Odyssey, Odysseus's Adventures and the Search for His Home Island of Ithaca

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The “Odyssey” is the tale of Odysseus's journey home after the Trojan War. It is a very different book than the “ Iliad” . Rather than being about battles and brave warriors who use their power and strength to take matters into their own hands it is about a single warrior whose power and strength are no match against the whims and capriciousness of the gods and who must learn to deal with a fate over which he has no control. Much of The “ Odyssey” is about setback and delays. The crew is often complaining about something and Odysseus is not great fan of the open sea.

Odysseus – known to the ancient Romans as Ulysses – famously took 10 years to return home to Ithaca after the fall of Troy. On his journey, he was twice shipwrecked and encountered a cyclops, the spirit of his mother and tempting Sirens before returning to Ithaca, where he found his wife, Penelope, under pressure to remarry from a host of suitors who had invaded the royal palace. With the help of his father, Laertes, and his son, Telemachus, he slaughtered his rivals and re-established his rule.

The first four books of the Odyssey describe Odysseus's unhappy son Telemachus home on the island of Ithaca on the west side of Greece. The eight books that follow describe Odysseus's travels (these include the the Voyage to Hades and encounters with Circe, Scylla, Charybdis, the Sirens, the Lotus Eaters, the Cyclops, the Wander Rocks and others. The final twelve chapters describe Odysseus' homecoming and the reclamation of his kingdom.

The main places in the odyssey were: 1) Ithaca: island on which the kingdom of Laertes, of which Odysseus was king, was located; 2) Ogygia, the island on which Calypso lived; 2) Aeaea: island on which Circe lived, and later Penelope and Telemachus; 3) Sparta, kingdom of Menelaus (son of Atreus and Aerope) and Helen; 4) Scherie, the island on which the Phaeacians lived.

Websites on Ancient Greece: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Greece sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Hellenistic World sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; BBC Ancient Greeks bbc.co.uk/history/; Canadian Museum of History historymuseum.ca; Perseus Project - Tufts University; perseus.tufts.edu ; ; Gutenberg.org gutenberg.org; British Museum ancientgreece.co.uk; Illustrated Greek History, Dr. Janice Siegel, Department of Classics, Hampden–Sydney College, Virginia hsc.edu/drjclassics ; The Greeks: Crucible of Civilization pbs.org/empires/thegreeks ; Oxford Classical Art Research Center: The Beazley Archive beazley.ox.ac.uk ; Ancient-Greek.org ancientgreece.com; Metropolitan Museum of Art metmuseum.org/about-the-met/curatorial-departments/greek-and-roman-art; The Ancient City of Athens stoa.org/athens; The Internet Classics Archive kchanson.com ; Cambridge Classics External Gateway to Humanities Resources web.archive.org/web; Ancient Greek Sites on the Web from Medea showgate.com/medea ; Greek History Course from Reed web.archive.org; Classics FAQ MIT rtfm.mit.edu; 11th Brittanica: History of Ancient Greece sourcebooks.fordham.edu ;Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy iep.utm.edu;Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy plato.stanford.edu

Books: “ Odyssey” by Homer. The 2000 translation by Stanley Lombardo is regarded as one of the most accessible translations. The Penguin Classic version translated by Robert Fagles is also supposed to be good. Also recommended is M.I. Finley’s “The World of Odysseus” (New York Review Books Classics). For a modernist, 20th century interpretation there’s James Joyce’s “Ulysses”.

