Homer writes with all the gravity that you'd pretty much expect when reading about epic heroes and their long dangerous journeys. Odysseus' suffering is endless; Telemachos risks his life to find out news of his father; the god's ponderously debate about what to do to the mortals next, and Penelope wishes she were dead, and not in a melodramatic, I-hate-my-parents way:
So I wish that they who have their homes on Olympos would make me vanish, or sweet-haired Artemis strike me, so that I could meet the Odysseus I long for, even under the hateful earth, and not have to please the mind of an inferior husband. Yet the evil is endurable, when one cries through the days, with heart constantly troubled, yet still is taken by sleep in the nights; for sleep is oblivion of all things, both good and evil, when it has shrouded the eyelids. But now the god has sent the evil dreams thronging upon me. For on this very night there was one who lay by me, like him as he was when he went with the army, so that my own heart was happy. I thought it was no dream, but a waking vision. (20.79-90)
This is serious stuff. But that doesn't mean the epic is all doom and gloom. We get some comic relief along the way. Take this passage, when Circe turns Odysseus' men into pigs:
When she had given them this and they had drunk it down, next thing she struck them with her wand and drove them into her pig pens, and they took on the look of pigs, with the heads and voices and bristles of pigs, but the minds within them stayed as they had been before. So crying they went in, and before them Circe threw down acorns for them to eat, and ilex and cornel buds, such food as pigs who sleep on the ground always feed on. (12.237-43).
That's comedy gold, right there.
Homer even gives us a metaphor for the poem's tone, when he compares Odysseus stringing his bow to a singer tuning his lyre (Book XXI, lines 404-411). The Odyssey is just like that: delicately—perhaps dangerously—poised between harsh and warlike (the bow), and beautiful and enchanting (the lyre).
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Along with Homer's Iliad, The Odyssey is one of ancient Greece's two great epics. (Actually, they sort of defined what an epic was in the first place.) Both poems feature a larger than life hero, deeds of great valor, and the gods' interference in human affairs. And both poems use epic literary devices: opening with an invocation to the muse; beginning the story in medias res ("in the middle of things"); providing long lists of people, genealogies, and places significant to mythological history; and using epithets, or repeated nicknames, for various characters, major and minor.
But The Odyssey isn't just The Iliad 2: The Voyage Home. It plays around with epic conventions by using a more complicated plot; by including characters from lower social orders (such as Eumaios the swineherd); and by centering a lot of the action around women in the home. Come parts of the story (especially the parts recounted by Odysseus) even resemble cultural folklore, involving unrealistic, mythological creatures and occurrences.
And, of course, it's not much of an epic without a quest. Odysseus has a goal and a heck of time reaching it—check out our analysis in "Booker's Seven Basic Plots" for all the questy goodness.
Pretty straightforward: "The Odyssey" is a form of the hero (Odysseus') name and basically means "the story of Odysseus." One neat fast: The Odyssey is so famous that the word "odyssey" has come to mean any epic voyage.
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For a long time, some readers have felt that the ending of the Odyssey smells a little fishy. In fact, two scholars from ancient Alexandria claimed that the "ending" of the Odyssey came in line 296—of Book XXIII! According to these wise guys, everything after Odysseus and Penelope go to bed together—including all of Book XXIV—was added later by somebody other than Homer.
Why would they think that? Your guess is as good as ours, though plenty of later scholars have tried to back them up, arguing that Book XXIV isn't of the same quality as the rest of the Odyssey. Now, it may be true that the ending is a bit abrupt—just when a big battle is about to pit Odysseus, Telemachos, and Laertes against the families of the dead suitors, Athena steps in and tells everybody to be friends with a little ominous thunder from Zeus.
We're not so sure. We think that Book XXIV has a lot of important stuff, like Odysseus' reunion with his father Laertes. Also, in Ancient Greek culture, where honor and revenge were very important (check out the Iliad for further examples of this), it simply wouldn't make sense to end the poem with a bunch of guys still out to get Odysseus. Not to mention that Book XXIII actually shows Odysseus and Telemachos discussing the problem of the suitors' families and deciding to go hide out in the country with Laertes. Was Homer just going to leave that thread hanging?
