The Odyssey

"The Odyssey"

Teacher's Guide
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It's been nearly three thousand years since The Iliad and The Odyssey were composed, and they're still among the most read and celebrated stories of all time. Despite their tremendous fame, almost nothing is known of their author or if a single author even existed. There may have been a blind poet named Homer. Or these stories may have had multiple authors. Just imagine if there were multiple authors who spoke Greek over beats. In any event, these stories were passed down orally for hundreds of years before they were ever written down. Western civilization tends to treat oral works differently than the written word. So it may be useful to think of The Odyssey as a story that your friend is telling you, instead of as a novel or history book.

The Odyssey is an epic, a long narrative poem that concerns heroic deeds, a journey or a conquest. Many ancient epics were in the oral tradition. When you pass down a poem orally, every experience with that poem is a social experience. Almost like sharing a book on Facebook. Except different.
The Odyssey is the sequel to Homer's The Iliad. The Iliad tells the story of Helen, a beautiful Greek queen who is abducted by the Trojans. The Greeks take the battle for Helen to Troy and siege the city. Odysseus, King of Ithaca, is their skilled commander, both cunning and brave.

Achilles, a good-looking and ferocious warrior for the Greeks, was killed by a wound to the heel. It was later claimed that his whole body was invulnerable except for his heels.

The Greeks won the war in part by sneaking into Troy in a giant wooden horse, which the Trojans thought was a peace offering.

The Odyssey picks up where The Iliad left off, though the story is not told chronologically. Odysseus, weary from battle, wants nothing more than to return to his kingdom. What should have been a short trip turns into an epic adventure.

The Fates (Moirae) were not just an idea or a concept in Greek mythology. They were thought of as living versions of an idea. The Greeks imagined the Fates as three ladies, dressed in white robes, who controlled the path of every mortal being from birth to death.

On one of the first islands where the winds send Odysseus's ship, the locals hand out an intoxicating fruit made from the lotus. When his men eat the fruit, they forget their homes and want nothing more than to sit on the island and eat fruit forever. Odysseus, fearful of so powerful a drug, drags his men back to the boat.

Odysseus is equal parts brave and cunning. When he finds himself trapped in the Cyclops's cave, he hatches a plan. First he gets the Cyclops drunk. Then he tells the monster that his name is "Nobody." When the Cyclops falls asleep, Odysseus stabs him in the eye, and the monster wakes up with a shriek. His neighbors come to see what's the matter, but they leave when they hear him yell, "Nobody's killing me!" Abbot and Costello owe Homer their careers.

The blinded Cyclops can't find Odysseus and his men. Though the Cyclops doesn't want to let them escape, he needs to open his door to let his sheep out to pasture. As the animals pass by, he touches them to see if they're really sheep or if Odysseus is trying to escape. So the hero and his men cling to the undersides of the animals to sneak by. It's like a super gross slow dance.

A very prominent Greek scholar recently pointed out to us that it was actually sheep that Odysseus and his men clung to as they escaped. Not goats.

After a frustratingly close journey toward Ithaca, our hero's ship gets turned around once again, and he ends up on Aeaea, home of the beautiful witch-goddess Circe. Circe drugs a bunch of Odysseus's men and turns them to pigs. Hermes (the Greek messenger God) gives Odysseus a sort of vaccine. Odysseus follows Hermes's instructions, fights Circe and turns the pigs back into men.

Even though Circe just tried to kill him, Odysseus decides to spend a year as her lover on the island. They live a life of Mediterranean luxury and relaxation. Meanwhile, Penelope is back home, worrying about her lost husband and being as faithful as ever.

In the realm of the dead, Odysseus speaks with the souls of many people he knew in life: his old battle buddies and even his mother. Odysseus is surprised to find the spirit of Achilles so upset. He tells Achilles that he was revered as a god when he was alive and that even down here it's clear he rules over the dead. Achilles replies with a famous line:

"By god, I'd rather slave on earth for another man-some dirt-poor tenant farmer who scrapes to keep alive-than rule down here over all the breathless dead."

The Sirens are a group of three deadly bird-women who seduce nearby sailors with their enchanting singing. Sailors blindly follow the enticing melodies, until the fatal truth comes out: the Sirens eat them.

Odysseus gives all of his men earplugs (or the Ancient Greek equivalent) and has them tie him to the mast. He wants to hear the song, but doesn't want to be eaten. He hears the song and yells at his men to untie him, but they sensibly ignore him.

Athena, the goddess of wisdom, strength and a bunch of other cool stuff, has a special relationship with Odysseus. Perhaps because she sees herself in mortal Odysseus, Athena favors him. She helps him whenever possible, ultimately allowing him to get home. Athena rubs this in the face of Poseidon, who hates Odysseus for stabbing his son the Cyclops.

This is where The Odyssey actually begins. Everything that came before is what Odysseus recounts to the Phaeacians (the people on the next island).

The Colossus of Rhodes was a giant statue of a Greek Titan in the city of Rhodes. It is considered one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. It was destroyed in an earthquake not long after it was built.

Penelope has a hunch that the newly arrived beggar may in fact be her long-lost husband. Knowing that her husband is an amazing archer, Penelope organizes an archery contest and promises to marry a man who can accomplish an amazing series of archery shots.

All of the suitors attempt to win the archery contest, but none are able to make the shot. Odysseus does, easily. He then turns his bow on the suitors. They look to escape, but the doors have been locked. Odysseus and his son kill them all.

Odysseus reveals himself to everyone and reunites with his Penelope at last. A happy ending to a long odyssey.

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