Mythology Mondays: 1200 BCE, a Greek Odyssey

The cunning Odysseus. The son of Laertes. The wily. The great tactician. Odysseus of many devices.

The epithet is an integral part of Homeric epic. Heroes, gods and goddesses are given descriptive phrases, in part to balance the metre but also as a mnemonic device. You see, the Odyssey and the Iliad weren’t books, originally. They were poems, oral histories, meant to be recited. And recited they were, for centuries and across continents. A bard would memorize the poems from beginning to end. If you’ve ever even glanced at a copy of either poem, you know that’s no easy feat.

But it’s not as daunting as it seems. The Iliad and the Odyssey are both composed of repeated phrases, strung together in different ways. So much so, that the actual number of different sentences in the epics are less than 50 per cent.

Thus, you will hear of cow-eyed Hera, white-armed Athena and swift-footed Achilles. These epithets would have been second nature to any listening Greek, they would just flow into the poetic rhythm.

Sing to me of the man, Muse, the man of twists and turns
driven time and again off course, once he had plundered

the hallowed heights of Troy.

The epic always opens with an invocation of the Muses. After all, poetry and it’s recitation were highly religious practices. Many plays open in the same way, for much the same reason. Greek plays, however, tend to invoke Dionysus, the god of drama.

For ten years, the Greeks fought at Troy. What started as a love affair turned into the war of a millennium, the stuff of legends. Men left the shores of Greece in their prime and returned old men. The children they left behind were now grown. The beds of their wives had grown cold (or at least most of them.) Their kingdoms remained unprotected. All while they made themselves rich in spoils and new heroic titles.

And finally, when the city fell, the men returned from Troy in a slow trickle. They returned to children they had never known, to wives that long forgotten their touch. They returned to discontent and upheaval. They returned with second wives, Trojan women. With gold, with riches. And some of them never returned at all, their bodies long burned on pyres on the beaches of Troy.

Ten more years went by. Menelaus and Helen lived in peace in Sparta. Agamemnon was long dead. Greece enjoyed relative peace and the majority of power in the known world. In Ithaca, the baby that King Odysseus had left behind grew into a man of twenty years. Telemachus sat in his father’s hall and watched his mother’s suitors, convinced of Odysseus’ death, gorge themselves at his expense. Made powerless by the uncertainty of his father’s fate, Telemachus was growing desperate as Penelope’s ploys to avoid choosing a new husband ran thin.

Athena was Odysseus’ biggest fan. Odysseus was a hero, a fighter, but more than that he was a thinker. As the goddess of wisdom, Athena was his patron. Indeed, it was her who whispered the plans on the Trojan Horse in Odysseus’ ear.

The reason it had taken Odysseus ten years to return from the War, we learn, was that he pissed off a couple of gods along the way, namely Poseidon. In the beginning of the Odyssey, Athena is petitioning Zeus to finally allow the hero to return to Ithaca. Zeus relents, and the plan is set in motion.

Back in Ithaca, Penelope has promised her suitors that she will choose one of them once she has finished weaving a burial shroud for her father-in-law, Laertes (even though he’s not dead yet.) Each day she labours at the loom. And each night she unravels the day’s work by candle light, delaying the decision in some hope that Odysseus will still return to her.


Telemachus sits in the hall watching the suitors, bemoaning the loss of his father and the fact that he himself is not man enough to lead his kingdom. Suddenly, the goddess Athena appears to him. In disguise, of course. She tells him that he must take a ship and sail to meet his father’s friends, to learn what news they might have of Odysseus and to discover the truth of his father’s Fate.

Telemachus is newly filled with vim and vigor. He puffs out his chest and talks back to mommy (“So, mother, go back to your quarters. Tend to your tasks, the distaff and the loom, and keep the women working hard as well. As for giving orders, men will see to that, but I most of all: I hold the reins of power in this house.”) Then he addresses the suitors in similar pomp. It’s true that by right of inheritance, Telemachus is the master of Odysseus’ house. But he is young and foolish and without a strong male influence (this is often mentioned in the Odyssey, Telemachus’ difficulty of growing up with a father - aka that he’s a mama’s boy) and the suitors merely laugh at him and taunt him.

Telemachus goes off to bed and plans to set sail the next morning. And so ends Book One of the Odyssey.

I’m going to tell the story of Odysseus using the Odyssey, in the same structure. If you want to read the Odyssey, I’d suggest the Penguin translation by Robert Fagles. It’s not the most academically respected, but it is the most interesting and the easiest to read. In fact, it’s the only translation I’ve ever been able to read in full.


  • By Sebastian, June 22, 2009 @ 9:39 pm

    I need to get the groundwork done… King Odysssusus (… I tried spelling it 3 times, but it’s late and…) was the … Greek king involved with the siege on Troy? As in, it was his idea to go over there and have a jolly good war?

    And his Odyssey is his story AFTER the war, right?

    Can’t wait for more!

  • By Hezabelle, June 22, 2009 @ 11:07 pm

    Odysseus was the King of Ithaca, but he wasn’t the one who led the Greeks, that was Agamemnon. The Trojan War was Agamemnon’s idea. In fact, Odysseus didn’t want to go, he had received an oracle saying that if he did he would not return until his son was grown. And he hadn’t sworn the oath of the horse, so he didn’t HAVE to go. But Agamemnon and the other Greek kings knew they needed Odysseus because of his brains, so they went to recruit him. Odysseus tried to pretend he was mad to get out of it, and started plowing his fields with salt and talking all crazy. But they knew he was faking, so they grabbed Telemachus from Penelope and threw him in front of the plow. Which Odysseus immediately pulled to a halt, to avoid killing his son. So they declared that if he was sane enough not to run over his son, he was sane enough to fight a war and he was honour bound to do so.

    And yes, the Odyssey starts ten years after the war, but covers all the time in between, the ten years Odysseus spent “adventuring.”

  • By Sebastian, June 23, 2009 @ 6:56 am

    Ah! See, the intro was pretty exciting! (That was new stuff, right? I hadn’t just forgotten something you’d already said…)

    The Agamemnon bit I remember from earlier, about him starting the Trojan war.

    Poor Odysseus…

  • By brandon tabesh, November 21, 2010 @ 5:55 pm

    yes i like the odyssey and how odyseus sacrifices a lot for hie crewmates

  • By brandon tabesh, November 21, 2010 @ 5:55 pm


Other Links to this Post

  1. Hezabelle » Mythology Mondays: Telemachus sets sail — June 29, 2009 @ 5:32 pm

  2. Hezabelle » Mythology Mondays: Odysseus and Calypso — July 6, 2009 @ 9:06 am

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