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Plot Outline for Homer's Odyssey
by John Porter


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The Odyssey is a somewhat shorter work than the Iliad (12,110 lines) and seemingly lighter in tone. It too is divided into 24 books. The Odyssey tells of the struggles of the Greek hero Odysseus to return home from Troy and regain his position as king of Ithaca, an island off the west coast of Greece. Unlike the darkly tragic Achilles, Odysseus is much more the cunning hero of folktale, a survivor who is forced to deal with a series of monsters and supernatural creatures. The challenges facing Odysseus are two-fold, but both require cunning and finesse of the poem's hero. On the one hand, he has to negotiate the various dangers and temptations that confront him in the course of his wanderings as he attempts to make his way home from Troy. The situation in Ithaca itself is equally problematic, however: in the course of his twenty-year absence, a group of suitors has gathered at Odysseus' palace seeking the hand of his wife Penelope and, with it, the throne of Ithaca. The suitors have established themselves in the palace and refuse to depart until Penelope accepts one of them as her husband. Neither Penelope nor Odysseus' son Telemachus (who is just on the verge of adulthood) are able to compel the suitors to leave. As a result, Odysseus must confront a double danger upon reaching Ithaca: as part of their ambitious schemes, the suitors are openly seeking his death; on the other hand, the experience of Agamemnon (who was murdered by his adulterous wife Clytemnestra upon his return from Troy) has warned Odysseus to take care to test Penelope's loyalty as well.

Books 1-4 deal with the youthful Telemachus' attempt to ascertain his father's fate. Guided by Athena, Telemachus journeys to the Greek mainland to visit Nestor, king of Pylos, and Menelaus, king of Sparta and husband of Helen. Neither can tell him anything specific about Odysseus' current whereabouts, but Menelaus relates a prophesy that promises Odysseus' eventual return. Book 5 turns to Odysseus himself, who has been stranded for some years on the island of the sorceress-goddess Calypso ("the hider"), who wishes to keep Odysseus as her lover. The messenger-god Hermes is sent by Zeus to command Calypso to release Odysseus: he builds a raft and nearly makes it home before the sea-god Poseidon (who is angry at Odysseus for reasons we will see in a moment) raises a storm that whips him away helplessly to the land of the Phaeacians, a blessed people who live in cultured ease on a mystical island. There Odysseus is graciously received by the youthful princess Nausicaä (who clearly sees him as potential husband) and, subsequently, by her parents, the pious king Alcinoös and queen Arete. Eventually, Odysseus' identity is revealed and he gives a lengthy narration (Books 9-12) of his adventures upon leaving Troy.

Among the various trials he faced: the Lotus-Eaters, who kindly offer his men some of the magical lotus plant, which immediately reduces anyone who tastes it to a state of blissful torpor and makes them forget all else; the Cyclops, a one-eyed giant who traps Odysseus and his men in his cave and begins to devour them raw, one-by-one, until he is eventually blinded by Odysseus: as a result, the Cyclops prays to his father Poseidon to bring revenge on the hero and his men — the source of Poseidon's anger mentioned above; Aeolus, king of the winds, who traps the adverse winds in a bag, thereby assuring Odysseus of a swift return home, until his crew (thinking there is wealth in the bag) open it and send Odysseus' ships careening back to where they had begun; the Laestrygonians, a race of savage giants who destroy all of Odysseus' fleet except the ship on which he is sailing; the enchantress-goddess Circe, who magically transforms Odysseus' men into pigs until Odysseus (who has been warned in advance by Hermes and given a magic herb to protect him) defeats and beds her; the land of the dead, where Odysseus consults the spirit of the Greek seer Teiresias and meets the souls of various Greek heroes, who warn him about the situation back in Ithaca; the Sirens, who sing a magically alluring song that lures sailors to their doom; Scylla and Charybdis, a man-eating monster and deadly whirlpool between which Odysseus must sail; the Island of the Sun, where Odysseus and his men are marooned: faced with starvation, Odysseus' crew defy his commands and slaughter some of the sacred cattle of Sun, thereby assuring their doom in a subsequent shipwreck; Odysseus survives, and finds himself on the island of Calypso, who holds him prisoner as her mortal lover — the point where Odysseus' tale began.

Having told his tale, Odysseus begs for assistance in returning home, using great tact in declining the implied erotic interest of Nausicaä. The Phaeacians conduct him to Ithaca on one of their magical ships and thus Book 13 (the middle of the poem) finds the hero confronting the second element of his trials, the situation in Ithaca. Having been magically disgused by Athena, he bands together with a loyal servant Eumaeus and his son Telemachus. He enters the palace disguised as a beggar and witnesses first-hand the treacherous arrogance of the Suitors. Finally, he and Telemachus slaughter the Suitors (Book 22); Odysseus is restored as the lawful ruler of Ithaca and is reunited with Penelope.



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Last Modified: Monday, 08-May-2006 16:10:35 CST
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