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Barron's Booknotes-The Odyssey by Homer

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Characters in The Odyssey do not have last names, but they are often identified in terms of their fathers, such as "Penelope, Ikarios' faithful daughter"; place of residence, such as "Nestor, whose home is sandy Pylos"; and epithets (descriptive tags) such as "lion-hearted Akhilleus."



The name Odysseus has been translated a number of ways. Odysseus' grandfather, a notorious thief and thus not a popular fellow, gave him the name. It means "the person people love to hate." Once while telling one of his false stories Odysseus introduces himself as "Quarrelman." One scholar says his name means "trouble," but the usual translation is "Victim of Enmity." The word odyssey means the journey of Odysseus, long and full of adventure, rich with people and places, never in a straight line-a life. If you took a couple of months to drive from San Diego to Boston in an unreliable car, breaking down, camping, meeting people, and making side excursions along the way, you could call your trip an odyssey.

Odysseus is an epic hero. He's a legendary figure with more than the usual amount of brains and muscle. Sometimes he's almost superhuman. At the end of the story, with only his inexperienced son and two farmhands to help, he kills more than a hundred of Penelope's suitors. He's able to do it because he has the help of the goddess Athena. He embodies the ideals Homeric Greeks aspired to: manly valor, loyalty, piety, and intelligence.

Piety means being respectful of the gods, acknowledging their control of fate, knowing you need their help. Odysseus' intelligence is a mix of keen observation, instinct, and street smarts. He's extremely cautious. He's good at disguises and at concealing his feelings. He's a fast, inventive liar.

Odysseus is also very human, and you get to see him in many roles. He is often moved to tears. He makes mistakes, gets into tricky situations, and loses his temper. You see him as a husband, father, and son. In addition, you see him as an athlete, army captain, sailor, carpenter, storyteller, ragged beggar, lover. He is both brutal and sensitive, bold and shy.

When the Irish writer James Joyce was looking for a universal man as a hero for his book Ulysses, he chose Odysseus. (Ulysses is the Latin version of Odysseus.) Many people consider The Odyssey one of the finest books ever written. This is because Odysseus is such an alive character and, no matter what the century, so much like us.


The secondary hero of the story is Odysseus' son, Telemakhos. As the story progresses you learn more and more about Odysseus' character. You see, too, growth and development in his twenty-year-old son. He changes from a passive, untested boy to a young man proudly standing at his father's side. When the relatives of the suitors come for vengeance, he is ready to take them on. The boy Telemakhos learns to be a man of valor and action. He is respectful to gods and men, and loyal to his mother and father, siding with them against the suitors. He shows intelligence in his behavior with Nestor and Menelaos. But he also exhibits another important Greek ideal: hospitality. Any stranger or beggar coming to the door may be a god in disguise, so such wanderers must be treated well. They are not asked questions until their needs for food, drink, and comfort are met. Telemakhos' open-handed hospitality helps make him an appealing character.


In the opening chapters of The Odyssey Penelope is angry, frustrated, and helpless. She misses her husband, Odysseus. She worries about the safety of her son, Telemakhos. Her house is overrun with arrogant men who are making love to her servants and eating her out of house and home, all the while saying that they are courting her. She doesn't want to marry any of them, and their rude behavior can hardly be called proper courtship. She has wealth and position; she has beauty and intelligence; most of all she has loyalty to her husband. But against this corrupt horde who gather in her courtyard shooting dice, throwing the discus, killing her husband's cattle for their feasts, and drinking his wine, she is powerless.

After the beggar-Odysseus in disguise-arrives at Ithaka, we see more of Penelope's warmth, intelligence, and beauty. Within the limits of behavior available to her as a woman at that time, she is extraordinary. She is a match for Odysseus.


The Odyssey is filled with gods. The "father of men and gods" is ZEUS, whose might is expressed by his use of thunder and lightning. His less terrifying directives are delivered by the gods' messenger, HERMES. On Mount Olympos where the gods live, Zeus will have the last word. But in the meantime even he can't always control the actions of other powerful gods, such as POSEIDON, the god of the sea, whose wrath Odysseus incurred.


(usually just called Athena), "the grey-eyed goddess," is a dominant figure in The Odyssey. She personifies wisdom, and often seems to play the part of self-control in relation to Odysseus. APOLLO, the god of manly youth, beauty, poetry, and music, is mentioned. Later in Classical Greece, Apollo became associated with the sun, but in Homeric times HELIOS is the sun god. It is his cattle that are slaughtered by Odysseus' men, causing his wrath. Helios gets Zeus to wreck Odysseus' ship in revenge.



