Home Page Button Syllabus / Policies Button Composition Button Grammar Button Rhetoric Button Rhetoric Button Literature button poetry button classical button medieval button Renaissance Button Vocabulary Button



The Odyssey (Mandelbaum translation):

Vocabulary: epic, epic hero, epic simile, epithet, genre, heroic age, homeric age, in medias res, laws of hospitality (xenia), mythology, nostos, omen

Introduction: According to tradition, who is the author of The Odyssey? According to tradition, what physical handicap did this person have?

Lecture or Handouts: Why do we think The Odyssey may have existed in oral form for at least 400 years before it was written down as a literary text? For what trait was Odysseus famous? How is this reflected in his epithets? Where has Odysseus been for twenty years that has kept him away from home? While Odysseus is away from home, what problem has Penelope been facing? What is a cyclops? What is the plural form of cyclops? What is the Greek custom for mixing wine in kraters? What are the symplegades?

Identify the following characters:

Athena, The Muse, Telémachus, Calypso, Poseidon, Penelope, Boreas, the Dawn (Aurora), the Lotos-Eaters, Maron, Polyphémus, Circé, Scylla, the Sirens, Hélios (aka Hyperion, aka Apollo), Eurylochus, Antinoüs, Eumaéus,

Reading Questions:

  • Book I begins with a prayer to what spirit? What is this spirit's field of influence or power in Greek mythology?
  • Why does Calypso want to keep Odysseus on her island? Why does Odysseus weep and want to leave?
  • Where does Odysseus come from in Greece? (i.e., what is the name of his island kingdom?)
  • What particular deity is always angry with Odysseus--who "preys upon him until the end"?
  • In Book I, what complaint does Zeus have about the way humans assign blame for disastrous events?
  • What epithet is typically applied to Athena?
  • What particular deity is always watching out for or protecting Odysseus? Why do you think she might be a suitable patron for a fellow with Odysseus' personality and abilities?
  • Why do you suppose Athena waits for Poseidon to be gone from Olympus before she talks to Zeus?
  • What favor does Athena ask from Zeus in Book I?
  • Who is the father of the nymph Calypso?
  • What epithet is used to describe Zeus in line 85?
  • In Book IX, Odysseus speaks to King Alcinous; Homer explains what brought Odysseus to the island by stopping the narrative and jumping back in time to explain earlier events. What do we call this literary technique when the story begins in the middle of the action and later on we find out earlier events through dialogue or flashback?
  • What was Odysseus's advice to his fellow soldiers after they sack the Ismarus, the city of the Ciconës people? How do his soldiers react to this advice and what is the outcome of their decision?
  • What epithet does the poet often tack onto the name of the goddess Dawn (Aurora)? Why is this epithet appropriate to a deity that paints the morning sky?
  • What is the primary recreation of people in the land of the Lotus Eaters? How do they spend all their time? What happens to the three crewmen Odysseus sends as ambassadors to the land of the Lotus Eaters? How does Odysseus rescue them?
  • How would you describe the state of the Cyclops in terms of their agriculture, their technology, and the quality of their education and government? (trick question) What forms the basis of their diet?
  • Odysseus and his men drink wine that they stole from the Ciconës around line 190 of Book IX. However, their twelve very best kraters of wine--the wine the Cyclops eventually drinks--come from another source. Where did Odysseus and his men obtain this particularly potent wine? Why and how might this wine be symbolic or how might its origins contrast with Odysseus' interactions with the Cyclops?
  • After Odysseus and his men have eaten their fill of goats and wine, what motivates Odysseus to lead his men further into the center of the island? Why doesn't he simply leave and sail on home? What does he want to find out? What does this desire suggest one of the weaknesses is in clever and intelligent people?
  • What gift does Odysseus take with him when he goes to see the Cyclops? How does this gift end up saving the lives of Odysseus and his men?
  • What technique does the Cyclops use to control the passage of sheep in and out of his cave? Why does this technique prevent Odysseus and his men from safely killing the Cyclops?
  • What god does Odysseus invoke as he asks the Cyclops for a gift? Why is this god appropriate?
  • Why does Odysseus lie and say that his ship was smashed when the Cyclops asks its location?
  • What does the Cyclops do to two of Odysseus' men? Why is this action particularly ironic given the Greek customs of "the laws of hospitality?"
  • Where do Odysseus and his men hide their wooden stake in the cave? How many men does it take to pick up this huge stake?
  • How many kraters of wine does the cyclops drink? Why is this wine particularly potent?
  • What does Odysseus tell the Cyclops his (Odysseus') name is? Why does this turn out to be clever and humorous? What does it turn out is the Cyclops' own name?
  • What "favor" does the Cyclops grant Odysseus after being served the wine?
  • What does the Cyclops do after drinking the wine?
  • How or where do Odysseus' men injure the Cyclops? Why didn't they just stab him in the heart? How does this connect with the way they escape the cave?
  • To add insult to injury, what do Odysseus's men take with them on the ship as they make their escape?
  • What does Odysseus do when he think he is safely out to sea? Why is that a bad idea? (i.e., how does the blind Cyclops attempt to sink Odysseus' ship?)
  • What personality trait do you suppose motivates Odysseus' desire to reveal his true name to the outsmarted Cyclops? What does this suggest is another weakness of intelligent people? How does that revelation of his name cause problems for the voyage home?
