THE ODYSSEY’S PLOT

The Odyssey starts in a very late moment of the story, with a first Council held by Olympic gods, in which Athena tries to persuade Zeus to make her beloved Ulysses, who is being retained by the nymph Calypso, come back home. Right after this council, Athena visits Ulysses’ son Telemachus and tells him to check whether his father is still alive or not. He will then sail to Pylos in order to meet with  king of the region Nestor, and after that, to Sparta to ask Menelaus, who will eventually give him some tracks about his father. While this is happening, Ulysses is retained in Calypso’s island Ogigia, where he has been living during seven long years. However, after the gods hold a second council, they decide to let him go home, and as a result, Calypso is forced to release Ulysses. He will then start a rough journey through the waves, as Poseidon got angry at him because he had left his son Polyphemus blind.

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Thetis Appeals to Zeus (1811) by Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres.

After that, Ulysses lands on Scheria where meets Nausicaa, the king of the Pheacians’ daughter. At this point, Ulysses emerges from the woods and meets the lovely creature. As far as I am concerned, this is one of the best moments of the book. Have a look at it on the A. S. Kline’s version:

Ulysses meets Nausicaa (Book VI)

“With this noble Odysseus emerged from the bushes, breaking a leafy branch from the thicket with his strong right hand, with which to hide his manhood. He advanced like a mountain lion, sure of its strength, that defies the wind and rain with blazing eyes, leaping among the sheep and cattle, or following the wild deer’s trail, or even, driven by hunger, attacking the flocks in the strongly built fold. So Odysseus, in his need, would have faced the crowd of girls with flowing hair, naked as he was. But, streaked with brine, he terrified them so, that they fled in fear, at random, over the sand spits.

Only Alcinous’ daughter stood her ground, since Athene inspired her, and drove the fear from her body. She stood and faced Odysseus, and he debated whether to clasp the knees of this lovely girl, as a suppliant, or whether to keep his distance and try her with courteous words, in hopes she might give him some clothes, and show him the road to the city. As he debated, he thought it better to hold off, and try her with courteous words, in case she should take offence if he clasped her knees: so he spoke to her promptly, with charm and subtlety’”

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Ulysses, Athena, and Nausicaa. Antikensammlung, München (Germany)

After that, Ulysses asks Nausicaa to lead him to her father’s palace. Then the Phaecians host him as a guest and Ulysses starts telling his story to them, who listen to him carefully. This is the very moment in which the Odyssey changes its narrator by Ulysses himself, who starts recalling his adventures in a flashback fashion. Ulysses starts here at the very beginning of the chronology of the facts that take place on the book. As a result, Homer uses masterfully this literary device which has been an inspiration to later creators. We can appreciate this Homeric techniques in stories. and also in current novels or films. 


Ulysses starts recalling his famous adventures in this order:

1. Cicones (Book IX)

The Cicones were a tribe of Thracians that were Trojan allies and that’s the reason why Ulysses and his partners start battling with them. They took a generous booty with them and continued their journey, which meant to be cursed.

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Odysseus: Battle with the Cicones

2. Lotus Eaters (Book IX)

The Lotus Eaters were pacific people who were fed by the Lotus flower. Some Ulysses’ partners wouldn’t want to return home because they ate from this flower. Therefore, their master Ulysses had to force them return into the ship.

Lotus_eaters_mythology_Tsugumi Ota

The Lotus Eaters, by Tsugumi Ota

3. Polyphemus (Book IX)

After meeting this imaginary people, Ulysses and his companions land on the Cyclopes island. The Cyclopes were those on-eyed terrible creatures. When arriving, they went to explore the region and entered into one of the Cyclopes’ cave, Polyphemus, who was the son of Poseidon, god of seas. Ulysses presented himself as “Nobody” when starting to chat with the monster. Polyphemus went in anger after finding out that the party had eaten some of his cheese, and drunk some of his milk. As a result, he started eating some of Ulysses’ partners while they tried to escape from the cave.

