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Invitation to World Literature

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Getting Started

The Long Journey Home

The Odyssey may be familiar to you — almost every high school English teacher in the United States assigns some part of the epic for students to read. You may have read a few episodes—Cyclops, Circe, the Sirens, Odysseus killing the suitors—or you may have read the whole thing. If you did read the whole thing, you most likely either remember some of it or none of it. It's a very long story, and when you're under a deadline ("read 80 pages for tomorrow") you don't really have time to read for enjoyment.

Here you get the chance to read The Odyssey on your own terms and on your own schedule. If ever there were a story that demanded a relaxed reader, it's The Odyssey. You're on a ten-year journey with Odysseus, and each island he and his steadily shrinking crew land on introduces a new story. Trying to gun through it just so you can say you're done will produce no feelings of interest, joy, or sorrow—which means the whole point of an epic poem has been missed. There's no obligation to start at page one and read to the conclusion. Just as you do on any journey you make, keep an eye out for adventure, choose the adventures you want to take part in, and enjoy them to the fullest.

Emily Greenwood

Emily Greenwood
Associate Professor of Classics, Yale University:

"From the time which it began to circulate in the Greek world, The Odyssey was acknowledged as a traveler's text. So Alexander the Great, when he set off to Egypt, had a copy of The Odyssey with him. Lawrence of Arabia is the other classic explorer who is famous for citing The Odyssey as his inspirational text. I've heard it said The Odyssey was a text that Columbus traveled with, and that in addition to the Bible, it was one of his master narratives for his New World exploration. There's seldom a period when The Odyssey falls out of view."

Expand each section to read more.

BCE 1200 Trojan War
1100s-700s The "Dark Age" of Greece, about which we know very little
700s-600s First use of the Phoenician alphabet in Greece
Late 700s-early 600s Accomplished oral poet(s) first commit the epics of Troy and Odysseus to writing

CE 330-1453 The Odyssey is copied and preserved by scholars of the Byzantine Empire
1453 Byzantium falls and its manuscripts of The Odyssey travel west into Europe, where few scholars are able to read ancient Greek
1700s-1800s The Odyssey is translated into English

The Odyssey, like The Iliad, was first told as a series of stories in the "Dark Age" of Greece that came after the fall of the Mycenaean kingdom in 1100 BCE. We call it the Dark Age because we know so little about Greek society at that time. Mycenean Greeks had fought the Trojan War around 1200 BCE, and stories of the great heroes and battles of that war that came to be called the Iliad must have been very popular, especially in the difficult days after the destruction of the Mycenaean kingdom.

The stories of the Trojan War featured many heroes, one of whom was Odysseus. Odysseus was not a major character in the war, and his moment of fame at Troy came not through victorious violence on the battlefield but through mental cunning—it was Odysseus who thought up the scheme of the Trojan Horse with which the Greeks overcame the city. Odysseus was transformed from an smart guy to a great hero through the telling of his adventures after the war in the stories that came to be known as The Odyssey.

For four hundred years the tales of Odysseus were told person-to-person, in live performance, by poets who sang set pieces such as Odysseus' battle of wits with the Cyclops or his slaughter of the suitors in Ithaca. These individual parts of the story were likely told on their own. They were probably not yet put together into the single, very long work we know today as The Odyssey. Telling the story from beginning to end was not the priority that it is for us. Episodes were complete in themselves. It is only with the introduction of writing that the idea of complete works became important, and the system of writing that had been used by the Mycenaean Greeks had been lost with their kingdom. Even if it had survived, it was not the kind of writing that could have been used to create expressive literature. That would come later, with Homer.

The Homeric epics— The Iliad and The Odyssey—were probably first written down in the late seventh and early sixth centuries BCE, after writing had returned to Greece. Greeks adopted the Phoenician alphabet—the basis of our own alphabet—and began to write again in the early seventh century BCE. Was Homer a real person? We can never know for sure. But it seems plausible that an accomplished professional oral poet who learned to read and write decided to write out the set pieces that were the separate tales of Odysseus, then wrote new connecting material to tie them all together into one well-structured narrative. (In this way, Homer was much like Sin-liqe-unninni, the ancient Akkadian who created The Epic of Gilgamesh called "He who saw the deep" out of the various poems and epic fragments about the great Sumerian king.) After this first poet made the transition from oral to written work, others likely added to his original composition and eventually, over centuries, The Iliad and The Odyssey took their final forms.