We at Shmoop like the ending of Book XXIV, because we like the idea that the poem charts a shift from a revenge system of justice—where the suitors' families would be totally right to go after Odysseus and Telemachos—to a gentler, kinder sort of justice, one that's more in the style of "thoughtful Telemachos" than strong and heroic Odysseus. It just makes sense to us. What do you think?
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Much of the action in the Odyssey takes place on the sea, where Odysseus must battle against the storms of the sea god, Poseidon, but the last third of the story is set in the town and countryside of Ithaka. The setting is a geographical potpourri of what was important, mythologically, in Homer’s time period. Scholars have tried to correlate various places in the Odyssey with real locations in the Mediterranean, but there’s a lot of guess work involved in this. It’s very possible that Homer based his hero’s wanderings on real geography but extrapolated and manipulated to suit his narrative purposes. Anyway, enough about that: here’s a list for you.
Aiaia (Aeaea): The island home of one Circe, everyone’s favorite sorceress.
Aiolia: The island ruled by Aiolos, god of the winds.
Elysion: The Odyssey’s version of a heavenly afterlife.
Ithaka: You know what Ithaka is. And how Odysseus made it home there by the longest route ever.
Ismaros: The first place Odysseus and his men land after leaving Troy. This is the land of the Kikonians, whom the Ithakans plunder until driven from their shores.
Lakedaimon: Another name for Sparta. (Technically, this refers to the surrounding area of which Sparta is the capital.)
Lamos: The land of the Laistrygones, the giant/ogres/weirdos, and King Antiphates, drinker of blood. Needless to say, Odysseus and the Ithakans leave this place pretty quickly. Well, except for that one guy who was chugged by Antiphates.
Mount Parnassos (Parnassus): Where Odysseus goes hunting with his uncle when he’s a little boy. This is where the boar/thigh-scar incident took place.
Mount Olympos (Olympus): The gods’ hangout/home/pad.
Ogygia: Kalypso’s island, where Odysseus is held for seven years.
Pherai: Telemachos and Peisistratos spend the night here on the way to Pylos from Sparta.
Pylos: The first place Telemachos travels in his search for news of his father. Here he dines with King Nestor and his son Peisistratos before leaving for Menelaos in Sparta.
Scheria: The island of the Phaiakians. This is Odysseus’s last stop before he reaches Ithaka and also the location where he tells his tale.
Thrinakia (Thrinacia or Trinacria): The land where the sun god Helios keeps his super-duper cattle.
The Underworld: The land of the dead. Odysseus travels here to speak with Teiresias, the dead, blind prophet. While there, he converses with many other "shades," including his war buddies and his mother.
For the first-time reader, probably the hardest thing about Homer's Odyssey is its language. (And we're not even asking you to read it in Ancient Greek.) If you're really struggling, you could check out some up-to-date translations by Robert Fagles and Stanley Lombardo; Lombardo's version is especially close to modern spoken English.
On Shmoop, we quote from the 1950s version by Richmond Lattimore. Yeah, it's a little harder, but we think it's worth it. Every line in Lattimore's version matches up exactly to its counterpart in the original Greek, so you get a good sense of what the original feels like. And once you get past all the unfamiliar gods and goddesses (maybe with the help of our handy-dandy "Minor Characters" list), the poem is super accessible. You'll get so swept up Odysseus' awesome adventures that we bet you won't even notice that you're reading a 3,000-year-old epic poem. You'll be hooked.
Fair enough: at first, the Odyssey feels a lot more murky than clear. But if you look at learning Homeric style like learning a new dialect, it won't take you long to get the hang of it. Once you get past the initial strangeness, you'll see that Homer's work is almost never complicated for its own sake. He just says things in a very clear and direct way.
Look at the very beginning of the story: "Tell me, Muse, of the man of many ways, who was driven far journeys, after he had sacked Troy's sacred citadel" (1.1-2). In just those two lines, we're set up with a hero (Odysseus) and a quest (getting home). Like we said, pretty straightforward.
This isn't just any poem: it's a Homeric epic. And that means Homeric similes.
