. There are difficulties in the identification of Ithacamarker, the homeland of Odysseus, which may or may not be the same island that is now called Ithake. The wanderings of Odysseus as told to the Phaeacians, and the location of the Phaeacians' own island of Scherie, pose more fundamental geographical problems: scholars both ancient and modern are divided as to whether or not any of the places visited by Odysseus (after Ismaros and before his return to Ithacamarker) are real.

Dating the Odyssey

In 2008, scientists Marcelo Magnasco and Constantino Baikouzis at Rockefeller Universitymarker used clues in the text and astronomical data to attempt to pinpoint the time of Odysseus's return from his journey after the Trojan War.

The first clue is Odysseus's sighting of Venus just before dawn as he arrives on Ithaca. The second is a new moon on the night before the massacre of the suitors. The final clue is a total eclipse, falling over Ithaca around noon, when Penelope's suitors sit down for their noon meal. The seer Theoclymenus approaches the suitors and foretells their death, saying, "The Sun has been obliterated from the sky, and an unlucky darkness invades the world." The problem with this is that the 'eclipse' is only seen by Theoclymenus, and the suitors toss him out, calling him mad. No-one else sees the sky darken, and it is therefore not actually described as an eclipse within the story, merely a vision by Theoclymenus.

Doctors Baikouzis and Magnasco state that "[t]he odds that purely fictional references to these phenomena (so hard to satisfy simultaneously) would coincide by accident with the only eclipse of the century are minute." They conclude that these three astronomical references "'cohere,' in the sense that the astronomical phenomena pinpoint the date of 16 April, 1178 B.C." as the most likely date of Odysseus' return.

This dating places the destruction of Troy, twenty years before, to 1198 B.C., which is close to the archaeologically dated destruction of Troy VIIamarker circa 1190 B.C.

Near Eastern influences

Scholars have seen strong influences from Near Eastern mythology and literature in the Odyssey. Martin West has noted substantial parallels between the Epic of Gilgamesh and the Odyssey. Both Odysseus and Gilgamesh are known for traveling to the ends of the earth, and on their journeys go to the land of the dead. On his voyage to the underworld, Odysseus follows instructions given to him by Circe, a goddess who is the daughter of the sun-god Helios. Her island, Aeaea, is located at the edges of the world, and seems to have close associations with the sun. Like Odysseus, Gilgamesh gets directions on how to reach the land of the dead from a divine helper: in this case, she is the goddess Siduri, who, like Circe, dwells by the sea at the ends of the earth. Her home is also associated with the sun: Gilgamesh reaches Siduri's house by passing through a tunnel underneath Mt. Mashu, the high mountain from which the sun comes into the sky. West argues that the similarity of Odysseus' and Gilgamesh's journeys to the edges of the earth are the result of the influence of the Gilgamesh epic upon the Odyssey.

Text history

  • The Athenian tyrant Peisistratos, who ruled between 546 and 527 BC, is believed to have established a Commission of Editors of Homer to edit the text of the poems and remove any errors and interpolations, thus establishing a canonical text.
  • The earliest papyrus fragments date back to the third century BC.
  • The oldest complete manuscript is the Laurentianus from the 10th or 11th century.
  • The editio princeps of both the Iliad and the Odyssey is by Demetrius Chalcondyles in Florencemarker, most likely from 1488.


Cultural impact



Notable English translations

This is a partial list of translations into English of Homer's Odyssey. For a more complete list see English translations of Homer.

References

  1. D.C.H. Rieu's introduction to The Odyssey (Penguin, 2003), p. xi.
  2. The dog Argos dies autik' idont' Odusea eeikosto eniauto ("seeing Odysseus again in the twentieth year"), Odyssey 17.327; cf. also 2.174-6, 23.102, 23.170.
  3. D.C.H. Rieu's introduction to The Odyssey (Penguin, 2003), p. xi.
  4. The Odyssey, Book XIV.
  5. This theme once existed in the form of a written epic, Nostoi, now lost.
  6. Outline originally based on pp. xx-xxiv.
  7. From the Odyssey of Homer translated by Richmond Lattimore [Book 9, page 147/8, lines 410 - 412]
  8. West, Martin. The East Face of Helicon: West Asiatic Elements in Greek Poetry and Myth. (Oxford 1997) 402-417.
  9. Odyssey Criticism


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