Was Odysseus a demigod?
No. Demigods were usually defined as the children of one mortal parent and one immortal parent, while Odysseus’ parents, Laertes and Anticlea, were both mortal.
Did Odysseus fight in the Trojan War?
Yes. Odysseus fought on the Greek side during the Trojan War. In fact, it was Odysseus who came up with the Trojan Horse, the clever device that finally allowed the Greeks to breach Troy’s walls and conquer the city.
Did Odysseus make it home?
Yes. Though it took him ten years of wandering, Odysseus did eventually make it back to Ithaca. When he finally arrived, however, he found his palace crawling with violent suitors who wanted to marry his wife Penelope and take over his kingdom. Odysseus’ homecoming was thus not complete until he was able to kill all the suitors.
Did Odysseus kill the Cyclops?
No—though he did wound him. During his wanderings, Odysseus happened upon the island of the Cyclopes. After the Cyclops Polyphemus ate several of Odysseus’ men, Odysseus managed to escape by blinding Polyphemus.
Was Odysseus unfaithful to his wife?
Yes. While Penelope remained faithful to Odysseus for the entirety of his twenty-year absence (in most versions, at least), Odysseus took several lovers during his long wanderings. These included the goddesses Circe and Calypso. In a strange twist of fate, one of his sons by Circe, Telegonus, went on to accidentally kill Odysseus.
Odysseus, the son of Laertes and Anticlea, was king of the island of Ithaca. Known by Homer as “the man of twists and turns” and favored by the goddess Athena, Odysseus was remarkably intelligent and cunning. He used these qualities to great effect during the Trojan War: ten years into the war, Odysseus devised the trick of the Trojan Horse to help the Greeks penetrate Troy’s impregnable walls and conquer the city.
After sacking Troy, Odysseus spent ten years wandering the world as he tried to get back home to Ithaca. These wanderings are the most famous part of his mythology and are full of fantastic adventures: Odysseus faced Cyclopes, sorceresses, and sea monsters, among other creatures. Eventually, he made it back to Ithaca, killed all of the suitors who were trying to marry his wife and take over his kingdom, and was reunited with his family.
The etymology of the name “Odysseus” has been much debated. In ancient Greek literature, it was connected with the words odyssomai (“to be angry with, to hate”), odyromai (“to lament”), or ollymi (“to perish, to be lost”). In Book 19 of the Odyssey, for example, the servant Euryclea tells of how, when Odysseus was born, his grandfather Autolycus named him Odysseus “inasmuch as I am come hither as one that has been angered with [Greek: odyssamenos] many, both men and women, over the fruitful earth.”1
However, modern scholars generally regard the derivation of “Odysseus” from odyssomai as a folk etymology. Attempts have been made to trace the name to various locales and languages from Odysseus’ mythology, including Illyria or Epirus in northwestern Greece, continental Europe, Asia Minor, and Babylonian or Hittite. Other scholars have simply concluded that the name is pre-Greek.2
/oʊˈdɪs i əs, oʊˈdɪs yus/
From an early date, Odysseus’ name existed in a number of variants, including Oliseus, Olyseus, Olysseus, Olyteus, Olytteus, Ōlysseus, and Oulixēs. These forms seem to have been more closely related to Odysseus’ Italian counterparts, the Etruscan Uthuze and the Roman Ulixes or Ulysses. According to John Tzetzes, the Etruscans sometimes called Odysseus Nanus or Nannus.3
Titles and Epithets
Odysseus’ most famous epithet is polytropos, popularly translated as “the man of twists and turns.” This is one of several epithets that highlight Odysseus’ cunning. Others include polymētis, “of many councils,” and polymēchanos, “of many devices.”
Odysseus had other important epithets. Because of his role in sacking Troy, he was called ptoliporthios (“sacker of cities”). Due to his many long years of wandering, he was called polytlas and polytlēmōn (“much-suffering, much enduring”), polypenthēs (“of much pain”), and polystonos (“of much sorrow”). Finally, Odysseus was often simply called by his patronymic, Laertiadēs, meaning “son of Laertes.”
Odysseus was the king of Ithaca, a small, rocky island on the west coast of Greece. Unlike the kingdoms of most other great heroes, Odysseus’ island home was humble and insignificant.
What Odysseus lacked in political prestige he made up for in his intellectual attributes. As his famous epithets suggest, Odysseus, “the man of twists and turns,” was extraordinarily cunning. It was no doubt partly because of this cunning that Athena, the goddess of wisdom (among other things), loved Odysseus so dearly.
Physically, Odysseus was typically described as not very tall but broad-shouldered and broad-chested.4 He was known for his speed as well as his strength, as illustrated in many of the myths about him.
In artistic representations from the fifth century BCE and beyond, Odysseus is typically recognized by a pilos, a conical hat or skullcap often associated with sailors in ancient Greece.
In the standard account, first attested in the Homeric epics, Odysseus was the son of Laertes and Anticlea. Laertes was the king of Ithaca; in some traditions, he was one of the Argonauts who had sailed with Jason in his quest for the Golden Fleece.5 Anticlea was the daughter of Autolycus, a talented thief and a son of Hermes.6 As Anticlea’s son, Odysseus was thus the grandson of Hermes.
