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Homer and the Odyssey

Learn About This Lesson

Learning Objectives

After completing this lesson, you will be able to:

  • Name the elements or devices that reflect the Odyssey’s roots in the oral tradition of ancient Greece.
  • Describe the features and elements of epic poetry found in the Odyssey.
  • List the major themes found in the Odyssey.
  • Explain the ethical dilemmas related to Odysseus’ encounter with Scylla and Charybdis.

Inquire: The Odyssey of the Odyssey

Overview

The Odyssey is an epic poem attributed to the poet Homer, written between the 8th and 7th centuries BCE. It is a sequel to Homer’s other epic poem, the Iliad, which describes the last days of the great Trojan War. The Odyssey is told in a flashback form and recounts the story of the Greek hero Odysseus (known as Ulysses in Roman myths) and his ten-year journey home after the end of the Trojan War.

Today, we use the term odyssey to refer to any epic journey, and we see the influence of the Odyssey on Western culture in many cultural forms — novels, film, television, video games, and music.

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Big Question

Why has the Odyssey been so influential in Western culture?

Read: Introduction to the Odyssey

Overview

The Odyssey is an epic poem attributed to the poet Homer, written between the 8th and 7th centuries BCE. It is a sequel to Homer’s other epic poem, the Iliad, which describes the last days of the great Trojan War. The Odyssey is told in a flashback form and recounts the story of the Greek hero Odysseus (known as Ulysses in Roman myths) and his ten-year journey home after the end of the Trojan War.

As the story unfolds, Odysseus has been away from his home in Ithaca for 20 years; he spent ten years fighting in the Trojan War, and his journey home lasted another ten years. After so much time has passed, people in Ithaca assume Odysseus has died, and his wife Penelope and son Telemachus must deal with a group of unruly suitors who compete for Penelope’s hand in marriage. When Odysseus finally returns, he discovers that his wife has been faithful throughout his absence. The poem ends as Odysseus wins a contest to prove his identity, slaughters the suitors, and retakes the throne of Ithaca.

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Marble bust of Homer. Roman copy of a lost Hellenistic original of the 2nd c. BCE.

Attributed to Homer

Homer is the name given by the ancient Greeks to the legendary author of the Iliad and the Odyssey — possibly a bard who lived late in the 9th century BCE. While little is known about this author, tradition and linguistic analysis place the poet as a native of Ionia in western Asia Minor. Although debate over the identity of Homer continues even today – many have questioned if it is possible that a single person could be responsible for the Odyssey and the Iliad – the works attributed to him remain among the most influential in Western civilization.

Part of an Oral Tradition

The Odyssey likely originated through an ancient Greek oral tradition, meaning its story and constituent parts were sung or recited, and evolved over generations. You see evidence of this orality in a number of its stylistic elements and devices. Oral poets used these elements and devices as familiar building blocks for telling a story giving them stock materials to use while improvising.

Meter: A meter in poetry involves a standardized rhythm or exact arrangement of syllables into repeated patterns called feet. In Homer’s Odyssey, the meter, or the rhythmic structure, is “dactylic hexameter,” which means a line has six metrical “feet”, with a “long syllable – short syllable – short syllable” construction within each foot. This was a structure common to the Greek oral tradition.

Stock phrases: Epithets such as “swift-footed Achilles” and “gray-eyed Athene” (or owl-eyed, or owl-faced) fit the meter at the end of the line, and also fit the character. Bards who were improvising could draw freely from these phrases.

Stock lines: Lines describing typical events such as death blows, which fit the meter perfectly could be used repeatedly with ease: “and he fell, and his armor crashed thunderously upon him.”

Stock scenes: Standardized scenes such as serving wine at banquets, which contain multiple lines of formulaic language, could be recited verbatim in the proper context.

Fixed characters: While improvising, bards could reference certain characters who have a dominant defining quality – which could be easily remembered – and a predictability to their actions: strong Ajax, wise Nestor, wily Odysseus.

An Epic Poem

DecorativeThe Odyssey manifests all of the major elements of epic poetry.

Length: The Odyssey is a lengthy narrative told in verse, with over 12,000 lines.

Characters: Odysseus is certainly an epic hero, manifesting superhuman strength, endurance, and resourcefulness.

Structure: The plot begins in media res, and the story is told through flashbacks.

Subject: The poem’s subject – Odysseus’ suffering and separation from his beloved wife – is suitable for such a sweeping saga.

Setting: The Odyssey takes place across a wide variety of rich settings including the Mediterranean Sea, multiple islands, and the underworld.

Diction and Style: The poem employs the stylized language common in epic poetry, making use of extended similes, metaphors, and epithets. We also find many formal, lengthy monologues.

Deity: The gods play a major role in Odysseus’ journey home. Athena champions Odysseus and works to help him succeed. Zeus provides more subtle, indirect aid, and Poseidon attempts to thwart the hero’s success.

