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Humanities LibreTexts

1: Introduction to the Odyssey

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Summary of The Iliad (prequel), by Carina Garza

The Iliad is an epic poem attributed to Homer and is the prequel of The Odyssey . The Iliad begins near the end of the Trojan War. The war started because Paris, the son of King Priam of Troy, "kidnapped" Helen, the wife of Menelaus. The goddess Aphrodite was willing to give Paris the most beautiful woman, who at the time was Helen, as a prize for him acknowledging Aphrodite as the most beautiful goddess. Odysseus (Ulysses) joined a group of "kings" or Achaean warleaders related to Menelaus through blood, marriage, or xenia (see below) to besiege Troy, "rescue" Helen, and obtain riches, fame and glory.  The result? Ten years of war, many slain or wounded on both sides, and the sack and burning of Troy.  Odysseus then embarks on what he hopes will be a straightforward voyage home, but he spends another ten years of wandering before returning to find his own home besieged by a locust swarm of suitors.

What is The Odyssey ? Why Are We Reading it? By Jessalynn Bird

Why, in a class on reclaiming the classical past, are we starting with perhaps the most stereotypically “classic” works of “classical” literature, The Iliad (or at least excerpts from it) and The Odyssey ? Simply put, they are two of the oldest surviving written works of literature, along with the Gilgamesh epic, Babylonian hymns, religious and scientific writings from Egypt, and works from India and Asia. 

Both The Iliad and The Odyssey are, as Emily Wilson notes, deliberately “epic,” in that they “tell” ( enn-epe ) stories important to the collective memory of Greek-speaking world (Wilson 1). These stories were composed with a deliberate mixture of Greek dialects from various regions and different time periods (imagine Shakespeare rebooted with rap lyrics and a dash of sci-fi). The original poems were unusually lengthy and rhythmic with outré vocabulary (if you had to look up outré, the poem’s varied audiences also had to ask the meaning of some words). We, however, are reading a translation by Samuel Butler in prose form because we are used to reading our epic stories as prose narratives (remember the Harry Potter novels?).  

As the Coen brothers’ remake ( O Brother, Where Art Thou? ) acknowledges, in the end, The Odyssey is the story of a man trying to find his way back home, unlike other Greek myths featuring wondrous deeds (Perseus versus the Gorgon, Theseus and the Minotaur) or perilous quests (Jason and the Argonauts, the Caledonian boar hunt). But the structure of The Odyssey is unusual. The poem starts in the middle of an already running story with nothing much happening, at least in terms of external action. Odysseus is “trapped” on Calypso’s island for a decade while Penelope and Telemachus face a similarly frustrating situation in Ithaca. The author assumed that audiences were familiar with events from The Iliad , which is why you read some portions of it before coming to The Odyssey . After Telemachus begins his quest, Odysseus hijacks the narrative and tells his own story in flashback form in books 5 through 12. In short, The Odyssey is a Russian doll nest of stories within stories, with narrators staking claims and weaving specific narratives of identity and action.

Scholars agree that both The Iliad and The Odyssey have formulas and structures which testify to their origin as orally recited poems. These include hashtag-like catch-phrases (rosy-fingered dawn, wine-dark sea), epithets (bright-eyed Athena, prudent Penelope) and set scenes (putting on armor, banqueting, hospitality, leave-taking). Moreover, several bards or singers perform at feasts within the poem and are inspired by the Muse to sing the deeds of heroes. Bards were rewarded for their ability to recite and transmit stories which were part of Greek heritage. Originality was not necessary; repetition and formulas enabled the transmission of culture and memory to new generations. Memory (Mnemosyne), was mother to the Muses because for the Greeks, art, literature and science were complementary ways of both remembering the past and bringing it into conversation with the present.  

Researchers are not entirely sure precisely how or when these oral traditions and performances were written down, but it seems that The Odyssey was written down at some point between the late 8th and early 7th centuries BCE, when the Greeks adapted the Phoenician alphabet to record the Greek language sounds. Traditionally, the poems were attributed to one male author (“Homer”), but Samuel Butler argued that the author of the The Odyssey was female. There may in fact have been teams of oral performers and scribes who stitched together set-piece scenes to produce what then became known as The Iliad and The Odyssey (a bit like groups of writers working on the Star Wars or Marvel franchises). Once written down, both The Iliad and The Odyssey quickly become central to Greek and then Roman culture and education. After the Renaissance, they also became central to the “classical” education, accessible, with few rare exceptions before the twentieth century, mostly to the wealthy elite.

However, as artwork on Greek pottery and allusions by later authors attest, there were multiple versions of certain episodes in The Odyssey which circulated before and after one version was set down in writing. Greek mythology was profoundly influenced by oral traditions and written legends from around the Mediterranean region and the Near East. Moreover, an ancient fan literature with alternative endings proliferated. In some versions, Odysseus is exiled for killing the suitors. Or Odysseus and Circe have a son, Telegonus, who eventually killed Odysseus with a poisoned spear. Penelope was slaughtered by Odysseus for infidelity with Antinous (!) or she married Telegonus (!). Hermes was smitten with Penelope, seduced her and she bore the god Pan (Wilson 73-4). The same variations proved true for many of the legends alluded to by characters in The Odyssey , as you will see from the student-produced readers’ notes.

