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Barron's Booknotes-The Odyssey by Homer

Table of Contents

THE POEM

THE PLOT

Homer doesn't begin his story at the beginning and go straight through to the end. Instead he starts in medias res, in the middle of things. He was elaborating on a story familiar to his listeners, so he didn't have to worry about confusing them. He could build some anticipation in his audience by telling them about his hero before actually bringing Odysseus on stage. He could remind his listeners that men are less important than gods by beginning with the gods.

The gods on Mount Olympos are discussing the fate of Odysseus. For eight years he has been detained on Ogygia, Kalypso's island. Athena, his patron among the gods, thinks it is time for them to help Odysseus to return home. Zeus, the most powerful of the gods, explains that Odysseus offended Poseidon, the god of the sea, by blinding his son, the Kyklopes. In anger Poseidon had sent storms to blow Odysseus' ships off course. But Zeus agrees with Athena that it's now high time that Odysseus be allowed to try again to reach home, and Zeus sends a message to Kalypso to that effect.

In the meantime, Athena goes to Ithaka. She advises Odysseus' son Telemakhos to call an assembly to try to get community support in opposing Penelope's suitors. (Penelope is Odysseus' wife. During her husband's long absence a number of men have been trying to gain her affections.) He should also set sail in search of news of his father.



NOTE: As you can already see, The Odyssey is not single story; there are many subplots. You may be confused at this point. How can Penelope be considering remarriage? Her husband isn't dead. And why is Odysseus' son Telemakhos looking for him? You know where he is. You know all these things because you have been able to listen to the gods' conversation. But all Penelope and Telemakhos know is that Odysseus left twenty years ago to fight in the Trojan War. They haven't seen or heard from him since.

Telemakhos calls a meeting of the assembly but gets no help with his problem. The suitors claim that Penelope should settle matters herself by remarrying. With Athena's help he finds a crew and a ship and departs.

First Telemakhos visits Nestor, who was at Troy and knows Odysseus well. There is much feasting and storytelling, but Telemakhos gets no hard news about Odysseus. He travels overland to see another of his father's old army buddies, Menelaos. More feasting. Helen, Menelaos' wife, tells stories of the siege of Troy. Menelaos was detained on the way home because he had offended Zeus. He wrestled the seer, Proteus, and defeated him. So Proteus had to tell Menelaos the truth. He told Menelaos about Odysseus' situation with Kalypso. Meanwhile, the suitors plot to ambush Telemakhos on his return.

Hermes arrives at Ogygia with the message from Zeus to release Odysseus. Kalypso agrees. Odysseus builds a ship and sets sail, but is soon shipwrecked by Poseidon. (Apparently Poseidon doesn't feel that eight years in exile is sufficient revenge.) Odysseus swims to Skheria, home of King Alkinoos.

Odysseus does not at first reveal his identity but King Alkinoos makes this stranger welcome. Feasting and games. A bard sings heroic legends of Troy, which make Odysseus weep, because he was there.

Odysseus then tells who he is, and begins the tale of how he got to Skheria. He relates how he left Troy, fought at the island of Ismaros, and saw the sleepy life of the Lotos Eaters. He blinded and tricked the one-eyed cannibal, Kyklopes, the son of Poseidon. Odysseus acquired a bag of storm winds at Aiolia, was attacked by the Laistrygonians, and had his men bewitched by Kirke. He buried Elpenor, one of his crewmembers who was killed during all this carrying on.

Then Odysseus resisted the song of the Seirenes, and sailed between the whirlpool and the cliff, personified by the names of Skylla and Kharybdis. But his men made the mistake of eating the forbidden cattle of the sun god, Helios. So Zeus wrecked Odysseus' ship, drowning all his men. Odysseus managed to survive Skylla and Kharybdis again, and washed up at Ogygia Island where he stayed eight years with Kalypso. Just recently, he was able to build a ship and set out again for Ithaka, but he was shipwrecked by Poseidon and swam to Skheria, where Nausikaa, King Alkinoos' daughter, found him.

Now that Homer has brought us up to date, the remainder of the story is told straightforwardly in chronological order.

Odysseus is returned safely to Ithaka by the people of Skheria. Athena warns him of the disorder surrounding Penelope at his home, and she disguises him as an elderly beggar. She tells him that she has sent Telemakhos off to seek news and to make his name, but now she will bring him home. She knows of the plot to ambush Odysseus, and will foil it.

Odysseus, in his disguise, meets the swineherd Eumaios, and tests his loyalty with a false story. Eumaios gives Odysseus his cloak, a sign of his piety and hospitality toward strangers. He is also loyal; he has been waiting twenty years for his master to return.

On instructions from Athena, Telemakhos leaves Menelaos and returns safely to Ithaka. Telemakhos goes to Eumaios' hut and offers hospitality and gifts to the disguised Odysseus. Telemakhos sends Eumaios to tell Penelope of his safe arrival. Father and son are reunited when Odysseus reveals his identity.

Still disguised, Odysseus enters his own home. His faithful old dog recognizes him and then dies. The chief suitor, Antinoos, insults Odysseus by throwing a stool at him. The suitors make Odysseus fight a real beggar for their amusement. Odysseus wins, but continues to suffer abuse. Omens such as thunder and the flights of birds of prey indicate the gods' anger at the suitors' impious behavior. Justice is about to be done.

Bathing the feet of the "beggar," Eurykleia recognizes Odysseus by a scar, but she remains silent. Penelope tells the disguised Odysseus that her husband was an accomplished archer and had a formidable bow. He could shoot it through the apertures in twelve axes in a row. The suitor who can perform this feat on the following day, will win her. Having made her decision, Penelope despairs. More omens predict doom.

The next day Odysseus reveals his identity to Eumaios. The suitors try to string the bow and fail. Odysseus strings it and shoots through the axes.

The suitors are now trapped defenseless inside the courtyard. A goatherd, Melanthios, climbs the wall and brings them weapons from the storeroom. Athena (disguised) aids in the slaughter of the suitors. Melanthios' disloyalty is punished by torture and mutilation. Twelve corrupt maid servants are hanged. The courtyard is cleansed and purified.

Odysseus is restored to his true form. When Penelope sees him, she is confused and overcome. She tests his identity, saying the master's bed has been moved. Odysseus had built this bed with an olive stump as one bedpost. His anger and his knowledge of the secret of the bed convince Penelope that he is indeed her beloved Odysseus. Husband and wife are reunited.

The dead suitors join the souls in the underworld. Odysseus is reunited with Laertes, his aged father. The relatives of the suitors demand vengeance. Laertes kills the father of Antinoos. The intervention of Athena brings final peace.

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Barron's Booknotes-The Odyssey by Homer
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