The Odyssey’s books tell the tale of a complicated man and his arduous journey home. Homer describes Odysseus’ troubles during his homecoming, arriving from the Trojan War. We learn of his encounters with monsters and gods while his wife and son back in Ithaca struggle against invaders to their home.
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We have prepared a summary of The Odyssey for you. Below, you will find a description of the events taking place in each of the twenty-four books. You will also see short analyses of critical incidents underneath The Odyssey’s book summary.
📗 The Odyssey: Books I-II
Homer begins his tale with an invocation. He asks the Muse of Poetry to tell the story of Odysseus, the king of Ithaca, the survivor of the Trojan War, and a man of many twists and turns of fate. We learn that the hero is held on the island of the nymph Calypso and that she wants to marry him.
Back home, his wife Penelope is being harassed by suitors who want to marry her. A divine council of gods takes place on Mount Olympus. Athena, the daughter of Zeus, the king of gods, is pleading with her father. She is begging him to let Odysseus go home and asks him to send a messenger to demand his freedom.
“…my heart breaks for Odysseus, that seasoned veteran cursed by fate so long.”(1:57-58)
She tells it Zeus, who reassures her he still cares for her favorite mortal. After, she disguises herself as Mentes, an old friend of Odysseus, and travels to Ithaca. There she talks with the king’s son, Telemachus. Athena explains that his father is alive and that he is going to come back very soon. She advises that Telemachus must finally stand up against the suitors that have taken residence in his home. He agrees and calls for an assembly to take place the next day.
The assembly gathers for the first time in twenty years. The old man Aegyptius praises Telemachus for taking charge. Odysseus’ son makes a case against the suitors, young aristocrats who have overtaken his home. They consume their food and abuse their hospitality while waiting for Penelope to decide which one of them to marry.
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The suitors, in turn, blame Penelope. The most persistent one, Antinous, claims she promised to marry one of them after weaving a burial shroud for Odysseus’ father, Laertes. However, this had been a lie. Every day, Penelope would weave and undo her work at night. The shroud never grew, so she put off marrying for three years. Telemachus answers by asking the gods to punish the suitors for their insolence. A pair of eagles locked in a fight flies above the assembly, and the seer Halitherses interprets this as the sign of Odysseus’ return home.
“And to seal his prayer, farseeing Zeus sent down a sign. He launched two eagles soaring high from a mountain ridge and down they glided, borne on the wind’s draft a moment, wing to wingtip, pinions straining taut…”(2:164-167)
The meeting ends in a stalemate. Athena, this time disguised as Mentor, another family friend of Odysseus, guides Telemachus towards the island of Pylos. She tells him that there he will discover the truth behind his father’s fate.
Penelope, Telemachus, the suitors, Zeus, Athena, Halitherses
From the very start, Homer introduces the separate plotlines that we will follow throughout the epic. There is a story of Penelope, Telemachus, and the suitors and one of Odysseus’ return. The Odyssey’s analysis would be incomplete without mentioning the themes central to the story. We are also introduced to them from the beginning: nostos (return home), xenia (hospitality), loyalty, and divine intervention.
The audience’s introduction to the political climate of The Odyssey is evident as well. The royal family is portrayed as beloved, polite, and hospitable, yet unable to keep their power. The young aristocrats, however, are rude and hostile but overwhelming in numbers. With how long Odysseus was gone, it is understandable that most think he is dead. The queen and young prince do not present a threat to the suitors. Homer tells us that the gods, as well as the narrator, are unquestionably on the side of Odysseus’ family.
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📕 The Odyssey: Books III-IV
Telemachus arrives on Pylos together with Athena, who is still disguised as Mentor. They interrupt a ceremony of sacrifice to Poseidon, the god of the sea. King Nestor greets them warmly. Telemachus is nervous and inexperienced, but Athena continues to guide and encourage him.
“Telemachus,” the bright-eyed goddess Athena reassured him, “some of the words you’ll find within yourself, the rest some power will inspire you to say.”(3:27-29)
Feeling emboldened, he asks the king about his father. Nestor informs him that the Greeks returned home in two groups. The first one followed Menelaus, the king of Sparta, who sailed back immediately. The second one stayed behind with Agamemnon, the king of Mycenae. They continued to sacrifice to gods for another day.
Nestor informs Telemachus that he left with Menelaus and that Odysseus stayed behind. He also recalls that Agamemnon was murdered by his wife and her lover as soon as he returned home. His son, Orestes, avenged his father’s death. Nestor provides this story as an example for Telemachus to follow. He then instructs him to go to Sparta and seek his answers there, offering his son Pisistratus to go with him. Athena reveals her divinity by changing in front of the entire court. She promises to protect Telemachus on his journey.
When Telemachus and Pisistratus arrive at Sparta, the court is celebrating the marriages of the prince and princess. King Menelaus and his wife Queen Helen greet their guests. They tell Telemachus of his father’s cunning exploits at Troy. That’s when we hear the famous story of the Trojan horse and the Greek’s victory.
“…what a heart that fearless Odysseus had inside him! What a piece of work the hero dared and carried off in the wooden horse where all our best encamped, our champions armed with bloody death for Troy … “(4:303-306)
The next day, Menelaus tells Telemachus of his return to Sparta. He says that he was stranded in Egypt and captured the oracle Proteus. He informed him that Odysseus was alive and is currently held captive on Calypso’s island.