According to some traditions, however, Odysseus’ father was not Laertes but Sisyphus. As the story went, Sisyphus had seduced Anticlea before she married Laertes and was thus Odysseus’ true father.7
Odysseus had a sister named Ctimine. She married Eurylochus of Same, who fought with Odysseus in the Trojan War but died, along with the rest of Odysseus’ men, on the journey home.8
Odysseus’ wife, Penelope, was a Spartan princess. Together they had a son named Telemachus, born before Odysseus went off to fight in the Trojan War.9 In some traditions, Odysseus and Penelope had other sons after he returned from the war, including Acusilaus10 and Poliporthes or Ptoliporthes.11
Odysseus took many lovers during his travels, often fathering children by them. With the sorceress Circe, for example, Odysseus fathered Telegonus, who was later responsible for Odysseus’ death.12 Most sources agree that Odysseus and Circe had other children, too, though they disagree on the exact number as well as their names.13
With Calypso, a daughter of the Titan Atlas, Odysseus fathered Nausithous and Nausinous.14 In some sources, Calypso was also the mother of children usually assigned to Odysseus and Circe, including Auson15 and Telegonus (or Teledonus).16
With Callidice, the queen of Thesprotia in northwestern Greece, Odysseus fathered Polypoetes.17 This child went on to rule Thesprotia after his mother died and Odysseus returned to Ithaca.
With Euippe, a northern Greek princess, Odysseus fathered Euryalus. Unfortunately, the boy suffered a tragic fate: when Euryalus came to Ithaca in search of his father, Odysseus did not recognize him and killed him.18
Finally, with an unnamed daughter of the Aetolian Thoas, Odysseus had a son named Leontophonus.19
- unnamed daughter of Thoas
Though Odysseus became most famous for his role in the Trojan War and his subsequent wanderings, there is at least one important myth about his early life.
When Odysseus was just entering adulthood, he went to visit his maternal grandfather, Autolycus, on Mount Parnassus in northern Greece. One day, while hunting with his grandfather and uncles, his thigh was gored by a boar. Odysseus managed to kill the boar and escape, but the encounter gave him a scar on his thigh that he carried for the rest of his life (and which allowed some people to recognize him when he returned to Ithaca after his twenty-year absence).20
The Oath of Tyndareus and Marriage to Penelope
Some time afterwards, Odysseus was among the suitors who came to Sparta to seek Helen’s hand in marriage. Helen’s beauty was so famous that all the most powerful Greek princes and heroes wanted to marry her. Odysseus was well aware that he, with his humble kingdom, did not stand a chance against his wealthier and more powerful rivals. In one version, he did not even bother to bring any gifts to accompany his suit, so sure was he that he could never win Helen.21
But Odysseus knew that Helen’s father, Tyndareus, was afraid that as soon as he chose one of the suitors for his daughter, the others would quarrel with the winner. Odysseus had a solution to this problem, which he offered to share with Tyndareus—in exchange for his help in winning the hand of Helen’s cousin Penelope.
Once Tyndareus agreed to the terms, Odysseus explained his solution to the suitor problem: Tyndareus should simply make all the suitors swear an oath that they would support Helen’s chosen husband against anybody who might attack him. After the suitors swore this oath—often called the “Oath of Tyndareus”—Helen was safely married to Menelaus.22
Tyndareus kept his word and helped Odysseus win Penelope. In some versions, Tyndareus simply made Icarius, Penelope’s father, marry his daughter to Odysseus.23 But in other versions, Odysseus only won Penelope after he defeated her other suitors in a footrace.24
The Trojan War
Odysseus as Recruit and Recruiter
In most accounts, Odysseus and Penelope were happy together. Before long they had a son, whom they named Telemachus.
But their happiness was cut short when, back in Sparta, Helen ran off with the dashing Trojan prince Paris. Menelaus flew into a rage and resolved to stop at nothing to get her back. He therefore called on all of Helen’s former suitors to join him in attacking Troy: after all, by swearing the Oath of Tyndareus, the suitors had committed to support Helen’s marriage against any who violated it. They had no choice but to help Menelaus.
Since he had been one of Helen’s suitors, Odysseus was also required to join in the war effort. In one popular myth, he tried to avoid going to Troy by feigning madness; when the Greeks came to get him, he yoked a horse and a bull to a plow and started sowing his fields with salt.
