The Odyssey as we know it was recorded by Homer in ancient Greece. Homer collected old myths and stories of the gods and presented them in a contemporary version. But this is by no means certain. It is also possible that a range of stories entered the world under the name of Homer.
The Odyssey tells of the home passage of the hero Odysseus. Odysseus was strong, courageous and smart. Yet even heroes with such qualities in abundance have to conquer just as many obstacles before they can settle down in peace and prosperity.
To me the Odyssey is the story of the man whose adventures help him develop from selfishness to compassion, from ego to soul. In other words, they help him come home to himself. Kingship, which in many myths and fairytales is the reward at the end of the story, symbolizes the ability to make your own choices, make up your own mind and live your own life.
The Odyssey is the account of Odysseus’ journey. And like any traveller at any time and any place, he is asked the questions: Who are you? Where are you from? And where are you going?
The Council of the Gods
It was at the council of the gods that Athena put in a good word for Odysseus. For the past seven years, Odysseus had been a prisoner on the island of Calypso, where he had washed up after his ship was wrecked near the island of Helios. The nymph Calypso was holding Odysseus captive on her island because she wanted him as her husband, but all Odysseus wanted was to go home. At night he shared her bed, but during the day he gazed across the empty ocean with tear-filled eyes.
Athena had already made several failed attempts at moving the Gods to allow Odysseus to go home. But this time the life of Odysseus’ son Telemachus (“the powerless”) was at risk from a conspiracy of his mother Penelope’s suitors. And since it was Odysseus’ fate that he should return home and his realm prosper once more, his heir needed protection. Zeus decided to brave the wroth of Poseidon and ordered Hermes to go down to Calypso and inform her that the Gods had decided to allow Odysseus to go home.
Athena, meanwhile, travelled to Odysseus’ home country of Ithaca to visit his son Telemachus. Athena assumes many guises and this time she came in the guise of the unknown King Mentes. Telemachus was a melancholic youth. He had his father’s build, but not his strength. And he had never known his father. The war of Troy had ended ten years ago and all the surviving heroes had returned home, but not Odysseus. Everybody spoke of Odysseus, the hero who had ended the war with his trick of the wooden horse. Everybody spoke of him, but nobody knew where he was.
In the meantime some fifty suitors had come to Ithaca to vie for Penelope’s hand. As a widow, Penelope was expected to remarry, after which Odysseus’ possessions would automatically pass to the new husband. But Penelope mourned and waited and kept devising new tricks to delay her decision. The suitors spent all this time partying, while Telemachus stood by helplessly as his father’s estate was neglected and his possessions squandered.
When Athena approached Telemachus, the youth thought he was dealing with a foreign king and started complaining. Thereupon Athena advised him to go away, to leave Ithaca and search for his father.
With the permission of the Gods and Calypso, Odysseus built a raft and set out for the open seas. For several days he had a good wind in his sails until Poseidon, the God of the Sea, caught sight of him. Poseidon, who had repeatedly prevented Odysseus from returning home, whipped up the waters of the sea until enormous waves pulverized the raft. Odysseus clung to a log and was washed ashore on the island of the Phaeacians.
The Phaeacians are a tribe between heaven and earth. They are the best seamen and the finest craftsmen. In the evening they eat together at long tables and tell each other stories. Odysseus was invited to the meal and that is when he was asked the questions asked of every traveller in the world: Who are you? Where do you come from? And where are you going?
Odysseus started telling his story. He talked of how, after the fall of Troy, he and his men and ships had sailed the Greek seas, plundering, pillaging and looting. For such are the laws of the earth. Having drifted far north in a hurricane, they found themselves in unknown waters. They had gone ashore on an island from where they spotted, close by, a long coastline. It was the land of the Cyclops. The Cyclops are herdsmen, giants with only a single eye. They live in caves and care little about one another.
Odysseus was eager to explore this land. With a small craft and twelve of his men he headed for the coast, taking a few skins of strong wine as a gift for their hosts. After they pulled the boat ashore they spotted an enclosure. They walked through the gate and stopped in front of a large cave. An enormous rock had been rolled away from the entrance. Curious, the men entered. Inside they saw lambs in a pen, jugs of milk and large round cheeses. The place reeked. “Come”, said the men, “let’s take some cheeses and go.” But Odysseus was keen to examine the cave some more. Then they heard the bleating of a herd of sheep and before they had a chance to consider their next move, the giant figure of a Cyclops appeared in the opening of the cave. The Cyclops waited until all the sheep were in before rolling the big heavy rock in front of the entrance.