However this monster put a huge stone on the cave’s entrance, so Ulysses and his partners couldn’t go out. After giving some wine to the Cyclops, they left him blind and could manage to escape hiding under the sheep of the monster. Let’s see how Homer tells us this episode. Remember that Ulysses is the one recalling the events:

Ulysses and his partners enter into the Cyclops’ cave

“So we lit a fire and made an offering, and helped ourselves to the cheese, and sat in the cave eating, waiting for him to return, shepherding his flocks. He arrived bearing a huge weight of dry wood to burn at suppertime, and he flung it down inside the cave with a crash. Gripped by terror we shrank back into a deep corner. He drove his well-fed flocks into the wide cave, the ones he milked, leaving the rams and he-goats outside in the broad courtyard. Then he lifted his door, a huge stone, and set it in place. Twenty-two four-wheeled wagons could not have carried it, yet such was the great rocky mass he used for a door. Then he sat and milked the ewes, and bleating goats in order, putting her young to each. Next he curdled half of the white milk, and stored the whey in wicker baskets, leaving the rest in pails for him to drink for his supper. When he had busied himself at his tasks, and kindled a fire, he suddenly saw us, and said: “Strangers, who are you? Where do you sail from over the sea-roads? Are you on business, or do you roam at random, like pirates who chance their lives to bring evil to others?”’”

Cyclop_Mythology_Odilon Redon H. 1898-1900

Polyphemus. Odilon Redon H. 1898-1900

Polyphemus grabs some of Ulysses’ partners and eats them

“Devoid of pity, he was silent in response, but leaping up laid hands on my crew. Two he seized and dashed to the ground like whelps, and their brains ran out and stained the earth. He tore them limb from limb for his supper, eating the flesh and entrails, bone and marrow, like a mountain lion, leaving nothing. Helplessly we watched these cruel acts, raising our hands to heaven and weeping. When the Cyclops had filled his huge stomach with human flesh, and had drunk pure milk, he lay down in the cave, stretched out among his flocks. Then I formed a courageous plan to steal up to him, draw my sharp sword, and feeling for the place where the midriff supports the liver, stab him there. But the next thought checked me. Trapped in the cave we would certainly die, since we’d have no way to move the great stone from the wide entrance. So, sighing, we waited for bright day.”

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Polyphemus eats some of Ulysses’ partners

Ulysses and his partners leave Polyphemus blind

“They held the sharpened olive wood stake, and thrust it into his eye, while I threw my weight on the end, and twisted it round and round, as a man bores the timbers of a ship with a drill that others twirl lower down with a strap held at both ends, and so keep the drill continuously moving. We took the red-hot stake and twisted it round and round like that in his eye, and the blood poured out despite the heat. His lids and brows were scorched by flame from the burning eyeball, and its roots crackled with fire. (…)”

Polyphemus asks for help to his neighbours, the Cyclopes.

“Then he screamed, terribly, and the rock echoed. Seized by terror we shrank back, as he wrenched the stake, wet with blood, from his eye. He flung it away in frenzy, and called to the Cyclopes, his neighbours who lived in caves on the windy heights. They heard his cry, and crowding in from every side they stood by the cave mouth and asked what was wrong: “Polyphemus, what terrible pain is this that makes you call through deathless night, and wake us? Is a mortal stealing your flocks, or trying to kill you by violence or treachery?”

Out of the cave came mighty Polyphemus’ voice: “Nobody, my friends, is trying to kill me by violence or treachery.”

To this they replied with winged words: “If you are alone, and nobody does you violence, it’s an inescapable sickness that comes from Zeus: pray to the Lord Poseidon, our father.”

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Odysseus & Polyphemus, Athenian black-figure
oinochoe C6th B.C., Musée du Louvre

4. Aeolus (Book IX)

Aeolus was the king of the winds and thus helped Ulysses and his partners by giving them a bag that held all unfavourable winds in it. Even though, while getting closer to Ithaca, some of them wondered what that bag might have inside and opened it. Then all those unfavourable winds came out and the ship returned to Aeolus palace. The god expelled them from his place because he knew they must have been cursed by some god.

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Wind god in terracotta from the 18C AD. Städtische Galerie-Liebighaus, Museum alter Plastik, Frankfurt.

5. Laistrygones (Book IX)

After that, Ulysses and his partners arrive to the Laistrygones’ island. These people behave like barbarians, just like Cyclopes did. They start throwing huge rocks at them and manage to escape by the narrowest of margins.

Laestrygonians_Hurling_Rocks_at_the_Fleet_of_Odysseus_mythology

Wall painting from the late 1st century BC.

6. Circe (Book X)

She was a witch, daughter of the Sun and Perses. She lived in the quiet island of Ea. After landing on it, Ulysses and some of his companions explore it. Some of them meet Circe and she converts them into pigs. Ulysses then is helped by the god Hermes to undo the spell by giving him a magical herb called “moly”. Thanks to that, he can leave. Before that, Ulysses and his partners stay some days at Circe’s place and just before leaving, she gives them some advice in order to guide them to their future journey. unfortunately one of his partners, Elpenor, dies after falling down Circe’s palace stairs before they head to the Underworld.

