Odysseus (pronounced /oʊˈdɪsiəs/ or /oʊˈdɪsjuːs/; Greek: Ὀδυσσεύς, Odusseus) or Ulysses (pronounced /juːˈlɪsiːz/; Latin: Ulyssēs, Ulixēs) was a legendary Greek king of Ithaca and the hero of Homer’s epic poem the Odyssey. Odysseus also plays a key role in Homer’s Iliad and other works in the Epic Cycle.
King of Ithaca, husband of Penelope, father of Telemachus, and son of Laërtes and Anticlea, Odysseus is renowned for his guile and resourcefulness, and is hence known by the epithet Odysseus the Cunning (mētis, or “cunning intelligence”). He is most famous for the ten eventful years he took to return home after the ten-year Trojan War and his famous Trojan Horse trick.
Relatively little is known of Odysseus’s background other than that his paternal grandfather (or step-grandfather) is Arcesius, son of Cephalus and grandson of Aeolus, whilst his maternal grandfather is the thief Autolycus, son of Hermes and Chione. According to The Odyssey, his father is Laertes and his mother Anticleia, although there was a non-Homeric tradition that Sisyphus was his true father. Odysseus is said to have a younger sister, Ctimene, who went to Same to be married and is mentioned by the swineherd Eumaeus, whom she grew up alongside, in Book XV of the Odyssey. Ithaca, an island along the Ionian northwestern coastline of Greece, is one of several islands that would have comprised the realm of Odysseus’s family, but the true extent of the Cephallenian realm and the actual identities of the islands named in Homer’s works are unknown.
Name, etymology and epithets
The name has several variants: Olysseus (Ὀλυσσεύς), Oulixeus (Οὐλιξεύς), Oulixes (Οὐλίξης) and he was known as Ulysses in Latin or Ulixes in Roman mythology.
According to a folk etymology the name Odysseus is connected with the verb odussomai (oδύσσομαι), meaning “hate”, suggesting that the name could be rendered as “the one who is wrathful/hated”. However, the name Odysseus is of non-Greek origin and probably of non-Indo-European origin too, while it is of an unknown etymology
In the Iliad and Odyssey there are several epithets to describe Odysseus. In Odyssey 19, in which Odysseus’s early childhood is recounted, Euryclea asks Autolycus, to name him. Euryclea tries to guide him to naming the boy Polyaretos, “for he has much been prayed for“. (19.403f) In Greek, however, Polyaretos can also take the opposite meaning: much accursed. Autolycus seems to infer this connotation of the name and accordingly names his grandson Odysseus. Odysseus often receives the patronymic epithet Laertiades (Greek: Λαερτιάδης), son of Laërtes.
His name and stories were adopted into Etruscan religion under the name Uthuze.
Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey portrayed Odysseus as a culture hero, but the Romans, who believed themselves the scions of Prince Aeneas of Troy, considered him a villainous falsifier. In Virgil’s Aeneid, he is constantly referred to as “cruel Odysseus” (Latin “dirus Ulixes“) or “deceitful Odysseus” (“pellacis“, “fandi fictor“). Turnus, in Aeneid ix, reproaches the Trojan Ascanius with images of rugged, forthright Latin virtues, declaring (in John Dryden’s translation), “You shall not find the sons of Atreus here, nor need the frauds of sly Ulysses fear.” While the Greeks admired his cunning and deceit, these qualities did not recommend themselves to the Romans who possessed a rigid sense of honour. In Euripides’s tragedy Iphigenia at Aulis, having convinced Agamemnon to consent to the sacrifice of his daughter, Iphigenia, to appease the goddess Artemis, Odysseus facilitates the immolation by telling her mother, Clytemnestra, that the girl is to be wed to Achilles. His attempts to avoid his sacred oath to defend Menelaus and Helen offended Roman notions of duty; the many stratagems and tricks that he employed to get his way offended Roman notions of honour.