Regardless of whether there was a “Homer” who was the author of both The Iliad and of The Odyssey (or of only one, or neither), and when and where these epics were written down, there remains the question: does art imitate life or life imitate art? Do the poems reflect real events and cultures and peoples? Odysseus’ wanderings take him to places both real and fictional, at the heart of and on the margins of the Greek-speaking world: Troy, the cannibalistic Laestrygonians, “Scheria,” Ethiopia, Libya, Egypt. Yet in both The Iliad and The Odyssey , there is no single term for “Greek” people. Instead, Greek-speakers thought of themselves in terms of tribes or bands following a particular leader (Ithacans, Lacedaemonians) or larger regional groupings (Argives, Achaeans, Danaans, etc). Note that in the epic poems Odysseus and other main characters can communicate with whomever they encounter. It was not until the sixth and fifth centuries BCE that Greek-speaking peoples imagined themselves as “Hellenes” in contrast to “barbarians” who did not speak Greek (including the highly civilized Persians and Egyptians).  

Historians remain unsure if the cultures described in these epic poems reflect echoes of the Minoans and other proto-Greek cultures settled on Crete, the Cycladic islands and mainland Greece or the Mycenaean Greeks who flourished on the mainland and constructed grand palaces and cities. After the Mycenaean civilization declined due to unknown factors, storytellers living in a ‘Dark Age’ Greece (12th to 8thc BCE) composed of smaller political units told of hypothetical civilizations based on echoes of lost earlier cultures but also their living neighboring civilizations in Egypt, Iran, Mesopotamia, and Asia Minor.

The story of the Trojan War in The Iliad   therefore may echo memories of Mycenaean Greece and Crete, with their powerful warrior kings, rich palaces, and wealth built from trade, agriculture, piracy, and war. The impresario Heinrich Schliemann discovered in modern-day Hissarlik (Turkey) a site he claimed was the ancient city Troy and later, the location of Agamemnon’s tomb on mainland Greece (the golden mask which Schliemann attributed to Agamemnon still survives).  One of the many layers of the city mound he excavated was potentially constructed by the Hittite civilization, a powerful rival of both the Mycenaeans and Egyptians. Other cultures mentioned by the poems include the Phoenicians, widely renowned as seafaring traders and inventors of an alphabetic writing system the Greeks adopted. 

As reflected in The Iliad and The Odyssey , the late 8th century BCE, when these poems were written down, was a period of cultural exchange, trade, migration (voluntary or forced), and colonization. Greek-speaking cultures were expanding and making settlements in Libya, Southern France, the Black Sea region, and the southern coasts of Italy and Sicily. These epic poems therefore exemplify the way some Greeks thought about and rationalized their relationships with neighboring cultures through fictional staged encounters between heroes and partly real, partly imaginary cultures which were evaluated on a sliding scale from “civilized” to “monstrous”. Some of these cultures (including “Greek” cultures) are described in greater detail in the “World(s) of The Odyssey ” Guide. 

One of the ironies of The Iliad and The Odyssey , poems perhaps created “primarily by and for [upper class] men” (Wilson 37) and therefore appealing to that audiences’ insecurities and biases, is that so little is known about the lives of women in this period of Greek history that the poems are often used to reconstruct roles of “Greek” women. Although Samuel Butler, our translator, felt that The Odyssey must have been written by a woman because there were so many female characters in it, it is more likely that “ The Odyssey is the product of archaic male imaginations, questioning and defending the inequalities of male dominance within the status quo. The poem meditates on what women might be capable of, and the degree to which their potential can or should be suppressed” (Wilson 38).  The poem also expresses and contests Greek attitudes towards the powerful, the poor, the unfree, and “foreigners.” As we read through the poem we can ask ourselves the following questions: What sources of empowerment and meaning do its characters employ? What roles do they inhabit and how do they turn these roles to their advantage or become trapped by them?  How do divinity/humanity, gender, class and free/unfree status shape characters’ range of options for self-expression and empowerment?

Main Characters by Carina Garza  

For a more detailed chart of characters, see this handy guide.

Gods, Goddesses, Demi-Gods and Their Attributes, by Carina Garza

Master narratives: bards, narrators, history, myth, and lies, by brittany blagburn.

The storytelling done by the bards in The Odyssey is different from the storytelling done by any other group or person in the epic due to the fact that bardic storytelling draws artistic inspiration from the Muses themselves. When the bards tell stories, they are putting on a performance. Their goal is to capture the attention of the audience and provide entertainment. Odysseus comes close to the bards in this sense, but is not on the same level as his counterparts. His stories are attention grabbing and exciting because they are real, and he experienced them firsthand. However, Odysseus’s storytelling lacks a connection with the Muses that is essential to bardic storytelling. Another distinction that separates the bards from any of the other figures in the poem is that the stories they tell are often not their own. Bards tell of great heroes, deeds, and battles. The stories they tell are not about themselves and as such, bards are not personally involved. They are a third party that will recount an event with limited investment in how it is told or what is told. Whereas someone such as Odysseus has a very personal stake in the telling of the stories from their travels. 

