Category: odysseus

Mythology Mondays: Odysseus and Calypso

Part of my ongoing retelling of the adventures of Odysseus. Part I and Part II are previous Mythology Mondays.

Book Four of the Odyssey is the last of the introduction, the Telemachy. In this book, Telemachus travels to Sparta to meet with Menelaus and Helen in order to find out more from his father. After the Trojan War, Helen returned to Sparta supposedly happily with Menelaus, Paris and his brothers were all dead anyway. Interesting fact, Homer refers to Menelaus as red-haired. Not what you typically picture a Greek hero, eh?

Book Four passes much as Two and Three did, but Book Five is where it gets interesting.

Our hero Odysseus is “held captive” in the house of the nymph, Calypso. The extent to which she is holding him there is debatable. They are lovers, he has been there for a long time and he has only now started to “pine… racked with grief” for Ithaca.

It is Athena, again, who interferes. She approaches Zeus and begs him to let Odysseus return home. Zeus cannot agree right away - Odysseus has incurred the wrath of a couple of gods, most particularly Poseidon. So Zeus decrees that if Odysseus is to return it must be “on a lashed, makeshift raft and wrung with pains.” He has to return to Ithaca not as a King but as a man with nothing. If he can survive this last test, he can return.

Calypso is a Nereid - a sea-nymph and a daughter of Atlas. She’s imprisoned on an island when she supports Atlas and the Titans against Zeus. Odysseus has lived on her island, under her protection, for seven years. She is both his nurturer and his captor - she embodies the power of women. She has imprisoned him not with chains or walls, but with seduction.

Hermes is sent to tell Calypso that she must release Odysseus. Calypso has no choice but to obey. She is furious - she had planned to make Odysseus immortal and she believes that they are taking him away because they’re scandalized that she’s taken a mortal lover. But she has no choice. Zeus has ordered her.

She goes to find Odysseus. There is something very sad about this passage:

The queenly nymph sought out the great Odysseus-
the commands of Zeus still ringing in her ears-
and found him there on the headland, sitting, still,
weeping, his eyes never dry, his sweet life flowing away
with the tears he wept for his foiled journey home
since the nymph no longer pleased. In the nights, true,
he’d sleep with her in the arching cave - he had no choice -
unwilling lover alongside lover all too willing…

It’s not Odysseus I’m sad for but Calypso. She loves him. He was happy to have her once, but has now grown tired of her. The truth is that Odysseus, by modern standards, is not the sympathetic character in the Odyssey. While his wife labours each day in Ithaca against the proposals of other men, Odysseus is never faithful to Penelope. But, of course, the Greek audience wouldn’t expect him to be.

But Calypso, like Dido in the Aeneid, is just a pawn in the heroic journey. She’s given him everything he’d want - even offered him immortality. She loves him, and yet he leaves her.

She addresses him kindly,

“No need, my unlucky one, to grieve here any longer,
no, don’t waste your life away. Now I am willing,
heart and soul, to send you off at last.”

Right away, Odysseus accuses her of plotting against him, sure that she has some plan to kill him as he leaves. He makes her swear an oath that she will never plot to hurt him. She swears on the River Styx, as all gods must, and leads him to his raft. He floats off into the sunset. In some versions of the myth, she tries to kill herself. But because she’s a goddess, she can’t die. And so her suicide is just an incredible amount of pain for her, with no release.

Odysseus bobs along in the ocean for a few days. It takes a while, but finally Poseidon notices him. He had been promised that Odysseus would remain in exile, and he’s furious. He crashes Odysseus’ little raft into the shore, rendering him shipwrecked once again in a foreign land.

Mythology Mondays: Telemachus sets sail

(Read the first part of my series on Odysseus here)

Telemachus was woken by the rosy-fingered Dawn, and prepared himself to leave his home. He strode out and had the heralds gather the people for Assembly. Athena “lavished marvelous splendor on the prince” to impress the bystanders, and it worked. They “gazed in wonder as he came forward” to take his father’s chair.

Telemachus proposes that the Assembly vote to have the Suitors expelled from Ithaca. There’s a whole lot of shouting and rallying as Telamachus quarrels with his mother’s suitors. Finally Telemachus bursts into tears. They insulted his mommy, you see.

Book Two of the Odyssey is almost entirely fighting between Telemachus and his supporters and the Suitors. Eventually, Telemachus leaves the assembly hall, gets on his ship and sails off.


Telemachus is going on a journey to visit his father’s friends, those who fought with him at Troy, to learn what information they might have about Odysseus. His first stop is Pylos to see King Nestor, in Book Three.

Telemachus is hesitant. Athena speaks to him, in the guise of Mentor, his father’s trusted friend.

“Telemachus, no more shynesss, this is not the time!
We sailed the seas for this, for news of your father -
where does he lie buried? what fate did he meet?
So go right up to Nestor, breaker of horses.
We’ll make him yield the secrets of his heart.
Press him yourself to tell the whole truth:
he’ll never lie - the man is far too wise.”

They continue to Nestor’s house. There’s some obligatory prayer and sacrafice. Then, they sit down to eat. As is customary, they enjoy their meal in full before Telemachus can ask the questions burning in his mind. Finally, the meal is finished and he speaks.

“I beg you - if ever my father, lord Odysseus,
pledged you his word and made it good in action
once on the fields of Troy where you Achaeans suffered,
remember his story now, tell me the truth.”

Nestor is an old man now, he was older than Odysseus at the beginning of the war and twenty years have passed since then. He replies with a lengthy tirade on the “living hell we endured in distant Troy” on the suffering of the ten years of war, mourning the loss of the dead, Achilles and Patroclus, Ajax and Nestor’s own son Antilochus.

Nestor tells Telemachus of the incidents after the fall of Troy. The gods had allowed the Greeks to win, but they were not content. They caused a division among the men as to what to do next. Menelaus wanted to return home as soon as possible, now that he had recaptured his wife Helen. Agamemnon, his brother, urged the men to stay for further plundering. Odysseus and Agamemnon fought in front of everyone - Odysseus sided with Menelaus.

Half of the Greeks left with Menelaus, half stayed behind. Odysseus followed Menelaus, but when the Greeks stopped to offer a sacrifice, Odysseus decided to turn back to see if he could convince Agamemnon to leave Troy.

Here, Nestor digresses to tell Telemachus the news that Agamemnon has been murdered, and Clytemnestra and Aegisthus in turn by Orestes.

Telemachus identifies with the story and says that he wishes he had his cousin (Oreste’s) courage and could avenge his father by killing his mothers suitors. Nestor says that Telemachus would be better to hope that Odysseus would return and avenge himself, but Telemachus is doubtful. Athena, still disguised as Mentor, chastises the boy and tells him to have more faith.

Nestor doesn’t really have much more to say, he seems preoccupied with the story of Agamemnon. He tells Telemachus that he would learn more from Menelaus than from himself, and Telemachus sets sail the next morning in the company of Nestor’s son Pisistratus, toward Sparta.

This part of the Odyssey, the first four books, is often called the Telemachy. Odysseus does not actually appear in the Odyssey until Book Five. The story is non-linear. It does not tell the adventures of Odysseys from the fall of Troy to his return directly. Instead, the audience discovers those events through the act storytelling by various characters - Nestor, Menelaus and Odysseus himself.


The Telemachy provides the context and structure for the story of Odysseus, and also acts as it’s own coming of age story, the typical journey of the eponymous hero into manhood. As such, he needs the assistance of a mentor or guide - Athena’s assistance under the guise of Mentor is what give us that very word.

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.