The Odyssey, The
Author: Homer



The Odyssey is generally supposed to be somewhat the later
in date of the two most ancient Greek poems which are
concerned with the events and consequences of the Trojan
war. As to the actual history of that war, it may be said
that nothing is known. We may conjecture that some contest
between peoples of more or less kindred stocks, who
occupied the isles and the eastern and western shores of
the Aegean, left a strong impression on the popular fancy.
Round the memories of this contest would gather many older
legends, myths, and stories, not peculiarly Greek or even
'Aryan,' which previously floated unattached, or were
connected with heroes whose fame was swallowed up by that
of a newer generation. It would be the work of minstrels,
priests, and poets, as the national spirit grew conscious
of itself, to shape all these materials into a definite
body of tradition. This is the rule of development--first
scattered stories, then the union of these into a NATIONAL
legend. The growth of later national legends, which we are
able to trace, historically, has generally come about in
this fashion. To take the best known example, we are able
to compare the real history of Charlemagne with the old
epic poems on his life and exploits. In these poems we find
that facts are strangely exaggerated, and distorted; that
purely fanciful additions are made to the true records,
that the more striking events of earlier history are
crowded into the legend of Charles, that mere fairy tales,
current among African as well as European peoples, are
transmuted into false history, and that the anonymous
characters of fairy tales are converted into historical
personages. We can also watch the process by which feigned
genealogies were constructed, which connected the princely
houses of France with the imaginary heroes of the epics.
The conclusion is that the poetical history of Charlemagne
has only the faintest relations to the true history. And we
are justified in supposing that, quite as little of the
real history of events can be extracted from the tale of
Troy, as from the Chansons de Geste.

By the time the Odyssey was composed, it is certain that a
poet had before him a well-arranged mass of legends and
traditions from which he might select his materials. The
author of the Iliad has an extremely full and curiously
consistent knowledge of the local traditions of Greece, the
memories which were cherished by Thebans, Pylians, people
of Mycenae, of Argos, and so on. The Iliad and the Odyssey
assume this knowledge in the hearers of the poems, and take
for granted some acquaintance with other legends, as with
the story of the Argonautic Expedition. Now that story
itself is a tissue of popular tales,--still current in many
distant lands,--but all woven by the Greek genius into the
history of Iason.

The history of the return of Odysseus as told in the
Odyssey, is in the same way, a tissue of old marchen.
These must have existed for an unknown length of time
before they gravitated into the cycle of the tale of Troy.

The extraordinary artistic skill with which legends and
myths, originally unconnected with each other, are woven
into the plot of the Odyssey, so that the marvels of savage
and barbaric fancy become indispensable parts of an
artistic whole, is one of the chief proofs of the unity of
authorship of that poem. We now go on to sketch the plot,
which is a marvel of construction.

Odysseus was the King of Ithaca, a small and rugged island
on the western coast of Greece. When he was but lately
married to Penelope, and while his only son Telemachus was
still an infant, the Trojan war began. It is scarcely
necessary to say that the object of this war, as conceived
of by the poets, was to win back Helen, the wife of
Menelaus, from Paris, the son of Priam, King of Troy. As
Menelaus was the brother of Agamemnon, the Emperor, so to
speak, or recognised chief of the petty kingdoms of
'Greece, the whole force of these kingdoms was at his
disposal. No prince came to the leaguer of Troy from a home
more remote than that of Odysseus. When Troy was taken, in
the tenth year of the war, his homeward voyage was the
longest and most perilous.

The action of the Odyssey occupies but the last six weeks
of the ten years during which Odysseus was wandering. Two
nights in these six weeks are taken up, however, by his own
narrative of his adventures (to the Phaeacians, p. xx) in
the previous ten years. With this explanatory narrative we
must begin, before coming to the regular action of the

After the fall of Troy, Odysseus touched at Ismarus, the
city of a Thracian people, whom he attacked and plundered,
but by whom he was at last repulsed. The north wind then
carried his ships to Malea, the extreme southern point of
Greece. Had he doubled Malea safely, he would probably have
reached Ithaca in a few days, would have found Penelope
unvexed by wooers, and Telemachus a boy of ten years old.
But this was not to be.

The 'ruinous winds' drove Odysseus and his ships for ten
days, and on the tenth they touched the land of the Lotus-
Eaters, whose flowery food causes sweet forgetfulness.
Lotus-land was possibly in Western Libya, but it is more
probable that ten days' voyage from the southern point of
Greece, brought Odysseus into an unexplored region of
fairy-land. Egypt, of which Homer had some knowledge, was
but five days' sail from Crete.