But one of the recruiters, Palamedes, did not buy Odysseus’ convenient bout of insanity. He proved that Odysseus was faking by placing the infant Telemachus in front of the plow; Odysseus swerved out of the way at the last moment. With his sanity confirmed, Odysseus was forced to join the Greeks in the Trojan War—but he continued to bear a fateful grudge against Palamedes.25
Perhaps somewhat hypocritically, Odysseus then went on to help Menelaus recruit other draft dodgers. The most important of these was Achilles: there had been a prophecy that without him, the Greeks would not be able to take Troy. But Achilles’ mother, Thetis, did not want the young man to fight in the Trojan War, for another prophecy had predicted that he would die there. Thus, she disguised Achilles as a girl and hid him among the daughters of Lycomedes, the king of the island of Skyros.26
Undeterred, Odysseus came up with a clever plan to draw Achilles out of hiding. He came to Skyros with gifts for Lycomedes and his daughters—mostly clothing and jewelry, but also a shield and spear. Next, Odysseus had his men outside fake an attack on the palace. While the girls panicked, Achilles threw off his disguise, grabbed the shield and spear, and prepared to fight. Once Achilles had revealed his identity in this way, Odysseus convinced him to join the Greeks in their war against Troy.27
Delegation to the Trojans
After several misadventures (which lasted as many as ten years, according to some sources), the Greeks finally reached Troy. Hoping that the Trojans would want to avoid a fight, the Greeks decided to send a delegation to demand that Helen be returned. The group was headed by Helen’s husband, Menelaus, and the crafty Odysseus.
This attempt at diplomacy did not go well. The Trojans refused to return Helen, and one of the Trojan elders even tried to have Menelaus and Odysseus assassinated. After making their escape, Menelaus and Odysseus reported the disappointing results to the rest of the Greeks. Thus began the Trojan War.28
Led by Menelaus’ older brother Agamemnon, the Greeks attacked Troy with everything they had. But Troy’s walls were virtually impregnable, and the Greeks soon realized that they needed to settle in for a long war.
Revenge on Palamedes
Meanwhile, Odysseus had not forgotten how Palamedes had put his son’s life in danger when he came to Ithaca to recruit him. Thus, early on in the Trojan War, Odysseus decided to take his revenge.
There are different accounts of this episode. In one version, Odysseus framed Palamedes for treason. He hid Trojan gold in Palamedes’ tent and forged letters between Palamedes and the Trojan king Priam, in which Palamedes promised to betray the Greeks. This was evidence enough for the Greeks, who promptly put Palamedes to death.29
In another version, attested in a much later source, Odysseus and his friend Diomedes convinced Palamedes that there was treasure buried at the bottom of a well. When Palamedes descended the well to look, Odysseus and Diomedes hurled large stones on top of him and buried him alive.30
Odysseus in the Iliad
Odysseus was one of Agamemnon’s most trusted advisors during the Trojan War and is thus an important character in Homer’s Iliad, which takes place during a few eventful weeks in the ninth year of the war.
Throughout the Iliad, Odysseus distinguishes himself repeatedly as a keen diplomat and firm leader. One episode tells of how Agamemnon tried to test the mettle of the Greek army by telling them that they could go home, hoping that they would voluntarily choose to stay at Troy until they had sacked the city. Instead, the army took Agamemnon at his word and stampeded for the ships. It was Odysseus who prevented them from disbanding.31
This was not the only time Odysseus cleaned up (or tried to clean up) one of Agamemnon’s messes. After Agamemnon insulted Achilles, the greatest of the Greek warriors, and caused him to abandon the war, Odysseus went to Achilles to try and smooth things over. This time, however, Odysseus’ diplomacy failed, for Achilles refused to forgive Agamemnon.32
Later, with the Trojans gaining ground in Achilles’ absence, Odysseus and Diomedes went out on a nighttime spying mission to gather intelligence. They were able to capture a Trojan spy called Dolon, who told them where they could find fresh Trojan reinforcements, led by the Thracian king Rhesus. After killing Dolon, Odysseus and Diomedes snuck into Rhesus’ camp, killed him and his men, and stole his prize horses.33
Homer’s Odysseus is also a brave and skilled fighter, even if he is not as impressive as other heroes like Achilles or Ajax. In one battle, it was only through Odysseus’ efforts that the Greeks were not completely routed by the Trojans.34 During the funeral games for Patroclus, Odysseus proved his ability by wrestling Ajax to a draw and winning the footrace.35
After Achilles’ close friend Patroclus was killed in battle by the Trojan champion Hector, it was Odysseus who managed to temper Achilles’ rage. Achilles, devastated by the loss of his friend, wanted to attack the Trojans immediately. But the more level-headed Odysseus convinced him to let the Greeks eat something first.36
The Armor of Achilles
After Achilles was killed by the Trojan prince Paris, Odysseus and Ajax helped carry his body back to the Greek camp. Achilles received a lavish hero’s burial, after which it was decided that his precious armor, forged by the smith god Hephaestus himself, should go to the greatest surviving Greek hero.
Two men presented themselves as candidates for this title: the giant Ajax (sometimes called Ajax “the Greater,” to distinguish him from another Ajax of smaller stature who also fought at Troy, called Ajax “the Lesser”) and Odysseus. Though Ajax was the better warrior, Odysseus’ cunning and strategic ability was considered even more valuable. Odysseus was therefore awarded the armor.