Main Characters in the Odyssey

20120222-Ulysse_bateau.jpg Odysseus, son of Laertes and Antikleia, was King of Ithaca. He participated in the Trojan War for 10 years; his return journey from Troy to Ithaca took an additional 10 years. He was also a character in Sophocles' Philoctetes. [Source: John Adams, California State University, Northridge (CSUN), “Classics 315: Greek and Roman Mythology class ++]

Penelope, the faithful wife of Odysseus, was daughter of Icarius (King of Sparta) and the Naiad Periboea. Her children were Telemachos and Acusilaus. After Odysseus' death at the hands of his son Telegonus (by the sorceress Circe), Penelope married Telegonus. They are said to have had a son called Italos. ++

Telemachos, son of Odysseus and Penelope, helped his father to destroy the suitors. On Odysseus' death he went with Penelope to the island of Aeaea, where he married Circe. Circe made Telemachus and Penelope immortal. ++

Eumaios, son of Ctesias, son of Ormenos (king of the island of Syria), was kidnaped by Phoenician pirates and sold to King Laertes of Ithaca. He was chief Swineherd to Odysseus (Books XIV & XVI). ++

Melanthios was son of Dolios, chief goatherd of Odysseus. He took the side of the suitors, and supplied them with weapons to use against Odysseus He was trapped, mutilated and left to die (XVII, XXII). ++

1) Antinoos, son of Eupaithes (whose life Odysseus had once saved), was the most insolent of the suitors of Penelope, and was killed by Odysseus. Eupeithes raised a revolt against Odysseus, but was killed by Laertes. 2) Eurymachos, son of Polybos, a leading suitor for Penelope, was the second to be killed. ++

Teiresias, the dead Theban soothsayer (son of one of the Spartoi), he tells Odysseus about his future in Book XI (the Nekyia).

1) Alcinoos was son of Nausithoos and king of the Phaeacians. He married his brother's daughter Arete. They had five sons and a daughter. In the previous generation he protected Jason and Medea against the Colchians (Book V-XIII). 2) Nausicaa, daughter of Alcinoos and Arete. Her help allowed Odysseus to win the favor of King Alcinoos, and her hand was offered to Odysseus. ++

Gods in the Odyssey

20120222-Odysseus Circe_Offering_the_Cup_to_Odysseus.jpg
Circe Offering the Cup
to Odysseus
Circe was the daughter of Helios and of Perse (daughter of Oceanos). Her brother Aeetes ruled Colchis. She turned Picus into a woodpecker; gave Glaucus a potion that turned his beloved Scylla into a monster; and turned Odysseus' men into pigs (Books X & XII). [Source: John Adams, California State University, Northridge (CSUN), “Classics 315: Greek and Roman Mythology class ++]

Calypso, a goddess (or nymph), was the daughter of Atlas the Titan, son of Iphitos and Clymene — and thus, a niece of Prometheus and cousin of Maia, Hermes' mother. She lived alone on the island of Ogygia. She detained Odysseus for seven years, and offered to make him immortal; but at the command of Zeus sent by Hermes, he was allowed to leave (Book V and VII)

Polyphemus, the son of Poseidon and the sea-nymph Thoosa, was reputedly one of the Cyclopes. He was a barbarous Sicilian sheepherder (Book IX, and Ovid's Metamorphoses 13. 738-897), blinded by Odysseus. His prayers to Poseidon kept Odysseus from returning to Ithaca for ten years.


Odysseus (Ulysses to the Romans) was a Greek king from Ithaca who fought in the Trojan War against the Trojans on the side of Achilles and the Greeks. He was the cleverest of the warriors in the “ Iliad” and is credited with coming up with the idea of the Trojan horse. The name Odysseus is linked to the Greek verb “ odussomai” , which means “to suffer pain.”

Odysseus was the kind of man women romanticize about (he was faithful, after all, for 20 years). He did not want to go to Troy to fight the war there and tried many tricks, including pretending he was mad by plowing a beach instead of a field, to get out of going but none of these tricks worked , and he was reluctantly forced to say good by to his wife Penelope and his son Telemachus.

When the war was over Odysseus set sail from Troy with 12 ships and a treasure taken from the Trojans. By this time he had been away from family for ten years already. A journey that should have taken several weeks ended up taking more than ten years as a result of delays brought about by monsters, enchantresses and foul weather.

Odysseus, the Lotus Eaters and the Cyclops

Lotus Eaters
A short time after leaving from Troy, a great storm blew Odysseus's ships off course to the Land of the Lotus Eaters, where several of his men ate lotus fruit and from then on could think of nothing but eating lotus fruit. They lost their desire to go home and Odysseus had to drag them back to the ship.

