"Oh Goddess of Inspiration, help me sing of wily Odysseus, that master of schemes!" So Homer begins his epic, though the hero himself is still offstage. We are treated to a glimpse of life among the supreme gods on Mount Olympus.
Grey-eyed Athena, the goddess of war, is addressing an assembly headed by Zeus, the king of gods:
"Even though we all love Odysseus, he alone of the Greek heroes has been waylaid on his journey home from Troy. When he put out the eye of the giant Cyclops, he provoked the wrath of the God of Earthquakes."
The Olympians know she refers to Poseidon, the Ruler of the Sea, who is off enjoying a banquet elsewhere.
"And now Odysseus languishes on the lonely island of the nymph Calypso, pining for home. Is that your will, Zeus?"
"You know very well it isn't," replies the god of gods.
"Then send your herald, Hermes, flying to Calypso. Make her let Odysseus go. I myself will inspire the hero's son." Athena departs to fulfill this vow.
Adopting a mortal guise, she appears at the gate of Odysseus' mansion on the island of Ithaca. Odysseus' son, Telemachus, does not recognize the goddess in her human form but invites the stranger in as a guest. Over food and wine they discuss the fact that Telemachus and his mother Penelope are plagued by suitors for Penelope's hand in marriage.
All the eligible young nobles of Ithaca and the neighboring islands, assuming that Odysseus is dead, are vying for Penelope. And while they wait to see which one of them she will choose, they help themselves to her hospitality, feasting through her herds and guzzling her wine. Telemachus is powerless to do anything about it.
"Warn them off," counsels Athena. "Then fit out a ship that will carry you to the mainland. There you must seek tidings of your father."
Inspired by Athena, Telemachus calls a council of all the men of Ithaca. He asks them how they can stand idly by and allow his mother's hospitality to be abused. Antinous, one of the ringleaders of the suitors, brazenly puts the blame on Penelope, for not choosing one of them as husband.
"She has even resorted to trickery," claims Antinous. "At first she said she'd choose among us just as soon as she finished her weaving. But she secretly unraveled it every night."
Hot words are exchanged, and Zeus sends an omen. Two eagles swoop down on the congregation, tearing cheeks and necks with their talons. A wise man interprets this as impending doom for the suitors.
In closing, Telemachus asks his countrymen to fit him out with a ship so that he might seek news of his father.
Back in his own hall, Telemachus is greeted by Antinous, who suggests that they share a feast together just as they did when Telemachus was still a boy. Telemachus replies that he'll see him dead first. The other suitors mock the young man for his fighting words.
Seeking out his aged nursemaid, Eurycleia, Telemachus instructs her to prepare barley meal and wine for the crew of his ship. He makes her swear an oath that she will not tell his mother of his departure until he is ten days gone.
That night a sleek black vessel crewed by twenty oarsmen puts out to sea, with Telemachus and Athena, his godly patron in disguise, seated in the stern.
Dawn finds the travelers at Pylos, in the kingdom of Nestor, who at the age of ninety led a contingent in the Trojan War. Telemachus asks the wise old king to tell him how and where his father died, for he cannot help but assume the worst. In reply, Nestor tells what he knows of the Greeks' return from Troy.
"It started out badly because of Athena's anger. She caused dissension between our leader Agamemnon and his brother Menelaus. Menelaus was for setting sail immediately, while Agamemnon insisted that a sacrifice be held first to pacify the goddess. In the end, half the army left while the others remained with Agamemnon.
"Those of us who sailed with Menelaus made good speed at first, but then we were at each other's throats again. One group, under Odysseus, broke off and rejoined Agamemnon. I'm sure that even in Ithaca you've heard what eventually happened to him."
"To Agamemnon? Yes," responds Telemachus. He knows that the great king's wife fell in love with another. Together they murdered Agamemnon upon his homecoming. Then, seven years later, he was avenged by his son, Orestes.
"But tell me, Nestor, if you will, why did Menelaus not slay his brother's killer with his own hand and throw his body to the dogs?"
Nestor explains how the fair winds that brought that first party of Greeks safely home from Troy failed Menelaus. A storm blew him all the way to Egypt. There he lingered, unable to return home until it was too late.
