Odysseus was one of the greatest heroes in Greek Mythology. He plays one of the central roles in Homer's Iliad where the Greeks were, thanks to his ingenuity, able to defeat the Trojans and claim the city of Troy. In the other of Homer's epic, Odysseus is the protagonist. As you guessed right, this epic is called the Odyssey and it tells about the hero's ten year journey back to his kingdom Ithaca, where his wife Penelope hadn't seen her husband for ten years because of the war and was about to live in agony for another ten years. Odysseus was a son of Laertes, a king of Ithaca, and Anticlea. He was thought to be the most clever greek hero, finding neat solutions to every problem. He was also a great warrior and very charismatic leader who often inspired his men. And on the other hand, he was a very faithful and loyal husband and father as he declined immortality twice on his journey just to get home to his wife and son. No wonder that he was admired and protected by Athena, the goddess of wisdom.
In the works of art, Odysseus is usually depicted as a fully grown man solving issues in one of his quests. Either in a company of his men or alone, he is depicted on journey from the Odyssey or in the war events from the Iliad. There are some arts which are depicting him returning to his wife Penelope.
Life before the war
The myth starts very early in the life of Odysseus. When he was a young man, his mother Anticlea sent him to live with his grandfather near Mount Parnassus. While there, Autolycus, who also taught Heracles, taught him all about wrestling and hunting. One day, he went boar-hunting with his uncle and his grandfather. He was able to kill the wild beast but was also wounded on the leg by a dying animal which cut him with its sharp tusks and made him a permanent scar. This scar will make him recognisable later in his life. Anyway, as a young prince, Odysseus travelled to Sparta as one of the suitors for the most beautiful princess Helen. There were so many suitors that Tyndareus, princess' stepfather and a king of Sparta, feared that war might erupt over the hand of Helen. But Odysseus offered his services to the king as an advisor and gave the king perfect solution. On the hero's advice, the king made all the suitors swore an oath to respect and protect the union of whoever the princess would choose. Eventually, Helen chose Menelaus but Odysseus gained the king's favour who later on helped him to get Helen's cousin Penelope. When the two lovers came to Ithaca, king Laertes stepped aside and left the kingdom to his son and his bride. In their short period of happiness, they had a son Telemachus. Soon after that, Helen was abducted by Paris and Menelaus reminded all the suitors of their oath and started gathering an army to invade the lands of Troy. However, Odysseus tried to avoid participation because he was prophesied that he would not return home for twenty years, if he was to join the war. Therefore, he pretended to had gone insane by sowing his fields with salt instead of seeds, using goats and oxen for plough. But when officials came to recruit him, Palamedes put his infant son Telemachus in front of the plough which made him stop and reveal his sanity.
Odysseus in the Iliad
Once in a war, Odysseus proved to be an invaluable asset for the Greeks. Not only being a skilled warrior, he was also one of the most trusted counsellors and advisers. He always championed the Achaean cause, especially when the king was in question. He restored order and morale to the Greek camp. Odysseus aided Diomedes during the successful night operation in order to kill Rhesus' horses, because it had been foretold that if his horses drank from the Scamander river, Troy could not be taken. And after all, it was Odysseus who made it possible for the Greeks to finally conquer the city of Troy. After the nine years of battle, the Greeks were still unable to break the walls of the city. On top of all, Hector and Achilles were already dead and it seemed that the war had reached a stalemate. But Odysseus had other plans. The Greeks pretended to sail from Troy, leaving a huge wooden horse as if it was a gift for the gods for winning the war. In truth they hid their ships on the island of Tenedos, while fifty men, along with Odysseus, hid inside a horse and the rest of the army stayed hidden not far from the city. The Trojans fell for the trap, thinking that the war was over and accepted "the gift for the gods". They broke down the gate walls and brought the horse inside the city and celebrated all day. During the night, when most of the Trojans were wasted, Odysseus and his men sneaked out of the horse, killed the guards and gave a signal to the rest of the Greek army. Trojans were caught by surprise and the Greeks were able to defeat them and claimed the city and, finally after all those years, managed to win the war.
The start of the Odyssey
After the fall of Troy, Odysseus set sail back to Ithaca, not expecting it would take another ten years to reach his destination. He took in total of twelve ships on his journey in which he lost all of them and all his men along with it.
First they arrived to the land of the Cicones where his men looted the city and divided the reward fairly. Despite the orders from Odysseus, to depart immidiately after, his men were reluctant to leave and stayed for the feast. While celebrating easy profit, the Cicones attacked them by surprise, driving them back to the ships and forced them to flee. In tough battle, Odysseus lost six men from each of his twelve ships, with which he departed from Troy.
Next they landed on the island of the Lotus-Eaters. Odysseus sent three men to scout the island before deciding what to do next. After a while, when they didn't come back, he went after them and found out that they had been drugged. They had been eating Lotus fruits with the natives that were narcotic and made the men abstracted from their goal of getting home. Odysseus dragged them back to the ship against their will and tied them to the rowing benches, to prevent them from escaping back to the island.
