Page 3. " Tell me, Muse, the story of that resourceful man "

The Muses Sarcophagus
Public DomainThe Muses Sarcophagus - Credit: Marie-Lan Nguyen/Wikimedia Commons
Here, Homer is asking for inspiration from Calliope, the Muse of epic poetry. In Greek mythology, the Muses were the goddesses who provided inspiration for musicians, artists, philosophers, writers and other creative thinkers.

An invocation such as this was a traditional way for an epic poem to begin; the bard is asking for divine assistance in performing the story to as high a standard as possible.

Page 3. " All the survivors of the war "
The Trojan War - The death of Priam, King of Troy. Detail of an Attic black-figure amphora, ca. 520 BC–510 BC.
Public DomainThe Trojan War - The death of Priam, King of Troy. Detail of an Attic black-figure amphora, ca. 520 BC–510 BC. - Credit: Marie-Lan Nguyen/Wikimedia Commons
The Fall of Troy
Public DomainThe Fall of Troy - Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The war being referred to here is the Trojan War, in which an army of united Greeks sailed to Troy to retrieve Menelaus' wife Helen, whom the Trojan prince Paris had taken. The war lasted ten years, fought outside the city walls. Homer’s earlier epic, The Iliad, dealt with events surrounding the anger of the hero Achilles during this war. The story of Troy has been a favourite subject matter of writers and artists ever since.

We meet both Helen and Menelaus in Book 4 of The Odyssey, when we will hear a little more about Helen's role in the war.

At this stage of the poem, it has been ten years since the Greek survivors from Troy reached their homes, but there is still no sign of Odysseus. His wife, Penelope, has now been parted from her husband for twenty years since he set sail to fight at Troy.

Page 4. " Consider Aegisthus "
Orestes kills Aegisthus, Apulian red-figure oinochoe (wine jug), ca.430-300 BC
Public DomainOrestes kills Aegisthus, Apulian red-figure oinochoe (wine jug), ca.430-300 BC - Credit: Marie-Lan Nguyen/Wikimedia Commons

Aegisthus was the cousin of Agamemnon and Menelaus. While Agamemnon was occupied in Troy, Aegisthus usurped the rule of his kingdom and slept with his wife, Clytaemnestra. When Agamemnon returned from war, it was to find the two lying in wait, plotting his death. As Zeus mentions in this speech, Orestes, son of Agamemnon, grew up to avenge his father’s death. This story is just one small piece of a larger web of suffering and destruction spun around the House of Atreus.

Homer will use the death of Agamemnon and the revenge of Orestes as a recurring theme throughout The Odyssey. The figure of Clytaemnestra as scheming, adulterant murderess, contrasts powerfully with the character of Penelope, the faithful, enduring wife. Orestes also represents a model of filial piety for Telemachus to imitate. Telemachus, it is implied, should take Orestes’ example to heart in his dealings with the arrogant Suitors.

Page 4. " Zeus now addressed the immortals "
The Olympian gods, by Monsiau (1754 - 1837)
Public DomainThe Olympian gods, by Monsiau (1754 - 1837) - Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Zeus was the king of the Greek pantheon of gods. The main gods of Greek mythology were:

Zeus (sky)

Hera (women, marriage, home and hearth)

Poseidon (sea, earthquakes and horses)

Ares (war)

Aphrodite (love, sex and beauty)

Athene (wisdom)

Apollo (archery, culture, music, prophecy, healing)

Artemis (hunting, fertility, childbirth)

Hephaestus (metal, artisans, blacksmithing, volcanoes)

Dionysus (wine, revelry, theatre)

Demeter (crops)

Hermes (messenger, guide of the dead, travellers and boundaries)

Hades (death). Hades does not dwell with the other Olympians; his realm is the Underworld.

It is recommended for any readers unfamiliar with the Greek gods to read a little of their mythology before continuing with The Odyssey.

Page 4. " The goddess of the flashing eyes, Athene "


Athene was the daughter of Zeus and goddess of wisdom in the Greek Pantheon. Though not officially a war goddess, she is associated with strategy, planning and victory. Other associations include craft, civilisation and justice.

Athene is an extremely important deity in The Odyssey because of her connection to and fondness for Odysseus. Odysseus is a different kind of hero from the burly warriors of The Iliad or other Greek mythology. Odysseus uses his wits, daring and cunning to get himself out of (and into!) trouble. It is therefore natural that Athene, goddess of wisdom and stratagems, should feel a strong personal affinity with this mortal man.


Throughout The Odyssey, the reader will come across hundreds of these descriptive phrases attached to certain characters or places. These are epithets, and Homer is extremely fond of them. Epithets are often repeated, so characters and places tend to be associated with specific traits. So, Athene has flashing eyes, Menelaus is always ‘the auburn haired Menelaus,’ the sea is often ‘wine-dark’, and Pylos is always ‘sandy’. Epithets are just one of the narrative techniques used by Homer that are indicative of oral tradition. The use of these formulae is particularly characteristic of epic poetry.