Lotus-land, therefore, being ten days' sail from Malea, was
well over the limit of the discovered world. From this
country Odysseus went on till he reached the land of the
lawless Cyclopes, a pastoral people of giants. Later Greece
feigned that the Cyclopes dwelt near Mount Etna, in Sicily.
Homer leaves their place of abode in the vague. Among the
Cyclopes, Odysseus had the adventure on which his whole
fortunes hinged. He destroyed the eye of the cannibal
giant, Polyphemus, a son of Poseidon, the God of the Sea.
To avenge this act, Poseidon drove Odysseus wandering for
ten long years, and only suffered him to land in Ithaca,
'alone, in evil case, to find troubles in his house.' This
is a very remarkable point in the plot. The story of the
crafty adventurer and the blinding of the giant, with the
punning device by which the hero escaped, exists in the
shape of a detached marchen or fairy-tale among races who
never heard of Homer. And when we find the story among
Oghuzians, Esthonians, Basques, and Celts, it seems natural
to suppose that these people did not break a fragment out
of the Odyssey, but that the author of the Odyssey took
possession of a legend out of the great traditional store
of fiction. From the wide distribution of the tale, there
is reason to suppose that it is older than Homer, and that
it was not originally told of Odysseus, but was attached to
his legend, as floating jests of unknown authorship are
attributed to eminent wits. It has been remarked with truth
that in this episode Odysseus acts out of character, that
he is foolhardy as well as cunning. Yet the author of the
Odyssey, so far from merely dove-tailing this story at
random into his narrative, has made his whole plot turn on
the injury to the Cyclops. Had he not foolishly exposed
himself and his companions, by his visit to the Cyclops,
Odysseus would never have been driven wandering for ten
weary years. The prayers of the blinded Cyclops were heard
and fulfilled by Poseidon.

From the land of the Cyclops, Odysseus and his company
sailed to the Isle of Aeolus, the king of the winds. This
place too is undefined; we only learn that, even with the
most favourable gale, it was ten days' sail from Ithaca. In
the Isle of Aeolus Odysseus abode for a month, and then
received from the king a bag in which all the winds were
bound, except that which was to waft the hero to his home.
This sort of bag was probably not unfamiliar to
superstitious Greek sailors who had dealings with witches,
like the modern wise women of the Lapps. The companions of
the hero opened the bag when Ithaca was in sight, the winds
rushed out, the ships were borne back to the Aeolian Isle,
and thence the hero was roughly dismissed by Aeolus. Seven
days' sail brought him to Lamos, a city of the cannibal
Laestrygonians. Their country, too, is in No-man's-land,
and nothing can be inferred from the fact that their
fountain was called Artacia, and that there was an Artacia
in Cyzicus. In Lamos a very important adventure befel
Odysseus. The cannibals destroyed all his fleet, save one
ship, with which he made his escape to the Isle of Circe.
Here the enchantress turned part of the crew into swine,
but Odysseus, by aid of the god Hermes, redeemed them, and
became the lover of Circe. This adventure, like the story
of the Cyclops, is a fairy tale of great antiquity. Dr.
Gerland, in his Alt Griechische Marchen in der Odyssee, his
shown that the story makes part of the collection of
Somadeva, a store of Indian tales, of which 1200 A.D. is
the approximate date. Circe appears as a Yackshini, and is
conquered when an adventurer seizes her flute whose magic
music turns men into beasts. The Indian Circe had the habit
of eating the animals into which she transformed men.

We must suppose that the affairs with the Cicones, the
Lotus-eaters, the Cyclops, Aeolus, and the Laestrygonians,
occupied most of the first year after the fall of Troy. A
year was then spent in the Isle of Circe, after which the
sailors were eager to make for home. Circe commanded them
to go down to Hades, to learn the homeward way from the
ghost of the Theban prophet Teiresias. The descent into
hell, for some similar purpose, is common in the epics of
other races, such as the Finns, and the South-Sea
Islanders. The narrative of Odysseus's visit to the dead
(book xi) is one of the most moving passages in the whole