Much of Odysseus’s travels from the shores of Troy to his home of Ithaca are recounted by Odysseus himself. He tells his story to his family as well as the people who host and help him during his journey in order to explain his 10 years of wandering and suffering. When Odysseus recalls these events, no one ever questions him. Instead, they immediately take him at his word. Listeners have no way to determine just how much of the tales that Odysseus tells are fact or fiction. Odysseus has the capability to embellish or completely fabricate the series of events that he lived through after the Trojan War during his retellings because none of his men are left alive to contradict him. He can make himself look however he wants by omitting or changing details. With that said, the absence of his men also allows Odysseus to truly become the hero of his own story. There is no one else around with whom he would have to share the glory.

Similar to her husband, Penelope is a skilled storyteller. She is able to craft tales that are beneficial to her needs without the suitors realizing what she’s doing for years. In an effort to delay her having to choose one of the suitors to marry, Penelope constructs a plan centered around her loom. She tells the suitors that she’ll wed for the second time after weaving a shroud for her father-in-law, Laertes. Unknown to the suitors, she unravels her work every night. For nearly four years she managed to keep the suitors at bay with this scheme by establishing herself as a trustworthy storyteller when she told them she would marry afterward. They trusted her because nothing about her story of wanting to pay the proper respect to her husband’s family seemed unrealistic or unlikely. Additionally, Penelope uses her talent for storytelling to put Odysseus to the test when he finally returns to Itahca. Unlike Telemachus and Eumaeus who immediately take Odysseus at his word after he reveals his identity, Penelope plays with the truth to ensure that her long-lost husband is truly who he says he is. 

In book 11, we find out about Penelope from Odysseus’ mother Anticlea and encounter a parade of famous Greek women. What do we learn about Greek gender roles from their stories and Odysseus’ reaction to them? Why are their stories combined with the stories of Greek heroes in the same book? After all, some of these “heroes” did some pretty despicable things which Odysseus doesn’t mention (see the reader’s notes).

In book 12, we have layers and layers of narrators: Odysseus, Circe, Calypso. Do we believe Odysseus’ tale? How does he craft his own image and rationalize his actions? Why are the monsters he meets in this chapter all female (Scylla, Charybdis, the Sirens)? What about the stories Penelope and Odysseus tell each other in book 23? Is Odysseus master of “constant self-reinvention” through storytelling, disguise, and deceit (Wilson, 62)? Would ancient audiences have approved of or been appalled by his verbal tactics? 

War and PTSD, by Marirose Osborne

The actual term “PTSD” (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) is relatively new. It was only officially introduced by the American Psychiatric Association in 1980, and while the term's use has become more common, it is still known by other names. “Shell shock” was one, officially coined in 1915 to describe soldiers who returned from World War I, while “battle fatigue” and “soldier's heart” were others. However, these terms both had strong associations with war. Although many people believe PTSD only manifests in soldiers, PTSD can be triggered by any traumatic event. It is more common in war, but in reality can impact anyone. 

The Odyssey is an account that takes place about ten years after the Trojan War, but the actual effects of the war can still be felt throughout almost every part of the story. Menelaus for example, tells Telemachus that he has trouble sleeping at night and that "sometimes tears bring comfort to my heart, but not for long; cold grief grows sickening" (Wilson 4.102-3). Although the ancient Greeks didn't have the word for PTSD or psychiatrists to diagnose it, several characters in the narrative show clear signs and symptoms of it. The ancient Greeks understood the impact war could have on the mind and body, and they demonstrated that through their narratives.

Is it fair to use modern western psychological frameworks to describe ancient emotions?

Read one of the extension sources listed below.  Who seems to suffer the most symptoms of PTSD (if any) in The Odyssey ? How do the authors of The Odyssey describe the impact of war on men and women?

Journeys, Travel, and Change, by Jessalynn Bird

At the time that The Odyssey circulated and was written down, the ancient Greek-speaking peoples engaged in trade with most of the known Mediterranean world.  This brought them into contact with other cultures with whom they collaborated, exchanged goods (and stories and gods), and competed for trade routes, territory, resources, and colonies. Travel in the ancient world was hazardous whether by land or sea. Bandits and pirates ambushed the unwary and hosts could prove either generous or lethal.  However, travel also meant encountering other cultures and  languages and finding potential allies or enemies. It also meant broadened horizons, such that individuals were changed by the hardships and triumphs they encountered and returned to view their original cultures with potentially new eyes. The nature of travel differed with its purpose: marriage, alliance, trade, war, revenge, quest, capture/enslavement, curiosity/exploration, and return home.

Can, after twenty years, Odysseus truly return home? Why/why not? Explain.

How does Telemachus’ trip in the first few books of the Odyssey change his view of the situation in Ithaca and his relationship with his mother Penelope?

How do Helen’s adventures in Troy affect her relationship with her children and husband Menelaus?

How does travel to the underworld change Odysseus’ relationship to the living and the dead? Is perspective everything?

Why do Circe and Calypso inhabit islands and do not travel? What does this say about gendered notions of travel in classical Greece?

Why does Athena travel so much? Why does she often assume the guise of a male (e.g. Mentor?) when she appears to mortals?

Does Odysseus seem to be changed by his encounters with the cultures he meets or is he culturally impervious? How does he approach other cultures: as petitioner, trader, raider, warrior, potential ally? How does which role he inhabits affect his perception of a culture?