After rescuing these men Odysseus landed next in the Land of the one-eyed giants, Cyclops, where he and some of his men were trapped in a cave by a Cyclops named Polyphemus, who was angry at some of Odysseus’s men because they ate some of his food and was no great lover of mankind anyway. Six of Odysseus’s men were eaten but Odysseus and the others escaped after Odysseus got the Cyclops drunk and gouged out his eye and he and his men escaped by clinging onto the underbelly of a ram. On the eye-gouging, Homer wrote: “’I drove my weight on it from above and bored it home like a shipwright bores his beam with a shipwright's drill that men below, whipping the strap back and forth, whirl and the drill keeps twisting, never stopping — So we seized our stake with its fiery tip and bored it round and round in the giant's eye.’”

Afterwards Odysseus and his men met up with Aeolus, the wind god, who gave Odysseus a favorable wind to reach home and bag with other winds. When Ithaca was in sight Odysseus fell a sleep. His men thought the bag was full of treasures and opened it, releasing winds that blew them away from Ithaca.

Odysseus, the Laestrygonians, Circe and the Sirens

Odysseus next landed in the Land of the Laestrygonians, giant women who were "more than men they seemed,/ gigantic when they gathered on the sky line/ to shoot great boulders down from slings." Their giant queen ate of number of Odysseus’s men, and her warriors threw boulders at Odysseus's ships, sinking 11 of them. Only Odysseus's ship and his men managed to escape.

Odysseus and the Sirens
Next Odysseus landed on a friendly island ruled by the goddess Circe, who later became irritated by Odysseus' men and turned them into pigs. She tried to turn Odysseus into a pig too but her magic didn’t work on him because he had eaten a special flower given to him by Hermes. With the help of the gods Odysseus was able to get his men turned back into humans.

Odysseus spent a half year in bed with Circe until he became overcome with guilt about his wife. Circe told Odysseus that he if he wanted to make it home, the gods insisted that he promise never to kill any of the sun god's sheep and make a short visit to Hades. He and his men survived their short visit there and Circe filled a boat with provisions and they returned to sea.

In Hades, Odysseus met his mother. Describing Odysseus’s encounter with his mother there, Home wrote: “I tried to find some way of embracing my poor mother’s ghost. Thrice I sprung towards her and tried to grasp her in my arms, but each time she flitted from my embrace as it were a dream or phantom.” When Odysseus asked his mother why she didn’t try to embrace him she explained: “All the people are like this when they are dead. The sinews no longer hold the flesh and bones together, these perish in the in the fierceness of consuming fire as soon as life has left the body, and the soul flirts away as though it were a dream.”

The encounter of Odysseus and his men with the Sirens, humanlike female beings with alluring voices, at sea was one of the main events in the Odyssey. Odysseus had been warned about the Sirens by Circe so he knew what to do when he met up with them. He had himself tied to a mast so he could resist the sirens’ tempting song. His crew stuffed wax in their ears. If a man could resist the sirens's call, tradition stated, a siren had to die and she dutifully dived to her death into the sea.

Odysseus, Scylla and Calypso

Odysseus in the Cave of the Winds
There next test was the whirlpool ("Three times/ from dawn to dusk she appears...a whirling maelstrom") created by the sucking of the monster Charybdid. Once through that Odysseus encountered the six-headed, twelve-tentacled monster Scylla. No ship had ever made it past them before. Scylla snatched six sailors but Odysseus and the others escaped.

Odysseus and arrived on the Sun God's island, where he broke his vow about killing the sheep to keep from starving. The vengeful sun god then sunk all of Odysseus' ships and all of his surviving men died. Odysseus escaped after floating for 10 days at sea and washing ashore on the paradise island occupied by the enchantress Calypso.

