Odyssey

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"ἄνδρα μοι ἔννεπε, μοῦσα, πολύτροπον, ὃς μάλα πολλὰ

πλάγχθη, ἐπεὶ Τροίης ἱερὸν πτολίεθρον ἔπερσεν"
Homer, The Odyssey Bk.I:1-2 [1]

The Odyssey (Greek: Ὀδύσσεια) is one the epics of the Trojan Cycle and one of the oldest recorded stories. The original was reputedly composed by the blind poet Homer and transmitted orally until it was (according to tradition) written down and standardised at the behest of the tyrant Peisistratus in about 550 BCE.

It's about Odysseus (the Latinized name Ulysses is sometimes used in English), king of Ithaca (a small island off the west coast of Greece). He was involved in the sacking of Troy, which took ten years (see the previous installment), and offended Poseidon while he was celebrating. Poseidon decided to do everything he could to keep Odysseus and his band of soldiers from returning.

The poem opens with the gods debating about Odysseus and his son, Telemachus. Odysseus left his infant son and wife, Penelope, for the Trojan War, but after the Fall of Troy he and his crew ended up stranded, and Odysseus had been away from home now for twenty years. Athena, who (unlike in The Iliad) is the only god playing a large role in the story, heads down to Ithaca to tell the now-20-year-old Telemachus that it's time to man up and find out about his father. See, about three years before this 108 suitors showed up for Penelope and began trying to seduce her, and Telemachus was too much of a wimp to do anything. Penelope had managed to keep them at bay using a clever trick - she told them she would marry after she finished weaving a burial shroud for her father-in-law, but always undid the day's work at night. This kept them fooled for a while, but the plot is eventually discovered. So Telemachus goes and chats with several characters who survived the Trojan War--Menelaus and Nestor--who tell him about his dad and how badass he is. Unfortunately he neglected to inform Penelope of his departure, and now the suitors are out to murder him too.

Meanwhile, Odysseus is stuck on Calypso's island, crying on a rock because he misses his family. Hermes shows up and tells Calypso to let him go, and she does. He ends up chilling with the Phaeacians with the princess, Nausicaa, and tells what he's been doing since the Fall of Troy ten years ago.

It is a very long story.

Basically, King Agamemnon and his brother got in a fight over sacrificing, which resulted in the Greeks getting split up. Through a whole bunch of other fights, Odysseus ended up with a much smaller crew. Then they got lost and ended up at the cave of the King of the Winds, and he gives them wind in a pouch so they can get home. But the crew are all idiots, and they open the winds so they all can't get home. Oh, and like most wind tends to do, this creates a storm and they get lost. Again. This is a recurrent theme throughout the poem.

First, they end up on an island full of Lotus-Eaters, who entrance the crew and give them a good time, so they forget they want to go home. Odysseus drags them back to the ship, and they carry on, only to end up at the island of the Cyclops. Once again, the crew (along with Odysseus) show their wit by eating the food before the Cyclops, Polyphemus, shows up. He is a bit angry, demonstrated by the fact that he bit off the heads of two of the crew. Odysseus tells Polyphemus that his name is "Nobody," then blinds ol' Poly with a sharpened olive branch, so that when Polyphemus reacts, he can only say, "Nobody did this!" Of course, Odysseus is an idiot, and gloats, saying, "Cyclops, if anyone ever asks you how you came by your blindness, tell him your eye was put out by Odysseus, sacker of cities, the son of Laertes, who lives in Ithaca" (9.506). Had the Greeks had social security numbers, he would have thrown that in too.

Unfortunately, Polyphemus is Poseidon's son.

Like many fathers would be, Poseidon is slightly tiffed that his son, who only had one eye to begin with, is now blind, so he seeks revenge on Odysseus. First, Odysseus ends up with the witch Circe, who turns his crew into pigs (they get better), then he goes to Hades and chats with a few people, including Tiresias--who tells him that even after he gets home, he won't be able to stay forever. After avoiding the Sirens and Scylla & Charybdis, the crew then kill all the Cattle of the Sun, who belong to Helios, despite being warned not to. Lightning falls, the crew dies, and Odysseus is shipwrecked on Calypso's island. She makes him her manwhore for seven years and Odysseus cries on some more rocks. This takes us up to the present, or at least, the first chapter.

After this long Flash Back, about a third of the story, Odysseus finally gets home and finds the suitors still abusing hospitality (a capital sin in Ancient Greece) and trying to woo his wife. Odysseus reveals himself to his son, who has recently returned, and they begin to plot. The next day, Odysseus reveals himself to the suitors and kills them, kills the twelve housemaids who slept with them (but, of course, only after making the girls clean up the dead bodies), and then, finally, reveals himself to his wife. In typical Homeric fashion, this takes seventy-five pages. Odysseus tells Penelope that he'll have to leave eventually again, given what Tiresias prophesized, but in the meantime, he's home.

