We cannot deal with The Odyssey without making reference to the work that
comes before historically, The Iliad, which is mainly concerned with the siege of Troy.
Odysseus (Ulysses – Roman) was one of the main characters in The Iliad and
the central character of The Odyssey.
Odysseus was the King of Ithaca and took part in the Trojan War, which was
caused by the abduction of Helen, Menelaus’ wife by Paris.
She was taken to the fortified city of Troy. Menelaus was the brother of Agamemnon who was the King of Sparta. It was Agamemnon who organized the Greek expedition to Troy to regain Helen.
Odysseus was part of this expedition and he was one of Agamemnon’s chief
advisors. It was his plan to use a wooden horse to gain access to the city.
The whole campaign against the Trojans took ten years and in the end it was
cunning that brought victory to the Greeks.
The wooden horse is famous for the old saying, “Never trust a Greek bearing
gifts” and “Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth”.
The slaughter and looting of Troy offended the gods, in particular the
goddess Athena who was enraged at the rape of Cassandra within her own temple.
When the Greek fleet returned home, they were scattered by a great storm and
many ships were lost.
Odysseus was to be the last Greek to return home, and his ten-year voyage is
the subject matter of The Odyssey.
Odysseus first sailed to Thrace where he lost many of his men in a battle. His next port of call was the Land of the Lotus Eaters where those that consumed this narcotic loose all memory of family and home.
He then landed on Sicily where lived the Cyclops, a giant race and Odysseus
and his men were captured by Polyphemus, Poseidon’s son.
Polyphemus liked the taste of human flesh and it was only after Odysseus had lost several of his companions that he managed to escape this Cyclops by putting out his single eye. This act greatly enraged the sea god Poseidon.
They next landed on the island of Aeolus, who was the ruler of the
winds. Odysseus was given a rare gift – a sack full of the winds that would not drive him off course. With this gift, he was able to set sail for home, and within sight of Ithaca, his men thinking the
bag contained gold, opened it and they were then at the mercy of the winds and were driven far from home.
Their next encounter was with the Laestrygones, a race of giant cannibals.
Odysseus’ squadron of ships was attacked, and only his ship survived.
Odysseus’ ship came under the spell of Circe who turned half of Odysseus’
men into swine. With the aid of Hermes, the messenger of the gods, Odysseus was able to resist Circe’s spells, and the enchantress then restored his men to their original form.
Circe advised Odysseus that he would never be able to return home unless he went to see the blind seer Tiresias who dwelt in the realm of Hades.
Odysseus traveled to the edge of the world and met with many ghosts of the
past including Agamemnon, and his mother. The blind seer was able to tell him what was happening back in Ithaca and Agamemnon also warned him to be careful when he returned home.
Agamemnon had been murdered by his wife and her lover in the bathroom.
Odysseus traveled back towards Greece and he still had many challenges to face.
Firstly there were the Sirens, whose song would drive a man mad.
There was also Scylla, a six-headed monster that resided in a cave near the
great whirlpool Charybdis.
His ship was wrecked and he was washed up on a wondrous island, which was
home to the sea nymph Calypso. There he remained for seven years and Calypso wished to marry him, but she was forced by the gods to set Odysseus free.
Odysseus was shipwrecked again, in the land of the Phaeacians where he was
welcomed as an honored guest. They provided him with a magnificent ship and guided him back to Ithaca.
All this time, his wife Penelope had been waiting patiently for the return
of her husband, twenty years in total. During this time, suitors had besieged her and she had managed to repel their advances, but time was now running short.
These suitors had also squandered Odysseus’ possessions. Finally Penelope agreed to marry the suitor who could bend and string Odysseus’ great bow and shoot an arrow through ten axes. All who tried, failed. Then a beggar requested a turn. He succeeded and then he threw off his disguise to reveal himself as Odysseus.
Odysseus assisted by his son Telemachus and some royal retainers slaughtered
the suitors and hanged the treacherous maidservants.
Odysseus was happily reunited with Penelope and Zeus sent a thunderbolt
signaling the end of Odysseus’ trials.