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The Odyssey (//; Greek: Ὀδύσσεια, Odýsseia) is one of two major ancient Greek epic poems attributed to Homer. It is, in part, a sequel to the Iliad, the other work ascribed to Homer. The poem is fundamental to the modern Western canon, and is the second oldest extant work of Western literature, the Iliad being the oldest. Scholars believe it was composed near the end of the 8th century BC, somewhere in Ionia, the Greek coastal region of Anatolia.
The poem mainly centers on the Greek hero Odysseus (known as Ulysses in Roman myths) and his journey home after the fall of Troy. It takes Odysseus ten years to reach Ithaca after the ten-year Trojan War. In his absence, it is assumed he has died, and his wife Penelope and son Telemachus must deal with a group of unruly suitors, the Mnesteres (Greek: Μνηστῆρες) or Proci, who compete for Penelope's hand in marriage.
It continues to be read in the Homeric Greek and translated into modern languages around the world. Many scholars believe that the original poem was composed in an oral tradition by an aoidos (epic poet/singer), perhaps a rhapsode (professional performer), and was more likely intended to be heard than read. The details of the ancient oral performance, and the story's conversion to a written work inspire continual debate among scholars. The Odyssey was written in a poetic dialect of Greek—a literary amalgam of Aeolic Greek, Ionic Greek, and other Ancient Greek dialects—and comprises 12,110 lines of dactylic hexameter. Among the most noteworthy elements of the text are its non-linear plot, and the influence on events of choices made by women and serfs, besides the actions of fighting men. In the English language as well as many others, the word odyssey has come to refer to an epic voyage.
The Odyssey has a lost sequel, the Telegony, which was not written by Homer. It was usually attributed in antiquity to Cinaethon of Sparta, but in one source was said to have been stolen from Musaeus by Eugamon or Eugammon of Cyrene (see Cyclic poets).
The Odyssey began ten years after the end of the ten-year Trojan War (the subject of the Iliad), and Odysseus has still not returned home from the war. Odysseus' son Telemachus is about 20 years old and is sharing his absent father's house on the island of Ithaca with his mother Penelope and a crowd of 108 boisterous young men, "the Suitors", whose aim is to persuade Penelope to marry one of them, all the while enjoying the hospitality of Odysseus' household and eating up his wealth.
Odysseus' protectress, the goddess Athena, discusses his fate with Zeus, king of the gods, at a moment when Odysseus' enemy, the god of the sea Poseidon, is absent from Mount Olympus. Then, disguised as a Taphian chieftain named Mentes, she visits Telemachus to urge him to search for news of his father. He offers her hospitality; they observe the suitors dining rowdily while the bard Phemius performs a narrative poem for them. Penelope objects to Phemius' theme, the "Return from Troy", because it reminds her of her missing husband, but Telemachus rebuts her objections.
That night Athena, disguised as Telemachus, finds a ship and crew for the true Telemachus. The next morning, Telemachus calls an assembly of citizens of Ithaca to discuss what should be done with the suitors. Accompanied by Athena (now disguised as Mentor), he departs for the Greek mainland and the household of Nestor, most venerable of the Greek warriors at Troy, now at home in Pylos. From there, Telemachus rides overland, accompanied by Nestor's son, Peisistratus, to Sparta, where he finds Menelaus and Helen who are now reconciled. He is told that they returned to Sparta after a long voyage by way of Egypt. There, on the island of Pharos, Menelaus encountered the old sea-god Proteus, who told him that Odysseus was a captive of the nymph Calypso. Incidentally, Telemachus learns the fate of Menelaus' brother Agamemnon, king of Mycenae and leader of the Greeks at Troy: he was murdered on his return home by his wife Clytemnestra and her lover Aegisthus.
The second part tells the story of Odysseus. After having spent seven years in captivity on Calypso's island, Ogygia, Calypso falls deeply in love with him but he has consistently spurned her advances. She is persuaded to release him by Odysseus' great-grandfather, the messenger god Hermes, who has been sent by Zeus in response to Athena's plea. Odysseus builds a raft and is given clothing, food and drink by Calypso. When Poseidon finds out that Odysseus has escaped, he wrecks the raft but, helped by a veil given by the sea nymph Ino, Odysseus swims ashore on Scherie, the island of the Phaeacians. Naked and exhausted, he hides in a pile of leaves and falls asleep. The next morning, awakened by the laughter of girls, he sees the young Nausicaa, who has gone to the seashore with her maids to wash clothes after Athena told her in a dream to do so. He appeals to her for help. She encourages him to seek the hospitality of her parents, Arete and Alcinous, or Alkinous. Odysseus is welcomed and is not at first asked for his name. He remains for several days, takes part in a pentathlon, and hears the blind singer Demodocus perform two narrative poems. The first is an otherwise obscure incident of the Trojan War, the "Quarrel of Odysseus and Achilles"; the second is the amusing tale of a love affair between two Olympian gods, Ares and Aphrodite. Finally, Odysseus asks Demodocus to return to the Trojan War theme and tell of the Trojan Horse, a stratagem in which Odysseus had played a leading role. Unable to hide his emotion as he relives this episode, Odysseus at last reveals his identity. He then begins to tell the story of his return from Troy.