Before the Trojan War
The majority of sources for Odysseus’ antebellum exploits—principally the mythographers Apollodorus and Hyginus—postdate Homer by many centuries. Two stories in particular are well known:
When Helen was abducted, Menelaus called upon the other suitors to honour their oaths and help him to retrieve her, an attempt that would lead to the Trojan War. Odysseus tried to avoid it by feigning lunacy, as an oracle had prophesied a long-delayed return home for him if he went. He hooked a donkey and an ox to his plough (as they have different stride lengths, hindering the efficiency of the plough) and (some modern sources add) started sowing his fields with salt. Palamedes, at the behest of Menelaus’s brother Agamemnon, sought to disprove Odysseus’s madness, and placed Telemachus, Odysseus’s infant son, in front of the plough. Odysseus veered the plough away from his son, thus exposing his stratagem. Odysseus held a grudge against Palamedes during the war for dragging him away from his home.
Odysseus and other envoys of Agamemnon then traveled to Scyros to recruit Achilles because of a prophecy that Troy could not be taken without him. By most accounts, Thetis, Achilles’s mother, disguised the youth as a woman to hide him from the recruiters because an oracle had predicted that Achilles would either live a long, uneventful life or achieve everlasting glory while dying young. Odysseus cleverly discovered which of the women before him was Achilles when the youth stepped forward to examine an array of weapons. Odysseus arranged for the sounding of a battle horn, which prompted Achilles to clutch a weapon; with his disguise foiled, he joined Agamemnon’s army.
During the Trojan War
Main article: Iliad
Odysseus was one of the most influential Greek champions during the Trojan War. Along with Nestor and Idomeneus he was one of the most trusted counsellors and advisers. He always championed the Achaean cause, especially when the king was in question, as in one instance when Thersites spoke against him. When Agamemnon, to test the morale of the Achaeans, announced his intentions to depart Troy, Odysseus restored order to the Greek camp. Later on, after many of the heroes had left the battlefield due to injuries (including Odysseus and Agamemnon), Odysseus once again persuaded Agamemnon not to withdraw. Along with two other envoys, he was chosen in the failed embassy to try to persuade Achilles to return to combat.
When Hector proposed a single combat duel, Odysseus was one of the Danaans who reluctantly volunteered to battle him. Telamonian Ajax, however, was the volunteer who eventually did fight Hector. Odysseus aided Diomedes during the successful night operations in order to kill Rhesus, because it had been foretold that if his horses drank from the Scamander river Troy could not be taken.
After Patroclus had been slain, it was Odysseus who counselled Achilles to let the Achaean men eat and rest rather than follow his rage-driven desire to go back on the offensive—and kill Trojans—immediately. Eventually (and reluctantly), he consented.
During the funeral games for Patroclus, Odysseus became involved in a wrestling match with Telamonian Ajax, as well as a foot race. With the help of the goddess Athena, who favoured him, and despite Apollo’s helping another of the competitors, he won the race and managed to draw the wrestling match, to the surprise of all.
Odysseus has traditionally been viewed in the Iliad as Achilles’s antithesis: while Achilles’s anger is all-consuming and of a self-destructive nature, Odysseus is frequently viewed as a man of the mean, renowned for his self-restraint and diplomatic skills. He is more conventionally viewed as the antithesis of Telamonian Ajax (Shakespeare’s “beef-witted” Ajax) because the latter has only brawn to recommend him, while Odysseus is not only ingenious (as evidenced by his idea for the Trojan Horse), but an eloquent speaker, a skill perhaps best demonstrated in the embassy to Achilles in book 9 of the Iliad. And the pair are not only foils in the abstract but often opposed in practice; they have many duels and run-ins (for examples see the next section).
Other stories from the Trojan War
When the Achaean ships reached the beach of Troy, no one would jump ashore, since there was an oracle that the first Achaean to jump on Trojan soil would die. Odysseus tossed his shield on the shore and jumped on his shield. He was followed by Protesilaus, who jumped on Trojan soil and later became the first to die.
