Study Guide for Homer's Odyssey

updated 31 January 2013

By Robin Mitchell-Boyask, Temple University. These materials are intended for the fair use of all students and teachers. Any links should be duly credited to the author, and students should always cite in papers any help this guide has given them. Note that the Perseus links for character information are not current. If you click on names you will need to type the character name into the Encyclopedia search window

Have you seen the new Epic Page? It includes wealth of on-line materials on Ancient Epic.

References will be to pages, not line numbers, in Robert Fagles' translation. Important names, ideas or words are underlined, indicating hyperlinks to further information. When using the hyperlinks you must remember that you will often read variants in the myths which Homer uses; try to figure out which departures are significant and which myths help you understand the Homeric versions better.

There is an on-line text with hyperlinks for more extensive study.


Table of Contents

Book 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10 | 11 | 12 | 13 | 14 | 15 | 16 | 17 | 18 | 19 | 20 | 21 | 22 | 23 | 24

A chronology of the Odyssey | The Thematic Structure of Odysseus' Wanderings


Book 1

77 Invocation to the Muse; survey of Odysseus' condition in the 10th year of his wanderings. "The whole of the action and most of the principal persons are introduced in the first few hundred lines." (D. Page) What is missing from the proem (the opening lines)? How does it define Odysseus? Why is Poseidonangry? As you read on, ask whether the action goes as the proem says it will.

78-80 Council of the gods on Olympus. What types of gods does Homer present? How do they match your expectations? Why is Aegisthus singled out by Zeus? What kind of system of morality does Zeus invoke? Why is Athena so concerned with Odysseus? Why is Zeus so surprised with her plea? In the line ending her speech, the words "dead set against," odusso, puns on the hero's name

Are the concerns and behavior of the gods any different here than in the Iliad?

81-86 Athena goes disguised to Ithaca to see Telemachus and persuade him to seek news of his father. What is happening in Ithaca? What kind of person is Telemachus? How old is he? What does he need? Why does Athena mention Orestes to him? Is her story about him complete? And why start in Ithaca, not with Odysseus? Note the concern with hospitality, which will be a key theme throughout the epic.

88-9 Penelope is upset at the song of a bard who tells of the sufferings of the heroes. Telemachus replies that Zeus, not the bard, is to blame. Zeus earlier blamed humans for their sufferings. As you read the rest of the epic, think about whether Zeus or Telemachus is correct.

Book 2

93-96 T. complains in the assembly of the suitors' bad behavior and smashes a scepter to the ground. Try to remember a similar scene of scepter-smashing in Homer and think about what point the poet might be trying to make with the comparison.

97-106 Athena, disguised as Mentor, appears to Telemachus and promises help. He sails off, after asking Eurycleia under oath of secrecy, to prepare provisions. Who is in charge in Ithaca? Where is O.'s father? Is T. just looking for O.? And why should Telemachus visit Nestor and Menelaus?

How has Penelope kept the suitors at bay for so long?

Book 3

The travels begin. At each place, act as an anthropologist, noting the customs, landscape and character of the people; start with Ithaca itself. T. arrives first at the palace of Nestor. Why go there first? What is happening at Pylos as T. arrives?What do we learn about O. here? Note the gracious hospitality he receives from Nestor; compare T.'s reception of Athena earlier. Keep your eyes open for other such encounters. One thing to watch: when does the guest reveal his name? What sign does Nestor see as indicating Athena's presence?

Book 4

124-34 T. and Pisistratus are welcomed at Sparta (Lacedaemon) by Menelaus and Helen, who recognize T.'s resemblance to his father. They all cry in grief over old memories, and Helen puts a soothing drug in their wine. Note the two stories told by Menelaus and Helen (note the importance of story-telling in general). What more do we learn about O. and about Agamemnon? Do you see any pattern in the accounts of the heroes as they return from Troy? Is Helen as you expect her to be? Is there anything strange about her marriage? Compare Sparta to Ithaca.

134-43 Menelaus predicts the destruction of the suitors and tells the story of his return, including the encounter with Proteus, who told him of the other homecomings. What do you make of Proteus?What are the functions of this episode? Note the Odyssean elements here. Do M and H deserve the happy afterlife Proteus predicts? In general, so you see any signs that Telemachus is maturing?

