The Odyssey Book Summaries
The epic begins with the invocation of the Muses, requesting inspiration and the beginning of Odysseus’s story. It’s been 10 years since the conclusion of the Trojan War and everyone but Odysseus and his comrades has returned from their service in Troy. Due to their devouring of Hyperion the Sun-god's oxen, his comrades are now dead and Odysseus is stuck on the island of Ogygia with Calypso, a besmirched nymph, Odysseus still yearns for his wife and home. Back in Ithaca, Odysseus’s home, Penelope sits waiting for Odysseus to return while fending off a palace full of suitors for her hand in marriage. Telemachus, hers and Odysseus’s 20 year old son, can do nothing to help and has finally come to believe that Odysseus is dead.
Athena eventually goes to Ithaca to talk to Telemachus. She tells him, in disguise as Odysseus’s friend Mentes, that Odysseus is still alive and will soon return. She also tells Telemachus that he should gather and have the suitors banished from the Kingdom. She then advises him to visit Pylos and Sparta to discern as much as he can about his father. After Athena departs, Telemachus sees his mother with the Suitors, upset by a particular bards’ song. The song itself is a tale of despair for those that have returned to Greece. Telemachus however, tells her that she should not be upset by the song, as other men have failed to return from Troy and that she can always leave if she does not enjoy the music; he can deal with the suitors. He announces to the suitors that he will hold an assembly the following day and that he expects them all to leave the estate. Antinous and Eurymachus are unhappy with the announcement though and demand to know who Telamachus was talking with, to which Telemachus only responds that it was a friend of his father’s. Telemachus is guided by Eurycleia, daughter of Ops and granddaughter of Peisenor, to his room where he retired to plan his journey
The next day, as Telemachus calls the assembly, an elder of Ithaca praises Telemachus for his actions as there has not been a single assembly since Odysseus left. Telemachus follows with a speech that decries the suitors for taking over his father’s home and mourns the loss of his father. He speaks against their rampant use of the palace’s food and wine and rebukes them for not simply going to Icarius, Penelope’s father, to ask for her hand.
In response, Antinous places the blame at the feet of Penelope for seducing them all but not committing. He describes her use of the burial shroud for Laertes to extend her decision. She declared that she would choose a husband after finishing, but every night she would unravel the shroud so as she never completed it. Antinous declares that she should be sent to Icarius so as he can choose a new husband for her. Telemachus responds violently, declaring he will never throw his mother out and that the Gods must punish those suitors who wish such a thing upon her. At that moment, a pair of eagles appears above and fight, a sign that the soothsayer reads as meaning Odysseus will soon return and massacre the suitors. They declare such a warning foolish though and continue to rebuke Telemachus.
Athena arrives once more while Telemachus is preparing to leave for Pylos and Sparta and gives him encouragement for the ensuing journey. She helps him gather a crew for his ship and Telemachus departs without telling any of his servants or his mother.
When Telemachus and Mentor arrive in Pylos, they witness a ritual sacrifice of twelve bulls to Poseidon and though he is unsure of himself, Mentor gives Telemachus encouragement to go forward and speak with Nestor about Odysseus. Nestor has no news to relay though and recounts the fates of Agamemnon and Menelaus after the fall of Troy. The two broke apart after an argument and went their separate ways, Nestor with Menelaus and Odysseus with Agamemnon. He speaks kind words for Telemachus but cannot offer any more information about Odysseus.
He does however explain more about what happened to Agamemnon. After returning from Troy, he finds Aegisthus who had remained in Greece while everyone went to Troy married to his wife, Clytemnestra. The two plot and carryout the murder of Agamemnon and attempts to take over the kingdom. Orestes however returns from exile and takes revenge against both Aegisthus and Clytemnestra. Nestor compares Orestes’ situation to that of Telemachus and sends Pisistratus along with Telemachus to Sparta to beseech Menelaus for more information. Athena then reveals herself as a goddess and remains behind in Pylos to protect Telemahus’s crew and ship.
When Telemachus and Pisistratus arrive in Sparta, they find Menelaus and Helen celebrating the marriages of their son and daughter. The King and Queen hold a feast hat night and recount for Telemachus the many instances of Odysseus’ cunning during the war. Helen recounts the time when Odysseus dressed as a beggar and infiltrated Troy and Menelaus describes the final victory of the Trojan Horse, masterminded by Odysseus himself. The next day, Menelaus describes how he returned from Troy. He was trapped in Egypt for a time and was forced to capture Proteus, the Old Man of the Sea who then gave him the directions back to Sparta as well as revealing the fates of Agamemnon and Ajax. Ajax’s own fate was similar to how Agamemnon finally returned home, only to be killed.