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Telemachus is ecstatic at the news and immediately begins to prepare for his return trip. Back on Ithaca, however, the suitors find out about his voyage and decide to ambush him on the sea. Penelope learns of this and is distraught at the prospect of losing her son as well as her husband. That night, Athena appears to her in her dreams, disguised as her sister Iphthime. She reassures the queen that her family is protected.
Telemachus, Athena (Mentor), King Nestor, Pisistratus, King Menelaus, Queen Helen
We begin to learn more about the background, as well as the fate of some of the heroes. With The Odyssey being a sequel to The Iliad, Homer’s audience would no doubt be familiar with these characters. They are also prominent figures in Greek mythology. Nestor’s tale of Agamemnon’s fate is also an important element of the story against which Odysseus’ circumstances are reflected.
Homer presents his audience with more examples of xenia and its vital importance in Greek society. Contrasted against the suitors’ behavior, it is no wonder they are considered the antagonists of the story.
📘 The Odyssey: Books V-VI
Another divine council is taking place on Mount Olympus, and Poseidon is absent. Athena once again pleads to Zeus to free Odysseus, and he finally agrees. He sends Hermes, the messenger god, to Calypso’s island of Ogygia.
Calypso is furious at the gods’ hypocrisy, claiming that they lay with mortal lovers all the time but forbid her to do the same. Still, she does not want to anger Zeus, so she follows the instructions.
We meet Odysseus crying on a beach, missing home, and desperate to return.
“…all his days he’d sit on the rocks and beaches, wrenching his heart with sobs and groans and anguish, gazing out over the barren sea through blinding tears.”(5:173-175)
Calypso offers him a raft and provisions for the journey home. She watches him sail away out into the sea. Poseidon spots Odysseus, and in his fury, sends a storm that nearly drowns him. The goddesses Ino and Athena come to his rescue, and the king of Ithaca walks onto the shores of the island Scheria.
Scheria, where Odysseus finds himself next, is the land of the Phaeacians. Their princess Nausicaa has a dream that night in which Athena, disguised as her friend, tells her to visit the river. The young princess obeys.
Nausicaa and her handmaidens wash their clothes in the water when Odysseus encounters them. Without revealing who he is, he pleads for Nausicaa’s assistance. Of course, she agrees to help. Athena makes him even more handsome than he already is, so the princess begins to fall in love. She offers him clothes, explains how to get to the royal palace, and advises Odysseus how to approach king Alcinous and queen Arete.
Zeus, Athena, Hermes, Calypso, Odysseus. his team, Ino, Nausicaa
The first time we encounter Odysseus, we immediately see his longing for home. He is a complicated character. He possesses depth not typically seen in the heroes of the time.
The modern audience may also note the patriarchal culture of the era, as brought up by Calypso. Her speech mirrors another double standard existing between Penelope and Odysseus. His wife is expected to stay celibate, while the king of Ithaca spends nights in Calypso’s bed. However, Homer never reproaches this aspect of the epic, thereby revealing hypocrisy in the poem itself.
Odysseus is shown to be a shrewd and calculating man. His every word and action is deliberate. Instead of being the typical strong hero, Odysseus relies on his intellect and charisma to get what he wants. This is clearly displayed in the incident with Nausicaa, where he thinks through how to approach her.
“Should he fling his arms around her knees, the young beauty, plead for help, or stand back, plead with a winning word, beg her to lead him to the town and lend him clothing? This was the better way, he thought.”(6:156-159)
📙 The Odyssey: Books VII-VIII
Odysseus follows Nausicaa’s instructions and goes to the royal palace. On the way there, a young girl (once again, Athena in disguise) stops him. She guides him through the crowded streets and veils his presence from the other Phaeacians so that he is not questioned. Odysseus walks in on a ceremony in honor of Poseidon. At Athena’s behest, he falls at the queen’s feet and begs for help. The protective veil above him lifts. He is revealed to the Phaeacians. King Alcinous momentarily wonders if he might be a god:
“…if he’s one of the deathless powers, out of the blue, the gods are working now in strange, new ways.”(7:234-236)
Odysseus reassures that he is a mortal man, trying to get back home, and the king and queen gladly promise to help. He tells them the tale of his escape from Calypso’s island and his encounter with the young princess at the river. The king is so impressed with the stranger that he immediately offers his daughter’s hand in marriage.
Alcinous gathers an assembly to decide how to help Odysseus out. He proposes to give him a ship and crew so that he can safely return home. Everyone agrees. The king throws a celebration in honor of his new guest, and everyone attends. The blind bard Demodocus tells the tale of the Trojan War, which moves Odysseus to tears.
“…Odysseus, clutching his flaring sea-blue cape in both powerful hands, drew it over his head and buried his handsome face, ashamed his hosts might see him shedding tears.”(8:100-104)
Noticing his guest’s disposition, Alcinous begins a round of games for the men to play. Odysseus is asked to participate, which he declines at first. However, after one of the athletes makes fun of him, the king of Ithaca easily wins a discus throwing challenge.
To prevent a fight, Alcinous continues the feast. Demodocus performs once more, this time telling the tale of Aphrodite and Ares. The Phaeacians give Odysseus plenty of gifts to take home. The king of Ithaca then asks the blind bard to sing another story of Troy. He begins to weep once more, and this time, the king finally asks Odysseus to explain who he is. Alcinous also mentions an ancient prophecy. It states that should the Phaeacians help out a stranger, their ship will be turned to stone, and mountains will grow around their city.