The men had retreated into the shadows in the hope that the Cyclops would not notice them. They watched as the Cyclops made a fire, milked his sheep and turned the cheeses. Then he bent his one eye on the men. “Right, so who are you?” he roared. Odysseus stepped forward. “We are strangers, we are lost and we appeal to your hospitality and the laws of the Gods.” “The Gods,” the Cyclops sneered. “I have nothing to do with the Gods.” And as if to prove his point, he picked up two of the men, bashed their heads together, roasted them over the fire and gobbled them up. Then he lay down on the floor and fell into a noisy sleep.
When the Cyclops woke up the following morning, he rekindled the fire, grabbed another two men, bashed their heads together, roasted them over the fire and gobbled them up. Then he rolled the large rock aside and drove out his herd. But this time he rolled the rock back again. Odysseus and his men were imprisoned in the cave, because whatever they tried, the rock would not budge. It was far too heavy.
At the end of the day the Cyclops returned home with his herd. He rolled away the rock, but immediately rolled it back in place again. Then he repeated his daily ritual. He lit his fire, milked the sheep and turned the cheeses. He grabbed another two men, roasted them over the fire and devoured them. And no sooner had he stretched out on the floor than he began to snore loudly.
By now the men were panicking. They began to hurl insults and reproaches at Odysseus. Not that it helped of course. The following morning it was the same story. So after the Cyclops had left, Odysseus began to search the cave. Could there be another exit? Weapons? Finally, he found a pole. It was part of an old ship’s mast. He sharpened the tip, hardened it in the fire and hid it in the shadowy recesses of the cave
Towards the end of the day the men could hear the sheep approach from a distance. They watched as the rock was rolled away and the Cyclops entered again, followed by his herd. The Cyclops carried out his ritual and just as he was about to grab another man to roast over the fire, Odysseus stepped forward. “Hey Cyclops,” he yelled, “have some wine. It tastes good with human flesh.” The Cyclops took the skin of wine and downed it in one. The wine was a gift from an Apollonian priest in Ismara, the city of the Cicones, and was very heady. The Cyclops was visibly inebriated after a single skin. “The wine was meant to be a guest gift,” Odysseus exclaimed, “but you are a terrible brute.” “We do guest gifts too,” the Cyclops said, in a milder mood now. “My name is Polyphemos (“famed”). What is yours?” Odysseus handed Polyphemos a second skin of wine and said: “My name is Nobody. Nobody is my name.” Again, the giant downed the skin of wine in one and then said: “My guest gift to you is that I will devour Nobody last.”
Odysseus gave him the third skin too but before Polyphemos could finish it he dropped to the floor and fell fast asleep. Thereupon Odysseus gave his men the agreed signal. They removed the mast from the back of the cave and with combined forces thrust its tip into the Cyclops’ single eye. Polyphemos jumped to his feet and began howling at the top of his lungs. His neighbouring relations came running and yelled: “Hey Polyphemos, what’s wrong?” And Polyphemos roared back: “Nobody has hurt me! Nobody has used his cunning!” The relatives yelled back: “Well, if nobody has hurt you, you must be ill and there is nothing we can do to help.” They turned on their heels and went back home.
Meanwhile Polyphemos was groping blindly for the men, who had no trouble keeping out of the giant’s hands now. But Polyphemos had an idea. Feeling his way, he rolled the rock away from the cave’s entrance and positioned himself in the opening. When the sheep began to squeeze their way out again, Polyphemos touched every single one of them in the hope of catching the men. But Odysseus tied each of his men under a sheep, so they could avoid Polyphemos’ groping hands. He tied himself under two of the biggest rams and in this way they all made it safely out. The men ran to the beach where their boat was anchored. They jumped in and started rowing as fast as they could. They had already covered several hundred yards when the figure of Polyphemos appeared in the distance.
Odysseus could not resist. He stood up in the vessel and shouted: “Hey Polyphemos, we got the better of you, didn’t we?!” Polyphemos turned to the sound, broke off the tip of a rock and hurled it in the direction of the voice. The rock landed in the water, right behind the boat, which began swaying and was even forced back a little. The men rowed as fast as they could and shouted at Odysseus to sit down. But Odysseus was relishing his victory. Standing high up on the afterdeck he called out again: “Polyphemos, let me tell you that the man who outwitted you was Odysseus, Odysseus of Ithaca!”
