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Homer's Odyssey

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The heroic Odysseus, a boat, and a galloping white horse.

The Odyssey, traditionally attributed to Homer, is one of the two great Greek epic poems1. It tells the story of Odysseus' journey home from the Trojan War. Over the course of his ten-year journey, Odysseus encounters many perils: giants, a cyclops, witches, spirits and gods.

At the time that The Odyssey was composed, the Greek alphabet had not yet been developed and the poem is a product of a completely oral tradition. The ancient Greek epic tradition was an oral-formulaic tradition. In oral-formulaic traditions, generations of poet performers develop a special poetic language that consists of a vast number of metrical phrases (formulae) and longer story elements (themes or type-scenes) out of which long narrative poems are extemporaneously constructed. Although this technique may seem restrictive and eliminating originality, in fact, the poets were able to use many of the same literary devices used by modern novelists.


For the Odyssey to be the well-known story that it is today, Homer's telling of the Odyssey must have been well worth listening to. One of the characteristics of a good story, now as then, is that the audience is captivated, glued to their seats, so to speak. Homer achieves this using many different techniques that can be categorised into four main groups:

  • The use of figures of speech, such as metaphors
  • Suspense
  • Fantasy, ie the supernatural
  • The relationship between characters and plot

Figures of Speech

While there are other methods and tactics that Homer uses, the following are the most common and most important ones:

A formula is where part of the text is repeated; for example '... as dawn rose red and rosy fingered...' is a common formula in the Odyssey. The repetition not only helps the bard2 or rhapsode3 to remember what comes next in the story, but it also has to do with very complex Greek grammar, where a certain adjective for a hero would be called for in a certain case. The same would go for any kind of character and a poet would have these phrases ready to use, having learned his craft from a master.

As a result of the rhapsode using the formulae, the story should 'flow' better. However when you read, as opposed to hearing formulae, they may end up seeming monotonous, as things get repeated on a larger scale or more often. Another good example of this use of formulae can be found in the epic Gilgamesh where it is used a great deal, with entire paragraphs often repeated, making it hard to read at times.

A metaphor is when one thing is described as something else, thereby portraying a clear idea in a 'visual' way. Metaphors and similes help to maintain the audience's interest, because the technique captures the imagination. Metaphors are used to explain things that the audience may not be able to comprehend by relating it to something that they have already seen. For example, when Odysseus has just slain the suitors and Homer compares the dead suitors to a mound of dead fish, conjuring up the image of fish twitching and flopping. This would definitely capture the attention of an audience as not only do these scenes portray the mighty power of the hero but are also gruesome enough to keep the attention of a more modern, possibly bloodthirstier, audience.

A simile is when something is described and/or compared to something else using the words 'like' or 'as'. The simile is perhaps the most characteristic figure in Homer's repertoire, often being hugely extended into mini-narratives of their own. In the same scene Odysseus is:

... like a lion when he comes from feeding on a farmer's bullock, with the blood dripping from his breast and jaws on either side, a fearsome spectacle...

An epithet is an adjective put alongside a character's name to describe them either in general terms or at that particular moment in time. For example Odysseus is often referred to as resourceful or cunning. Often epithets are used to help explore a character's traits. Homer's descriptions of Odysseus help with his character development, giving the audience ideas to think about, helping them enjoy and understand the story, thus maintaining our interest in it. At other times the epithet is somewhat incongruous, demonstrating the fact that the epithets are fundamentally metrical place-holding formulae.

Dramatic irony and pathos are two other literary techniques that Homer uses to good effect in the Odyssey. Dramatic irony is when the audience either are familiar with the story or are informed about something that the characters do not know, so they can foresee what will happen before the characters do. A good example of how Homer uses dramatic irony is just before the battle in the hall, '... believe me, this bow will break the heart and spirit of many a companion here'. These words are spoken by Leodes, the first of the suitors to attempt to string the bow. This is dramatic, as it is the bow that he is talking about that will kill the suitors and so it truly is '... the bow that will seal our fate', as Antinous said.

