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Written down sometime between 800 and 600 BCE, the Odyssey is of the best known and most stupendously awesome works of ancient literature—make that any literature. Composed (maybe) by a poet named Homer (maybe), it tells the story of a man trying to make his way home from war. But not just any man, and not just any war. Its hero is Odysseus, who is basically the Jon Hamm of Ancient Greece: smart, strong, attractive, brave, beloved by the gods, and way cooler than you are.
In a way, the Odyssey is a sequel to Homer's Iliad, a poem about the decade-long Trojan War. But don't let any prejudice about sequels throw you off: the Iliad and the Odyssey may have a lot of the same characters, but they're more like fraternal than identical twins: they complement each other.
The Iliad is all about achieving glory and fame through warlike deeds, a concept the Greeks called kleos. Basically, it's full of pages and pages of heroes doing heroic things heroically. Which is awesome in its own way, and it made a fun, if not very accurate, movie. But even warriors have to go home eventually, and the Odyssey is all about the desire to go home: to see a familiar face, to kiss your wife, and to give your old dog a pat on the head.
The Greeks had a word for that, too: nostos—the root of our own word "nostalgia." The Iliad and the Odyssey together are about the competing desires for kleos and nostos, which we can boil down to the desire to die gloriously in battle and the desire to die quietly at home in bed, surrounded by your family. So, the Odyssey isn't really a sequel to the Iliad so much as it's the yin to the Iliad's yang: two equal but competing human desires.
We're not the only ones who get a little giddy when we talk about the Odyssey. Generations of readers have created their own original works inspired by Homer's epic. Just a quick sampling, from the 1st century BCE to the 21st century CE: Virgil's epic poem the Aeneid; Alfred Lord Tennyson's poem "Ulysses"; James Joyce's novel Ulysses; countless paintings (check out Henry Fuseli's "Odysseus in front of Scylla and Charybdis"); Cream's song "Tales of Brave Ulysses"; the Cohen Brothers' movie O Brother, Where Art Thou?—and the list goes on.
Maybe yours will be next.
(Click the map infographic to download.)
We hear you. In a word where the '90s are retro, it's not easy to see why you should care about a millennia-old epic. But bear with us. Do you like stories full of adventure, danger, and suspense? How about stories set in fantastic worlds full of strange creatures like Cyclopes, witches, sirens, and gods? You're in luck: the Odyssey is basically Western literature's first action flick/ fantasy extravaganzafirst action flick/ fantasy extravaganza.
Okay, okay, so you're not into fantasy. Or action. You're more of a rom-com kind of guy (or gal): a group of young girls stumbling on a giant naked man is more your style. Great! The Odyssey has that too.
But maybe you're more interested in the deeper side of things—intense human emotions like longing, or the desire for home, or the love of a mother for her child. Awesome! The Odyssey isn't just an exciting story about blood-drinking cannibals; it's also a poem stuffed with profound reflections on heroism, love, and human life.
Let's put it this way: there's a reason that we're still reading it 3,000 years later.
Alex, We'll Take "Goddesses" for $500
Jefferson County Schools has created a terrific "Jeopardy" style trivia game for students to study the Odyssey. Categories include "Gods and Goddesses." "Mere Mortals," "Monsters," "Travel and Tourism," and "Misc." (Linked file is in PowerPoint.)
GoogleLit Trips is a website devoted to helping teachers and students explore literature by using Google Earth. Check out this Google Earth map of Homer's travels
Just Don't Use Apple Maps
Homer probably took some poetic license with his geography. Still, here's a rough idea of where some of Odysseus' episodes may have taken place.
If We Do Say So Ourselves
If we linked to our learning guides every time we mentioned one of these guys, we'd get carpal tunnel. Here's a link to Shmoop's Greek and Roman mythology guide—you might notice some familiar names.
Adapt the Adaptation
This is actually a 1967 adaptation of James Joyce's Ulysses. Neat!
Well, Odysseus is a little cartoonish. This 1987 show is in full 2D
The Other Side
This Odyssey (1992-1994) puts its hero in a coma and makes him work his way home from a magical land called "Downworld."
This 1997 version of the Odyssey was produced by Coppola, stars Isabella Rossellini and Bernadette Peters, and is pitched by IMDB as full of "bronzed muscles gleaming." Say no more.
Right Over Here
In 2000, the Coen brothers gave us O Brother, Where Art Thou: the Odyssey set in the deep south. With George Clooney. And convicts.
Oldest Trick in the Book
This is an absolutely amazing piece of parchment from the third century BCE containing lines from Book 20.
Part to the Whole
Here are some more really, really old fragments of the Odyssey—and some other ancient Greek works.
Here's another wee piece of Book 17. Aren't you glad you can pull a whole copy off the shelf?
Put on Some Pants
Here's Odysseus killing some scantily clad suitors in the 1954 adaptation with Kirk Douglass.
Here's Odysseus messing with his servants in Troy, the 2004 "adaptation" of the Iliad.
Here are some scholars talking about an ancient Greek vase painted with an image of Odysseus escaping Polyphemos' cave. Neat!
In this genius-grant-winning project, a therapist counsels returning war veterans by talking about the Odyssey.
Here's Cream singing "Tales of Brave Ulysses."
I Can't Hear You
… when I stuff wax in your ears. Here's a vase with Odysseus tied to the mast.
Sorry, we warned you. Here's Odysseus consulting with Teiresias.
We did this minimalist vase of Odysseus hiding out under a ram.
Here's Odysseus slaying the suitors.
Penelope and Telemachos having a little mother/ son moment.