Odysseus never forgave Palamedes for unmasking his feigned madness, leading him to frame him as a traitor. At one point, Odysseus convinced a Trojan captive to write a letter pretending to be from Palamedes. A sum of gold was mentioned to have been sent as a reward for Palamedes’s treachery. Odysseus then killed the prisoner and hid the gold in Palamedes’s tent. He ensured that the letter was found and acquired by Agamemnon, and also gave hints directing the Argives to the gold. This was evidence enough for the Greeks and they had Palamedes stoned to death. Other sources say that Odysseus and Diomedes goaded Palamedes into descending a wall with the prospect of treasure being at the bottom. When Palamedes reached the bottom, the two proceeded to bury him with stones, killing him.
When Achilles was slain in battle, it was Odysseus and Telamonian Ajax who successfully retrieved the fallen warrior’s body and armour in the thick of heavy fighting. During the funeral games for Achilles, Odysseus competed once again with Telamonian Ajax. Thetis said that the arms of Achilles would go to the bravest of the Greeks, but only these two warriors dared lay claim to that title. The two Argives became embroiled in a heavy dispute about one another’s merits to receive the reward. The Greeks dithered out of fear in deciding a winner, because they did not want to insult one and have him abandon the war effort. Nestor suggested that they allow the captive Trojans decide the winner. Some accounts disagree, suggesting that the Greeks themselves held a secret vote. In any case, Odysseus was the winner. Enraged and humiliated, Ajax was driven mad by Athena. When he returned to his senses, in shame at how he had slaughtered livestock in his madness, Ajax killed himself by the sword that Hector had given him.
Together with Diomedes, Odysseus went to fetch Achilles’ son, Pyrrhus, to come to the aid of the Achaeans, because an oracle had stated that Troy could not be taken without him. A great warrior, Pyrrhus was also called Neoptolemus (Greek: “new warrior“). Upon the success of the mission, Odysseus gave Achilles’ armor to him.
It was later learned that the war could not be won without the poisonous arrows of Heracles, which were owned by the abandoned Philoctetes. Odysseus and Diomedes (or, according to some accounts, Odysseus and Neoptolemus) went out to retrieve them. Upon their arrival, Philoctetes (still suffering from the wound) was seen still to be enraged at the Danaans, especially Odysseus, for abandoning him. Although his first instinct was to shoot Odysseus, his anger was eventually diffused by Odysseus’s persuasive powers and the influence of the gods. Odysseus returned to the Argive camp with Philoctetes and his arrows.
Odysseus and Diomedes would later steal the Palladium that lay within Troy’s walls, for the Greeks were told they could not sack the city without it. Some sources indicate that Odysseus schemed to kill his partner on the way back, but Diomedes thwarted this attempt.
Perhaps Odysseus’ most famous contribution to the Greek war effort was devising the strategem of the Trojan Horse, which allowed the Greek army to sneak into Troy under cover of darkness. It was built by Epeius and filled with Greek warriors, led by Odysseus. After Troy was sacked, Odysseus threw Hector’s son Astyanax from the city walls to his death, lest the child reach manhood and avenge his father.
Journey home to Ithaca
Main article: Odyssey
Odysseus is probably best known as the eponymous hero of the Odyssey. This epic describes his travails as he tries to return home after the Trojan War and reassert his place as rightful king of Ithaca.
On the way home from Troy, After a piratical raid on Ismaros in the land of the Cicones, he and his twelve ships were driven off course by storms. They visited the lethargic Lotus-Eaters and were captured by the Cyclops Polyphemus, only escaping by blinding him with a wooden stake. While they were escaping, however, Odysseus foolishly told Polyphemus his identity, and Polyphemus told his father, Poseidon, who had blinded him. They stayed with Aeolus, the master of the winds; he gave Odysseus a leather bag containing all the winds, except the west wind, a gift that should have ensured a safe return home. However, the sailors foolishly opened the bag while Odysseus slept, thinking that it contained gold. All of the winds flew out and the resulting storm drove the ships back the way they had come, just as Ithaca came into sight.
