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Context

Learn about the historical and cultural context surrounding Homer’s epic poem The Odyssey with Course Hero’s video study guide.

The Odyssey | Context

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Greek Mythology

Homer set The Odyssey in Greece during the Bronze Age, which is the period from about 1600 to 1100 BCE, before his time. The Greeks believed that, in this ancient time, gods still roamed the earth. But Homer inserted some elements from his own time, such as the social structure of the early Iron Age (1200–700 BCE) Greek culture in which he lived. Homer refers to the Greeks in the epic as "Achaeans," the name of a tribe that lived in Greece throughout the Bronze Age.

The ancient Greeks used their mythology to explain the world and all its phenomena, from the cycle of day and night and the passage of the seasons to the origins of particular landforms and even flowers, as well as processes such as storms and earthquakes. The Greeks, like most societies of the ancient world, had multiple gods and goddesses. The gods lived chiefly on Mt. Olympus, though some dwelt elsewhere. Zeus was the ruler of the gods, and some of the major deities were his siblings, such as Poseidon, or his children, such as Athena. Gods could be associated with more than one power or attribute. Athena, for example, was the goddess of war but was also associated with cities, justice, skill in crafts, and wisdom. The gods were immortal.

The gods had human form and characteristics. They could be loving and jealous, generous and vengeful. They directed human destiny and often interacted with humans. Along with the 12 Olympian gods, the Greeks believed in many minor gods. Among those who appear in The Odyssey are the Sirens, Circe, and Calypso. The Greeks also believed in other kinds of powerful beings, including giants—such as the one-eyed Cyclopes—and monsters—such as Scylla and Charybdis. The origins of these beings varied. The Cyclops Polyphemus was the son of the sea god Poseidon and the sea nymph Thoosa; nymphs were minor female deities who were not immortal. The Greeks also believed in monsters such as the dangerous Scylla and Charybdis, whom Odysseus and his men must evade.

The Iliad

The Odyssey is a continuation of The Iliad, which tells the story of the 10-year-long war the Achaeans waged against the city of Troy, in what is now Turkey, to recover Helen, the queen of the Achaean king Menelaus of Sparta. Helen was taken to Troy by Paris, a prince of that city. Archaeologists have found an ancient site in northwestern Turkey where several different layers of archaeological remains indicate human occupation extending over more than two millennia. One of those layers has evidence of houses closely clustered and facilities built for food storage, as though the inhabitants had to live through an extensive siege. This layer also shows the site destroyed by fire and some evidence of widespread looting, which could be linked to the Homeric sack of Troy.

The Odyssey picks up where The Iliad leaves off, after the fall of Troy. It centers on one of the Greek warriors who fought in the battle, Odysseus, and follows his 10-year journey back home to his kingdom in Ithaca. The Greeks called this kind of story nostos, meaning "the journey home." Odysseus also figures prominently in The Iliad on several occasions. He is the one who persuades the hero Achilles to join the Achaean cause, and his persuasive powers are employed on several other occasions. Athena gives him the stratagem of the Achaeans building and then hiding a host in a giant wooden horse before seeming to depart from the area in defeat. As anticipated, the Trojans brought the horse into the city, and the hidden warriors emerged from their hiding place at night and opened the city gates to allow the remaining Achaean host to enter and destroy the city.

Epic Poetry

An epic poem is a long narrative poem written in a grand or lofty style that recounts the adventures of heroes; expresses cultural values; and has cultural, national, or religious significance. The word epic is actually derived from the Greek epos, which means "lines" or "verses" and thus underscores the poetic nature of the genre. In ancient Greece epics were recited by bards, or singers, at special occasions. They were transmitted orally for centuries before they were written down. The Odyssey, which drew on this oral tradition, is one of the oldest epics ever recorded in writing.

Epic poems have several characteristics. The Odyssey and The Iliad helped establish several conventions of the epic. These conventions include focus on a hero of cultural or national importance who has many adventures, a wide geographic scope with many settings, battles requiring heroic deeds, possibly an extended journey, and the involvement of supernatural beings such as gods. All of these elements are present in The Odyssey.

Other conventions of literary epics involve how the story is told—and these conventions are generally attributed to Homer. Epic poems typically begin with an invocation of the Muse. The Muses were the nine Greek goddesses of the various arts and included Calliope, the goddess of epic poetry. The invocation is the poet's request for divine inspiration. Epics begin in media res, or in the middle of the action, rather than at the beginning. Events leading to that point are related in flashbacks. Homeric epics employ epithets, which are phrases associated with particular characters or phenomena that are often presented when that character or phenomena is referred to anew. Thus, in The Odyssey Athena is often called "sparkling-eyed Athena" or "the bright-eyed goddess," and the goddess Dawn is referred to as "young Dawn with her rose-red fingers." Among mortals Odysseus is often "godlike," "great-hearted," and "much-enduring." Telemachus is frequently called "clear-sighted," "clear-headed," and "pensive," and Menelaus is "the red-haired king." These epithets are, in fact, units of meaning fashioned to fit the meter of the poem that are variously used depending on the metrical needs of a given line of poetry. Finally, epics are traditionally divided into 24 sections, called books.

Later epic poets consciously followed these conventions to some extent. Both the Roman poet Virgil in the Aeneid and the English poet John Milton in Paradise Lost invoke the Muse and begin in media res. Their epics have 12 rather than 24 books, but that there are exactly half as many divisions as in Homer's works clearly shows the influence of the Greek epics.

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