A Greek war hero, father, and king: Odysseus was all of this and then some. He miraculously survived the 10-year Trojan War and was the last of the veterans to return. However, his homeland – a humble island on the Ionian Sea – would evade him for another decade.
In the beginning, Odysseus and his men left the shores of Troy with 12 ships. The passage was not easy, being fraught with monstrosities and gods riled by the war’s aftermath. In the end, only Odysseus – one out of 600 comrades – returned home. And his home, the longing of which had propelled him forward thus far, had become a different type of battlefield.
In his time away during the war, over a hundred youths began lusting after Odysseus’ wife, his lands and title, and plotting to kill his beloved son. These circumstances became yet another trial the hero had to overcome. Now, equipped with naught but his cunning, Odysseus would once more rise to the occasion.
The story of Odysseus is full of twists and turns. Though at its heart, it echoes the story of a man doing whatever it took to make it home alive.
Table of Contents
Who is Odysseus?
Odysseus (a.k.a. Ulixes or Ulysses) is a Greek hero and the king of Ithaca, a small island on the Ionian Sea. He gained renown for his feats during the Trojan War, but it wasn’t until the journey home did he truly establish himself as a man worthy of being an epic hero.
During the events of the Trojan War in Homer’s Iliad, Odysseus was among many of Helen’s former suitors that were called to arms to retrieve her at the behest of her husband, Menelaus. Besides Odysseus’ military prowess, he was quite the orator: both full of guile and savvy. According to Apollodorus (3.10), Tyndareus – Helen’s stepfather – was concerned about bloodshed amongst the potential grooms. Odysseus promised to devise a plan to stop Helen’s suitors from killing one another if the Spartan king helped him “win the hand of Penelope.”
When Paris kidnapped Helen, Odysseus’ clever thinking came back to haunt him.
He became venerated in the hero cults of Greek religion. One such cult center was located in Odysseus’ homeland of Ithaca, in a cave along Polis Bay. More than this though, it is likely that the hero cult of Odysseus was spread as far as modern-day Tunisia, over 1,200 miles away from Ithaca, according to the Greek philosopher, Strabo.
Odysseus is the son of Laertes, King of the Cephallenians, and Anticlea of Ithaca. By the events of the Iliad and the Odyssey, Laertes is a widower and a co-regent of Ithaca.
What is Co-Regency?
After his departure, Odysseus’ father took over most of Ithaca’s politics. It was not unusual for ancient kingdoms to have co-regents. Both ancient Egypt and Biblical ancient Israel observed co-regency at numerous points in their histories.
Generally, a co-regent was a close family member. As is seen between Hatshepsut and Thutmose III, it was also occasionally shared with a spouse. Co-regencies are unlike diarchies, which were practiced in Sparta because co-regencies are a temporary arrangement. Diarchies, meanwhile, were a permanent feature in the government.
It would be implied that Laertes would step down from official duties after Odysseus’ return to Ithaca.
Odysseus’ Wife: Penelope
As the most important person in his life besides his son, the wife of Odysseus, Penelope, plays a crucial role in the Odyssey. She is known for her stalwart approach toward her marriage, her intellect, and her role as an Ithacan queen. As a character, Penelope exemplifies ancient Greek womanhood. Even the ghost of Agamemnon – himself murdered by his wife and her lover – manifested and praised Odysseus on “what a fine, faithful wife you won!”
READ MORE: The Life of Women in Ancient Greece
Despite being married to the king of Ithaca, 108 suitors vied for Penelope’s hand during her husband’s long absence. According to her son Telemachus, the suitor composition was 52 from Dulichium, 24 from Samos, 20 from Zakynthos, and 12 from Ithaca. Granted, these guys were convinced Odysseus was super dead, but still moving into his home and accosting his wife for a decade is creepy. Like, beyond so.
For 10 years, Penelope refused to declare Odysseus dead. Doing so delayed public mourning, and made the suitor’s pursuits seem both unjustifiable and shameful.
On top of that, Penelope had a couple of tricks up her sleeve. Her legendary wit is reflected in the tactics she used to delay the hounding suitors. First, she claimed that she had to weave a death shroud for her father-in-law, who was getting on in years.
In ancient Greece, Penelope’s weaving of a burial shroud for her father-in-law was the epitome of filial piety. It was Penelope’s duty as the woman of the house in the absence of Laertes’ wife and daughter. Thus, the suitors had no choice but to lay off their advances. The ruse was able to delay the men’s advancements for three more years.