After a piratical raid on Ismaros in the land of the Cicones, he and his twelve ships were driven off course by storms. They visited the lethargic Lotus-Eaters who gave two of his men their fruit which caused them to forget their homecoming, and then were captured by the Cyclops Polyphemus, escaping by blinding him with a wooden stake. While they were escaping, however, Odysseus foolishly told Polyphemus his identity, and Polyphemus told his father, Poseidon, that Odysseus had blinded him. Poseidon then curses Odysseus to wander the sea for ten years, during which he would lose all his crew and return home through the aid of others. After their escape, they stayed with Aeolus, the master of the winds and he gave Odysseus a leather bag containing all the winds, except the west wind, a gift that should have ensured a safe return home. However, the greedy sailors foolishly opened the bag while Odysseus slept, thinking it contained gold. All of the winds flew out and the resulting storm drove the ships back the way they had come, just as Ithaca came into sight.
After unsuccessfully pleading with Aeolus to help them again, they re-embarked and encountered the cannibalistic Laestrygonians. All of Odysseus's ships except his own entered the harbor of the Laestrygonians' Island and were immediately destroyed. He sailed on and visited the witch-goddess Circe. She turned half of his men into swine after feeding them cheese and wine. Hermes warned Odysseus about Circe and gave Odysseus a drug called moly which gave him resistance to Circe's magic. Circe, surprised by Odysseus' resistance, agreed to change his men back to their human form in exchange for Odysseus' love. They remained with her on the island for one year, while they feasted and drank. Finally, guided by Circe's instructions, Odysseus and his crew crossed the ocean and reached a harbor at the western edge of the world, where Odysseus sacrificed to the dead. He first encountered the spirit of crewmember Elpenor, who had gotten drunk and fallen from a roof to his death, which had gone unnoticed by others, before Odysseus and the rest of his crew had left Circe. Elpenor's ghost told Odysseus to bury his body, which Odysseus promised to do. Odysseus then summoned the spirit of the old prophet Tiresias for advice on how to appease the gods upon his return home. Next Odysseus met the spirit of his own mother, who had died of grief during his long absence. From her, he got his first news of his own household, threatened by the greed of the Suitors. Finally, he met the spirits of famous men and women. Notably he encountered the spirit of Agamemnon, of whose murder he now learned, and Achilles, who told him about the woes of the land of the dead (for Odysseus' encounter with the dead, see also Nekuia).
Returning to Circe's island, they were advised by her on the remaining stages of the journey. They skirted the land of the Sirens, who sang an enchanting song that normally caused passing sailors to steer toward the rocks, only to hit them and sink. All of the sailors except for Odysseus, who was tied to the mast as he wanted to hear the song, had their ears plugged up with beeswax. They then passed between the six-headed monster Scylla and the whirlpool Charybdis, Odysseus losing six men to Scylla, and landed on the island of Thrinacia. Zeus caused a storm which prevented them leaving. While Odysseus was away praying, his men ignored the warnings of Tiresias and Circe and hunted down the sacred cattle of the sun god Helios as their food had run short. The Sun God insisted that Zeus punish the men for this sacrilege. They suffered a shipwreck as they were driven towards Charybdis. All but Odysseus were drowned; he clung to a fig tree above Charybdis. Washed ashore on the island of Ogygia, he was compelled to remain there as Calypso's lover until she was ordered by Zeus, via Hermes, to release Odysseus.
Having listened with rapt attention to his story, the Phaeacians, who are skilled mariners, agree to help Odysseus get home. They deliver him at night, while he is fast asleep, to a hidden harbour on Ithaca. He finds his way to the hut of one of his own slaves, the swineherd Eumaeus. Athena disguises Odysseus as a wandering beggar so he can see how things stand in his household. After dinner, he tells the farm laborers a fictitious tale of himself: He was born in Crete, had led a party of Cretans to fight alongside other Greeks in the Trojan War, and had then spent seven years at the court of the king of Egypt; finally he had been shipwrecked in Thesprotia and crossed from there to Ithaca.
