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Odysseus and His Journeys

Sasha Blakeley, Trenton Mabey, Cailin Roles
  • Author
    Sasha Blakeley

    Sasha Blakeley has a Bachelor's in English Literature from McGill University and a TEFL certification. She has been teaching English in Canada and Taiwan for seven years.

  • Instructor
    Trenton Mabey

    Trenton has a master's degree in global history and has developed college Asian history courses.

  • Expert Contributor
    Cailin Roles

    Cailin received her MA in English specializing in Cultural Studies from Kansas State University. She has two years of teaching and tutoring experience at the university level.

Odysseus' story is one of the most famous tales from Greek mythology. Learn about Odysseus' journey, the adventures of Odysseus, and how Odysseus finally got home. Updated: 10/21/2021

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Who Is Odysseus?

Who is Odysseus? Odysseus is an important character in Greek mythology. He is a major character in Homer's Iliad and the protagonist of the Odyssey. The island where Odysseus is from is called Ithaca; he is the king of the island before he has to leave to fight in the Trojan War. Odysseus' father is called Laertes and his mother is called Anticlea. Odysseus' wife is Penelope and his son is Telemachus, but he is separated from both of them for twenty years during the Trojan War and during his arduous journey home. He is favored by Athena because of his cunning and wisdom; because of this, she helps him over the course of his adventures.

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  • 0:48 The Trojan War
  • 2:43 The Land of the Lotus-Eaters
  • 3:14 Cyclops & King of the Winds
  • 5:18 Circe & The Underworld
  • 7:16 Charybdis and Schylla
  • 8:18 Calypso & Return to Ithaca
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What Did Odysseus Do in the Iliad?

The Iliad is an epic poem about the mythical Trojan War, but what did Odysseus do during the Trojan War? Odysseus joined the Greek war effort to bring Helen of Sparta back to her husband Menelaus because, prior to Menelaus and Helen's marriage, Odysseus was one of Helen's many suitors. During the war, Odysseus was known as a particularly cunning strategist who helped the Greek forces achieve victory.

After the death of the Greek hero Achilles, Odysseus came up with a plan to allow the Greeks to sack the city of Troy. At Odysseus' instruction, the Greeks built a large, hollow wooden horse. They presented this horse to the Trojans in the guise of a gift, but once the horse was inside the city, Greek soldiers burst out of it and destroyed Troy. This is where the phrase ''beware of Greeks bearing gifts'' comes from, and the story is now known as the story of the Trojan Horse. Having sacked Troy, the Greeks found that their ships had been scattered by storms. This was because, during the fight, the Greeks desecrated many temples within the city and thereby angered the gods.

Adventures of Odysseus

A statue of King Odysseus of Ithaca

The adventures of Odysseus last for twenty years

The Odyssey picks up not long after the Iliad leaves off. It is about Odysseus' journey home to Ithaca, which should take a few months but ends up taking ten years because Odysseus has angered some of the gods and because he ends up in several tricky situations. For much of the poem, the Odyssey tells a story where nothing seems to go right and the characters encounter challenge after challenge.

Odysseus' Journey in the Beginning

Odysseus and his men set sail from Troy and the winds sweep them to the city of Ismarus, where the Cicones live. The Cicones are a Thracian tribe who fought alongside the Trojans during the war. Odysseus and his men sack the city. After a bloody fight, they get back on their ships and leave. They soon arrive at a new island called the Land of the Lotus Eaters. Here, some of Odysseus' men eat lotus flowers that make them completely unwilling to ever leave the island. Odysseus forces them to return and everyone escapes.

Next, the men arrive on the island of the Cyclopes, large and violent creatures with only one eye each. These creatures are the sons of Poseidon. When they are trapped in the cave of Polyphemus, one of the Cyclopes, they manage to escape by tying themselves to the undersides of the blinded Polyphemus' sheep. He touches each sheep on its way out of the cave but does not notice the men escaping with them. Poseidon is furious with Odysseus for his actions.

Aeolus, the keeper of the winds and the king of Aeolia, gives Odysseus favorable winds to help guide him home to Ithaca. He also gives him a bag that contains unfavorable winds with instructions to keep it closed. When Odysseus and his men are within sight of Ithaca, the bag is accidentally opened and all of the ships are swept far away from their destination. From that point on, their luck goes from bad to worse.

Odysseus, Circe, and the Underworld

The ships next alight on the island where the Laestrygonians, or ogres, live. These creatures attack Odysseus and his men, killing many and destroying several ships. Odysseus and the other survivors escape, only to arrive on Circe's island. Circe is a goddess who turns almost all of Odysseus' men into pigs, though they retain their human minds. Circe seduces Odysseus and the two have a brief love affair. She then agrees to reverse the spell that she cast on the men and they resume their human forms. The men stay with Circe for a full year, enjoying the plentiful feasts she gives them. Eventually, they decide to leave, but they learn that they have to go to the Underworld before returning home.

Odysseus journeys to Hades, the land of the dead, so that he can find his way home. There, he meets several ghosts, including the ghost of the seer Tiresias. Tiresias tells Odysseus that he will be able to get home with his crew as long as he can restrain them from eating the sheep and cattle that belong to Hyperion, the god of the sun. Odysseus also meets the ghost of his mother, who tells him a little about how his wife, Penelope, is faring in his absence. She also tells him about Telemachus, his son.

Sea Adventures in Odysseus' Story

Circe, a goddess, seduces Odysseus

Odysseus in Greek mythology is very clever

After leaving the Underworld, Odysseus leads his men on further adventures. His ship sails past the Sirens, female spirits whose songs enchant those who come near them so that they will drown. Odysseus, tied to the mast of the ship, hears their song, but his men block their ears with wax. They make it out of the realm of the Sirens unharmed and continue their journey. Next, Odysseus and his men have to navigate the dual threats of Scylla, a sea monster, and Charybdis, a whirlpool. This, too, they manage with only six casualties.

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Writing Prompts about Odysseus and The Odyssey

In this lesson, you learned about the Greek hero Odysseus, whose story is told in Homer's epic poem The Odyssey. Using the writing prompts below, you will creatively reflect on what you learned about Odysseus and his travels.

Journal Prompt 1

Imagine that you are one of Odysseus' men. You survived the Trojan War, only for your ship home to be blown off course by the gods. Write a short journal entry reflecting on your journey so far. Why do you think the gods blew your ship off course? Were they justified in that decision? How do you imagine you will get home?

Journal Prompt 2

After visiting the land of Aeolus, king of the winds, you realize that your leader Odysseus has been carefully guarding a sack given to him by the Aeolus. Would you help your crewmates steal the sack? Why or why not? Write a short journal entry explaining your decision.

Journal Prompt 3

Between the ten years he was at war and the ten years he was lost on his journey, Odysseus was away from home for two decades. Imagine that you return to your home after twenty years away. What might have changed or not changed? What would you do first? Write a short journal entry detailing your response.

Why did the gods punish Odysseus?

The gods punish Odysseus at different times for different reasons. Some are angry with him and his men for desecrating the Trojan temples. Poseidon in particular is angry because he blinded Polyphemus, and Helios is angry because Odysseus' men ate his cattle.

Is Odysseus a god or a hero?

Odysseus is a hero, not a god. Both of his parents are human. He is considered a particularly powerful and intelligent hero, but he is still mortal.

What is Odysseus known for?

Odysseus is known for being a warrior in the Trojan War and for suggesting the Trojan Horse plan. He is also known for spending ten years trying to return home to Ithaca after the end of the war.

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