144-152 T is persuaded to stay in Sparta. The scene changes to Ithaca where the suitors plot to ambush T. en route home. Penelope is upset, but Athena cheers her with a dream. The ambush is laid. How many days are we into the story at this point? Try to keep track of this. We won't be seeing T again for a while.

Book 5

152 Second council of the gods. Note the reference to Athena's plan. Hermes to order Calypso to send him home, and Hermes delivers the message. When was the first council? Are there any real differences from the first one? Why Hermes? Think about his functions.

What is the etymology of Calypso? Try to comment on the description of her domain. Is she a good hostess? Note her "feminist" complaint.

Why has Homer kept Odysseus from us for 4 books?

152-7 Calypso agrees, tells O to build a boat, and reassures him when he suspects treachery. The next day he departs. What is O's first utterance in the epic and what does it say about his attitude to other humans and to the gods? Why is he like this? Why does he reject Calypso's offer of immortality? Does this situation remind you of any other myths? Can they guide your interpretation of this episode?

161-7 As O sights the island of Scheria after 17 days, the home of the Phaeacians, Poseidon wrecks his boat. Why? The sea-goddess Leucothea (Ino) saves him, but in his near-paranoia, he almost rejects her help; again, as you read, think about how he has reached this point. Athena stills the storm, and he reaches the coast, finds shelter and falls asleep.

Note the similes in this book; are they different from the similes in the Iliad?. To what is O being compared?Why are these comparisons made?

In this book you read (at least) 2 indications of the seasons. What time of year do you think it is? (This is important for understanding some of the underlying mythic patterns).

Book 6

168-72 Note the history of the Phaeacians early on, and consider whether this affects their reception of O. Athena visits Nausicaa, princess of Scheria, in a dream and tells her to go wash clothes at the river. She meets O (naked), who asks for help. What does Athena appeal to in Nausicaa? Try to visualize O's meeting with this young woman. What do we learn about O's character in this encounter? What information does he withhold?

172-8 O addresses Nausicaa; she gives him clothing and food, and instructs him on how best to approach her parents. Why does'nt she take him herself? On reaching the city, O waits outside in Athena's grove. Why do you think Athena fails to reveal herself to O? Describe Skheria.

Book 7

O is hospitably received and promised convoy home. Queen Arete questions him and he describes how he came to Scheria. Who wears the pants in this family? Compare the reception with those we have seen so far. Note exactly what O says about himself. Is he a good guest? Who are the Phaeacians, anyway?

Book 8

191-4 King Alcinous summons the Phaiakian assembly, which agrees to send Odysseus home by ship. Having returned to the palace, they're entertained by the singer Demodokos. Describe Demodocus, and think about any other figures that he suggests. O weeps at his song (why?), and, after being taunted, wins a discuss contest. Demodocus sings three songs that are thematically relevant to the epic as a whole.

194-210 Alcinous introduces exhibitions of dancing; Demodokos sings of Hephaestus' revenge on Ares and Aphrodite. Why does Odysseus react to this story differently? More dancing, and gifts for O. He now asks Demodocus for a certain story and weeps again. Alcinous questions him. Think about the content of the songs, O's response to them, and the epithets given to him in this book. What is going on? Do you recall another incident of weeping at dinner? Also, do you like the Phaeacians? Do they resemble any other group of people?


Intepretive interlude

We are now 1/3 of the way through, and the epic can in fact be divided into three parts. In Book 9, we see Odysseus at the beginning of his return; in Books 5-8, near the end, 10 years later. Has he changed? How?

Try thinking again about Books 6-9 as an anthropologist might in investigating alien cultures. How would you categorize or classify these cultures? As always with myth, think about food. Why do you think Homer has put them all in the epic? Remember, Homer does nothing without cause.

Start thinking about the type of human being that Odysseus personifies and about the larger allegorical signifiance of his journeys. The Odysseus myth has influenced texts from Dante's Inferno, to Joyce's Ulysses, to Conrad's Lord Jim, to Huckleberry Finn -- even Captain James T. Kirk of the Starship Enterprise (yes, think about that!) owes much of his identity to Odysseus.


Book 9

Note exactly how O identifies himself, and how and where he begins his story (Compare it to Menelaus' account of their departure from Troy). Don't assume he's always telling the truth. Pay attention to what he says about his behavior and his awareness of his audience.