The Odyssey depicts a world in which there is no strong central authority to impose law and order on people. There are kings, to be sure, but their power is limited because they rule over many small city-states and often function more as clan leaders than as absolute monarchs. For the average ancient Greek, and for the characters of The Odyssey, there is only one internationally recognized social law: hospitality. The relation between host and guest was almost the most important social relationship. Without courts of common law, order was maintained only by custom, and the custom of hospitality was central. No matter who you were, king or farmer, you were obligated to follow the laws of hospitality: welcoming any and all guests, giving them all the food, clothing, or money you possibly could when asked for it, and giving them a present when they left you. And guests had obligations, too: expressing gratitude appropriate to the gifts they were given, not imposing too much on someone's hospitality, and giving the host a gift when you left him. As Odysseus travels the known and unknown world, he is the guest of many men and gods/goddesses, whether he wants to be or not. At home in Ithaca, his wife and son are reluctant hosts to terrible guests (the suitors for Penelope). In almost all cases, the rules of hospitality are followed, but when they are not, the consequences are terrible.

For ancient Greeks, the story of The Odyssey was a comforting reminder of past glories and great leaders during a difficult time. For later generations, The Odyssey has been a treasure-trove of exciting, fantastical adventures, a portrayal of early Greek colonization, a heroic tale of brain overcoming brawn, a shabby story of lying and greed, and much more. All readers find a unique meaning in the story, one born out of their own experience and their own assessment of the hero, Odysseus, who is an enduring man of many schemes.

The language of the Homeric poets was not like the spoken Greek of their time. It was literary and archaic, filled with metaphors and ornate ways of writing, and words that were literary in origin and some of which may have become outdated. All the same, passages from the Homeric works were on the tongues of the Greek people who loved them. Think of Homeric language as Shakespearean: We recognize it as English, we can make sense of it, and parts of it speak to us with their poetic power—we can even memorize long passages like the "To be or not to be" soliloquy of Hamlet—but we would never speak like Shakespeare's characters do in our own daily lives.

The Odyssey is written in dactylic hexameter, meaning it consists of lines that have six beats based on a long syllable followed by two short syllables. Unlike English poetry, which bases its lines on which syllables are stressed, Greek hexameter bases its lines on how long the syllables are, mixing long and short syllables to create the proper six-beat lines.

Epithets are an important component of the poem. These are the adjectives that describe people and things. You'll notice that a single place or person or thing has many different epithets: Odysseus' home island of Ithaca is described as rocky, seagirt, and clear skied. Ships can be hollow, swift, black, well benched, well oared, scooped out, fast moving, or black prowed. Odysseus himself is much-enduring, brilliant, and a man of many schemes.

These epithets are not just there for descriptive purposes. They are there to keep the hexameter flowing. In a line where a boat is mentioned and the oral poet needed a long phrase to complete the line, a longer epithet for "boat" would be used. If a short word or phrase was needed, a different epithet would fill in. This practice was maintained in the written version. These epithets are one proof that the set-piece poems that told the story of Odysseus were not memorized by their original generations of oral poets; those poets improvised, pulling the right epithet out of the air while singing. But once the Homeric poets wrote their version and created the epic, their text would use the same epithets in the same places.

Achilles
Achilles was the greatest of the Greek warriors in the Trojan War. Odysseus meets him in the underworld in Book 11, leading Odysseus to question the value of living a heroic but short life.
Athena
This great goddess of wisdom and war is Odysseus' special guardian and advisor. She helps both Odysseus and Telemachus on their journeys, and takes Odysseus' side when the gods condemn him. She eventually sees Odysseus safely home.
Laertes
Odysseus' father has given himself over to grief for his only son whom he thinks is dead. He lives like a slave in rags, removed from society. Odysseus will reveal himself to Laertes on his return to Ithaca, but only after challenging Laertes' unheroic appearance and waking the old man up to his responsibilities as a leader. Father will join son in fighting against the fathers of the slain suitors at the end of the book.
Menelaus
He is the king of Sparta, who led the Greeks in the Trojan War to recover his wife Helen. Menelaus takes Telemachus under his wing and offers to help him find his father.
Odysseus, Greek soldier at Troy and ruler of Ithaca
Odysseus has confounded readers for centuries. Is his craftiness admirable or base? Do we pity him for his homesickness and his long journey home and admire his resourcefulness in overcoming the many dangers he faces? Or do we disdain him for his willingness to linger with beautiful goddesses, to veer off track in search of treasure, and to boast of his own cleverness to all who will listen?
Penelope
Wife of Odysseus, Penelope is just as clever as her husband. She manages to hold off the 108 obnoxious, disrespectful men who come to ask for her hand in marriage (Odysseus, having been gone for twenty years, is presumed dead) and she tests Odysseus when he at last comes home to her.
Telemachus
Odysseus' son has no memory of his father, who left for Troy when Telemachus was an infant. The young man tries to cast out the terrible suitors living in his father's house, but while valiant, he is too young. He makes his own journeys to find the strength and wisdom to become a great man like his father.