"Journey to Sparta," suggests Nestor. "Seek further news from Menelaus. I will loan you a chariot and one of my sons to accompany you."
And so in the morning, after participating in a sacrifice to Athena, Telemachus sets out for the kingdom of Menelaus.
Telemachus and Nestor's son are welcomed by King Menelaus with great hospitality. Queen Helen immediately recognizes Telemachus as the spitting image of Odysseus.
"You must be the boy he left behind when he took ship for Troy -- all because of me and my mad passion for Trojan Paris. Aphrodite's curse was already wearing off when last I saw your father. What a man! I'll never forget his daring and his guile.
"He had beaten himself black and blue and dressed up in a beggar's rags to sneak into Troy. But I recognized him when he spoke to me there in the house of Paris. I bathed him and gave him a fresh robe, and he made his escape, killing many a Trojan on his way. I rejoiced, for I missed my home and the blameless husband I had forsaken."
"And remember, my dear, how you suspected that we were hiding inside the wooden horse?" asks Menelaus. "Odysseus was in command. It was everything he could do to keep us quiet when you started calling out to us, imitating the voice of each man's wife."
These reminiscences are mixed with tears for fallen comrades, and at length Telemachus seeks respite in sleep. In the morning, Menelaus relates what he can of Odysseus.
"As you know, I was held down for seven long years in Egypt. And when at last the gods relented and sent a homeward breeze, I only made it as far as an island off the mouth of the Nile before I was becalmed. A goddess took pity on me as I paced the beach in desperation.
"'My father is the Old Man of the Sea,' she said. 'You and three picked men of your crew must catch him and pin him down.' She helped us with disguises, the hides of seals which stank to high heaven. She even rubbed ambrosia under our noses against the stench.
"And when the Ancient came for his midday nap amongst the seals, as was his custom, we jumped him and held on for dear life. He had an awesome power, you see, to change his form -- to lion, to snake, to boar, to gushing fountain and towering tree. But when he saw that we weren't about to let go, he reverted to his original shape and began to speak.
"He said that Zeus himself was furious because we had failed to sacrifice before setting sail. We'd have to slog back up the Nile and start all over. And as he was an all-knowing god, I asked which of our comrades had perished on the journey home from Troy.
"'Only two high officers,' he replied. 'And one of them might have lived but for his insolence. Even though he had been the cause of Athena's wrath in the first place, Ajax made it safely ashore on a promontory. At which point he had the audacity to brag that he had beaten the gods. His boast was heard by Poseidon, and the Lord of Earthquakes swung his mighty trident and knocked the earth right out from under Ajax, who fell into the sea and perished.'
"And the other?" we asked, for he had spoken of two high officers.
"'Odysseus lives still, though marooned, without a crew of oarsmen to stroke him home.'
And so Telemachus received the news that he had sought. But meanwhile his situation had become still more perilous. For back at home on Ithaca, the suitors had gotten wind of his departure. Spurred on by Antinous, they plotted to ambush him at sea upon his return.
Soon after dawn breaks on Mount Olympus, Athena puts the case of Odysseus once more before the gods. At her prompting, Zeus dispatches Hermes with a message for Calypso.
Binding on his magic sandals, Hermes skims over the waves to the island paradise where the nymph has detained Odysseus. He finds her at her hearth in the midst of a forest redolent with cedar smoke and thyme.
She's suprised by the visit but extends hospitality before asking its cause. Seating Hermes, she puts before him nectar and ambrosia, the sustenance of the gods.
"I'm not here because I enjoy crossing the desolate sea," says Hermes. "I bring a message from Zeus: Send Odysseus home."
"You jealous gods! Can't you bear to see one of us keep a mortal of her own?" cries Calypso. "Oh very well, there's no arguing with Zeus.
Hermes rises to take his leave. "And next time, do God's bidding with a better grace."
Calypso knows where to find Odysseus. Every day for the last seven years he's sat on the same rock gazing out to sea, weeping for home and Penelope.
"If I told you that there's heartbreak and shipwreck in store," asks the goddess, "would you trade immortality and me for that mortal wench?"
"Yes, though she's nothing in comparison to your radiant self, I'd gladly endure what the sea deals out."
"Very well then, you may go."
"What kind of trick is this?" asks Odysseus, who is famous for tricks himself. "You'll understand if I'm suspicious."
