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Homer (fl. 850 B.C.). The Odyssey.
The Harvard Classics. 1909–14.

Introductory Note

BY the ancient Greeks the authorship of their two great epic poems, the “Iliad” and the “Odyssey,” was ascribed to Homer. Tradition as to the birthplace of this poet varied greatly, but the place most favored was Smyrna in Asia Minor. It was related also that the poet was blind, that he made his home in the island of Chios, and that he died in Ios.

The siege of Troy, which forms the subject of the “Iliad,” and is the occasion of the wanderings of Odysseus, is unknown to history. Modern archaeological research has, indeed, unearthed in Asia Minor a site which may plausibly be identified with the Homeric city, and it is entirely possible that here there once occurred a struggle between two peoples inhabiting the shores of the Aegean Sea.

Whatever may be the truth as to the method of composition of the two epics, it may safely be surmised that they were preceded by a mass of legend that had in time gained a certain amount of cohesion and become in a sense national. But the constituent elements of this legend would have come together from a great variety of sources; and many incidents in both poems can be paralleled in the folk-tales of widely scattered peoples. Thus the story of the blinding of the Cyclops, Polyphemus, is found as a separate tale in several countries where no Greek influence can be traced; the adventure in the isle of Circe appears in an Indian collection of tales; the descent into Hades is told by the South Sea Islanders; and the central situation of the return of a far-traveled warrior to a wife who fails to recognize him occurs in stories all over the world. In the “Odyssey,” these and a hundred other incidents are combined into a single plot of the most admirable structure, with almost perfect unity of atmosphere, the whole being placed in the social setting of the kingly age of Greece.

Until comparatively recent times it had been all but universally believed that both the “Iliad” and the “Odyssey” were the work of a single author, who conceived and executed the whole plan of each. But in 1795 F. A. Wolf argued that in the tenth century B. C., when he supposed the poems to have been composed, writing was not used by the Greeks for literary purposes, and that therefore they must have been handed down orally and so have undergone many changes. The unity which he perceived in both epics he conceived to have been due to the art of later revisers, working upon more or less detached poems by various authors. Since his time controversy has raged over this “Homeric question” and there is yet no prospect of agreement. The extreme view that the poems are mere aggregations of separate lays of different authorship is falling out of favor; no two scholars agreeing in their analysis of the epics into their supposed constituent lays. On the other hand, it is admitted that there are clear evidences that parts of the poems belong to different dates; and the tendency is to credit the composition of two shorter epics dealing respectively with the Wrath of Achilles and the Return of Odysseus to an author of great artistic genius, and to conjecture that episodes were added by imitators, now at this point and now at that, over a considerable stretch of time, bringing them finally to their present form and length.

The twenty-four books of the “Odyssey” fall naturally into six groups of four (though these are not to be regarded as involving breaks in the structure), and a short account of each of these groups will serve as a guide to the contents of the poem. The first four books are occupied with the adventures of Telemachus, the son of Odysseus. (i) When the poem opens, it is the tenth year since the fall of Troy, and Odysseus has not yet returned to his home in the island of Ithaca, but is detained in Ogygia, an island in the west, by the nymph Calypso. Meantime, at home, his wife Penelope is beset by suitors who feast riotously in the house of the absent warrior. (ii) Failing in an attempt to get the Ithacans to help him to assert his rights, Telemachus sets out for Pylus under the guidance of the goddess Athene, who is disguised as Mentor, a friendly chief. (iii) Nestor, the aged king of Pylus, receives them hospitably; and while he is banqueting his guests the supposed Mentor vanishes and it is recognized that he was the guardian goddess of the family of Odysseus. From Pylus, Telemachus sets out for Sparta, accompanied by the son of Nestor, Peisistratus. (iv) In Sparta they are received by Menelaus and the famous Helen, now restored to her husband, and learn that Odysseus is in Ogygia. Telemachus decides to return to Ithaca, where the suitors are plotting his death.