After pleading in vain with Aeolus to help them again, they re-embarked and encountered the cannibalistic Laestrygones. Odysseus’ ship was the only one to escape. He sailed on and visited the witch-goddess Circe. She turned half of his men into swine after feeding them cheese and wine. Hermes warned Odysseus about Circe and gave Odysseus a drug called moly, a resistance to Circe’s magic. Circe, being attracted to Odysseus’ resistance, fell in love with him and released his men. Odysseus and his crew remained with her on the island for one year, while they feasted and drank. Finally, Odysseus’ men convinced Odysseus that it was time to leave for Ithaca.
Guided by Circe’s instructions, Odysseus and his crew crossed the ocean and reached a harbor at the western edge of the world, where Odysseus sacrificed to the dead and summoned the spirit of the old prophet Tiresias to advise him. Next Odysseus met the spirit of his own mother, who had died of grief during his long absence; from her, he learned for the first time news of his own household, threatened by the greed of Penelope’s suitors. Returning to Circe’s island, they were advised by her on the remaining stages of the journey. They skirted the land of the Sirens, passed between the six-headed monster Scylla and the whirlpool Charybdis, and landed on the island of Thrinacia. There, Odysseus’ men ignored the warnings of Tiresias and Circe, and hunted down the sacred cattle of the sun god Helios. This sacrilege was punished by a shipwreck in which all but Odysseus drowned. He was washed ashore on the island of Calypso, where she compelled him to remain as her lover for seven years before he escaped.
Odysseus finally escapes and is shipwrecked and befriended by the Phaeacians. After telling them his story, the Phaeacians agree to help Odysseus get home. They deliver him at night, while he is fast asleep, to a hidden harbor on Ithaca. He finds his way to the hut of one of his own former slaves, the swineherd Eumaeus, and also meets up with Telemachus returning from Sparta. Athena disguises Odysseus as a wandering beggar in order to learn how things stand in his household. Odysseus then returns to his own house, still pretending to be a beggar. He experiences the suitors’ rowdy behavior and plans their death. He meets Penelope and tests her intentions. Odysseus’ identity is discovered by the housekeeper, Eurycleia, as she is washing his feet and discovers an old scar Odysseus received during a boar hunt. Odysseus swears her to secrecy, threatening to kill her if she tells anyone.
The next day, at Athena’s prompting, Penelope maneuvers the suitors into competing for her hand with an archery competition using Odysseus’ bow. The man who can string the bow and shoot it through a dozen axe heads would win. Odysseus takes part in the competition himself; he alone is strong enough to string the bow and shoot it through the dozen axe heads, making him the winner. He turns his arrows on the suitors and with the help of Athena, Telemachus, Eumaeus and Philoteus the cowherd, all the suitors are killed. Now at last, Odysseus identifies himself to Penelope.
The next day he and Telemachus visit the country farm of his old father Laertes. The citizens of Ithaca have followed Odysseus on the road, planning to avenge the killing of the Suitors, their sons. The goddess Athena intervenes and persuades both sides to make peace.
Odysseus is one of the most recurrent characters in Western culture.
According to some late sources, most of them purely genealogical, Odysseus had many other children besides Telemachus, the most famous being:
- with Penelope: Poliporthes (born after Odysseus’s return from Troy)
- with Circe: Telegonus, Ardeas, Latinus
- with Calypso: Nausinous
- with Callidice: Polypoetes
Most such genealogies aimed to link Odysseus with the foundation of many Italic cities in remote antiquity.
He figures in the end of the story of King Telephus of Mysia.
The supposed last poem in the Epic Cycle is called the Telegony, and is thought to tell the story of Odysseus’s last voyage, and of his death at the hands of Telegonus, his son with Circe. The poem, like the others of the cycle, is “lost” in that no authentic version has been discovered.
In 5th century BC Athens, tales of the Trojan War were popular subjects for tragedies, and Odysseus figures centrally or indirectly in a number of the extant plays by Aeschylus, Sophocles, (Ajax, Philoctetes) and Euripides, (Hecuba, Rhesus, Cyclops) and figured in still more that have not survived. In the Ajax, Sophocles portrays Odysseus as a modernistic voice of reasoning compared to the title character’s rigid antiquity.