From Teiresias Odysseus learned that, if he would bring his
companions home, he must avoid injuring the sacred cattle
of the Sun, which pastured in the Isle of Thrinacia. If
these were harmed, he would arrive in Ithaca alone, or in
the words of the Cyclops's prayer, I in evil plight, with
loss of all his company, on board the ship of strangers, to
find sorrow in his house.' On returning to the Isle Aeaean,
Odysseus was warned by Circe of the dangers he would
encounter. He and his friends set forth, escaped the Sirens
(a sort of mermaidens), evaded the Clashing Rocks, which
close on ships (a fable known to the Aztecs), passed Scylla
(the pieuvre of antiquity) with loss of some of the
company, and reached Thrinacia, the Isle of the Sun. Here
the company of Odysseus, constrained by hunger, devoured
the sacred kine of the Sun, for which offence they were
punished by a shipwreck, when all were lost save Odysseus.
He floated ten days on a raft, and then reached the isle of
the goddess Calypso, who kept him as her lover for eight

The first two years after the fall of Troy are now
accounted for. They were occupied, as we have seen, by
adventures with the Cicones, the Lotus-eaters, the Cyclops,
Aeolus, the Laestrygonians, by a year's residence with
Circe, by the descent into Hades, the encounters with the
Sirens, and Scylla, and the fatal sojourn in the isle of
Thrinacia. We leave Odysseus alone, for eight years,
consuming his own heart, in the island paradise of Calypso.

In Ithaca, the hero's home, things seem to have passed
smoothly till about the sixth year after the fall of Troy.
Then the men of the younger generation, the island chiefs,
began to woo Penelope, and to vex her son Telemachus.
Laertes, the father of Odysseus, was too old to help, and
Penelope only gained time by her famous device of weaving
and unweaving the web. The wooers began to put compulsion
on the Queen, quartering themselves upon her, devouring her
substance, and insulting her by their relations with her
handmaids. Thus Penelope pined at home, amidst her wasting
possessions. Telemachus fretted in vain, and Odysseus was
devoured by grief and home-sickness in the isle of Calypso.
When he had lain there for nigh eight years, the action of
the Odyssey begins, and occupies about six weeks.

DAY 1 (Book i).

The ordained time has now arrived, when by the counsels of
the Gods, Odysseus is to be brought home to free his house,
to avenge himself on the wooers, and recover his kingdom.
The chief agent in his restoration is Pallas Athene; the
first book opens with her prayer to Zeus that Odysseus may
be delivered. For this purpose Hermes is to be sent to
Calypso to bid her release Odysseus, while Pallas Athene in
the shape of Mentor, a friend of Odysseus, visits
Telemachus in Ithaca. She bids him call an assembly of the
people, dismiss the wooers to their homes, and his mother
to her father's house, and go in quest of his own father,
in Pylos, the city of Nestor, and Sparta, the home of
Menelaus. Telemachus recognises the Goddess, and the first
day closes.

DAY 2 (Book ii).

Telemachus assembles the people, but he has not the heart
to carry out Athene's advice. He cannot send the wooers
away, nor turn his mother out of her house. He rather
weakly appeals to the wooers' consciences, and announces
his intention of going to seek his father. They answer with
scorn, but are warned of their fate, which is even at the
doors, by Halitherses. His prophecy (first made when
Odysseus set out for Troy) tallies with the prophecy of
Teiresias, and the prayer of the Cyclops. The reader will
observe a series of portents, prophecies, and omens, which
grow more numerous and admonishing as their doom draws
nearer to the wooers. Their hearts, however, are hardened,
and they mock at Telemachus, who, after an interview with
Athene, borrows a ship and secretly sets out for Pylos.
Athene accompanies him, and his friends man his galley.

DAY 3 (Book iii).

They reach Pylos, and are kindly received by the aged
Nestor, who has no news about Odysseus. After sacrifice,
Athene disappears.

DAY 4 (Book iii).

The fourth day is occupied with sacrifice, and the talk of
Nestor. In the evening Telemachus (leaving his ship and
friends at Pylos) drives his chariot into Pherae, half way
to Sparta; Peisistratus, the soil of Nestor, accompanies

DAY 5 (Book iv).

Telemachus and Peisistratus arrive at Sparta, where
Menelaus and Helen receive them kindly.

DAY 6 (Book iv).

Menelaus tells how he himself came home in the eighth year
after the fall of Troy. He had heard from Proteus, the Old
Man of the Sea, that Odysseus was alive, and a captive on
an island of the deep. Menelaus invites Telemachus to Stay
with him for eleven days or twelve, which Telemachus
declines to do. it will later appear that he made an even
longer stay at Sparta, though whether he changed his mind,
or whether we have here an inadvertence of the poet's it is
hard to determine. This blemish has been used as an
argument against the unity of authorship, but writers of
all ages have made graver mistakes.

