The Odyssey (written circa -850) is an epic poem by Homer about the ten-year sea journey of Odysseus. The action takes place after Homer’s other book, the Iliad, which is mainly about the wrath of Achilles and the Trojan War.
The Romans called Odysseus Ulysses. His name means trouble. He is the one who thought up the Trojan Horse. That story is in there along with all the troubles that befell Odysseus in the ten years that followed.
Along the way he encountered:
- Polyphemus – a giant, one-eyed Cyclops. Odysseus blinded him. Unfortunately, Polyphemus’s father was Poseidon, the god of the sea, who then kept Odysseus from getting home in a matter of weeks.
- Circe – a woman who turned half his men into animals. He spent a year on her island.
- The Sirens – who sang so beautifully it caused men to sail onto the rocks. Odysseus had to be tied to the mast to save the ship.
- Scylla and Charybdis – a sea monster and a whirlpool that Odysseus had to narrowly sail between.
- Calypso – the beautiful sea nymph who kept Odysseus on her island for seven years. She wanted to marry him, but all he wanted was to return home to his wife.
He wound up sailing as far away as Spain, then the western edge of the known world. Much of the action seems to take place in the islands near Italy.
Meanwhile back home in Ithaca suitors for his wife’s hand in marriage were wasting away his wealth in wild parties. His son Telemachus was too young to do anything about it. When he came of age he set sail to look for his father.
By the time Odysseus got home he had lost his ship and every man in his crew. At first no one in Ithaca knew who he was except his dog. With Telemachus and some others he plotted and killed the suitors.
The Iliad and the Odyssey were the oldest and wisest books of the ancient Greeks. Everyone read them or at least knew the stories. Some knew the poems by heart and made a living by reciting them. They were full of life’s lessons. People would quote Homer to settle arguments. It was the nearest thing the Greeks had to a Bible.
The Greeks regarded the stories as more or less true, though they understood that Homer, as a storyteller, took liberties.
Western scholars in the 1800s regarded the stories as made up. So much so that the man who set out to discover Troy was regarded as a fool – that was, until he was able to find Troy (right city, wrong period) from Homer’s stories!
The Trojan War took place in the –1100s while Homer himself lived in the -800s. So the stories of the war and its heroes had been told for hundreds of years by his time. What makes Homer different is that he wrote them down and wrote them so well that they have stood the test of time.