Odysseus’ Son: Telemachus
Odysseus’ son was just a newborn when his father left for the Trojan War. Thus, Telemachus – whose name means “far from battle” – grew up in a lion’s den.
The first decade of Telemachus’ life was spent during a massive conflict that robbed local wily youths of the guidance provided by an older generation. Meanwhile, he continued to grow into a young man in the years after the war. He struggles with his mother’s ceaseless suitors while simultaneously holding out hope for his father’s return. At some point, the suitors plot to kill Telemachus but agree to wait until he returns from searching for Odysseus.
Telemachus eventually gets sweet revenge and helps his father slaughter all 108 men.
It is worth noting that the original Homeric epic cites Telemachus to be Odysseus’ only child. Even so, that may not be the case. During his exploits back to Ithaca, Odysseus could have fathered up to six other children: seven kids in all. The existence of these spare children is up for debate since they are primarily mentioned in Hesiod’s Theogony and Pseudo-Apollodorus’ “Epitome” from Bibliotheca.
What is the Odysseus Story?
The story of Odysseus is a long one and begins in Book I of the Iliad. Odysseus disembarked for the war effort unwillingly but stayed until the bitter end. During the Trojan War, Odysseus put his all into keeping morale up and keeping casualties low.
At the end of the war, it took Odysseus another 10 years to get home and this journey is described in the Odyssey, Homer’s second epic poem. The first of the books, collectively known as The Telemachy, focuses entirely on Odysseus’ son. It isn’t until Book V do we revisit the hero.
Odysseus and his men earn the wrath of the gods, come face-to-face with horrifying monstrosities, and stare down their mortality in the eyes. They travel across the Mediterranean and Atlantic Seas, even passing by Oceanus at the ends of the Earth. At some point, Greek legend tells of Odysseus being the founder of modern Lisbon, Portugal (called Ulisipo during the Roman Empire’s heyday).
While this is all going down, Odysseus’ wife, Penelope, struggles to maintain peace at home. Suitors insist that she should remarry. It is her duty, they believe, as her husband is likely long dead.
It is important to note that despite the death and loss that surrounds Odysseus on his journey home, his story is not qualified as a tragedy. He manages to successfully circumvent many of his trials and overcomes all obstacles in his path. Even the wrath of Poseidon couldn’t stop him.
In the end, Odysseus – the last of his crew – makes it home alive to Ithaca.
How are the Gods Represented in the Odyssey?
Odysseus’ journey home was as tormenting as it was eventful thanks to the influence of the gods. Following Homeric tradition, the Odyssean gods were swayed by emotions and took easily to offense. Duty, pettiness, and lust drove the gods of the Odyssey to interfere with the hero’s journey home to rugged Ithaca.
Much of the time, Odysseus’ passage was barred by some mythological being or another. Some of the Greek gods that play their hand in the story of Odysseus are as follows:
Whereas Athena and Poseidon had a more pivotal role in the story, the other deities were sure to make their mark. The Ocean nymph Calypso and the goddess Circe acted simultaneously as lovers and hostage-takers. Hermes and Ino offered Odysseus aid in his times of need. Meanwhile, the likes of Zeus passed divine judgment with the sun god Helios pulling his arm.
Mythological monsters also threatened Odysseus’ voyage, including…
Monstrosities like Charybdis, Scylla, and the Sirens clearly pose a greater threat to Odysseus’ ship than the others on the list, but Polyphemus shouldn’t be trifled with either. If it weren’t for Odysseus blinding Polyphemus then they never would have left the island of Thrinacia. They’d all probably end up in Polyphemus’ stomach otherwise.
In all honesty, the wringer that Odysseus and his men are put through makes the Trojan War seem tame.
What is Odysseus Most Famous For?
The acclaim Odysseus has is largely in part because of his penchant for trickery. Honestly, the guy can really think on his feet. When we consider that his grandfather was a famous rogue, maybe it is safe to say it is hereditary.
One of his more infamous stunts was when he feigned insanity in an attempt to avoid the draft for the Trojan War. Picture this: a young king plowing salted fields, unresponsive to the world around him. It was going great until the Euboean prince Palamedes threw Odysseus’ infant son Telemachus in the way of a plow.
Of course, Odysseus swerved the plow to avoid hitting his child. Thus, Palamedes managed to disprove Odysseus’ madness. Without delay, the Ithacan king was sent to the Trojan War. Cunning aside, the man was catapulted forward as an epic hero when he remained decidedly loyal to the Greek war effort, neglecting his desire to return home.
