The legendary story of Odysseus
The word Odyssey has come to mean a journey of epic proportions. The word comes from Homer's epic poem The Odyssey, written in the 8th century BC and it is a sequel to Homer's other epic poem, The Iliad, which describes the last days of the great Trojan War. The Odyssey speaks of Odysseus' adventures that delay by a decade the return to his beloved homeland, Ithaca.
The Odyssey was probably a popular story transmitted down the generations orally, with Homer writing down the story in one narrative. The story is told by Homer in a flashback format and narrates the legendary journey of king Odysseus to return home, to his palace and family, after the Trojan War had ended.
Discover the myth of Odysseus
Odysseus, a legendary man
According to Homer, Laertes and Anticleia were the parents of Odysseus. He was married to Penelope and they gave birth to a son, Telemachus. Odysseus was often called "Odysseus the Cunning" because of his clever and quick mind. Autolycus, his grandfather, was a famous skilled thief in the Peloponnese. The Romans transformed the name Odysseus to Ulysses and that is how he is mostly known today all over the world.
Odysseus had a proud and arrogant character. He was the master of disguise in both appearance and voice. He also excelled as a military commander and ruler, as is evident from the role he played in ensuring to the Greeks the victory over Troy, giving thus an end to the long Trojan War.
The fall of Troy
All began the day Paris of Troy abducted Helen, wife of Menelaus, king of Sparta. Enraged, Menelaus called upon all kings of Greece, including Odysseus, as all had once vowed to defend the honour of Helen, if someone ever tried to insult her. Odysseus, however, tried to escape the promise made to Menelaus by feigning insanity. Agamemnon, the brother of Menelaus proved Odysseus to be lying and henceforth the legendary warrior set out for Troy, along with Agamemnon the lord of men, Achilles the invincible, Nestor he wise and Teucer the master archer, as they were called.
Ten years had passed since the Greeks attacked Troy and they were all still there, outside the strong walls, fighting with the locals, who proved themeselves brave warriors. In the tenth year of the war, Odysseus the Cunning, the most trusted advisor and counsellor of king Agamemnon, the leader of the Greeks, devised a plan to deceive the Trojans. He wanted to make them believe that the Greeks had lost their nerves and had returned back to Greece.
In the middle of the night, the Greeks deserted Troy leaving only a gigantic wooden horse on wheels outside the gates of the city. When dawn broke, the Trojans were surprised to see no Greek army surrounding them, only a wooden horse. They indeed believed that the Greeks had gone and had left this horse as a gift to the gods, to give them a good sea trip. Thus they wheeled the wooden horse into their city and started revelry to celebrate the end of the war.
However, unknown to the Trojans, Odysseus had built a hollow into the wooden horse to hide there a few Greek warriors. This plan was the only way to gain entry to the city that had held its defences for so many years. Now that they were inside Odysseus and his men went out the dummy horse and slaughtered the unsuspecting guards. Then they opened the city gates and allowed the entire Greek army, who were hiding some miles away, to enter the city. Thus, thanks to the plan of Odysseus, the Greeks won the Trojan War. With the war over, Odysseus and his men set sail for their homeland, Ithaca, but in the end only one of them would come back.
The long journey home
The journey home for Odysseus and his fellows would be long and full of adventures. Their eyes would see all the strange of the world and Odysseus would come home with more memories and experiences than any other person in the world.
Odysseus and his legion set sail from Troy aboard twelve ships. Tranquil waters facilitated the movement of the ships and they were well out to sea. After a few days, they sighted land and Eurylochus, second-in-command to Odysseus, convinced him to weigh anchor, go ashore and devastate the city with the assurance that they would not be harmed.
Seeing the ships weigh anchor and thenceforth the warriors coming ashore, the Ciconians, the local residents, fled to the nearby mountains. Odysseus and his men plundered and looted the empty city. However, the men of Odysseus resisted his efforts to get them back aboard the ship immediately and after a hearty meal accompanied by wine that flew like water, they fell asleep on the shore.
Before the first light, the Ciconians returned with their fierce neighbors and set upon the warriors, killing as many as they could. Odysseus and his men beat a hasty retreat to their ships but heavy damages had already been inflicted on their number. Berating himself for having listened to Eurylochus and thereafter losing so many valuable men, Odysseus and Eurylochus fought with each other but they were separated by their fellow-men and peace was once again established amidst the warriors.
Rounding to the south, Odysseus and his men were blown off-course, towards the land of the Lotus-Eaters. While Odysseus was scouting around the land, some of his men mingled with the natives and ate the local lotus grown on the land. Soon, everything went hazy and the men found themselves under the heavy influence of some intoxicant that caused them to fall asleep.
