Odyssey Book summary




The "Odyssey," sometimes called, "The Odyssey," is an epic (a long, narrative poem relating to the adventures of a noble hero). It was originally written by Homer, in Greek, around 700 BC, and has been translated into English in many variations. Some translations attempt to retain or create poetic rhythm and rhyme, often at the cost of accuracy to the original story, while other translations have tried to follow the story (sometimes line for line) more accurately, but make little effort at the poetic style. It is divided into 24 chapters (called "books"). 

The story is fictional, conjuring up many famous figures in Greek mythology, including Poseidon, Zeus, Athena, and Calypso. The protagonist, Ulysses, is trying to return home after the Trojan War, a journey that should take a few weeks. However, he is the behest of trials brought on by nature, gods, mythical creatures, and other antagonists The journey takes him 10 years, a length of time equal to the Trojan War itself. Thus, he is away for 20 years. 

Much of the story is related via omniscient narration. However, the narrator does not cover many of the events, instead of allowing Ulysses to relate the events of the past few years to others, thus, of course, revealing his story to readers of the story (or listeners to the bards who repeated the tale by memory, often in its entirety). This also results in the story being related in different segments that are not chronological. 

It should be noted that to this day, controversy remains regarding whether or not the Trojan War is an actual historical event. While the "Odyssey" is mythological, some references appear to have at least a grain of historic truth to them. Most historians believe that such a war may have taken place, although most likely not in the way depicted in Homer's writings. Whether partially or even entirely fictional, the Trojan War is said to have taken place around 1200 BC, approximately 500 years before the "Odyssey" was written. 

It is also generally accepted that the story related to the "Odyssey" may have been verbally passed down over the course of many years, even hundreds of years. Homer, however, is credited as the first person to have written down the story.

Prominent themes throughout the story of his quest tend to revolve around various aspects of Ulysses' great nobility. He is strong, loyal, and good. However, his greatest strength is his intelligence. As a warrior, he employs military strategy, a skill that manifests itself again many times, as he faces enemies of many varieties. He must decide when to engage, and when to deflect confrontation. At times, his combat skills are used in brutal fights, while at other times the wisest strategy is to avoid confrontation.

He holds loyalty in the highest regard and is frequently rewarded in the form of loyalty from others. Of particular note is the Goddess Athena, whose loyalty towards Ulysses and his family is of critical import through many of the hazards Ulysses must face.  


Plot Summary

Ulysses has not yet returned, although it has been ten years since the end of the Trojan War. Ulysses' palace and land have been besieged by greedy men, all of whom are vying for the hand of Penelope, Ulysses' faithful wife. Ulysses' son, Telemachus, stands in loyalty to his father, but his youth and inexperience stand in the way of defeating the suitors. Nobody knows if Ulysses is even alive, but his wife and son hold out hope. 

Meanwhile, Ulysses remains imprisoned by Calypso, a beautiful nymph who wishes to keep him forever as her own. 

Another god, Athena, who is a great supporter of Ulysses, assists Telemachus. She compels him to confront the suitors, condemning their behavior. Athena also arranges for Telemachus to travel to a place where he learns that his father is still alive. However, some of the suitors plan to kill Telemachus upon his return. 

The god Zeus decrees that Calypso must release Ulysses, and allow him to travel back to his family. Ulysses builds a ship, but once underway, the god of the sea, Poseidon, sends a storm to prevent Ulysses' success. Poseidon seeks revenge upon Ulysses for an incident long ago, when Ulysses blinded Poseidon's son, the Cyclops, defending himself from the monster. 

Athena steps in, and Ulysses makes land on Scheria, where the locals treat him well. They are aware of him and greatly respect his reputation. They wish for him to relate all of the events leading up to this, and assure him of safe passage afterward. Here, we are told, by Ulysses, of many adventures, battles, and confrontations with witches and monsters and magic, over the preceding years. 

As promised, the people send Ulysses on his way, well-stocked and prepared for his journey home, to Ithaca. There, he is assisted again by Athena, who disguises Ulysses so that he is unrecognizable. Ulysses approaches his faithful old swineherd, Eumaeus, and even though the swineherd does not recognize Ulysses, he takes him in and feeds him. 

Later, Ulysses meets Telemachus and reveals his identity to his son. Ulysses and Telemachus then devise a plan to oust and defeat the suitors, to regain control of the palace and the land. 

The following day, Ulysses arrives at the palace, still in disguise as a beggar. He is mistreated by the suitors, who mock and abuse him. However, his nurse recognizes him but is immediately sworn to secrecy. His wife, Penelope, finds the beggar intriguing, and even appears to be slightly suspicious that this might be her husband, but she remains skeptical. 

Penelope suggests a contest among the suitors, with the promise of marriage to any man who can perform a certain archery feat. She knows that the only man who could ever accomplish this trick is her husband. The suitors all try and fail. However, when the "beggar" tries, he succeeds. Immediately, he and Telemachus turn to fight the suitors. Eventually, all of the suitors are killed. 

Ulysses then reveals himself to the rest of the palace, including Penelope. She remains unsure, until he answers a riddle correctly, revealing his authenticity. 

Ulysses visits his elderly father and deals with an attack from angry and vengeful family members of some of the dead suitors. Athena helps to restore peace, and Ulysses and his family are restored to royalty, thus ending Ulysses' 20-year quest to return home. 


Throughout the manuscript, Ulysses is revered as a great and powerful man. While he encounters many obstacles and certain perceived failures, it is ultimately his virtues that lead to his redemption. He is brave, skilled, loyal, strong, kind, and true. However, one resounding theme is that while Ulysses possesses many fine qualities that a king and warrior ought to possess, it is his intelligence that is of the greatest value. We see his fighting skills, his brute strength, and his loyalty win many confrontations, but ultimately, his cunning brilliance is his finest trait and is what shines as his finest weapon. 

Certain actions of his may appear to contradict this image of perfection, though. For example, in the course of the story in which his wish is to return to his wife, expecting her to remain faithful to him, he becomes involved in sexual relationships with two other entities. However, it is understood that Homer's audience at the time, regarding cultural beliefs, would have justified this behavior, partly because of its mandatory nature (both partners were goddesses who forced his captivity and submission), partly because the partners were not human, and partly due to differing mores expected from men than from women. 

Several times, too, we appear to see Ulysses boasting of his status, or his accomplishments. This, too, is understood better by knowing that a man's reputation and image were of extreme value at the time. To express one's credentials was not merely a matter of pride, but of commanding a required behavior from those he confronted. One's value was based upon one's reputation, and thus it was less a matter of ego-inflating boasting, and more that of establishing one's rightful status. A modern equivalent might be that of a physician requesting to be called, "doctor," or having a judge be addressed as, "your honor." 

Throughout, Ulysses triumphs over obstacles because of his fine qualities. He uses wit and strength and nobility to overcome the abundance of trials and tribulations he is behest with. In the end, good triumphs over evil. 

  • Author(s)

  • Publication date

    700 BC

  • Language

    Greek translated to English

  • Classification

    Epic poem

  • Pages


Greek Mythology