How do slaves’ travels affect them?  We encounter Eumaeus and Euryclea, both of whom are “foreigners” sold into slavery.  Do they come to identify with their new culture?  Why/why not?

What is home? And how do the heroes of the Trojan War return to it? Will they ever truly return to the homes they left?

Double Standards: Gender Roles Among Mortals and Immortals, by Jessalynn Bird  

As is glaringly apparent to any reader of The Odyssey , there were distinct codes of behavior for men and women in ancient Greece, modified by other factors such as “foreignness,” divinity, class, and wealth. Males faced specific honor codes and expectations, as did women, children, gods, goddesses, nymphs, and satyrs. Then there were individuals who crossed categories, such as mortals transformed into gods, individuals who changed gender or sex (Tiresias springs to mind), and humans transformed into animals, plants, or minerals. 

Having said this, there are several revealing passages in The Odyssey where direct commentary is being made or conventions upheld or contested. This often occurs through comparing and contrasting individuals of the same gender and/or status.

Who is the more successful leader, high-class male, and king: Odysseus? Agamemnon? Menelaus? The king of Scheria? Why? Explain.

Who is the better wife and queen: Penelope? Clytemnestra?  Helen? The Scherian queen Arete? Why? Explain.

Who is the better son -- Orestes or Telemachus?  Why?

Who is the better young unmarried woman: Calypso, Circe, or Nausicaa? Why?

Why does Odysseus find the tale of Ares (Mars) and Aphrodite (Venus) so amusing?  Are Calypso and Circe held to a different sexual standard than male gods and Odysseus? Why/why not?

Why must Penelope remain chaste but not Odysseus?

Who is a Monster? What does it mean to truly be Human? By Brittany Blagburn

During Odysseus’s attempts to get back home, he is constantly interacting with figures that are humans, monsters, gods, and anything in between. Throughout the poem, figures such as the Sirens, Polyphemus (and the other cyclopes), Charybdis, Scylla, and the Laestrygonians are clearly depicted as monsters. They appear physically different from the human figures present and their physical differences are what are used to separate them from humanity. Often, the monsters that Odysseus comes face-to-face with live outside of civilization. Nearly all of these interactions that Odysseus has with these monstrous figures lead to his men dying and further delays in their journey back to Ithaca.

Figures such as the Lotus Eaters, Cicones, and the Suitors may be human, but to Odysseus they come across as monstrous. The Lotus Eaters attempt to take away his crew’s will to leave and prolong his journey home. The Cicones fight back against Odysseus and his crew, leaving several of his men dead. The suitors are monstrous in his eyes because of their disrespect, the ways in which they blatantly abuse traditional hospitality, and their attempts to marry Penelope.

Then, there are figures like Circe and Calypso that are more than human but not quite definitely monsters in the eyes of Odysseus. These women behave just like normal women during their appearances in the epic. They sing, they weave, they act hospitably. The only things that make them distinct from women such as Penelope or Nausicaa are that they live alone, seem to possess divine powers,and assert themselves. Alone these things would not necessarily be enough for Odysseus to think of them as monsters, but when taken all together the women are a little bit monstrous to him. Calypso holds Odysseus against his will and tries to make him immortal. While the latter action does not seem to be too horrible, Odysseus did not wish to lose his mortality. As such, he would see Calypso as somewhat of a monster. Circe turned Odysseus’s crew into pigs and would have done the same to him if she could. She also manages to delay Odysseus in his journey to return home. Because of these behaviors, he would classify her as monstrous as well.

How do cultures use “monsters” to construct (in)humanity?

Which monster(s) pose(s) the greatest threat to Odysseus and his crew? 

Which monster(s) are surprisingly “civilized” or “savage”? How do the Greeks rate these two things?

Every hero needs an opponent who is an equal or superior match to them. How does Odysseus rate in comparison to the “monsters” he faces? Are his abilities, behaviors, and “civilization” inferior, equal, or superior to those of his rivals (as imagined by the poets and Odysseus himself)?

If Calypso and Circe are nymphs or demi-goddesses, does that mean their behavior should not be judged by human standards? If that is the case, how were Greek audiences meant to rate the behavior of the gods and goddesses mentioned in the poem and their dealings with mortals? Clearly the gods are not mortals, but does this make them monsters or something else?

Slavery and Its Impact, by Britanny Blagburn

In terms of the social hierarchy of “Homeric” Greece, slaves were at the bottom. They had few rights. Slavery in ancient Greece was not something that a person had to be born into. You could either be sold into slavery or captured. There were multiple different types of enslavement which included chattel slaves and helots. Chattel slaves were considered a personal possession that could be individually bought and sold. Helots were slaves specific to Sparta that were specifically linked with the land that they worked on. Slaves often worked in the fields, mines and quarries, the home, or as craftspeople. A slave working in the fields might be seen working alongside their master. Even someone with little land might have a few slaves to assist with agricultural work. A slave working in the home would be expected to cook, clean, and assist in the raising of children. The conditions in which a slave worked and lived varied widely. Slaves working in mines and quarries were subjected to much harsher conditions than slaves working within a home. However, slaves were considered the property of their master and were completely under their power. A master could do whatever they wanted with their slaves. When a slave-owner died, their slaves could either be set free or inherited by an heir. Slaves could also buy their freedom if their owners allowed them to keep money made via their labors.

