This story comes entirely from Homer’s Odyssey, except for a small detail from Euripides. Though Athena and Poseidon had been allies of the Greeks during the war, the Greeks committed atrocities during the sack of Troy and turned the gods against them. The worst crime was against Cassandra, one of Priam’s daughters. Cassandra was blessed with the gift of prophecy, but cursed so that no one ever believes her. The Greeks dragged her out of Athena’s temple, where she had sought sanctuary.
The gods who hated Troy, like Hera, Athena, and Poseidon, are now satisfied with its destruction and decide to start rewarding virtue and punishing wickedness again. The Greeks become drunk with victory and in their pride they desecrate Athena’s temple, which is supposed to be a place of holy sanctuary, no matter the situation.
Poseidon agrees to help Athena against the Greeks, and he stirs up terrible storms around their ships. Agamemnon loses almost all his men, Menelaus is blown to Egypt, and Odysseus is driven far off course. This sets off a long series of adventures for the clever champion.
The story of Odysseus’s hero’s quest, which is the most famous of all, begins in a different manner than most. He is already middle-aged and married, and he is returning home instead of leaving it.
Odysseus is from the island of Ithaca, and the war and his adventures keep him away for twenty years. While he is gone his young son Telemachus grows into a man, and his beautiful wife Penelope is swarmed by suitors who think Odysseus is dead. Penelope stays faithful to her absent husband, but the suitors are rude and overbearing and they will not leave the house, constantly feasting on her food and drink.
This is the conflict of the story, that Odysseus must return home before Penelope and Telemachus are overcome by the rude and dangerous suitors. Odysseus owes his allegiance to his wife and son, but his long absence is in some ways his fault, as the story will show.
Penelope first holds off the suitors by making them wait until she has finished weaving a shroud for Odysseus’s father Laertes. Every night she secretly unweaves the work she has done that day, so the job goes on indefinitely. Eventually the suitors discover her scheme, and they become even more insistent.
Often Penelope seems to have the harder lot than Odysseus. He faces many monsters, but also has long periods of luxury and peace with other women, while Penelope constantly struggles to keep their house together, which is its own kind of heroism.
After ten years of anger, Athena’s old affection for Odysseus returns, and she decides to help the cunning hero. While Poseidon, who still hates Odysseus, is absent from Olympus, Athena convinces the other gods to help Odysseus, as he is currently a virtual prisoner of the nymph Calypso. The nymph loves Odysseus and treats him kindly, but she won’t let him leave her island. The gods agree to send Hermes to make Calypso give up Odysseus.
The tale starts in the middle of the action, as epics must, with Odysseus a “prisoner” of Calypso. This story is more interesting to modern readers than the Iliad, as it is a tale of one man’s life and struggle rather than a chronicle of a war, and so closer to the modern genres of novels and movies.
Athena is also fond of Telemachus, Odysseus’s son, so she decides to help him as well. She disguises herself and goes to Ithaca, and there convinces the hospitable Telemachus to not give up hope for his father, and to ask Nestor and Menelaus for news of Odysseus. The suitors mock Telemachus for his quest, but Athena takes on the appearance of Mentor, Odysseus’s old friend, and she sails with Telemachus.
Athena takes an active role in this tale, but what makes Odysseus such a special hero is that he lives by his wits alone, rather than constantly trusting to fate and the help of the gods. Athena shows her love of intellect by favoring Odysseus and Telemachus. The suitors are a constant villainous, arrogant presence.
First they travel to find Nestor, who is on the shore sacrificing to Poseidon. He knows nothing of Odysseus, and sends Telemachus to Menelaus in Sparta. Telemachus goes there with Nestor’s son, and they are welcomed in Menelaus splendid palace. They see Helen there as well. Menelaus says that he had briefly captured Proteus, the shape-shifting seal god, and Proteus told him that Odysseus was the captive of the nymph Calypso. Then all the members of the hall think of Troy and weep for those lost there.
The characters of the Trojan War return, and it is interesting to see them at home in their halls. Telemachus has his own mini-Odyssey as he searches for his father and learns about the history of the Trojan War and his father’s adventures.
Meanwhile, Hermes commands the reluctant Calypso to let Odysseus go home. Odysseus sets out on a makeshift raft, and Calypso gives him supplies. After seventeen days at sea, Poseidon sees Odysseus and sends a storm to wreck his raft. The kind goddess Ino saves him, however, by giving Odysseus her veil to protect him from harm in the water.
Hamilton will tell the tale of Ino later. Odysseus not only survives without the gods’ help, he even survives when they – mostly Poseidon – attempt to kill him.