Calypso lived alone on the island and took no time in seducing Odysseus and then held him hostage for seven years. With the help of the gods, who were touched by Odysseus's homesickness, he was finally able to escape from Calypso on a raft. He floated for days and encountered a few more scrapes and close calls before he was able to make it home to Ithaca.

Odysseus Returns Home to Ithaca

Penelope suitors
During the 20 years that Odysseus was gone (10 years in Troy and 10 years at sea) his wife Penelope had been approached by many men. To keep suitors away until Ulysses returned she told them that she would make her herself available after she finished the garment she was weaving, which she would secretly unravel every night.

When Odysseus returned to Ithaca he took up residence in a cave and pretended to be a beggar so he could assess what had happened on his island before claiming his throne. While staying at a swinwherd’s hut, Odysseus revealed himself to his son, Telemachus and together they plotted Odysseus’s return.

The following day, the disguised Odysseus showed up at his palace. In the meantime, Penelope had run out of delaying tactics and was forced to chose a new husband. She said she would marry the man who could string Odysseus’s bow, which required great strength, and fire a quiver of arrows and throw an ax through the hole in 12 axes set in a row.

All the suitors tried but couldn’t even string the bow. The disguised Odysseus approached and asked if he could try. All the suitors laughed: How could a beggar perform these tasks? Odysseus took the bow and strung it with ease. He then threw the ax through the hole and used the arrows to massacre all the suitors. “Ghastly screams rose up as men’s heads were smashed, and the whole floor ran with blood.” In the end corpses were piled “like fishes the fishermen have dragged out of the grey surf in he meshes of their net onto a curving beach, to lie massed on the sand longing for the salt water till the bright sun ends their lives.” Finally Odysseus was reunited with Penelope and claimed his throne and Penelope’s humiliations were avenged.

In July 2008, a team lead by Marcelo Magnsco of Rockefeller University in New York reported in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science that according to the “Odyssey” Odysseus returned to his hometown on April 16, 1178 B.C. based on sun and star positions. Homer reported that on the day of Odysseus’s return, the day he slaughtered the suitors of his wife, the sun was blotted from the sky, a possible reference to an eclipse and mentioned more than once it was time a new moon, which is necessary for such an eclipse. Other clues included: 1) six days before the slaughter Venus is visible and high in the sky; 2) twenty-nine days before two constellations — the Pleiades and Bootes — are simultaneous visible at sunset; and 3) thirty-three days before Mercury is high at dawn and near the western end of its trajectory. The later is an interpretation by researchers of Homer writing about Hermes, the Greek name for Mercury, traveling to the West to deliver a message. The other references are firmer but still shaky.

Odyssey and Real Places

20120222-Odysseus and teh suiters _from_Schwab_book_1.jpg
Odysseus and the suitors
The Tunisian island of Djerba is sometimes described as the island of the Lotus Eater and Trapani in southern Sicily is sometimes referred to as the land the Cyclops. The Cyclops, according to some scholars hurled boulders from Mount Etna and lived on islands near Catania, Sicily. Some people consider Corsica as the land of the Lestryonians and Ischia (an island in the Bay of Naples) to be Circe's island. The entrance of Hades is said to be near the Straights of Gibraltar. Western Sicily is supposedly where the sun god's sheep were killed. Some think Calypso was Malta.

The “ Odyssey” 's whirlpool Charybdis, home of the monsters of Scylla and Charybdid, refers the turbulent waters between Italy and Sicily near Messina on the Sicilian side. Bonifacio on Corsica has been identified as the place where many of Odysseus's men were munched by the cannibalistic Laestrygonians. The description of it in the “ Odyssey” goes: it is "a curious bay with mountain walls of stone/ to left and right, and reaching far inland, /a narrow entrance opening from the sea/ where cliffs converged as though to touch and close."

Zante in the Ionian islands was called "wooded Zacynthos" in the Odyssey. But most of its forests were lost to ancient boatbuilders and have since been replaced by olive groves and pastures grazed by goats. Cephalonia (3½ hours from Patras) is the largest and most rugged Ionian island and like Zante most of its forests where harvested for timber.


