In this epic poem, Odysseus, a mighty Greek warrior, fights his way through the ancient and treacherous Mediterranean outback for ten long years in an attempt to reach his home of Ithaca where his wife and only son, Telemachus, desperately wait his return.
Like many Greek noblemen, Odysseus traveled across the Aegean Sea to wage war on the Trojans (located in present day Turkey) after Paris (Trojan prince) seduced Helen from her husband Telemachus (king of Sparta). This bloody battle lasted ten years.
The poem begins with Odysseus’ royal estate being virtually destroyed and robbed blind by the young and brass sons of Greek nobles who came of age while Odysseus was off waging war on foreign soil. These young men, called suitors, try desperately to seduce Penelope, Odysseus’ wife, while eating away his wealth.
Telemachus wants nothing more than to kill each and every suitor with a bronze sword but he feels he is not yet strong or experienced enough to slaughter 108 fit young men.
Not they—they infest our palace day and night, they butcher our cattle, our sheep, our fat goats, feasting themselves sick, swilling our glowing wine as if there’s no tomorrow—all of it, squandered. Now we have no man like Odysseus in command to drive this curse from the house. We ourselves? We’re hardly the ones to fight them off. All we’d do is parade our wretched weakness. A boy inept at battle. Oh I’d swing to attack if I had the power in me. By god, it’s intolerable, what they do—disgrace, my house a shambles!
Unable to stand the humiliation a moment longer, Telemachus sneaks away in search of his father or for anyone on earth who may know whereabouts.
Now, if I hear my father’s alive and heading home, hard-pressed as I am, I’ll brave out one more year. If I hear he’s dead, no longer among the living, then back I’ll come to the native land I love, raise his grave-mound, build his honors high with the full funeral rites that he deserves— and give my mother to another husband.
Telemachus travels to Sparta on the Greek mainland and meets Menelaus. The king provides Telemachus with a warm welcome and praises Odysseus’ courage in battle and loyalty in friendship. According the Menelaus, Odysseus is being held against his will on a remote island by a lustful Goddess named Calypso.
‘Odysseus’— the old prophet named the third at once— ‘Laertes’ son, who makes his home in Ithaca … I saw him once on an island, weeping live warm tears in the nymph Calypso’s house—she holds him there by force. He has no way to voyage home to his own native land, no trim ships in reach, no crew to ply the oars and send him scudding over the sea’s broad back.
Then comes the story of Odysseus. He meets many a struggle during his heroic journey through the perilous and enchanting Mediterranean territory.
During his trek Odysseus:
- is held captive by a lustful goddess on a remote island for seven years
- sees his crewmen turned into apathetic bums by a society of lotus eaters
- blinds a cyclops with a wooden stake
- narrowly escapes an attack from giant boulder-chucking cannibals
- witnesses his men turned to pigs by a witch-goddess
- meets the ghost of his mother after see dies from grief during his absence
- escapes the wrath of a six-headed sea monster which eats six of his friends
Upon finally returning to the island of Ithica and being reunited with Telemachus, Odysseus slaughters all 108 of the suitors. He shows no mercy. No amount of begging or groveling will save the suitors from a grisly death.
he flung himself at Odysseus, clutched his knees, crying out to the king with a sudden, winging prayer: “I hug your knees, Odysseus—mercy! spare my life! Never, I swear, did I harass any woman in your house— never a word, a gesture—nothing, no, I tried to restrain the suitors, whoever did such things. They wouldn’t listen, keep their hands to themselves— so reckless, so they earn their shameful fate. But I was just their prophet— my hands are clean—and I’m to die their death! Look at the thanks I get for years of service!”
A killing look, and the wry soldier answered, “Only a priest, a prophet for this mob, you say? How hard you must have prayed in my own house that the heady day of my return would never dawn— my dear wife would be yours, would bear your children! For that there’s no escape from grueling death—you die!” And snatching up in one powerful hand a sword left on the ground—Agelaus dropped it when he fell— Odysseus hacked the prophet square across the neck and the praying head went tumbling in the dust.
I appreciate The Odyssey for it’s traditional masculine virtues, realistic portrayal of sex roles and solid story telling.
It is classic literature like The Odyssey and The Iliad that make me wince at all of the time I wasted in college reading post-modern nonsense. It seems that nearly everything one should know about the fundamentals of life were written prior to the sexual revolution and counter culture explosion.
P.S. Make sure you’re reading the Robert Fagles translation. His picturesque prose gives the narrative that extra oomph. It’s no wonder I was bored stiff trying to slog through the dry translation my English teacher handed out in ninth grade.