In addition to Penelope and Telemakhos, the family of Odysseus includes his elderly father, LAERTES, who appears at the end of the story for a reunion with his son.


MENTES and MENTOR are old family friends who come to the aid of Telemakhos with advice in the absence of his father. HALITHERSES is another friend.


A loyal member of the household is EURYKLEIA, "the dear old nurse." She has been in the family for years and it is reported that Odysseus never slept with her, wanting not to anger his wife. It is an honor for a woman of the lower ranks to be invited to bed by a man of the nobility, just as it is an honor for a god to sleep with a mortal. Odysseus' sensitivity to his wife's feelings in the matter of Eurykleia is exceptional. It also keeps peace in the house.

PHILOITIOS, the cattle foreman or cowherd, and EUMAIOS, the swineherd, are servants faithful to Odysseus. In contrast, MELANTHIOS, the goatherd, insults Odysseus and steals weapons from the storehouse to help the suitors. His disloyalty is severely punished.


The men who lead "the wolfish troop" of more than a hundred suitors are ANTINOOS and EURYMAKHOS. AMPHINOMOS, another suitor, reveals some sense of conscience during the plot to murder Telemakhos, when he observes that "it is a shivery thing to kill a prince of royal blood."


PEIRAIOS is Telemakhos' crewman, entrusted to keep Telemakhos' gifts from Menelaos while Telemakhos asserts himself against the suitors. EURYLOKHOS is Odysseus' right-hand man; he is also the one who leads the men to kill and eat the sacred cattle of Helios. Eurylokhos dies in the ensuing shipwreck. Another of Odysseus' shipmates is ELPENOR, who falls off the roof, drunk, while at the home of Kirke. He breaks his neck and dies. Odysseus sees his ghost in the underworld.


NESTOR, the first of Odysseus' army friends to be visited by Telemakhos, is called "Nestor of Gerenia," "Neleus' son," and "prince of charioteers." He was the chief adviser of the Greek forces. His son, PEISISTRATOS, becomes Telemakhos' good friend.


In the course of Book 11 Odysseus visits Erebos, a realm of darkness, the place of the dead. HADES, the god of the underworld, is called "Death" in the Fitzgerald translation. PERSEPHONE is the occasional and unwilling bride of Death.

In the place of the dead, Odysseus meets the ghost of his mother, ANTIKLEIA, the daughter of AUTOLYKOS. He also greets TEIRESIAS, the blind soothsayer of Thebes. He sees EPICASTE, (Jocasta), mother of OIDIPOUS; (Oedipus); LEDA, to whom Zeus made love in the form of a swan; ARIADNE, daughter of King MINOS, who helped THESEUS through the labyrinth; King Minos himself; as well as ORION, the famous hunter; TANTOLOS, who is punished by having water just out of reach of his thirsting mouth; and SISYPHOS, whose punishment is eternally to push a boulder up hill only to have it roll back down. The muscle man of many legends, HERAKLES, is there too, as is AGAMEMNON.


In the underworld Odysseus sees also the shade of Akhilleus, who went to Troy knowing he would be killed, but preferred honorable death on the battlefield to an ignominious life. At first he sulked in his tent, refusing to fight, because he had not been awarded the woman BRISEIS as part of his share of the spoils of war. Later he killed HECTOR, the Trojan champion, in single combat, moved to action out of anger and grief over the death of his friend, PATROKLOS. At Troy, Akhilleus died when shot in the heel, his only vulnerable spot, the place covered by his mother's hand when she dipped him for protection into the River Styx, which separates the land of the living from the land of the dead. PARIS, who stole Helen, shot the arrow that killed Akhilleus.


The "people of the sea," the Phaiakians, live on Skheria island, governed by King ALKINOOS and his wife ARETE. Their daughter is the princess NAUSIKAA. Nausikaa is portrayed as young, virginal, bright, and lovely. Skheria is where Odysseus ends up after his final shipwreck and where he tells the story of his adventures.


Finally there is the assortment of gods, demigods, monsters, witches, nymphs and others, encountered by Odysseus on his travels. These are, in chronological order, the KIKONES at Ismaros; the LOTOS EATERS and their dreamy ways; AIOLOS, the king of the winds, on Aiolia Island; the murderous LAISTRYGONIANS; KIRKE, who can change men into swine; the SEIRENES, with their alluring voices; SKYLLA the cliff and KHARYBDIS the whirlpool; HELIOS, the god of the sun; and KALYPSO on Ogygia.

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Barron's Booknotes-The Odyssey by Homer

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