Summary and Analysis: Greek Mythology
The Trojan War — Odysseus' Adventures
Of the Greeks who made it back to their homes Odysseus was fated to wander the longest — a full ten years — and he knew it. Among the Trojan women Hecuba fell to him, an old harridan now who could not forgive the way Odysseus had thrown her grandson Astyanax from the walls of Troy. Odysseus' ships were hit by the storm raised by Athena and were blown to Thrace. Sick of Hecuba's insults, he and his men stoned her to death.
In Thrace Odysseus sacked the city of the Cicones, sparing only a priest of Apollo, who rewarded him with a skin of potent wine. The Cicones that neighbored the city then attacked, killing many of Odysseus' men and driving the rest back to their ships. Storms blew the ships to Libya and the land of the Lotus-eaters, where an exploring party accepted the Lotus fruit from the natives and lost all memories of home. Odysseus had to recover these sailors forcibly.
Setting sail again they came to the island of the Cyclopes, a huge race of monsters with one eye in the middle of their foreheads. Unwittingly Odysseus and a scouting party feasted in the cave of Polyphemus, a son of Poseidon. The Cyclops returned, shut the Greeks in with a huge boulder, and ate two men apiece at each meal. Finally Odysseus devised a plan of escape. He and his remaining men blinded the giant in a drunken sleep with a sharpened pole. Then as Polyphemus was letting his sheep out of the cave to pasture, counting each one by touch, Odysseus and his men got out by clinging to the underbellies of the sheep. Returning to their ship, Odysseus jeered at Polyphemus, telling him that he, Odysseus, had blinded him. In a rage the giant hurled two great boulders at the ship that nearly swamped it. Then Polyphemus prayed to his father Poseidon to cause Odysseus as much trouble as possible.
Odysseus and his men then came to the island of Aeolus, the keeper of the winds. Aeolus entertained them for a month and presented Odysseus with a skin containing all the winds but the west wind, which would blow him home. Odysseus arrived within sight of his home, Ithaca, but he fell asleep from exhaustion. His men opened the sack of winds, thinking it held wine, and all the ships were blown back to Aeolus, who refused them further help.
Next Odysseus and his ships arrived at the land of the Laestrygonians, a savage race of cannibals. All but Odysseus put their vessels into the harbor lined with cliffs. The scouting party was attacked by the Laestrygonians, who bombarded the ships with boulders and sank them. Only Odysseus and his crew survived. The rest of the Greeks were eaten.
With but one ship left Odysseus sailed east and arrived at the Island of Dawn, which was inhabited by Circe, the sorceress. The group of men sent to explore the place were feasted by Circe and then were turned into swine. Learning of this, Odysseus went after Circe, and on his way the god Hermes gave him the herb moly to resist her enchantment. Circe invited him to eat, but her spell was ineffective, and Odysseus compelled her to restore the swine to human shape. He remained with her long enough to father three sons on her. Homesick, Odysseus was advised by Circe to journey to the world's end, enter Hades, and consult the seer Teiresias about his future and how he might appease Poseidon. In Hades, Teiresias told Odysseus of the difficulties he faced and of what he must do to placate Poseidon. Odysseus saw many dead notables there, including many of his companions at Troy. With his new knowledge he returned to Circe, who showed him how to get safely past the Sirens.
When Odysseus neared the island of the Sirens he had his men fill their ears with wax, for the singing of the Sirens lured sailors to their deaths on the rocks. He had himself tied to the mast so that he might hear their singing and still survive. Once that danger was over, the .ship had to pass between two cliffs in a strait that had the whirlpool of Charybdis. In trying to avoid the maelstrom Odysseus came too close to the cliff of the monster Scylla, who seized six of Odysseus' sailors. The next stop was the island of the sun god Helios, which nourished the god's sacred cattle. When Odysseus fell asleep his men, who were starving, slaughtered a number of the cattle. For this impiety Zeus struck Odysseus' ship with a thunderbolt, and only Odysseus escaped alive. Clinging to a piece of the ship, Odysseus was borne toward the whirlpool of Charybdis, but he grabbed a tree branch hanging over the water, waited till the timbers re-emerged, and floated off to nearby Ogygia.
Ogygia was inhabited by the nymph Calypso, who welcomed Odysseus and made him her lover. He remained with her seven years and grew increasingly homesick, sitting on the beach each day in a desolate mood. While Poseidon was off visiting the Ethiopians, Zeus arranged for Odysseus to depart, sending Hermes to bid Calypso release him. Calypso gave Odysseus an axe with which he fashioned a raft.
Poseidon returned from his Ethiopian junket to find Odysseus sailing along on a raft. The god washed him overboard and almost drowned him, but Odysseus was spared by the goddess Ino, who gave him her magic veil to tie around his waist. And after two days of swimming Odysseus found a beach on which to sleep. He was awakened by maidens who were playing ball after doing the washing. Odysseus gently addressed Nausicaä, the daughter of King Alcinoüs. She led him to her father. At first the Phaeacians, who lived on the island, were cool to Odysseus, but he bested them in a stone-throwing contest and they accepted him. King Alcinoüs listened to the story of Odysseus' wanderings, presented him with rich gifts, and furnished him a ship to get to Ithaca, his home. The Phaeacian sailors, seeing that Odysseus was sleeping, left him on the Ithacan shore and departed. But Poseidon resented the way they had helped Odysseus and changed the ship and crew to stone.
