Invitation to World Literature
The Odyssey The Odyssey – Getting Started
The Long Journey Home
The Odyssey may be familiar to you — almost every high school English teacher in the United States assigns some part of the epic for students to read. You may have read a few episodes—Cyclops, Circe, the Sirens, Odysseus killing the suitors—or you may have read the whole thing. If you did read the whole thing, you most likely either remember some of it or none of it. It’s a very long story, and when you’re under a deadline (“read 80 pages for tomorrow”) you don’t really have time to read for enjoyment.
Here you get the chance to read The Odyssey on your own terms and on your own schedule. If ever there were a story that demanded a relaxed reader, it’s The Odyssey. You’re on a ten-year journey with Odysseus, and each island he and his steadily shrinking crew land on introduces a new story. Trying to gun through it just so you can say you’re done will produce no feelings of interest, joy, or sorrow—which means the whole point of an epic poem has been missed. There’s no obligation to start at page one and read to the conclusion. Just as you do on any journey you make, keep an eye out for adventure, choose the adventures you want to take part in, and enjoy them to the fullest.
Associate Professor of Classics, Yale University:
“From the time which it began to circulate in the Greek world, The Odyssey was acknowledged as a traveler’s text. So Alexander the Great, when he set off to Egypt, had a copy of The Odysseywith him. Lawrence of Arabia is the other classic explorer who is famous for citing The Odysseyas his inspirational text. I’ve heard it said The Odyssey was a text that Columbus traveled with, and that in addition to the Bible, it was one of his master narratives for his New World exploration. There’s seldom a period when The Odyssey falls out of view.”
The “Dark Age” of Greece, about which we know very little
First use of the Phoenician alphabet in Greece
Late 700s-early 600s
Accomplished oral poet(s) first commit the epics of Troy and Odysseus to writing
The Odyssey is copied and preserved by scholars of the Byzantine Empire
Byzantium falls and its manuscripts of The Odyssey travel west into Europe, where few scholars are able to read ancient Greek
The Odyssey is translated into English
The Odyssey, like The Iliad, was first told as a series of stories in the “Dark Age” of Greece that came after the fall of the Mycenaean kingdom in 1100 BCE. We call it the Dark Age because we know so little about Greek society at that time. Mycenean Greeks had fought the Trojan War around 1200 BCE, and stories of the great heroes and battles of that war that came to be called the Iliad must have been very popular, especially in the difficult days after the destruction of the Mycenaean kingdom.
The stories of the Trojan War featured many heroes, one of whom was Odysseus. Odysseus was not a major character in the war, and his moment of fame at Troy came not through victorious violence on the battlefield but through mental cunning—it was Odysseus who thought up the scheme of the Trojan Horse with which the Greeks overcame the city. Odysseus was transformed from an smart guy to a great hero through the telling of his adventures after the war in the stories that came to be known as The Odyssey.
For four hundred years the tales of Odysseus were told person-to-person, in live performance, by poets who sang set pieces such as Odysseus’ battle of wits with the Cyclops or his slaughter of the suitors in Ithaca. These individual parts of the story were likely told on their own. They were probably not yet put together into the single, very long work we know today as The Odyssey. Telling the story from beginning to end was not the priority that it is for us. Episodes were complete in themselves. It is only with the introduction of writing that the idea of complete works became important, and the system of writing that had been used by the Mycenaean Greeks had been lost with their kingdom. Even if it had survived, it was not the kind of writing that could have been used to create expressive literature. That would come later, with Homer.
The Homeric epics— The Iliad and The Odyssey—were probably first written down in the late seventh and early sixth centuries BCE, after writing had returned to Greece. Greeks adopted the Phoenician alphabet—the basis of our own alphabet—and began to write again in the early seventh century BCE. Was Homer a real person? We can never know for sure. But it seems plausible that an accomplished professional oral poet who learned to read and write decided to write out the set pieces that were the separate tales of Odysseus, then wrote new connecting material to tie them all together into one well-structured narrative. (In this way, Homer was much like Sin-liqe-unninni, the ancient Akkadian who created The Epic of Gilgamesh called “He who saw the deep” out of the various poems and epic fragments about the great Sumerian king.) After this first poet made the transition from oral to written work, others likely added to his original composition and eventually, over centuries, The Iliad and The Odyssey took their final forms.