Generally, the escapades of Odysseus and his men on their return voyage to Ithaca are what the world remembers the hero for. Though there is no denying that time and time again, Odysseus’ persuasive powers came in clutch to save the day.
Odysseus in the Trojan War
During the Trojan War, Odysseus played a significant part. When Thetis put Achilles into hiding to avoid his enlistment, it was Odysseus’ ruse that gave away the hero’s disguise. Furthermore, the man acts as one of Agamemnon’s advisors and displays great control over swaths of the Greek army at various points in time. He convinces the leader of the Achaeans to stay in a seemingly hopeless battle not once, but twice, despite his own strong desire to return home.
Moreover, he was able to console Achilles long enough after the death of Patroclus to give the Greek soldiers a much-needed break from combat. Agamemnon may have been the Achaean commander, but it was Odysseus who restored order to the Greek camp when tensions rose. The hero even returned the daughter of a priest of Apollo to put an end to a plague that befell the Greek army.
Long story short, Agamemnon was given Chryseis, the daughter of the priest, as a slave. He was really into her, so when her father came bearing gifts and requesting her safe return, Agamemnon told him to kick rocks. The priest prayed to Apollo and boom, here comes the plague.
Oh, and the Trojan horse? Greek legend credits Odysseus as the brains of that operation.
Crafty as ever, 30 Greek warriors led by Odysseus infiltrated the walls of Troy. This Mission Impossible-style infiltration is what put an end to the 10-year conflict (and Trojan King Priam’s lineage).
Why Does Odysseus Go to the Underworld?
At some point on his perilous journey, Circe warns Odysseus of the dangers that await him. She informs him that if he desires a way home to Ithaca, he would have to seek out Theban Tiresias, a blind prophet.
The catch? Tiresias was long dead. They would have to travel to the Underworld, the House of Hades if they wanted to go home.
Himself long-since exhausted, Odysseus admits that he “wept as I sat on the bed, nor had my heart any longer desire to live and behold the light of the sun” (Odyssey, Book X). Ithaca seemed further than ever before. When Odysseus’ men discovered their next destination, the hero describes how “their spirit was broken within them, and sitting down right where they were, they wept and tore their hair.” Odysseus and his men, all mighty Greek warriors, are horrified at the idea of going to the Underworld.
The mental and emotional toll of the journey was evident, but it was only just beginning.
Circe directs them to a grove of Persephone across from “deep eddying Oceanus.” She even describes the exact way they had to go about calling forth the dead and the animal sacrifices they would have to make thereafter.
When the crew reached the Underworld, countless wraiths emerged from Erebus: “brides, and unwedded youths…toil-worn old men…tender maidens…and many…that had been wounded…men slain in fight, wearing…blood-stained armor.”
The first of these spirits to approach Odysseus was one of his men, a youth named Elpenor that died intoxicated in a fatal fall. He was an ataphos, a spirit wandering that did not receive a proper burial. Odysseus and his men had neglected such, being too caught up in their voyage to Hades.
Odysseus also witnessed the spirit of his mother, Anticlea, before Tiresias appeared.
How Did Odysseus Get Rid of the Suitors?
After 20 years gone, Odysseus returns to his homeland of Ithaca. Before going further, Athena disguises Odysseus as a poor beggar to keep his presence on the island on the down low. Odysseus’ true identity is then revealed only to Telemachus and a select number of loyal servants.
By this time, Penelope was at the end of her line. She knew that she could delay the gaggle of admirers no longer. The men – all 108 – were given a challenge by the Ithacan queen: they had to string and shoot Odysseus’ bow, sending the arrow cleanly through several axeheads.
Penelope knew that only Odysseus could string his bow. There was a trick to it that only he knew. Even though Penelope was fully aware of this, it was her last chance to defy the suitors.
Consequently, each suitor failed to string the bow, let alone shoot it. It was a massive blow to their confidence. They began to disparage the thought of marriage. There were other women available, they lamented, but to fall so exceedingly short of Odysseus was embarrassing.
Finally, a disguised Odysseus hobbled forward: “…wooers of the glorious queen…come, give me the polished bow…I may prove my hands and strength, whether I have yet might such as was of old in my supple limbs, or whether by now my wanderings and lack of food have destroyed it” (Odyssey, Book XXI). Despite protest from the admirers, Odysseus was permitted to try his hand. The servants loyal to their lord were tasked with locking exits.
In a blink, Odysseus dropped the face reveal of the Bronze Age. And he’s armed.
You could hear a pin drop. Then, slaughter ensued. Athena shielded Odysseus and his allies from the suitor’s defenses all while helping her favorites strike true. All 108 suitors were killed.