Soon they stopped by an island full of sheep. Odysseus took one ship and a dozen of his men to check it out and bring back provisions. They had no idea it was the home of the tribe of cannibalistic one-eyed Cyclopes. While drawing the sheep into the cave to trap them, they encountered Polyphemus who refused to give them hospitality and trapped them into his cave by blocking the entrance with a large boulder that couldn't be moved by a dozen of men. Polyphemus then ate six of them and went outside to check for his other flocks. While sealed inside a cave, Odysseus and the rest of his men turned the olive tree branch, that Polyphemus used to shepherd his flocks with, into a giant spear. When Polyphemus came back, Odysseus offered him a strong unwatered wine to make him fall asleep. Polyphemus then asked him about his name and Odysseus replied that his name is "No One". The Cyclops, pleased with the wine and his attitude, promised Odysseus to be eaten last and then went to sleep. Once fallen asleep, Odysseus and his men trusted the custom-made spear into his only eye, blinding him. Hearing Polyphemus cries, other Cyclopes came to help, asking him about his trouble. He replied that " No One" is killing him and made other Cyclopes think that he has gone mad. In the morning, when now blinded Polyphemus let the sheep out of his cave, he put one hand to the entrance and with the other checked each sheep to make sure that the men were not riding them. Once checked, he spread the other arm and let the sheep go. When all the sheep were out, Polyphemus sealed the cave again to search for Odysseus and his men. However, they were already out as they tricked the Cyclops by tying themselves to the undersides of the sheep. While boarding back to their ship, Odysseus started yelling at the cave and provoked Polyphemus to come outside. He revealed his true identity to the Cyclops, in order to remember the man who outsmarted him. Polyphemus was furious and then unsuccessfully tried to sink the ship with boulders.
Odysseus and his crew sailed for a while before stopping at Aeolia, the home of the god of winds. In return for Odysseus' intriguing stories, Aeolus gave him and his crew hospitality. Meanwhile, desperate Cyclops cried to his father Poseidon to punish Odysseus. After a month, of staying at Aeolia, the crew finally departed. On top of all, Aeolus gave Odysseus a box in which he captured all of the other winds except the one that would take them home. The God told him not to open the box until they landed in Ithaca. They were at full speed towards Ithaca for ten days, in which Odysseus dared not to sleep in fear that his men would open the box. However, when Ithaca was finally in sight, Odysseus fell asleep and, while sleeping, his men, dying out of curiosity, opened the box and unleashed a violent storm which took them back to Aeolia. Aeolus then refused to help them because he realised that Odysseus had to be cursed by the gods since the chances were astronomically low that he would reappear on his island.
After a while, they reached an island where they boarded their ships on a shore surrounded by two giant cliffs. While preparing to rest and searching for food, they were attacked by giant cannibals who were throwing giant rocks from the cliffs on a sitting duck. In chaos, only Odysseus' ship was able to escape. The rest of the ships were sunk and many men with them.
The only ship, with Odysseus aboard, took refuge at Aeaea, the island of the enchantress Circe. When they landed, Odysseus sent a scouting party of three men to sweep the island and report. When they reached the palace they were invited to a meal by Circe who turned all of her victims into swines by enchanting her food. Only Eurylochus suspected her un-clear intentions and declined to eat. After seeing that, the other two were turned into a swine, he escaped and warned Odysseus and the others. Odysseus then went to confront Circe and when on his way there, he encountered Hermes. The god presented him the antidote and, after drinking it, Odysseus proceeded to Circe who was caught by surprise when he didn't transform. After intimidating her and threatened to kill her, she begged for mercy and offered herself to him. Odysseus, thinking twice and not enjoying woman's company for a while, agreed but also forced her to swear not to plot against him anymore and made her turn his men back to normal. Together, they stayed for a whole year in her palace before they eventually departed from the island. Circe accepted Odysseus' desicion and gave him advice about the rest of their journey.
Following Circe's advice, they travelled to the river Acheron in Hades where they performed sacrifices which summoned the dead spirits who were attracted by blood of dead animals. However, Odysseus and his men held them at bay and only let Tiresias to come forth and drink blood, which allowed him to experience life again for a short while. The seer then told Odysseus what must be done to pass by Helios' cattle and sea monsters, as well as how to stay alive upon returning to Ithaca. While in Hades, they also encountered Achilles, Agamemnon, Ajax and even Odysseus' mother Anticlea.
When resuming their journey, they encountered the Sirens. However, following Circe's advice, Odysseus ordered his men to tie him tightly because he wanted to hear them, while the crew themselves had to wax their ears. When they approached the island, the Sirens began to sing alluringly, promising him knowledge and wisdom of the past, present and the future. Odysseus, enchanted by their songs, wanted to break loose and was giving orders to his men to untie him, but they couldn't hear him.