On this same day (the sixth) the wooers in Ithaca learned
that Telemachus had really set out to I cruise after his
father.' They sent some of their number to lie in ambush
for him, in a certain strait which he was likely to pass on
his return to Ithaca. Penelope also heard of her son's
departure, but was consoled by a dream.

DAY 7 (Book v).

The seventh day finds us again in Olympus. Athene again
urges the release of Odysseus; and Hermes is sent to bid
Calypso let the hero go. Zeus prophecies that after twenty
days sailing, Odysseus will reach Scheria, and the
hospitable Phaeacians, a people akin to the Gods, who will
convey him to Ithaca. Hermes accomplishes the message to

DAYS 8-12-32 (Book v).

These days are occupied by Odysseus in making and launching
a raft; on the twelfth day from the beginning of the action
he leaves Calypso's isle. He sails for eighteen days, and
on the eighteenth day of his voyage (the twenty- ninth from
the beginning of the action), he sees Scheria. Poseidon
raises a storm against him, and it is not till the
thirty-second day from that in which Athene visited
Telemachus, that he lands in Scheria, the country of the
Phaeacians. Here be is again in fairy land. A rough, but
perfectly recognisable form of the Phaeacian myth, is found
in an Indian collection of marchen (already referred to) of
the twelfth century A.D. Here the Phaeacians are the
Vidyidhiris, and their old enemies the Cyclopes, are the
Rakshashas, a sort of giants. The Indian Odysseus, who
seeks the city of gold, passes by the home of an Indian
Aeolus, Satyavrata. His later adventures are confused, and
the Greek version retains only the more graceful fancies of
the marchen.

DAY 33 (Book vi).

Odysseus meets Nausicaa, daughter of Alcinous, the
Phaeacian King, and by her aid, and that of Athene, is
favourably received at the palace, and tells how he came
from Calypso's island. His name is still unknown to his

DAY 34 (Books vii, viii, ix, x, xi, xii).

The Phaeacians and Odysseus display their skill in sports.
Nausicaa bids Odysseus farewell. Odysseus recounts to
Alcinous, and Arete, the Queen, those adventures in the two
years between the fall of Troy and his captivity in the
island of Calypso, which we have already described (pp.

DAY 35 (Book xiii).

Odysseus is conveyed to Ithaca, in the evening, on one of
the magical barques of the Phaeacians.

DAY 36 (Books xiii, xiv, xv).

He wakens in Ithaca, which be does not at first recognise
He learns from Athene, for the first time, that the wooers
beset his house. She disguises him as an old man, and bids
him go to the hut of the swineherd Eumaeus, who is loyal to
his absent lord. Athene then goes to Lacedaemon, to bring
back Telemachus, who bas now resided there for a month.
Odysseus won the heart of Eumaeus, who of course did not
recognise him, and slept in the swineherd's hut, while
Athene was waking Telemachus, in Lacedaemon, and bidding
him 'be mindful of his return.'

DAY 37 (Book xv).

Is spent by Odysseus in the swineherd's hut. Telemachus
reaches Pherae, half-way to Pylos.

DAY 38 (Book xv).

Telemachus reaches Pylos, but does not visit Nestor. To
save time he goes at once on board ship, taking with him an
unfortunate outlaw, Theoclymenus, a second-sighted man, or
the family of Melampus, in which the gift of prophecy was
hereditary. The ship passed the Elian coast at night, and
evaded the ambush of the wooers. Meanwhile Odysseus was
sitting up almost till dawn, listening to the history of
Eumaeus, the swineherd.

DAY 39 (Books xv, xvi).

Telemachus reaches the Isle of Ithaca, sends his ship to
the city, but himself, by advice of Athene, makes for the
hut of Eumaeus, where he meets, but naturally does not
recognise, his disguised father. He sends Eumaeus to
Penelope with news of his arrival, and then Athene reveals
Odysseus to Telemachus. The two plot the death of the
wooers. Odysseus bids Telemachus remove, on a favourable
opportunity, the arms which were disposed as trophies on
the walls of the hall at home. (There is a slight
discrepancy between the words of this advice and the manner
in which it is afterwards executed.) During this interview,
the ship of Telemachus, the wooers who had been in ambush,
and Eumaeus, all reached the town of Ithaca. In the evening
Eumaeus returned to his hut, where Athene had again
disguised Odysseus.