Why Does Athena Help Odysseus?
The goddess Athena plays a central role in Homer’s epic poem, Odyssey. More so than any other god or goddess. Such is undeniably true. Now, just why she was so willing to offer her aid is worth exploring.
First things first, Poseidon, the Greek god of the sea, has it out for Odysseus. As the saying goes, “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” Athena has had a bit of a grudge against Poseidon ever since they competed for the patronage of Athens. After Odysseus managed to blind Poseidon’s Cyclops son, Polyphemus, and earns the sea god’s ire, Athena had even more of a reason to get involved.
Secondly, Athena already has a vested interest in Odysseus’ family. For much of the Odyssey, she acts as a guardian for both Odysseus and young Telemachus. While this likely comes down to their heroic bloodline, Athena also makes it known that she is Odysseus’ patron goddess. Their relationship is confirmed in Book XIII of the Odyssey when Athena exclaims, “…yet you did not recognize Pallas Athene, Daughter of Zeus, who always stands by your side and guards you through all your adventures.”
In all, Athena helps Odysseus because it is her duty. She must fulfill her duty just as the other gods must. Truth be told, having her charge cross Poseidon is just a bonus for her.
Who Killed Odysseus?
The epic Odyssey leaves off with Odysseus making amends with the families of Penelope’s suitors. Ithaca is prosperous, pleasant, and most of all peaceful when the story comes to a close. From that, we can garner that Odysseus lived out the rest of his days being a family man.
The man deserves it after everything he went through. Unfortunately, you can probably see where this is going: that just isn’t the case.
In the Epic Cycle – a collection of poems recounting pre- and post-Trojan War events – a lost poem known as Telegony immediately succeeds Odyssey. This poem chronicles the life of Telegonus, Odysseus’ young son born from the hero’s affair with the sorceress Circe.
With a name meaning “born afar,” Telegonus sought out Odysseus when he came of age. After a series of blunders, Telegonus finally came face-to-face with his old man…unknowingly, and in a skirmish.
During the confrontation, Telegonus strikes the killing blow to Odysseus, stabbing him with a poisoned spear gifted by Athena. Only in Odysseus’ dying moments did the two recognize each other as father and son. Heartbreaking, but Telegonus’ story doesn’t end there.
After a possibly very awkward family reunion on Ithaca, Telegonus brings Penelope and Telemachus back to his mother’s island, Aeaea. Odysseus is buried on the beach and Circe turns everyone else present immortal. She ends up settling down with Telemachus and, with her youth regained, Penelope remarries…Telegonus.
Was Odysseus Real?
The fantastic Homeric epics of ancient Greece still ignite our imaginations. There’s no denying that. Their humanness tells a more uniquely human story than other tales of the time. We can look back on the characters – god and man-like – and see ourselves reflected back to us.
When Achilles mourns the loss of Patroclus in the Iliad, we feel his sorrow and desperation; when the women of Troy are separated, raped, and enslaved, our blood boils; when Poseidon refuses to forgive Odysseus for blinding his son, we understand his resentment.
Regardless of how real the characters of Homer’s classic epics are to us, there is no tangible evidence of their existence. Obvious gods aside, even the lives of the mortals involved cannot be concretely verified. This means that Odysseus, a beloved character for generations, likely did not exist. At least, not as a whole.
If there was an Odysseus, his exploits would have been exaggerated, if not borrowed wholly from other individuals. Therefore, Odysseus – the hypothetically real Odysseus – could have been a great king of a minor Ionian island during the Bronze Age. He could have had a son, Telemachus, and a wife that he adored. Truth be told, the real Odysseus may have even participated in a large-scale conflict and was considered missing in action.
This is where the line is drawn. The fantastical elements that adorn Homer’s epic poems would be distinctly lacking, and Odysseus would have to navigate a stark reality.
What is Odysseus the God Of?
Does having a cult dedicated to your triumphs make you a god? Eh, it depends.
It is important to consider what constitutes a god in Greek myth. Generally, gods were mighty immortal beings. This means they cannot die, at least not by any usual means. Immortality is one of the reasons Prometheus could endure his punishment, and why Cronus was able to be diced up and tossed into Tartarus.
In some cases, powerful gods could reward individuals with immortality, but this was uncommon. Usually, mythology only mentions demigods becoming gods since they were already divinely inclined. Dionysus is a good example of this because he, despite being born mortal, became a god after ascending Olympus.