Odysseus, Athena, Nausicaa, King Alcinous, Queen Arete, Demodocus
Once again, we are introduced to the idea of reality vs. appearance. Athena keeps disguising herself and Odysseus. The hero, in turn, never reveals his identity outright. Homer reiterates that all displays of cunning and caution are rewarded.
“But the famed Phaeacian sailors never saw him, right in their midst, striding down their streets. Athena the one with lovely braids would not permit it, the awesome goddess poured an enchanted mist around him, harboring kindness for Odysseus in her heart.”(7:44-48)
The blind bard Demodocus is a significant character in The Odyssey. His songs and tales occupy a great portion of the story. Many scholars of the epics drew parallels between him and the author himself. There is a belief that Demodocus was supposed to represent Homer. From this idea stems the legend behind his blindness. As interesting as this supposition is, it remains only a theory. Despite this, Demodocus and his songs show that oral storytelling was a crucial part of Ancient Greek culture.
📓 The Odyssey: Books IX-X
The king of Ithaca finally admits his identity to the Phaeacians, and they ask him to recount the tale of his travels. Thus begins the long story of his journey home.
Odysseus recalls how after the victory at Troy, he brought his men to the city of the Cicones, Ismarus. They ravage and loot, killing the men and enslaving the women. Eventually, however, the Cicones strike back and drive the Greeks out. Odysseus and his crew retreat and sail away, getting caught in a storm.
They find themselves in the land of the Lotus-eaters, people who indulge in eating psychedelic fruits. Some of Odysseus’ crew try the lotus, only to immediately lose all memory of home. They want nothing more than to stay on the island and eat more fruit. Odysseus instructs them to drag them back to the ship, and they sail away.
Eventually, they end up on the island of the Cyclopes. They are a race of one-eyed giants who spend their time herding sheep and eating men. Odysseus wanders into a cave filled with livestock, milk, and cheese. While he and his men are stealing the food, Cyclops Polyphemus returns to his home. He traps the men inside with a giant boulder. Odysseus tries to reason with the monster, appealing to his sense of hospitality:
“Respect the gods, my friend. We’re suppliants—at your mercy! Zeus of the Strangers guards all guests and suppliants: strangers are sacred—Zeus will avenge their rights!”(9:303-305)
In turn, Polyphemus eats two of his men.
“…you must be a fool, stranger, or come from nowhere, telling me to fear the gods or avoid their wrath! We Cyclops never blink at Zeus and Zeus’s shield of storm and thunder, or any other blessed god…”(9:307-310)
Odysseus doesn’t kill the giant immediately, realizing that only he is strong enough to move the boulder trapping them inside. Instead, he sharpens a spear and gets the Cyclops drunk on wine. Polyphemus asks Odysseus for his name, and he replies with “Nobody.” When the giant finally falls asleep, Odysseus sticks a spear in his eye, blinding him.
Other Cyclopes hear Polyphemus scream. They rush to help, only to catch him call out, “Nobody is killing me.” Satisfied that there is no danger, they leave.
When morning arrives, Odysseus instructs his men to tie themselves to the bottom of the Cyclops’ sheep. The blind monster leads his herd out of the cave, patting them on their backs as they move along. Finally free from the cave, Odysseus returns to the ship. He is unable to stop himself from gloating at his victory over the giant. He reveals his real name to Polyphemus. The Cyclops, in turn, calls to his father, Poseidon, to curse Odysseus and his journey.
After escaping, Odysseus and his men find themselves visiting the island of Aeolus, the keeper of winds. They rest for a month, and their host provides them with a valuable gift. Aeolus gives Odysseus bags with winds that would drive the ship off course. Only one is left to blow their sails to Ithaca.
They see home after ten days. Yet, overcome by greed, Odysseus’ crew opens up the bags searching for gold and treasure. The trapped winds escape, causing a mighty storm, which brings the ships back to Aeolus. He refuses to help out a second time, convinced that Odysseus is cursed by the gods. The men are forced to sail without wind, and they arrive at the land of Laestrygonians. They are cannibalistic giants who devour some of the crew. The rest rush back to their ships, but the Laestrygonians throw rocks and boulders at the vessels, sinking them. Only Odysseus’ ship manages to make it through.
Their next stop is at the island of the sea-witch Circe, who turns some of the men into pigs. To help Odysseus, Hermes disguises himself as a shepherd and instructs him to protect against Circe and her potions. The hero overpowers the witch, and she agrees to turn his men back.
Circe becomes much more agreeable after being defeated. Soon enough, Odysseus becomes her lover. He and his crew stay in her palace, filled with comfort and luxury, for an entire year. It takes the persuasion of his men to remind Odysseus of his ultimate goal of returning home.
“Captain, this is madness! High time you thought of your own home at last, if it really is your fate to make it back alive and reach your well-built house and native land.”(10:520-523)
Circe guides him, instructing him to head to the Underworld and seek Tiresias, a blind prophet. She claims that he will show the way home. On the morning of their departure, Odysseus discovers one of his men missing. It is the youngest of the crew, Elpenor. He fell from the rooftop while drunk and broke his neck.
Odysseus, his team, the Cicones, the Lotus-eaters, the Cyclopes, Polyphemus, Poseidon, Aeolus, the Laestrygonians, Circe, Hermes
The episode with the Cyclopes is one of the most pivotal points of The Odyssey. This is a striking example of Odysseus’ cunning. He can’t defeat the monster with strength, so he outsmarts him. This moment, however, also proves to be Odysseus’ downfall. Unable to help himself in his desire for kleos (glory), the king of Ithaca reveals his true name. Through this act, his nostos (return home) is severely impeded. He is punished for his hubris, and from that moment, both Poseidon and the sea itself become his fathomable enemies.