And so Polyphemos called upon his father Poseidon, God of the Sea, and beseeched him: “Father, if it is this man’s fate to return home, let his journey home be long and arduous and his homecoming terrible!” Poseidon heard this prayer.
Poseidon was determined to make Odysseus pay for his son Polyphemos’ defeat, but of course Odysseus was unaware of this. Triumphantly, he sailed on to his next adventure. Full of himself he arrived on the island of Aeolus, the king of the winds. Odysseus and his men spent a month with Aeolus, who asked him all about his adventures, about Troy and the might of Greece. Finally, Odysseus asked Aeolus for help on his journey home. Aeolus presented him with a leather bag that held all the winds of the world. Aeolus tied the bag to the mast and said: “Make sure the bag remains tied to the mast. I will give you a mild westerly wind, so you should be home in a couple of days’ time.”
Odysseus thanked him most warmly, went on board with his men and sailed a calm sea towards Ithaca. Odysseus had taken Aeolus’s warning not to open the bag to heart and watched it day and night. But that made the crew extremely suspicious. “Do you think there is wind in that bag?” they asked each other. Soon they all doubted it, believing instead that Aeolus had given them a bag full of gold which Odysseus now sought to keep to himself.
After nine days they came within reach of Ithaca. Having grown exceedingly tired, Odysseus thought that with the harbour in sight he could sleep a while. But no sooner had he fallen asleep than the captain went over to the bag and undid the rope with which it was tied to the mast. At that moment all the winds of the world broke loose. The ships were beaten back and Odysseus sought shelter with Aeolus. But Aeolus was livid and chased the men out of his house.
Despondent and without any sense of direction, the men drifted across the seas until they came to the island of Circe, a demigoddess with magical powers. Once on shore Odysseus, a little wiser by now, sent some of his men to investigate. The men headed inland and after a while they arrived at a splendid palace. A song could be heard inside. Charmed by the beautiful voice, they entered. They saw a beautifully laid out table with the most delicious foods and goblets filled with a wine so sweet as to make you lose yourself.
The voice stopped singing and Circe appeared. She asked the men to sit down and proposed a toast. But no sooner had the men tasted of the wine than Circe grabbed her long stick, tapped everybody on the head and changed the men into swine. Squealing with fright, they ran around in circles. Circe herded the swine out of the palace with her stick and locked them into the pigsties. But one of the men had been more cautious. He had stayed outside and witnessed everything. Shocked, he ran back to the beach.
From afar he started yelling: “Away! Away from here!” Panting, he reported what he had seen and was about to make his way to the boat when Odysseus said: “No, we cannot leave our comrades behind as swine. There must be a way to free them.” Thereupon Odysseus headed up into the mountains, by himself, in search of inspiration. High up on a mountain pass, halfway between heaven and earth, the God Hermes was waiting for him. Hermes, the Messenger of the Gods, gave Odysseus a herb. “Keep this herb under your tongue when you drink Circe’s wine, so you remain conscious. Then, when she approaches you with her stick, you draw your sword and force a pledge of friendship from her.”
Dejected, Odysseus came down the mountain again. What if the herb did not work? But he had no choice and went straight to the palace. From afar he heard Circe sing. He entered the palace and again there was the generously set table with the goblets of wine. Circe approached him and invited him to have a drink with her. Odysseus took a sip with the herb under his tongue. Circe immediately turned to grab her stick, so certain of her victory that she did not even await the effect of the wine. But when she turned round again Odysseus stood before her with his sword drawn.
Circe fell to her knees and promised Odysseus everything a man could possibly desire. But Odysseus said: “No Circe, my wish is not everything a man desires. What I want from you is a promise of friendship.” Thereupon Circe swore upon all the Gods and everything she held dear that Odysseus could count on her eternal friendship, loyalty and support in everything that was still in store for him. When he heard this, Odysseus dropped his sword. His friends became men again and Odysseus shared Circe’s bed.
For a whole year Odysseus and his men lived in luxury and abundance, but eventually the longing to go back home resurfaced. Again, Circe kept her promise. “To get home, you must first visit Hades,” she said. “While you are there, you should go in search of the spirit of the blind prophet Tiresias. Tiresias will tell you how to get home.” “No man returns from Hades!” a shocked Odysseus thought to himself. But he had faith in Circe’s promise of loyalty and support in all that was still to come.