212 The attack on the Cicones: what happens?.

214 Storm; land of the Lotus Eaters.Think about the specific danger here.

215 The Cyclops. This is the key episode. Note the description of the island and the nature of Cyclopean society. Pay attention to O's behavior. Is it commendable? Is he a good guest? Is Polyphemus a good host? Look for mentions of Zeus and the guest-host relationship.What vice gets O into trouble? What virtue gets him out of it? What types of behavior are approved and condemned by this story? Does Odysseus' victory over the Cyclops, and the means he uses to achieve it, suggest any other myths? What is the significance of calling himself Nobody?

There are images of Odysseus' escape available.

Book 10

230 Aeolus, king of the winds, receives O., and sends him off with a bag of winds, which his crew opens when he sleeps. Who is to blame here? Pay attention to the description of Aeolus' family.

231 O loses 11 ships in an attack on the Laestrygonians. Note his tactics.The remaining ship arrives at the island of Circe. The crew begins to rebel: why? Pay close attention to the description of her house and Circe herself. A reconaissance teamis turned into pigs, except Eurylochus who returns with the news. Odysseus rescues them. How? For how long do they stay there, and why?

Compare Circe, Nausicaa, and Calypso; which does O prefer and why? Are there any indications that Homer is aware of a 'double standard'?

245 O. insists on going (after how long?), so Circe tells him he must visit the Dead (but not why). As they leave, the helmsman Elpenor falls off the roof and dies. At this point do you see any similarities between Odysseus' journey thus far and Menelaus'?

Book 11

Remember that O. is telling a story to an audience from whom he wants to obtain something, so pay close attention to how he shapes his story and their reaction to it. If you are unsure about the identity of some of those in Hades, look them up. In general, what does the journey to the Underworld symbolize?

249-60 Leaving Circe's island, O. sails to Hades. He performs the prescribed ritual, and meets: Elpenor, Tiresias, his mother, and a sequence of beautiful (of course) heroines, including Ariadne and Oedipus' mother, here called Epikaste. What does he learn from each? What impact do they have on him?

261-70 O. ceases his story to remind the Phaeacians of his eagerness to return home; they persuade (?) him to continue. The tone of the story changes: how? He tells of meeting Agamemnon, Achilles and Ajax, Minos and Heracles. Alarmed, O. departs. Consider why O. is there. Are his comrades from Troy the same? Which characters havee the greatest effect on him, and why? Remember the importance of mortality.

Book 12

271-5 O and company return to Aeaea, bury Elpenor, and meet Circe, who warns of further dangers: the Sirens, Wandering Rocks, Scylla and Charybdis, the island of Thrinacria, and the ox herds of Helios.

276-83 O sets out; they pass the Sirens, Wandering Rocks and Skylla, reaching Thrinakria, where the crew kills the cattle of Helios, to whom Zeus then promises vengeance.

After 6 days the Greeks sail on, but a storm drowns all save O., who escapes Charybdis and drifts to Kalypso's island. This ends his story.

Why are the Sirens' songs so seductive, especially to Odysseus. Why doesn't O tell his crew all of Kirke's warnings? Does he follow all her advice himself? How is his crew like the suitors back in Ithaca? Has Odysseus' behavior changed after his experiences in Hades? How many people has Odysseus killed up to this point? How responsible are the men for their own deaths?

Book 13

O. having received further presents, departs. He falls asleep (again!) on the voyage and they deposit him on the shore. Pay attention to Poseidon's anger and Zeus' attempts to calm him down. O. awakens unaware he is home unti Athena, in disguise, tells him. He pretends to be a violent Cretan fugitive (why?). Athena then reveals herself. Why does Athena treat him this way?Do you side with O. in his frustration? When was the last time he saw her? Here we encounter the first of O's "lying tales". Notice the others as they come in the next few books. Why does O lie? Is there any truth hidden in the lies?

Athena warns O. about the suitors (does he know this already?, and disguises him as a beggar. She goes to Sparta to fetch Telemachus. Consider: Odysseus as his own Trojan horse.

Book 14

O. goes to the hut of Eumaeus, his swineherd, and is hospitably received. Eumaeus describes the suitors' arrogance, demonstrates his loyalty to O., and speaks of Telemachus' danger. O. signals who he is to Eumaeus; where? O. tells another elaborate tale about his identity and history, describing himself as a wandering Cretan, and mentioning that he has had recent news of O. Eumaeus refuses to believe this. After supper,O. hints about needing a blanket.

