Odysseus was king of the island of Ithaca. Renowned for his cleverness, he fought on the Greek side during the Trojan War and came up with the ruse of the Trojan horse. The Homeric epic the Odyssey tells the story of Odysseus's long voyage home after the ten-year Trojan War. Trying to return to his faithful wife and son, Odysseus faced ten years of obstacles and adventures. His journey was so long and arduous because he had offended Poseidon — not a good idea if you're going to travel by sea.
During the first part of Odysseus's journey home, his men battled the Cicones. Although they won the fight, they sustained some casualties, losing six men from each ship. At another stop, Odysseus sent three men to scout the location. The scouting party encountered the lotus-eaters and joined them in a feast. The lotus put the men in a dream state that made them stop caring about going home; all they wanted was to eat more of the lotus. Odysseus had the men dragged back to the ships and tied down so they wouldn't jump overboard and swim back to the lotus-eaters' land.
Things took a serious turn for the worse when Odysseus's ships landed on an island inhabited by the Cyclopes — one-eyed, man-eating Giants. The Cyclops Polyphemus was Poseidon's son. When Odysseus and twelve of his men explored the island, they found a cave with a large amount of food stored in the back. Odysseus and his men settled in to wait for the cave's owner to return to ask him to share his food. But the cave's owner was Polyphemus.
Around dusk, Polyphemus returned with his flock of sheep. As was his routine, he drove the flock into the cave and blocked the entrance with a massive boulder. Odysseus asked the Cyclops for the hospitality due to him by the laws of the gods. Polyphemus answered Odysseus's request by seizing two of his men and devouring them.
The men could not kill Polyphemus because he was the only one strong enough to move the boulder away from the cave's entrance. In the morning, Polyphemus ate two more of Odysseus's men and then drove his flock outside. He then replaced the boulder, keeping the men trapped inside the cave, awaiting their turn to become a meal for the Cyclops. But clever Odysseus devised a plan.
When Polyphemus returned with his flock that night, he ate two more men. Odysseus gave the Cyclops some strong wine the hero had with him. Polyphemus got drunk and asked Odysseus his name, to which Odysseus replied, “No-one.” Polyphemus was grateful for the wine and promised to eat No-one last as his reward. Then he passed out. As the monster lay sleeping, Odysseus drove a stake through his single eye, blinding him. Polyphemus cried out that he was being murdered, and the other Cyclopes came running. When they asked who was attacking him, he answered, “No-one!” This answer made no sense, and the other Cyclopes left him alone.
In the morning, Polyphemus needed to let his flock out to graze, but he worried that the men would take advantage of his blindness and escape. So, after he'd moved the boulder, he blocked the entrance with his own body. As his sheep filed out one by one, he felt their backs to make sure that only the sheep were leaving. Because he couldn't see, however, he didn't notice that Odysseus and his six surviving men had tied themselves under the sheep's bellies. In this way, they escaped from the Cyclops's cave. They drove the sheep to their ship, loaded them on board, and set sail from the island.
As they sailed away, Polyphemus threw huge boulders at their ship, but because of his blindness he missed. Odysseus couldn't resist telling the Cyclops the real name of the hero who'd tricked him, shouting that it was the great Odysseus. In a rage, Polyphemus asked his father, Poseidon, to prevent Odysseus from ever getting home — or, if that wasn't possible, that all his men would be killed and his fleet destroyed. Poseidon took his son's prayers to heart and bedeviled Odysseus for the rest of his journey.
That Old Windbag
Odysseus and his men visited Aeolus, a mortal to whom the gods had granted control of the winds, on his floating island, Aeolia. They stayed there for several days, and Odysseus entertained Aeolus with stories of his adventures. As a parting gift, Aeolus gave Odysseus a bag that held all of the winds except for the wind that blew toward Ithaca. As long as the other winds remained in the bag, Odysseus's ships would head straight home.
Odysseus guarded the bag day and night. When his fleet was almost at Ithaca, his men began to wonder what was in the bag. Since Odysseus kept such close watch on it, they reasoned it probably held a treasure. As Odysseus slept, the crew opened the bag, releasing all the winds it held. A violent storm blew them back to Aeolia. This time, Aeolus could not offer any help because he did not want to offend the god who opposed Odysseus.
Never Trust a Giant
Odysseus arrived at the land of the Laestrygonians: savage, man-eating Giants. At first, the locals seemed friendly; a young girl even gave the men directions to her parents' house. When the men arrived, they were met by a Giantess, who called for her husband. As soon as he arrived, he snatched one of the men and ate him.
The other men escaped and rushed back to their ships, with the Laestrygonians in hot pursuit. Before the fleet could sail away, the Giants hurled huge boulders at the ships, causing them to sink. They speared the men like fish and ate them. The only ship that got away was Odysseus's, which had been at a distance from the others.