DAY 40 (Books xvii, xviii, xix, xx).

The story is now hastening to its close, and many events
are crowded into the fortieth day. Telemachus goes from the
swineherd's hut to the city, and calls his guest,
Theoclymenus, to the palace. The second-sighted man
prophesies of the near revenge of Odysseus. In the
afternoon, Odysseus (still disguised) and Eumaeus reach the
city, the dog Argos recognises the hero, and dies. Odysseus
goes begging through his own hall, and is struck by
Antinous, the proudest of the wooers. Late in the day
Eumaeus goes home, and Odysseus fights with the braggart
beggar Irus. Still later, Penelope appears among the
wooers, and receives presents from them. When the wooers
have withdrawn, Odysseus and Telemachus remove the weapons
from the hall to the armoury. Afterwards Odysseus has an
interview with Penelope (who does not recognise him), but
he is recognised by his old nurse Eurycleia. Penelope
mentions her purpose to wed the man who on the following
day, the feast of the Archer-god Apollo, shall draw the bow
of Odysseus, and send an arrow through the holes in twelve
axe-blades, set up in a row. Thus the poet shows that
Odysseus has arrived in Ithaca not a day too soon. Odysseus
is comforted by a vision of Athene, and

DAY 41 (Books xx, xxi, xxii, xxiii).

by the ominous prayer uttered by a weary woman grinding at
the mill. The swineherd and the disloyal Melanthius arrive
at the palace. The wooers defer the plot to kill
Telemachus, as the day is holy to Apollo. Odysseus is led
up from his seat near the door to a place beside Telemachus
at the chief 's table. The wooers mock Telemachus, and the
second- sighted Theoclymenus sees the ominous shroud of
death covering their bodies, and the walls dripping with
blood. He leaves the doomed company. In the trial of the
bow, none of the wooers can draw it; meanwhile Odysseus has
declared himself to the neatherd and the swineherd. The
former bars and fastens the outer gates of the court, the
latter bids Eurycleia bar the doors of the womens' chambers
which lead out of the hall. Odysseus now gets the bow into
his hands, strings it, sends the arrow through the
axe-blades, and then leaping on the threshold of stone,
deals his shafts among the wooers. Telemachus, the
neatherd, and Eumaeus, aiding him, he slaughters all the
crew, despite the treachery of Melanthius. The paramours of
the wooers are hanged, and Odysseus, after some delay, is
recognised by Penelope.

DAY 42 (Books xxiii, xxiv).

This day is occupied with the recognition of Odysseus by
his aged father Laertes, and with the futile attempt of the
kinsfolk of the wooers to avenge them on Odysseus. Athene
reconciles the feud, and the toils of Odysseus are

The reader has now before him a chronologically arranged
sketch of the action of the Odyssey. It is, perhaps,
apparent, even from this bare outline, that the composition
is elaborate and artistic, that the threads of the plot are
skilfully separated and combined. The germ of the whole
epic is probably the popular tale, known all over the
world, of the warrior who, on his return from a long
expedition, has great difficulty in making his prudent wife
recognise him. The incident occurs as a detached story in
China, and in most European countries it is told of a
crusader. 'We may suppose it to be older than the legend of
Troy, and to have gravitated into the cycle of that legend.
The years of the hero's absence are then filled up with
adventures (the Cyclops, Circe, the Phaeacians, the Sirens,
the descent into hell) which exist as scattered tales, or
are woven into the more elaborate epics of Gaels, Aztecs,
Hindoos, Tartars, South-Sea Islanders, Finns, Russians,
Scandinavians, and Eskimo. The whole is surrounded with the
atmosphere of the kingly age of Greece, and the result is
the Odyssey, with that unity of plot and variety of
character which must have been given by one masterly
constructive genius. The date at which the poet of the
Odyssey lived may be approximately determined by his
consistent descriptions of a peculiar and definite
condition of society, which had ceased to exist in the
ninth century B.C., and of a stage of art in which
Phoenician and Assyrian influences predominated. (Die Kunst
bei Homer. Brunn.) As to the mode of composition, it would
not be difficult to show that at least the a priori Wolfian
arguments against the early use of writing for literary
purposes have no longer the cogency which they were once
thought to possess. But this is matter for a separate