The Odyssey depicts a world in which there is no strong central authority to impose law and order on people. There are kings, to be sure, but their power is limited because they rule over many small city-states and often function more as clan leaders than as absolute monarchs. For the average ancient Greek, and for the characters of The Odyssey, there is only one internationally recognized social law: hospitality. The relation between host and guest was almost the most important social relationship. Without courts of common law, order was maintained only by custom, and the custom of hospitality was central. No matter who you were, king or farmer, you were obligated to follow the laws of hospitality: welcoming any and all guests, giving them all the food, clothing, or money you possibly could when asked for it, and giving them a present when they left you. And guests had obligations, too: expressing gratitude appropriate to the gifts they were given, not imposing too much on someone’s hospitality, and giving the host a gift when you left him. As Odysseus travels the known and unknown world, he is the guest of many men and gods/goddesses, whether he wants to be or not. At home in Ithaca, his wife and son are reluctant hosts to terrible guests (the suitors for Penelope). In almost all cases, the rules of hospitality are followed, but when they are not, the consequences are terrible.
For ancient Greeks, the story of The Odyssey was a comforting reminder of past glories and great leaders during a difficult time. For later generations, The Odyssey has been a treasure-trove of exciting, fantastical adventures, a portrayal of early Greek colonization, a heroic tale of brain overcoming brawn, a shabby story of lying and greed, and much more. All readers find a unique meaning in the story, one born out of their own experience and their own assessment of the hero, Odysseus, who is an enduring man of many schemes.
The language of the Homeric poets was not like the spoken Greek of their time. It was literary and archaic, filled with metaphors and ornate ways of writing, and words that were literary in origin and some of which may have become outdated. All the same, passages from the Homeric works were on the tongues of the Greek people who loved them. Think of Homeric language as Shakespearean: We recognize it as English, we can make sense of it, and parts of it speak to us with their poetic power—we can even memorize long passages like the “To be or not to be” soliloquy of Hamlet—but we would never speak like Shakespeare’s characters do in our own daily lives.
The Odyssey is written in dactylic hexameter, meaning it consists of lines that have six beats based on a long syllable followed by two short syllables. Unlike English poetry, which bases its lines on which syllables are stressed, Greek hexameter bases its lines on how long the syllables are, mixing long and short syllables to create the proper six-beat lines.
Epithets are an important component of the poem. These are the adjectives that describe people and things. You’ll notice that a single place or person or thing has many different epithets: Odysseus’ home island of Ithaca is described as rocky, seagirt, and clear skied. Ships can be hollow, swift, black, well benched, well oared, scooped out, fast moving, or black prowed. Odysseus himself is much-enduring, brilliant, and a man of many schemes.
These epithets are not just there for descriptive purposes. They are there to keep the hexameter flowing. In a line where a boat is mentioned and the oral poet needed a long phrase to complete the line, a longer epithet for “boat” would be used. If a short word or phrase was needed, a different epithet would fill in. This practice was maintained in the written version. These epithets are one proof that the set-piece poems that told the story of Odysseus were not memorized by their original generations of oral poets; those poets improvised, pulling the right epithet out of the air while singing. But once the Homeric poets wrote their version and created the epic, their text would use the same epithets in the same places.
Achilles was the greatest of the Greek warriors in the Trojan War. Odysseus meets him in the underworld in Book 11, leading Odysseus to question the value of living a heroic but short life.
This great goddess of wisdom and war is Odysseus’ special guardian and advisor. She helps both Odysseus and Telemachus on their journeys, and takes Odysseus’ side when the gods condemn him. She eventually sees Odysseus safely home.
Odysseus’ father has given himself over to grief for his only son whom he thinks is dead. He lives like a slave in rags, removed from society. Odysseus will reveal himself to Laertes on his return to Ithaca, but only after challenging Laertes’ unheroic appearance and waking the old man up to his responsibilities as a leader. Father will join son in fighting against the fathers of the slain suitors at the end of the book.
He is the king of Sparta, who led the Greeks in the Trojan War to recover his wife Helen. Menelaus takes Telemachus under his wing and offers to help him find his father.
Odysseus, Greek soldier at Troy and ruler of Ithaca
Odysseus has confounded readers for centuries. Is his craftiness admirable or base? Do we pity him for his homesickness and his long journey home and admire his resourcefulness in overcoming the many dangers he faces? Or do we disdain him for his willingness to linger with beautiful goddesses, to veer off track in search of treasure, and to boast of his own cleverness to all who will listen?
Wife of Odysseus, Penelope is just as clever as her husband. She manages to hold off the 108 obnoxious, disrespectful men who come to ask for her hand in marriage (Odysseus, having been gone for twenty years, is presumed dead) and she tests Odysseus when he at last comes home to her.
Odysseus’ son has no memory of his father, who left for Troy when Telemachus was an infant. The young man tries to cast out the terrible suitors living in his father’s house, but while valiant, he is too young. He makes his own journeys to find the strength and wisdom to become a great man like his father.
Recommended Translations & Editions
- Robert Fagles, The Odyssey, Penguin Classics, 1999.