Meanwhile, Telemachus sails home from Sparta, evading an ambush set by the Suitors. He disembarks on the coast of Ithaca and makes for Eumaeus's hut. Father and son meet; Odysseus identifies himself to Telemachus (but still not to Eumaeus), and they decide that the Suitors must be killed. Telemachus goes home first. Accompanied by Eumaeus, Odysseus returns to his own house, still pretending to be a beggar. He is ridiculed by the Suitors in his own home, especially by one extremely impertinent man named Antinous. Odysseus meets Penelope and tests her intentions by saying he once met Odysseus in Crete. Closely questioned, he adds that he had recently been in Thesprotia and had learned something there of Odysseus's recent wanderings.
Odysseus's identity is discovered by the housekeeper, Eurycleia, when she recognizes an old scar as she is washing his feet. Eurycleia tries to tell Penelope about the beggar's true identity, but Athena makes sure that Penelope cannot hear her. Odysseus then swears Eurycleia to secrecy.
The next day, at Athena's prompting, Penelope maneuvers the Suitors into competing for her hand with an archery competition using Odysseus' bow. The man who can string the bow and shoot it through a dozen axe heads would win. Odysseus takes part in the competition himself: he alone is strong enough to string the bow and shoot it through the dozen axe heads, making him the winner. He then turns his arrows on the Suitors and with the help of Athena, Telemachus, Eumaeus and Philoteus the cowherd, he kills all the Suitors. Odysseus and Telemachus hang twelve of their household maids, who had betrayed Penelope or had sex with the Suitors, or both; they mutilate and kill the goatherd Melanthius, who had mocked and abused Odysseus. Now at last, Odysseus identifies himself to Penelope. She is hesitant, but accepts him when he mentions that their bed was made from an olive tree still rooted to the ground. Many modern and ancient scholars take this to be the original ending of the Odyssey, and the rest to be an interpolation.
The next day he and Telemachus visit the country farm of his old father Laertes, who likewise accepts his identity only when Odysseus correctly describes the orchard that Laertes had previously given him.
The citizens of Ithaca have followed Odysseus on the road, planning to avenge the killing of the Suitors, their sons. Their leader points out that Odysseus has now caused the deaths of two generations of the men of Ithaca: his sailors, not one of whom survived; and the Suitors, whom he has now executed. The goddess Athena intervenes and persuades both sides to give up the vendetta, a deus ex machina. After this, Ithaca is at peace once more, concluding the Odyssey.
Odysseus' name means "trouble" in Greek, referring to both the giving and receiving of trouble—as is often the case in his wanderings. An early example of this is the boar hunt that gave Odysseus the scar by which Eurycleia recognizes him; Odysseus is injured by the boar and responds by killing it. Odysseus' heroic trait is his mētis, or "cunning intelligence": he is often described as the "Peer of Zeus in Counsel." This intelligence is most often manifested by his use of disguise and deceptive speech. His disguises take forms both physical (altering his appearance) and verbal, such as telling the Cyclops Polyphemus that his name is Οὖτις, "Nobody", then escaping after blinding Polyphemus. When asked by other Cyclopes why he is screaming, Polyphemus replies that "Nobody" is hurting him, so the others assume that, "If alone as you are [Polyphemus] none uses violence on you, why, there is no avoiding the sickness sent by great Zeus; so you had better pray to your father, the lord Poseidon". The most evident flaw that Odysseus sports is that of his arrogance and his pride, or hubris. As he sails away from the island of the Cyclopes, he shouts his name and boasts that nobody can defeat the "Great Odysseus". The Cyclops then throws the top half of a mountain at him and prays to his father, Poseidon, saying that Odysseus has blinded him. This enrages Poseidon, causing the god to thwart Odysseus' homecoming for a very long time.
The Odyssey was written in dactylic hexameter. The Odyssey opens in medias res, in the middle of the overall story, with prior events described through flashbacks or storytelling. This device is also used by later authors of literary epics, such as Virgil in the Aeneid, Luís de Camões in Os Lusíadas and Alexander Pope in The Rape of the Lock.
In the first episodes, we trace Telemachus' efforts to assert control of the household, and then, at Athena's advice, to search for news of his long-lost father. Then the scene shifts: Odysseus has been a captive of the beautiful nymph Calypso, with whom he has spent seven of his ten lost years. Released by the intercession of his patroness Athena, through the aid of Hermes, he departs, but his raft is destroyed by his divine enemy Poseidon, who is angry because Odysseus blinded his son, Polyphemus. When Odysseus washes up on Scherie, home to the Phaeacians, he is assisted by the young Nausicaa and is treated hospitably. In return, he satisfies the Phaeacians' curiosity, telling them, and the reader, of all his adventures since departing from Troy. The shipbuilding Phaeacians then loan him a ship to return to Ithaca, where he is aided by the swineherd Eumaeus, meets Telemachus, regains his household, kills the Suitors, and is reunited with his faithful wife, Penelope.
