- The Odyssey by Homer


"Tell me, Muse, of the man of many ways, 
who was driven far journeys, 
after he had sacked Troy’s secret citadel. 
Many were they whose cities he saw, whose minds he learned of, many the pains he suffered on his spirit on the wide sea, struggling for his own life 
and the homecoming of his companions. Even so he could not save his companions, hard though he strove to; they were destroyed by their own wild recklessness, fools,
who devoured the oxen of Helios, the Sun God, and he took away the day of their homecoming. From some point here, goddess, daughter of Zeus,
speak, and begin our story."
 (Odyssey : opening lines)     

The Dark Ages of Greece began in 1100 and lasted to 900 B.C. The population was dispersed, fleeing from its palatial Mycenaean civilization to colonize small coastal towns. The growth of these micro-states eventually laid the foundation for rivalry, individualism, and the sense of independence that distinguished the Greek outlook compared to its neighbours in Asia.

Three literary works of the time tell us about two different aspects of this culture: 
- Hesiod's Theogony, a transcendental view of humanity as dependent on the gods. 
- Homer's epic The Illiad, a synthetic vision of the relationships between the divine and the human incarnated in Achilles with a clear tendency towards a vertical interpretation where the immortal gods manipulate humanity.
- His contrasting horizontal vision is seen in the self-made man epic, The Odyssey.

The Odyssey begins with the word "ἄνδρα" (man) in the original text. It is a story about the human condition. Homer narrates Ulysses' journey home from Troy, avoiding all obstacles along the way by his own wits. He is the independent man, not mentored by the gods, the paradigmatic hero as an example for the Greek renaissance to follow.

The Plot

Troy fell ten years ago and Ulysses, the Greek hero, is still returning to his home in Ithaca. His wife, Penelope, is patiently waiting for him in the kingdom but she is surrounded by a mob of suitors who have taken over his palace and lands. Their son, Telemachus, would like to throw the suitors out but lacks the experience and self-confidence to do so. Besides there is a conspiracy afoot to assassinate the prince and take over the kingdom.

Meanwhile Ulysses has been captured and imprisoned by the nymph Calypso who has fallen in love with him. The Olympian gods debate the plight of Ulysses and Athena decides to help Telemachus. She adopts the disguise of Laertes, the prince's grandfather, and suggests that he call an assembly to reproach the suitors. She also puts him in touch with his father's war comrades the kings Nestor and Menelaus in Pylos and Sparta. There Telemachus learns that of his father's plight on Calypso's island prison. Then Telemachus sets sail for home where Antinous and others are planning to kill him on arrival.

Zeus decides to send Hermes to rescue Ulysses and he persuades Calypso to allow him to build a ship and set sail. Poseidon, the sea god, has other ideas. To take revenge on Ulysses for blinding his son the Cyclops earlier in his travels the god stirs up a storm to sink Ulysses' vessel. Athena save his ship and he makes land at Scheria where he receives a warm welcome from the royal family who practise traditional Greek hospitality to strangers. When they hear that he is the famous hero of Troy they promise him help but entreat him to recount his adventures.

Ulysses passes the night relating the events which led to his imprisonment by Calypso. He tells of being blown off course and ending up on the Land of the Lotus Eaters. If you eat the lotus plant you lose your memory and your ambition. Ulysses must fight to pull his men away and continue the voyage. In an act of curiosity they decide to explore the land of the Cyclops, cannibalistic one-eyed giants. As they scout the territory they are trapped by the Cyclops Polyphemus but Ulysses blinds his captor and they escape. The friendly wind god, Aeolus, captures adverse winds in a bag and they are thus able to sail close to Ithaca. However, the crew think that the bag contains treasure and open it so that the winds blow them back to Aeolus. The god suspects that they have a divine curse and helps them no more. The next peoples, the Laestrygonians who are also cannibals, sink the fleet, except for Odysseus' ship which sails to Aeaea the home of Circe, an enchantress who turns some of them into pigs. The god Hermes aids Ulysses to defeat her and they begin an affair. She reverts the spell on his men and helps the group to depart telling them that they should make for Hades, the Land of the Dead.  It is there that Ulysses' mother visits him and he receives a prophecy from Tiresias, a seer. After surviving the temptations of the Sirens' songs and a fight with Scylla, the six-headed monster, the sailors arrive at Helios, the island of the Sun god. They were warned not to eat the cattle on the island but do so while Ulysses is absent. 
This enrages Zeus and he destroys the ship as it is sailing away. All the crew are killed, except Ulysses who floats to the island of Calypso where he remains for seven years.

