Odysseus is most famous for his wandering adventures after the events of the Trojan War. This lesson explores his role in defeating the Trojans and his 10-year voyage home. The tale includes battling Cyclops, sea monsters and visiting the land of the dead.
Depicted here, Odysseus was one of the greatest of the Greek heroes who fought during the Trojan War.
Known for his cunning intellect, Odysseus crafted the plan that destroyed the city of Troy and ended the Trojan War. The story of Odysseus begins in Homer’s epic poem The Iliad, but his second poem, The Odyssey, relates the tale of Odysseus wandering the seas for ten years as he struggled to return from the Trojan War.Odysseus ruled Ithaca, an island kingdom. Penelope, Odysseus’s wife, had borne him a son, Telemachus, just before the events of the Trojan War began to unfold. Odysseus was favored by the goddess Athena for cunning and intellect.
Odysseus is also known as Ulysses, which is the Roman form of his name.
The Trojan War
A prophecy stated Odysseus would stay away from home for a very long time if he joined the Greek army and attacked Troy. Odysseus loved his wife and newborn son. He did not want to leave, so he pretended to be crazy when the Greek army came to call. He yoked a donkey and an ox together and plowed the seashore. One of the Greeks placed Telemachus in the path of Odysseus, who swerved to miss the baby, revealing the farce. Odysseus left Ithaca and his family to fight at Troy.
The war with Troy lasted for ten years. Following the death of the Greek champion Achilles, Odysseus devised a plan to enter the city and end the conflict. Here is where the cunning of Odysseus shone through. Odysseus had the Greek army build what came to be known as the Trojan Horse, a giant hollow wooden horse to give the Trojans as an offering of peace.
Inside the body of the horse, some of the best Greek warriors hid.
The remainder of the Greek army boarded their ships and sailed a short distance away from the city and out of sight.
The Trojans rejoiced at the supposed end of the conflict and brought the horse inside the city walls. At night, the Greek warriors emerged from the horse and opened the gates of the city to the waiting Greek army. The city was taken by surprise and destroyed. There is a common saying derived from this event, ‘Beware Greeks bearing gifts.
‘During the sack of the city, the Greek army desecrated the temples and altars of the gods, angering the gods. Upon the departure of the Greek army, a fierce storm caused by the gods scattered the Greek fleet. Odysseus and his men were blown off course, and this began a 10-year struggle to return to Ithaca.
Adventures at Sea
Odysseus and his men first landed at the city of Cicones. They attacked and sacked the city, which angered the god Zeus. Zeus caused another storm that blew Odysseus even farther off course and into a realm of monsters, witches and the dead.
The Land of the Lotus-Eaters
The first stop on their adventure is to the land of the Lotus-eaters, a people who created food and drink from flowers, but with a drug effect.
Several of Odysseus’s crew partook of the food presented by the Lotus-eaters and forgot their goal to return home. They wanted to stay among the Lotus-eaters forever. Odysseus had these men dragged to the ships and bound below deck until the ships were safely away from the land of the Lotus-eaters and the men regained their senses.
The next stop is one of the most famous adventures on the trip, the meeting of Polyphemus the Cyclops, a 1-eyed giant. Odysseus and his men stopped in the land of the Cyclops and explored the area, finding a large cave. The Cyclops entered the cave with his flock of sheep, blocked the entrance and ate two of Odysseus’s men. Odysseus devised a plan to escape the lair of the Cyclops.The next day as the Cyclops was away from the cave, Odysseus had his men create a sharpened stake. The Cyclops returned and began drinking wine and conversing with Odysseus.
Odysseus told Polyphemus that his name was Noman. Once the Cyclops fell into a drunken stupor, the men drove the stake through the eye of the Cyclops, as shown on this plate.
The Cyclops screamed and called for his brothers to come help, but when they asked what was wrong, Polyphemus answered by saying that Noman was trying to hurt him. They thought there was no danger since no man was hurting Polyphemus and left.The next morning, Odysseus tied his men to the belly of the sheep and they escaped the cave. Polyphemus felt the top of each of the sheep as they left, but he did not feel the men hiding underneath the sheep.
The blinding of Polyphemus angered the sea-god Poseidon and further caused the sea to work against Odysseus.
Visiting the King of the Winds
Following their escape from the cave of the Cyclops, Odysseus, and his companions came to the land of Aeolus, king of the winds. The king gave Odysseus a sack filled with the contrary winds that would have prevented him from sailing to Ithaca. His crew did not know what was in the sack and assumed it was treasure Odysseus was hoarding for himself.Odysseus was asleep as the ships came in sight of Ithaca.
The crew opened the bag of winds, which blew the ships of Odysseus far away from Ithaca to the land of the Laestrygonians, a race of giants and cannibals. The giants destroyed all but one of Odysseus’s ships and killed most of his crew.
Odysseus and his one remaining ship landed on the island inhabited by the Circe, a witch. Most of Odysseus’s crew explored the island and came across the palace of Circe.
She invited them in for food and drink. The crew noticed many wild animals roaming peacefully around the palace grounds. The food served by Circe was drugged, and she turned the crew into swine. One of the crew members had remained outside of the palace and, seeing the fate of his companions, ran to tell Odysseus.Odysseus set out to save his companions and was met on the way by the god Hermes. Hermes gave Odysseus an herb to counteract the effects of Circe’s drug. Odysseus overpowered Circe, and she agreed to restore his men to human form.