Odysseus’ stay on Circe’s island is a reminder of the mortal folly of men. He is overcome by the temptations around him, luxury and beauty clouding his judgment. Even though he longs to go home, Odysseus lets himself be distracted. This is also the first instance of the crew criticizing their leader. Odysseus’ men are tired and want to go back. Elpenor’s death after excessive drinking is also a reminder of the dangers of gluttony and greed.
📗 The Odyssey: Books XI-XII
Odysseus travels to the land of Cimmerians to perform a rite to gain access to the Underworld. He follows Circe’s instructions and slaughters sacrificial animals so that the dead come and drink their blood.
“I took the victims, over the trench I cut their throats and the dark blood flowed in—and up out of Erebus they came, flocking toward me now, the ghosts of the dead and gone … ”(11:40-42)
The first soul to appear is Elpenor, who asks his captain for a proper burial. Odysseus then encounters Tiresias, who he’s been seeking. The prophet tells him of Poseidon’s punishment and that his journey will not be an easy one. Despite that, however, he is confident that Odysseus shall return home and reclaim his throne. He also warns the hero not to touch the cattle of the Sun god Helios – otherwise, there will be more suffering and death.
After Tiresias leaves, Odysseus is surprised to find the spirit of his mother, Anticlea. She tells him that she died of a broken heart while waiting for him to return. She also warns that his father may be nearing the same fate and that he should hurry.
Odysseus interrupts his tale at this point. It reminds the audience that this is all a recount of his story to the Phaeacians. He wants to go to sleep, but his enchanted listeners ask him to continue. They ask if he met any of the fallen Greek heroes in the Underworld. Odysseus confirms that he did, recounting his meeting with Agamemnon and the tale of his death. Agamemnon warns Odysseus against Penelope, repeating that he cannot trust women and that she might betray him too.
The great hero Achilles also makes his presence known. Odysseus tells him how envious he is of his death, and Achilles refutes this. He claims that he would much rather still be alive than have died in glory. Odysseus meets many more of his fallen comrades and is soon overrun by souls wishing to speak with him. He rushes back to his ship and sails away.
Odysseus makes his way back to Circe’s island to bury Elpenor, just as he promised. The sea witch provides the men with more supplies and advice for their journey. She tells Odysseus of the struggles that await them. They leave and make their way past the murderous Sirens, who lure seamen to their deaths with their songs. Odysseus instructs his men to plugs their ears while they tie him to the mast. No matter how much he begs them to, he tells them not to let him go.
Odysseus hears the Sirens, and they promise him endless knowledge should he come to them.
“Come closer, famous Odysseus—Achaea’s pride and glory— moor your ship on our coast so you can hear our song! Never has any sailor passed our shores in his black craft until he has heard the honeyed voices pouring from our lips, and once he hears to his heart’s content sails on, a wiser man.”(12:200-204)
True to their word, his men do not release him. Odysseus becomes the first person to live after hearing the song.
After that, they encounter the monsters Scylla and Charybdis and must face one of them. Scylla is a six-headed beast that Circe promised will eat six of Odysseus’ men should they come close. Charybdis is a monstrous whirlpool that swallows ships. The sea witch advised Odysseus to stay closer to the former. He obeys her advice and loses six men in the process.
They stop to rest on Thrinacia, the land of the Sun, when a storm hits and keeps them there for a month. The men, exhausted and demoralized, do not heed Odysseus’ warning about the cattle. They slaughter the Sun god Helios’ livestock. When he finds out, he begs Zeus to punish them. When the men set sail again, Zeus sends another storm to kill them all and destroy their craft.
Odysseus is the only survivor, managing to barely avoid Charybdis by paddling on the remains of his ship. He eventually reaches Calypso’s island, where he remains imprisoned for seven years. This ends Odysseus’ account of his travels to the Phaeacians.
Odysseus, his team, Elpenor, Tiresias, Anticlea, Agamemnon, Achilles, Circe, the Sirens, Scylla and Charybdis, Helios, Zeus, Calypso
Odysseus’ time in the Underworld serves as a sobering experience. He is reminded of his mortality and the mortality of those close to him. Most importantly, however, is Homer’s criticism of kleos. Once again, we are reminded that returning home is more important than death for glory. Achilles says so in his own words:
“No winning words about death to me, shining Odysseus! By god, I’d rather slave on earth for another man— some dirt-poor tenant farmer who scrapes to keep alive— than rule down here over all the breathless dead.”(11:555-558)
Loyalty is reiterated to be one of the most critical elements in The Odyssey. Odysseus remains loyal to his friend by keeping his promise to bury his body. His crew is dedicated to the king when they follow his instructions with the Sirens. Odysseus survives the storm by staying loyal to the gods and not touching the Sun god’s cattle. The rest of the men are punished for their disrespect.
“Round she spun, reeling under the impact, filled with reeking brimstone, shipmates pitching out of her, bobbing round like seahawks swept along by the whitecaps past the trim black hull— and the god cut short their journey home forever.”(12:344-348)
📕 The Odyssey: Books XIII-XIV
The day after the incredible story, Odysseus is getting ready to leave Scheria and head home. Alcinous bestows upon him various gifts, and the hero sets sail as soon as night arrives. He sleeps throughout the journey and even the landing. The crew carries sleeping Odysseus and his gifts to the shore and leaves him there. Poseidon, seeing Odysseus returned home, is enraged. He punishes the Phaeacians by turning their ship to stone, and it immediately sinks. Thus, the ancient prophecy comes true.