On finishing his tales the kings return Ulysses to Ithaca. There Athena dresses him as a beggar and he goes to the cabin of Eumaeus, his faithful swineherd, where he is well received and fed. When he meets Telemachus Ulysses reveals his true identity and they plot together to retake Ithaca from the suitors by massacring them.

The next day Ulysses arrives at his palace still dressed as a beggar where the suitors insult and abuse him thus contravening the Greek tradition of hospitality to strangers. He is recognised by his boyhood nurse, Eurycleia, but she is sworn to keep the secret of his true identity. Penelope suspects that the beggar may in fact be her husband and organises an archery contest promising to marry any man who can fire Ulysses' great bow and arrow through a set of twelve axes. Ulysses takes up the challenge and first performs the feat then turns on the suitors whom he and his companions slay without mercy.
Ulysses reveals his identity and is reunited with Penelope and he pays a visit to Laertes, his father. The families of the suitors then attack them vengefully but Laertes kills Antinous' father and stops the fight. Zeus sends Athena to restore peace.


1. Hospitality

Receiving guests well plays an important role as moral conduct in The Odyssey. It is the mark of civilised people to offer hospitality to travellers in order to show their moral quality and also in the hope that they and their kin will be treated the same when wayfaring.
Ithaca had a long-standing tradition of being hospitable but the mob of suitors appear to be taking advantage of the kind welcome offered them by Penelope, indeed plotting to murder her son Telemachus. However the hosts are unable to evict the invaders who are eating them out of house and home. Hospitality is offered to Ulysses on his travels by Circe and the Phaeacians and even by the Lotus eaters. On the other hand neither the Sirens not the Cyclops pretend to offer hospitality but rather doom and the boiling pot. Polyphemus, the cannibal, goes as far as to scoff at the very idea. Here Homer is drawing a clear line between civilisation and the barbaric.
One contradiction in this moral code in the epic is Zeus who is an advocate of hospitality yet he permits Poseidon to wreak havoc on the Phaeacians for their generosity towards Ulysses.

