It was with some embarrassment that last month, a few weeks shy of my forty-first birthday, I finally got around to reading the Odyssey. I feel a little better after finding in the New Yorker this account of how Daniel Mendelsohn’s father encountered the poem at the age of eighty-one, sitting in on a fifteen-week undergraduate seminar taught by his son.
I’m sure the elder Mr. Mendelsohn, having been educated in a more rigorous age, was better acquainted than I was with the storyline going in. I recall learning about Odysseus’s adventures as part of an overview of Greek mythology lasting two weeks or so in in ninth grade English. Of those two weeks we spent maybe a day discussing the highlights of Homer’s epic – the lotus-eaters, Polyphemus, Circe, the Underworld, the sirens, Scylla and Charybdis. Just enough to enable us to pick up the most common references pop culture might throw at us in later life.
I knew that, just as the Iliad consists of a fairly brief episode in the Trojan War, the Odyssey covers a few weeks at the end of the hero’s wanderings, with the most exciting incidents already behind him. But I didn’t realize how small a part of the big-O Odyssey – at most a third, maybe as little as 20% or so – is devoted to Odysseus’s little-O odyssey.
The poem consists of 24 books of generally equal length, most running between 400 and 500 lines. The titular hero doesn’t really appear in books 1-4, which concern the activities of his wife and son. Odysseus is introduced in book 5 and arrives home in Ithaca midway through book 13. Which means that the odyssey part of the Odyssey – that is, the part concerning Odysseus’s voyages – consists of just eight books, with most of the seafaring action compressed into books 9-12, where Odysseus recounts his misfortunes at the court of King Alcinous, the last stop on his homeward journey.
Post-seminar, Mendelsohn and his dad took an educational cruise around the Mediterranean, visiting the purported sites of the events Homer describes. During their stop on the island of Gozo, site (per local legend) of Odysseus’s imprisonment by the nymph Calypso, the claustrophobic son elected not to descend into Calypso’s cave:
“What are you talking about?” my father exclaimed when I told him. “You have to go! Seven-tenths of the Odyssey takes place there!”
“Seven-tenths?” I had no idea what he was talking about. “The epic is twenty-four books long–”
“Math, Dan! Math. Odysseus spends ten years getting home, right?”
“And he spends seven years with Calypso, right?”
I nodded again.
“So, in theory, seven-tenths of the Odyssey actually takes place there! You can’t miss it!”
According to the unabridged Oxford Dictionary at my local library, the word “odyssey” in the figurative sense of “a long series of wanderings to and fro; a long adventurous journey” dates back only to the late 19th century in our language. The French “odyssée” goes back another hundred years, with a usage recorded in 1798.
Did the Greeks ever use “odyssey” to mean a long voyage? Not as far as I can tell (based on an hour of clumsily searching the Perseus Digital Library database). But my Oxford Companion to Classical Literature mentions that Odysseus’s tale in books 9-12 “became proverbial among later Greeks for a long story”. That seems to be how it’s used in Plato’s Republic, where Socrates introduces the lengthy fable of Er, which closes book 10, with the comment “Mind you, I’m not going to tell you an Alcinous’s tale…”
So it’s possible to imagine a world where “odyssey” came to mean “a long-winded story”. But I think any reader who came to the Odyssey without preconceptions, if asked to summarize what it was about, would say not “a voyage” but “a homecoming”.
A summary of the non-odyssey parts of the Odyssey:
Books 1-4. On Olympus, the gods are feeling sorry for Odysseus, stranded far from his wife and son. They decide that while Poseidon is away doing god-business on the far side of the world – Poseidon being the one who holds a particular grudge against the hero – they’ll take the opportunity to help Odysseus get home.
Although it’s unclear how this is at all relevant to the objective, Athena flies down to Ithaca and convinces Odysseus’s grown son Telemachus to go on a journey for news of his missing father. Telemachus sails to the Greek mainland to visit Nestor, Menelaus, and Helen, who reveal what they’ve been up to since the events of the Iliad. Meanwhile the suitors – the young rowdies who, believing Odysseus to be dead, have taken up residence in his palace to compete for the attentions of his wife, Penelope – devise a plot to intercept and murder Telemachus on his way home from the mainland.
Book 5. Back to Olympus. Athena frets that not only is Odysseus still stranded, now Telemachus’s life is in danger too. Zeus reminds her that they’re gods and they already know how this story is going to play out. But to get his daughter off his back he sends Hermes down to earth to order the nymph Calypso, who’s been holding Odysseus captive in her desert island sex cave, to let him go. Which Hermes does. Calypso grudgingly assents, and strolls out to give Odysseus the news.
Here we finally meet our hero, sitting on a rock, staring moodily out to sea. Calypso tells him he’s free to go and directs him to a grove of trees suitable for raft-building. Odysseus builds his raft and pushes off, but by bad luck Poseidon, happening that moment to return from his business trip, notices his impertinent escape and summons a storm to smash the raft. However, a passing sea-nymph takes a shine to the drowning hero and helps him get to shore.
