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What is the Odyssey?

By Venus D.
Updated May 23, 2024
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The Odyssey is a tale of the voyage the Greek hero Odysseus takes at the end of the Trojan War to return to his home and family in Ithaca. This epic poem is credited to Homer, an ancient Greek poet, who is also credited with the Iliad and the entire Epic Cycle that includes poems about the Trojan War and Theban poems about Oedipus.

Odysseus spends ten years of his life on this voyage, guided by his patroness Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom. While Odysseus is battling Poseidon, the Greek god of the sea, and attempting to loosen himself from the Calypso’s influence, his wife and son, Penelope and Telemachus, fight to maintain his kingdom in Ithaca. The 24 books that comprise this epic poem highlight many literary techniques and aspects of Greek mythology. Told through flashbacks and using a technique known as in medias res, the poems begin in the middle of the voyage rather than at the beginning. Colorful characters, Odysseus’s cunning tricks and the interweaving of his voyage with the events taking place in Olympus, the home of the Greek gods, and Ithaca enthrall the reader until the end, when Odysseus is reunited with his faithful wife and son.

Homer was a blind, oral poet who recited epic poetry from memory. He belonged to a group known as Homeridae. Descended from prisoners of war, members of Homeridae were given the task of remembering old tales and epics.

Many scholars doubt whether Homer was a person. It is believed that the name Homer applied to one or more poets and that no single poet was responsible for the Odyssey. Some scholars have even contended that a woman should be credited for this epic poem of great literary value. Thorough examination of the epic poem reveals a uniform style that indicates a single author. Therefore, despite many theories to the contrary, it is widely believed that Homer existed and should be credited for the Odyssey.

Much of the scholarship regarding the Odyssey focuses on its written style. It was created within an oral culture, and the way in which it was recited was changed in the 8th century by Hipparchus, an Athenian tyrant. The Odyssey became a canonical text. It also believed that Homer had the Odyssey transcribed between the 8th and 3rd century. As a written text, it is characterized by the hexameter verse, which consists of six meters with the emphasis on the second syllable that form a regular unit of rhyme. Homeric style is more highly valued that that of Virgil or Dante, mostly because of its simplicity.

The Odyssey is written as a drama and avoids much of the politics of the period, including the effects of the Trojan War. Its influence on the arts continues today. James Joyce’s Ulysses is based on the Odyssey, as is Margaret Atwood’s Penelopiad, which is written from perspective of Penelope. The movie O’ Brother Where Are Thou? is a modern adaptation of Homer’s work.

The word odyssey itself has come to mean a long voyage. The educational value of this epic poem also continues. As the Odyssey was required in the education curriculum of an ancient Greek student, so it is for many contemporary students.

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Discussion Comments
By Pippinwhite — On Mar 13, 2014

"The Odyssey" is one of those important works that everyone needs to be familiar with, simply because its themes are still seen in literature and art (Remember "O Brother, Where Art Thou?").

Even so, it can be tough to slog through, and a good foundation in Greek mythology will help the reader understand some of the nuances of plot.

While I fully appreciate the magnitude and importance of this work, and of "The Iliad," I'm an English major and had to go through both works entirely too often. Three times each is just a little much. I've been through "Oedipus" more often, though. Good grief.

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