Like Homer’s other epic, the Iliad, the Odyssey begins in medias res, or in the middle of things. Rather than open the story with the culmination of the Trojan War, Homer begins midway through Odysseus’s wanderings. This presentation of events out of chronological sequence achieves several different goals: it immediately engages the interest of an audience already familiar with the details of Odysseus’s journey; it provides narrative space for a long and evocative flashback later in the text (Books 9–12), in which Odysseus recounts his earlier travels; and it gives the story a satisfying unity when it ends where it began, at the house of Odysseus, in Book 24.
Most important, the in medias res opening infuses the foreground of the story with a sense of urgency. Were the narrative to begin with the happy victory over Troy and the beginning of Odysseus’s trip back to Greece (a journey the Greeks would have expected to be brief at the time), the story would start at a high point and gradually descend as Odysseus’s misfortunes increased. By commencing with a brief synopsis of Odysseus’s whereabouts and then focusing on Telemachus’s swift maturation, the narrator highlights the tension between Telemachus and the opportunistic suitors as it reaches a climax. Spurred on by the gods, Telemachus must confront the suitors to honor his father.
Telemachus has already begun his own psychological journey by the end of Book 1. Homer highlights his progress by showing how astounded the suitors are to be told so abruptly that they will have to leave the palace after the next day’s assembly. Indeed, calling the assembly is itself a sign of Telemachus’s awakening manhood, as Aegyptius notes at the beginning of Book 2. But even before his confrontation with the suitors, the confrontation between him and his mother reveals his new, surprisingly commanding outlook. When Penelope becomes upset at the bard’s song, Telemachus chooses not to console her but rather to scold her. His unsympathetic treatment of her and his stiff reminder that Odysseus was not the only one who perished are stereotypically masculine responses to tragedy that suit him to the demands of running his father’s household. He supplements these behavioral indications of manhood with the overt declaration, “I hold the reins of power in this house” (1.414).
Of the Greek heroes who survive the Trojan War only Odysseus does not return home, because he is detained by the god of the sea, Poseidon, for an offense that he committed against that god. At a conclave of the gods on Olympus, Zeus decrees that Odysseus should at last be allowed to return to his home and family in Ithaca. The goddess Athena is sent to Ithaca where, in disguise, she tells Telemachus, Odysseus’s son, that his father is alive. She advises the youth to rid his home of the great number of suitors suing for the hand of his mother, Penelope, and to go in search of his father. The suitors refuse to leave the house of Odysseus, but they give ready approval to the suggestion that Telemachus begin a quest for his father, since the venture will take him far from the shores of Ithaca.
The youth and his crew sail to Pylos, where the prince questions King Nestor concerning the whereabouts of Odysseus. Nestor, a wartime comrade of Odysseus, advises Telemachus to go to Lacedaemon, where King Menelaus can possibly give him the information he seeks. At the palace of Menelaus and Helen, for whom the Trojan War was waged, Telemachus learns that Odysseus is a prisoner of the nymph Calypso on her island of Ogygia in the Mediterranean Sea.
Zeus in the meantime sends Hermes, the messenger of the gods, to Ogygia, with orders that Calypso is to release Odysseus. When the nymph reluctantly complies, the hero constructs a boat in four days and sails away from his island prison. Poseidon, ever the enemy of Odysseus, sends great winds to destroy his boat and to wash him ashore on the coast of the Phaeacians. There he is found by Nausicaa, daughter of King Alcinoüs of the Phaeacians, when she goes down to the river mouth with her handmaidens to wash linen. When the naked Odysseus awakens and sees Nausicaa and her maidens, he asks them where he is. Frightened at first by the stranger hiding behind the shrubbery, Nausicaa soon perceives that he is no vulgar person. She tells him where he is, supplies him with clothing, and gives him food and drink. Then she conducts him to the palace of King Alcinoüs and Queen Arete. The royal pair welcome him and promise to provide him with passage to his native land. At a great feast the minstrel Demodocus sings of the Trojan War and of the hardships suffered by the returning Greeks; Alcinoüs sees that the stranger weeps during the singing. At the games that follow the banquet and songs, Odysseus is goaded by a young Phaeacian athlete into revealing his great strength. Later, at Alcinoüs’s insistence, Odysseus tells the following story of his wanderings since the war’s end.
When Odysseus left Ilium he was blown to Ismarus, the Cicones’ city, which he and his men sacked. Then they were blown by an ill wind to the land of the Lotus-eaters, where Odysseus had difficulty in getting his men to leave a slothful life of ease. Arriving in the land of the Cyclops, the one-eyed monsters who herded giant sheep, Odysseus and twelve of his men were caught by a Cyclops, Polyphemus, who ate the men one by one, saving Odysseus until last. That wily hero tricked the giant into a drunken stupor, however, and then blinded him with a sharpened pole and fled back to his ship. On an impulse, Odysseus disclosed his name to the blinded Polyphemus as he sailed away. Polyphemus called upon his father, Poseidon, to avenge him by hindering Odysseus’s return to his homeland.