Turning Men into Swine
With just one ship remaining, Odysseus was wary of the other dangers he might encounter. The next time he landed on an island, the men drew lots to determine who would explore the island. Odysseus stayed on the ship.
The explorers came upon the witch Circe, who invited them to dine with her; she turned all the men into swine. One man escaped and told Odysseus what had happened. Determined to save his men, Odysseus went ashore alone. Hermes intercepted him and gave him a magic herb to protect him from Circe's magic. When her magic failed, Odysseus threatened to kill her for what she'd done. She begged him for mercy and offered to sleep with him. But Hermes had warned Odysseus that she would try to steal his manhood in bed, so the hero made her swear by the gods that she would not harm either him or his crew. He also demanded that she return his crew to their true form. She did as she was told and, surprisingly, became a gracious and hospitable hostess. Odysseus and his men stayed with her for an entire year.
During his year on Circe's island, Odysseus had an affair with the witch. According to one myth, their son, Telegonus, eventually caused his father's death. As a young man, Telegonus went in search of his father. Mistaking Ithaca for a different island, he attacked it. When Odysseus defended his kingdom, Telegonus killed him.
Odysseus's Obstacle Course
Poseidon was determined to do whatever he could to prevent Odysseus from getting home. Before Odysseus returned to Ithaca, he encountered many other obstacles, adventures, and trials, including:
A Journey to the Underworld. Odysseus decided to speak with the shade of the prophet Tiresias to find out how to avoid other dangers on his trip home. Tiresias told him how to get safely past the cattle of Helios, Scylla, and Charybdis. He also told Odysseus how to make peace with Poseidon after he'd made it back to Ithaca. While he was in the Underworld, Odysseus also spoke with the shades of his mother, Agamemnon, and Achilles.
The Sirens. These female creatures sang beautiful, alluring songs as ships sailed past. When sailors steered closer, their ships were dashed against hidden rocks. On Circe's advice, Odysseus had his men plug their ears with wax so they wouldn't be tempted by the Sirens' singing. Odysseus wanted to hear the beautiful songs, so he had his men tie him to the ship's mast. When he heard the Sirens singing, he struggled to break free so he could go to them, but his bonds prevented him, keeping him and his ship safe.
After his ship passed them by and not a single sailor succumbed to their music, the Sirens became distraught. Thinking their spell had lost its power, they threw themselves into the sea and were never heard from again.
Scylla and Charybdis. As Chapter 18 describes, Scylla was a maneating monster that lived in a cave in some sea cliffs, and Charybdis was a dangerous whirlpool. Sailors trying to pass them were usually caught by one or the other. When Odysseus's ship arrived at these dangers, he judged Scylla to be the lesser of the two evils and steered his ship closer to her side. Unfortunately, he got too close, and Scylla seized and devoured six of his crew.
The Cattle of Helios. Odysseus had been warned by both Circe and Tiresias not to touch the cattle on a certain island because they were sacred to Helios. When they approached this island, Odysseus told his men that they would not stop there, but the men threatened to mutiny and Odysseus was forced to give in. While they were ashore, the winds changed, and they couldn't leave. After a while, they ran out of food. Odysseus warned the men not to touch the sun god's cattle, but his crew figured it would be better to feast on the cattle and be killed by the gods than to die of starvation. Helios was furious and complained to Zeus, threatening to hide the sun in the Underworld if he wasn't avenged. When Odysseus's men set out to sea again, Zeus sent a storm that killed the entire crew. Odysseus's ship was pulled into Charybdis, and the hero barely escaped.
Calypso's Island. After Odysseus's ship was destroyed, he clung to a piece of wood and drifted for nine days. He landed on an island inhabited by the nymph Calypso. Calypso fell in love with Odysseus and kept him with her for seven years, promising him immortality if he stayed. But Odysseus yearned for home. Eventually, at Athena's request, Zeus sent Hermes to order Calypso to release Odysseus.
Return to Ithaca. Odysseus left Calypso's island on a raft and was nearly killed when Poseidon sent a storm. He washed up on the island of Scheria, where he was hospitably received by the Phaeacians, who eventually gave him passage home on one of their ships. When Odysseus finally reached Ithaca, he had to fight the suitors who had been living in his palace and trying to win the hand of his faithful wife Penelope (and with it his throne). He won the battle, with Athena's aid, and reclaimed both his wife and his kingdom.
Penelope was a clever woman, loyal to her husband throughout his twenty-year absence. When suitors pressed her to choose a new husband, she replied that she was weaving a burial shroud for her ailing father-in-law and would choose one of them after she had finished. Each day she wove, and each night she undid that day's weaving, forestalling the suitors until Odysseus could finally return.