The lotus flowers they had eaten were narcotic in nature and made them forget all about their family and homeland. These men wanted to stay on this land and eat lotus for the rest of their lives. They refused to go home. Desperately, Odysseus and some other men had to carry them back to the ship. Without delay, they set sail and upon waking these men had to be bound to the masts to prevent them from jumping into the sea and swimming back to the shore to consume the lotus flower that they had got so addicted to.
Polyphemus the Cyclops
After sailing for many weeks without further adventure, the warriors chanced upon a strange land. Odysseus and a handful of his men went ashore to search the land.
A few minutes walk from the ships brought them to the mouth of a gigantic cave. Curious, the warriors entered the cave and found it to be the habitation of some gigantic being. Further on, they found flocks of sheep inside the cave and being hungry, they slaughtered a few of them and feasted on their flesh. Unknown to them, this was the lair of Polyphemus the Cyclops and this land was the home of the gigantic Cyclopes.
Returning to his cave, Polyphemus blocked the entrance with a huge rock, as he usually did. Odysseus and his men ran towards the entrance but they were dismayed at the sight that greeted them. Here was a huge rock preventing their escape from a being that was even bigger than the rock. Laying his only eye on the warriors, Polyphemus asked who they were. Without revealing their identity or mission, Odysseus told Polyphemus they were sea-farers who had lost their way and had come ashore looking for food.
Unhappy that his sheep had been killed and eaten by these men, Polyphemus refused them to exit his cave. Every day he made a meal of two brave warriors, dashing their brains out on the walls of the cave and chewing them raw. Unable to bear this act of cruelty, Odysseus devised a plan to get them out. He had with him a gourd of strong wine and one day he offered it to Polyphemus, who grabbed it and poured it down his throat greedily. The wine made the Cyclops drowsy and within minutes he fell asleep. Odysseus and his remaining men took a red-hot poker from the fire-place and thrust it into the Cyclop's only eye, blinding him.
The sleeping giant awoke in shock, howling in pain and bellowing in rage, demanding to know who had done this. Yet again Odysseus presence of mind proved of the very essence and he shouted out that his name was "Nobody". Polyphemus, now on his feet and stumbling around created such a commotion that his fellow Cyclops came running to his lair to see what had happened. When they stood outside the cave and asked Polyphemus what had happened, the Cyclops said that Nobody had blinded him. The other Cyclopes laughed out loud, called him an idiot and told him there was nothing they could do for "Nobody" had hurt him.
The following morning, Odysseus and his men strapped themselves to the belly of the sheep and in this manner, they escaped when Polyphemus let his flocks out of his lair to graze. Once outside, the warriors ran to the safety of their ships. Odysseus, however, priding his brilliance, could not resist taunting Polyphemus. The moment they set sail, he shouted out to the Cyclops that it was he, Odysseus, who had blinded him. Enraged and unable to see, Polyphemus threw a massive rock in the direction of the voice. Luckily for Odysseus, it fell short of its target for else his ship would have been smashed. Polyphemus cried out to his father, the sea-god Poseidon, to avenge this ignominy and hereafter Odysseus became a sworn enemy of Poseidon.
The Bags of Aeolus
Fleeing the land of the Cyclopes, Odysseus found his ships nearing Aeolia, home of Aeolus, the god of the winds. Aeolus used to blow the wind over the sea and the land. After hearing of Odysseus' journey home, Aeolus gave him a bag full of winds that would guide him home safely. Odysseus set sail the seas once again and spent many sleepless nights guarding the bag until one day, too tired and overcome with fatigue, he fell asleep.
Curiosity overcame a couple of his men who had been awaiting the opportunity to grab the bag to see what their leader was guarding with his life. They got their chance the moment Odysseus fell asleep, as they were approaching the shore of Ithaca. Without a minute of hesitation, the two sailors opened the bag. The winds caught in the bag escaped and created a furious storm that drove the ships backwards. Sensing something wrong in the motion of the ship Odysseus awoke with a start only to find himself back at Aeolia. This time, Aeolus declined to give again the gift of the winds and a heartbroken Odysseus set out once again on the arduous journey back to Ithaca.
Out of the darkness of night, an island was raising in the distance. This was Telepylos, an island with natural defences in the form of the cliffs and with only one narrow passage in. Each ship passed into the calm harbor surrounded by cliffs with the exception of Odysseus, who for some reason anchored it in the turbulent waters outside.
Two warriors went ashore to explore the island and they came across a girl who took them to her father. Nearing the castle, they saw a gigantic woman who called out to her husband. A giant man, her husband, came running out and snatching up one of the men devoured him alive. The other ran for his life and the entire race of giants that inhabited the land gave chase to him. At the harbor, Odysseus' men ran for cover but the giants smashed their ships with massive rocks and speared them alive. Only Odysseus managed to escape on his ship with some sailors on it since he had anchored it outside the island.