2. Justice

There is an evolution in the Greek concept of Justice which is traced down the centuries from The Iliad to The Odyssey to The OresteiaThe Iliad retains the concept of Natural Law, the traditional class differences between characters where the gods are supreme, then comes the king and finally the rest. The emphasis of The Odyssey on human wit and self-confidence affirms that the gods mete out suffering justly but some characters suffer because of their actions : Polyphemus is blinded after he kills several of Ulysses’ men and in turn his fleet is hit by a storm stirred up by Poseidon as vengeance for the blinding of his son the Cyclops. The same god vents his anger of the Phaeacians who sail Ulysses home. Ulysses' men die when they ignore the commands not to kill the cattle of the Sun god. The suitors are massacred for insulting Ulysses and abusing his kingdom. This is the Natural Law of vengeance : an eye for an eye.
However after Ulysses wreaks vengeance on Penelope's suitors their survivors gather to debate whether they should kill Ulysses in return. On his homecoming Ulysses, as king, takes on the roles of judge, jury and executioner. Slightly more than half the family members decide not to pursue this vengeance, but the rest arm to face Ulysses whom they accuse of mass homicide. Just as the sides are about to clash, Zeus sends the goddess Athena to stop them. She declares they should forget the slaughter, recognize Ulysses as king, and “let wealth and peace be enough.” No one in this scene questions the ancient custom of vengeance; people expect that the murder of a loved one must be paid back with murder. However, the poem’s ending implies the only way to stop cyclical violence is for those on one side to simply forget how they’ve been wronged in exchange for the promise of peace and prosperity. In the Iliad Athena is in favour of war, not negotiation. However The Odyssey portrays a different Athena who is more diplomatic and leads those in search of vengeance to cut a deal which will benefit everybody.
It is interesting to note that in the later Oresteia by Aeschylus (5th cent. BC) vengeance is treated to another legal turn. When Orestes committed matricide by killing Clytaemnestra Athena sets up a jury of twelve citizens to judge him. The Furies invoke their rights as defenders of blood, and it is up to Orestes and Apollo to convince the jury that the son was just in his actions.  Athena, however, initiates the idea that the law is concerned not only with the forms of justice, as the Furies are passionate about, but with justice itself.  The jurors must ask themselves whether Orestes was justified in committing matricide.  Circumstances, motives, and consequences must be taken into account at trial.  Do they consider marriage as sacred as the law of kin? Is there a sacred bond between mother and son?  Or only between father and son?  Perhaps she is suggesting that mortals must decide when the gods disagree.  This is an important development because it shows the journey from the retributive justice in Agamemnon to the deliberative justice of Athena’s tribunal. With the establishment of Athena’s judicial system, there is now a method to prosecute people like Clytaemnestra, such that the ancient blood-lust of vengeance doesn’t take rule over issues of right and wrong.

3. Identity

The second half of The Odyssey is structured round scenes in which Ulysses reveals his identity.  However the theme is more generalised and works on three levels :

Ulysses' voyage is a return to his native land (nostos), his personal identity. He has been fighting as a warrior in the Trojan war and spent ten years roaming the Aegean but his geographic, ancestral and family identity lie in Ithaca where Laertes, Penelope and Telemachus are waiting for him in his kingdom. Penelope weaves her own crafty narrative by pretending to be available for marriage but only once the shroud on her loom is finished. Of course she secretly unravels her work at night thus deceiving the suitors and weaving a cyclical story. Ulysses has a more lineal adventure and he must return home in order to recognise himself. Acting as a beggar in his own kingdom on arrival only underlines how far he has wandered from his true identity.

Ulysses also represents a new humanity (andros) shaped by individual astuteness and not beholden to the gods. His voyage from Troy has shown him alienation, what his identity is not > immortality, which he refuses from Calypso, the Underworld or other nationalities. The hero has to confront what it means not to have a home or a past or a fixed identity. He presents himself as "Noman" to the Cyclops in order to outwit him since the monster suspects, not without foundation, that the sailors are pirates. However revealing his true identity when sailing away in order to taunt the Cyclops backfires since the cannibal's father Poseidon, learns who he should attack. His long sojourn on Calypso's island under the cloak of anonymity is like death since he can't be with his family and so his personal identity and place within the Cosmos are suspended. His men forget their origins while with Circe and so she turns them into swine. This episode underlines the Homeric recognition of Ulysses' true identity : a civilised human.

- The whole tale is a staging of the renewal of the identity of Greek culture after the previous Dark Ages.
Ulysses tells stories and the story is about him since those who are not narrators or are not talked about do not exist. Homer relates his epic in order to control the narrative : the new reality of Greek identity as self-made man independent of the gods. The Hebrew tradition found the need to maintain their identity in Babylonia, the powerful empire which held them captive. So they redacted the Bible in the 6th century BC. In the same way the Homeric author is deeply aware that his stories shape the individual and collective realities of emerging 8th. century Greece.

The epic is a reflection on the importance of story-telling itself as myths are stories about a vision of reality and make sense of the world and our place in it. The short eight line narrative on the Sirens is not only a story about Odysseus's craving to hear their songs but also the dangers of poetry itself. It reflects back to the readers/listeners of the Odyssey and questions them as to how far they have lost themselves in the story instead of remaining critically alert.

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