Book 15

In Sparta Athena tells T. to return to home and advises him how to avoid the suitors' ambush. T., having said goodbye to Menelaus, is sent of with his presents, kind words and a favorable omen. He reaches Pylos via Pherae and rejoins the ship. How many days has it been since we last saw T.? Just before departure Theoclymenus, a prophet, persuades T. to take him aboard. Meanwhile, in Ithaca, O. offers to leave Eumaeus' hut, but is persuaded to stay. He inquires about his father and mother. Eumaeus tells his story. T. receives an omen upon arriving in Ithaca.

Book 16

Eumaeus welcomes Telemachus, who asks who the disguised O. is. He leaves Eumaeus to tell Penelope he has returned. After Eumaeus leaves, Athena transforms O. into his true shape and father and son recognize one another. They plan the destruction of the suitors. Eumaeus a messenger from T.'s ship and they deliver their messages. The suitors, upset at their failure to kill T., discuss other ways. P. talks to the suitors. Eumaeus returns to O., who has been changed back to his disguise.

Book 17

The next day, T. sets out for town, having given instructions that O. should be brought there too. Having brought Theoclymenus to the palace, he tells P. of his journey. Theoclymenus prophesies that O has already reached Ithaca. Think about P.'s reaction to this, and about her reactions over the next several books to news. The suitors amuse themselves, and Eumaeus arrives with the disguised O., whom the goatherd Melanthius mocks and attacks. Entering later, T. gives him food. Antinous provokes Eumaeus and T.intervenes. O. begs from Antinous who violently insults him, and P. prays for his death. She sends for O. to see if he has any news about himself! T. sneezes: a good omen. O. postpones his interview until the others have left. Eumaeus returns to his hut.

Book 18

The beggar Irus insults O., who replies. What follows is a parody of a heroic duel. The suitors congratulate O., who tries to warn Amphinous of the coming vengeance. P., prompted by Athena, adorns herself and enters the hall, enticing the suitors to give her gifts. At evening, O. offers to look after the lamps for the serving-women, one of whom, Melanthos, insults him. O. threatens them. Eurymachus mocks O. and throws a stool at him (recalling which episode?) T. persuades to go home for the night.

Book 19

As the story develops, think about the similarities and differences between P and O. Also, do you think P. "recognizes" O here in some way?

391 O and T, aided by Athena, remove all arms from the hall. P enters with her attendants. Melantho again insults O., who threatens her. P.converses with O.

396 In reply to her questions, O pretends to be a Cretan, after having protested providing any information. He describes a meeting with O. and predicts he will soon return. P. is dubious, but orders her guest be treated well.

402-3 Note the P almost recognizes O. O refuses to have his feet washed by anyone but Eurycleia. She bathes him and recognizes an old scar, whose origin Homer tells. What does this mythical digression say about Odysseus? O.prevents her from revealing his identity.

407 P.tells O of her anxieties and a strange dream. O interprets the dream, but she isn't convinced. She states her intention to hold a competition for her hand tomorrow and retires. Is there anything strange about her dream? Why does she suddenly decide to hold this contest?

Book 20

Athena restrains O when the maidservants sleep with the suitors. P. prays for death, which O hears and he calls for a sign from Zeus. T enters in the morning and asks about O. Preparations are made for the festival of Apollo. Eumaeus returns and Melanthius again insults O. An omen dissuades the suitors from killing T, who defends O. One throws a cow's foot at O (Cyclopean?), which angers T. A strange momentary transformation of the scene is interpreted by Theoclymenus as a warning of coming disaster. The suitors laugh, while P listens sadly.

Book 21

P.brings out O's bow and promises to marry whoever strings it and shoots through the row of axes. Eumaeus weeps. O.signals to T not to string the bow himself, after he almost succeeds (!). Leodes fails, predicting it will bring death to many; Antinous has the bow treated. O reveals himself to Eumaeus and Philoetius and warns them to prepare for action. Consider T's behavior throughout this book.

432 Eurymachus fails; Antinous suggests postponing the contest. O asks to be allowed to try. The suitors abuse him but Eumaeus brings the bow.

437 Eumaeus and Philoetius have the women removed and the doors locked. O strings the bow and wins with one shot. T arms and stands beside O.

Book 22

439 O. shoots Antinoos and reveals himself. Eurymachus fails to appease him and is killed. T kills Amphinomus, and ties up Melanthius.