In the twenty years that Odysseus had been absent his wife Penelope had been besieged with suitors who had moved into the palace and proceeded to devour Odysseus' wealth. Penelope had promised to choose one of them as king when she finished a tapestry on which she was working, but what she did by day she would unravel at night. Things on the island had become risky for Odysseus' teenage son Telemachus, so Athena had guided him to Nestor's court and then to Sparta and the court of Menelaus, where he sought word of his father. Menelaus received the young man royally and assured Telemachus that his father was alive. Telemachus then returned home, where Athena gave him the idea of visiting the hut of the swineherd Eumaeus. There he found an old beggar who suddenly revealed himself to be Odysseus. Father and son embraced and wept. Then they made plans for ridding the palace of the arrogant suitors.
Still disguised as a beggar, Odysseus went to the palace. An old dog of his — named Argos — recognized him and died. The leader of the suitors, Antinoiis, struck the beggar. Then Penelope came to receive bridal gifts from the suitors and requested that the beggar come to her room. Odysseus kept his disguise, telling Penelope a pack of lies about his adventures. But while bathing him his old nurse, Eurycleia, recognized him by a hunting scar he had acquired years before, so he made her keep silent. Odysseus had Telemachus remove the weapons from the great banquet hall. The next day Penelope announced that she would marry the man who could string Odysseus' great bow and shoot an arrow through twelve rings in a line. After all the suitors had tried and failed the beggar asked to try. The suitors protested, but Telemachus stood up for the beggar, who then strung the bow and fired the arrow through the rings.
Giving a shout of triumph the beggar showed himself to be Odysseus and fired arrow after arrow into the host of suitors. The suitors sought their weapons and began to put up some resistance, but when Odysseus ran out of arrows Telemachus brought him armor, spears, and swords. The father and son, who had stationed themselves in the doorway, cut the suitors down as they tried to escape. And at last the suitors were all dead. Only a poet and a priest were left. Odysseus killed the priest and spared the poet. Then he made the palace maids who had slept with the suitors clean up the mess, and after that he hanged them. Having set his house in order, Odysseus then revealed himself to Penelope, who had kept to her chamber. The two were happily reunited.
Odysseus' wanderings, however, were not at an end. He had to battle the relatives of the suitors. Athena proposed a truce and submitted the dispute to the king of the Epirot Islands, who decided that Odysseus should go into exile from Ithaca for ten years, that Telemachus should rule in his stead, and that the relatives should repay the losses that the suitors had caused. Odysseus undertook to placate Poseidon as Teiresias had advised. He marched inland on Epirus to a place where the natives had never seen an oar and mistook the one he carried for a winnowing-bat. There he sacrificed to Poseidon, who forgave him for blinding Polyphemus.
When ten years were up he returned to Ithaca, where he died at sea in a fight with his own son by Circe, Telegonus.
Most of the legends here have their source in Homer's Odyssey. An interesting thing about these stories is that two of the gods who were of the greatest assistance to the Greeks at Troy, Athena and Poseidon, proved their greatest enemies as they returned to their homes. The gods, of course, were just as concerned with their personal honor as the heroes themselves, and to offend their pride or harm their favorites was to court disaster.
Nevertheless, a hero like Odysseus proves his mettle when faced with the opposition of the gods. Odysseus is shrewd, tough, clear-sighted, experienced, a man very well equipped to brave adversity. Like a few other heroes he is intensely self-reliant, confident of his own powers against the buffetings of fate.
Odysseus lives about sixty years roughly, and of these he spends thirty abroad — the years of his maturity. He leaves Ithaca as a hardy young man to take part in the Trojan War, which lasts ten years. Moreover, he goes very reluctantly. After another ten years of wandering, which had been ordained by the gods, he returns home, now a man in his forties. But then he is exiled shortly thereafter for a further ten years and comes back a man verging on old age. To be sure, Odysseus thrives on adventure, for that is how a man tests his prowess. But when he has time to reflect, as he does on Calypso's island, he is lacerated by homesickness. The gods could scarcely find a better way to punish a man whose heart is attached to home.
The Greeks felt a special affection for Odysseus because he reflected a number of Greek qualities. A wanderer living by his wits, taking part in a great national war, traveling far and wide, meeting emergencies with a cool head, and longing for his native home, Odysseus is a recognizable Greek type. But beyond that he is the survivor, the man who comes through at all hazards by his brains, his brawn, and his fortitude, plus an ounce of luck. Odysseus embodies the stubborn will of the ancient Greeks to overcome fate and create a culture that centered on man. The Romans, who called him Ulysses, disliked him for his treachery and cunning. He had these traits too, but they are far less important than those which enabled him to endure with his human dignity intact.