Is there a difference between the way Odysseus and Telemachus treat their slaves? Odysseus and Laertes? Odysseus and Penelope? How does each member of the family differ in their treatment? Why?

Does gender affect the way in which Odysseus treats his slaves? How? Does gender affect the way in which the slaves interact with Odysseus? How?

Why is Odysseus so enraged by some of his female slaves sleeping with the suitors? Does Odysseus react with less rage towards his male slaves who did as the suitors told them? Why or why not?

Are there differences in how slaves are treated between Ithaca, Pylos, Sparta, and Phaeacia (Scheria)? If so, what are the differences? 

Why do none of the monsters or monstrous civilizations have slaves? Would Odysseus be less likely so see them as monsters if they did? Why?

Racism and “Culture” in Antiquity, by Marirose Osborne

The concept of race in The Odyssey is very different from how we would see it today (for this distinction, see the Worlds of The Odyssey Guide). There are, however, some conceptual similarities to post-colonial definitions of race as based on genetic heritage - for example, Odysseus describes Eurybates as a man with “black skin, round shoulders, woolly hair” (Wilson 19.246). He uses the physical description to set Eurybates apart. However, Odysseus also refers to Eurybates as “his favorite out of all his crew because his mind matched his” (Wilson 19.247-8). Unlike the modern era, race in Ancient Greece was less about skin color or physical appearance, and more about which culture or region a person was from. The Phoenicians, for example, are considered a different race (because their language was not Greek), while the Spartans, who speak to Telemachus, share the same language. These “racial” lines were considered strengthened by descent from a common ancestor. The Phaecians in The Odyssey are all descendants of Poseidon, while the Egyptians are from Asclepius's line. These ties are strengthened by marriages, for example King Alcinous and Queen Arete of Phaecia are both husband and wife and uncle and niece. However, even these were not guarantees of “culture” or “civilization.” The Cyclopses are children of Poseidon, but they are also cannibalistic one-eyed monsters. 

Although the various Greek peoples acknowledged their differences, they stood united against other peoples who they considered “uncivilized.” When the Greeks did not understand a people or their culture, they would lump them together. This happens several times in The Odyssey , such as when Egypt is described as a place of magic and mystery where “fertile fields produce the most narcotics: some good, some dangerous” (Wilson 4.230-1). Other “foreign” places are described in similar terms, such as Libya “where lambs are born with horns” (Wilson 4.85). While these may not seem huge, in Ancient Greece these would have been major markers of “foreignness.” In some cases the marks were small such as magic or using certain herbs or dyes. However in others this could be more extreme. The centaurs, for example, are often thought to be representative of the unfamiliar barbarian tribes while the mythical Amazons, thought to be a race of men-hating female warriors, may have been a distorted reflection of the Scythian peoples, various tribes that inhabited central Asia. 

What other marks of “foreignness” come up in The Odyssey ? Which cultures do they refer to? 

How are the various Greek cultures depicted in The Odyssey ? 

How are the various peoples described, is the language positive, negative, or neutral? 

Why do you think some descendants of the gods are considered more civilized than others? 

Why do you think the Ancient Greeks conceived of cultures that were farther away as part animal? Or as solely made up of women? 

Poverty, Wealth, and Age, by Carina Garza

In ancient Greece, those with the most power were the wealthy aristocrats who had political power. Greece was an agricultural society which allowed people to earn a living through farming. The wealthy male landowners had slaves, received an education, as well as their own fertile land. Some wealthy men did not have to worry about a dowry for their daughters or finding a good match as husbands. The wealthier the family, the better match the daughter potentially had for a husband (and her family could expect a hefty counter-gift or bride price from a husband and his family). Those in a higher economic class enjoyed better opportunities and more luxurious lifestyles (note how The Odyssey carefully uses clothing, household furnishings, gifts, and meals to hint at or depict degrees of poverty and wealth). 

Those in poverty in ancient Greece ranged from poor free Greeks to slaves. The poor could work for the wealthy, own their own home, perform manual labor or artisanal or craft work, sell and resell items as peddlers or shop-keepers, but typically did not own considerable land. For this reason, they were considered to have “low morals” and were barred from participating in politics. Some individuals experienced homelessness or had to beg resources and hospitality from others.  Slaves who worked in homes had a better working environment compared to the slaves who worked in mines. Slaves were relatively inexpensive, which allowed poor Greeks to own them as well (see the section on slavery above). 


How does age differentiate the way low class citizens are compared to those who are wealthy? Consider how Odysseus disguises himself as the beggar Icarus. 

Do we have the same standards of class system when it comes to age and gender? 

Do you think Odysseus feels free while he is on his journey home?

How does Odysseus treat Nausicaa compared to the other women? Is this based on her class?