Pathos is when a feeling of sorrow or pity towards something or someone is aroused by the author. The use of pathos helps to bring the audience into the story, allowing them to feel for the characters as if they were real, living people. Bringing the audience into the story in this way enables any author, to easily maintain audiences' interest. An unexpected example of this is when the Cyclops stops the last ram, the one that bears Odysseus, and tells it his feelings. This speech creates pathos for the Cyclops, who until this point we have not felt any sympathy for. This dramatic twist is completely unexpected and we start to feel sorry for a creature that has devoured several of Odysseus' men.


Suspense is a major part in keeping a modern reader's interest. One must remember that the original audience would already know the story of Odysseus. Suspense is something that the story offers to the modern reader. The interests of the ancient audience were vastly different.

The Gods and Fates

Gods and the vagaries of fate are the main representations of the fantastical and supernatural in almost all Greek epics. These allow for the stories to be far more fascinating and interesting, and with a world as large as that of the gods, there is a lot that can be done. Natural phenomena such as rainbows couldn't be rationalised in ancient Greece, but could be explained by the presence of the gods or gods' will. Homer can then include in his story things that are seemingly impossible like the Cyclops and the Laestrygonians, and when made so vivid, the supernatural power of the gods and the various monsters is captivating. This can be seen in Homer's description of the Laestrygonians as 'powerful' and 'more like giants than men'.

With a pervading sense that the gods can do as they please, order is needed as a counterfoil. This is provided by fate, which is a line that no one, not even Zeus, can cross. This gives the audience a sense of security; we are told from the very beginning that it is fated that Odysseus will make it back to Ithaca. This is very similar to the Roman version of the story, The Aeneid, written by Virgil, where the audience is told near the beginning that the hero is fated to found the city that will become Rome. This intricate network of gods, bound by fate, is possibly what makes the Odyssey and other Greek epics what they are. This exploration of the relationship between gods and fate is lost in modern literature. What the modern reader has instead is fantasy, such as The Lord of the Rings, the Harry Potter books and The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.

Characters vs Plot

The characters themselves help to maintain the interest of the audience. Often overlooked, it's not necessarily the individual characters that are important, but the framework they create that is necessary for all epics. At the centre of the book we need a hero who is 'strong in mind and body'. This is exactly what Odysseus is and the audience is told this at the very beginning where Zeus himself says those words about Odysseus.

Aristotle argued in his work on literary theory, Poetics, that plot was more important than characters to evoke emotion in the audience, and the Odyssey serves as a good example for his argument. With the involvement of the gods and fate, who oversee and intervene where necessary. We also have evil, in the shape of the suitors, as well as various capricious women such as Circe, Calypso and Athena, over whom 'good' is trying to conquer. The idea of good triumphing over evil would have been enjoyed, allowing the audience to listen to the sub-stories in good spirits, making it less likely for them to stop listening.

Overall, Homer uses a wide range of techniques to maintain the audience's attention; these are mainly similes and metaphors, epithets, dramatic irony and pathos, suspense, the gods and fate and the characters themselves. Each element contributes to making the story exciting and interesting.

Who Is Who?

You will, unless you read this, be inundated with names that you have never heard of before. The main players are:

Odysseus' Friends and Family

  • Odysseus - Hero, 'wise beyond all mortal men', husband to Penelope, father to Telemachus and son of Laertes. Lost on his way back from Troy.

  • Penelope - Odysseus' faithful wife, who is trying to keep the suitors4 at bay.

  • Telemachus - Odysseus' 20-year-old son, who goes looking for his father as well as looking after the family house, his inheritance and his mother.

  • Laertes - Odysseus' father; lives in seclusion in the country and doesn't play a large role in the book.

  • Eumaios - Swineherd; a faithful servant of Odysseus.