Page 5. " Meanwhile I myself will go to Ithaca to instil more spirit into Odysseus’ son and encourage him to call the long-haired Achaeans to an assembly and speak his mind to that crowd of Suitors who spend their time in the wholesale slaughter of his jostling sheep and his shambling cattle with their twisted horns "
A man playing the lyre, red-figure lekythos, 470–60 BC
Creative Commons AttributionA man playing the lyre, red-figure lekythos, 470–60 BC - Credit: Marie-Lan Nguyen/Wikimedia Commons
Rambling lines such as this may seem strange at first. However, when read aloud, we can instantly hear the rhythmic quality of this sentence. It sounds almost like a chant, and that is because it is a song. The Odyssey was an oral epic meant to be performed, written in dactylic hexameter in the original Greek.

To hear Stanley Lombardo read a passage from Homer's earlier epic The Iliad in the original Greek, click on this link.

To hear the opening of Virgil's Aeneid read in the original Latin, click on this link. Listen for similarities in feel and rhythm between the two, both of which were written in dactylic hexameter, the same meter as The Odyssey.

Page 6. " blending wine and water in the mixing-bowls "
Krater (mixing bowl) for mixing water and wine. Red-figure. 450–425 BC
Creative Commons AttributionKrater (mixing bowl) for mixing water and wine. Red-figure. 450–425 BC - Credit: Marie-Lan Nguyen/Wikimedia Commons
The ancient Greeks considered it barbaric and vulgar to drink wine undiluted. They diluted their wine with water, usually to a ratio of 1:3.
Page 9. " For in that case the whole Achaean nation "

Achaeans, Argives and Danaans are all names for Greek peoples. When reading The Odyssey they can generally be understood as meaning 'Greeks.'

Page 12. " Making decisions must be men's concern "

Women in the Gynaeceum (women's quarters), red-figure pyxis, ca.430 BC
Public DomainWomen in the Gynaeceum (women's quarters), red-figure pyxis, ca.430 BC - Credit: Marie-Lan Nguyen/Wikimedia Commons
Telemachus ordering his mother to her room and telling her to leave the decisions to the men might seem shocking to a modern audience. To the ancient Greeks, however, this would have been perfectly acceptable and proper. In ancient Greek society, women were not the equals of men, lived in separate sections of the house, and were supposed to concern themselves with female pursuits such as weaving at the loom. The reason Penelope is taken aback is not because she has been put in her place, but because her meek son is finally beginning to stand up for himself.

Page 15. " As soon as dawn appeared, fresh and rosy-fingered "
Eos, goddess of the dawn
Public DomainEos, goddess of the dawn - Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Dawn (Eos) was a goddess in Greek mythology. Most natural features and phenomena were anthropomorphised in this way by the Greeks and Romans.

This is also one of the most often repeated, as well as the more famous lines of The Odyssey. Bards used the repetition of certain formulaic phrases as a technique to aid them when performing oral epic poetry.

Page 17. " It is a shroud for Lord Laertes "
The funeral and mourning of Achilles, Corinthian black-figure hydria,560–50 BC
Public DomainThe funeral and mourning of Achilles, Corinthian black-figure hydria,560–50 BC - Credit: Bibi Saint-Pol/Wikimedia Commons
Penelope is weaving a funeral shroud for Odysseus' father, Laertes. This was a vital role for a Greek woman, who was expected not only to take care of domestic duties in the household, but also to participate in mourning rituals. Burial, with proper funeral rites and mourning, was incredibly important to the Greeks. For a family to shirk these responsibilities would have been considered the height of shameful behaviour.

Click here for a presentation on Greek women weaving and spinning from the British Museum.

Page 18. " because my mother as she left would call down on me the avenging Furies "
The Furies pursue Orestes
Public DomainThe Furies pursue Orestes - Credit: Wikimedia Commons

In Greek mythology, the Furies (or Erinyes) were goddesses of vengeance who pursued and punished perpetrators of terrible crimes, usually those involving kin against kin. To kill or harm one’s own mother would have been considered a despicable crime against the very nature of the world.

Page 18. " In answer to his words, Zeus the Thunderer urged two eagles into flight from the mountain-top "
An eagle in flight - an omen from Zeus?
GNU Free Documentation LicenseAn eagle in flight - an omen from Zeus? - Credit: Artur Mikołajewski/Wikimedia Commons
The ancient Greeks believed that portents and signs could be read in the natural world, such as in the flight of birds or the entrails of animals. When something significant was seen to happen, such as the two eagles fighting in this passage, they saw it as an omen from the gods, something that was intended to warn or prepare them. Zeus, in particular, was associated with these signs.
Page 25. " The men cast the hawsers off, climbed in, and took their places at their oars "

Greek Ship
Public DomainGreek Ship - Credit: Poecus/Wikimedia Commons
The hawsers were the thick ropes used to moor the ship. Homeric ships are described as swift and hollow, meaning that there was no ‘below deck’ or living quarters on board. Instead, the men would camp on shore at night, dragging their ships onto the beach. This meant that it was more practical to sail close to the coast at all times, rather than venture far out into open sea. Homeric ships had both sails and oars, and are described as having black hulls.


Dionysus on a Greek Ship. Cup Interior. ca.530 BC
GNU Free Documentation LicenseDionysus on a Greek Ship. Cup Interior. ca.530 BC - Credit: MatthiasKabel, own work, 2006-01-28/Wikimedia Commons