Ajax, furious and humiliated, wanted to avenge his honor by murdering Odysseus. But Athena, Odysseus’ protector, caused Ajax to go mad and turn his sword against the livestock instead. When Ajax realized what he had done, he killed himself.37
Neoptolemus and Philoctetes
With the deaths of both Achilles and Ajax, the Greeks were down their two best warriors. According to a prophecy, if they had any hope of winning the Trojan War (which had already been raging for a decade), they needed the help of Achilles’ son Neoptolemus (also called Pyrrhus), who was being raised on the island of Skyros. Odysseus, who had once recruited Achilles on that very island, now returned there to bring Achilles’ son to Troy.38
Another prophecy revealed that the Greeks could not conquer Troy without the bow of Heracles (and, perhaps more importantly, the poisoned arrows that accompanied it). This great bow belonged to Philoctetes, who had joined the Greek army when the war broke out but who had been marooned on the island of Lemnos after receiving a foul-smelling injury.
Once again, it was Odysseus who went to fetch the warrior. Though Philoctetes at first refused to go with Odysseus (it had been Odysseus’ idea to maroon Philoctetes in the first place), he was eventually convinced. Once at Troy, his injury was cured and he used his famous bow to kill Paris.39
The Greeks soon learned of yet another prophecy concerning the course of the war: the city of Troy could not be conquered, it was said, as long as the Trojans held the Palladium—an ancient statue sacred to Athena—within their walls.
Odysseus again came to the rescue, vowing to steal the Palladium. In some versions of the myth, he snuck into Troy by himself, disguised as a beggar, but in most versions he was assisted in some capacity by his usual accomplice, Diomedes.40
The Trojan Horse
After the Greeks had been at Troy for ten years, Odysseus made what was no doubt his most important contribution to the war effort: he found a way to win the war.
His plan was relatively simple: the Greeks would build a hollow wooden horse in which several of their heroes would hide. They would then board their ships and sail away from Troy, leaving the horse on the beach. After the Trojans had taken it into the city, the men would sneak out of the horse and open the gates for the Greek army.
To ensure that the Trojans took the bait, the Greeks told one man, Sinon, to stay behind. Sinon pretended that he had been cast out by the Greeks and that the horse was an offering to Athena: the Trojans would do well, he said, to take it into their city. Though some doubted Sinon (especially Cassandra and the priest Laocoon), the Trojans ended up bringing the horse into Troy.
After the Trojans finished celebrating their “victory” and went to bed, the men in the horse opened a trap door, climbed out, and opened the city gates to the rest of the army, which had in the meantime sailed back to Troy. At last, the Greeks had found a way to get past Troy’s impregnable walls—by trickery. Once inside, they proceeded to sack and pillage the city that they had spent a decade fighting.41
The Return Journey: Odysseus in the Odyssey
Though Odysseus played an extremely important role in the Trojan War, he is even more famous for his later adventures. These are the subject of the second great Homeric epic, the Odyssey.
Ismarus and the Cicones
Soon after setting sail from Troy, Odysseus and his twelve ships put in at the town of Ismarus in Thrace. Though Odysseus’ men easily raided the city, they made the mistake of getting drunk afterwards. While their guard was down, they were attacked by the neighboring Cicones, who killed seventy-two of Odysseus’ men and forced the rest to retreat.42
Odysseus’ ships were then blown off course by storms, which brought them to the land of the Lotus-eaters. After tasting the lotus fruit, Odysseus’ men fell into a blissful state and no longer cared about returning home. But their captain dragged them to the ships, strapped them down, and sailed away.43
Odysseus’ next stop was the island of the Cyclopes, a race of giant one-eyed shepherds. One Cyclops, Polyphemus, managed to trap Odysseus and a few of his men in his cave and proceeded to eat them. In fact, he would have eaten them all had Odysseus not devised a plan to escape.
First, Odysseus got Polyphemus drunk with some wine he happened to have on hand. When the Cyclops fell into a deep, drunken sleep, Odysseus and his remaining men blinded him with a sharpened stake. Polyphemus woke up screaming, but, because Odysseus had told him earlier that his name was “Nobody,” his cries did him little good: as he called for help, Polyphemus could only say that “Nobody” was hurting him, so his neighbors assumed he was ill or simply having a bad dream.
The next day, when the blinded Polyphemus opened his cave to pasture his sheep, Odysseus and his men were able to sneak away. But once they were safely in their ship, Odysseus could not resist the urge to taunt the Cyclops. As he and his men were sailing away, he cried out:
Cyclops, if any one of mortal men shall ask thee about the shameful blinding of thine eye, say that Odysseus, the sacker of cities, blinded it, even the son of Laertes, whose home is in Ithaca.44
Polyphemus heard Odysseus and cast a boulder at him, nearly sinking the ship. He then begged his father Poseidon to avenge him. This was how Odysseus incurred the hatred of Poseidon, who prevented him from reaching home for ten years.45
Aeolus and the Winds
Odysseus then sailed to the island of Aeolus, the master of the winds. Aeolus took a liking to Odysseus and gave him a bag containing all of the winds except the West Wind. With the weather now in his favor, Odysseus would have a quick and easy journey home.
