Ten years after the fall of Troy, the victorious Greek hero Odysseus has still not returned to his native Ithaka. A band of rowdy suitors, believing Odysseus to be dead, has overrun his palace, courting his faithfulthough weakeningwife, Penelope, and going through his stock of food. With permission from Zeus, the goddess Athena, Odysseus’ greatest immortal ally, appears in disguise and urges Odysseus’ son Telemakhos to seek news of his father at Pylos and Sparta. However, the suitors, led by Antinoos, plan to ambush him upon his return.
Odysseus’ most prominent characteristic is his cunning; Homer’s Greek audience generally admired the trait but occasionally disdained it for its dishonest connotations. Odysseus’ skill at improvising false stories or devising plans is nearly incomparable in Western literature. His Trojan horse scheme (recounted here and written about in The Iliad) and his multiple tricks against Polyphemos are shining examples of his ingenuity, especially when getting out of jams. Both examples indirectly relate to another dominant pattern in The Odyssey: disguise. The soldiers “disguise” themselves in the body of the Trojan horse, while Odysseus and his men “disguise” themselves as rams to escape from Polyphemos. ) Odysseus spends the last third of the poem disguised as a beggar, both to escape from harm until he can overthrow the suitors and to test others for loyalty. In addition, Athena appears frequently throughout the poem, often as the character Mentor, to provide aid to Odysseus or Telemakhos. Though he is usually a smart, decisive leader, Odysseus is prone to errors, and his deepest flaw is falling prey to temptation.
His biggest mistakes come in the episode with Polyphemos as he first foolishly investigates the Kyklops’ lair (and ends up getting trapped there), and then cannot resist shouting his name to Polyphemos after escaping (thus incurring Poseidon’s wrath). If Odysseus’ character changes over the course of The Odyssey, though, it pivots around temptation. After his errors with Polyphemos, Odysseus has his crew tie him up so he can hearbut not followthe dangerously seductive song of the Seirenes. Disguised as a beggar in Ithaka, he is even more active in resisting temptation, allowing the suitors to abuse him as he bides his time.
Temptation hurts his crew, as well, in their encounters with Kirke, the bag of winds from Aiolos, and the oxen of Helios. As Telemakhos tracks Odysseus’ trail through stories from his old comrades-in-arms, Athena arranges for the release of Odysseus from the island of the beautiful goddess Kalypso, whose prisoner and lover he has been for the last eight years. Odysseus sets sail on a makeshift raft, but the sea god Poseidon, whose wrath Odysseus incurred earlier in his adventures by blinding Poseidon’s son, the Kyklops Polyphemos, conjures up a storm.
With Athena’s help, Odysseus reaches the Phaiakians. Their princess, Nausikaa, who has a crush on the handsome warrior, opens the palace to the stranger. Odysseus withholds his identity for as long as he can until finally, at the Phaiakians’ request, he tells the story of his adventures. Odysseus relates how, following the Trojan War, his men suffered more losses at the hands of the Kikones, then were nearly tempted to stay on the island of the drug-addled Lotos Eaters.
Next, the Kyklops Polyphemos devoured many of Odysseus’ men before an ingenious plan of Odysseus’ allowed the rest to escapebut not before Odysseus revealed his name to Polyphemos and thus started his personal war with Poseidon. The wind god Ailos then provided Odysseus with a bag of winds to aid his return home, but the crew greedily opened the bag and sent the ship to the land of the giant, man-eating Laistrygonians, where they again barely escaped. On their next stop, the goddess Kirke tricked Odysseus’ men and turned them into pigs.
With the help of the god Hermes, Odysseus defied her spell and metamorphosed the pigs back into men. They stayed on her island for a year in the lap of luxury, with Odysseus as her lover, before moving on and resisting the temptations of the seductive and dangerous Seirenes, navigating between the sea monster Skylla and the whirlpools of Kharybdis, and plumbing the depths of Hades to receive a prophecy from the blind seer Teiresias. Resting on the island of Helios, Odysseus’ men disobeyed his orders not to touch the oxen.
At sea, Zeus punished them and all but Odysseus died in a storm. It was then that Odysseus reached Kalypso’s island. Odysseus finishes his story, and the Phaiakians hospitably give him gifts and ferry him home on a ship. Athena disguises Odysseus as a beggar and instructs him to seek out his old swineherd, Eumaios; she will recall Telemakhos from his own travels. With Athena’s help, Telemakhos avoids the suitors’ ambush and reunites with his father, who reveals his identity only to his son and swineherd. He devises a plan to overthrow the suitors with their help.
In disguise as a beggar, Odysseus investigates his palace. The suitors and a few of his old servants generally treat him rudely as Odysseus sizes up the loyalty of Penelope and his other servants. Penelope, who notes the resemblance between the beggar and her presumably dead husband, proposes a contest: she will, at last, marry the suitor who can string Odysseus’ great bow and shoot an arrow through a dozen axeheads. Only Odysseus can pull off the feat. Bow in hand, he shoots and kills the suitor Antinoos and reveals his identity.
With Telemakhos, Eumaios, and his goatherd Philoitios at his side, Odysseus leads the massacre of the suitors, aided only at the end by Athena. Odysseus lovingly reunites with Penelope, his knowledge of their bed that he built the proof that overcomes her skepticism that he is an impostor. Outside of town, Odysseus visits his ailing father, Laertes, but an army of the suitors’ relatives quickly finds them. With the encouragement of a disguised Athena, Laertes strikes down the ringleader, Antinoos’ father. Before the battle can progress any further, Athena, on command from Zeus, orders peace between the two sides.
The Odyssey nearly serves as a Greek guide to hospitality, or “xenia,” which was such a dominant concept in Greece that Zeus was the god of hospitality. Telemakhos and Odysseus receive warm hospitality throughout their journeys from others, usually without even having to give their names. The flip side of the equation, of course, is the suitors, who abuse Telemakhos’ hospitality in running through Odysseus’ reserves. The other blight on hospitality comes at the end when the Phaiakians, after Poseidon turns into stone their ship that carried Odysseus to Ithaka, decide not to give strangers conveyance anymore.