When Odysseus wakes up, he does not recognize his land. Athena disguised Ithaca in a mysterious veil, and the king believes he has been tricked. The goddess then disguises herself as a shepherd and confirms that Odysseus is back home. As is typical of the hero, he does not reveal his identity straight away and lies about his past. Athena is delighted, finally showing herself and praising Odysseus for his cunning.
“Any man—any god who met you—would have to be some champion lying cheat to get past you for all-round craft and guile! You terrible man, foxy, ingenious, never tired of twists and tricks…”(13:329-332)
The two of them plan how to take revenge on the suitors that are still residing in the palace. She tells him to go search for his swineherd, Eumaeus. Odysseus should stay with him until Telemachus comes back.
Eumaeus does not recognize Odysseus when he approaches him. The king introduces himself as a beggar, and the swineherd happily invites him inside. Even though Eumaeus does not have much to offer, he feeds the man a warm meal and talks to him. He tells him how much he misses his former master, how he believes Odysseus to be dead:
“…he’s dead and gone. Aye, leaving a broken heart for loved ones left behind, for me most of all. Never another master kind as he!”(14:159-161)
He also mentions Penelope’s grief and suffering, as well as her unwavering loyalty. Odysseus, in turn, lies about his past and claims that he came from Crete. He says that he fought with the king of Ithaca in the Trojan War. He also states that during his travels, he heard that Odysseus is still alive.
Odysseus, King Alcinous, the Phaeacians crew, Poseidon, Athena, Eumaeus
The detail of the Phaeacian prophecy is an interesting one. It reveals a paradox (or a plot hole) in Homer’s storytelling. Odysseus freely admits that he is cursed by Poseidon to Alcinous, who mentioned the prophecy at the beginning. Thus, it is difficult to understand why the Phaeacians were still so eager to help Odysseus. When the onlookers witnessed the ship turning to stone, they immediately understood that the prophecy had come true.
“Now, look, it all comes true! Hurry, friends, do as I say, let us all comply: stop our convoys home for every castaway chancing on our city!”(13:202-205)
From that day on, the custom of helping out strangers and travelers was abandoned to appease Poseidon.
Eumaeus, in his treatment of Odysseus, displays the incredible power of xenia. The swineherd lives in actual poverty. Yet, he provides a stranger with food and a place to sleep for the night. He is also intensely loyal to Odysseus. Eumaeus refuses to stop calling him his master despite believing that he is long dead. This absolute display of loyalty is encouraged and rewarded in the Homeric world.
📘 The Odyssey: Books XV-XVI
Over in Sparta, Athena finds Telemachus and warns him that he must hurry back home and find the swineherd. She also informs him of the ambush that the suitors have planned for him.
Odysseus’ son departs the very next day, accepting gifts from his hosts as is custom. Right as he is about to leave, an eagle carrying a dead goose flies overhead. Helen says this is a sign that Odysseus is about to return and take his revenge. Telemachus begs Pisistratus to drop him off at his ship instead of stopping for another visit with his father. Nestor is sure to be angry at this rudeness, but there simply is no time for all the customs of hospitality. Pisistratus agrees and brings Telemachus to his ship. Before he departs, he is approached by Theoclymenus, the descendant of a famous prophet. He is running away, fearing he would be prosecuted for his crimes, and begs to come on board. Telemachus agrees and promises to host him as soon as they return to Ithaca.
Meanwhile, Odysseus offers to leave Eumaeus alone. He claims that he will get by working for the suitors instead. Ever hospitable, the swineherd declines and won’t let his guest go. He tells Odysseus of his past and how he arrived at Ithaca.
The next day, Telemachus finally arrives, avoiding the ambush set up by the suitors. As he is about to head to the swineherd’s hut, they see a hawk carrying a dove. The prophet’s descendant says that this is a sign Odysseus’ family is strong and will succeed against the suitors.
Telemachus finally reaches Eumaeus and sees a stranger. The swineherd tells him of Odysseus’ made-up story and asks if he can stay at the palace. Telemachus, still young and inexperienced, is afraid of the suitors. Eumaeus tells him he will go alone to tell his mother that he returned.
When he leaves, Athena finally drops Odysseus’ disguise. Telemachus sees his father for the first time in twenty years. The two reunite, sharing a tearful embrace.
“…Telemachus threw his arms around his great father, sobbing uncontrollably as the deep desire for tears welled up in both.”(16:244-246)
Odysseus tells his son of his trip with the Phaeacians – however, his recount is brief. He begins plotting their revenge against the suitors immediately. Their best bet to winning against the suitors’ excess numbers is to surprise them. Odysseus will stay disguised as a beggar while Telemachus hides the suitors’ weapons. Then the two of them will kill their enemies.
At the palace, a messenger from the ship announces Telemachus’ return before Eumaeus can inform Penelope. The suitors are angry that their plan did not work and gather to decide what to do next. Antinous speaks out again, saying that they should kill the prince before it is too late. He is opposed by Amphinomus, one of the more mild-mannered and pleasant suitors:
“Friends, I’ve no desire to kill Telemachus, not I— it’s a terrible thing to shed the blood of kings. Wait, sound out the will of the gods—that first.”(16:444-446)
He insists that they should wait for a sign from the gods, and the others agree.