Proteus also reveals to Menelaus that Odysseus is imprisoned on the island of Calypso and has been for years. Telemachus and Pisistratus take this information and return to Ithaca. Back in Ithaca, the suitors begin to plot the assassination of Telemachus. A herald overhears the plot and reports it back to Penelope who becomes distraught. However Athena sends her own message to Penelope and relays that Telemachus has the goddess’s protection.
Back on Olympus, the gods convene without Poseidon to discuss what shall be done with Odysseus. Athena is able to convince Zeus to step in and so Hermes is dispatched to Calypso to inform her that Odysseus must be allowed to leave. She is unhappy, railing against the male gods of Olympus for their selfishness and hypocrisy. She does eventually relent though as it is by the decree of Zeus. Odysseus is alone with his crew and ship both long since destroyed after leaving Troy. However, with Hermes’ interjection, he is finally permitted to build a new boat and prepare it for his final voyage home.
After leaving, Odysseus spends only eighteen days at sea before spotting Scheria, the location pointed to him via Hermes by the gods. Poseidon has returned though from his trip to Ethiopia and sees that the other gods have helped Odysseus escape Calypso. In retaliation he sets a storm upon Odysseus and attempts to drown him. Ino arrives and saves Odysseus, bestowing upon him a veil meant to keep him safe from the sea after the ship sinks. With Athena also at his side, Odysseus is able to survive the storm and eventually fights his way to shore and the forest of Scheria. After tossing Ino’s veil back into the water, he is finally safe from Poseidon.
Athena appears in the dreams of Nausicaa, Princess of the Phaeacians as one of her closest friends. She coaxes Nausicaa to visit the river the following day and wash her clothing so that the men courting her will find her more attractive. She does as informed and while she and her maids are naked and playing beside the river, Odysseus awakes and encounters them. He himself is naked, but does not reveal his true identity, instead taking the time to clean the dirt and muck from the ocean clean. Athena imbues him with exceptional physical appearance and Nausicaa begins to fall in love with him upon seeing him once more. She informs Odysseus that he must approach the palace on his own so as not to draw attention to her bringing a man back with her to the city. She informs him to approach Arete, her mother and the Queen and gives him instructions on how to do so.
On the trip to the palace to meet with the King and Queen of the Phaeacians, Odysseus encounters Athena, in disguise as a young girl. She protects and hides him from the populous and guides him to the Palace. She tells him to ask for help from Arete and not Alcinous, the King as she is kind and wise and will help him. She then leaves Scheria to return to Athens.
When Odysseus arrives, he finds the palace worshipping Poseidon in a festival designed for him. He notes the beauty and excessiveness of the Palace and the King’s celebration and as Odysseus enters, the King himself questions whether or not Odysseus might be a god. However, Odysseus relates that he is indeed a mortal and with a bit of explaining is able to describe his situation without revealing his identity and secure a promise of assistance from the King and Queen; they will help him return home the following day.
That evening, Arete finally recognizes Odysseus’s clothing as belonging to her daughter, Nausica and questions him more regarding his identity. He still keeps his name to himself, but relays his story of the journey from Calypso to the beaches of Scheria and Nausicaa that morning. Odysseus calmly takes responsibility for arriving at the palace alone and does not give away any of what Nausicaa said or did, eventually impressing Alcinous enough for him to offer her hand to Odysseus in marriage.
The following day, an assembly of the Phaeacian counsel is called with Athena ensuring maximum attendance by carrying word to each counselor of the visitor to the island who appears as a god. Alcinous presents his plan to offer Odysseus a ship to return home and the counselors agree, after which everyone convenes at the Palace for a feast and games in honor of their incredible guest. A bard relays the story of Odysseus and Achilles quarrelling in Troy, causing Odysseus to weep in memory of those horrendous times. The king, noting Odysseus’s response ends the meal and announces the commencement of the games.
At first unwilling to participate because of the physical strain of his journeys, Odysseus is goaded into participating in the discus throw by a young athlete jabbing at his abilities. Overcome by pride, Odysseus out throws everyone and challenges the rest of the Phaeacians to any sport they might choose. Eventually, before anyone else can become upset, Alcinous announces that they shall have another feast with further song and dance. The bard sings this time a tale of gods and goddesses in love instead. After the feast, the Phaeacians offer their gifts to Odysseus to return home with. Later that night when Odysseus requests a song about the Trojan Horse and the end of the war, he eventually loses control of his emotions again, prompting Alcinous to demand he reveal his name and purpose.