These aren't just your typical, "My love is like a red, red rose" type of simile. They're—how do we say it?—epic. To create one, Homer follows three steps: 1) saying what it is that whatever you're talking about is like, usually some sort of an event; 2) describing the thing you're comparing it to in extreme detail; and 3) reminding the audience of what you were originally talking about. Let's look at an example
So the famous singer sang his tale, but Odysseus melted, and from under his eyes the tears ran down, drenching his cheeks. As a woman weeps, lying over the body of her dear husband, who fell fighting for her city and people as he tried to beat off the pitiless day from city and children; she sees him dying and gasping for breath, and winding her body about him she cries high and shrill, while the men behind her, hitting her with their spear butts on the back and the shoulders, force her up and lead her away into slavery, to have hard work and sorrow, and her cheeks are wracked with pitiful weeping. Such were the pitiful tears Odysseus shed from under his brows […]. (8.521-532)
As Odysseus listens to a bard sing about Troy, he weeps—a lot. Homer starts off by saying (1) Odysseus weeps; begins the simile with (2) "As a woman weeps," and then goes on to describe that weeping in exhaustive detail; and then (3) wraps it up by bringing us back: "Such were the pitiful tears Odysseus shed." Bam. That's your Homeric simile.
So, why go to all this trouble? Well, you might have your own ideas—but we think that they add richness and depth to the poem, giving us a better understanding of what's going on and acting like little pictures in a story that otherwise is all words. They let Homer add emotions and images that might not otherwise fit into his story. They make it—yep, that word again—epic.
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Last but certainly not least, The Odyssey is written in something with the tongue-twisting of "dactylic hexameter." Try saying that five times fast. Wait—make that six times. Even though they look like syllable soup, the two words "dactylic" and "hexameter" aren't actually too complicated.
Let's start with "hexameter." The "hex" in "hexameter" is the same as in "hexagon," which you might remember is a six-sided shape. And the "meter" part is like…well, "meter," a unit of measurement. So a "hexameter" is a poetic meter with six measures. (We're using "measures" here in the musical sense, meaning the same thing as "bars.") Because measures or bars in poetry are known as feet, you might as well just translate "hexameter" as "six feet."
OK, but what about the "dactylic" part? This comes from the Greek word "daktylos," which means "finger." Why? Take a look at one of your fingers (but not your thumb). It almost certainly one long joint followed by two short joints. (Well, Shmoop's fingers—to be perfectly honest—seem to have joints of a pretty similar length, but work with us here.) A dactyl is a foot shaped like a finger: one long, or accented, syllable followed by two short, or unaccented, syllables. (We're simplifying a little, but it's close enough.)
From what we've already learned about the word "hexameter," can you guess how many of such feet are going to be in a line? If you guessed "six," give yourself a pat on the back: you are almost completely right. Why "almost"? That's because, in dactylic hexameter, only the first five feet are shaped like fingers (LONG + short + short); the last foot is never shaped this way; it will be either: (LONG + LONG) or (LONG + short).
Want some examples of dactylic words? "ELephant." "MURmuring." "MOCKingbird." "MUsical." Want to hear what dactylic hexameter sounds like in English? Check out Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's "Evangeline."
But for the most part, English isn't a great language for dactylic hexameter and translators don't usually bother with it. When translators do work with meter, they tend to switch to the English's tried-and-true iambic pentameter.
Frankly, if we were Odysseus, we'd never get in a boat again. (If fact, we suspect he won't: Teiresias tells him that he's actually going to live out his days inland, so far ashore that no one will recognize an oar.) The sea in the Odyssey is nothing but trouble. Every other line, it's throwing something else at him or his men, who are "bobbing like sea crows" right before the "god took away their homecoming" (12.417-19).
As Odysseus succinctly puts it to the Phaiakians,
We are Achaians coming from Troy, beaten off our true course by winds from every direction across the great gulf of the open sea, making for home, by the wrong way, on the wrong courses. So we have come. So it has pleased Zeus to arrange it. (9.259-262)
This little passage actually sums it up nicely: the sea seems to represent the huge gulf between the power of men and the power of the gods. The ancient Greeks may have been good sailors, but there's only so much you can do with a (relatively) small boat and a handful of men. Sailors put themselves at the mercy of the wind, and so the sea comes to represent, well, life itself: full of suffering, subject to angry gods, and very occasionally willing to send something good your way.