Odysseus’s next landfall was Aeolia, where lived Aeolus, the god of the winds. Aeolus gave Odysseus a sealed bag containing all the contrary winds, so that they could not block his homeward voyage. However, the crew, thinking that the bag contained treasure, opened it, releasing all the winds, and the ship was blown back to Aeolia. When he learned what had happened, Aeolus was very angry that Odysseus’s men had defied the gods by opening the bag of winds. He ordered them to leave Aeolia at once and denied them any winds for their homeward journey. They rowed for six days and then came to the land of the Laestrigonians, half-men, half-giants, who plucked members of the crew from the ship and devoured them. Most managed to escape, however, and came to Aeaea, the land of the enchantress Circe. Circe changed the crew members into swine, but with the aid of the herb Moly, which Hermes gave him, Odysseus withstood Circe’s magic and forced her to change his crew back into men. Reconciled to the great leader, Circe told the hero that he could not get home without first consulting the shade of Teiresias, the blind Theban prophet. In the dark region of the Cimmerians Odysseus sacrificed sheep. Thereupon spirits from Hades appeared, among them the shade of Teiresias, who warned Odysseus to beware of danger in the land of the sun god.
On his homeward journey, Odysseus was forced to sail past the isle of the sirens, maidens who by their beautiful voices drew men to their death on treacherous rocks. By sealing the sailors’ ears with wax and by having himself tied to the ship’s mast, Odysseus passed the sirens safely. Next, he sailed into a narrow sea passage guarded by the monsters Scylla and Charybdis. Scylla’s six horrible heads seized six of the crew, but the ship passed safely through the narrow channel. On the island of the sun god, Hyperion, the starving crew slaughtered some of Hyperion’s sacred cows, despite a warning from their leader. The sun god thereupon caused the ship to be wrecked in a storm, all of the crew being lost but Odysseus, who was ultimately washed ashore on Ogygia, the island of Calypso.
When he concludes his story, Odysseus receives many gifts from Alcinoüs and Arete. They accompany him to a ship they provide for his voyage to Ithaca and bid him farewell, and the ship brings him at last to his own land.
Odysseus hides in a cave the vast treasure he receives from his Phaeacian hosts. The goddess Athena appears to him and counsels him on a plan by which he can avenge himself on the rapacious suitors of his wife. The goddess, after changing Odysseus into an old beggar, goes to Lacedaemon to arrange the return of Telemachus from the court of Menelaus and Helen.
Odysseus goes to the rustic cottage of his old steward, Eumaeus, who welcomes the apparent stranger and offers him hospitality. The faithful servant discloses the unpardonable behavior of Penelope’s suitors and tells how Odysseus’s estate was greatly reduced by their greed and love of luxury.
Meanwhile, Athena advises Telemachus to leave the ease of the Lacedaemon court and return home. On his arrival, he goes first to the hut of Eumaeus to get information from the old steward. There, Athena transforming Odysseus back to his heroic self, son and father are reunited. After pledging his son to secrecy, Odysseus describes his plan of attack. Eumaeus and Odysseus, again disguised as a beggar, go to Odysseus’s house where a meal is in progress. Reviled by the suitors, who forget that hospitality to a stranger is a practice demanded by Zeus himself, Odysseus bides his time, even when arrogant Antinous throws a stool that strikes Odysseus on the shoulder.
Odysseus orders Telemachus to lock up all weapons except a few that are to be used by his own party; the women servants are to be locked in their quarters. Penelope questions Odysseus concerning his identity but Odysseus deceives her with a fantastic tale. When Eurycleia, ancient servant of the king, washes the beggar’s feet and legs, she recognizes her master by a scar above the knee, but she does not disclose his identity.
Penelope plans an impossible feat of strength to free herself of her suitors. One day, showing the famous bow of Eurytus, and twelve battle-axes, she says that she will give her hand to the suitor who can shoot an arrow through all twelve ax handles. Telemachus, to prove his worth, attempts but fails to string the bow. One after another the suitors fail even to string the bow. Finally Odysseus asks if an old beggar might attempt the feat. The suitors laugh scornfully at his presumption. Then Odysseus strings the bow with ease and shoots an arrow through the twelve ax hafts. Throwing aside his disguise, he next shoots Antinous in the throat. There ensues a furious battle, in which all the suitors are killed by Odysseus and his small party. Twelve women servants who were sympathetic to the suitors are hanged in the courtyard. When Penelope, in her room, hears what the purported beggar did, husband and wife are happily reunited.