As Ulysses, he is mentioned regularly in Virgil’s Aeneid, and the poem’s hero, Aeneas, rescues one of Ulysses’s crew members who was left behind on the island of the Cyclops. He in turn offers a first-person account of some of the same events Homer relates, in which Ulysses appears directly. Virgil’s Ulysses typifies his view of the Greeks: he is cunning but impious, and ultimately malicious and hedonistic.
Ovid retells parts of Ulysses’s journeys, focusing on his romantic involvements with Circe and Calypso, and recasts him as, in Harold Bloom’s phrase, “one of the great wandering womanizers.” Ovid also gives a detailed account of the contest between Ulysses and Ajax for the armor of Achilles.
Greek legend tells of Ulysses as the founder of Lisbon, Portugal, calling it Ulisipo or Ulisseya, during his twenty-year errand on the Mediterranean and Atlantic seas. Olisipo was Lisbon’s name in the Roman Empire. Basing in this folk etymology, the belief that Ulysses is recounted by Strabo based on Asclepiades of Myrleia’s words, by Pomponius Mela, by Gaius Julius Solinus (3rd century A.D.), and finally by Camões in his epic poem Lusiads.
Middle Ages and Renaissance
Dante, in Canto 26 of the Inferno of his Divine Comedy, encounters Odysseus (“Ulisse” in the original Italian) near the very bottom of Hell: with Diomedes, he walks wrapped in flame in the eighth ring (Counselors of Fraud) of the Eighth Circle (Sins of Malice), as punishment for his schemes and conspiracies that won the Trojan War. In a famous passage, Dante has Odysseus relate a different version of his final voyage and death from the one foreshadowed by Homer. He tells how he set out with his men for one final journey of exploration to sail beyond the Pillars of Hercules and into the Western sea to find what adventures awaited them. Men, says Ulisse, are not made to live like brutes, but to follow virtue and knowledge.
After travelling west and south for five months, they saw in the distance a great mountain rising from the sea (this is Purgatory, in Dante’s cosmology) before a storm sank them. Dante did not have access to the original Greek texts of the Homeric epics, so his knowledge of their subject-matter was based only on information from later sources, chiefly Virgil’s Aeneid but also Ovid; hence the discrepancy between Dante and Homer.
He appears in Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida, set during the Trojan War.
The bay of Palaiokastritsa in Corfu as seen from Bella vista of Lakones. Corfu is considered to be the mythical island of the Phaeacians. The bay of Palaiokastritsa is considered to be the place where Odysseus disembarked and met Nausicaa for the first time. The rock in the sea visible near the horizon at the top centre-left of the picture is considered by the locals to be the mythical petrified ship of Odysseus. The side of the rock toward the mainland is curved in such a way as to resemble the extended sail of a trireme
Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s poem “Ulysses” presents an aging king who has seen too much of the world to be happy sitting on a throne idling his days away. Leaving the task of civilizing his people to his son, he gathers together a band of old comrades “to sail beyond the sunset”.
James Joyce’s novel Ulysses uses modern literary devices to narrate a single day in the life of a Dublin businessman named Leopold Bloom. Bloom’s day turns out to bear many elaborate parallels to Odysseus’ twenty years of wandering.
Cream’s song “Tales of Brave Ulysses” speaks somewhat of the travels of Odysseus including his encounter with the Sirens. An unnamed Odysseus figure is the narrator of the Steely Dan song, “Home at Last.”
Frederick Rolfe’s The Weird of the Wanderer has the hero Nicholas Crabbe (based on the author) travelling back in time, discovering that he is the reincarnation of Odysseus, marrying Helen, being deified and ending up as one of the three Magi.
In Dan Simmons’ novels Ilium and Olympos, Odysseus is encountered both at Troy and on a futuristic Earth.
Nikos Kazantzakis’ The Odyssey: A Modern Sequel, a 33,333 line epic poem, begins with Odysseus cleansing his body of the blood of Penelope’s suitors. Odysseus soon leaves Ithaca in search of new adventures. Before his death he abducts Helen; incites revolutions in Crete and Egypt; communes with God; and meets representatives of various famous historical and literary figures, such as Vladimir Lenin, Don Quixote and Jesus.