446 Athena helps O.(Is this a fair fight?) Leodes is killed, but Phemius and Medon are spared: why? All suitors die.

451-4 Eurycleia is summoned; note his rebuke of her victory cry (451). Has O changed? The 12 disloyal maids can the hall and then are hanged, while Melanthius is taken out and mutilated. O purifies the hall and Eurykleia summons P. How does O feel about all this. Has he changed since the Trojan War?

Book 23

455-6 Eurycleia tells the incredulous P of O's actions; to what, exactly, does she finally respond? She enters the main hall. T is impatient with her, but O supports her reasoning. O takes precautions to keep the slaughter secret.

458-67 O, now royally dressed, convinces P he really is her husband. How does he do it? How does she test him? Think back to what O told Nausicaa about marriage; do those words apply here? He tells her about his adventures and they spend the night together. Consider P's reactions throughout this episode: are they believable? How does she "out-Odysseus" Odysseus here?

Book 24

Some scholars have argued that the epic "should" end after Book 23, and that Book 24 is a later addition. What do you think? How different would the epic be without 24?

468-74 Hermes conducts the suitors souls to Hades, where Agamemnon, talking to Achilles, then praises P's fidelity. Compare the human perspective on his death with the divine one in Book 1: has the epic shifted focus from human-god relations to male-female?

475-80 O visits his father, telling him a false story before revealing himself. Why does he treat Laertes this way? Compare the different ways family members recognize O: what do these tell you about the strength of the different relationships?

481 The Ithacans, learning of the slaughter, march out to fight O. With Zeus' permission, Athena intervenes to save O, who goes to fight along with his father and son.Laertes kills Eupeithes. Athena intervenes and makes peace. Note that O still wants to fight. How does Athena discourage him? Is this ending believable in your eyes?


ODYSSEY CHRONOLOGY

Based on W.B. Stanford's commentary, pages x-xii (London 1959)

 

Day
Event
Odyssey Book

Day 1

Assembly of gods, Athena visits Telemachus

Book 1

Day 2

Assembly on Ithaca, Telemachus sails

Book 2

Day 3

He arrives in Pylos

Book 3

Day 4

He leaves Pylos

Book 3

Day 5

He goes to Sparta; Menelaus receives him

Books 3-4

Day 6

He stays at Sparta; hears Menelaus' story,while in Ithaca suitors learn he's left and plot his murder. Penelope dreams

Book 4

Day 7

2nd assembly of gods

Book 5

Days 8-11

Odysseus builds his boat

Book 5

Days 12-28

Odysseus voyages safely

Book 5

Day 29

Poseidon wrecks him

Book 5

Days 30-31

Odysseus drift to Scheria

Book 5

Day 32

Athena sends Nausicaa to shore; she meets Odysseus, who is received hospitably at palace

Books 6-7

 

Day 33

Entertainment of Odysseus, who tells his adventures

Books 8-13

Day 34

 

Odysseus voyages home to Ithaca

Book 13

Day 35

Odysseus lands and stays with Eumaeus; Telemachus travels back to Pherai

(O) Books 13-14; (T) Book 15

 

Day 36

Telemachus reaches Pylos and sails home

Book 15

Day 37

Telemachus lands on Ithaca and joins Odysseus and Eumaeus

Books 15-16

Day 38

Odysseus, disguised as beggar, goes among suitors, fights a rival beggar, talks with Penelope, is recognized by Nurse

Books 17-19

Day 39

The contest with the bow. Odysseus kills suitors. Penelope at last accepts Odysseus

Books 20-23

Day 40

The suitors' souls go to Hades; Odysseus visits his father; Athena makes peace between Odysseus and the suitors' kinsmen

Books 23-24

The Thematic Structure of Odysseus' Wanderings (in progress)

Troy

war

Ciconia, rounds Malea

war

Lotus Eaters

memory

1

Cyclops

cannabalism, loss of civilization, kleos

2

Aeolus

storm, mutiny

3

Laestrygonians

cannabalism, monstrous female

4

Circe

controlling female, loss of humanity, divine warning

5

Hades

6

Circe

helpful female, divine warning

5

Sirens

memory

1

Scylla and Charybdis

loss of humanity, kleos

2

Cattle of Helius

storm, mutiny

3

Scylla and Charybdis

monstrous female

4

Calypso

controlling female, loss of humanity, divine warning

5

Scheria

helpful female. hyper-civilization

5, 2

Ithaca

war, controlling female


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