  • Philoetius - Cowherd; a faithful servant of Odysseus.

  • Eurycleia - Faithful old servant of the family. She mainly looks after Penelope in this book, although she did raise both Odysseus and Telemachus.

  • Nestor - Comrade to Odysseus at Troy, sends his son to help Telemachus search for his father.

  • Menelaus - Leader of the attack on Troy, along with his brother Agamemnon. Helen, Menelaus' wife, has been abducted by the Trojan, Paris, which led to the war in the first place.

  • Argos - Odysseus' old hunting dog.

The Phaeacians

  • Alkinous - King of the Phaeacians, to whom Odysseus tells most of his story in a kind of a 'flash-back'.

  • Nausicaa - Daughter of King Alkinous; rescuer of Odysseus.

  • Demodokos - Blind minstrel who brought Odysseus to tears with his stories of Troy, thus giving his identity away.

The Opposition on Ithaca

  • Antinous - Ringleader of Penelope's suitors and the first to die.

  • Eurymachus - Another of the lead suitors, who threw a stool at Odysseus when he was disguised.

  • Melanthius - Goatherd; no longer faithful to Odysseus and is now on the side of the suitors.

Gods, Monsters and Immortals

  • Athena - Goddess of wisdom and war. She is Odysseus' guiding light through his journey, acting as his counsel, watching over him wherever he goes.

  • Calypso - Nymph who wants Odysseus as her husband and so keeps him on her island for seven years.

  • Circe - Goddess/witch who turns some of Odysseus' men into swine, but then helps Odysseus on his way.

  • Poseidon - 'Earth shaker', god of the sea who hinders Odysseus because of what he does to Polyphemus, his son.

  • Polyphemus - A cyclops, that is, a giant with a single eye in the centre of his forehead. He is the most powerful cyclops of all, and son of Poseidon.

  • Teiresias - Blind Theban prophet whom Odysseus seeks in the underworld.

  • Zeus - King of the gods, upholder of fate, ruler of the sky. Athena's father.

  • Hermes - Messenger god, carrying Zeus' commands to and fro. Also helps Odysseus defeat Circe.

  • Scylla and Charybdis - Scylla is a six-headed monster that eats passing sailors, Charybdis is a neighbour of Scylla's and is another monster who creates whirlpools and eats passing ships.


This summary may seem long but it is an epic, after all.

Book One - The book starts halfway through the story as Athena gains permission from Zeus to let Odysseus leave Calypso's island where he is being held. Athena, in disguise, tells Telemachus to go to his father's former comrades to see if they know where Odysseus is.

Book Two - The suitors turn down Telemachus when he asks them for a ship, but Athena, always there when you need her, guides him by night to one that is moored. She then rounds up a crew for him as well.

Book Three - Telemachus meets Nestor, one of Odysseus' mates from Troy. Nestor has news of other warriors at Troy which he then tells to Telemachus, but none of Odysseus. Telemachus goes with Nestor's son to Sparta to see if another of Odysseus' comrades has any better news.

Book Four - After finding Menelaus and his wife, Helen, Telemachus starts his journey back home with new-found confidence. Menelaus and Helen have told him of Menelaus' travels back from Troy; among his adventures is his meeting with an old man of the sea who tells of Odysseus' troubles on Calypso's island.

Book Five - Features the retelling of the story of Odysseus being trapped on Calypso's island because she is in love with him and won't let him go. Athena intervenes with Zeus and gets him to tell Calypso, through Hermes, that enough is enough and that after holding him for seven years she must now let Odysseus go. Odysseus is determined to continue along his fated path and builds a raft to carry on with his journey. He is hindered by a storm created by Poseidon, and is still angry about Polyphemus (see book nine), that washes him up on the shores of Phaeacia where he hides in the woods, naked, and goes to sleep.