Athena, Telemachus, Queen Helen, King Menelaus, Pisistratus, Eumaeus, Odysseus, Penelope, the suitors (Antinous and Amphinomus in particular)
Homer wants his audience to know that Odysseus’ revenge is righteous and unavoidable. Not only are the gods on his side, but seemingly nature itself. The omens of birds of prey carrying their kills are signs of divine will.
“Look, Telemachus, the will of god just winged that bird on your right! Why, the moment I saw it, here before my eyes, I knew it was a sign. No line more kingly than yours in all of Ithaca—yours will reign forever!”(15:594-597)
The suitors will not be able to escape their punishment no matter what.
Before this part of the story, the suitors have mostly been presented as one faceless entity. The audience was conditioned to believe in their absolute evil and the deservingness of their punishment. The suitors that spoke before, such as Antinous, did nothing to disprove that. However, with the introduction of Amphinomus, this image begins to change. The suitors aren’t an immoral mass. They are a group of complex characters, some worse than others. Odysseus’ upcoming revenge becomes more complicated and less absolute in the face of this new revelation.
📙 The Odyssey: Books XVII-XVIII
Leaving his father at the hut, Telemachus heads back to the palace. There, he is welcomed by his mother. He tells Penelope of what he learned from the kings he visited but doesn’t mention meeting Odysseus. Theoclymenus suddenly speaks and claims that Odysseus is in Ithaca right now.
On the other side of the island, Odysseus himself heads towards the palace together with Eumaeus. He is back in his disguise as a beggar. On the way, Odysseus shares a heart-wrenching moment. He sees his old dog, Argos, lying sick and forgotten.
“…the moment he sensed Odysseus standing by he thumped his tail, nuzzling low, and his ears dropped, though he had no strength to drag himself an inch toward his master.”(17:330-333)
The loyal friend immediately recognizes his master despite the disguise. Giving one last tail wag, the dog dies happy. Odysseus isn’t able to stop and grieve his friend so as not to ruin his disguise. Eumaeus informs him that he was a very fast and strong hound in his youth.
They also encounter the goatherd Melanthius, a traitor to Odysseus and servant of the suitors. He insults and assaults the two of them. This sets a precedent for the way the disguised Odysseus is going to be treated by the suitors. Seeing a beggar in the palace, they reluctantly share the food and proceed to insult him. When Odysseus finally answers back, Antinous attacks him with a stool. Penelope is informed of what happened, and she immediately wants to see the beggar. Odysseus, however, is reluctant to let the suitors see him walk to the queen’s chambers.
A real beggar, Irus, walks into the royal palace and sees Odysseus. Feeling territorial, he insults the competition and challenges him to a boxing match. Athena gives Odysseus more strength, and Irus comes to regret his choices. The king easily wins the fight.
The suitors are entertained and congratulate Odysseus. Amphinomus even offers him more food and toasts in his honor. This is when Odysseus takes pity on the young suitor and discreetly warns him to leave before it is too late. However, Athena prophesied that every single suitor should die in the slaughter – so Amphinomus stays.
The goddess guides Penelope to make an appearance before the suitors. Athena makes her seem even more beautiful. The queen reproaches her son for the fight. She also tells her guests that to win her heart, they should try harder and bring her gifts. This delights Odysseus as he watches the suitors fetch her present after present.
The king tells one of the maids to go see the queen and chastises her for neglecting her needs. The maid, Melantho, replies by insulting him, proving her disloyalty. The suitor Eurymachus picks a fight with Odysseus, throwing another stool at him. However, he misses and hits a servant instead. Another argument is about to break out before Telemachus steps forward to calm everyone down.
Telemachus, Penelope, Athena, Theoclymenus, Eumaeus, Odysseus, Argos, Melanthius, the suitors (Antinous, Eurymachus, and Amphinomus in particular), Irus, Melantho
The moment shared between Odysseus and Argos is brief yet very memorable. Accentuating the theme of loyalty in the story, the dog can only die once his master is back. He managed to wait for Odysseus for twenty years, and the king cries at seeing his old friend. This is put in stark contrast against the servants that betrayed him, such as Melanthius and Melantho.
Homer reminds us once again of the absolute power of the gods. Even though Odysseus wants to show mercy to one of the suitors, Athena forbids it. Therefore, despite his feeling that something awful is about to happen, Amphinomus stays.
“Amphinomus made his way back through the hall, heart sick with anguish, shaking his head, fraught with grave forebodings … but not even so could he escape his fate.”(18:175-178)
This is reminiscent of Poseidon’s condemnation of the Phaeacians. No matter the intent or nuance, the gods’ will is absolute and shall not be opposed by mortals.
📓 The Odyssey: Books XIX-XX
When night arrives, Odysseus and Telemachus start executing their plan. They hide the weapons in a room, and Athena lights their way. The young prince informs his nurse, Eurycleia, that they are putting them away to prevent them from being damaged. When they are done, and Telemachus goes to sleep, Penelope finally approaches Odysseus. She tells him about her fate, about the clever ruses she used to prevent another marriage.
“So by day I’d weave at my great and growing web— by night, by the light of torches set beside me, I would unravel all I’d done. Three whole years I deceived them blind, seduced them with this scheme.”(19:167-170)
She also decides to test her visitor by questioning him about her husband. The disguised Odysseus, understandably, passes the test. He tells her of how he met the king and how he came to Ithaca. By the end of the account, Penelope is in tears, but she still does not recognize her husband. She offers the beggar a bed to stay in, but he declines and says he will sleep on the floor.
