Odysseus

Odysseus was King of Ithaca and was well known amongst the Greeks as a most eloquent speaker and an ingenious and cunning trickster. He features heavily in the Trojan War and is the main protagonist in the Odyssey.

Parents: Laertes and Anticlea
Consort: Penelope, Circe, Calypso
Children: Telemachus

Head Odysseus MAR Sperlonga.jpg
Head of Odysseus from a Roman period Hellenistic marble group representing Odysseus blinding Polyphemus, found at the villa of Tiberius at Sperlonga, Italy.

Helen’s Suitor

Odysseus was one of the suitors of Helen, daughter of King Tyndareus of Sparta. However, he was undoubtedly the most reluctant among them, not only because he was reasonably sure that Menelaus would be the chosen bridegroom, but also because, as beautiful as Helen was, he was much more profoundly smitten by her cousin, Penelope, the daughter of Tyndareus’ brother, Icarius.

Tyndareus justifiably feared an outbreak of violence when he chose one suitor against the others. Fortunately, Odysseus thought up an excellent solution. In exchange for the hand of Penelope, he advised him to make all the suitors swear an oath that they would respect his final choice and that they would support the husband and wife in any ill fate that the two may face in the future.

And so, when Menelaus was chosen, all the other suitors peacefully left Sparta; except for Odysseus, that is, who stayed there until Tyndareus fulfilled his part of the promise in giving Penelope’s hand to him in marriage.

Avoiding the Trojan War

After marrying Penelope, Odysseus took her to Ithaca, where they lived a happy life and had a son, Telemachus. However, while the boy was still a baby, Helen was abducted by Prince Paris of Troy. Calling upon the oath sworn by Helen’s suitors, Menelaus summoned all of them to help him in his quest to bring her back. However, Odysseus did not want to join the expedition because the seer Halitherses had informed him that if he participated, it would take him a long time to return home. So, he decided to feign madness by harnessing a donkey and an ox to a plow and sowing salt on a field. Palamedes, who was the man sent to recruit Odysseus from Ithaca, did not believe him and so to test his sanity, he put Telemachus in front of the plow. Odysseus immediately changed course, thus exposing his plan.

The Love of Helen and Paris by Jacques-Louis David, 1788, Louvre, Paris.

Recruiting Achilles

Due to the prophecy that claimed that Achilles would either live a long and peaceful life or die a glorious death as a mighty warrior, his mother Thetis decided to disguise him as a woman and hide him at the court of King Lycomedes, who ruled the island of Scyrus. Odysseus had learned from the prophet Calchas that the Greeks could only win the Trojan War if Achilles joined their army. So, after learning of his whereabouts, he devised a plan to unveil Achilles in disguise. Masked as a peddler selling women’s clothes, Odysseus laid a spear among his goods and Achilles was the only one who showed any interest in the weapon.

Achilles is defrocked. Roman Fresco from the House of the Dioscuri, Pompeii.

The Trojan War

Odysseus’ main role in the Trojan war was one of a crafty strategist and a wise advisor. He was the one most capable of maintaining the morale of the Greeks and the one, who managed to prevent the bulk of the Greek army from withdrawing from the war after Agamemnon’s plan to test their determination by allowing them a leave had backfired tremendously. Odysseus was also the leader of the three-man expedition sent to appease Achilles, who, enraged by his unfair treatment from Agamemnon, decided to leave the battlefield.

Odysseus looks on as Patroclus’ body is lifted into a chariot, Etruscan alabaster urn from Volterra, Italy, 2nd c. BC.

However, Odysseus also proved his worth as a warrior. Together with Diomedes, he captured and killed the Trojan spy Dolon and killed the Thracian king Rhesus during a dangerous night-raid on the Trojan camp. He also captured the Trojan seer Helenus to find out the conditions needed to bring about the fall of Troy . These included the recruitment of Achilles’ son, Neoptolemus, and the wounded archer Philoctetes.