  • Who is the father of the Cyclops named Polyphémus? Why is that bad news for someone trying to sail home?
  • In Book XII, where is the island off Aeaéa located? What sky-goddess dances there in the morning and how does that let us know its location? What advice does the witch Círcë [in our text referred to as a goddess] have for Odysseus?
  • What three dangers in the sea still await Odysseus? How does this represent a tough decision for him, according to Círcë?
  • Bonus Question: What is the one boat that ever successsfully passed through the Wandering Rocks or symplegades? Look up the story of this boat in a mythological reference book online or an encyclopedia using the keyword symplegades.
  • What is Scylla? What traits make her dangerous?
  • What epic simile does the poet use when he describes the way Scylla devours the sailors?
  • What is Charybdis? What makes it dangerous?
  • What are the sirens? What trait makes them dangerous?
  • What trick does Odysseus come up with to prevent his men from being tempted by the sirens' song? Why doesn't he do the same trick for himself? Why does he choose instead merely to be tied down to the mast? [What trait does this show of Odysseus' personality and how does this relate to his earlier desire to visit the Cyclops?]
  • What normally happens to people who hear the sirens' song?
  • We actually get to hear the words that the siren sing in this poem! What do they sing about? What things do they know? What is it that they offer their listeners that make their words so seductive and tempting?
  • What location had the prophet Teresias warned the crew about? What did he warn them NOT to do in this location? What god would be annoyed if the crew violated this command?
  • What does the tattle-tale nymph Lampétie reveal to Helios Apollo? What does Helios Apollo threaten in order to get Zeus to take an action?
  • While Odysseus' crew is chowing down on roasted beef, what omen do the gods send as a warning of their displeasure?
  • When Zeus sends a storm to punish Odysseus and his crew, the wind blows them back into a dangerous area. Where does it blow them?
  • When Odysseus is underwater, gripping the mast, what epic simile does Homer use to convey the agonizing long time he has to hold his breath?
  • At the end of Book XII, where does Odysseus wash ashore? How does this connect with Book I in terms of narrative, and how does it complete the cycle of the in medias res structure?
  • In Book XXI, what scheme does Penelope have to delay or prevent the suitors from forcing a marriage against her will? Why should the bow-stringing component of an archery contest prove problematic for the wimpy suitors?
  • We find out from Penelope's memories that the bow and arrows and quiver were a gift from Îphitus. How did Iphitus die? At whose hands? Why was this crime especially horrible in Greek culture, given what we know about the laws of hospitality? How might this mythological allusion be a case of true or false foreshadowing?
  • How does the faithful swineherd Eumaéus react when he sees his old master's favorite bow? What is the reaction of Antínoüs to this display of emotion?
  • Who (besides Odysseus) appears to be able to string the bow (though after three failed tries!)
  • What servant is willing to help Odysseus with his plot to defeat the suitors?
  • Why does Odysseus want to make sure that all the serving girls and his wife Penelope are out of the archery hall and locked away in their rooms as the contest takes place? Why does he want the servants to collect all the other weapons in the house and lock them away?
  • Why does Odysseus want Philoétius to bar the courtyard door, then bolt it, then tie a rope around the bolt?
  • According to Eurymachus, why is it that none of the suitors can string the bow? Antinoüs, however, offers another excuse. According to Antínoüs, why does the particular date make it impossible for anyone to string the bow?
  • How does Antínoüs react to Odysseus' request to try stringing the bow? Why are his accusations about Odysseus being a "scrounging stranger" or "freeloader" particularly ironic, given the situation?
  • What is ironic about Penelope's words in defense of Odysseus while he is disguised?
  • What omen does Zeus send when Odysseus prepares to shoot through the lined-up axheads?
  • In Book XXII, After shooting the target successfully, what (or whom) does Odysseus shoot next? Why do you suppose Odysseus chooses him? At first, what do the suitors mistakenly assume about Odysseus's shot?
  • When the suitors look for weapons to confront Odysseus, why can't they find any?
  • When all the suitors are speechless, only Eurymachus finds the courage to speak. Where does Eurymachus point all the blame for the suitors' crimes? Why is that particularly convenient, given the circumstances?
  • How does Eurymachus respond to Odysseus's offer of single combat, one-on-one?
  • How does Odysseus respond when Eurymachus tries to convince the other suitors to cooperate in a simultaneous attack? (i.e., what does Odysseus do to Eurymachus?)
  • In Book XXIII, what does the nurse reveal to Penelope? How does Penelope respond to this revelation?
  • Whom does Penelope believe has actually come in disguise to strike down the evil suitors?
  • What does Athena do to Odysseus while he is cleaning up just before he is reunited with his wife? What epic simile does Homer use to convey the idea of this transformation?
  • What test does Penelope use to see if Odysseus really is her husband or an imposter?
  • In the closing section of the poem in our textbook, the two lovers embracing is compared to what in epic simile? Why is this particular epic simile appropriate, given Odysseus' earlier adventures?

