Odysseus and the Odyssey
Odysseus the king of Ithaca and son of Laertes was considered the cleverest Greek hero and not surprisingly, he was protected by Athena, goddess of wisdom. He often found solutions for important problems: he was amongst Helen’s suitors, but to avoid war between them he made them all swear to respect Helen’s decision of whom to marry and to protect whoever she chose. Odysseus married Helen’s cousin Penelope and they had a son: Telemachus.
It had been prophesied that Odysseus would not return to his island for a long time if he joined the Greek army against Troy, so he pretended to be crazy when Palamedes came to Ithaca to enrol him. He put on torn clothes, and tried to sow the land with salt, while ploughing the fields with a goat and an ox. Palamedes then put the baby Telemachus in front of the plough which made Odysseus stop, revealing his sanity. After this, Odysseus hated Palamedes, and according to one story he got his revenge through forging a letter from the Trojan king to Palamedes and burying gold under his tent. When the letter and the gold were discovered Palamedes was accused of treason and sentenced to death.
During the Trojan war Odysseus played an important part. Together with Diomedes he stole king Rhesus’ horses, but the very next day he was wounded in battle. When Achilles was killed he held the Trojans back while Ajax carried the dead hero back to the camp. After the burial it was decided that Odysseus and not Ajax should get Achilles armour, and the latter committed suicide.
Odysseus was also the one to convince 50 of the Greek heroes to hide inside the Trojan horse. After the Trojan war Odysseus set off for Ithaca, which turned out to be an adventurous journey covering a decade.
The Odyssey is the story Odysseus tells king Alcinous of the Phaeax at dinner. Leaving Troy, Odysseus and his men drifted to the city of the Kikones, where a battle took place after the crew had plundered the city.
After this, they sailed off for Ithaca, but were carried away by a storm, which took them to the country of the Lotophages. This people ate the lotus plant, which was sweet but dangerous, since it made you forget everything. Odysseus managed to get his crew back on the ships, and off they went again.
Next, they landed on the island of Cyclops Polyphemus, this allegedly was the island of Your in the North Sporades. The giant shut the men inside his cave, ate a few of them and talked with Odysseus, who told the Cyclops his name was “No one”. When Polyphemus had fallen asleep he convinced his men to prepare a tree trunk, making it into a sharp weapon, which they put in the fireplace, and then thrust it into the Cyclops only eye. Crying with pain and anger, Polyphemus opened the sealed cave and tried to catch the escaping men. They had concealed themselves by clinging to the underside of the giant’s sheep so the only thing he felt was the backs of the animals. His screams woke up the other Cyclops and they shouted what was wrong. Polyphemus then answered “No one has blinded me”, which made the other Cyclops go back to bed, thinking Polyphemus had finally gone out of his mind.
The next adventure brought the ships to the island of the winds, where the god of the winds Aeolus lived. He welcomed Odysseus, and when it was time for him to leave, the god gave him a sack which contained all the winds except the western one, telling the hero not to open it until he had reached home. For ten days and nights the ships sailed at full speed. Odysseus stayed awake for fear that the men would open his sack, but when Ithaca was in sight, the exhausted hero slept. The curious crew then opened the sack, unleashing all the winds, which then took the ships further away than before. They sailed back to Aeolus island, but were chased away since Aeolus had understood Odysseus was hated by the gods, especially Poseidon who hated him for defeating his son the Cyclops.
After sailing for six days and nights, the ships reached a rocky shore at a country where the people were tall cannibals. They threw rocks at the ships, and they all sunk except Odysseus.
His ship now reached the island Aegean, where Helios’ daughter Circe lived. It was full of wild, but friendly animals, which were really transformed humans. The beautiful Circe invited some of Odysseus’ men, and turned them into swine with a magic potion. When Odysseus went to find them, Hermes appeared, presenting him with an antidote. The hero drank it, and took Circe by surprise when he did not transform. He threatened her life, and she turned the swine back to men, and offered Odysseus her love. They all lived together in her palace for a year, and when it was time for Odysseus to leave, Circe told him to find the shadow of the dead seer Tiresias down in Hades.
They sailed to the country of the Cimmerians, where it was constant night. At the source of Oceanus, they found the silent trees of Persephone. There, they dug a pit, and filled it with blood from black sacrificial animals. This summoned the dead spirits who wanted to drink the blood which would make them conscious for a while. Odysseus kept them back with his sword, and only let Tiresias drink. The seer then warned Odysseus not to touch the herds of Helios when he would reach the island Thrinacea. If he did, he would reach home on a foreign ship, only to find misery and suitors for his wife in his palace. He would kill the suitors and then take an oar on his shoulder and walk until he would find people who did not recognize the oar, and there make a sacrifice to Poseidon. After that, he would reach old age in peace and happiness, and die a death that will come from the sea.
After Tiresias prophecy, the other dead came forth. Odysseus met his mother, Agamemnon, Achilles, Aias (Ajax) plus other heroes and famous women. Finally, he saw the head of the Gorgon, and ran back to his ship.