The Trojan Horse

Odysseus’ main and most memorable contribution to the successful conclusion of the Trojan War was the devising of the stratagem by which, after a decade-long war, the Greeks finally managed to enter Troy. It involved the construction of the Trojan Horse, a huge wooden horse inside whose hollow belly the greatest of Greece’s warriors hid. After leaving it near the Gates of Troy, the Greeks pretended to sail away; the Trojans believed that the war was over and that the horse was a divine gift; so, they wheeled it inside the city gates. They spent the whole day joyfully celebrating their victory and dancing around the horse. However, once the night fell, the Greek warriors climbed down from the horse and opened the city gates for the rest of the Greeks, who, under the guise of the evening, had managed to sail back to the shore. Before long, the Greeks stormed the city, slaughtered the inhabitants and set Troy on fire, winning a famous and conclusive victory.

The Trojan Horse.

The Odyssey

After the Trojan War, Odysseus embarked on a ten-year journey to reach his home, Ithaca, facing many perils along the way; his adventures are recounted in Homer’s “Odyssey.”

The Cicones

Odysseus left Troy with twelve ships. Soon after, a strong wind drove him off course, and he found himself on the coast of Thrace, among the Cicones, who were Trojan allies. In the battle which ensued, Odysseus and his crew killed all the Cicones present, except for a priest of Apollo called Maron. In gratitude, the priest gives Odysseus twelve jars of strong wine. Drunk with victory, the Greeks stayed a little too long in Thrace, giving the Cicones time to summon reinforcements and overpower Odysseus’ crew, killing six men from each of the twelve ships.

Approximate location of the Cicones.

The Lotus-Eaters

After a long voyage, Odysseus reached the land of the Lotus-Eaters. He sent three men to scout the area but none of them return to the ships. The reason for this is that they all ate the lotus fruit, which were a narcotic and caused the inhabitants to sleep in peaceful apathy. Odysseus had to drag his scouts back to the ships by force, after which the journey to Ithaca continued.

Image result for lotus eaters

Polyphemus

Next, Odysseus’ ships reached the island of the Cyclops, a race of one-eyed giants famous for their uncouth and violent ways. Enticed by the need for fresh supplies, Odysseus and twelve of his men become trapped in the cave of the Cyclops Polyphemus, who, after blocking the entrance of the cave with a giant boulder, starts eating them, two by two. The monster managed to devour six of Odysseus’ men before he devised cunning plan. After introducing himself as “Nobody”, he gave Polyphemus some of Maron’s wine and got him so drunk that the Cyclops falls asleep and he is able to pierce his one eye with a stake. “Nobody is attacking me,” cried out Polyphemus, “Nobody is killing me!” Because of this the other Cyclops do not help Polyphemus.

Amphora painting of Odysseus and his men blinding Polyphemus, Eleusis Museum.

Then Odysseus and his six surviving men escaped from Polyphemus’ cave by hiding under the bellies of his sheep, so that the blind Cyclops cannot feel them as he lets his sheep put to graze.

Aeolus

The ships then sailed to the island of Aeolia, where the god of the winds, Aeolus, lived. He welcomed them warmly and allowed them to stay for a month. When it was time to leave, so as to aid Odysseus on his journey, Aeolus put all the winds, except for the West Wind, in a leather bag and gave the bag to Odysseus. During the next nine days, the West Wind steered the ships gently all the way to Ithaca. However, on the tenth day, just before they reached the shore, an exhausted Odysseus fell asleep. Believeing that the bag contained gold and riches, his men stole the bag and opened it, thus releasing all the other winds at once. The ships were blown back to the island of Aeolia, where the god refused to help Odysseus again.

Aeolus Giving the Winds to Odysseus by Isaac Moillon.

The Laestrygonians

Seven days later, Odysseus arrived at the island of the Laestrygonians, a tribe of bloodthirsty, man-eating giants. They flung huge boulders at them and sunk eleven of Odysseus’ ships and ate most of his drowning sailors; leaving Odysseus’ ship as the only one to survive.

The fourth panel of the so-called “Odyssey Landscapes” wall painting from the Vatican Museums in Rome, 60–40 BC.

Circe

Odysseus’ ship next reached Aeaea, an island on which lived the sorceress Circe. She turned Odysseus’ scouts into pigs, but Odysseus, helped by the god Hermes, resisted Circe’s witchcraft. Overpowered by Odysseus’ courage and determination, Circe fell in love with him and transformed the pigs back into men. After this, they remained on the island for one year, during which Odysseus becomes Circe’s lover.