Honor and Loyalty, by Carina Garza

Honor and loyalty were the two most important defining characteristics for cultures around the Mediterranean. Honor was more than pride, it was a symbol of worthiness. Honor is so important that it has caused people to fight and die to prove themselves. An honorable and loyal person was valuable to society and was held in high regard. Honor could both enhance one's privilege, respect and social status and was also tied to it. The poor and unfree were considered to intrinsically possess less "honor" and had to work harder to obtain it.  If someone were dishonorable, it adversely affected their privilege, respect and social status. Honor and loyalty were also gendered. For example, it was expected for a wife to be loyal to her husband, but not the other way around. In The Odyssey , Odysseus is honorable and loyal to his home of Ithaca, but he also has a lot of pride. Odysseus’s pride is what caused him to have delays and problems during his voyage home. Telemachus, Odysseus’s son, was worried about his family’s honor since the suitors overran their home. He knows that to keep his family’s honor he needs to search for his father who would permanently get rid of the suitors.  

  • How are honor and loyalty manifested differently in different situations and depending on age and status? Consider the bonds between guest and host, between male peers (Telemachus and Pisistratus), and between owner and slave (Euryclea, Eumaeus, Melantho/Melanthus).
  • Consider how gender affects honor.  How does Penelope maintain honor and loyalty--both her own and that of her household? Odysseus with his men?
  • What happens when the demands of honor and loyalty to various individuals conflict? For example, Telemachus and his relationship to his own emerging identity, his mother Penelope, and his absent father Odysseus?

Gendered Emotions in The Odyssey , by Brittany Blagburn        

Tears and weeping.

Whenever Odysseus weeps in The Odyssey , his tears are linked with his long-lasting suffering and grief. He cries because he is overcome by his emotions. There is no way for him to control them and as such his body physically responds by shedding tears. Readers first witness Odysseus’s weeping while he is on Calypso’s island. He feels trapped and is convinced that reaching Ithaca is completely impossible. As such, he spends his days alone and openly sobbing over the way in which his tragic fate has played out. Even though Odysseus chooses to weep in front of Calypso, he is concerned about who he allows to see his tears. During his time with the Phaeacians, Odysseus actively tries to hide his tears from the King while the bard sings of the Trojan War. However, when Odysseus is finally reunited with Telemachus, he does not hold back his tears. Instead he cries in front of his son and eventually Telemachus begins to cry as well. The outpouring of emotion from the two men, and especially from Odysseus, is a result of how long they have suffered.

The instances when Penelope cries are often linked to her concern over her family. She weeps when Telemachus returns from his travels to Pylos and Sparta. As she cries, Penelope explains that her tears are due to her worrying for her son and not knowing if she would ever get to see him again as well as the fact that she did not know that he was planning to leave Ithaca. Just as Penelope weeps over Telemachus, she also weeps over Odysseus. Most of her Odysseus-related tears are shed at night when she cries herself to sleep. She also cries over Odysseus when he tells her his story about meeting Odysseus when he is disguised as a beggar. While most of Penelope’s tears are a result of her sorrow, after being told of Odysseus’s return and the death of the suitors, she weeps with joy.

Tears and physical demonstrations of grief also played an important role in funeral rites and attempts to propitiate the gods. It was considered fitting for both men and women to publicly and physically demonstrate grief at the death of a loved one (some cultures to this day also hire professional mourners). Tears could also manifest humiliation or a sense of powerlessness or tragedy, as we will see in The Iliad and in Euripides’ play, The Trojan Women . 

In Book 4, we see Helen soothing the tears of the men around her after they begin weeping. Why is it up to Helen to help the men around her stop crying? In what ways does her ability to do this challenge gender roles?

How is weeping expressed differently by different women (Penelope and Helen, Eurycleia and the female slaves, etc.)? Different men (Odysseus and Telemachus, Pisistratus and Menelaus, etc.)?

In addition to weeping being gendered, can it be expressed differently based on age and/or status? In what ways?

How do Greek uses of weeping differ from or compare to our own?

Pride ( Hubris )

Many figures in Greek mythology suffer from an excessive amount of pride, known as hubris . Often the fatal flaw of hubris can lead to the downfall of a Greek hero. Throughout Odysseus’s wanderings, he exhibits pride in multiple circumstances and usually suffers because of it. A prime example of Odysseus’s excessive pride can be seen during the episode with Polyphemus. Odysseus and his men have managed to escape and begin to sail away after blinding Polyphemus. However, Odysseus cannot accept the fact that he is not getting credit for this cunning feat. His pride compels him to make sure that Polyphemus knows who blinded him. Once Polyphemus learns who stole his eyesight, he is able to bring down the wrath of Poseidon on the ships that Odysseus and his men are on. As a result of his prideful confession and taunts, Odysseus and his men suffer. Their journey home becomes longer and much more difficult as a result of the hubris that Odysseus can never quite temper or control. The hubris of various heroes, particularly Achilles, is also a key theme in The Iliad . But is hubris gendered? Can immortals suffer from it or only mortals?

Current pop psychology encourages a healthy sense of self-worth and realistic assessment of one’s capabilities, talents, and weaknesses. If you were Greek psychologist examining any of these following individuals, who would you diagnose as suffering from hubris and to what degree? Antinous (a suitor), Odysseus, Telemachus, Penelope, Helen, Polyphemus, Athena, Circe, Calypso, Melantho, Melanthius?