Sample Identification Passages:

A. "Muse, tell me of the man of many wiles,
The man who wandered many paths of exile
after he sacked Troy's sacred citadel.
He saw the cities--mapped the minds--of many:
and on the sea, his spirit suffered every
adversity to keep his life intact,
to bring his comrades back."

B. "Men are so quick to blame the gods: they say
that we devise their misery. But they
themselves--in their depravity--design
grief greater than the griefs that fate assigns."

C. "Calypso, Atlas' daughter, keeps
the sad Odysseus there--although he weeps.
Her words are fond and fragrant, sweet and soft--
so she would honey him to cast far off
his Ithaca; but he would rather die
Than live the life of one denied the sight
of smoke that rises from his homeland's hearths.

D. "Men know me for my many stratagems.
My fame has reached the heavens. And my home
is Ithaca, an island bright with sun."

E. "My faithful comrades, wait for me: I'll take
my ship and crew to see who these may be--
are they unfeeling people, wild, unjust,
or do they welcome strangers, does their thought
include fear of the gods?"

F. My firm will planned a close approach, that I
might draw out the sharp sword that flanked my thigh
and strike his chest and midriff, holding fast
his liver--with my hand I'd grope for that.
But then I stopped, held back by second thoughts."

G. "Remarkable [hero], halt and hear
the song we two sing out: Achaean chief,
The gift our voices give is honey-sweet.
No man has passed our isle in his black ship
until he's heard the sweet song from our lips:
and when he leaves, the listener has received
delight and knowledge of so many things.
We know the Argives' and the Trojans' griefs:
Their tribulation on the plain of Troy
because the gods had willed it so. We know
all things that come to pass on fruitful earth."

H. "Come, suitors, stand--for you can win your prize. . . .
Whoever strings this bow with greatest ease
will be the man I follow. I shall leave
this house where I was bride and wife--so rich,
so fair a house: I shall remember it
even in dreams."

I. "You, wretched wanderer, have lost your wits.
Do you need more than this? You share the feasts
of men most eminent; you hear our speech
and words--no other scrounging stranger can
lay claim to things so fine. It must be wine
that wounds your mind--wine, honey-sweet, when swigged
in endless gulps, indeed infects a man. "

J. "You thought I would never return from Troy;
and so--you dogs--you sacked my house, you forced
my women servants to your will and wooed
my wife in secret while I was alive.
You had no fear of the undying gods,
whose home is spacious heaven, and no fear
of men's revenge, your fate in days to come.
Now all of you are trapped in death's tight thongs."

K. "Dear nurse, your words are wild. The god can drive The wisest mortal mad, or even guide a fool to wisdom. Yes, you once were wise, but now the gods have led your wits astray. Why do you mock me so when my heart grieves? Why speak wild words that wake me from a sleep that held my eyes in sweet embrace, more deep than any sleep I have known since he-- my dear [husband] sailed to Troy-the-ugly. Now go away--back to the women's hall."

L. "Yes, Eurycleia,
prepare the sturdy bedstead for him now
outside the solid bridal room that he
himself constructed; carry out the bed,
and over it throw cloaks, bright blankets, fleece."

M. "Dear heart, don't rage:
. . . . It is the gods
who destined us to sorrow; they
our staying side-by-side, the two of us--
enjoying youth and coming to the start
of our old age together. Do not be indignant
if at first I do not welcome you as I do now: the heart
within my breast has always been afraid
that there might be some stranger who would come
to trick me with his blabber; many plot
with cunning malice."

N. [He] clasped his dear, wise wife.
And as the sight of land is welcomed by
the only shipwrecked sailors to survive
when whiplash winds and crashing combers sent
by lord Poseidon have destroyed their ship;
in flight from the gray sea, they swim toward shore,
their bodies caked with brine, and now at last
set foot upon the beach, their grief is past:
so at the sight of him, there was delight
in her; she twined her white arms around his neck.

Final Food for Thought:

Explain the reason Poseidon wants vengeance on Odysseus. What did Odysseus do to deserve this vendetta?
Explain the ways in which Odysseus's strengths become weaknesses in relation to the Cyclops.
Explain how the symbolism of the final twelve lines is appropriate for the end of Book 23.


To Home Page
Copyright Dr. L. Kip Wheeler 1998-2017. Permission is granted for non-profit, educational, and student reproduction. Last updated January 5, 2017. Contact: kwheeler@cn.edu Please e-mail corrections, suggestions, or comments to help me improve this site. Click here for credits, thanks, and additional copyright information.