And indeed, Odysseus made it most of the way to Ithaca without incident. But while he was sleeping, his men opened the bag of winds, thinking Odysseus was hiding a treasure inside. The released winds quickly blew Odysseus all the way back to Aeolus. Realizing that Odysseus must have angered some god, Aeolus refused to help the hero a second time.46
More Misfortunes: The Laestrygonians and Circe
Things only got worse for Odysseus from here. First he came to the land of the cannibalistic Laestrygonians, who attacked his ships while they were in harbor and ate his men. Of Odysseus’ twelve ships, eleven were destroyed—along with all the men inside. Only Odysseus’ ship was able to get away.47
Odysseus, now with only one ship, next came to the island of the sorceress Circe, a daughter of the sun god Helios. Odysseus sent out a small party of men to explore, but only one of them, Odysseus’ brother-in-law Eurylochus, returned. Eurylochus revealed that, as he hid, the other men drank a potion that Circe gave them and were immediately transformed into pigs.
With the help of Hermes, Odysseus was able to track down Circe and force her to change his men back. Impressed, Circe entertained Odysseus and his men for a long time, giving them a welcome break from their wanderings. Odysseus himself became Circe’s lover.48
Eventually, Odysseus decided that it was time to leave Circe and make another attempt to get home. When he asked Circe for directions, she told him that the only person who could help him was the prophet Tiresias. But since Tiresias was dead, the only way to speak to him would be to visit him in the Underworld.
Circe revealed how to get to the Underworld and what sacrifices Odysseus needed to make to appease the infernal gods. She also told him that when the shades of the dead approached him, he could speak with them by letting them drink from the sacrificial blood.
Odysseus did as Circe instructed and successfully entered the Underworld. When Tiresias appeared, he gave Odysseus clear instructions to avoid harming the cattle of Helios when he and his men put in on the island of Thrinacia. He also warned Odysseus that when he did reach Ithaca, he would find his palace overrun by suitors trying to marry his wife Penelope and claim his kingdom.
Tiresias then revealed that Odysseus had offended Poseidon by blinding his son Polyphemus; thus, after returning to Ithaca, he would need to go on another journey to appease the powerful god:
do thou go forth, taking a shapely oar, until thou comest to men that know naught of the sea and eat not of food mingled with salt, aye, and they know naught of ships with purple cheeks, or of shapely oars that are as wings unto ships. And I will tell thee a sign right manifest, which will not escape thee. When another wayfarer, on meeting thee, shall say that thou hast a winnowing-fan on thy stout shoulder, then do thou fix in the earth thy shapely oar and make goodly offerings to lord Poseidon—a ram, and a bull, and a boar that mates with sows—and depart for thy home and offer sacred hecatombs to the immortal gods who hold broad heaven, to each one in due order.49
Tiresias concluded by prophesying Odysseus’ death: “And death shall come to thee thyself far from the sea, a death so gentle, that shall lay thee low when thou art overcome with sleek old age, and thy people shall dwell in prosperity around thee.”50
After learning what he needed from Tiresias, Odysseus spoke to the shades of people he had known while they were alive, including Achilles, Agamemnon, and even his own mother, Anticlea, who had died waiting for her son to come home from Troy. He also saw many famous dead heroes (Theseus, Heracles) and villains suffering eternal punishment (Sisyphus, Tantalus).51
Sea Monsters and Sacred Cows
Odysseus and his men then returned to Circe’s island, where they buried one of their companions, Elpenor, who had died while they were preparing to sail for the Underworld.
When they set off again, Odysseus and his men first sailed by the Sirens, monsters who lured sailors to their death with their beautiful song. Odysseus stopped his men’s ears with wax so that they would not hear the fatal music. But Odysseus was determined to listen; thus, he had himself lashed to the mast so he could hear the song without diving to his death.52
Odysseus then passed between the many-headed monster Scylla and the whirlpool Charybdis, two creatures who inhabited opposite sides of a narrow strait. Following Circe’s advice, Odysseus steered close to Scylla, knowing that while she would devour six of his men (one for each of her mouths), Charybdis would swallow the whole ship and all of his men with it.53
After passing these monsters, Odysseus reached the island of Thrinacia, which was sacred to the sun god Helios. Though Odysseus warned his men not to harm the cattle of Helios (as Tiresias had instructed), they ignored him and hunted down the sacred animals. Helios reported this crime to Zeus, who caused a storm to wreck Odysseus’ ship. Odysseus—who alone had not touched Helios’ cattle—was the sole survivor.54
Ogygia and Calypso
After losing his last ship and all of his crew, Odysseus was washed ashore on the island of Ogygia. There he was found by Calypso, the daughter of the Titan Atlas. Calypso made Odysseus her lover and forced him to remain with her for seven years.