Of course, it's not over. Odysseus goes and talks to his dad, Laertes, while the suitors talk to the dead in Hades, and the suitors' parents plot to kill Odysseus. They all show up to fight him, Athena tries to help Odysseus, Zeus shoots her with lightning, then Athena calls the whole fight off and makes the parents forget their sons died in a bloody, horrific massacre.

And yes, many historians believe the Homer part of the poem ended with Odysseus revealing himself to Penelope, and that someone else tacked on the end.

Because of its age the poem will be the Ur Example or Trope Maker of quite a few of the following tropes.


The Odyssey provides examples of:[edit | hide | hide all]

  • Accidental Pornomancer: On his way home, Odysseus spends years as the bedmate of two beautiful women: the Hot Witch, Circe, and the sea nymph, Calypso. Neither options were by choice, and Odysseus is typically justified in that all he never stopped loving or wishing to return to his wife.
  • Animated Adaptation: A classic example- Ulysses 31 Is (sort of) The Odyssey IN SPACE!
  • The Archer: Odysseus.
  • Badass: Odysseus himself. It's been theorized that he's something of an amalgamation of two heroes; one who was quite feeble but ridiculously intelligent and cunning, and another that was a bit more of the Genius Bruiser type. Essentially, he's the ancient Greek version of Batman.
  • Badass Boast: Odysseus does this to Polyphemus the cyclops.
    • This bites him in the ass when Polyphemus, having learned Odysseus's name through his boasting, invokes a favor from his father Poseidon to make his journey home a living nightmare. Daddy delivers.
  • Baleful Polymorph: Circe turns the men who visit her island into pigs.
    • She actually turns them into various beasts, including wolves and lions, while the crewmembers were turned to pigs. However, nowadays she's only remembered for the pig thing.
  • Blind Seer: Tiresias makes a cameo.
  • Bolt of Divine Retribution: Athena threatens one of these in the last book when Odysseus tries to go to war again.
  • Brains Evil, Brawn Good: According to different sources, Odysseus' cleverness and wiliness were what set him among the greats of the Greek heroes, or else they were signs of a weak and cowardly nature too pathetic to fight like a real man.
  • Brown Note: The Sirens' song.
  • Call to Agriculture: Odysseus' goal after going home.
  • Clingy Jealous Girl: Odysseus finds that having a nereid wanting to sex you up 24/7 gets old after seven years. Calypso, however, has no intention of letting go.
  • Double Standard: Odysseus screws a number of women. Penelope waits twenty years for a husband that she believes to be dead and never cracks once. of course, this was perfectly acceptable for a Greek man at the time. This is often justified by stating neither case was entirely consensual. And indeed one could argue that it was even more amazing that Odysseus would return to his wife (now 20 years older than when he left her), passing up a chance of eternal bliss with either Circe or Calypso.
    • Calypso herself sees a different kind of double standard at work. When Hermes tells her Zeus has ordered her to release Odysseus, she complains that the gods never allow goddesses to enjoy relationships with mortals, citing the examples of Orion and Iasion, lovers of Eos and Demeter respectively, who were killed by gods, yet gods screw around with mortal women all the time. The Olympians having a Double Standard is unsurprising. Greek gods had a surprisingly undivine habit of being more erratic, tyrannical, dishonorable, or just plain childish than even most mortals. Socrates noticed that and he wasn't the only one.
  • Due to the Dead
  • Enthralling Siren: Odysseus has his men stuff their ears with wax to ward off their songs. Not his own, of course. Instead he has himself tied to the mast and the men instructed to ignore his ranting so that he can hear the song but doesn't jump onto or order them into the rocks.
  • Watch It Stoned: The Lotus Eaters, who eat nothing but a fruit that causes them a sort of never-ending lethargic contentment.
  • Eye Scream: Eat Odysseus' sailors and reap the consequences.
  • Exploring the Evil Lair: The Cyclops's cave.
  • Fiery Redhead: Odysseus and King Menelaus(called the "Red-Haired King").
  • Flash Back: As is standard for classical epic, much of the story is told in flashbacks.
    • It wasn't standard at the time it was written, which is why some scholars see the Odyssey as a more modern and sophisticated work than the Iliad.
  • Forbidden Fruit: Aeolus's bag of winds.
  • Genius Bruiser: Odysseus. The Greeks wouldn't take no for an answer from him because of his famed intelligence.
  • Guile Hero: Odysseus.
  • Hachiko: Odysseus' dog predates the trope namer, waiting faithfully for his master before dying shortly after his return. In some tellings he dies happy, in others Odysseus is forced to pretend he doesn't know the dog, making this more of a Tear Jerker.
  • Happily Married: Odysseus and Penelope. How much time they actually spent together is debatable, but there's no denying they're happy together.