They now sailed back to Circe, who told Odysseus about the sirens. They were terrible creatures with birds’ bodies and ugly women’s heads, who sang so beautifully that all the sailors would jump in the sea. On Circes’ advice Odysseus had his men tie him to the mast while filling their own ears with wax, so that he may hear the sirens song without being able to jump. Crazed with the Sirens’ song Odysseus tried to sign to the crew to let him go, but they could not hear anything, and had promised the hero that they would not let him go no matter what.
The ship now came to Charybdis, a stream that sucked in and spat out the sea three times a day. After this they met Scylla, who lived in a cave on a cliff. She he had six heads on snake necks, three rows of teeth and barked like a dog. The monster caught six of the men.
Next stop was Thrinacia (Sicily) which Odysseus, remembering Tiresias prophesy, wanted to sail past. The men refused though, and after making them swear they would not touch Helios’ herd, they went ashore. The bad weather kept them there for a month, and the men starved. Odysseus went to pray to the gods for help, and the crew now took the opportunity to kill and eat some of the oxen. On his return Odysseus saw smoke from the cooking and terrible scenes appeared: the discarded skins of the animals were in disarray on the ground and their meat roasting on spits. The weather calmed down, and the ship sailed off, only to be surprised by a terrible storm and being caught by Charybdis. The ship sunk and the crew drowned. Odysseus managed to save himself by clinging to some wood.
He drifted around for nine days, until he reached the island Ogygia, where the nymph Calypso lived. Calypso took care of him, caressed him, and promised to make him immortal if he married her. The hero did not respond to this, and sat crying by the shore.
When Poseidon was away, Athena took the opportunity to beg Zeus to help Odysseus. The god then sent Hermes to Calypso with a message to let Odysseus go. Odysseus built a raft and sailed for seventeen days, until he reached Scheria, the island of the Phaeax (supposedly Corfu).
By then, Poseidon had returned, and saw what Odysseus was doing, and unleashed a new storm. Odysseus was tossed around, but was saved by Leucothea who gave the hero her veil and advised him to save himself by swimming.
Naked and exhausted Odysseus was washed ashore on Scheria, where he was discovered by the princess Nausicaa, who had come there to wash her clothes. Her maids ran away screaming when they saw the wild and naked man, but Nausicaa approached him. She fed and clothed him, and told him where he was. She then brought him to her parents, king Alcinous and queen Arete. A party was held in honour of their guest, as well as athletic games and song by the blind bard Demodocus.
When the singer sung of the Trojan horse, Odysseus burst into tears and revealed who he was and what he had endured. Alcinous then gave him precious gifts and loaded it onto a ship, which took Odysseus back to Ithaca.
The hero fell asleep on the ship, and the crew put him on a shore. Poseidon was so angered by this, that he punished the Phaeax by turning the ship into stone and isolating their islands with huge mountains around it. Odysseus cried when he woke up, because he did not recognize the surroundings.
Athena then appeared before him in the shape of a young man, and told him where he was and about the suitors in his palace. They were on the verge of forcing Penelope to make a decision, since they had discovered she tricked them. She had promised to tell them who she would marry when she had finished weaving the death shroud of her father-in-law. However, every night she unravelled it, but a treacherous maid revealed this to the suitors.
Odysseus now went to the swineherd Eumaeus, and revealed his identity to him and Telemachus. Together, they went to the palace. Odysseus was disguised as a beggar, and was beaten and ridiculed by the suitors. Only his old dog Argus recognized him, wagged its tail and died.
When Penelope looked after the beggar she asked him if he had heard anything of her husband. Odysseus told him he would be back very soon, but Penelope did not dare to believe him. Washing him, Odysseus’ old nurse recognized a scar on his body, but he told her to be silent.
Penelope now put the suitors through a final test. She showed them Odysseus’ bow and said she would marry whoever could shoot an arrow through the holes of twelve axes in a row. One after one they tried, but they couldn’t even pull the string.
The beggar Odysseus asked to have a go, and under ridicule and laughter he shot a perfect arrow through the twelve axes, then turned the bow against the suitors and started killing them with the help of Telemachus. After this the treacherous maids were punished, and finally, the palace was clear.
By killing the suitors, Odysseus had blood on his hands and he cleaned the house with sulphur. Penelope still doubted him, but when he told her that their bed was made from the wood of an olive tree, a secret only he would know, she finally believed him. Odysseus then went to his old father and they all lived happily ever after.
After a meeting with his people, the suitors’ families and friends wanted revenge, but they fled after fighting Odysseus. Athena then intervened, and peace was made.
According to later versions, the adventures did not finish there. Odysseus goes to Epirus where the Thesprotes live. Their queen, Callidice, welcomes him and they marry. Odysseus then helps the people against their enemy. When Callidice dies, the couple’s son then takes over the kingdom and Odysseus returns to Ithaca.
Then Telegonous arrives. He is the son of Odysseus and Circe, and he plunders the island without knowing where he is. Telegonous kills Odysseus and brings his dead body to Circe together with Telemachus and Penelope. Circe then marries Telemachus and makes Penelope immortal, marrying her with Telegonous.