Eventually, the gods remembered Odysseus, and Zeus sent Hermes to order Calypso to release the hero.55 Calypso allowed Odysseus to build a raft, but not before offering to make him immortal if he stayed with her. Odysseus gently declined this offer:
I know full well of myself that wise Penelope is meaner to look upon than thou in comeliness and in stature, for she is a mortal, while thou art immortal and ageless. But even so I wish and long day by day to reach my home, and to see the day of my return.56
Odysseus built a raft and set sail from Ogygia. But when Poseidon saw him, he sent up a great storm that wrecked the raft. It was only with the help of the sea goddess Leucothoe that Odysseus was able to avoid drowning. Clinging to a piece of timber, he floated on the sea for days until he washed ashore on Scheria, the island of the Phaecians.57
It was on Scheria that Odysseus’ luck finally took a turn for the better. He was discovered on the beach by the princess Nausicaa, who told him to come to the palace. There, Odysseus was welcomed by the kindly king Alcinous and his wife Arete. Odysseus eventually agreed to tell his story, after which the Phaecians gave him many beautiful gifts, put him on a ship, and took him to Ithaca. After twenty years, Odysseus had finally come home.58
Back in Ithaca, Odysseus discovered that, as Tiresias had warned, many suitors had come to his palace to try to marry his wife Penelope. To prevent them from recognizing and killing him, Athena disguised Odysseus as an old beggar.59
Odysseus first found his way to the house of Eumaeus, a swineherd and a loyal former servant. There he met his son, Telemachus, now a fully grown man. Overcome, Odysseus revealed his identity to Telemachus and Eumaeus and recruited them to help him defeat the suitors.60
Odysseus then went to the palace, still disguised as a beggar. The suitors, living off of the estate of the absent Odysseus, had made his palace their home. For a few days Odysseus played the role of the beggar, letting himself be mistreated by the suitors.61 He was recognized only by his dog Argus, who died immediately after being reunited with his master, and by his old nurse Euryclea, who recognized him by the scar on his thigh.62
Odysseus did not reveal his identity to Penelope, but he did speak to her privately one night at the palace. During their interview, Penelope told Odysseus that she had been fending off the obnoxious suitors for years, but that she had decided to marry whichever one of them could string Odysseus’ old bow and shoot an arrow through twelve axe rings.63
The next day, Penelope announced the test of Odysseus’ bow. When none of the suitors were able to even string it (much less shoot an arrow through the rings), the “beggar” Odysseus asked to try. Of course, he easily accomplished the task. He then revealed his identity to the shocked suitors and—with the help of his son Telemachus, the swineherd Eumaeus, and the cowherd Philoetius—proceeded to slaughter them all.64
After the massacre, Odysseus resolved to scour his home clean. He had the handmaids who had slept with the rowdy suitors clean up their bodies; once they had finished their task, he hanged them.65
Reunion with Penelope
Odysseus then revealed himself to Penelope. But Penelope, who had not seen her husband in twenty years, was hesitant to take him at his word.
Penelope decided to test Odysseus to make sure it was really him. She ordered the servants to bring out his bed so that he could sleep, but Odysseus immediately told her that this was impossible, for he had built the bed out of a living olive tree. Since only the real Odysseus could have known this fact, Penelope realized that her husband had finally come home.66
Laertes and the People of Ithaca
The next day, Odysseus went out to the country, where his aged father, Laertes, had his estate. Immediately after father and son were reunited, however, Odysseus learned that the people of Ithaca, wanting revenge for the deaths of the suitors, had taken up arms against him.
Odysseus and Laertes grabbed their weapons and prepared to fight the angry mob. But just then Athena appeared to persuade both sides to make peace with one another.67
Other Adventures and Death
Following his return to Ithaca, Odysseus was forced to set out on another journey: he still needed to appease Poseidon, who had been angry with him ever since he had blinded Polyphemus.
Odysseus sailed to northern Greece and traveled deep inland with an oar on his shoulder, as Tiresias had instructed him to do. When he met somebody who mistook the oar for a winnowing fan, he planted it in the ground and sacrificed to Poseidon.
But Odysseus did not immediately go home. Instead, he stayed in the kingdom of the Thesprotians and even married the Thesprotian queen, Callidice. He then helped the Thesprotians fight a war against their neighbors. After Callidice died, Odysseus made their son, Polpoetes, king of Thesprotia and sailed back to Ithaca.
In the meantime, Telegonus, Odysseus’ son by Circe, had set sail in search of his father. When he arrived in Ithaca, he started raiding the countryside; in response, Odysseus went out to confront the violent stranger. Unfortunately, the father and son did not recognize each other, and Telegonus killed Odysseus with a spear whose tip had been poisoned with the barb of a stingray.
When Telegonus realized that he had killed his father, he was heartbroken. He buried and mourned Odysseus, then brought Penelope and Telemachus to his mother’s island of Aeaea. There, Telemachus married Circe, while Telegonus himself married Penelope.68
There were also other, lesser-known versions of the final adventures of Odysseus.