Sometimes a bow is just a bow—and sometimes it's a symbol of kingship and virility, like when Penelope sets up a content so that the man who can string the bow and shoot an arrow through twelve axe heads will win her hand in marriage. Really, Homer practically hits us over the head with it:
First, Telemachos struggles but eventually "would have strung it" (21.128), when Odysseus stops him. (Good idea, if you ask us—that would be kind of disturbing.) Then, the suitors start failing, and Eurymachos spells it out, in case we still don't get it: "it is not so much the marriage I grieve for … it is the thought, if this is true, that we come so far short of godlike Odysseus in strength, so that we cannot even string his bow" (21.250-25). And what does Odysseus do? He strings that bow just like a man stringing a lyre, "without any strain" (21.409).
Well, we sure know who Penelope's going home with tonight.
Odysseus' old dog becomes a tear-jerking symbol of loyalty. He's lying in a dung heap covered in ticks, when he perceived that Odysseus had come close to him, he wagged his tail, and laid both his ears back; only he now no longer had the strength to move any closer to his master, who, watching him from a distance, without Eumaios noticing, secretly wiped a tear away […]. (17.300-305).
Truly, man's best friend. Of course, that makes it all the more surprising when, just a few books later, Odysseus calls the suitors "dogs" for thinking that he "never […] would any more come back from the land of Troy" (22.35-36). What gives?
What isn't an occasion for a feast in the Odyssey? Whether they're feasting on poisoned witch-food, Helios' cattle, or lotus fruit, Odysseus' men are constantly eating; and Telemachos has to literally avoid Nestor so he doesn't have to attend any more feasts; and even the suitors endlessly gorge themselves.
We already know that hospitality is super important in the world of the Odyssey (see our "Theme" section for more on that), and we get another clue when Eurylochos tells us that "hunger is the sorriest way to die and encounter fate" (12.341). It's ignoble: he sees it as being "pinched to death" (12.351). Better to go out fighting—or feasting—than to die slowly of hunger.
So in one sense, feasting represents a kind of heroic attitude toward life. Instead of just sitting around and waiting to die, the heroes of the Odyssey want to live life fully. At the same time, food is a way to show that you understand and respect the rules. When it's time for dinner at Eumaios' house, Homer takes his time describing it:
The swineherd stood up to divide the portions, for he was fair minded, and separated all the meat into seven portions. One he set aside, with a prayer, for the nymphs and Hermes, the son of Maia, and the rest he distributed to each man, but gave Odysseus in honor the long cuts of the chine's portion of the white-toothed pig, and so exalted the heart of his master. (14.432-438)
This is serious business. In more ways than one, food is a matter of life and death.
If you can't just go to Target to pick up some 30% off extra-long sheets for your dorm room bed, cloth takes on whole new meaning. When you're carding, spinning, and weaving every inch of it yourself, it becomes super valuable—and you're not going to waste any of it, which is why most Greek clothing was just made up of cloth wrapped and tied around the body.
In the Odyssey, linens—blankets, sheets, and clothing—are associated with hospitality, and even more particularly with women's hospitality. And that makes sense. Women's primary activity was making cloth. You know how you don't go anywhere without your smartphone? It was like that, only instead of a smartphone, substitute distaff: a tool used to spin raw material into thread.
A quick list should prove our point: Penelope insists on decking beggar Odysseus out in nice cloth, telling her maids to "give him a wash and spread a couch for him here, with bedding and coverlets and with shining blankets, so that he can keep warm as he waits for dawn of the golden throne" (19.317-18); Helen gives Telemachos a dress for his wife to wear; and Nausikaa—who's off at the stream doing her laundry—gives Odysseus clothing to wear. Sure, men talk about cloth, too. Menelaos emphasizes how many blankets his palace has. But who do you think made all those blankets? Not this great Greek hero.
And, of course, Penelope is the master of linen-symbolism. She spends all her time weaving a shroud for Laertes and then unweaving it at night. We're not experts or anything, but anyone who's ever had to deal with a family's laundry can probably identify with this: a mountain of cloth that's never, ever done.
All Odysseus wants it to go home. Sure, the goddess-sex is nice; yeah, Nausikaa is kind of cute; but he really just wants to go home. He tells us that "what I want and all my days I pine for is to go back to my house and see my day of homecoming" (5.219-20); and then that "there is nothing worse for mortal men than the vagrant life" (15.343); and then, when he finally does make it home, hugging his wife is like arriving on shore after nearly drowning.