All ancient and nearly all modern editions and translations of the Odyssey are divided into 24 books. This division is convenient but it may not be original. Many scholars believe it was developed by Alexandrian editors of the 3rd century BC. In the Classical period, moreover, several of the books (individually and in groups) were given their own titles: the first four books, focusing on Telemachus, are commonly known as the Telemachy. Odysseus' narrative, Book 9, featuring his encounter with the cyclops Polyphemus, is traditionally called the Cyclopeia. Book 11, the section describing his meeting with the spirits of the dead is known as the Nekuia. Books 9 through 12, wherein Odysseus recalls his adventures for his Phaeacian hosts, are collectively referred to as the Apologoi: Odysseus' "stories". Book 22, wherein Odysseus kills all the Suitors, has been given the title Mnesterophonia: "slaughter of the Suitors". This concludes the Greek Epic Cycle, though fragments remain of the "alternative ending" of sorts known as the Telegony.
This Telegony aside, the last 548 lines of the Odyssey, corresponding to Book 24, are believed by many scholars to have been added by a slightly later poet. Several passages in earlier books seem to be setting up the events of Book 24, so if it were indeed a later addition, the offending editor would seem to have changed earlier text as well. For more about varying views on the origin, authorship and unity of the poem see Homeric scholarship.
The events in the main sequence of the Odyssey (excluding Odysseus' embedded narrative of his wanderings) take place in the Peloponnese and in what are now called the Ionian Islands. There are difficulties in the apparently simple identification of Ithaca, the homeland of Odysseus, which may or may not be the same island that is now called Ithake. The wanderings of Odysseus as told to the Phaeacians, and the location of the Phaeacians' own island of Scheria, pose more fundamental problems, if geography is to be applied: scholars, both ancient and modern, are divided as to whether or not any of the places visited by Odysseus (after Ismaros and before his return to Ithaca) are real.
In 2008, scientists Marcelo O. Magnasco and Constantino Baikouzis at Rockefeller University used clues in the text and astronomical data to attempt to pinpoint the time of Odysseus's return from his journey after the Trojan War.
The first clue is Odysseus' sighting of Venus just before dawn as he arrives on Ithaca. The second is a new moon on the night before the massacre of the Suitors. The final clue is a total eclipse, falling over Ithaca around noon, when Penelope's Suitors sit down for their noon meal. The seer Theoclymenus approaches the Suitors and foretells their death, saying, "The Sun has been obliterated from the sky, and an unlucky darkness invades the world." The problem with this is that the 'eclipse' is only seen by Theoclymenus, and the Suitors toss him out, calling him mad. No one else sees the sky darken, and it is therefore not actually described as an eclipse within the story, merely a vision by Theoclymenus.
Doctors Baikouzis and Magnasco state that "[t]he odds that purely fictional references to these phenomena (so hard to satisfy simultaneously) would coincide by accident with the only eclipse of the century are minute." They conclude that these three astronomical references "'cohere', in the sense that the astronomical phenomena pinpoint the date of 16 April 1178 BCE" as the most likely date of Odysseus' return.
This dating places the destruction of Troy, ten years before, to 1188 BC, which is close to the archaeologically dated destruction of Troy VIIa circa 1190 BC.
Scholars have seen strong influences from Near Eastern mythology and literature in the Odyssey. Martin West has noted substantial parallels between the Epic of Gilgamesh and the Odyssey. Both Odysseus and Gilgamesh are known for traveling to the ends of the earth, and on their journeys go to the land of the dead. On his voyage to the underworld, Odysseus follows instructions given to him by Circe, a goddess who is the daughter of the sun-god Helios. Her island, Aeaea, is located at the edges of the world, and seems to have close associations with the sun. Like Odysseus, Gilgamesh gets directions on how to reach the land of the dead from a divine helper: in this case, the goddess Siduri, who, like Circe, dwells by the sea at the ends of the earth. Her home is also associated with the sun: Gilgamesh reaches Siduri's house by passing through a tunnel underneath Mt. Mashu, the high mountain from which the sun comes into the sky. West argues that the similarity of Odysseus' and Gilgamesh's journeys to the edges of the earth are the result of the influence of the Gilgamesh epic upon the Odyssey.
The Cyclops' origins have also been surmised to be the results of Ancient Greeks finding an elephant skull, by paleontologist Othenio Abel in 1914. The enormous nasal passage in the middle of the forehead could have looked like the eye socket of a giant, to those who had never seen a living elephant.
This is a partial list of translations into English of Homer's Odyssey.
Lucian of Samosata, the Greco-Syrian satirist of the second century, appears today as an exemplar of the science-fiction artist. There is little, if any, need to argue that his mythopoeic Milesian Tales and his literary fantastic voyages and utopistic hyperbole comport with the genre of science fiction; ...
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