Odysseus allows the old nurse to wash his feet. Eurycleia recognizes an old scar on his leg and immediately understands who is before her. She is delighted to see Odysseus and promises to keep his secret safe.
Penelope describes a dream she had. In it, an eagle kills her pet geese. In her husband’s voice, it tells her that he is back. Odysseus tries to make her believe that this dream is prophetic, but Penelope is not convinced. She has waited for too long – she decides it is time to choose a new husband nevertheless.
Penelope decides on a challenge to determine who to marry. The person who manages to shoot an arrow from Odysseus’ bow through a dozen ax heads will become the new king of Ithaca. Odysseus approves of her idea.
Penelope cannot sleep that night. She is worried sick about her husband’s fate and the idea of another marriage. She prays to the goddess Artemis to kill her if she cannot join her husband.
“Artemis with your glossy braids, come shoot me dead— so I can plunge beneath this loathsome earth with the image of Odysseus vivid in my mind. Never let me warm the heart of a weaker man!”(20:89-92)
Her pain wakes Odysseus, who is also restless. Earlier, he noticed some of the maids sneak out to meet their lovers among the suitors. This angered him greatly, but he was also worried. He fears that he will not be able to overpower all the suitors. Athena reassures him that everything will be alright. Odysseus begs Zeus for a good omen. That is when thunder strikes outside.
The next day is a holiday in Ithaca. Odysseus and Telemachus meet with Eumaeus, Melanthius, and then Philoetius, a loyal cowherd. The suitors intend to kill the prince, but Amphinomus once again talks them out of it. Another omen appears as an eagle carrying a dove flies overhead. Athena clouds the suitors’ minds, making them all even more hostile than usual. One of them even throws an ox hoof at Odysseus. Telemachus warns that they will be killed for their insults. In response, the suitors laugh almost maniacally.
“…mad, hysterical laughter seemed to break from the jaws of strangers, not their own, and the meat they were eating oozed red with blood— tears flooded their eyes, hearts possessed by grief.”(20:386-389)
The room becomes covered in blood, their faces turn ghostly, and Theoclymenus interprets this as a sign of certain doom.
Odysseus, Telemachus, Athena, Eurycleia, Penelope, Eumaeus, Melanthius, Philoetius, the suitors (Amphinomus in particular), Theoclymenus.
Time and time again, Odysseus’ disguise comes under question in the narrative, building tension. With some of the servants’ disloyalty, the audience is in constant suspense and fearful for Odysseus.
There also arises the question of Penelope’s awareness of her husband’s ruse. Some argue that she is completely oblivious and truly believes Odysseus to be a beggar. Others are convinced that, at the very least, she is questioning his identity. After twenty years, Penelope is understandably suspicious and careful in her judgment. However, the contest that she chooses can be indicative of her knowledge. She is aware that only Odysseus can accomplish the feat she decided on. Perhaps this was Penelope’s way of indirectly helping her husband exact his revenge.
The time spent in the royal palace that leads up to the culmination is filled with repetition. We see the same behavior happen over and over, though with escalating intensity. The disloyal servants are ruder than ever; the suitors are more and more aggressive. Athena continues to intervene, influencing almost every event. The omens now come one after the other without stopping. Some scholars have claimed that this incessant repetition is a sure sign of multiple authors restating the same events. Others attribute it to the format of the poem, as well as the buildup to the climax of events.
📗 The Odyssey: Books XXI-XXII
Penelope announces the contest and its conditions. Telemachus sets up the stage and is the first to try to string up the bow. He almost manages on the fourth try but is stopped by Odysseus. Then the suitors take their turns one by one. Every one of them fails. While this is happening, Odysseus talks to his two servants, Eumaeus and Philoetius. Assured of their loyalty, he reveals himself and asks them to fight by his side against the suitors.
The king makes his way back to the palace, where the suitors are still struggling to string up the bow. He asks if he can give it a try, and the suitors begin to mock him. Antinous is incredibly spiteful, secretly fearing that he might succeed. Penelope intervenes, and Telemachus, knowing what is about to happen, tells his mother to go to her quarters. He then proceeds to order the suitors to give the bow to Odysseus.
“Quickly his right hand plucked the string to test its pitch and under his touch it sang out clear and sharp as a swallow’s cry. Horror swept through the suitors, faces blanching white, and Zeus cracked the sky with a bolt, his blazing sign…”(21:457-460)
He strings it up easily and shoots an arrow through the twelve axes.
Odysseus immediately sends a second arrow through Antinous’ throat. The suitors, terrified and confused, think that this was an accident. This is when the king of Ithaca finally reveals himself, shedding off his disguise.
“No fear of the gods who rule the skies up there, no fear that men’s revenge might arrive someday— now all your necks are in the noose—your doom is sealed!”(22:40-42)
Panic breaks out among the suitors when they realize all the doors are locked, and they lack weapons. Eurymachus tries to reason with Odysseus, claiming that Antinous was the worst one and that the rest can be spared. Odysseus rebukes by saying that he will not spare anyone. He proceeds to kill Eurymachus, and Telemachus kills Amphinomus. The young prince rushes to get more weapons to arm the two loyal servants. In his hurry, he forgets to lock the room on the way out.