Odysseus swims for two days and comes to the land of the Phaeacians, where he makes a bed of dry leaves. The Phaeacian king, Alcinoüs, has an unmarried daughter named Nausicaä, who finds the naked, dirty Odysseus while she is out washing clothes. She leads him to the king (at a respectful distance), who receives him with great hospitality, and the next day Odysseus tells the tale of his previous wanderings.
Odysseus shows his resourcefulness in this situation. It is rare for a hero to be described in such shameful circumstances, or to have to find shelter in a pitiful situation without the help of any god or magical object. This is what makes Odysseus a much more relatable hero.
The narrative is now told by Odysseus, and picks up after he departed Troy and was struck by Poseidon’s storm. He and his men first come to the island of the Lotus-Eaters, a people who eat constantly of a stupefying flower and live in lethargic bliss. Some of Odysseus’s men try the lotus and then will not leave the island, as all memory of home fades from their minds, but Odysseus drags them away anyway.
The tale then jumps back to the beginning. Many of Odysseus’s obstacles will involve the temptation to forget – to abandon his obligations to his wife and son, and stay in whatever luxurious situation he finds himself. The Lotus-Eaters symbolize this, and also offer an early representation of the addictive mindset.
Odysseus’s next adventure is with the Cyclops Polyphemus, but Hamilton only mentions it briefly, as she already described it in Part I, Chapter IV. Polyphemus is Poseidon’s son, so his defeat only makes Poseidon even more angry at Odysseus.
The defeat of Polyphemus is a traditional hero-overcomes-monster story, but with Odysseus it involves him using his cleverness as well as his strength.
Next Odysseus goes to King Aeolus, the keeper of the Winds. When Odysseus departs, Aeolus gives him a leather sack full of all the Storm Winds, so that Odysseus’s journey will be smooth as long as he keeps the sack closed. His curious crew, thinking there is treasure inside, opens the sack and unleashes a storm that blows them to the land of the Laestrygons. These are cannibals of gigantic size, and they destroy all of Odysseus’s ships except one.
Odysseus’s crew often seems his greatest obstacle, as here they act like Pandora and open a forbidden bag. Cannibalism has not appeared much yet, but here among the Laestrygons it is symbolic of the most horrific kind of monster possible – a human monster. They also represent another dangerous, frightening foreign nation.
The remaining men then come to the island of Aeaea, which is home to the witch Circe. Several men scout ahead and encounter her, and she turns them all into pigs except for one who escapes. He warns Odysseus of the danger, and then Hermes gives Odysseus a magic herb that will protect him from Circe’s spells. He then confronts Circe, and when her magic doesn’t work on him she falls in love with Odysseus. She turns his men back into humans and treats them all with great hospitality for a whole year.
This challenge ends in another long dalliance. He is not held captive as he was by Calypso, but simply lingers with another woman who isn’t his wife. Part of the complexity of Odysseus’s character is his constant desire for new experiences. He faces many obstacles on his journey, but he seems to relish each one and find satisfaction in new experiences for their own sake.
When they are ready to leave, Circe uses her magical knowledge to tell them what to do next. They must cross the river Ocean and then Odysseus must descend to Hades and speak to the dead prophet Teiresias. Odysseus travels to Hades, digs a trench, and fill it with sheep’s blood, which draws the spirits of the dead. Odysseus finds Teiresias among the crowd and questions him. Teiresias says that Odysseus will eventually return home, but that he must be careful not to harm the oxen of the Sun.
Like many heroes, Odysseus must travel to the underworld to gain knowledge for the next part of his journey. The warning against the oxen of the Sun is one of the simple commands found in many myths that are always disobeyed. There is only the question of what the divine punishment will be.
After Teiresias finishes speaking, Odysseus sees several other dead Greek heroes approaching to drink the sheep blood. He talks briefly with Achilles and Ajax, but then flees when the numbers of the dead grow too great.
The specter of the Trojan War still looms large in this tale, as with Telemachus meeting Menelaus and Helen. The dead grow more terrifying than in other myths.
Odysseus sets sail again and prepares to pass the island of the Sirens, magical singers who lure sailors to their deaths. Circe had warned him of them, so Odysseus makes his men stop up their ears with wax as they pass by, but Odysseus himself wants to hear their song, so he makes his men tie him to the mast with his ears left unplugged. The ship sails past, and the Sirens sing to Odysseus about the great knowledge they can give him.
This episode shows most clearly Odysseus’s thirst for new experiences and wisdom. It is also telling that the Sirens sing to him about special knowledge, implying that this is the thing he desires above all else. The Sirens, like the Lotus-Eaters, also symbolize the temptation to forget Ithaca and linger forever.