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Circe offering the cup. John William Waterhouse

7. Hades and conversation with the seer Tiresias (Book XI)

Circe tells them how to handle going to the Hades, where they will have to meet the seer Tiresias who will tell Ulysses some aspects of his future: the island of the sacred cattle of the Sun and how to avoid the wrath of this god. He also meets the spirits of other heroes like Agamemnon, Ajax, Hector or Achilles who speak to him about their disfortunes, and Elpenor, who hasn’t still received funerary honours. Likewise, he gets to talk with his own mother, who long ago killed herself because of not standing his bitter absence.

8. Sirens (Book XII)

Before continuing their journey, Ulysses and his partners have to return to Circe’s island in order to bury their companion Elpenor. Then Circe tells them about the Sirens and Scylla and Charybdis.

The Sirens were evil creatures with winged female bodies that would spell and eat all sailors that heard their songs. However their voice was sublime and Ulysses wanted to hear it, so he told his partners to put wax in their ears and tie him up to the mast of the ship in order to hear the Sirens’ voice at no risk.

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Roman mosaic: Odysseus and the Sirens (Bardo National Museum)

9. Scylla and Charybdis (Book XII)

Scylla and Charybdis were situated in the Strait of Messina: Schylla was a female monster that had her body surrounded by six savage dogs that eat whatever is on their way. On the side of the Strait there was Charybdis,  a whirlpool in the sea that would suck all things that got close to it. Ulysses had to face these two dangers: he managed to pass through this place by getting closer to Schylla, even though that meant to lose some of his partners.

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Henry Fuseli‘s painting of Odysseus facing the choice between Scylla and Charybdis

10. Slaughters of the Helio’s cattle (the book starts recalling theses deeds!) (Book XII)

When arriving to the island of Trinacria, the group has little food and beverage and start starving. Despite of being told that the cattle that dwells in the island is sacred, some of Ulysses’ partners kill some of while their master is asleep. Therefore Zeus will kill all Ulysses’ companions but him, just like Tiresias had predicted in the Hades. Then Ulysses is forced to continue his journey as a castaway untill arriving to Calypso’s island…

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The cattle of the Sun depicted on a 6th-century BC vase from Cerveteri(Inventory E702, Musée du Louvre, Paris).

In fact, the Odyssey starts recalling this events at the very beginning:

“Tell me, Muse, of that man of many resources, who wandered far and wide, after sacking the holy citadel of Troy. Many the men whose cities he saw, whose ways he learned. Many the sorrows he suffered at sea, while trying to bring himself and his friends back alive. Yet despite his wishes he failed to save them, because of their own un-wisdom, foolishly eating the cattle of Helios, the Sun, so the god denied them their return. Tell us of these things, beginning where you will, Goddess, Daughter of Zeus.”

12. Ulysses arrives to the Calypso’s island. (Book XII)

Ulysses arrives at Ogigia and Calypso retains him because she is in love with him. After seven long years, Ulysses manages to return because of the gods will. By then, he finishes narrating his adventures to the Phaeacians. After that, the events that are told follow in the same chronological line as in the beginning of the book.

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Cornelis van Poelenburgh – The Goddess Calypso rescues Ulysses


Ulysses returns home after a twenty-year-long absence

1. Athena gives him advice in order to kill Penelope’s suitors (Book XIII)

The Phaecians help Ulysses return home by providing him with a ship an a crew to setting sail to Ithaca. When Ulysses arrives at his homeland, Athena tells him that cannot reveal his identity for a bunch of men, who want to snatch his kingdom and marry his wife, have overrun his house and are squandering his home supplies. The goddess then disguises him as a beggar, so no one discovers about the king’s return….

2. Ulysses meets with his faithful pig-keeper Eumaeus (Book XIV)

Before he uncovers his real identity, Ulysses wants to make sure who will be more likely to help him get rid of the suitors. He starts telling an invented story to Eumaeus about his imaginary Cretan origin, about having been sold as a slave an so on and so forth. Sometimes these excursus tend to puzzle a bit the reader… But you should take into account that Ulysses is a great liar and tells false stories to everyone! -remember Polyphemus?- , He even does that to his own father Laertes just before he shows his identity up. Imagine what a sick joke to make! His father hasn’t seen him for twenty years and has been so depressed because of it, and there comes Ulysses with his pranks… 

3. Telemachus returns home after looking for advice in Pylos and Sparta (Book XV)

Homer in his literary mastery, makes coincide Telemachus’ return with his father’s. It’s form this very moment that the relentless revenge against the suitors weaves itself.