  • Historical Fantasy: Set during the Greek Bronze Age and although the actual date of composition was debated, it was at least a few hundred years later.
  • Home, Sweet Home
  • The Homeward Journey: Trope Codifier
  • How We Got Here/In Medias Res: Everything before Odysseus arrival in the land of the Phaeacians is told in flashback.
  • I Am a Humanitarian: Not only Polyphemus, but also the Lestrigonian, who ate several of Odysseus crewmembers.
  • Impossibly Delicious Food: We know, we know, never refuse free food, but it's probably not a good idea to accept handouts from the Lotus-Eaters.
  • I Will Wait for You: Penelope and his dog, although unusual for the trope he does come back, making the trope Older Than Feudalism.
  • Jerkass: The suitors, especially Antinous.
  • Just Between You and Me: It's an inversion in that the hero is the one gloating, but Odysseus gives a speech like this to Polyphemus after the Trojans have escaped from the Cyclops' cave. Predictably, it backfires.
  • Keep the Home Fires Burning: What Penelope does back in Ithaca while waiting for Odysseus to return.
  • Kind Restraints: Odysseus had himself tied to a mast to keep from being drawn to the sirens.
  • King Incognito: Odysseus does this a few times.
  • Lotus Eater Machine: The Trope Namer (though not the 'machine' part).
  • Made a Slave: Two of Odysseus's slaves had been free-born, to high status, before they were kidnapped.
  • Magic Music: The song of the Sirens.
  • Mama's Baby, Papa's Maybe: Telemachus says that well, his mother tells him he's Odysseus's son.
  • The Mentor: The original Mentor, who is actually Athena in disguise.
  • Multiple Endings: At the end of Homer's poem, Odysseus and Penelope are reunited, but he still has to go on his pilgrimage to appease Poseidon. So what happens next? Numerous Greek and other writers from antiquity provide a plethora of different answers for you to choose from:
    • Pretty much as Tiresias foretold, once Odysseus gets the thing with carrying the oar inland over with, he and Penelope live happily together, get another son called Ptoliporthes ("ravager of cities") until Odysseus' peaceful death.
    • Penelope did not actually remain faithful to Odysseus and is banished from Ithaca, later giving birth to the god Pan, who was fathered either by Hermes or because Penelope had sex with all suitors ("pan" means "all", get it?).
    • Telemachos ends up marrying Nestor's daughter Polycaste (whom he met in the Odyssey) or Nausicaa (who felt attracted to his father).
    • Odysseus marries queen Kallidike of the Thesprotians while Penelope is still alive, is defeated in battle (with Ares fighting on the other side) and succeeded by his and Kallidike's son, Polypoites.
    • The suitors' families bring their grievances to the court of Neoptolemus, Achilles' son. He orders Odysseus into exile (because he hopes to gain Odysseus' island Cephallenia (Corfu)). In this version Odysseus ends up marrying the daughter of king Thoas of Aitolia (resultant son: Leontophonos).
    • In order to avenge his son Palamedes, whose death before Troy was engineered by Odysseus, Nauplios spreads the false news of Odysseus' death. Penelope throws herself off a cliff into the sea but is either transformed into a duck or rescued by ducks.
    • Finally, a real feast of tropes popular in Italy: in one of the lost epics of the Trojan Cycle, the Telegony, Odysseus fathers a son, Telegonos, with Circe. When Telegonos comes of age he goes out to seek his father, but when he arrives on Ithaca the two get into a fight without recognizing each other and he unintentionally kills Odysseus. When the truth emerges, Circe brings him, Telemachos and Penelope to her island of Aiaia, grants the latter two immortality. In the end, Circe marries Telemachos and Penelope marries Telegonos, which results in a Tangled Family Tree. The story was also dramatized by Sophocles in the lost tragedy Odysseus Akanthoplex, with the added detail that an oracle foretells that Odysseus will be killed by his own son, so he banishes Telemachos to another island...but of course the oracle wasn't referring to him.
  • My Girl Back Home: Penelope is one of the most famous examples.
  • My Girl Is Not a Slut: Penelope.
  • Narrative Poem: Not quite the Ur Example...
  • Nice Job Breaking It, Hero: Odysseus and his remaining crew escape from the cyclops, when Odysseus has a fit of hubris and mocks the injured cyclops along with revealing his true identity. Sure, the mountaintop that is thrown at the ship misses. The raging storms, however, do not.
  • No Matter How Much I Beg: Odysseus with the Sirens.
  • Not Just a Tournament: The end of the story involves an archery tournament planned by Odysseus. While he was away, a large number of people tried to steal his kingdom by marrying his wife (Odysseus is believed to be dead). His wife offers her hand in marriage to the one who can win the tournament, but Odysseus kills everyone who shows up.