  • The Odyssey
  • Literature Notes
  • About The Odyssey
  • The Odyssey at a Glance
  • Poem Summary
  • Character List
  • Summary and Analysis
  • Books 13-14
  • Books 15-16
  • Character Analysis
  • Athena (Pallas)
  • Polyphemus (the Cyclops) and King Alcinous
  • Circe and Calypso
  • Character Map
  • Homer Biography
  • Critical Essays
  • Major Themes in The Odyssey
  • Major Symbols in The Odyssey
  • Literary Devices of The Odyssey
  • Famous Quotes from Homer's The Odyssey
  • Film Versions of Homer's The Odyssey
  • Full Glossary for The Odyssey
  • Essay Questions
  • Practice Projects
  • Cite this Literature Note


An epic is a long narrative poem in an elevated style that deals with the trials and achievements of a great hero or heroes. The epic celebrates virtues of national, military, religious, political, or historical significance. The word "epic" itself comes from the Greek épos , originally meaning "word" but later "oration" or "song." Like all art, an epic may grow out of a limited context but achieves greatness in relation to its universality. It typically emphasizes heroic action as well as the struggle between the hero's ethos and his human failings or mortality.

Increasingly, scholars distinguish between two types of epic. The first, the primary epic, evolves from the mores, legends, or folk tales of a people and is initially developed in an oral tradition of storytelling. Secondary epics , on the other hand, are literary. They are written from their inception and designed to appear as whole stories.

Note: References throughout are to Robert Fagles' poetic translation, Homer: The Odyssey (New York: Penguin Putnam Inc., 1996). Citations are by book and line; for example, line 47 in Book 3 is represented as (3.47).

The Odyssey as Epic

Composed around 700 BC, The Odyssey is one of the earliest epics still in existence and, in many ways, sets the pattern for the genre, neatly fitting the definition of a primary epic (that is, one that grows out of oral tradition). The hero is long-suffering Odysseus, king of Ithaca and surrounding islands and hero of the Trojan War. He has been gone 20 years from his homeland, his wife, Penelope, and his son, Telemachus. Odysseus embodies many of the virtues of ancient Greek civilization and in some ways defines them. He is not, however, without his flaws, which sometimes get him into trouble.

Epics usually open with a statement of the subject and an invocation to the Muse or Muses — the nine sister goddesses in Greek mythology, the daughters of the king of gods, Zeus, and Mnemosyne ("Memory"). Certain Muses preside over song and poetry, which are joined in epics. Sometimes Muses are assigned to all the liberal arts and sciences. Clio is usually thought of as the Muse of history. Erato takes care of lyrical love poetry. Calliope is the Muse most often associated with epic poetry.

Having invoked the Muse, the epic poet then begins in the middle of the tale; teachers sometimes use a Latin term, in medias res ("in the middle of things"), to identify this technique. Beginning in the middle of the action, the poet then fills in significant prior events through flashbacks or narration.

The Odyssey also employs most of the literary and poetic devices associated with epics: catalogs, digressions, long speeches, journeys or quests, various trials or tests of the hero, similes, metaphors, and divine intervention.

Although few contemporary authors attempt to compose epics, the influence of the genre and of The Odyssey is extensive. Many critics consider James Joyce's Ulysses (1922), which uses Odysseus' Latin name ("Ulysses") for the title and places a very flawed non-hero in Dublin, to be the most important novel of the twentieth century. Other works that students might compare to The Odyssey include Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn (1884), J. D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye (1951), John Cheever's short story "The Swimmer" (in the collection The Brigadier and the Golf Widow , 1964), and Donald Barthelme's The Dead Father (1975).

The Setting of Ithaca

While it includes recollections of earlier times, most of the action in The Odyssey takes place in the ten years following the Trojan War. Historically, was there ever such a war? W. A. Camps ( An Introduction to Homer, 1980, "Preliminary") argues impressively that there probably was but that it was much different from Homer's depiction in The Iliad or the recollections of the characters in The Odyssey . Archaeological evidence indicates that the war may have taken place around 1220 bc and that the city Homer calls Troy was destroyed by fire. The Odyssey was likely composed about five hundred years after these events.

In the interim, countless bards had worked over the stories. What we see (or hear) in Homer, is not a depiction of history but a world created out of legend, folk tales, at least one poet's imagination, and a little bit of history. The "Wanderings of Odysseus," as his travel adventures are often called, take place largely in a reality beyond our own; the settings vary widely. Ithaca, on the other hand, is a constant for Odysseus and Homer's audience.

Politically, the system in Ithaca is less formal than a city-state, but it does provide structure based on power. Odysseus is not just a great warrior or excellent seaman, although those are important talents. He also is the best carpenter that Ithaca has known, the best hunter of wild boar, the finest marksman, and the leading expert on animal husbandry. Odysseus can plow the straightest furrow and mow the largest stretch of meadow in a day. In fact, it is his superior skill, his intelligence, and his prowess that enable him to maintain his power even after many years of absence. As long as he or his reputation can maintain control, Odysseus remains king of Ithaca and surrounding islands.