In some accounts, Penelope did not wait faithfully for Odysseus to return, as she did in the Odyssey. Instead, she took a god or one of the suitors (or even all of the suitors, in some versions) as her lover. When Odysseus came home and discovered this, he either banished Penelope,69 killed her,70 or left Ithaca to continue his wanderings.71
In other versions, Odysseus was exiled from Ithaca for killing the suitors and ended up sailing to Aetolia, the mainland region just opposite Ithaca. There, he married the daughter of a certain Thoas, settled down, and eventually died of old age.72
Odysseus is and always has been an ambivalent figure. In the Odyssey—the earliest surviving source to tell his myth—he is depicted relatively sympathetically. But even Homer’s Odysseus is more of an “antihero” than the straightforwardly heroic Achilles: he relies less on his physical prowess than on his intellect, and he does not hesitate to use trickery and deceit.
Compared to Homer, other sources were much more critical of Odysseus. The poet Pindar, for example, claimed that Homer had exaggerated how much Odysseus actually suffered,73 while the philosopher Plato dismissed the hero as an unprincipled liar and trickster.74
Some Greek literature, especially tragedy, tended to highlight the darker sides of Odysseus’ character. In the Sack of Troy, an early Greek epic, Odysseus cruelly throws Hector’s young son Astyanax off the walls of Troy as the Greeks burn the city;75 in Sophocles’ Philoctetes, he displays a cynical and self-serving personal philosophy;76 and in Euripides’ Hecuba, he is coldly calculating in carrying out the sacrifice of Hecuba’s daughter Polyxena.77
Roman literature was even more unkind to Odysseus. While describing the fall of Troy in Book 2 of the Aeneid, Virgil depicts Odysseus as a cruel and impious villain. Seneca paints a similar portrait of Odysseus in his Trojan Women.78 Ovid, characteristically, is less consistent: in Book 13 of the Metamorphoses, Odysseus comes across as an unscrupulous sophist, while Heroides 1, written from the perspective of Penelope, presents him in a more sympathetic light.
Odysseus was the subject of hero cult at several ancient Mediterranean sites, most of them associated with his mythology. These included Aetolia and Epirus (the area of his later travels),79 Libya (where the Lotus-eaters were believed to have lived),80 and Tarentum in southern Italy.81 Dedications to Odysseus have also been discovered on his home island of Ithaca. Finally, the Spartans had a shrine dedicated to Odysseus, where they claimed to house the Palladium that he had once stolen from Troy.82
As one of the most famous Greek heroes, Odysseus has had an enduring presence in modern pop culture.
In literature, he has appeared in or inspired numerous poems, epics, novels, and graphic novels, including Alfred Lord Tennyson’s “Ulysses” (1842), James Joyce’s Ulysses (1918–1920), Nikos Kazantzakis’ The Odyssey: A Modern Sequel (1938), Eyvind Johnson’s Return to Ithaca (1946), Eric Shanower’s Age of Bronze graphic novel series (1998–), Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad (2005), David Gemmell’s Troy trilogy (2005–2007), Glyn Iliffe’s Adventures of Odysseus series (2008–2017), and Margaret Miller’s The Song of Achilles (2011) and Circe (2018).
The myth of Odysseus has also been adapted many times for film and television, with various actors taking on the role. In film, these include Kirk Douglas in the Italian Ulysses (1955), John Drew Barrymore in The Trojan Horse (1961), and Sean Bean in Troy (2004). In television, Odysseus has been portrayed by John D’Aquino in Xena: Warrior Princess (1995–2001), Armand Assante in The Odyssey (1997), and Joseph Mawle in Troy: Fall of a City (2018). The 2000 film O Brother, Where Art Thou, starring George Clooney as Ulysses Everett McGill, is loosely based on the Odyssey.
Odysseus is also featured in other media, such as the song “Tales of Brave Ulysses” (1967) by the British band Cream and the video game Total War Saga: Troy (2020).
True to the ancient tradition, most modern adaptations of Odysseus present a highly ambivalent character, one who is devoted to his family and home but also driven by a thirst for adventure—or, in some cases, violence and greed. Hence the dilemma of Tennyson’s famous Ulysses, who finally reaches Ithaca after two decades of war and wandering only to find that he “cannot rest from travel.”
Odysseus is an important character in many surviving works of ancient literature, as well as in many that no longer exist (for example, the epics of the Trojan Cycle and the Telegony). The Odyssey, which fortunately has survived in full, is by far the most important source for his myth.
Homer: Odysseus is the main character of the Odyssey, but he is also central to the Iliad (eighth century BCE).
Hesiod: There are references to Odysseus in the Theogony and the fragmentary Catalogue of Women (seventh or sixth century BCE).
Pindar: Odysseus is represented in a less sympathetic light in Nemean Odes 7 and 8 (early fifth century BCE).
Sophocles: Odysseus is a character in two surviving tragedies by Sophocles: the Ajax (probably 440s BCE) and the Philoctetes (409 BCE).
Gorgias: Odysseus is shown in a negative light in the speech Palamedes (mid-fifth century BCE), a defense speech or “Apology” written in response to the charge of treason brought by Odysseus against Palamedes.
Euripides: Odysseus is a character in the Hecuba (420s BCE) and plays a behind-the-scenes role in the Trojan Women (415 BCE) and Iphigenia in Aulis (405 BCE).