"No trick. I swear by Styx."
And so the next morning she leads him to a pine wood and gives him tools to build a raft. Five days later, provisioned with food and drink, he sets sail. Instructed by Calypso, he keeps Orion and its companion constellations on his left and sails for seventeen days without sight of land. Then, just as an island appears on the horizon, Poseidon notices what is afoot.
"So, my fellow gods have taken pity on Odysseus. If Zeus wills it, then he's headed home. But not before I give him a voyage to remember."
Taking his trident in both hands, Poseidon stirs the sea into a fury and lashes up rain and squall. Mast and sail are torn away, Odysseus is thrown overboard and buried under a wall of water. When he emerges gasping and sputtering, he somehow manages to clamber back aboard.
A goddess, Leucothea, appears to him in the form of a bird. She counsels him to swim for it. "Take my veil, tie it around your waist as a charm against drowning. When you reach shore, be sure to throw it back into the sea."
Odysseus doubts. Surely it is safer to keep to the boat. But Poseidon soon solves his dilemma by smashing it to bits. Satisfied, the Sea God drives off in his chariot. Odysseus swims and drifts for two days, until he hears surf breaking on a rockbound coast.
A strong wave bears him in, straight onto the rocks. Desperately he clings to a ledge, until torn off by the undertow. He has the presence of mind to swim back out to sea. It is then he sees a break in the reefs, the mouth of a river just up the coast. He prays to the deity of this stream to take him in. And the god has mercy on him.
Battered and half-drowned as he is, he remembers to throw the veil back to Leucothea. Then he staggers to the bank and falls face down in the mud. Still he can't rest, for he knows that river air grows deathly cold at night and anywhere he'll be easy prey to beasts.
Then he finds a clump of olive trees, so thickly tangled as to make a cage. And, drawing leaves up over himself for a blanket, he sleeps the sleep of the dead
Odysseus had washed up in the land of the Phaeacians. Athena now intervened to make these people foster his journey home. She went by night to the palace of their king and appeared in a dream to the princess, Nausicaa.
The goddess prompted her to give thought to her wedding day. Shouldn't she journey to the pools down by the river and wash her bridal gown?
In the morning Nausicaa awoke with this idea in mind. But being modest, she asked her father instead if she might launder the family linen. Could she have the mule cart for the day? This was ordered and Nausicaa departed with her serving maids.
At the river, they soaked and thrashed the linen and laid it out to dry. Then they bathed in the river and anointed themselves with oil. After lunch they began to toss around a ball.
It was while they were playing that Odysseus woke to the sound of their laughter. Tearing off an olive branch to cloak his nakedness, he approached the group.
The maids ran away at the sight of the brine-encrusted stranger, but Nausicaa stood her ground. Odysseus had to choose between touching her knees in the gesture of a suppliant or staying back and trusting to words. He decided that words were the safer course.
"Are you a goddess or a mortal?" he inquired. "If the latter, your parents must be proud. I've never seen your like in beauty. I don't dare embrace your knees. Could you just tell me the way to town?"
In her candid way, Nausicaa sized him up and saw that he meant no harm. "As strangers and beggars are in the hands of Zeus, I'll not refuse comfort to a castaway." She called back her maids and told them to feed and cloth Odysseus. They gave him oil to rub on after he had bathed in the river.
And now Athena added further luster to the hero's freshly anointed skin and made him seem almost a god. So the princess wished that her own husband might in some way resemble Odysseus.
"Now here is what you must do," she told him. "On the way to my father's palace we will pass between the boatyards. The last thing I want is for some shipwright to see you following along behind my cart and think that there is something going on between us.
"But just before town is a roadside grove, sacred to Athena. Wait there until you're sure I'm gone, then enter the city gate. Ask directions to the palace, and when you've found it do not hesitate. Come straight into the hall and seek out my mother.
"She'll be seated by the fire. Clasp her knees. If she accepts your supplication, you're as good as home."
Odysseus waited in the grove as instructed and then entered the city of the Phaeacians. When he asked directions to the palace, it was Athena in the form of a little girl who showed him the way.
Odysseus stopped on the threshhold, dazzled. The very walls of the interior were covered in shining bronze and trimmed with lapis lazuli.