20120222-Odysseus Nicolae_Vermont_-_Visul_lui_Ulise.jpg
Odysseus dreaming of Ithaca
Ithaca (5 hours from Patras) is a small thinly populated island just north of Cephalonia. According to the "Odyssey” Ulysses was born in Ithaca and spent 10 years trying to reach it after the Trojan War. There is some debate as to whether this island is indeed the Ithaca from the “Odyssey “.

Ulysses met his son after his long journey near two landmarks, mentioned in the “Odyssey” that are said to be easily recognizable today: Arethusa' Fountain, a small spring hidden behind a rock that still flows with "darkling water"; and Raven's Crag, a reddish cliff that is still a favorite soaring spot for ravens. Both places are located together near the southeastern tip of the island.

Most of Ithaca is surrounded by rugged coastline and the northern part of the island is terraced for farming. Vanthi, the island largest town, is located at the end of deep blue bay fringed by steep mountains. Possible sites where Ulysses may have lived or spent time are caves located around Polis Bay from which many of the artifacts that fill the Vanthi museum were found and the remains of an ancient Bronze age city situated on a well watered and easily defensible hill.

Odyssey and the Location of Ithaca

The island of Ithaca is located off the western coast of Greece not too far from Albania. Near the place where Odysseus met his son after his long journey are two landmarks, mentioned in the Odyssey that are easily recognizable today: Arethusa' Fountain is a small spring hidden behind a rock that still flows with "darkling water" and Raven's Crag is a reddish cliff that is still a favorite soaring spot for ravens. Both places are located together near the southeastern tip of the island. Possible sites on Ithaca where Odysseus may have lived or spent time are caves located around Polis Bay from which many of the artifacts that fill the Vanthi museum were found and the remains of an ancient Bronze age city situated on a well watered and easily defensible hill.

Robert Bittlestone, a management consultant and amateur archaeologist, has argued in his book “Odysseus Unbound” that the true location of Odysseus’s Ithaca is not the modern island of Ithaca put rather the Paliki peninsula on the island of Cephalonia, which Bittlestone argues fits the descriptions of Odysseus’s home island better than Ithaca and that it was once an island based on geological discoveries he has made. Gregory Nagy, director the Center of Hellenic Studies in Washington D.C., told Smithsonian magazine, “He has done something very important. This is a real breakthrough, convergence of oral poetry and geology, and the most plausible explanation I’ve seen of what Ithaca was in the second millennia.” [Source: Fergus M. Bordewich, April 2006, Smithsonian magazine]

Homer’s description of Ithaca goes: "Around her a ring of islands circle side-by-side, / Douchlichion, Same, wooded Zachynthos too, but mine/ lies low and away, the furthest out to sea,/ rearing on to western dusk while others face east and breaking day.” Scholars have long agreed ancient and modern Zachynthos are one in the same. Similarly, Same was thought to refer to the main body of Cephalonia, which is home to a large present-day town called Sami. The island of Ithaca does not fit the description of being the “furthest to sea” and its mountainous topography is a far cry from “lying low.”

Bittlecone argues that if the Paliki peninsula were an island it would fit the description perfectly. He goes further, based on geological studies he did, and says that it was an island in Odysseus’s time and the sea channel that once divided the Paliki peninsula and Cephalonia has been filled in since Odysseus’s time by landslides and debris from earthquakes. Backing his claim is the fact that Cephalonia lies on one of the world’s most seismically-active faults and of evidence of numerous landslides that plausibly could have filled a channel found on the isthmus that divides Paliki and Cephalonia. . Geologist John Underhill of the University of Edinburgh, who checked out Cephalonia told Smithsonian magazine, “I thought it would be easy to disprove Bittlestone’s thesis but it wasn’t. Suddenly I thought, crike, there might really a channel down there.”