Odysseus and his crew remained with Circe for a year before resuming their journey. Circe advised Odysseus to seek the counsel of Tiresias in the underworld on how to return to Ithaca. She also warned him of dangers along the way.
Odysseus and his crew sailed to the end of the world to gain access to the underworld. Tiresias, the prophet, revealed to Odysseus the route to Ithaca.
Odysseus also visited with some of his dead comrades from the Trojan War, including the heroes Achilles and Ajax.
Leaving the underworld, the first danger that Odysseus faced was the Sirens. Sirens were mythical bird-like creatures whose beautiful voices lured men to their deaths. Their island was littered with the bones of old ships and their crews. Odysseus had each of his crew members put wax in their ears to block any noise, but he wanted to hear the song of the Sirens.
The crew tied him to the main mast.
The ship passed safely by the island of the Sirens. Odysseus was lured by the song and ordered the crew to steer towards the Sirens’ song, but the crew could not hear his orders and kept the steady pace.
Charybdis and Scylla
The next danger the ship needed to pass through was a strait with dangers on both sides.
On one side was Charybdis, a sea monster that caused a whirlpool, sucking ships down to the bottom of the ocean only to spit them out three times per day. On the other side of the strait was the sea monster Scylla, a creature with multiple arms that would grab sailors off of the ships that passed. Odysseus was advised by Circe to sail closer to Scylla, reasoning it would be better to lose a few men rather than the whole ship. Odysseus heeded the advice and sailed on the Scylla side of the strait but lost six men in the process.
The Island of the Sun
Odysseus’ ship landed on the island of the Sun after passing the dangers of Charybdis and Scylla.
Circe has warned Odysseus not to eat the cattle of the Sun, but when his men smelled the roasting meat, they forgot the warning and ate. The ship set sail, but the Sun was so angry, he destroyed the ship, killed all of the crew and left Odysseus alone.
Odysseus washed up on the shore of an island inhabited by Calypso, a sea-nymph goddess. Calypso captured Odysseus and kept him in a cave as her lover for seven years.
Odysseus still loved his wife Penelope and wanted to return to Ithaca. The goddess Athena intervened and asked Zeus to command Calypso to release Odysseus to return to Ithaca. Calypso released Odysseus, who built a raft and sailed to the island of the Phaeacians, who entertained him and sent him home.
Return to Ithaca
Upon landing on Ithaca, Odysseus discovered that suitors had been trying to marry his wife and take possession of his property for years, thinking he was dead. Odysseus disguised himself, entered his home and talked with his son Telemachus. They devised a contest to get rid of the suitors: Odysseus had a great bow, which took great strength to string.
Only Odysseus was able to string the bow. Telemachus announced to the suitors that whoever could string the bow and shoot an arrow through 12 ax heads would win the hand of his mother Penelope.Many of the suitors tried but none could string the bow. Odysseus, in the disguise of an old man, asked to try.
He was able to string the bow and, with Telemachus, drove out and killed the suitors. Odysseus had returned!
Odysseus was a Greek hero famed for his intellect and cunning. He created the plan to sack the city of Troy using a giant hollow horse. He is also famous for his long odyssey, or journey, trying to return home after the events of the Trojan War. Odysseus is one of the most well-known of the early Greek heroes.
|Characters ; Events||Explanations|
|Odysseus||one of the greatest of the Greek heroes who fought during the Trojan War|
|The Odyssey||Homer’s second tale of Odysseus wandering the seas for ten years struggling to return from the Trojan War|
|Ithaca||an island kingdom where Odysseus ruled|
|Penelope||Odysseus’s wife who bore him a son, Telemachus, just before the events of the Trojan War began|
|Ulysses||the Roman form of the name Odysseus|
|Trojan Horse||a giant hollow wooden horse to give the Trojans as an offering of peace; Greek warriors hid inside|
|Lotus-eaters||a people who created food and drink from flowers with a drug effect|
|Polyphemus the Cyclops||a 1-eyed giant who raised large sheep|
|Aeolus||king of the winds who gave Odysseus a sack filled with the contrary winds that would allow him to return to Ithaca if kept sealed|
|Laestrygonians||land of giants and cannibals who destroyed all but one of Odysseus’s ships and killed most his crew|
|Circe||a witch that inhabited an island Odysseus landed on|
|Tiresias||underworld prophet who revealed to Odysseus the route to Ithaca|
|Sirens||mythical bird-like creatures whose beautiful voices lured men to their deaths|
|Charybdis||a sea monster that caused a whirlpool, sucking ships down to the bottom of the ocean|
|Scylla||a creature with multiple arms that would grab sailors off of the ships that passed|
|Calypso||a sea-nymph goddess who captured Odysseus and kept him in a cave as her lover for seven years|
|Odysseus’ return||after 20 years away, Odysseus returns to Ithaca, proves his identity, and kills or drives off his wife’s suitors|
When this video ends, you will be prepared to:
- Recall the focus of Homer’s second work, The Odyssey
- Identify the major players in The Odyssey
- Discuss the many challenges Odysseus and his crew faced during their journey home
- Describe Odysseus’ return to his homeland