Books 6-8. The daughter of the king of Phaeacia finds Odysseus naked on the beach. Attracted to the stranger – whose natural sex appeal Athena has magically enhanced – the princess gives him clothes and brings him home to her parents. King Alcinous takes in the unlucky traveller, tactfully declines to press him for his identity, and promises to help him on his way. At a festival thrown in his honour, the stranger out-discus-throws a local loudmouth, proving his superior quality. Afterward, during the feast, Alcinous notices his guest weeping into his cloak while his minstrel sings a song about the legendary Odysseus’s exploits in the Trojan War. The king stops the music and asks his guest outright – who are you?
Books 9-12. Odysseus announces himself and tells the tale of his wanderings – cyclops, sirens, and all the rest – concluding with the death of his crew and his arrival on Calypso’s island.
These four books contain practically everything the average person thinks of as “the Odyssey”.
Book 13. Alcinous arranges a ship to take Odysseus back to Ithaca. It arrives without incident, and Odysseus is deposited – in his sleep! – on his native shore, along with all the pricey gifts the Phaeacian nobles bestowed on their famous visitor. The ship heads back to Phaeacia. Poseidon wants to punish the kingdom for assisting Odysseus, but Zeus haggles him down to merely turning the ship and its crew to stone.
Odysseus wakes up on an unfamiliar beach and, prickly after years of mistreatment by the gods, assumes he’s been robbed and marooned on yet another desert island. Athena shows up and tells him he’s home on Ithaca, but he can’t return to his palace because the suitors might kill him. She disguises him as an old beggar and directs him to the hut belonging to his trusty swineherd.
Books 14-16. Odysseus is taken in by the swineherd, but once again elects not to reveal his true identity. He spins an elaborate fake story about how he’s definitely not Odysseus but he did run into Odysseus and knows he’s still alive. The swineherd assumes the old beggar is pulling his leg.
Athena visits Telemachus, who’s been dallying in Menelaus’s palace this whole time, and tells him to head home. Arriving safely at Ithaca, Telemachus stops by the hut to see what’s been going on since he left. He doesn’t recognize his father in his old beggar disguise, but Athena drops the enchantment temporarily and Odysseus reveals himself to his amazed son. They make plans to murder the suitors.
Books 17-21. Odysseus installs himself as a beggar in his own hall, where the suitors mock and abuse him. Penelope is kind to him, but he makes no attempt to confide in her, instead spinning another elaborate deception about how, no, he’s positively not Odysseus, although now that she mentions it people have told him they look alike, and by the way he happens to know Odysseus is alive and headed home at this very moment.
Penelope gives directions for her guest to be bathed by an old slavewoman who, by chance, recognizes her master by a scar on his thigh. The old woman turns to shout the good news but Odysseus roughly warns her to put a sock in it before she blows his whole operation. The old woman agrees to keep quiet, and to rat out any servant girls who’ve been consorting with the suitors.
Penelope, resigning herself to marrying one of these jerks, brings out her husband’s old bow and challenges the suitors to an archery contest with herself as prize – but not one of the soft-living suitors can so much as string the bow. The old beggar proposes to take a crack at the challenge himself. The suitors make nervous wisecracks but Penelope is willing to indulge him. Telemachus tells her to pipe down, he’s the man of the house and he’ll decide who gets to take part in the contest to marry her. His mother trots obediently off to her chambers, where Athena puts her to sleep until the massacre is over. Telemachus orders that the bow be given to the beggar.
Odysseus strings the bow and, to the amazement of all, nails the trick shot. Bow in hand, he turns to confront the suitors.
Books 22-24. With the backing of Telemachus, the swineherd, and one other trusty servant – and with Athena providing magical protection – Odysseus butchers everyone. The slavegirls that have been fingered as untrustworthy are forced to haul out the corpses and mop up the gore before being killed by Telemachus. Penelope and Odysseus are tearfully reunited.
Down in the Underworld, Achilles and Agamemnon are swapping tales about their Trojan War days. Seeing a crowd of healthy young souls come shuffling in, Agamemnon asks the newcomers what happened, was there a shipwreck or something? The suitors moan about how badly they were treated first by Penelope, who kept them dangling for years, and then by Odysseus, who was entirely uncool about them crashing at his place while he was away. Remembering his own less-than-warm welcome home, Agamemnon says Odysseus is lucky to have such a faithful wife.
Back in Ithaca, Odysseus goes to see his aged father, where for no reason at all – he just can’t help himself! – he launches into yet another lie about being Odysseus’s friend visiting from overseas. He feels guilty and drops the lie quickly enough though.
Odysseus and his father, son, and allies fend off an attack by the suitors’ aggrieved relatives, before Athena appears to put a stop to the fighting. Abruptly, The End.