World Literature I (Eng 251)

The Story of the Odyssey, Briefly Retold

Diane Thompson, NVCC, ELI

Books 1-4: When Odysseus sailed for Troy, he left behind his clever wife Penelope and his infant son Telemachus. A few years before Odysseus returns, a large group of suitors try to force Penelope to marry one of them by moving into her palace for an endless party devouring the food and drink belonging to Odysseus.

Shortly before Odysseus returns, Athena, disguised as Mentor, shows up on Ithaka and arranges for Telemachus to travel to the mainland seeking word of his father Odysseus. Telemachus hears that Odysseus is alive, but stuck on Kalypso's island. The suitors try to ambush and kill Telemachus as he returns to Ithaka, but Athena arranges for him to get home safely.

Books 5-8: Meanwhile, Athena has also arranged with Zeus to release Odysseus from Kalypso's island and allow him to return home. Odysseus leaves the island on a raft, which Poseidon wrecks in a storm as a final act of vengeance because Odysseus blinded his son, the cyclops Polyphemos. Nearly dead with exhaustion, Odysseus washes up on Scheria, land of the Phaiakians, and collapses in a bed of leaves to sleep. In the morning he encounters the princess Nausicaa and her girl friends who (inspired by Athena) have come to the beach to wash their linen. Nausicaa tells Odysseus the way to her parents' palace, where he is nobly hosted.

Books 9-12:  While feasting at the palace, Odysseus retells the stories of the fall of Troy and his amazing adventures since he left Troy. These are stories from the ancient oral tradition of sailors' adventures to strange places, often beyond the boundaries of the real world. The following is a list of the adventures Odysseus relates while he is a guest on Scheria:

Odysseus' Amazing Adventures

Troy The Greeks use the hollow Trojan Horse to smuggle soldiers inside the walls; they open the gates, admitting the rest of the Greek army, which quickly destroys the city.
Kikonians A pirate raid, after which Odysseus' adventures leave the "real" world for fantasy lands.
Lotus Eaters Perhaps on the coast of Africa; drugged bliss threatens to make sailors forget their homes.
Cyclopes' island The cyclops Polyphemos, son of Poseidon, snacks on Odysseus' men until the survivors blind him and sneak out of his cave hidden under the bellies of sheep.
Aiolos' island The king is in charge of the winds; he gives a bag of winds to Odysseus, which if left unopened would have allowed Odysseus to return home quickly, but against orders, his men open the bag, releasing the winds.
Laistrygones Giants who eat people.
Circe's Isle A witch who turns men into pigs; Hermes gives Odysseus an herb, moly, which allows him to keep his human shape; after Circe and Odysseus reconcile, she returns the men to human form, but they linger for a year as her guests.
Land of the Dead Odysseus hears information from Tiresias about how to get home; he also encounters shades of the Greek dead and hears warnings about women's treachery
Sirens They sing so beautifully that passing sailors shipwreck on the rocks trying to get close to them; Odysseus has his men stuff their ears with wax and tie him to the mast, so he can hear the singing and yet survive.
Skylla and Charybdis They devour passing sailors, Skylla with her many snaky long necked hungry heads, and Charybdis as a swallowing whirlpool; Odysseus sails close to Skylla, not warning his men, and loses a few, but most are saved.
Thrinakia The island of Helios, the sun; although Odysseus warns them not to, his starving crew eat Helios's cattle, and they and the ship are destroyed after leaving.
Ogygia Kalypso's Isle; Odysseus is stranded here by a possessive goddess who wants to make him immortal and keep him forever; he wants to return home to Ithaka; after the gods announce their decision that he is to leave, Odysseus builds a raft and sets off, only to suffer a final shipwreck on Scheria.

The Scherians appreciate Odysseus' stories, arrange games in his honor, admire his heroic stature, give him gifts of royal treasure and take him home to Ithaka on a magically swift ship.

Books 13-24: His treasure safely concealed, Odysseus, disguised as an old beggar, hides out with the good swineherd, Eumaios, contacts his son, Telemachus, and plots the overthrow of the wicked suitors. He is so careful he doesn't even let his wife Penelope know he is home. With a little help from Athena, Odysseus and his son finally slaughter all 108 suitors, have the maids cleanse the palace hall of bodies and blood, and then hang the disloyal maids who have been sleeping with the suitors. Odysseus finally reunites with faithful Penelope. Retaliation by the suitors' families, which could lead to endless feuding, is stopped by Zeus and Athena.

The Odyssey can be read as a poet's travel guide to the imaginary Mediterranean, with plenty of examples of how one ought to treat guests. The first four books of the Odyssey are about Telemachus' visit to the mainland, where he is well fed, given gifts and well treated. This is how guests ought to be received. The suitors are slaughtered for the crime of being bad guests who eat their host's cattle, drink his wine and try to marry his wife and kill his son.

(c) Thompson: 7/10/1998; updated: 08/11/2005