Melanthius grabs some weapons for the suitors but is apprehended by Eumaeus and Philoetius. They tie him up and leave him behind. The fight is now in full swing in the palace. Athena, disguised as Mentor, appears on the battlefield and encourages Odysseus. After he kills more men, she joins in on the fight. Every last one of the suitors is slaughtered quickly. Odysseus then makes Eurycleia bring in the disloyal maids to clean the chambers from blood and bodies. Once they are done, Telemachus rounds them up and hangs the women. Melanthius, among other traitors, is also killed.
Odysseus, Telemachus, the suitors (Antinous,Eurymachus, Amphinomus in particular), Eumaeus, Philoetius, Penelope, Melanthius, Athena (Mentor), Eurycleia
The contest is a significant scene in The Odyssey. There is a lot of subtext behind the suitors’ inability to string up the bow. First is that none of them are suited to be Penelope’s husbands. The second is that they also aren’t capable of leading Ithaca. Telemachus’ near success at stringing the bow indicates that he will be capable of being king one day, but not now. The fact that he does not keep trying is suggestive of his loyalty to his father.
“Three times he made it shudder, straining to bend it, three times his power flagged—but his hopes ran high he’d string his father’s bow and shoot through every iron and now, struggling with all his might for the fourth time, he would have strung the bow, but Odysseus shook his head…”(21:143-147)
Odysseus’ ease at accomplishing the feat shows that he is the only true king of Ithaca.
The bloodbath that ensues when Odysseus begins exacting his revenge is particularly brutal. This is the culmination of the whole story, and the payoff is immense. We see the king of Ithaca efficiently and ruthlessly reclaim his throne, urged on by Athena. The descriptions of the deaths are realistic and detailed, making them especially effective. The slaughter brings up a lot of complicated emotions. On the one hand, the audience feels catharsis in seeing Odysseus kill the antagonists. On the other hand, we also witness the brutality of the execution of the young maids.
“…the women’s heads were trapped in a line, nooses yanking their necks up, one by one so all might die a pitiful, ghastly death … they kicked up heels for a little—not for long.”(22:496-499)
Melanthius’ torture is cruel, and Odysseus kills those who beg for mercy. Homer portrays the complexity of the battle in no uncertain terms. However, in the end, Odysseus emerges as the rightful victor.
📕 The Odyssey: Books XXIII-XXIV
Penelope somehow managed to sleep through the entire fight. When Eurycleia tells her what happened, she is in disbelief. Even upon seeing Odysseus with her eyes, she remains in shock.
Telemachus scolds his mother for not greeting her husband more warmly. However, Odysseus has other concerns. He knows that he just killed the sons of wealthy aristocrats of Ithaca. The parents will surely want vengeance, so he decides that the family should leave the palace. Odysseus plans to go to his father’s farm and stay there for the time being. He orders his servants and Telemachus to fake a feast taking place so that no one suspects what happened.
Finally, alone with her husband, Penelope still cannot believe her eyes. As one final test for him, she tells him that their bed has been moved in his absence. Odysseus becomes furious, telling her that no one can move the bed. He carved it out of the tree around which the whole palace was built. It would be impossible to move it without either bringing down the entire structure or divine intervention.
“Who could move my bed? Impossible task, even for some skilled craftsman—unless a god came down in person, quick to lend a hand, lifted it out with ease and moved it elsewhere.”(23:206-209)
Penelope, relieved to see that this is indeed her husband, finally accepts him. The two of them spend a long night talking about the missing twenty years. Athena grants them more time, delaying the dawn as much as possible.
The final book of The Odyssey starts with Hermes leading the souls of the slaughtered suitors into the Underworld. The souls pass heroes that we have encountered previously, such as Achilles and Agamemnon. The two of them are arguing over who had a better death. One of the suitors briefly explains what happened at the palace, blaming the queen for their deaths. Agamemnon commends Penelope’s faithfulness, contrasting her against his treacherous wife.
In Ithaca, Odysseus finally approaches his aging father, Laertes. After his son’s departure, he let himself go, grieving every day. Odysseus doesn’t reveal himself to his father immediately, throwing off his disguise only when the old man begins to cry. He proves his identity to his father, and they reminisce.
Laertes is overjoyed at seeing his son and grandson stand side by side at last. They share a meal while rumor of the slaughter spreads throughout Ithaca. The parents of the suitors decide to exact revenge on Odysseus and head towards Laertes’ farm. Before another battle can ensue, Athena appears once more, demanding peace.
“Hold back, you men of Ithaca, back from brutal war! Break off—shed no more blood—make peace at once!”(24:584-585)
Thus Ithaca is restored to its former glory, and Odysseus is king once more.
Penelope, Odysseus, Telemachus, Athena, Eurycleia, Hermes, Achilles, Agamemnon, Laertes, the parents of the suitors
Homer reminds us of Penelope’s cunning and that she is Odysseus’ wife for a reason. The test shows that their commonality lies in their intelligence and wit. Just as no suitor could replace Odysseus, not a single nymph or goddess could ever replace Penelope. The two of them are perfect for each other.
Their reunion is yet another culmination of the story. The immovable bed serves as a metaphor for the strength of their love. Some scholars argue that this scene is where the actual ending of The Odyssey happens, and what follows is a later addition.
The entirety of the last book seems anticlimactic to everything that came before. Many of the actions don’t make narrative sense, and even the imagery feels different. This supports the theory of The Odyssey’s multiple authorship.
However, it stands true that the last book ties up a lot of loose ends of the story. We see Odysseus reunite with his father. We also see what happens when the aristocrats learn of the deaths of their sons. Perhaps the reason this book is essential is that it shows us a truly happy ending. Peace is restored in Ithaca, and Odysseus is finally home.
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