The second group treats of the wanderings of Odysseus between the island of Calypso and Phaeacia. (v) The gods, persuaded by Athene, send Hermes to order Calypso to let Odysseus go; but at sea his enemy Poseidon, the sea-god, wrecks his ship, and he is saved by a veil which the goddess Ino gives him, which buoys him up till he comes to the land of the Phaeacians. (vi) While the exhausted hero is sleeping by the shore, the princess Nausicaa comes to the river mouth with her maidens to wash linen; and after their task they play ball and awaken the sleeper, who asks their pity and is directed to the city. This scene is one of the most charming in the poem. (vii) Arrived at the city, Odysseus is received by the king Alcinous, and narrates his recent adventures. (viii) The Phaeacians are called together, and offer the wanderer a ship to carry him to Ithaca; games and a feast are held; and at the feast the blind Demodocus sings of the siege of Troy and draws tears from Odysseus, who is persuaded to tell of his wanderings since leaving Troy.

In the third group the narrative is retrospective. (ix) Odysseus tells of his visits to the Cicones, to the Lotus-eaters, and to the country of the Cyclôpes, where he blinded the one-eyed Polyphemus; (x) of his adventures with Aeolus, god of the winds, with the Laestrygonians, and with Circe, the sorceress; (xi) of his descent into Hades, and his conversing with the spirits of the dead; (xii) of his escape from the Sirens, and from Scylla and Charybdis, and of the eating by his comrades of the sacred kine of the sun, which caused them to perish and left him alone on Calypso’s isle.

The main narrative is resumed in the fourth group. (xiii) The Phaeacians conduct the wanderer to his kingdom, but are punished by Poseidon, who turns their ship to stone. In Ithaca Athene disguises Odysseus as an old beggar, and directs him as to how to destroy the suitors. (xiv) He finds his old swine-herd Eumaeus, who fails to recognize him, and (xv) in the hut meets Telemachus, (xvi) to whom he reveals himself and his plans.

The fifth group deals with the return of Odysseus to his palace. (xvii) Telemachus goes home first, but does not tell Penelope of her husband’s return. The supposed beggar enters and is recognized by his old dog Argos, who gives him welcome and dies. (xviii) In the midst of the revelry of the suitors Odysseus has a fight with Irus, a beggar supported by their alms. (xix) Penelope, conversing with her lord, fails to recognize him, but tells him how she has baffled the suitors by the device of postponing her choice among them till the completion of a web woven by day and undone by night. The old nurse, Eurycleia, washes her master’s feet and knows him by a scar, but is told to keep the secret. (xx) Athene comforts the hero by night; and the suitors are warned of their impending doom by a seer.

In the last group the donouement is reached. (xxi) Penelope proposes that the suitors should show their skill with the bow of her husband; and when all fail even to bend it, the disguised hero strings it easily and shoots an arrow through twelve axe-heads. (xxii) The disguise is now cast off; Odysseus, Telemachus, and two faithful adherents turn on the suitors and slay them; and the unfaithful servants are hanged. (xxiii) from the nurse Penelope hears the news, welcomes her lord home, and learns of his wanderings. Odysseus goes out to a farm to visit his father Laertes. (xxiv) Hermes leads the shades of the suitors to Hades; while Odysseus makes himself known to his father; and later is reconciled to his subjects.

The “Iliad” and the “Odyssey” stand at the head of the literature of Greece and of the epic poetry of the world; and their influence in the country of their origin and throughout the European peoples has been commensurate with their artistic greatness. Historically, they give the earliest picture of Aryan civilization, describing a period of culture of which we should otherwise know almost nothing. Artistically, in spite of their early date, they are the product of a mature art, expressing with supreme nobility and grace permanent and varied yet simple types of human nature, in a language unsurpassed for its combination of directness, simplicity, and beauty. “The capital distinction of Homeric poetry,” says Jebb, “is that it has all the freshness and simplicity of a primitive age,—all the charm which we associate with the ‘childhood of the world’; while on the other hand it has completely surmounted the rudeness of form, the struggle of thought with language, the tendency to grotesque or ignorable modes of speech, the incapacity for equable maintenance of a high level, which belong to the primitive stage in literature.”