Alcidamas: In the speech Odysseus (fourth century BCE), Odysseus accuses Palamedes of treachery.
Plato: In the Hippias Minor (fourth century BCE), Socrates compares Achilles to Odysseus and concludes that Achilles is the superior hero.
Tryphiodorus: Odysseus plays an important role in the Fall of Troy, a poem of the fourth or third century BCE.
Lycophron: Odysseus appears in the third-century BCE poem Alexandra, in which the Trojan Cassandra predicts the fall of her city and the later fortunes of the Greeks who fought in the war.
Diodorus of Sicily: The Library of History, a work of universal history covering events from the creation of the cosmos to Diodorus’ own time (mid-first century BCE), contains references to the myths of Odysseus.
Strabo: Odysseus and his myths are mentioned a few times in the Geography, a late first-century BCE geographical treatise and an important source for many local Greek myths, institutions, and religious practices from antiquity.
Dionysius of Halicarnassus: Odysseus is mentioned in the Roman Antiquities (late first century BCE or early first century CE) as one of the founders of Rome.
Pausanias: Odysseus and several myths about him are mentioned in the Description of Greece, a second-century CE travelogue and, like Strabo’s Geography, an important source for local myths and customs.
Apollodorus: The myths of Odysseus (and their variants) are summarized in the Library and Epitome, representing a single mythological handbook from the first century BCE or the first few centuries CE.
Quintus of Smyrna: Odysseus features in the fourth-century CE epic Posthomerica, which describes the end of the Trojan War.
Cicero: Ulysses is mentioned in some of Cicero’s works, especially the mid-first-century BCE dialogue On the Limits of Good and Evil, in which the hero is praised for his cunning mind.
Horace: Ulysses features in some of Horace’s poetry, perhaps most notably Book 2 of the Satires (ca. 30 BCE), which includes a continuation of Ulysses’ discussion with Tiresias in the Underworld.
Virgil: Odysseus appears in Virgil’s Aeneid (19 BCE) under the name Ulixes or Ulysses (his Roman name), where he is depicted as a cruel villain responsible for the fall of Troy and the massacre of the Trojan people.
Propertius: Some of Propertius’ poems mention Ulysses, including the twelfth poem in Book 3 of the Elegies (late first century BCE), which briefly summarizes Ulysses’ wanderings after the Trojan War.
Ovid: The first of the Heroides (late first century BCE) takes the form of a letter from Penelope to the long-lost Ulysses. Ulysses also features in other poems by Ovid, such as the Metamorphoses (ca. 8 CE).
Seneca: Ulysses is a character in the Trojan Women (first century BCE or first century CE), which describes the immediate aftermath of the Trojan War.
Statius: Ulysses appears in Statius’ Achilleid, an epic poem started around 94 CE and left unfinished at the time of the author’s death around 96 CE. The first book tells of how Achilles was hidden by his mother on Skyros until Ulysses came to get him.
Hyginus: The Fabulae, a Latin mythological handbook (first or second century CE), includes sections on the myths of Ulysses.
Dictys of Crete: The Journal of the Trojan War (fourth century CE) claims to be a Latin translation of a journal kept by a certain Dictys who fought with the Greeks during the Trojan War.
Dares of Phrygia: The History of the Fall of Troy (sixth century CE) claims to be a firsthand account of the fall of Troy, originally composed by a Trojan priest.
Fulgentius: The Mythologies, a Latin mythological handbook (fifth or sixth century CE), contains sections on the myths of Ulysses.
Brown, Andrew. “Odysseus.” In The Oxford Classical Dictionary, 4th ed., edited by Simon Hornblower, Antony Spawforth, and Esther Eidinow, 1032–33. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.
Finley, Moses I. The World of Odysseus. New York: New York Review, 1952.
Gantz, Timothy. Early Greek Myth: A Guide to Literary and Artistic Sources. 2 vols. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996.
Graves, Robert. The Greek Myths. London: Penguin, 1955.
Hall, Edith. The Return of Ulysses: A Cultural History of Homer’s “Odyssey.” London: I. B. Tauris, 2008.
Kerényi, Károly. The Heroes of the Greeks. London: Thames and Hudson, 1974.
Nagy, Gregory. The Best of The Achaeans: Concepts of the Hero in Archaic Greek Poetry. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1979.
Rose, H. J. A Handbook of Greek Mythology. London: Methuen, 1929.
Smith, William. “Odysseus.” In A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology. London: Spottiswoode and Company, 1873. Perseus Digital Library. Accessed September 4, 2021. https://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.04.0104%3Aalphabetic+letter%3DO%3Aentry+group%3D2%3Aentry%3Dodysseus-bio-1.
Stanford, William B. The Ulysses Theme: A Study in the Adaptability of a Traditional Hero. Oxford: Blackwell, 1954.
Stanford, William B., and John V. Luce. The Quest for Ulysses. New York: Praeger, 1974.
Touchefeu-Meynier, Odette. “Odysseus.” In Lexicon Iconographicum Mythologiae Classicae, Vol. 6, 943–70. Zurich: Artemis, 1992.