The king and his courtiers were banqueting in this splendor, but Athena wrapped Odysseus in a mist so that he passed by unseen. Straight up to the queen he went and wrapped his huge arms around her knees.
"Blessings upon you and this company," he said, "if you but grant my plea -- safe passage to my homeland." With this he rose and sat down again in the ashes of the fire.
"A supplicant with honorable intentions, humbled in the ashes!" exclaimed a wise counselor to the king. "My lord, this will not do."
At which King Alcinous himself arose and took Odysseus by the hand, raising him to his feet. Next to the king's throne sat his eldest son, who now moved aside. Odysseus was guided to this place of honor.
"Tomorrow shall be a holiday," declared the king. "And when we have made sacrifice to the gods and entertained our visitor, we will give thought to speeding his journey home.
"Who knows, he might even be a god, although in the past the gods haven't bothered with disguise in visiting our realm. They've always appeared to us in all their glory, since we are their kin."
Odysseus assured him that he was no god, but a mortal man, and a hungry one at that. When the other guests had left, the queen asked him how it came to be that he was wearing clothes that she herself had trimmed.
Odysseus related the events since his departure from Calypso's island, sparing no detail but one. He described how he had approached the princess and her maids by the river, and how Nausicaa had kindly given him clothing. But he said that it had been his own idea to enter town separately.
That night he slept on a deep pile of rugs beneath clean sheets and fleeces.
The next morning King Alcinous addressed an assembly of his people: "My guest's name is still unknown to me, but I have promised him passage home. Therefore prepare our fastest ship. When all is done, let the crew join me and my nobles for a banquet at the palace."
To entertain the banqueters, Alcinous summoned his minstrel, Demodocus. This bard could sing of all life had to offer, having himself been favored with the gift of song but cursed with blindness. And Demodocus' chosen theme that day was the Trojan War.
He began by singing of Achilles and Odysseus, and this brought tears to that hero's eyes. He managed to hide them by burying his face in his cloak, though the king heard his sobs.
He spoke up at once: "Demodocus, put aside your harp for now. It is time for athletics."
And so the Phaeacians did their best to impress their guest with the discus, foot races and wrestling. And indeed their feats were prodigious. At length they noticed that Odysseus himself was well-muscled and fit. Perhaps he would care to join their contest?
Odysseus replied that he had other things than sport on his mind. But one of the competitors, a sailor like all the Phaeacians, took this as an excuse. "No doubt he's been to sea," he sneered, "but only as a purser."
The hero's eyes went cold. He picked up a discus and threw it with such a rush of wind that the Phaeacians hit the deck. It landed far beyond their own best shots.
Alcinous acknowledged that the guest had proven his point. "Perhaps there's another way we can impress him." He called for Demodocus to play a tune, and various dances were performed, culminating in one featuring a carved wooden ball.
This was tossed high in the air, and a dancer leapt up and deflected it. Then two dancers passed it back and forth, keeping it low to the ground. Odysseus was indeed impressed.
Now the king proposed that each of his senior lords go home and bring back a bar of gold for the still-nameless guest. The sailor who had taunted Odysseus earlier gave him his own sword in apology. The gold was brought and the queen herself stored it in a chest for Odysseus.
That evening, on his way to the banquet hall, Odysseus passed Nausicaa in the corridor. "When you are safely home," she said, "you might remember me."
"Princess," replied Odysseus, "I will give thanks to you, as to a goddess, each day until I die."
At table the minstrel was called upon once more, and this time it was Odysseus himself who suggested the theme. Demodocus began to sing of the Trojan Horse, how the men of Troy had brought it within their walls and then debated what to do. Should they smash it to pieces with axes, or push it over a cliff? Or should they preserve it as an offering to the gods? Fate, of course, made them choose the latter course.
Once more Odysseus cried into his mantle, and once more the king ordered a halt to the entertainment.
"Enough! Our guest is weeping. He came to us as a suppliant, and his conduct was proper in all respects. So we are doing as he asked. Now it is his turn. Tell us your name, stranger, and tell us your home. After all, our ship will need to set a course."
"I am Odysseus of Ithaca. And here is my tale since setting out from Troy:
Our first landfall was Ismarus, in the land of the Cicones. We sacked the town, killed the men and took the women captive. I was for putting out right then, but my men would not hear of it.