Odysseus and his men were sailing across a perfectly smooth sea towards Oceanus when a grey mist appeared on the horizon. The atmosphere grew menacing and the men fell silent. Nobody asked to turn back. The approaching grey wall felt like an inescapable fate. They sailed into it and when they spotted a strip of coastline, they went ashore.
“From hereon I will continue on my own”, Odysseus said, much to the relief of his men. He sacrificed the sheep that Circe had given him, captured the blood in a bowl and took it into Hades. Within seconds he was surrounded by figures attracted by the smell of the blood. “Let nobody drink of the blood before you have spoken to Tiresias”, Circe had warned him. “But on the way back you can give a sip to all those you want to talk to.” Odysseus saw many old friends advancing towards him, including his mother, but he refused to let them drink of the blood and hurried on to the blind prophet.
Tiresias’ ghost welcomed Odysseus and asked for a sip of the blood. Thereupon Tiresias spoke: “It is your destiny to return to your country. But you have brought the wroth of Poseidon down upon you by blinding his son. None of the Gods will dare to oppose this. You will come upon the island of Thrinacia where Helios’ golden cattle are grazing. Try to sail past it, but if you must go on land, do not touch the golden cattle. If you succeed, you will get home quickly. If not, and you do lay hands on the cattle, your voyage home will be long and your homecoming dreadful. But that too is something you will overcome and your realm will prosper once more. Later, in the autumn of your life, you must pick up an oar and carry it on your back until you meet people who ask you why you are walking around with a shovel on your back. People who do not know the sea. Stick the oar in the ground, make an offering to Poseidon and return home. Eventually, while your realm prospers, you will die an old man, in peace and far from the sea.”
Odysseus thanked Tiresias and made his way back. The first spirit he saw was that of his mother. He gave her a drink of the blood and they spoke at length. Many more friends followed.
The men were extremely relieved to see Odysseus come out of Hades. It looked like a miracle to them. They quickly embarked and sailed back to Circe’s island.
Circe was waiting for Odysseus on the beach. She had ordered fresh supplies and had come out to welcome the boat in the company of her entire household. After greeting Odysseus she told him to take the supplies on board and set off at once. He would be facing several more dangers.
First up, the Sirens: nymphs singing so seductively high up on a cliff that all seafarers who pass by become enchanted and end up dashing against the rocks. “Make sure you and your men cannot hear them singing.” The Sirens’ rock would be followed by a narrow sea straight. Living on one side was Charybdis, a monster that swallowed up the sea twice a day before spitting it out again. Everything in its wake was sucked in and did not come out alive. On the other side of the strait lived Scylla, a six-headed monster that devoured anyone who sailed too close. “Avoid Charybdis, sail as close as possible past Scylla. She will attack and cause you harm, but do not try to fight her. Keep rowing as fast as you can.”
They bade each other a warm farewell and Odysseus and his men set off, on their way home. The sea was calm and the wind soon took them to the projecting cliff of the Sirens. As they came closer, Odysseus told his men to stop up their ears with wax and had himself tied to the pole of the mast. He wanted to hear the singing and told his captain that whatever happened he must not be freed until it was clear that the danger had passed
So they approached the cliff and there Odysseus heard the voices of the Sirens who tried to tempt him to come closer. Odysseus began shouting all kinds of orders, but the men did not react. He even tried to free himself, but when the captain saw this he double-checked the ropes. It was only after Odysseus had been calm for some time that they dared to pull the wax from their ears and free Odysseus from the mast.
But there was no time to rejoice. The sea began to swirl and strange currents made the boat almost uncontrollable. The men started rowing faster and sailed as close as possible along the coast of Scylla. Scylla hit out three times, pulling men from the boat with her six heads. Odysseus did draw his sword, but there was nothing he could do to stop his crew from being ripped to shreds in the monster’s jaws. The remaining men rowed as fast as they could until the waters calmed down again. The horror was over.
The sky turned blue, the water calm and in the distance an island appeared. Golden specks dotted the mountainside. It was the island with Helios’ cattle. Helios was the son of Zeus. Every day he rode his sun chariot across the firmament. Odysseus wanted to sail on, but the men were exhausted. They urged Odysseus to go ashore. After all the horrors they wanted a rest. They had plenty of provisions, so they would have no trouble leaving Helios’s cattle alone. A gentle current brought them into a bay where they could safely drop anchor.
The men gorged on all the delicacies that Circe had packed for them until, a few days later, everybody was ready to leave again. But when they set sail they found that the tide had turned. It was impossible to get out of the bay.
