The Odyssey | Study Guide


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The Odyssey | 10 Things You Didn't Know


Homer's The Odyssey, which dates from 725 to 675 BCE, has long been considered a foundational work of Western literature. The epic chronicles the voyage of Odysseus, who is traveling home after the long Trojan War. Unlike many mortal figures in Greek mythology, Odysseus was famed for neither his strength, like Hercules or Ajax, nor his political power, like Agamemnon, but instead for his intelligence and cunning.

Homer's poem was, for centuries, an essential read for anyone lucky enough to attain an education in Europe. Along with The Iliad, it's a defining text in the field of the classics and in the genre of the epic. Today, the story of Odysseus's voyage is well-known across the world and has influenced scores of writers, artists, and historians.

1. There is a lost sequel to The Odyssey.

Chronicling the life of Telegonus, Odysseus's son with Circe, Telegony was the final episode in the Greek epic cycle, which includes works in addition to The Iliad and The Odyssey. The text, written by Eugammon of Cyrene, was lost and never recovered in ancient times. Only fragments remain, and they are found as quotations from the originals that appear in the works of later authors.

2. The Odyssey may have been influenced by a much older epic.

The Epic of Gilgamesh, which dates from about 2000 BCE in ancient Mesopotamia, also features a protagonist who travels across the known world, enters the realm of the dead, and receives information from a sun goddess. Scholars have noted the similarities between the two epics, including parallels in Gilgamesh for both Circe and Calypso.

3. The Odyssey influenced another famous Greek playwright to produce a "comical, burlesque-like" adaptation.

The playwright Euripides wrote Cyclops—based on the episode with Polyphemus in The Odyssey—which is the only complete work of the genre called "satyr plays" to survive to the present day. Satyr plays featured choruses of half-goat men (called Satyrs in Greek mythology) and were notorious for outrageous humor and gags onstage. It is believed to have first been performed around 408 BCE.

4. Scientists continue to speculate about the possible dates of Odysseus's journey.

Although no one knows for sure if Odysseus was even a real figure, scientists used astronomical clues present in The Odyssey to try to determine a date-range during which the tale may have taken place. Based on the possible description of a full solar eclipse, they believe Odysseus may have returned to Ithaca on April 16, 1178 BCE.

5. Canadian author Margaret Atwood wrote a version of the story from Penelope's perspective.

Atwood's book, entitled The Penelopiad, focuses on Penelope, Odysseus's wife, and features both her views on her life in Ithaca while her husband is at sea, as well as the perspectives of her handmaidens, who make up the chorus of the novella. Penelope narrates the story from the Underworld in the 21st century.

6. One of the first works of science fiction parodies The Odyssey.

True History, written by Lucian of Samosata in the 2nd century, satirizes the epics of ancient Greece. It features aliens, space travel, and warfare between kingdoms of the sun and moon, allowing some literary historians to classify it as the earliest example of the literary genre of science fiction.

7. Circe's potion may have been inspired by a real hallucinogenic drug.

In Book 10 the seemingly hospitable Circe slips Odysseus' crew a magical potion that turns them into swine—but this myth may not be as far-fetched as it seems. Based on Homer's description, modern-day scientists believe that Circe's drug may have been Datura stramonium, or jimson weed, which has strong hallucinogenic and amnesia-inducing properties.

To defend Odysseus from Circe's magic, Hermes gives the adventurer an herb that Homer calls "moly," which scientists today believe could be the snowdrop plant. Snowdrop, which is common in Greece, can protect against neurological damage. Its active ingredient, galantamine, is used today to treat Alzheimer's disease.

8. About 600 men left with Odysseus for Ithaca. One came back.

Odysseus set out for home in 12 black ships and a crew of around 600. Eleven ships were sunk by the boulders of the Laestrygonians. Six crew members of the remaining ship are killed and eaten by Polyphemus. Elpenor dies on Circe's island. Six more men are eaten by Scylla. The rest die when Zeus destroys the last ship after the men eat the sacred cattle of Helios. Odysseus is the only one to return to Ithaca.

9. Homer might have been a woman—or he might not have even existed.

Homer is often depicted as a blind man, but little is actually known about the person whose name is synonymous with epic poetry. According to Andrew Dalby, a scholar of classical studies and food history, the "Homer" who formally wrote down The Odyssey, as well as The Iliad, might have been a woman. He points to the tradition of female oral poets and suggests that a woman might have had more time and inclination to transcribe the epics than a male oral poet. Others suggest that Homer is a composite of the many poets who contributed to the story over generations of oral tradition.

10. Novelist James Joyce's Ulysses echoes The Odyssey.

In his 1922 epic, Joyce tells the story of Stephen Daedalus, Leopold Bloom, and Molly Bloom, three modern Dubliners who parallel Telemachus, Odysseus, and Penelope. Though divided into 18 chapters, the novel takes place over 24 hours, mirroring the Homeric epic's structure. Episodes recall the adventures of Homer's characters with the Lotus Eaters, the voyage to Hades, the Sirens, and others.

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