4. Ulysses reveals his identity to his son Telemachus (Book XVI)

Before Ulysses uncovers his identity to his son, Telemachus is so disappointed because cannot offer him the hospitality that he deserves at his palace because the suitors now rule in these walls. Little after that, Telemachus is the first to find out about his father’s return. This is a very emotional moment of the Odyssey. Remember that when Ulysses left home, Telemachus was a new-born and Ulysses returns, finds his son a twenty-year-old grown up. 

Athena_Odysseus_Telemachus_Mythology_Engraving from 1892

Athena watches as Telemachus kisses Ulysses. Engraving by Charles Baude

5. Ulysses goes to his own palace with his son still disguised as a beggar to check what is really happening and to find out who is likely to be faithful to him.(Book XVII)

When doing so, Ulysses has to undergo numerous humiliations from Penelope‘s suitors. This lays the ground for the final revenge… At this moment, his old dog Argos recognises his master despite of being dressed up. Ride after this, the animal dies. To me, this is one of the most emotional episodes of the book:

Argos, Ulysses’ dog, recognises his master

“So they spoke. And a dog, lying there, lifted its head and pricked up its ears. Argus was the hound of noble Odysseus, who had bred him himself, though he sailed to sacred Ilium before he could enjoy his company. Once the young men used to take the dog out after wild goat, deer and hare, but with his master gone he lay neglected by the gate, among the heaps of mule and cattle dung that Odysseus’ men would later use to manure the fields. There, plagued by ticks, lay Argus the hound. But suddenly aware of Odysseus’ presence, he wagged his tail and flattened his ears, though no longer strong enough to crawl to his master. Odysseus turned his face aside and hiding it from Eumaeus wiped away a tear then quickly said: ‘Eumaeus, it’s strange indeed to see this dog lying in the dung. He’s finely built, but I can’t tell if he had speed to match or was only a dog fed from the table, kept by his master for show.’

Then, Eumaeus, the swineherd, you replied: ‘Yes this dog belongs to a man who has died far away. If he had the form and vigour he had when Odysseus left for Troy you’d be amazed by the speed and power. He was keen-scented on the trail, and no creature he started in the depths of the densest wood escaped him. But now he is in a sad state, and his master has died far from his own country, and the thoughtless women neglect him. When their masters aren’t there to command them, servants don’t care about the quality of their work. Far-voiced Zeus takes half the good out of them, the day they become slaves.’

“With this he entered the stately house and walking straight into the hall joined the crowd of noble suitors. As for Argus, seeing Odysseus again in this twentieth year, the hand of dark death seized him.”

A.S. Kline’s version.

6. Preparations for the revenge and th suitors’ slaughter (Book XX)

Everything is prepared now to kill the suitors in the palace. Telemachus, Eumaeus Eurycleia (Ulysses’ wet nurse that had recognised him by an old scar), hide all the weapons that were in the main hall.

7. The archery contest (Book XXI)

An archery contest is held in order to definitely decide which of the suitors will marry Penelope. Ulysses, still dressed as a beggar, participates in the contest among the amazement of the suitors, who see him as a useless human being. The winner of the contest has to be able to make an arrow come through each of the axes’ hole. Some of them try it, but they are not even capable of tightening the arch. Then Ulysses takes his own arch and pursuits his deed. After that, Ulysses reveals his identity to the suitors and the revenge begins: the suitors no longer have weapons with them, the main room has been locked and non of them shall manage to escape a rough death.

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The winner had to be capable of breaking an arrow through the holes of the twelve axes.

8. Ulysses and Penelope (Book XXIII)

Now his faithful wife will find out about Ulysses’ return. While the suitors have been massacred, she has fell asleep by an induced dream of Athena. A woman like her doesn’t have to find out about the cruelty that has been held in her home. After the slaughter, Penelope wants to verify whether his guest is Ulysses or not. She tests Ulysses by asking him if their bed should be moved from its place. Then Ulysses tells her that is impossible providing that he had crafted it himself out of an olive tree that was planted inside their own room.

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Penelope and Ulysses’ bed was made out of 

8. Athena makes peace (Book XXIV)

The story ends happily after Athena makes peace, given that the offspring of the suitors will want to revenge their fathers’ death. However, the goddess imposes peace after having Zeus’ permission. Furthermore, Ulysses then meets his father to reveal his identity, even though tells him another one of his lies…

3 thoughts on “THE ODYSSEY’S PLOT

  1. I love the way you describe The Odyssey in simple, accessible ways. It makes it immediate and contemporary. I also love the art selections you make. BTW, Romare Bearden did a whole series on The Odyssey, and his version of Helios is fantastic.

    Like

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