READ MORE: Olympian Gods
The worship of heroes in ancient Greece was a normal, localized thing. Offerings were made to the heroes, including libations and sacrifices. Occasionally, heroes were even communed with when the locals needed advice. They were thought to influence fertility and prosperity, though not as much as a city god would.
Saying that, a hero cult becomes established after said hero’s death. By Greek religious standards, heroes are viewed more as ancestral spirits than any sort of deity.
Odysseus earned his hero acclaim through his brave and noble feats, but he is not a god. In fact, unlike many Greek heroes, Odysseus isn’t even a demi-god. Both of his parents were mortals. However, he is the great-grandson of Hermes: the messenger god is the father of Odysseus’ maternal grandfather, Autolycus, a famous trickster and thief.
READ MORE: 11 Trickster Gods From Around The World
Roman Opinion of Odysseus
Odysseus may be a fan favorite in Greek myths, but that doesn’t mean he saw the same popularity with the Romans. In fact, many Romans link Odysseus directly to the fall of Troy.
For some background, Romans oftentimes identified themselves as the descendants of Prince Aeneas of Troy. After Troy fell to the Greek army, Prince Aeneas (himself a son of Aphrodite) led survivors to Italy. They became the progenitors of the Romans.
In the Aeneid, Virgil’s Ulysses typifies a common Roman bias: the Greeks, despite their apt cunning, are immoral. While Hellenism gained traction throughout the Roman Empire, Roman citizens – especially those belonging to the upper echelons of society – viewed the Greeks through a narrow elitist lens.
They were impressive people, with vast knowledge and rich culture – but, they could be better (i.e. more Roman).
However, the Roman people were as varied as any other, and not all shared such a belief. Numerous Roman citizens looked upon how Odysseus approached situations with admiration. His roguish ways were ambiguous enough to be comically applauded by the Roman poet Horace, in Satire 2.5. Likewise, “cruel Odysseus,” the deceitful villain, was celebrated by the poet Ovid in his Metamorphoses for his skill in oration (Miller, 2015).
Why is Odysseus Important to Greek Mythology?
The importance of Odysseus to Greek mythology extends far beyond Homer’s epic poem, Odyssey. He gained renown as one of the most influential Greek champions, commended for his cunning and bravery in the face of adversity. Moreover, his misadventures throughout the Mediterranean and Atlantic Seas grew into a staple of the Greek Hero Age, equivalent to the maritime feats of Jason and the Argonauts.
More than anything, Odysseus figures centrally as one of Greece’s glittering heroes of ages past. When all is said and done, the Iliad and the Odyssey take place during the Hero Age of Greek mythology. It was during this time that the Mycenaean civilization dominated much of the Mediterranean.
Mycenaean Greece was immensely different than the Greek Dark Ages that Homer grew up in. In this way, Odysseus – as with many of Greece’s most famous heroes – represents a lost past. A past that was filled with daring heroes, monsters, and gods. For this reason, Odysseus’ tale supersedes the obvious messages of Homer’s epics.
Sure, the tales act as a warning against violating xenia, the Greek concept of hospitality and reciprocity. And, yes, Homer’s epic poems brought to life the Greek gods and goddesses that we know today.
Despite the above, the biggest contribution Odysseus gives to Greek mythology is being a significant part of their lost history. His actions, decisions, and cunning acted as a catalyst for innumerable key events throughout the Iliad and Odyssey, respectively. These events – from the oath sworn by Helen’s suitors to the Trojan horse – all impacted Greek history.
As Seen in O Brother, Where Art Thou? And Other Media
From film adaptations to television and plays, the epics of Homer are a hot topic.
One of the more famous films to emerge in recent years is the comedy-musical, O Brother, Where Art Thou? released in 2000. With a star-studded cast and George Clooney as the leading man, playing Ulysses Everett McGill (Odysseus), the movie was a hit. Pretty much, if you like the Odyssey but would love to see it with a Great Depression twist then you’ll enjoy this film. There are even Sirens!
On the flip side of things, there have been attempts at more faithful adaptations in the past. These include the 1997 miniseries, The Odyssey, with Armand Assante as Odysseus, and a 1954 film starring Kirk Douglas, Ulysses. Both have their pros and cons, but if you’re a history buff then both are uniquely admirable.
Even video games couldn’t resist paying homage to the late Ithacan king. God of War: Ascension has Odysseus as a playable character in multiplayer mode. His armor set is otherwise available for Kratos, the main character, to wear. Comparatively, Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey is more of a reference to the epic highs and lows of Bronze Age seafaring Odysseus experienced.