Carousing on the beach, they feasted and dawdled while survivors of our plundering raised the hinterlands. The main force of the Cicones swept down on us in a black tide. These were fighting men, and it was all we could do to hold the ships until, outnumbered, we cut our losses and put back out to sea.
And while we still grieved for our fallen comrades, Zeus sent a storm that knocked us to our knees. We rode it out as best we could. I might even then have rounded the southern cape and made for home had not a new gale driven us across seventeen days of open sea.
We found ourselves at last in the land of the Lotus-eaters. These folk are harmless enough, but the plant on which they feast is insidious. Three of my men tasted it and all they wanted was more. They lost all desire for home. I had to force them back to the ships and tie them down while we made our getaway.
Next we beached in the land of the Cyclopes. We'd put in at a little island off their coast. And since they don't know the first thing about sailing they'd left it uninhabited, though it teamed with wildlife.
We made a pleasant meal of wild goat, then next day I left everyone else behind and took my own crew over to the mainland. The first thing we saw was a big cave overlooking the beach. Inside were milking pens for goats and big cheeses aging on racks.
My men were for making off with the cheeses and the lambs that we found in the cave, but I wanted to see what manner of being made this his lair.
When the Cyclops -- Polyphemus was his name -- came home that afternoon, he blotted out the light in the doorway. He was as tall and rugged as an alp. One huge eye glared out of the center of his forehead.
He didn't see us at first, but went about his business. The first thing he did was drag a huge boulder into the mouth of the cave. Twenty teams of horses couldn't have budged it. Then he milked his ewes, separating out the curds and setting the whey aside to drink with his dinner. It was when he stoked his fire for the meal that he saw us.
'Who are you?' asked a voice like thunder.
'We are Greeks, blown off course on our way home from Troy,' I explained. 'We assume you'll extend hospitality or suffer the wrath of Zeus, protector of guests.'
'Zeus? We Cyclopes are stronger than Zeus. I'll show you hospitality.'
With that he snatched up two of my men and bashed their brains out on the floor. Then he ate them raw, picking them apart and poking them in his mouth, bones and guts and all.
We cried aloud to Zeus, for all the good it did our comrades. The Cyclops washed them down with great slurps of milk, smacked his lips in satisfaction and went to sleep. My hand was on my sword, eager to stab some vital spot. But I realized that only he could unstopper the mouth of the cave.
We passed a miserable night and then watched the Cyclops make breakfast of two more of our companions. When he went out to pasture his flock, he pulled the boulder closed behind him.
It was up to me to make a plan. I found a tree trunk that the Cyclops intended for a walking stick. We cut off a six-foot section, skinned it, put a sharp point on one end and hardened it in the fire. Then we hid it under a pile of manure.
When the Cyclops came home and made his usual meal, I spoke to him. 'Cyclops, you might as well take some of our liquor to savor with your barbarous feast.'
I'd brought along a skin of wine that we'd been given as a gift. It was so strong that we usually diluted it in water twenty to one. The Cyclops tossed it back and then demanded more.
'I like you, Greek,' he said. 'I'm going to do you a favor. What's your name?'
'My name is Nobody,' I told him.
It turned out that the favor he intended was to eat me last. But when the wine had knocked him out, I put my plan into effect. Heating the end of the pole until it was glowing red, we ran it toward the Cyclops like a battering ram, aiming it for his eye and driving it deep. The thing sizzled like hot metal dropped in water while I twisted it like an auger.
Polyphemus came awake with a roar, tore the spike from his eye and began groping for us in his blindness. His screams of frustration and rage brought the neighboring Cyclopes to the mouth of the cave.
'What is it, brother?' they called inside. 'Is someone harming you?'
'It's Nobody!' bellowed Polyphemus.
'Then for the love of Poseidon pipe down in there!'
They went away, and Polyphemus heaved the boulder aside and spent the night by the open door, hoping we'd be stupid enough to try to sneak past him. Getting past him was the problem alright, but by morning I'd worked out a solution.
Tying goats together with ropes of willow, I hid a man under each group of three. When it was time to let them out to pasture, the Cyclops ran his hands over their backs but did not notice the men underneath. Myself, I clutched to the underbelly of the biggest ram.
