The Odyssey in a nutshell

Odysseus travels home from the Trojan War, meeting many terrible disasters and monsters on the way, including the one-eyed Cyclopes, the dangerous witch Circe, the sweet-voiced Sirens, the monstrous Scylla and the seductive Calypso. He uses cunning, bravery and sheer persistence to get through these trials. Gradually, he loses all his men, until he is the only survivor. At Phaeacia, he recounts his tale, and the impressed Phaeacians agree to escort him home. Back on Ithaca, he disguises himself as a beggar to test the loyalty of his friends and servants. He then takes revenge on the traitorous Suitors and servants, and is finally reunited with his longed-for wife.

A summary of The Odyssey

At its heart, The Odyssey is a story about home and family, about the proper way for a society to interact, and about regaining civilisation after returning from war. The story opens in Odysseus’ home on Ithaca; it has been twenty years since the hero set sail to fight in the Trojan War, and matters are reaching a crisis-point in the family he has left behind. Unruly, disrespectful Suitors have moved into the palace to court his wife, and are running his household to ruin with their continual feasting and revelry. His son, Telemachus, on the brink between adolescence and adulthood, does not yet have the experience or strength of character to protect his home.

In steps the goddess Athene, who through the use of disguise and persuasive speech gives Telemachus the push he needs. Travelling to Pylos, then Sparta, the young man searches for any news of his father, gaining a new-found confidence and inner strength on the way. Will this be enough to prepare him to face the arrogant Suitors? Meanwhile, back in Ithaca, the Suitors discuss dark plots to murder the young Telemachus upon his return. Penelope desperately tries to keep their advances at bay, and weeps each night for her long lost husband. This is a household in urgent need of its master, but where is the absent Odysseus and what delays his return?

The story now shifts to follow the plight of the long-suffering Odysseus, who we find sitting on the shore of Calypso’s island, weeping for the home he longs to see again. The goddess, it seems, has fallen in love with our hero, and for years has held him captive. Once again, the gods must intervene, and Odysseus is grudgingly allowed to leave. However, Odysseus’ struggles are not over yet; one terrifying storm later, he finds himself washed up on the shore of Phaeacia. Here, at the palace of Alcinous, he finds hospitality at last, and is persuaded to recount his incredible adventures to the gathered Phaeacians.

Now we switch to a first-person flashback as Odysseus tells his story. Odysseus’ adventures encompass the fantastic, the ordinary, the monstrous and the divine as he faces cannibalistic giants, strange drugs, magical powers, seductive goddesses and wrathful gods, as well as the unstoppable forces of nature. After a disastrous encounter with the one-eyed Cyclops, Odysseus incites the anger of the god Poseidon, who will now stop at nothing in his pursuit of revenge. The monsters and mythical people that Odysseus meets range from the brutally barbaric to the dangerously seductive. Most represent aspects of unbalanced or barbaric societies, lessons for the hero and for the audience about how civilised Greek society should behave. Before he reaches home, Odysseus has learnt the value of home and family, the importance of respect, restraint, and hospitality, and the absolute necessity of respecting the gods. 

When Odysseus has finished his tale, the Phaeacians, true to their word, agree to escort him home. Back on Ithaca, the hero meets the son he has not seen for twenty years, now almost grown-up and ready to fight at his father’s side. Odysseus disguises himself as a beggar and proceeds to test the loyalty of his family and servants. Events race into a dramatic climax as hero and son battle to reclaim their home. Odysseus takes ruthless and bloody revenge on all who have threatened or betrayed him, and is finally reunited with his faithful wife.

 

Watch a presentation of Odysseus' journey from the British Museum