Literature Study GuidesMythologyPart 4 Chapter 3 Summary

Mythology | Study Guide

Edith Hamilton

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Mythology | Part 4, Chapter 3 : The Adventures of Odysseus | Summary

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Summary

After the Trojan War ends, Athena and Poseidon turn against the Greeks they once supported because the Greeks fail to remember the gods in their victory. Athena is outraged when the Greeks assault Cassandra, Priam's prophetess daughter, when she seeks refuge in Athena's temple. The Greeks have a rough journey home, with many ships lost. Odysseus survives his trip home, but it takes him 10 years and much wandering. In the meantime, his wife, Penelope, and son Telemachus are left to ward off a horde of suitors seeking Penelope's hand and consuming all their stores. Penelope devises ways to delay a decision, but after a decade, time and supplies grow short.

Eventually, Athena and Poseidon feel sorry for Odysseus and ask the gods to help him leave the island of the sea nymph Calypso, who loves him and plans to keep him. Zeus sends Hermes to Calypso, and she reluctantly agrees to release Odysseus. Athena visits Telemachus to help him prepare for his father's return. She advises him to take a ship to find news of Odysseus, so Telemachus visits Menelaus in Sparta and learns of the rumors about Odysseus and Calypso.

Poseidon does not give Odysseus a smooth journey from Calypso's island, but Odysseus washes up on the shore of an island ruled by King Alcinoüs. The king's daughter Nausicaä finds Odysseus and brings him to her father's palace. Odysseus recounts his adventures. His crew almost lose their memories eating lotus flowers. Later, some of the men are eaten by the Cyclops Polyphemus, and their means of escape—blinding Polyphemus—inspires Poseidon's rage. Aeolus, the god of winds, gives Odysseus a bag of storms to help with safe passage, but one of the crew members opens the bag by mistake, unleashing a storm that sweeps their ship to the country of the giant cannibalistic Laestrygons. On another island, they encounter Circe, a sorceress who turns some of the men into pigs, but she falls in love with Odysseus. The crew spend a comfortable year with Circe, but she sends them to Hades to consult the blind prophet Teiresias. The crew then manage to navigate past the Sirens—who lure sailors to their deaths with song—and through the passage between Scylla and Charybdis. However, when they land on the Island of the Sun, the crew eat the sacred oxen living there. A thunderbolt sent by the Sun god destroys the ship, leaving Odysseus to drift to Calypso's island.

Alcinoüs gives Odysseus a ship and supplies to get home. Athena warns Odysseus about the suitors and advises him to disguise himself as a beggar and hide with the swineherd Eumaeus when he lands in Ithaca. When Telemachus returns from Sparta, Athena sends him to Eumaeus's house where Odysseus reveals his identity to his son, and where they plan to get rid of the suitors.

Odysseus remains disguised as a beggar when he arrives home, and the suitors mock him, which irritates Penelope. She speaks to the "beggar" and offers him hospitality. The next morning, the suitors return, and Penelope tells them she will marry the one among them who can string Odysseus's bow and shoot an arrow through 12 rings in a line. After the others try and fail, Odysseus (as a beggar) steps forward and succeeds at the challenge. Then he turns his arrows on the suitors, knowing that Telemachus has hidden their weapons and is guarding the door to prevent their escape. He kills them all, including their priest, but he spares their bard.

With the suitors dispatched, Odysseus's nurse, Eurycleia, goes to Penelope to reveal the true identity of the beggar. Eurycleia recognized a scar on Odysseus's foot while she washed them the night before. Penelope finds Odysseus by the hearth and is shocked. Odysseus asks Telemachus to leave the two of them alone to get reacquainted.

Analysis

As the originator of the Trojan Horse and the instigator of the extreme violence against the Trojans, it is perhaps fitting that Odysseus suffers more than many of his comrades as he makes his way home. The Greeks make a fatal error in their disrespect of the very gods who have assisted them to victory. Cassandra once had Apollo's favor—he gave her powers of prophecy. He also made those powers useless after she rejected his love and he declared no one would ever believe her. Still, she is one who has received the gifts of the gods, which makes her fate even more galling to the gods when Greeks "lay violent hands on her" as she hides from the carnage in Athena's temple. Hamilton's choice of words is somewhat vague, but it implies rape, which is a common interpretation of what happens to her in the temple before she is dragged out into a life of slavery. Athena is understandably outraged by such desecration of her temple and the treatment of a woman seeking refuge there. Even though Odysseus does not participate in this scene, his plan makes this violence possible, so he is punished for betraying a goddess who favored him through the war.

Luckily for Odysseus, Athena does not remain angry with him. She admires his cleverness and resourcefulness, and she likes his son, Telemachus, very much. After Odysseus suffers long at sea, and after Telemachus suffers watching his father's legacy literally devoured by the opportunistic suitors who seek his mother's hand, Athena relents and pleads with the other gods to assist him. She takes a direct hand in assisting Telemachus on Ithaca and advises Odysseus on strategy once he lands in Ithaca.

Still, Odysseus has reached his lowest point when Athena finally intervenes on his behalf. His crew is gone, falling victim to the long series of threats they encounter along the journey home. Odysseus's journey fits well within the description of the hero's journey presented in Joseph Campbell's The Hero with a Thousand Faces. He accepts his adventure because he is thrust into it, and he faces many obstacles in his quest to return home, including the descent into Hades that has become obligatory for all great heroes at this point. Even after Odysseus regains the gods' favor, Poseidon remains unmoved by his plight and strikes him with a final storm that destroys his ship before he can reach Ithaca. Once he gets to Ithaca, he must surmount the obstacle presented by the suitors before he can claim the reward of his family and rebuild the kingdom from which he has been absent for 20 years. Odysseus also possesses the traits expected of a classical hero. He is strong, brave, and intelligent. His physical appearance inspires love in the women who encounter him: Circe and Calypso are most notable, but even the princess Nausicaä is taken with his beauty when he washes ashore in her father's kingdom.

Indeed, in many ways Odysseus appears to be an ideal hero. He is a powerful king whose fairness and wisdom maintain the loyalty of his subjects, even during a 20-year absence. His only direct insult toward the gods comes from his taunting of the Cyclops Polyphemus (see Part 1, Chapter 4), but he has no way of knowing Poseidon is the Cyclops's father. Otherwise, the gods favor him well for the most part. Athena certainly makes up for rejecting him after the Trojan War when she assists him in ridding his home of the suitors. He does cheat on his wife, Penelope, during his time with Circe and Calypso—while Penelope remains entirely faithful to her absent husband—but these affairs appear to be primarily physical. He is despondent on Calypso's island because, even though he lives comfortably with a beautiful woman, he longs for his home and the wife he loves in his heart. None of Calypso's charms or comforts can compete with his longing, which emphasizes the importance of home, family, and a loving marriage in Greek culture.

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