Book Six - The princess of Phaeacia and her maids who are playing close by the beach, wake Odysseus with all of their noise and he goes to see what is going on. He finds the princess Nausicaa who tells him to come to the palace later and meet the king and queen. She also gives him some clothes to wear, along with some detailed instructions.

Book Seven - Odysseus begs for help from the king and queen at Phaeacia, giving a short version of his story. However he does give them his name.

Book Eight - Odysseus is at the palace where the king and queen entertain him according to ancient Greek customs. After shedding tears repeatedly when Demodokus tells of Troy, prompting them to question him, Odysseus proudly tells them who he is, and agrees to tell them the story of his journey so far.

Book Nine - Odysseus first tells of his encounter with the Cicones, a race of people that lived near the north east of modern Greece, and how they had a mighty battle. He then tells of the Lotus-eaters and how his men were nearly kept there, overcome by the power of the lotus fruit. Next comes the particularly gruesome story of the Cyclops: 12 men went over to the island of the Cyclops and entered a cave. When the Cyclops returned, he began to eat Odysseus' men, keeping them captive in the cave for days. Odysseus finally came up with a cunning plan: to blind the Cyclops and escape from the cave. He and some men put a hot stake in the Cyclops' eye after first getting him drunk on exceedingly strong wine5 and then once the Cyclops has opened the cave, they escaped by clinging to the underside of the Cyclops' sheep as they ran out. Just as the shipmates are leaving the island, Odysseus calls back, telling the Cyclops his real name, which is possibly the most thoughtless and unintelligent thing that Odysseus does in the entire epic, as armed with his name, the Cyclops, Polyphemus, curses Odysseus.

Book Ten - Odysseus and his men first sail to the floating island of Aeolia where they meet the god of the winds. Aeolus gives Odysseus a bag full of all the winds so that he can get home safely, but his 'Fools of men', thinking Odysseus is cheating them of some spoils, open the bag and they are blown back to Aeolus' island. They are promptly thrown off the island and so continue their voyage. They come to the land of the Laestrygonians where these giants of men destroy all the fleet, except for Odysseus' boat and crew, who manage to escape amid the turmoil.

Odysseus next arrives at the island of Aeaea where half of his men are turned into pigs by Circe. He goes to save them and is helped by Hermes. Following the god's instructions, Odysseus defeats the witch-like Circe and his men are returned to their true form. After a year of banquets it is time to move on, and so Odysseus and his men set off, but not before they are told by Circe that they have to go into the underworld to seek advice and thus ensure their return home.

Book 11 - Odysseus follows Circe's instructions and makes a sacrifice after entering the halls of Hades. He sees the prophet Teiresias, who tells Odysseus what is to happen to him in the future. Odysseus also sees the ghost of his mother, a member of his crew that died on the island of Circe and various Greek heroes.

Book 12 - Odysseus next sails on, past Scylla and Charybdis, to the island of the sun god where they are warned not to harm the cattle. However Odysseus' men, driven by hunger, go on to kill and eat some of the cattle and Zeus, in his anger, strikes Odysseus' ship with lightning, all of the crew but Odysseus die, and Odysseus is swept up onto Calypso's island, where he spends the next seven years. At this point Odysseus stops telling his story to the Phaeacians.

Book 13 - The king of Phaeacia gives Odysseus passage on a ship and he eventually arrives back on the coast of Ithaca. Once on Ithaca, Athena helps him on his way to get rid of the suitors by changing his appearance and disguising him as a beggar.

Book 14 - In disguise, Odysseus goes into the hut of his swineherd, Eumaios. Not knowing where Eumaios' allegiances lie he does not tell him his true identity but instead tells him made up stories. Eumaios doesn't believe him, but enjoys the stories anyway.

Book 15 - After finding out that Odysseus is on Calypso's island, and will leave there shortly, Telemachus leaves Sparta and goes home to Ithaca. With Athena's help, he avoids an ambush by the suitors.