Along with power, of course, comes wealth. Because Ithaca has no coined money, wealth is measured by livestock, household furnishings, servants, slaves, and treasure. Slavery is not only accepted and encouraged in Homer's world, but slaves are viewed as symbols of wealth and power. Piracy, war, and raids on foreign cities are all accepted means of increasing wealth. The first thing that Odysseus does after leaving Troy, for example, is to sack Ismarus, stronghold of the Cicones. In addition to plunder, he captures the women.

Social traditions are strong in this community; ironically, it is the social tradition of hospitality that proves dangerous for Odyssey's wife, Penelope, and his son, Telemachus.

Finally, the people of Ithaca believe strongly in fate and the right of the gods to alter human life at any time. They hope that virtue will be rewarded, but they accept the vicissitudes of fortune. If an Ithacan stubs his toe in the garden, he may say, "Some god sent that rock to alter my path!" Odysseus himself is proof that, if the gods choose, anything might happen, even to a king.

Story Background

King Odysseus of Ithaca has been gone from home for 20 years. The first 10 he spent fighting heroically and victoriously with the Greeks in the Trojan War; the last 10, he spent trying to get home. From other sources, we know that the goddess Athena arranged for storms to blow the Greeks off course as they attempted to sail home from the war. She was outraged because a Greek warrior had desecrated her temple by attempting to rape Cassandra (daughter of the last king of Troy) in that sacred place. Worse, the Greeks had not punished the man. Although Athena intervenes on Odysseus' behalf repeatedly throughout the epic, her curse originally causes his wanderings.

With Odysseus gone, all that he has — his kingship, his wealth, his home, and his wife and son — is in jeopardy. His wife Penelope finds herself surrounded by unwanted suitors because she is the key to the throne and to Odysseus' wealth. Her new husband would, at the very least, have a distinct advantage in the competition for a new king. Like her son, Telemachus, Penelope lacks the power to eject the suitors who have invaded her home and are bent on forcing her to marry.

In his absence, Odysseus' son, Telemachus, is referred to as the heir apparent and, as such, is constantly in danger, the more so as he becomes a man and is perceived as a threat by his mother's suitors. Telemachus lacks the stature of his father, and although he can summon the Achaeans (Greeks) on the island to full assembly, he cannot accomplish his goals — namely to rid his home of the unwanted suitors who have abused a custom of hospitality. Not only does Telemachus lack power to maintain control, but he also has no formal system of laws or courts to support him. Telemachus himself acknowledges that he may, at best, be ruler only of his own house.

If Telemachus were to assume the crown without sufficient resources to defend it, which he currently lacks, he risk being deposed and, most likely, killed. If Penelope stalls much longer in selecting a suitor, Ithaca could find itself in civil war, and she and her son may well be among its first victims. If she chooses a husband, her son is still in danger unless he is willing to abdicate his claim to the throne. As repugnant as marriage seems, it may be necessary for Ithaca's and (possibly) her son's survival.

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The Odyssey

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Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Homer's The Odyssey . Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

The Odyssey: Introduction

The odyssey: plot summary, the odyssey: detailed summary & analysis, the odyssey: themes, the odyssey: quotes, the odyssey: characters, the odyssey: symbols, the odyssey: theme wheel, brief biography of homer.

The Odyssey PDF

Historical Context of The Odyssey

Other books related to the odyssey.

  • Full Title: The Odyssey
  • When Written: 8th or 7th century BC.
  • Where Written: Ancient Greece
  • When Published: The poem was passed down orally for many generations, but the Athenian tyrant Peisistratos established a committee to compile and revise Homer's manuscripts in the 6th century BC. The oldest complete manuscript of the poem dates back to the 10th or 11th century AD. Dozens of English translations have been published since the 17th century.
  • Literary Period: Ancient Greece (pre-Classical)
  • Genre: Epic Poem
  • Setting: The Pelopponese and the Ionian islands in Mycenaean Greece, in the 10 years after the fall of Troy, circa 12th century BC.
  • Climax: The slaughter of the suitors
  • Antagonist: The suitors, Poseidon
  • Point of View: Third person omniscient

Extra Credit for The Odyssey

The Limits of Papyrus. The Odyssey was initially recorded on fragile papyrus scrolls; some people believe that the length of each of the twenty-four books was determined by the length of a single scroll, which would break if it exceeded a certain size.

Son of Telemachus. The Oracle at Delphi claimed that Homer was Telemachus's son.

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  7. About The Odyssey - CliffsNotes

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    In the proem of Book 1, Homer describes Odysseus as “the man of twists and turns,” an epithet that sets our expectations of the protagonist for the rest of the poem. As “the man of twists and turns,” Odysseus’s shape-shifting allows him to escape death multiple times, but it also defines his identity as a cunning trickster and a ...

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    The Odyssey was initially recorded on fragile papyrus scrolls; some people believe that the length of each of the twenty-four books was determined by the length of a single scroll, which would break if it exceeded a certain size. Son of Telemachus. The Oracle at Delphi claimed that Homer was Telemachus's son. The best study guide to The Odyssey ...

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    The Odyssey is a tale of a hero of exceptional endurance and metis (cunning intelligence) who wins kleos (fame) by achieving a successful nostos (return home). The poem establishes the oikos (home) as a locus for heroic activity by portraying hospitality (xeneia) as sacred to Zeus and by investing all domestic guardians with ethical and intellectual superiority over the perpetrators of bia ...