Muse: The Odyssey begins with the requisite invocation of a muse.

With Epic Themes

The Odyssey is powered by big themes that would have appealed to listening audiences. The universal nature of these themes has kept the work relevant throughout the centuries, and allowed it to move from epic poem to more modern forms, such as novels and movies.

Hospitality: Hospitality is a major theme in the Odyssey. It is used to define the character, or moral quality, of participants in the saga. For example, Penelope’s suitors take advantage of the Ithacan code of hospitality and take over her home. On his journey, Odysseus receives abundant help and hospitality. This includes help from the Phaeacians and, initially, from Aeolus.

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Odysseus and Polyphemus, oil and tempera on panel, by Arnold Böcklin.

Loyalty: Loyalty as a virtue is extolled throughout the Odyssey. Penelope is a loyal, faithful wife who waits 20 years for her husband’s return. Telemachus, Odysseus’ son, supports his mother and stands by his father against the suitors. We also see loyalty manifested in other characters. Eurycleia, Odysseus’ old nurse, remains loyal to Penelope and her absent master. The loyalty to Odysseus shown by Eumaeus and Philoetius, the swineherd and cowherd, is also noteworthy.

Vengeance: The theme of vengeance is a powerful force in the Odyssey. Odysseus blinds the one-eyed cyclops (Polyphemus) in order to escape from the giant’s cave. Unfortunately, the cyclops is Poseidon’s, and while the sea god is prohibited from killing Odysseus, he does everything possible to delay his journey. Poseidon’s wrath is so great that he extends his retribution to the Phaeacians, whose only offense is following their tradition of hospitality by sailing Odysseus home. Odysseus’ vengeance is also formidable, and we see it directed violently at Penelope’s suitors and his disloyal servants. He punishes the most disloyal with great gruesome, painful deaths.

Reflect: Which Translation Speaks to You?

Poll

While the Odyssey continues to be read in its original Greek, most people read it in translation. Translating the Odyssey from its original verse into English is a challenging task and, over the centuries, translators have taken various approaches. Some have abandoned the original poetic structure while others, searching for the rich musicality of the original, have experimented with translations in verse form. Below, are two translations of the opening of the Odyssey, one from Samuel Butler (1898) and the other from Robert Fagles (1990).

From the Samuel Butler translation

“Tell me, O Muse, of that ingenious hero who traveled far and wide after he had sacked the famous town of Troy. Many cities did he visit, and many were the nations with whose manners and customs he was acquainted; moreover, he suffered much by sea while trying to save his own life and bring his men safely home; but do what he might he could have his men, for they perished through their own sheer folly in eating the cattle of the Sun-god Hyperion; so the god prevented them from ever reaching home. Tell me, too, about all these things, O daughter of Zeus, from whatsoever source you may know them.

So now all who escaped death in battle or by shipwreck had got safely home except Odysseus, and he, though he were longing to return to his wife and country, was detained by the goddess Calypso, who had got him into a large cave and wanted to marry him. But as years went by, there came a time when the gods settled that he should go back to Ithaca; even then, however, when he was among his own people, his troubles were not yet over. Nevertheless, all the gods had now begun to pity him except Poseidon, who still persecuted him without ceasing and would not let him go home.”

Homer Trans. Samuel Butler. The Odyssey. 1900

From the Robert Fagles translation

“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 Sun god 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.

By now,
all the survivors, all who avoided headlong death
were safe at home, escaped the wars and waves.
But one man alone…
his heart set on his wife and his return — Calypso,
the bewitching nymph, the lustrous goddess, held him back,
deep in her arching caverns, craving him for a husband.
But then, when the wheeling seasons brought the year around,
that year spun out by the gods when he should reach his home,
Ithaca — though not even there would he be free of trials,
even among his loved ones — then every god took pity,
all except Poseidon. He raged on, seething against
the great Odysseus until he reached his native land.”

Homer Trans. Robert Fagles. The Odyssey. New York: Penguin Group, 1996.

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Read: Scylla and Charybdis

The following readings are from the Odyssey, Book XII, Butler Translation, 1898 and relate to the encounter between Odysseus and his men, and Scylla and Charybdis.

Circe’s Description of Scylla and Charybdis

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Between Scylla and Charybdis

“”When your crew have taken you past these Sirens, I cannot give you coherent directions as to which of two courses you are to take; I will lay the two alternatives before you, and you must consider them for yourself. On the one hand there are some overhanging rocks against which the deep blue waves of Amphitrite beat with terrific fury; the blessed gods call these rocks the Wanderers. Here not even a bird may pass, no, not even the timid doves that bring ambrosia to Father Jove, but the sheer rock always carries off one of them, and Father Jove has to send another to make up their number; no ship that ever yet came to these rocks has got away again, but the waves and whirlwinds of fire are freighted with wreckage and with the bodies of dead men. The only vessel that ever sailed and got through, was the famous Argo on her way from the house of Aetes, and she too would have gone against these great rocks, only that Juno piloted her past them for the love she bore to Jason.