Circe the Enchantress
Having barely saved their lives, Odysseus and the men aboard the one surviving ship landed on the island, Aeaea, home to the powerful Circe, enchantress and powerful sorceress. With the help of strong magic and unknown to the warriors, Circe had already envisioned their arrival on her island. Some fellows of Odysseus who had been sent to explore the island, walked into the palace of Circe and saw her sitting on her magnificent throne, surrounded by wild animals who were once men. The beautiful enchantress, with one touch of her stick, turned the mighty warriors into pigs.
With the help of god Hermes, Odysseus drank a certain herb that protected him from Circe's magic. When she saw him, the sorceress found her spells to be ineffective and on his demand that his men be turned back into human form, the sorceress agreed but only if Odysseus shared her bed-chamber. Odysseus consented and moreover, he and his men spent a whole year on this island. At the end of that year, Odysseus decided to depart from Aeaea and continue his way home. Circe, having the ability to predict the future, gave him instructions on what to do afterwards. She advised him to go to the Underworld and meet the blind prophet Tiresius to ask him for instructions.
The Journey to the Underworld
No alive man had ever entered the Underworld. But brave Odysseus decided to do so, in order to continue his journey and reach Ithaca at last! Odysseus and his men made sacrifices to god Hades by the shores of the River Acheron and Odysseus alone took the path to the dark Underworld. Tiresius appeared to Odysseus and the blind prophet told him that in order to get home he had to pass between Scylla and Charybdis, two great monsters.
Leaving Hades, Odysseus and his men sailed for many days without sight of land. Not before long, though, strange disquieting sounds reached the ears of the men aboard the ship. The sounds tugged at their hearts and made them want to weep with joy. Odysseus at once realized that they were approaching the Sirens that Circe had warned him about.
The sorceress had told him to block every man's ears with wax for if any were to hear the song of the Sirens, he would surely jump off the ship, go close to the Sirens and the winged monsters would kill them. Odysseus did exactly that with his men, but he himself wanted to hear their strange song. He thus ordered his sailors to tie him up to the mast so he could not jump into the sea in an attempt to meet the Sirens.
With their ears blocked with wax, the men heard nothing and the ship passed near the Sirens. Suddenly, Odysseus wanted to get free of his bonds and swim towards the Sirens for their song had just become clear and it was very beautiful and captivating. But the ropes were very tight and fortunately he could not untie himself. His fellows could hear neither the Sirens neither the screams of their leader, who was praying them to untie him. As the ship was sailing away from the shore, the song of the Sirens was fading out.
Scylla and Charybdis
Following the advice of Tiresius, Odysseus chose the route that would take him on one side close to Scylla, a six-headed monster who had once been a woman and on the other side Charybdis, a violent whirlpool. Tiresius had advised Odysseus to sacrifice six men to Scylla so they might pass through without losing any more men.
Approaching the mouth of the strait between Scylla and Charybdis the warriors shrank back in fear for on either side were violent deaths. Only Odysseus was quiet, sad that he would have to lose six brave warriors but he was ready to do so, in order to save the others. As they passed by Scylla, she picked up six men and allowed the rest to pass through safely. Odysseus never forgot the screams of the men he had to sacrifice and to the very end of his days he lamented his betrayal. He had not informed a single warrior of his motive. Then his ship passed from Charibdys but managed to survive.
The Cattle of Helios
Weary and tired from the ordeal, Odysseus ordered his ship to weigh anchor at the island of Thrinacia. This island was sacred to the sun god Helios whose cattle grazed freely here. Even though Odysseus had been warned by Tiresius and Circe not to harm any of the cattles, his men defied him and set about slaughtering and feasting on them.
Immediately Helios complained to Zeus, vowing to take vengeance by sending the sun down to Hades, never to rise again. Zeus in response sank Odysseus ship with a thunderbolt as it was leaving Thrinacia and destroyed every man aboard with the exception of the valiant leader. Somehow, a floundering Odysseus was swept past Scylla and Charybdis and washed up ashore on an unknown island.
Seven years with Calypso
The island that Odysseus found himself was Ogygia and it was there where he spent seven years with the nymph Calypso, who found him unconscious on the beach. She promised him immortality in exchange for his love, but soon Odysseus sensed once again the desire to see Ithaca and his family, his unfortunate wife and his son who would have grown up till then.
Even a beautiful and powerful goddess like Calypso couldn't fill this feeling of the unaccomplished that Odysseus was always carrying into his heart. However, Calypso had fallen in love with him and wouldn't let him go. On the behalf of Zeus, Hermes appeared before Calypso and told her to let Odysseus go. One day finally, on a raft that he built himself, Odysseus set off for Ithaca with a wooden float but once again he was caught in the middle of a storm and shore to another strange land.