Shortly after the Sirens, they had to choose a path. They had two options, one was through the gigantic rock, previously encountered by Jason and the Argonauts, which would make them either all pass or all die, and the other, which they eventually chose, was a narrow path between a giant whirlpool and Scylla. When approaching the danger, Odysseus had to choose whether they would go closely to the whirlpool, risking to get them all swallowed, or go closely to Scylla, the six headed monster, and risking to lose six men. But, following Tiresias' advice, Odysseus chose to close in on Scylla. Knowing, that six men will be sacrificed, he didn't tell the crew because they would not row and would, eventually, be pulled into the whirlpool by the strong current. Thereafter, six men were devoured by Scylla and the rest of the crew, after passing the danger, lost confidence in Odysseus.
Morale was low and they were running out of provisions, when they approached the cattle of Helios. Odysseus wanted to pass by the island but was outnumbered by the crew who refused to move on and wanted to stop by and rest. Once landed the island, Poseidon sent storms which kept them there for a month. When they ran out of provisions, men started starving but Odysseus told them not to kill Helios' oxen because they would be punished. When he went to pray to the gods, the rest of the crew took the opportunity to kill and eat some oxen. When Helios found out about this act, he told Zeus that he would take the sun down to Hades, if justice was not done. Zeus had no choice but to act and, shortly after the meal, calmed the storm and gave them opportunity to set sail again. When they came out to the open sea, he raised the storm again, sending ship back towards the giant whirlpool which sank the ship and the crew with it. Only Odysseus was spared because he refused join the feast of the sacred oxen.
He drifted around for nine days before the waters washed him to the island of Ogygia. It was a homeplace of the nymph Calypso who held Odysseus on the island for seven years as her captive lover, even promising him immortality, if he would stay there willingly. Odysseus didn' t respond to that and started crying, losing hope. Athena could see her one of her favourite heroes suffering this much and begged Zeus to help him. The king of the gods then sent Hermes with the demand for Calypso to let him go. The hero joyfully departed from Ogygia on a small raft when Poseidon unleashed a new storm which blown away his raft and tormented Odysseus once again.
Exhausted and without clothes, Odysseus was washed ashore on the island of Scheria where he was found by princess Nausicaa. She had fed him and helped him to recover before bringing him to the palace of her parents, king Alcinoos and queen Arete. They held a party to honor their guest and, while partying, Odysseus heard a blind bard Demodocus singing a song about Trojan horse. He started crying and it was then when they asked him of his true identity. When he revealed himself and told them stories about the war and his journey, Odysseus was given a ship ride back to Ithaca, loaded with precious gifts and provisions. Poseidon, upon discovering Odysseus comeback to Ithaca, wanted to isolate an island by raising large impassable mountains but was reminded by Zeus that he would also influence the life of others. Therefore, he instead turned the ship, that escorted him, to stone.
Back to Ithaca
When back in Ithaca, Odysseus could not recognise his island because it was covered in mist. He was approached by Athena, disguised as a shepherd. She asked him who he was to test him. He made up an elaborate story of being a hunted man from Crete who just escaped the pirates. Athena was satisfied of hero's cunningness and revealed herself. She told him that she helped him all along and was to help him once more. The goddess revealed the situation of his wife Penelope who had been faithful to him and endured for these twenty long years, but finally submitted to pick one among many suitors. Odysseus went to reveal himself to his son Telemachus and together they discussed how to deal with the suitors. When plan was finally decided, Athena disguised Odysseus into a beggar and the hero went to the palace, seeking help. Penelope offered him help and while cleaning him, he told her that he met Odysseus and that he is coming home soon. It was then when the old nurse. who was helping Penelope, noticed the old scar and recognised Odysseus but he quickly covinced her to keep it a secret. On the other end, Penelope had moments of bright joy and mixed feelings but dared not to hope. When they gathered at the palace, she put their suitors to the last and final test. She showed them a bow that originally belonged to Odysseus and announced that she would marry the one who would be able to shoot an arrow through the holes of twelve axes in a row. The suitors had tried, but many could not even string his bow. It required rather than brute force, a great skill to string this special bow. It was the beggar's turn who successfully strung the bow and sent the arrow through all the twelve axes. Then turned his bow and with the help of Telemachus, started killing the suitors. When all the suitors were dead, justice was presented to Melanthius and the female servants who had been helping the suitors. But Penelope still doubted her husband and tested him by ordering her maid to move their bed into the hall outside the room. She did that in front of Odysseus as only he would know that the bed is made out of oak and is impossible to move by any mortal. During the conversation, Odysseus interrupted Penelope and passed the test by telling her that. She finally believed him and apologised to him for not trusting him. He embraced her and told her that he understands why she needed to test him. After a meeting, with his people, families of the suitors wanted revenge but when Athena appeared in front of them, and told them about Odysseus suffering, peace was made. Odysseus then finally regained trust of his people and his kingdom. Together with Penelope and Telemachus they finally lived like a family.