“‘Of these two rocks the one reaches heaven and its peak is lost in a dark cloud. This never leaves it, so that the top is never clear not even in summer and early autumn. No man though he had twenty hands and twenty feet could get a foothold on it and climb it, for it runs sheer up, as smooth as though it had been polished. In the middle of it there is a large cavern, looking West and turned towards Erebus; you must take your ship this way, but the cave is so high up that not even the stoutest archer could send an arrow into it. Inside it Scylla sits and yelps with a voice that you might take to be that of a young hound, but in truth she is a dreadful monster and no one- not even a god- could face her without being terror-struck. She has twelve mis-shapen feet, and six necks of the most prodigious length; and at the end of each neck she has a frightful head with three rows of teeth in each, all set very close together, so that they would crunch anyone to death in a moment, and she sits deep within her shady cell thrusting out her heads and peering all round the rock, fishing for dolphins or dogfish or any larger monster that she can catch, of the thousands with which Amphitrite teems. No ship ever yet got past her without losing some men, for she shoots out all her heads at once, and carries off a man in each mouth.

“‘You will find the other rocks lie lower, but they are so close together that there is not more than a bowshot between them. [A large fig tree in full leaf grows upon it], and under it lies the sucking whirlpool of Charybdis. Three times in the day does she vomit forth her waters, and three times she sucks them down again; see that you be not there when she is sucking, for if you are, Neptune himself could not save you; you must hug the Scylla side and drive ship by as fast as you can, for you had better lose six men than your whole crew.’

“‘Is there no way,’ said I, ‘of escaping Charybdis, and at the same time keeping Scylla off when she is trying to harm my men?’

“‘You dare-devil,’ replied the goddess, you are always wanting to fight somebody or something; you will not let yourself be beaten even by the immortals. For Scylla is not mortal; moreover she is savage, extreme, rude, cruel and invincible. There is no help for it; your best chance will be to get by her as fast as ever you can, for if you dawdle about her rock while you are putting on your armour, she may catch you with a second cast of her six heads, and snap up another half dozen of your men; so drive your ship past her at full speed, and roar out lustily to Crataiis who is Scylla’s dam, bad luck to her; she will then stop her from making a second raid upon you.

Odysseus and His Men Sail Between Scylla and Charybdis

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Odysseus in front of Scylla and Charybdis. circa 1794-1796, oil on canvas, by Henry Fuseli.

“Immediately after we had got past the island I saw a great wave from which spray was rising, and I heard a loud roaring sound. The men were so frightened that they loosed hold of their oars, for the whole sea resounded with the rushing of the waters, but the ship stayed where it was, for the men had left off rowing. I went round, therefore, and exhorted them man by man not to lose heart.

“‘My friends,’ said I, ‘this is not the first time that we have been in danger, and we are in nothing like so bad a case as when the Cyclops shut us up in his cave; nevertheless, my courage and wise counsel saved us then, and we shall live to look back on all this as well. Now, therefore, let us all do as I say, trust in Jove and row on with might and main. As for you, coxswain, these are your orders; attend to them, for the ship is in your hands; turn her head away from these steaming rapids and hug the rock, or she will give you the slip and be over yonder before you know where you are, and you will be the death of us.’

“So they did as I told them; but I said nothing about the awful monster Scylla, for I knew the men would not go on rowing if I did, but would huddle together in the hold. In one thing only did I disobey Circe’s strict instructions- I put on my armour. Then seizing two strong spears I took my stand on the ship Is bows, for it was there that I expected first to see the monster of the rock, who was to do my men so much harm; but I could not make her out anywhere, though I strained my eyes with looking the gloomy rock all over and over

“Then we entered the Straits in great fear of mind, for on the one hand was Scylla, and on the other dread Charybdis kept sucking up the salt water. As she vomited it up, it was like the water in a cauldron when it is boiling over upon a great fire, and the spray reached the top of the rocks on either side. When she began to suck again, we could see the water all inside whirling round and round, and it made a deafening sound as it broke against the rocks. We could see the bottom of the whirlpool all black with sand and mud, and the men were at their wit’s ends for fear. While we were taken up with this, and were expecting each moment to be our last, Scylla pounced down suddenly upon us and snatched up my six best men. I was looking at once after both ship and men, and in a moment I saw their hands and feet ever so high above me, struggling in the air as Scylla was carrying them off, and I heard them call out my name in one last despairing cry. As a fisherman, seated, spear in hand, upon some jutting rock throws bait into the water to deceive the poor little fishes, and spears them with the ox’s horn with which his spear is shod, throwing them gasping on to the land as he catches them one by one- even so did Scylla land these panting creatures on her rock and munch them up at the mouth of her den, while they screamed and stretched out their hands to me in their mortal agony. This was the most sickening sight that I saw throughout all my voyages.