Yeah, we think "home" is important. There's even a fancy Greek word for how important the concept of "homecoming" was to the Greek: nostos. Recognize that? It's the room of our word "nostalgia": the longing for home.
The thing is, the desire to be home conflicts with the ancient Greek imperative to go out and win honor. You can't become a hero if you're sitting by the fireside with your wife. And a lot of scholars see the Odyssey as specifically about nostos, in contrast to the Iliad, which is about kleos, or fame and glory. Notice how Odysseus' desire for kleos—telling Polyphemos his name and address—is exactly what gets him farther and farther away from nostos?
But twenty-four books later, and we're still not sure which one wins. Is nostos the higher good, after all? Remember that Achilleus in the underworld says that he regrets his choice to go for glory: he'd rather be a slave on earth than a king in the underworld. Or is kleos still the better option—no matter how much you miss your wife's white arms?
Odysseus and Penelope don't just sleep on some compressed particle board from Ikea. Nope. Not this ancient Greek power couple. They sleep on a bed carved into an honest-to-Zeus olive tree. Listen to Odysseus describe it:
There was the bole of an olive tree with long leaves growing strongly in the courtyard, and it was thick, like a column. I laid down my chamber around this … Then I cut away the foliage of the long-leaved olive, and trimmed the trunk from the roots up, planning it with a brazen adze, well and expertly, and trued it straight to a chalkline, making a bedpost of it, and bored all hones with an auger. (23.190-288).
We think you can probably figure this one out for yourselves, but we'll spell it out anyway: the bed represents Odysseus and Penelope's marriage. It can't be moved. Bam.
It's a good thing that we don't put much stock in augury anymore, or we'd be freaking out every time we saw a pigeon. In ancient Greece, anything could have meaning—but especially some things, like birds, entrails, and blind prophets.
In fact, one of the (many) ways we know the suitors are up to no good is that Eurymachos dismisses the whole idea of prophecy. "In any case we fear no one," he says, "nor do we care for any prophecy, which you, old sir, may tell us, which will not happen" (21). In contrast, Telemachos trusts prophecies and prophets. When Theoklymenos tells him that "not without a god's will did this bird fly past you on the right" (15.34), he's not 100% convinced—but he's definitely not impious.
The omens and prophecies that the Odyssey's characters constantly seem to encounter remind us that we're not operating in a world in which there's much room for free will. (Check out our "Theme" section on "Fate and Free Will" for more about that.) Everything—or almost everything—is preordained, and omens are just the gods' way of cluing us in. Kind of like "Next week in your life …"
Our poet (might as well call him Homer) shows us everything that happens in the Odyssey—gods and mortals; good guys and bad guys; father and son. There's a reason they call it epic.
There is the little matter of Homer's invocation to the Muse in Book I in which he uses personal pronouns and refers to himself as telling the story. But the invocation to the muse is a standard part of epics; it's not really meant to introduce Homer as a character. Instead, what we have is a third person story focused around either Odysseus or Telemachos.
In Books IX—XII, Odysseus steps forward and becomes a first-person narrator. This is cool for two reasons: (1) We get to see how he views his experiences, whether he's learned from them, and whether he still suffers from certain key flaws, like (cough) excessive pride. (Check out Odysseus' "Character Analysis" for all about everyone's favorite Greek hero.) And (2) we start off in the middle of the story, with all the excitement of wondering how Odysseus will deal with the suitors without having to watch him suffer through years and years of misfortune.
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Booker pretty much built the "Quest" plot around The Odyssey, so this should be easy. "The Call" is Odysseus' yearning to go home from Troy once the city has been destroyed and the war is over. Sure, it's not actually depicted in The Odyssey—but we'll give Homer a break, since he practically invented the thing.
While sailing, Odysseus faces obstacles like monsters (the Cyclops Polyphemos, Skylla and Charybdis) and temptations (the Lotus Eaters, the witch Circe, the Sirens, and Kalypso). Along the way, he receives advice from gods (Athene, Hermes), beautiful women (Circe, Kalypso), and wise old seers (Teiresias).
The Phaiakians bring Odysseus safely home to Ithaka, but he can't exactly waltz into his wife's open arms; he has to go in disguise, find allies amidst the traitors, and plot against the suitors. Oh, and hope for some timely divine help.