  • Old Dog: Argos, who dies at an age of at least twenty years.
  • Old Retainer: The swine-herder and Penelope's old nurse
  • Our Ghosts Are Different: The shades of Hades, who seems to crave for fresh blood to drink, but are otherwise friendly to our hero.
  • Oral Tradition: Until it was written down, at least.
  • Pet the Dog: Man-eating giant Polyphemus gets a sympathetic moment talking to his favourite ram when letting the flock out to pasture.
  • "Previously On...": The story begins with a brief recap of The Iliad.
  • Pride: Odysseus has a really big issue with this. Odysseus does end up taking a very, very long time to get home as a result from it, though his crew arguably suffers more as they end up all dying off, many as a result of his actions.
  • Random Events Plot: Odysseus' actual voyage, which is the most famous part of the story. By contrast, the parts about Ithaca, Telemachus, the suitors, etc. have a normal plotline to them.
  • Red Shirt: Every single time Odysseus lands on an island, at least a few members of his crew have to die to show that the journey is dangerous. Some get eaten by the Cyclops, others by the Lestragonians, and one, seemingly unable to find another way to die, falls off a roof.
  • Real Men Eat Meat: Being out of meat and forced to eat fish is always seen as a bad thing. Scholars have speculated that pre-Classical Greeks may have had some sort of taboo against eating fish, or perhaps the fish in those areas was simply bad.
  • Realistic Diction Is Unrealistic
  • Rightful King Returns: Odysseus is a king, after all.
  • Roaring Rampage of Revenge: Odysseus slaughters every suitor and twelve maids in his home once he returns.
  • Rocks Fall, Everyone Dies: Helios sics Zeus on your ass, lightning falls, everyone dies.
  • Sacred Hospitality
  • Scylla and Charybdis: Trope Maker.
    • Notably, Odysseus ends up having to choose between them twice. First, he's with his crew on a ship, and orders them to pass by Scylla. Scylla (giant tentacled beast) kills six men, but it was better than Charybdis (enormous whirlpool), who would have swallowed up the entire ship. Later on, Odysseus has to pass by them in a raft, and chooses Charybdis this time. Being alone, he's able to cling to a tree near the whirlpool, and makes it back onto the raft after it's swallowed and then expelled.
  • Second Hand Storytelling
  • Smite Me Oh Mighty Smiter
  • Spin-Off: Pretty much the Ur Example.
  • Tangled Family Tree: According to the version of the myth favoured in ancient Italy, Circe and Odysseus had a son called Telegonos[2], who married Penelope after accidentally killing his father. Together they had a son, Italos. His older half-brother Telemachos meanwhile married Telegonos' mother Circe and fathered Latinus[3]. Latinus lived in the city of Laurentum in Italy and had two daughters, Lavinia and Electra. Electra married Italos, while Lavinia at the end of the events chronicled in The Aeneid married Aeneas. Aeneas had a son by his first wife Kreüsa who Vergil called either Ascanius or Julus[4]. But according to Livy, Julus and Ascanius were two different people, and Ascanius was the son of Lavinia, above.
  • Tell Me About My Father
  • Tempting Fate: Odysseus bragging after blinding the Polyphemous. In some tellings, he taunts the cyclops first, which nearly gets their boat hit by a thrown rock. Odysseus' men tell him to shut up before he gets them all killed, but he keeps going, which is the point where he gives his name.
  • To Hell and Back: Hades is one of Odysseus' stops.
  • Trickster/Guile Hero: Odysseus to a tee - if he were a villain, he'd be a Magnificent Bastard.
  • Trojan Horse: Given a mention in the Odyssey, but despite common perceptions never shows up personally in Homer's works. The epics they did appear in have been lost.
  • Underside Ride: Odysseus and his crew are trapped within a cave by Polyphemus, a man-eating shepherd cyclops. Odysseus and his crew escape by clinging to the underside of Polyphemus' sheep.
  • Unreliable Expositor: The most famous stories relating to Odysseus's journey are part of one of his accounts. He at the very least switches around the locations each time he tells it.
  • The Vamp: Circe and Calypso to Odysseus.
  • You Can't Fight Fate: What we would call an Overused Running Gag.
  • Who's on First?: Possibly the oldest example in the book. Odysseus told Polyphemus his name was "Nobody" (μη τις). When the Cyclops started screaming that he had been blinded, his brothers asked who had done this foul deed. The Cyclops replied that "Nobody has blinded me", so his brothers told him to shut up with the screaming over things that hadn't happened.
  • You Can't Go Home Again
  • You Have Waited Long Enough

Notes

  1. (Tell me, Muse, of the cunning man who traveled far and wide after he had sacked the famed city of Troy)
  2. (or three sons, Telegonos, Agrios and Latinus)
  3. (unless you prefer the variant where Latinus is Odysseus' son)
  4. (who became the ancestor of the gens Julia, the family from which Julius Caesar and the Julian-Claudian emperors belonged)