Expand: Analysis: Between a Rock and a Hard Place

Sailing the narrow strait between Scylla and Charybdis presents multiple challenges and choices for Odysseus. While these threats certainly represent the next obstacle in his long journey home, they are also a challenge to his personal strength and valor. Odysseus wonders if he, like the Argo, might sail the whirlpools of Charybdis successfully. He also considers the opportunity to prove his might by defeating the immortal Scylla. Odysseus’ ultimate decisions regarding Scylla and Charybdis demonstrate both his personal priorities and his process for dealing with the ethical dilemmas of leadership.

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Painting of Odysseus’s boat passing between the six-headed monster Scylia and the whirlpool Charybdis. Fresco, circa 1575, by Alessandro Allori.

When presenting the respective dangers of Charybdis and Scylla to Odysseus, Circe recommends that he avoid the deadly whirlpools of Charybdis and, instead, suffer Scylla’s horrible violence. In spite of this recommendation, Odysseus is tempted to pursue the impossible feat of sailing through Charybdis, something only one other ship has ever accomplished, and that only because “Juno piloted her past them for the love she bore to Jason.” His other choice, to sail past Scylla as quickly as possible to limit the loss of men in his crew, offers no personal glory but has a much higher probability of success. When the moment arrives, Odysseus opts to avoid Charybdis and sacrifice six of his men to Scylla. It is a sacrifice of potential reputation and of loyal crew members. The choice also demonstrates the ultimate priority the hero places on returning to Ithaca and his wife Penelope.

Scylla and Charybdis also present Odysseus with dilemmas in ethical leadership. Knowing that there are multiple obstacles to overcome on their journey home and that some of these might result in failure or death, he must decide how much information to share with his crew. He must also determine which path through the obstacles will present both the greatest likelihood of success and the fewest losses. The choices Odysseus makes are based on his personal priority of reaching home. He does not tell his men about Scylla, fearing that, if he tells his men “about the awful monster,” they “would not go on rowing …but would huddle together in the hold.” Likewise, he chooses to forego Charybdis and sail close to Scylla, because doing so represents the best opportunity to continue the journey successfully. Surviving Charybdis would be a heroic deed, but the risk of failure is too great. In the end, he chooses instead to sacrifice six of his men and continue on.

One can argue that Odysseus’ decisions are the most ethical ones possible given the situation. His choice to withhold information about Scylla spares his men the fear and anxiety of knowing a probable outcome. His decision to sail near Scylla, while it results in the death of six men, seems like the least destructive option. Attempting Charybdis would likely have meant death for the entire crew. But, we must also consider the motivation behind his decisions. He withholds information from his men not because he hopes to spare them anxiety, but because he wants to ensure that they continue rowing to ensure the success of the journey. Likewise, his decision to avoid Charybdis and brave Scylla seems motivated by personal priority rather than concern for the crew. It is a simple matter of choosing the path with the fewest losses and the highest probability for a successful journey.

Toolbox

Odyssey

An overview of the Odyssey, its composition, and story
Source: Wikipedia

Odysseus

An overview of Odysseus, the character’s life, and his role in the Iliad and the Odyssey
Source: Wikipedia

Homeric Composition

A useful introduction to the oral building blocks found in Homeric poetry
Source: University of Pennsylvania Classical Studies

Timelines of Homer’s Odyssey

A convenient listing of the events in Homer’s Odyssey, both in chronological order and in the sequence they appear in the poem
Source: University of Pennsylvania Classical Studies

Map of Odysseus’ Journey

Both interactive and static maps detailing Odysseus’ ten-year journey from Troy to Ithaca
Source: University of Pennsylvania Classical Studies

The Story of Odysseus

A general overview of Odysseus and his epic journey
Source: Greeka.com

English Translations of Homer

A listing of English translations of the Odyssey, with the names of translators and publication dates
Source: Wikipedia

Odyssey (tr. Samuel Butler)

The complete translation of the Odyssey into English by Alexander Pope
Source: Project Gutenberg

Odyssey (tr. Alexander Pope)

The complete translation of the Odyssey into English by Alexander Pope
Source: Project Gutenberg

The Oral Tradition

A brief discussion of the oral tradition behind the Odyssey
Source: Christine Thomas lecture notes, UC Santa Barbara

Glossary

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  • in medias res
    a story that begins somewhere in the middle rather than at the beginning. Often the narrative relies on flashbacks
  • meter
    the basic rhythmic structure of a verse or lines in poetry