- This is our recommended text. It is a best-selling recent version by a distinguished classicist, eloquently giving the epic’s long lines a modern flavor, with an informative introduction by Bernard Knox.
- Robert Fitzgerald, The Odyssey, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1998.
- A classic 1950s translation in a spare, modernist manner.
- Alexander Pope, The Odyssey of Homer, Book Jungle, 2007.
- A fascinating period piece, recasting Homer in the voice of a gentleman poet of the eighteenth century, complete with rhymed couplets and also extensive, quirky annotations by Pope himself. Not a version to read through, but well worth a look, to see how Homer came into English poetry; available on the Web.
The greatest of the Greek warriors at Troy, Achilles deliberately chose a short life and a hero’s death over a long life of average distinction. He meets Odysseus in the underworld, where his existence seems very grim. But Achilles is glad when Odysseus tells him that Achilles’ son has carried on as a hero in battle on earth, leading to his own likely early death.
The king of Mycenae and leader of the Greek army at Troy. Unlike Odysseus, Agamemnon was betrayed by his wife. She took a lover while Agamemnon was fighting at Troy, and together they killed Agamemnon when he returned home. His spirit meets with Odysseus in Hades.
The worst of the suitors and the first to die by Odysseus’s hand.
Daughter of Zeus and goddess of wisdom and battle. Athena is Odysseus’ patroness, and she helps him and his son Telemachus through their trials, eventually bringing Odysseus home to Ithaca.
The nymph who falls in love with Odysseus when he lands on her island, and who keeps him prisoner there for seven years as her lover until Zeus sends the god Hermes to tell her to let Odysseus go. The Odyssey begins at this point in the story, and earlier events are told in flashbacks.
A goddess who turns Odysseus’ crew into pigs, then keeps Odysseus on her island as her lover for a year.
The island kingdom of Odysseus.
King of Sparta, Menelaus is Agamemnon’s brother. His wife Helen was spirited to Troy, thus causing the Trojan War when the Greeks go to get her back. Now back home, Menelaus helps Telemachus in his journey.
The Phaeacian princess who finds Odysseus washed up on the shore of her home and convinces her father to allow Odysseus safe passage back to Ithaca in Phaeacian ships.
Ruler of Ithaca, Greek veteran of the Trojan War. Sentenced by Poseidon to be kept from his home and family for ten years after the war, Odysseus is constantly hampered in his return by gods, goddesses, monsters, and the weather, overcoming all with his wit and determination.
Wife of Odysseus, Penelope spends ten years fending off the 108 men who clamor for her hand in marriage. She remains faithful to her husband, for whom she is a match when it comes to wit and cleverness.
Polyphemos the Cyclops
Son of Poseidon, Polyphemos does not observe the laws of hospitality when Odysseus lands on his island. He imprisons Odysseus and his men and plans to eat them all. Odysseus escapes by blinding the Cyclops, thus earning Poseidon’s wrath.
God of the oceans, he curses Odysseus for blinding his son, Polyphemos the Cyclops. Poseidon enlists the help of gods and nature to keep Odysseus from returning home.
Creatures whose song is so beautiful no human man can resist it; they sing to sailors, luring their boats to crash on the rocky shores of their island. Odysseus has his men tie him to the mast of his ship and cover their own ears as they sail past, so that Odysseus can hear the song without dying.
The 108 men living in Odysseus’ palace at Ithaca for ten years, waiting for Penelope to accept one of them as her husband. They break the laws of hospitality by ruining Odysseus’ kingdom, eating everything in sight and laying the palace and the land to waste with their selfishness. They are also rude to Telemachus and disrespectful of Penelope, which guarantees their destruction when Odysseus returns home.
A great, blind prophet whom Odysseus meets in the underworld (Hades) and who tells him how to get back to Ithaca and how to communicate with the spirits of the dead.
Odysseus’ son. Telemachus was just an infant when his father left to fight the Trojan War, but he realizes he cannot wait for his father’s return to take control of his own fate and become a man in his own right.
The great city on the coast of Asia Minor (today’s Turkey) and to the east of Greece where the Trojan War was fought to return Helen to her husband Menelaus.
Greatest of all gods, Zeus sometimes helps Odysseus but allows Poseidon to dam up the harbor of the Phaeacians who have finally given Odysseus a ship in which to go home.
Unit 1 The Epic of Gilgamesh
The first known human story is that of Gilgamesh, king of Uruk. Images of artifacts from ancient Iraq mix with beautiful illustrations, dance, and costume to tell of the relations between gods and mortals, the search for friendship, love, and immortality. Featured cast members include Assyriologist Ben Foster, comic book illustrator Jim Starlin, and poet and playwright Yusef Komunyakaa.