Circe Offering the Cup to Odysseus.jpg
Circe Offering the Cup to Odysseus by John W Watrerhouse, 1891.

The Underworld

After a year, Circe advised Odysseus to go down to Hades and seek counsel from the seer Tiresias before continuing his journey. Odysseus ventured into the Underworld and learnt of the hardships which lay before him but also encountered many famous dead people, such as AgamemnonAchilles and Heracles, and his mother’s spirit, who told him to hurry back home, since his wife Penelope was surrounded by potential suitors. On his return to Aeaea, Circe warned Odysseus of the many more dangers which await him.

Odysseus in the Underworld; Odysseus, seated between Eurylochos and Perimedes, consulting the shade of Tiresias; Side A from a Lucanian red-figured calyx-krater.

The Sirens

Firstly, Odysseus passesd by the island of the Sirens, who enchant all sailors sailing near them through their beautiful voices. However, Odysseus ordered his crew to stuff beeswax into their ears and tied himself to the mast of the ship, so that he can not only escape unharmed but also hear the beautiful Sirens’ song.

Odysseus and the Sirens. Roman mosaic at the Bardo National Museum in Tunis, Tunisia, 2nd c. AD.

Scylla and Charybdis

Then Odysseus’ ship passed through the narrow strait located between the whirlpool Charybdis and the six-headed monster Scylla. He made it through but not before Scylla manages to devour six of Odysseus’ men.

The Cattle of Helius

Next, they arrived at the island of Thrinacia, where Odysseus, remembering Circe’s and Teiresias’ warnings, ordered his remaining men not to eat the sacred cattle of the sun god Helius. In his absence, however, they ignore his orders and eat the cattle. An irate Helius asks Zeus to punish them and so Zeus sent a violent storm, which destroyed Odysseus’ ship and drowned all of his men but miraculously left him alive.

The Companions of Odysseus Steal the Cattle of Helius by Pellegrino Tibaldi, 1554.

Calypso

The sea carried Odysseus to the island of Ogygia, where the nymph Calypso fell in love with him and kept him captive there for the next seven years. However, Odysseus dreamt of his beloved Ithaca and not even the promise of immortality persuaded him to change his mind. Finally, through the intervention of Zeus and Hermes, Calypso released Odysseus and gave him a raft to sail home to Ithaca.

Calypso’s Isle by Herbert James Draper, 1897.

The Phaeacians

On his final voyage, Odysseus reached Scheria, the island of the Phaeacians, which is the modern-day island of Corfu. There, during a feast, Odysseus recounted his incredible story. Happy to have had the honour to welcome such a guest, the Phaeacians provided Odysseus with a ship and ferried him to Ithaca. After twenty long years of warring and wandering, Odysseus has finally made it back home.

Odysseus departs from the Land of the Phaeacians by Claude Lorrain, 1646.

Ithaca

Odysseus arrived at Ithaca late at night, sound asleep. Not wanting to bother his sleep, the Phaeacian sailors lay him down on the shore and leave. Athena appeared to him as he woke up and disguised him as an elderly beggar; both for his safety and so that he can learn more about what has happened during his absence.

Athena Revealing Ithaca to Odysseus by Giuseppe Bottani, 18th century.

When he arrived at his own palace, Odysseus is ridiculed by the other suitors but is treated warmly by Penelope. She then announced that the next morning she would marry the suitor able to string her husband’s bow and then shoot an arrow through twelve axe shafts. None of the suitors managed to accomplish this. However, Odysseus, still in disguise, completed the challenge and then helped by his son Telemachus and Athena, he massacred all of the suitors, having revealed himself.

Odysseus and Telemachus slaughter the suitors by Thomas Degeorge, 1812.

Penelope, however, did not believe that it was really Odysseus after all this time. to prove it was the truth, Penelope asked Odysseus to move her marriage-bed to another room. Odysseus replied that such a thing was impossible, as he had made the bed himself and that one of its legs was a living olive tree deeply rooted in the ground. Penelope needed no further proof: she ran into her husband’s embrace, and both start weeping tears of joy.