Further evidence backing up Bittlecone’s claim that Paliki was the “Odyssey’s Ithaca includes the beach at Theras Bay, which fits the description of the place were Odysseus came ashore and met up with the swineherd Eumaerus. It is situated on a cove with ?two jutting headlands, sheared off at the seaward side” as Homer’s book says. There are also has many features that make it ideal for farming — including springs, nuts and dark pools needed to feed Eumerus’s 960 pigs — and seems like the proper distance from Odysseys’s hometown.

Book: “Odysseus Unbound” by Robert Bittlecone (Cambridge University Press, 2006)

Ulysses and the Sirens (1909)

Palace of Odysseus Discovered?

In 2010, a team of Greek archaeologists claimed that an 8th century B.C. palace they found on the island of Ithaca was the home of Odysseus and argued it offered proof that Odysseus and the Odyssey were real. Nick Squires wrote in The Telegraph: “Nearly 3,000 years after Odysseus returned from his journey, the team from the University of Ioannina said they found the remains of an extensive three-storey building, with steps carved out of rock and fragments of pottery. The complex also features and a well from the 8th century B.C. roughly the period in which Odysseus is believed to have been king of Ithaca. [Source: Nick Squires, The Telegraph, 24 Aug 2010 +]

“The location "fits like a glove" with Homer's description of the view from the fabled palace, the archaeologists claim. The layout of the complex, where Professor Thanassis Papadopoulos and his team have been digging for 16 years, is very similar to palaces discovered at Mycenae, Pylos and other ancient sites. +\

“The claim will be greeted with scepticism by the many scholars who believe that Odysseus, along with other key characters from the Homer's epic such as Hector and Achilles, were purely fictional. “Whether this find has a connection with Ulysses or not is interesting up to a certain point, but more important is the discovery of the royal palace," said Adriano La Regina, an Italian archaeologist. +\

“Further complicating the identification of the site is the doubt over whether the ancient kingdom of Ithaca was located on its modern day namesake, Ithaki. British researcher, Robert Bittlestone, has said Homer's descriptions bear little resemblance to the island and that ancient Ithaca was in fact located on the Paliki peninsula, on the island of Cephalonia. He believes that Paliki was once an island, separated from the rest of Cephalonia by a marine channel that has since been filled in by rock falls triggered by earthquakes. Enlisting the help of geologists and ancient historians, he documented the controversial theory in a 2005 book, ‘Odysseus Unbound – The Search for Homer's Ithaca’.” +\

Why James Joyce Chose Ulysses

When asked why he chose he chose Ulysses, instead of, say, Faust or Hamlet, James Joyce said Ulysses was a "complete all around character...a complete man in literature." Faust he said is "far from being a complete man, he isn't a man at all...he can't be complete because he's never alone." he then added "Hamlet is a human being, but he is only a son. Ulysses is son to Laetes, but he is father to Telmachus, husband of Penelope, lover of Calypso, companion in arms of the Greek warriors...He was subjected to many trials, but with wisdom and courage came through them all."

Joyce added: "Don't forget he was a war dodger who tried to evade the military service by simulating madness...But once at the war the conscientious objector became a Jusqu'auboutits [bitter-ender]. When the others wanted to abandon the siege he insisted on staying till Troy should fall.”

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons, The Louvre, The British Museum

Text Sources: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Greece sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Hellenistic World sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; BBC Ancient Greeks bbc.co.uk/history/ ; Canadian Museum of History historymuseum.ca ; Perseus Project - Tufts University; perseus.tufts.edu ; MIT, Online Library of Liberty, oll.libertyfund.org ; Gutenberg.org gutenberg.org Metropolitan Museum of Art, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Live Science, Discover magazine, Times of London, Natural History magazine, Archaeology magazine, The New Yorker, Encyclopædia Britannica, "The Discoverers" [∞] and "The Creators" [μ]" by Daniel Boorstin. "Greek and Roman Life" by Ian Jenkins from the British Museum.Time, Newsweek, Wikipedia, Reuters, Associated Press, The Guardian, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “History of Warfare” by John Keegan (Vintage Books); “History of Art” by H.W. Janson Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.), Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated October 2018

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