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Odyssey

[od-uh-see]
The Odyssey (Greek: Ὀδύσσεια or Odússeia) is one of two major ancient Greek epic poems attributed to Homer. The poem was probably written near the end of the eighth century BC, somewhere along the Greek-controlled western Turkey seaside, Ionia. The poem is, in part, a sequel to Homer's Iliad and mainly centers on the Greek hero Odysseus (or Ulysses, as he was known in Roman myths) and his long journey home to Ithaca following the fall of Troy.

It takes Odysseus ten years to reach Ithaca after the ten-year Trojan War. During this absence, his son Telemachus and wife Penelope must deal with a group of unruly suitors, called Proci, to compete for Penelope's hand in marriage, since most have assumed that Odysseus has died.

The poem is fundamental to the modern Western canon and is indeed the second—the Iliad is the first—extant work of Western literature. It continues to be read in 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' son, is only a month old when Odysseus sets out for Troy. At the point where the Odyssey begins, ten years after the end of the ten-year Trojan War, Telemachus is twenty and is sharing his missing father’s house on the island of Ithaca with his mother Penelope and a crowd of 108 boisterous young men, "the Suitors," whose aim is to persuade Penelope to accept her husband’s disappearance as final and to marry one of them.

The goddess Athena (who is Odysseus’s protector) 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 Olympus. 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. Next morning Telemachus calls an assembly of citizens of Ithaca to discuss what should be done to the suitors. Along this journey Telemachus will mature and become a man. 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 Pylos. From there Telemachus rides overland, accompanied by Nestor's son, to Sparta, where he finds Menelaus and Helen, now reconciled. He is told that they returned to Greece after a long voyage by way of Egypt; there, on the magical island of Pharos, Menelaus encountered the old sea-god Proteus, who told him that Odysseus is a captive of the mysterious nymph Calypso. Incidentally Telemachus learns the fate of Menelaus’ brother Agamemnon, king of Mycenae and leader of the Greeks at Troy, murdered on his return home by his wife Clytemnestra and her lover Aegisthus.

Meanwhile, Odysseus, after wanderings about which we are still to learn, has spent seven years in captivity on the nymph Calypso's distant island. She is now persuaded by the messenger god Hermes, sent by Zeus to release him. Odysseus builds a raft and is given clothing, food and drink by Calypso. It is wrecked (the sea-god Poseidon is his enemy) but he swims ashore on the island of Scherie, where, naked and exhausted, he falls asleep. 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 several days with Alcinous, takes part in an athletic competition, 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 lazy Lotus-Eaters and were captured by the Cyclops Polyphemus, 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, had not the sailors foolishly opened the bag while Odysseus slept. All 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 own 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 met with Odysseus and gave him a drug called moly, a resistance to Circe’s magic. Circe, being attracted to Odysseus' resistance, fell in love with him. Circe 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 at 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, ignoring the warnings of Tiresias and Circe, hunted down the sacred cattle of the sun god Helios. This sacrilege was punished by a shipwreck in which all but Odysseus himself were drowned. He was washed ashore on the island of Calypso, where she compelled him to remain as her lover for seven years, and he had only now escaped.

Having listened with rapt attention to his story, the Phaeacians, who are skilled mariners, agree to help Odysseus on his way 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. Odysseus now plays the part of 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 Crete, 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 Thesprotia and crossed from there to Ithaca. Meanwhile Telemachus, whom we left at Sparta, sails home, 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 disguised as a beggar. He experiences the suitors’ rowdy behavior and plans their death. He meets Penelope: he 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 got during a boar hunt; he swears her to secrecy. Next day, at Athena’s prompting, Penelope maneuvers the suitors into competing for her hand with an archery competition using Odysseus' bow. Odysseus takes part in the competition himself; he alone is strong enough to string the bow and therefore wins. He turns his arrows on the suitors and with the help of Athena, Telemachus and Eumaeus, all the suitors are killed. Odysseus and Telemachus kill (by hanging) twelve of their household maids, who had slept 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 correctly describes to her the bed he built for her when they married.

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 queried by other Cyclopes about why he is screaming, Polyphemus replies that "Nobody" is hurting him, and with that, it sounds as if nobody or rather no mortal is hurting him and therefore the other Cyclopes assume that he is suffering at the hand of immortal Zeus. "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." From the Odyssey of Homer translated by Richmond Lattimore [Book 9, page 147/8, lines 410 - 412]. The most evident flaw that Odysseus sports is that of his arrogance and his pride, or hubris. As he sails away from the Cyclops's island, 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 tells his father, Poseidon, that Odysseus blinded him, which enrages Poseidon and causes 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 mock-epic, or mock-heroic, "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, 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. This renowned, extended "flashback" leads Odysseus back to where he stands, his tale told. The shipbuilding Phaeacians finally loan him a ship to return to Ithaca, 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 is 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.