In this stage, the hero undergoes a "series of tests" to prove that he's worthy of his goal/prize/wife, etc. In this case, Odysseus has to prove first his patience (he can't beat the living pulp out of men like Antinoös, as that would give away his disguise); his physical prowess (by winning Penelope's contest); his knowledge (with regards to the unmovable bed); and finally his diplomacy (by diffusing the angry-parents situation and restoring peace to Ithaka).
Whew. And you thought the SAT was hard.
By defeating the suitors, Odysseus reclaims his faithful bride Penelope, his father in Laertes, his house, and is accepted by the Ithakan people as King. That's how it's done, son. (Literally. With his dad back and being all dad-ly, Telemachos finally has an appropriate male role model and can stop being a whiny brat.)
Ten years after the Trojan War ended, the residents of Odysseus' great hall are being eaten out of house and home by parasitic suitors who won't take Penelope's no for an answer . Telemachos, Odysseus' son, is kind of a whiny weakling (love ya, Telly). And Odysseus himself is being held prisoner on the island of the nymph Kalypso—but nobody back in Ithaka knows that.
Finally, something changes—but not because Odysseus finally mans up and breaks free of Kalypso, and not because Telemachos finally mans up and kicks the suitors out. It's divine intervention. Zeus sends his messenger to force Kalypso into letting Odysseus leave, and Athene convinces Telemachos to go on his trip seeking news of his father. Will Odysseus make it home? Will Telemachos resolve his daddy issues?
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Well, he's not heading straight home, anyway. Poseidon whips up one more big storm to drive Odysseus onto the coast of the Phaiakians. In their court, he tells of all his adventures up to this point. Of course, the "complications" he tells about happened before the main epic begins—but, since they're all part of the long trip home, we'll count them. (Oh, and Telemachos is feasting with a bunch of Greek heroes.)
When Odysseus and Telemachos reunite at the shepherd's cottage in Ithaka, their stories come together and they vow revenge. Aw! It's all downhill from here, right?
Um, have you ever tried running downhill? You think skiers have it easy? The homestretch is where you're likely to break your neck.
First, there's the underlying danger of Odysseus entering the palace, which is full of a whole bunch of suitors who have been acting like he's dead, and would to keep things that way—permanently.
Then there are all the close calls, like when Theoklymenos prophesies that he has returned; when Argos the dog recognizes him; when Odysseus talks to Penelope face-to-face; and when Eurykleia recognizes Odysseus' scar while giving him a foot-bath.
And then there's Penelope's contest: whoever can string Odysseus' bow and shoot an arrow through twelve axe heads can have her hand in marriage. Who's it going to be—and who's going to make it out alive?
By stringing the bow, winning the arrow-shooting contest, and killing the suitors (with a little help from Telemachos, Eumaios, Philoitios, and the goddess Athene), Odysseus takes care of the major problem facing him on the home front. That night, he goes to sleep with Penelope in their bed.
Odysseus and Telemachos go to the countryside to see Laertes, conveniently ducking out on the angry families of the slaughtered suitors. After a tearful reunion, Odysseus, Laertes, and Telemachos face down the suitors' families—until the gods intervene (of course). Everyone decides/ is divinely coerced to let bygones be bygones. This ties up the last loose end before Odysseus can…set off on his next journey (as prophesied by Teiresias in Book XI).
The suitors are annoying Penelope in Ithaka and Telemachos, fed up, finally begins to speak out against them. He goes to the Grecian mainland to get news of his father from Odysseus' friends. Meanwhile, Odysseus has been stuck on Kalypso's island for seven years.
Odysseus escapes Kalypso's island with the help of the gods, is shipwrecked yet again, and floats to the island of Phaiákia where he is welcomed and urged to tell his story. He does.
Odysseus' story is over. Moved, the Phaiakians provide him with safe passage home. Once in Ithaka, he plots with Athene and Telemachos to kill the suitors. He eventually succeeds in a bloody battle, is reunited with Penelope, and brings peace to Ithaka once more.
(Click the plot infographic to download.)
Homer's Iliad. Like most sequels, Odyssey is full events and people detailed in Homer's earlier poem, like Achilleus (3.114), the Trojan horse (8.533-558), Helen (23.246-252), and Agamemnon (24.16-111). Intrigued? Go read The Iliad, already!