'Why aren't you leading the flock as usual?' asked Polyphemus, detaining this beast at the door and stroking its fleece. 'I wish you could talk, so you could point out those Greeks.'
He let the ram go, and we beat it down to the ship as fast as our legs would carry us. When we were a good way out to sea, I could not resist a taunt. I called out, and Polyphemus came to the edge of the seaside cliff. In his fury he tore up a huge boulder and flung it at us.
It landed in front of our bow, and the splash almost drove us back onto the beach. This time I waited until my panicked men had rowed a good bit further before I put my hands to my mouth to call out again. The men tried to hush me, but I was aquiver with triumph.
'If someone asks who did this, the name is Odysseus!'
That brought another boulder hurtling our way, but this one landed astern and only hastened our departure. The Cyclops was left howling on the cliff, calling out to his father Poseidon for vengeance.
"We next put in at the island of Aeolus. Zeus had made him Keeper of the Winds. So when I'd entertained Aeolus for a month with tales of Troy, he was kind enough to provide a steady breeze to blow us home. He even gave me an assortment of storm winds to stow on board, tied up in a leather bag.
Nine days later we were just off Ithaca, so close that people could be seen ashore going about their work. I had dozed off, exhausted by manning the sail myself the whole way. Now my men noticed the bag that Aeolus had given me.
'Why does the captain get all the booty?' they wanted to know. 'What have we got to show for our sea roving?'
So they opened it and let loose a hurricane that blew us all the way back to Aeolus's island. Hangdog, I appeared once more before him and asked if he would send us home again. He kicked me right out of there.
Back at sea, six days and nights we were becalmed. Then we fetched up in the land of the Laestrygonians. There it's daylight around the clock. A shore patrol was dispatched to scout the countryside.
They came upon a husky young girl who directed them to her mother, the queen of those people. She proved to be hideous and huge as a mountain, and her husband was hot for blood. He grabbed the first man, tore him in half and chomped him down. The others made a break for it.
They came screaming back to the shore, followed by the entire clan of Laestrygonians. As the men scrambled to cast off, they were bombarded by boulders pelted from the heights. It was like shooting fish in a barrel. The Laestrygonians smashed ships and men and gorged on lumps of Greek.
I'd had the presence of mind to cut away the hawser with my sword, and I urged my men to row for their lives. We made it, the only ship to escape. Our relief was overwhelmed in grief for the comrades left behind.
When we came to Circe's island, no one was eager to go exploring, but I divided the company in two and we drew lots. My group stayed behind while the other set out under my kinsman Eurylochus to reconnoiter.
Before long they came to a stone house in the middle of a tangled wood. Strange to tell, it was surrounded by lions and wolves of extraordinary meekness. Hearing singing from within, the men saw no harm in making their presence known.
Circe came out and welcomed them inside. All but Eurylochus accepted the invitation. He had a premonition. And sure enough, after she had given them food and honeyed wine mixed with a pinch of something, she waved her wand and turned them into swine.
Eurylochus came running back to the ship and spread the alarm. I now shouldered the burden of command and set out to investigate.
Fortunately I met Hermes along the way. Zeus's herald warned me that I too would be transformed by Circe's witchery unless I followed his instructions. I was to accept the potion that she gave me, knowing that I would be protected by a godly charm -- a sprig of herb called moly that mortals dare not harvest. Then when she raised her wand I was to draw my sword.
Hermes gave me the moly, then departed. I made my way to the house in the clearing and Circe bade me enter. I downed the potion. Then just as she showed her wand, I unsheathed my sword and held it to her throat.
She fainted to the ground and clutched my knees. 'You can only be Odysseus. Hermes warned me that this day would come. Let me be your friend and lover.'
First I made her swear an oath.
Later we feasted splendidly and her servants danced attendance. But she could see that I was in no mood for levity. Divining the cause, she waved her wand once more and restored my shipmates to human form. She even sent me to summon the men from the ship, who never thought they'd see me again alive.
When many months had passed, the crew reminded me of home. Now it was my turn to take Circe's knees in supplication. The goddess was willing to let me go, but it was not as simple as that.
'You will never see your home again,' she said, 'by sailing there directly. You must detour to the land of Death, there to consult the blind prophet Tiresias. He alone can chart your course.'