Without much of a choice, Odyseeus relents and begins to tell his story. After first setting sail from Troy, they arrived at the home of the Cicones, Ismarus. They plunder the city but ultimately spend too much time there as the Cicone forces return and chase them back to their ships, killing almost six men per ship. After a storm that lasts for nine full days, they arrive in the Land of the Lotus Eaters.
Upon landing, Odysseus’s men are offered fruit by the Lotus Eaters and immediately fall victim to the intoxicating effect of it. They refuse to leave and eventually are taken back to the ship by Odysseus by force. When they finally leave the Land of the Lotus Eaters, the men securely locked up, they arrive soon in the land of the Cyclops. It is here that they encounter a herd of wild goats. However, eventually they decide they will cross the straight and visit the main land to acquire more supplies.
While on the main land, they discover a large supply of sheep, milk and cheese in a large cave. The men urge Odysseus to hurry but they spend a bit too long in the cave and Polyphemus, the cave’s resident returns and immediately eats two crew members and imprisons the rest for future meals.
Trapped behind the giant rock blocking the entrance, Odysseus is forced to think of a plan to escape. He waits for Polyphemus to leave the cave and finds a particularly good piece of wood to temper in the fire, hardening it. When Polyphemus returns with his flock, Odysseus uses the wine they brought with them to get him drunk. While drunk, Polyphemus inquires of Odysseus’s name, to which Odysseus responds “Nobody.” Shortly afterwards, Polyphemus collapses under the effects of the wine and Odysseus and his men attack with the staff, blinding the Cyclops. When he calls for help, all he can say is “Nobody is killing me”, forcing the other Cyclops to abandon his strange cries for help. The following day, the men cling to the bottom of the sheep and leave the cave when Polyphemus leads them out. They steal the sheep and as they are departing, Odysseus calls his name back to the Cyclops. With Odysseus’s name in hand, Polyphemus calls for his father, Poseidon, to curse Odysseus at sea.
The next stop for Odysseus and his men is the land of Aeolus, keeper of the winds. He offers Odysseus the gift of a bag, containing all of the winds. He then stirs up the Westerly wind to guide them home. After only 10 days, they are within sight of Ithaca. However, because the men are greedy, they tear open Aeolus’s bag, thinking it contains gold and silver. The winds, loosened as they are, form a terrible storm and blow the ships back to Aeolus who then refuses to help him as he believes them to be cursed by the gods.
Without the winds to guide them, Odysseus and his men row to Laestrygonia, the home of giants who immediately kill and eat Odysseus’s scouts. The Laestrygonians toss boulders towards the ships and sink them, leaving only Odysseus’s ship to escape in. After barely escaping, Odysseus and his men arrive in Aeaea where the witch-goddess Circe lives.
She immediately turns Odysseus’s men into pigs. Odysseus is given advice by Hermes to eat an herb known as Moly to protect him from the spell and that when she draws her sword, he should lunge towards her. After defeating Circe and forcing Circe to return his men to human, Odysseus becomes Circe’s lover, living on Circe’s island for more than year in absolute luxury. The men finally convince Odysseus to leave though and Circe offers instructions that will send Odysseus to Hades to speak with Tiresias, the blind prophet, to learn the way home.
When they awake and prepare to leave the following morning, Odysseus learns that yet another of his men has perished, having fallen from the roof after drinking too much and breaking his neck. The remaining men are not happy about the news that they will be traveling to the underworld instead of directly home.
Odysseus travels with his men to the river of Ocean in the Land of the Cimmerians to perform the necessary tasks outlined by Circe to reach the land of the dead. He pours his libations and offers sacrifices designed to attract dead souls and eventually is able to reach and speak with the young crewman who fell from Circe’s roof. He begs for Odysseus to return and properly bury his body. Next, he speaks to Tiresias the Prophet, who relates the reason for their poor luck. Poseidon is angered by the blinding of Polyphemus and impedes Odysseus’s return. He offers his vision of the future to Odysseus, that he will eventually return home to his wife and son. He also warns Odysseus that he must not touch the flocks of the Sun in Thrinacia or he will suffer greater hardship and lose his crew. After Tiresias departs, Odysseus speaks with his mother, Anticleia. She relates the current state of affairs in Ithaca and how she died in grief waiting for him to return. He speaks with numerous other perished heroes while in the underworld.
After attempting to end his story and sleep, Odysseus is pressed on by the Phaeacians to relay if he met with any of the great Greek Heroes who fell in Troy. Odysseus relays his meeting with Agamemnon who relates his murder at the hands of his wife Clytmenestra. He also meets with Achilles who asks after his own son, Neoptolemus. He also attempts to contact Ajax, the warrior who killed himself after failing to win a contest with Odysseus to retain the arms of Achilles. He mentions that he saw Heracles, King Minos, Orion and many other great Greek heroes.