Book 16 - Telemachus goes into Eumaios' hut where Odysseus reveals himself, telling him that he must keep Odysseus' return a secret. The suitors start to wonder what to do next as their ambush failed.

Book 17 - Telemachus goes from the swine herder's hut to the palace to see his mother, Penelope. Odysseus, disguised as the beggar, also goes to the palace with the guidance of Eumaios. On the way he is taunted by Melanthius the goatherd who is now in allegiance with the suitors. Once there, Odysseus tries to get (his own) food off of the suitors, but instead Antinous, a main suitor, throws a stool at him.

Book 18 - Odysseus has a boxing match with a beggar called Irus and wins. Penelope goes to see the suitors in the hall to receive the gifts that they have finally presented to woo her. While there, her servant Melantho insults Odysseus. Once again Odysseus has a stool thrown at him, however this time it is thrown by Eurymachus, another of the main suitors, incensed by Irus' loss to what appears to be an old man.

Book 19 - In preparation for what is to come, Odysseus and Telemachus, with help from Athena, take all the weapons down off the walls in the main hall. Odysseus, in disguise, tries to convince Penelope that he is still alive and is heading home. Penelope gets her maid Eurycleia, to wash Odysseus' feet as a thankful gesture to his soothing words. As Eurycleia does so, she sees a scar that reveals to her Odysseus' true identity, however she promises to keep quiet. Later Penelope tells Odysseus about the task she will set the suitors.

Book 20 - Omens tell how Odysseus will succeed in what he wants. So does a seer, Theoclymenus, who tells how the suitors will die. Odysseus continues to discern which of his servants have been loyal to him.

Book 21 - The suitors decide to have a contest to see who shall be the husband of Penelope. They have to string Odysseus' bow and fire an arrow through 12 axe heads (the axe heads have small loops on them), but none of the suitors can even string the bow. When, after an argument, Odysseus, still in disguise, has a go, he strings the bow and easily fires the arrow through all 12 of the axe heads.

Book 22 - With weapons from the storeroom, Telemachus fights by his father's side. They first kill Antinous and then the suitors decide to attack in waves. Athena is on Odysseus' side, as usual, and makes all their attempts fail. Eumaios and Philoetius, both loyal to Odysseus, find Melanthius getting weapons for the suitors. They tie him to a plank and hoist him to the ceiling. When all the suitors are dead, the unfaithful maidservants are called to clean up the mess and are then killed. Odysseus does some fairly nasty things to Melanthius including ripping off part of his anatomy and feeding it to the dogs!

Book 23 - Eurycleia goes to wake Penelope and tell her the news, but Penelope doesn't believe her. Eventually she goes down to look for herself. Penelope doesn't recognise Odysseus at first and Telemachus is very agitated by this. To add to the suspense, after a quick bath Odysseus returns to Penelope, Athena having removed the disguise. Penelope puts Odysseus to the test by telling him that they should move the bed out of their bedroom. He knows that this can't be done as he built it into a tree that grows in their room and when he says so, Penelope knows that he is indeed Odysseus.

Book 24 - Odysseus sees his father, Laertes, and reveals his identity. Hermes takes the souls of the dead suitors down to the halls of Hades where they meet warriors that died at Troy. The relatives of the suitors start to make plans to get back at Odysseus for what he has done, but Athena and Zeus make up a plan for peace in Ithaca. There is a fight where a few of the suitors' relatives are killed but then Athena makes an appearance and tells everybody to stop and live in peace. Although this is the end of the book, Odysseus still has to go on a small quest. He must walk inland until he finds a people that don't know of the sea, and there he must make a sacrifice to Poseidon to gain forgiveness for blinding Polyphemus.

1The other is The Iliad.2A bard is a poet, usually a lyrical one.3A rhapsode is a reciter of epic poetry in ancient Greece.4A group of men from Ithaca and beyond, trying to get Penelope to marry them in Odysseus' absence.5Wine of such potency, unfortunately, no longer exists.

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