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Book 1

Course Hero’s video study guide provides in-depth summary and analysis of Book 1 of Homer’s epic poem The Odyssey.

The Odyssey | Book 1 | Summary

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The Odyssey is divided into 24 books. The first four describe the difficulties faced by Telemachus, the son of Odysseus. Books 5–12 describe the adventures the hero encounters on his way home. Books 13–24 tell how Odysseus returns to Ithaca and is finally reunited with his wife, Penelope, and his son. In this guide some books that describe continuous or related actions have been combined for the purpose of analysis.

Summary

The Odyssey opens with the poet asking the Muse of Epic Poetry, Calliope, to inspire him in the telling of this story.

The opening scene is on Mt. Olympus, with the gods, and provides an example of Olympian diplomacy. Athena attempts to persuade her father, Zeus, to let Odysseus return to his family and home in Ithaca, where Odysseus's wife, Penelope, is busy fighting off suitors who are keen to replace the presumed-dead Odysseus. Athena convinces Zeus that Hermes should be allowed to rescue Odysseus. Zeus agrees and also tells Poseidon to leave Odysseus alone.

Odysseus, the story's protagonist and hero, has been stranded on the island of Ogygia for years. He's being held captive by a nymph, Calypso, who is in love with him. Additionally, Odysseus is hiding from the god of the sea, Poseidon, who is angry that Odysseus blinded his son, Polyphemus the Cyclops.

Athena descends from the heavens to counsel Odysseus's son, Telemachus, who has been unable to regain control of his home from Penelope's suitors. She goes to Ithaca disguised as Mentes, an old friend of the family. There she tells Telemachus that Odysseus will be returning home soon, but until then Telemachus needs to protect his mother and their home from the onslaught of suitors courting Penelope. The suitors are surprised when Telemachus finally tells them to leave—one of them notes that his confidence seems to have "come from the gods," adding "only the gods could teach you/to sound so high and mighty!"

Analysis

Book 1 introduces some of the multitudes of characters, many interwoven plots, and significant themes encountered during Odysseus's return home. Readers hear of the captive and long absent Odysseus, observe the council of the gods, and learn of the trouble that Penelope and Telemachus face back home in Ithaca.

Through these situations Homer introduces important thematic elements as well. Hospitality to strangers, strict protocols for behavior toward the gods, the crafts and skills of a hero, and the preservation of one's fame all figure here. Odysseus's reputation and legacy are inseparable from his heroism, and they make more difficult Penelope's choices when dealing with the suitors. Both Athena and Zeus seem to be on Odysseus's side, but Odysseus has angered Poseidon, whose power has forced Odysseus to stay with Calypso.

Why does Penelope, Odysseus's wife, allow these potential suitors to eat and drink their way through her wealth? While reputation was crucial in ancient Greece, how one treated guests was even more so. Strangers relied upon the hospitality of others to survive. Penelope is bound by social customs to allow the suitors into her home and to provide for them generously—even if the suitors break the rules of the custom, overstay their welcome, and take advantage of Odysseus's absence. Penelope (and Odysseus by extension) is judged by how well she treats the suitors. This is why Athena intervenes, encouraging Telemachus to stand up for his family as the man of the house, whom the suitors must respect. The Odyssey, therefore, unfolds a parallel journey for Telemachus. With his father absent, he needs the guidance of a god, Athena, on his road to becoming a man. Athena's attention to him indicates that he is a worthy hero, like his father—she would not bother with him otherwise. She notes an "uncanny" physical resemblance between the son and his father, which firmly connects the two.

Telemachus demonstrates strength in taking the role of male head of the family. When a bard sings the song of the Achaeans' journey home from Troy, Penelope asks him to desist, but Telemachus chides her and tells her to take heart and summon courage. His chiding might be seen as lacking filial respect, but Penelope accepts his words, accepting "the clear good sense in what her son had said."

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