The geography of the Odyssey

Events in the main sequence of the Odyssey (excluding the narrative of Odysseus) take place in the Peloponnese and in what are now called the Ionian Islands. There are difficulties in the identification of Ithaca, 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 Ithaca) are real.

Dating the Odyssey

In 2008, scientists Marcelo Magnasco and Constantino Baikouzis at Rockefeller University 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."

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.

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's and Gilgamesh's journeys to the edges of the earth are the result of the influence of the Gilgamesh epic upon the Odyssey.

Derivative works

Written works

  • True Story by Lucian of Samosata in the 2nd century AD. A parody of the Odyssey describing a journey beyond the Pillars of Hercules and to the moon.
  • A modern novel inspired by the Odyssey is James Joyce's Ulysses (1922). Every episode of Joyce's novel has an assigned theme, technique and correspondences between its characters and those of Homer's Odyssey.
  • Merugud Uilix maicc Leirtis is an eccentric Old Irish version of the material; the work exists in a twelfth-century manuscript that linguists believe is based on an eighth-century original
  • Some of the tales of Sinbad the Sailor from The Book of One Thousand and One Nights (Arabian Nights) were taken from Homer's Odyssey.
  • Nikos Kazantzakis wrote The Odyssey: A Modern Sequel, a 33,333 line epic poem which continues Odysseus's journeys past the point of his arrival in Ithaca.
  • Andrew Lang and H. Rider Haggard collaborated on The World's Desire in which Odysseus and Helen meet in Egypt at the time of the Exodus.
  • The 1997 novel Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier, about a confederate war deserter returning home, is based on The Odyssey.
  • The Penelopiad, by Margaret Atwood, retells the story from the point of view of Penelope.
  • "Menelaiad," by John Barth, is a retelling of Telemachus's visit to Menelaus, reprinted in Barth's Lost in the Funhouse.
  • The short story The Ulyssey by Uruguayan writer Rodrigo Tisnés, tells in a humorous way, the frustrated attempt of two friends both named Ulysses in Eastern Holidays, to travel from Montevideo in Uruguay to Florianopolis in Brazil.
  • The third part of Thomas Wolfe's novel Of Time and the River is entitled Telemachus.
  • R.A. Lafferty retold the story in a science fiction setting in his novel Space Chantey. Another science fiction retelling of the Odyssey is R L Fanthorpe's novel Negative Minus, in which all the names are spelled backwards (for example "Suessydo", "Ecric" and "Acahti").
  • The first half of Virgil's Aeneid parallels the Odyssey in structure.
  • Alfred Lord Tennyson alludes to the epic in two of his poems, Ulysses and The Lotus-Eaters.
  • In Dante's Divine Comedy ("The Divine Comedy - Inferno - Canto XXVI"), Odysseus is punished as a fraudulent advisor in Hell, talking about the Hubris of his last voyage (over the edge). (Yet this story is not taken from Homer's Odyssey.)
  • Ilium and Olympos, by author Dan Simmons, are a science fiction adaptation of the events of the Iliad and Odyssey, complete with robots and posthumans.
  • Dr. Jonathan Shay's book "Odysseus in America: Combat Trauma and the Trials of Homecoming" (2002), uses Odysseus as metaphor, focusing on the veteran’s experience upon returning from war and highlighting the role of military policy in promoting the mental and physical safety of soldiers.

