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.
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.
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.
Zeus was the king of the Greek pantheon of gods. The main gods of Greek mythology were:
Hera (women, marriage, home and hearth)
Poseidon (sea, earthquakes and horses)
Aphrodite (love, sex and beauty)
Apollo (archery, culture, music, prophecy, healing)
Artemis (hunting, fertility, childbirth)
Hephaestus (metal, artisans, blacksmithing, volcanoes)
Dionysus (wine, revelry, theatre)
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.
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.
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.
Achaeans, Argives and Danaans are all names for Greek peoples. When reading The Odyssey they can generally be understood as meaning 'Greeks.'
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.
Click here for a presentation on Greek women weaving and spinning from the British Museum.
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.