Ulysses 31 is a Japanese-French anime series, published in 1981, which updates the Greek and Roman mythologies of Ulysses (or Odysseus) to the 31st century. In the series, the gods are angered when Ulysses, commander of the giant spaceship Odyssey, kills the giant Cyclops to rescue a group of enslaved children including Telemachus. Zeus sentences Ulysses to travel the universe with his crew frozen until he finds the Kingdom of Hades, at which point his crew will be revived and he will be able to return to Earth. In one episode, he travels back in time and meets the Odysseus of the Greek myth.
Early 20th century British composer Cecil Armstrong Gibbs’s second symphony (for chorus and orchestra) is named after and based on the story of Odysseus, with text by Essex poet Mordaunt Currie.
Suzanne Vega’s song “Calypso” shows Odysseus from Calypso’s point of view, and tells the tale of him coming to the island and his leaving.
Joel and Ethan Coen’s film O Brother Where Art Thou? (2000) is loosely based on the Odyssey. However, the Coens have stated that they hadn’t ever read the epic. George Clooney plays Ulysses Everett McGill, leading a group of escapees from a chain gang through an adventure in search of the proceeds of an armoured truck heist. On their voyage, the gang encounter—amongst other characters—a trio of Sirens and a one-eyed bible salesman.
In S.M. Stirling’s Island in the Sea of Time trilogy, Odikweos (Mycenean spelling) is a ‘historical’ figure who is every bit as cunning as his legendary self and is one of the few Bronze Age inhabitants who discerns the time-traveller’s real background. Odikweos first aids William Walker’s rise to power in Achaea and later helps bring Walker down after seeing his homeland turn into a police state.
Between 1978 and 1979, German director Tony Munzlinger made a documentary series called Unterwegs mit Odysseus (roughly translated: “Journeying with Odysseus”), in which a film team sails across the Mediterranean Sea trying to find traces of Odysseus in the modern-day settings of the Odyssey. In between the film crew’s exploits, hand-drawn scissor-cut cartoons are inserted which relate the hero’s story, with actor Hans Clarin providing the narratives.
The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood retells the story from the point of view of Penelope.
Lindsay Clarke’s The War at Troy features Odysseus, and its sequel, The Return from Troy, retells the voyage of Odysseus in a manner which combines myth with modern psychological insight.
Progressive metal band Symphony X have a song based on Odysseus’s journey, and called “The Odyssey”, on the album of the same name. At 24 minutes and 7 seconds long, it has a six-part orchestra playing in it, each part comprising about sixty musicians.
Irish poet Eilean Ni Chuilleanain wrote “The Second Voyage”, a poem in which she makes use of the story of Odysseus.
A cartoon show named Class of the Titans has a character named ‘Odie’ who is a direct descendant of Odysseus.One of the episodes, “The Odie-sey”, portrays the story of the Odyssey, with characters like Calypso, Scylla, and Aeolus, and also including modern twists.
Actor Sean Bean portrayed Odysseus in the feature film Troy. Actor Armand Assante played Odysseus in the TV miniseries The Odyssey. He had also been played by John Drew Barrymore in the 1961 film The Trojan Horse and by Piero Lulli in the 1962 film The Fury of Achilles.
Odysseus is also a character in David Gemmell’s Troy trilogy, in which he is a good friend and mentor of Helikaon. He is known as the ugly king of Ithaka. His marriage with Penelope was arranged, but they grew to love each other. He is also a famous storyteller, known to exaggerate his stories and heralded as the greatest storyteller of his age. This is used as a plot device to explain the origins of such myths as those of Circe and the Gorgons. In the series, he is fairly old and an unwilling ally of Agamemnon.
In the second book of the Percy Jackson series, The Sea of Monsters, Percy and his friends encounter many obstacles similar to those in the Odyssey, including Scylla and Charybidis, the Sirens, Polyphemus, and others.