Stage and film

  • The contemporary play style="font-style : italic;">Highway Ulysses by Rinde Eckert tells the story of the journey of a Vietnam veteran traveling to his son, meeting modern day characters akin to characters or monsters in the Odyssey (including the Sirens and Cyclops).
  • "Telemachus Clay" by Lewis John Martin is a contemporary play about the movies that an old man watches that rekindles his childhood, and his son, Telemachus, watches the father he never knew grow up in the big city as he meets many strange characters along the way.
  • The 1954 Broadway musical The Golden Apple by librettist John Treville Latouche and composer Jerome Moross was freely adapted from the Iliad and the Odyssey, re-setting the action to the American state of Washington in the years after the Spanish-American War, with events inspired by the Iliad in Act Four and events inspired by the Odyssey in Act Three.
  • 2001: A Space Odyssey, a 1968 science fiction film directed by Stanley Kubrick. Besides the title, there are also other influences of the Homeric Odyssey on the film.
  • in 1969 RAI produced a series strongly based on the original Homer's epic.
  • "The Odyssey", a made for TV movie from 1997 made by Hallmark Entertainment and directed by Andrei Konchalovsky is a slightly abbreviated version of the tale which encompasses Homer's epic. It stars Armand Assante, Greta Scacchi, Isabella Rossellini and Vanessa L. Williams.
  • The movie O Brother, Where Art Thou? has the basic plot of The Odyssey; Joel and Ethan Coen admit to basing the movie loosely on the Odyssey (and explicitly reference it in the opening credits) but insist that they haven't read it.
  • Odyssey: A Stage Version, 1993 play, divided into two acts (respectively broken up into 14 and 6 scenes) written by Derek Walcott and originally performed by the Royal Shakespeare Company.
  • The film Paris-Texas (1984) by Wim Wenders has broad allusions to the Odyssey. Wim Wenders explained on Australian SBS television that he wanted to make a film about a man coming out of hell to reunite his family and reread the epic prior to commencing the film.
  • The anime Ulysses 31 featured a science-fiction tale of a hero trying to get back to his wife Penelope.
  • The Desmond Hume storyline on Lost may be based partly on The Odyssey; Desmond goes on a "race around the world" in order to win back his honor and marry his girlfriend Penelope. In addition, Desmond discovers an underground Hatch in which he must type a computer code every 108 minutes, echoing Penelope's 108 suitors.
  • The main character of Hayao Miyazaki's movie Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind is named after the princess in the Odyssey.
  • The film To Vlemma tou Odyssea (Ulysses' Gaze) (1995) by Theo Angelopoulos strongly relies on thematic parallels with the epic.
  • On the television series Stargate SG-1, the BC-304 Odyssey is the flagship of Earth's interstellar war fleet.
  • The Spongebob Squarepants Movie has several points based on the Odyssey, including a bag of winds, and a diver akin to a cyclops.
  • In the documentary Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse, it is stated that the film Apocalypse Now takes some inspiration from the Odyssey.
  • Naomi Iizuka's play Anon(ymous) resets the Odyssey in modern America.
  • The Simpsons episode Tales from the Public Domain features Homer Simpson as Odysseus, Marge as Penelope and Bart as Telemachus.

Music

  • Progressive metal band Symphony X pays tribute to the poem with an epic "Beast" song The Odyssey clocking in at 24:14 minutes.
  • Cream's Tales of Brave Ulysses recounts Odysseus's encounter with the Sirens.
  • Tank Girl: Odyssey borrows freely and irreverently from Homer and from James Joyce's Ulysses, casting targets in the contemporary media as the trials the heroine must overcome to get back to her mutant kangaroo boyfriend.
  • "An Odyssey of Homecoming", was a 2007 piano adaptation by composer and author Maia McCormick.
  • The Steely Dan song Home at Last is inspired by Odysseus' encounter with the Sirens.
  • Suzanne Vega's song "Calypso".
  • "More News From Nowhere" on Nick Cave's 2008 album "Dig!!! Lazarus, Dig!!!" is based on the Odyssey and appears to draw parallels between Cave's life and Odysseus' long journey back to Ithaca.
  • "Mons Venus", "Sins, They Run Like Wine" and "The Snakepit" on Betty X's 2006 album "Memoirs of a Pain Junkie" are loosely based on the Odyssey and inspired the creation of a Medusa and Kali hybrid demon Mons Venus, who is a recurring lyrical character throughout songs in Betty X's lyrics. Betty X is also mentioned in the Nick Cave song "More News From Nowhere."

Other

  • The Peabody Award-winning The Odyssey of Homer (1981), written, produced and directed by Yuri Rasovsky, dramatized the epic for radio in eight one-hour episodes. Syndicated in the U.S. and broadcast by the CBC, the program was later published as an audiobook.
  • In Jean-Luc Godard's film Le Mépris (Contempt) (1963) German film director Fritz Lang plays himself trying to direct a film adaptation of Homer's Odyssey.
  • Odds Bodkin has published a retelling of the Odyssey, featuring vocal storytelling and musical accompaniment, entitled "The Odyssey". This work includes most of the plot of Homer's "Odyssey," and is narrated from Odysseus's point of view.
  • Odysseus: The Greatest Hero Of Them All was a spin-off of children's programme Jackanory in which Tony Robinson tells a version of the Odyssey re-written for children by himself and Richard Curtis. The narration and characters were all performed by Robinson in real locations. Their version of the story was also published as 2 print books and an audio book.
  • Il ritorno d'Ulisse in Patria is an opera by Monteverdi based on the final part of Homer's Odyssey.

References

External links

Partial list of 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.

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