The Odyssey, Book I

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The Fate of Odysseus

Homer asks his Muse for inspiration to tell the story of Odysseus who wandered for ten years after fighting at Troy. He suffered great difficulties at sea because of the anger of Poseidon and he was the only Ithacan to eventually return safely home as his comrades were punished with death by Hyperion for eating his sacred oxen.

All the other Greek survivors of the Trojan War had returned home but Odysseus was detained by the nymph, Calypso, on her island. Zeus summoned all the gods and goddesses to a meeting on Olympus to discuss Odysseus’ plight. Poseidon alone did not attend as he was visiting Ethiopia.
Zeus said that, although humans blamed the gods for their misfortunes, they only had themselves to blame. He quoted the example of Aegisthus who, despite a warning from Hermes, became Clytemnestra’s lover while her husband, Agamemnon, was at Troy and murdered him on his return. Aegisthus was subsequently murdered by Orestes.

The Gods of Olympus, fesco by Raphael.

Athena, Odysseus’ protector, replied that Aegisthus deserved his fate but Odysseus did not. Calypso was keeping him on her island against his will, trying to make him forget his home and family. She asked whether Zeus had forgotten his sacrifices to the gods or was angry with Odysseus.
Zeus said he thought very highly of Odysseus. It was Poseidon who was preventing Odysseus returning home because he had blinded his son, Polyphemus. They must come up with a plan to bring Odysseus home and thwart Poseidon.

Athena made two suggestions: firstly, that Zeus send Hermes to tell Calypso that Odysseus must return home and secondly, that she go to Ithaca to embolden Telemachus to tell the suitors what he thought of them and tell him to go to Pylos to ask Nestor to find out what he could about Odysseus’ return.

Athena went to Ithaca disguised as Mentes, a family friend, and was welcomed and offered hospitality by Telemachus. Having asked Mentes who he was, he told Telemachus he was on course to trade iron for bronze, their families were old friends and he had landed here because he had heard that Odysseus was home; Athena said that Odysseus was not dead but must be detained by enemies; he would find a way to return home soon. He remarked on Telemachus’ likeness to his father and at how disgusted he was at the suitors’ behaviour. Telemachus commented on Odysseus’ absence, saying if he knew he was dead, he could at least build him a tomb and mourn him; as it was, storms have prevented him returning and Telemachus felt great sorrow at not knowing where he was. He longed for Odysseus’ return to drive away the suitors who were eating and drinking his wealth. Athena said Telemachus should call an assembly and order the suitors to leave; then he should sail to Pylos and then to Sparta to enquire about Odysseus’ whereabouts; if he discovered Odysseus was alive, he should await his return; if dead, he should build a funeral mound and arrange for his mother to remarry; then he should rid himself of the suitors even if it meant killing them. As Athena left, Telemachus realised he had been visited by a god and felt stronger and braver to take action.

A bard was singing about the Greeks’ return from Troy and the disasters Athena had made them suffer and Penelope asked him to stop. Telemachus rebuked her and told her to return to her rooms to do women’s work as he was now master of the palace and gave the orders. Penelope was surprised but did as Telemachus had asked, crying herself to sleep over Odysseus.

Telemachus told the suitors this was their last night of feasting as he would be asking them to leave the next day; if Odysseus was dead he intended to be the next king. The suitors were amazed at Telemachus’ new-found confidence and questioned him about the visitor but Telemachus gave nothing away. Eurycleia, nurse to both him and Odysseus, escorted him to his bed chamber with a torch but sleep escaped him as he planned his journey.

Overview Book II