Disappointed, Odysseus returned to the island in the hope that the tide would turn again. But it did not. They were stuck in the bay for three months. The supplies dwindled and the men got bored. During this time Odysseus would go on daily hikes through the mountains and when, one morning, he spotted a plume of smoke rising up from the beach he immediately knew what had happened. “The cattle!” He ran back down and saw a big fire with a few cows roasting on it. “Don’t worry,” the men said. “We offered the biggest cow to the Gods, who will greet the offer with joy.”
But they did not. When Helios saw what had happened from his chariot he drove straight to his father Zeus: “Father,” he shouted. “I demand that you avenge this crime or else I will no longer ride across the firmament in my chariot and it will remain forever dark.” Of course Zeus could not allow this to happen and promised Helios to make the sinners pay.
Having noticed the darkening of the sky, Odysseus and his men had a sense of foreboding. They quickly embarked in the hope of escaping. With the fading of the sunlight the current in the bay seemed to have changed and they all heaved sighs of relief when they reached the open seas. Enter Zeus and his revenge. A violent storm broke out, with deafening thunder and lightning and heavy rains obscuring their view. The boat was blown back to Scylla and Charybdis where the ship was wrecked. Only Odysseus managed to save himself. Having clutched the mast, he was washed ashore on the island of Calypso.
The voyage home
After Odysseus had finished his story, it was quiet for a long time. The Phaeacians were impressed; this much bad luck was unknown in their land of prosperity. This is why the king gave orders for Odysseus to be escorted home, along with a couple of extra boats with gifts. Odysseus received it all gratefully. He took his leave, embarked on one of the boats and off they went. And sure enough, the Phaeacians proved to be masters of the sea. But Poseidon put up a good fight. The waves got higher and higher, leaving even the Phaeacians struggling and keen to be rid of this guest who had brought Poseidon’s fury down on himself.
As Ithaca drew nearer, the Phaeacians piloted their boats quickly and skilfully to the coast. They unloaded the gifts and put Odysseus ashore. Then they hurried back. Poseidon sent an enormous wave, which brought the Phaeacians home in no time, but thereafter their land was never seen again.
Odysseus hid the treasures and clambered up a narrow path. At the top he came upon a humble shack belonging to a shepherd. He knocked on the door and asked for shelter. The shepherd turned out to be an old servant, and when Odysseus asked him about the country’s state of affairs the man complained about the suitors’ behaviour and the queen’s difficult choice. “Oh, if only Odysseus would come back home,” he sighed. “He could take his revenge on those suitors.” Thereupon Odysseus revealed his identity but swore the shepherd to secrecy.
In the meantime Telemachus had returned home and father and son met in the shepherd’s hut. There they devised a plan to confront the suitors and kill every last one of them. The following day Odysseus, disguised as a poor vagrant, visited the palace. Penelope ordered an old wet nurse to wash and clothe him. While washing Odysseus’ feet, the old woman recognized his scar. A scar on his thigh, sustained during a fight with a wild boar. But she too was to keep quiet about Odysseus’ presence.
Odysseus and Telemachus had come up with a plan to beat all the suitors in a single fight. At Telemachus’ insistence, his mother had declared that she would marry the man who could draw Odysseus’s bow and shoot an arrow through the eyes of a row of twelve axes. Odysseus, still in his beggar’s disguise, had been invited to watch the contest from a corner. When all the suitors had tried and none had succeeded, Odysseus rose and politely asked if he could have a go. The suitors protested of course, but Telemachus granted him permission. As soon as Odysseus took up his old bow and subjected it to a thorough inspection, his cover was blown and his mighty muscles were revealed. He took an arrow from the tube, drew the bow with his strong arms and shot the arrow straight through the eyes of all twelve axes. The ensuing uproar triggered a fierce battle which none of the suitors survived.
After the battle Odysseus revealed his identity to Penelope. Penelope did not know what to think. What demon was trying to deceive her? So she put him to the test by ordering her women servants to carry Odysseus’ bed outside. When he heard this Odysseus said: “I built our bed from a live olive tree. That bed cannot be moved by anyone.” Thereupon Penelope burst into tears and they fell into each other’s arms.
Odysseus’ realm flourished and he and Penelope enjoyed many more happy years together. And years later Tiresias’ final prediction came true as well. Odysseus travelled inland with an oar, planted it and told people about the sea.
Sources: Gods and Heroes: Myths and Epics of Ancient Greece by Gustav von Schwab and Imme Dros’ verse translation of the Odyssey
Told by Marianne Pluim