Odysseus’s ship then passes between Scylla and Charybdis, the famously deadly rock-monster and whirlpool, and six of his men die there. They then arrive at the Island of the Sun. While Odysseus is away praying, his men foolishly kill and eat the oxen of the Sun. As they sail away a lightning bolt destroys the ship, killing every except for Odysseus. He then drifts for days until he comes to Calypso’s island.
Scylla and Charybdis appear as classic obstacles on most hero’s quests. As Teiresias predicted, Odysseus’s foolish crew disobeys the one rule they were given. This is a straightforward example of hubris or stupidity leading men to insult the gods, and the gods immediately punishing them.
Odysseus finishes his tale and the narrative returns to the present. The Phaeacians pity Odysseus for his hardships, and they prepare a ship to take him home. Odysseus falls asleep on the ship and wakes up on a beach in Ithaca. Athena comes to him and they greet each other. She tells him about the suitors, and then changes Odysseus into the form of an old beggar and sends him to Eumaeus, a faithful swineherd.
Athena and Odysseus greet each other like old friends – to Odysseus the gods seem more like allies or enemies rather than deities to be worshipped. Athena seems to act to purposefully make Odysseus’s homecoming more dramatic.
Athena then goes to Telemachus, who is still with Menelaus, and urges him to return home, but to stop by the swineherd’s shack for news first. When Odysseus and Telemachus are alone, Athena returns Odysseus to his true form and father and son greet each other joyfully. They then come up with a plan to dispose of the suitors, and Odysseus resumes his disguise before Eumaeus returns.
Odysseus has his hero’s return, but he has not overthrown his usurpers yet. They come up with a plan to do this as surprisingly and dramatically as possible, keeping Odysseus’s identity a secret even from the faithful Eumaeus.
The next day Odysseus returns to his palace for the first time in twenty years. No one recognizes him except for Argos, his old faithful dog. Argos is so weak that he can only lift his head and wag his tail at Odysseus’s approach, and then he dies when Odysseus turns away from him.
This is a tragic detail that shows Homer’s keen awareness of the deep humanity in the myths. Odysseus must keep up his disguise, so he does not greet the faithful dog.
When he enters, the suitors mock the beggar-Odysseus, and one of them even strikes him. This is a breach of hospitality, and Penelope hears of the outrage and enters the hall. She summons an old nurse, Eurycleia, to tend to the beggar. The old woman washes his feet, and then recognizes Odysseus from a scar on his foot. Odysseus immediately swears her to secrecy, even from Penelope.
The suitors prove themselves to be villainous beyond doubt when they strike a guest unprovoked. Homer builds the tension in these scenes – everyone knows the suitors will be punished for their presumption, and the question is only when and how.
The next day Penelope, who has almost given up hope, orders a banquet and contest for the suitors. If any of them can string Odysseus’s enormous bow and then shoot an arrow through twelve rings, he can marry Penelope. All the suitors try, but none of them can even string the bow. Then Odysseus quietly reveals himself to Eumaeus and orders him to bar the doors of the banquet hall.
This is another sort of hero’s task to prove the suitors unworthy of Odysseus’s place. Part of Odysseus’s heroism, or at least his interest as a character, is his ability to disguise himself and defeat his enemies with cunning and planning rather than simple brute strength.
The beggar-Odysseus asks for a chance to string the bow. The suitors mock him, but he quickly strings the bow and shoots an arrow through the twelve rings. He then reveals himself and begins shooting arrows at the suitors, who are unarmed and panicked, and the doors are all barred. Telemachus and Athena both join the slaughter, and soon all the suitors are killed. Only two remain – a priest and a bard, both begging for mercy. Odysseus spares the poet, but kills the priest.
The long-awaited vengeance falls swiftly and violently, and though it is gruesome it is less ambiguous than the Fall of Troy, as the suitors have proved themselves wicked and deserving of punishment. Hamilton emphasizes that Odysseus spares the poet, not the priest, which implies that creating beautiful art is more holy than even worship. This could also be Homer singing his own praises.
Penelope, who has been sleeping, hears the news and enters to see Odysseus in his hall. They greet each other with disbelieving joy, and then are reunited after twenty years apart. Everyone on Ithaca is glad at Odysseus’s return, and they live happily ever after.
The Odyssey is more complex and “modern” than the Iliad, but it ends more neatly and happily than the brutal Trojan War. Odysseus returns to fulfill his true role, and succeeds against all the temptations to forget his duty.