Meanwhile on Ithaca
Telemachus, the son of Odysseus who had just turned twenty, decided to set out in search of his long-gone father. His mother had woes of her own. She was constantly plagued by suitors asking for her hand, since ten years had passed from the end of the Trojan War and her husband had not returned. Day after day, she fended off their advances with an ingenious trick. She told the suitors that she was weaving a burial shroud for Odysseus' father and only when it was complete, would she even think to marry anyone of them.
Penelope's trick was to weave the cloth in the daytime and undo it at night, so the suitors were kept waiting indefinitely, until her husband would return. However, a chambermaid betrayed her to the suitors and soon they were back, asking for her hand and the kingdom of Ithaca.
Knowing that his mother was successfully keeping her 108 suitors away, Telemachus decided to set out on his quest. Aided by goddess Athena and along with some of his faithful warriors, he went to Sparta to meet Menelaus and ask him if he had any news from his father. Unfortunately, Menelaus knew nothing and Telemachus disappointed returned to Ithaca.
The land of the Phaeacians, which the historians believe is modern Corfu, was where Odysseus found himself after a terrible storm. Nafsica, the local princess, found Odysseus exhausted and naked on the shore and led him to the palace of her father. While in the court of King Alcinous and Queen Arete, he heard the bard Demodocus sing of the Trojan War.
Odysseus was overcome with grief at hearing stories about the war and of the Trojan Horse that had been his invention. It was then that the emotions came crashing down on him and he broke down into tears. The people gathered around him asked who he really was and why the story affected him. It was then that Odysseus revealed his true identity and his struggles to reach Ithaca.
After listening to his ordeals, the Phaeacians gave him their fastest ship, the best of their provisions and bid him good luck on his way home. And so it was that the hero finally returned to Ithaca, eager to see his wife Penelope and son Telemachus, from both of whom he had been separated for two whole decades.
Finally on Ithaca
The arrival of Odysseus on Ithaca went unnoticed and, in the guise of a beggar, he approached the palace. He first met his old servants and his beloved son, Telemachus. From them, he learnt about the suitors that have been bothering Penelope for so long. Odysseus, still in the form of a beggar, he met his wife, who didn't recognize him.
He told her about her husband's bravery and how he had helped in winning the Trojan War. These tails brought tears to her eyes. Calming herself, she approached the suitors who were always hanging around the palace and set them a simple task. Penelope would marry any one of them who could string Odysseus' bow and shoot an arrow through twelve axe-handles joined together.
The suitors pushed and shoved each other to be the first to succeed but little did they know that the task they faced was impossible. Stringing the bow that belonged to Odysseus was not an easy task for it required not brute strength but dexterity. One by one, each suitor tried his luck but to no avail. Finally, Odysseus picked up the bow, stringing it with ease and in one fluid motion letting fly an arrow that pierced all the twelve axe-handles. After that, there was chaos.
Revealing his true identity, Odysseus began massacring the suitors and, aided by Telemachus and the swineherd Eumaeus, they had soon cleared the court of all 108 of them. The suitors were killed and the maid-servants, who had made themselves the pleasure slaves of the suitors, were all hung. When Penelope heard the massacre, she run to the court. Fazed by the sudden spate of events, she refused to believe that this strange beggar was indeed her long lost husband Odysseus, so she set up another test for him.
In front of Odysseus, Penelope ordered the palace servants to remove the bed from her bed-chamber to the hall outside. On hearing this, Odysseus bristled with anger and opposed the idea, saying that this bed had been fashioned out of a living oak by his own hand and none, save a god, none in the whole world could move it. Joyful, Penelope rushed to Odysseus and hugged him, with big tears in her eyes, for she was reassured that this man was her beloved husband returned to her. Only Odysseus knew the secret about their bed and his words were the proof she needed to believe him.
The real end
This, however, was not the end of Odysseus' journey. Prophet Tiresius had forewarned him that once he had reasserted himself as King of Ithaca, he should travel inland holding the oar of a ship. Indeed, after a few years, Odysseus crowned Telemachus King of Ithaca and left him and his wife Penelope to travel on the opposite inland.
Many days did he wander with the oar in hand seeking for people who would not know what it was but wherever he went, people recognized it as an oar. One day, far inland, opposite the shores of Ithaca, Odysseus came across those people who had never seen the sea and hence did not know what an oar was. There it was that Odysseus finished his life travel and took a local princess for his bride. For many years, he lived amongst these people and it was here that he breathed his last, far from the sea, his family and his beloved Ithaca.
Next myth: Myth of Jason and the Argonauts