Unit 2 My Name Is Red
Both an historical novel and a graphic murder mystery set among the miniaturists of the Ottoman court. With its focus on Istambul, a major crossroads of the world, it tells of the artistic/cultural contest between Europe and the East. Cast members include the book's Nobel-prize winning author, Orhan Pamuk, and its English translator, Erdağ Göknar.
Unit 3 The Odyssey
Odysseus must travel the known and unknown world before he can return home to his beloved island kingdom of Ithaca. What does this ancient story say to readers today? In this program, Odysseus's story is given ancient and modern historical and philosophical context, and illustrated with centuries of art. Featured are theater director Mary Zimmerman, actor-director Tim Blake-Nelson, and psychologist/author Jonathan Shay.
Unit 4 The Bacchae
The city of Thebes is torn apart by the conflicting demands of reason and religion, as the disguised god Dionysus returns to his home town demanding to be worshipped. Opposing him is the young king Pentheus, who is doomed to suffer the ultimate punishment for his disbelief. Featured speakers include world-renowned playwright/author Wole Soyinka, actor Alan Cumming, and Daniel Mendelsohn of Bard College.
Unit 5 The Bhagavad Gita
This epic tale of the warrior-prince Arjuna confronting a life-or-death dilemma during civil war presents a unique and powerful philosophy of duty, discipline, and serving a higher purpose. Beautiful illustrations connect the story with its rich history and culture. Featured speakers include Sheldon Pollock, Professor of Sanskrit Studies and acclaimed composer Philip Glass.
Unit 6 The Tale of Genji
This portrait of court life in medieval Japan follows the life and exploits of the great Genji. Written by Murasaki Shikibu, a lady of the Japanese court, it provides an insider's view of Japanese court life, the official and behind the screen. Art, clothing, music from the time of the novel illustrate the obserations of authors Jane Smiley and Chiori Miyagawa, among others.
Unit 7 Journey to the West
The powerful and mischievous Stone Monkey King brings chaos to heaven and earth. Freed from a mountain prison in order to guard a Chinese monk on his journey to retrieve the Buddhist scriptures from India, Monkey seeks his own spiritual transformation. Modern performance, contemporary art, and Buddhist philosophers provide a rich context to the ancient tale. Featured cast members include playwright David Henry Huang, storyteller Diane Wolkstein, and translator Professor Anthony Yu.
Unit 8 Popol Vuh
The Mayan book of creation, the dawn of life, and the glories of gods and kings. This magnificent epic was saved from destruction at the hands of the Spanish by Quiché chroniclers. Once repressed, the story is now interwoven with the history of today's Mayan people. Featured speakers include archaeologist Richard Hanson, humorist Mo Rocca, and Guatemalan artist Shuni Giron.
Unit 9 Candide
A satirical novel following the travails of Candide, a hopeless optimist whose faith in his tutor's mantra that his is "the best of all possible worlds" is tested beyond all limits. Voltaire's challenge to the aristocracy of his day proves refreshingly amusing and biting today. Original illustrations, songs, and comic book figures plumb the depths of this satire. Featured speakers include director Harold Ramis, actress Kristin Chenoweth, and cartoonist Chris Ware.
Unit 10 Things Fall Apart
In this foundational modern African novel, Chinua Achebe's story follows the lives of people trying to understand which belief systems deserve their loyalty. The protagonist, Okonkwo is a tribal leader who battles neighboring villages, the English, and his own demons in early colonial Nigeria. The perspectives of readers from around the world reveal the novel's universal themes. Cast members include playwright and professor Tess Onwueme and theater director Chuck Mike.
Unit 11 One Hundred Years of Solitude
Gabriel García Márquez's multigenerational saga of the Buendía family in the isolated town of Macondo inaugurated the boom in Latin American literature in the 1970s and marked the beginning of magical realism. Writer Sandra Cisneros and scholar of Latin American literature, Ilan Stavans lend their thoughts and voices to the discussion of this epic novel.
Unit 12 The God of Small Things
Fraternal twins Rahel and Estha struggle to reclaim their lives after their childhood is destroyed by tragic circumstances. As past and present merge in this narrative of Indian society and politics, the many layers of the caste system are mirrored in the poetic and inventive language of the author. Featured speakers include Simon Gikandi of Princeton University, author Evelyn Ch'ien.
Unit 13 The Thousand and One Nights
Shahrazad must hold the interest of her despotic husband the sultan with nightly tales, lest she lose her life in the morning. This wellspring of storytelling, circulating from medieval Persia to Egypt to Iraq, like its wily raconteur lives on in many modern adaptations. Art, performance, and film images are employed to show the collection's broad span of influence. Featured speakers include Marin Alsop, musical director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and Aly Jetha and Shabnam Rezai, co-producers of the 1001 Nights animated series.