Or, as the Latin writers call him, Ulysses, Ulyxes or Ulixes, one of the principal Greek heroes in the Trojan war.
According to the Homeric account, he was the grandson of Acrisius, and a son of Laërtes and Anticleia, the daughter of Autolycus, and brother of Ctimene. He was married to Penelope, the daughter of Icarius, by whom he became the father of Telemachus.1 But according to a later tradition he was a son of Sisyphus and Anticleia, who, when with child by Sisyphus, was married to Laërtes, and thus gave birth to him either after her arrival in Ithaca, or on her way thither.2 Later traditions further state that besides Telemachus, Arcesilaus or Ptoliporthus was likewise a son of his by Penelope; and that further, by Circe he became the father of Agrius, Latinus, Telegonus and Cassiphone, and by Calypso of Nausithous and Nausinous or Auson, Telegonus and Teledamus, and lastly by Evippe of Leontophron, Doryclus or Euryalus.3 According to an Italian tradition Odysseus was by Circe the father of Remus, Antias and Ardeas.4 The name Odysseus is said to signify the angry,5 and among the Tyrrhenians he is said to have been called Nanus or Nannus.6
When Odysseus was a young man, he went to see his grandfather Autolycus near the foot of Mount Parnassus. There, while engaged in the chase, he was wounded by a boar in his knee, by the scar of which he was subsequently recognized by Eurycleia. Laden with rich presents he returned from the palace of his grandfather to Ithaca.7 Even at that age he is described as distinguished for his courage, his knowledge of navigation, his eloquence and skill as a negotiator; for, on one occasion, when the Messenians had carried off some sheep from Ithaca, Laërtes sent him to Messene to demand reparation. He there met with Iphitus, who was seeking the horses stolen from him, and who gave him the famous bow of Eurytus. This bow Odysseus used only in Ithaca, regarding it as too great a treasure to be employed in the field, and it was so strong that none of the suitors was able to handle it.8 On one occasion he went to the Thesprotian Ephyra, to fetch from Ilus, the son of Mermerus, poison for his arrows; but as he could not get it there, he afterwards obtained it from Anchialus of Taphus.9
Some accounts also state that he went to Sparta as one of the suitors of Helen, and he is said to have advised Tyndareus to make the suitors swear, that they would defend the chosen bridegroom against any one that should insult him on Helen's account. Tyndareus, to show him his gratitude, persuaded his brother Icarius to give Penelope in marriage to Odysseus; or, according to others, Odysseus gained her by conquering his competitors in the footrace.10 But Homer mentions nothing of all this, and he states that Agamemnon, who visited him in Ithaca, prevailed upon him only with great difficulty to join the Greeks in their expedition against Troy.11 Other traditions relate that he was visited by Menelaus and Agamemnon, and that more especially Palamedes induced him to join the Greeks. For when Palamedes came, it is said, Odysseus pretended to be mad: he yoked an ass and an ox to a plow, and began to sow salt. Palamedes, to try him, placed the infant Telemachus before the plow, whereupon the father could not continue to play his part. He stopped the plow, and was obliged to undertake the fulfillment of the promise he had made when he was one of the suitors of Helen.12
This occurrence is said to have been the cause of his hatred of Palamedes.13 Being now himself gained for the undertaking, he contrived to discover Achilles, who was concealed among the daughters of king Lycomedes, and without whom, according to a prophecy of Calchas, the expedition against Troy could not be undertaken.14 Before, however, the Greeks set out against Troy, Odysseus, in conjunction with Menelaus (and Palamedes),15 went to Troy, where he was hospitably received, for the purpose of inducing the Trojans by amicable means to restore Helen and her treasures.16
When the Greeks were assembled in the port of Aulis, he joined them with twelve ships and men from Cephallene, Ithaca, Neriton, Crocyleia, Zacynthus, Samos, and the coast of Epeirus.17 When Agamemnon was unwilling to sacrifice Iphigeneia to Artemis, and the Greeks were in great difficulty, Odysseus, feigning anger, threatened to return home, but went to Mycenae, and induced Clytemnestra by various pretences to send Iphigeneia to Aulis.18 On his voyage to Troy he wrestled in Lesbos with Philomeleides, the king of the island, and conquered him.19 According to others, Odysseus and Diomedes slew him by a stratagem.
During the siege of Troy he distinguished himself as a valiant and undaunted warrior,20 but more particularly as a cunning, prudent, and eloquent spy and negotiator, and many instances are related in which he was of the greatest service to the Greeks by these powers. Several distinguished Trojans fell by his hand. After the death of Achilles he contended for his armor with the Telamonian Ajax and gained the prize.21 He is said by some to have devised the stratagem of the wooden horse,22 and he was one of the heroes that were concealed in its belly, and prevented them answering Helen, that they might not be discovered.23 When the horse was opened he and Menelaus were the first that jumped out and haste to the house of Deiphobus, where he conquered in the fearful struggle.24 He is also said to have taken part in carrying off the Palladium.25
But no part of his adventures is so celebrated in ancient story as his wanderings after the destruction of Troy, and his ultimate return to Ithaca, which form the subject of the Homeric poem called after him the Odyssey. After the taking of Troy one portion of the Greeks sailed away, and another with Agamemnon remained behind on the Trojan coast. Odysseus at first joined the former, but when he had sailed as far as Tenedos, he returned to Agamemnon.26 Afterwards, however, he determined to sail home, but was thrown by a storm upon the coast of Ismarus, a town of the Cicones, in Thrace, north of the island of Lemnos. He there ravaged and plundered the town, and as he was not able to induce his men to depart in time, the Cicones hastened towards the coast from the interior, and slew 72 of his companions.27 From thence he was driven by a north wind towards Maleia and to the Lotophagi on the coast of Libya. Some of his companions were so much delighted with the taste of the lotus that they wanted to remain in the country, but Odysseus compelled them to embank again, and continued his voyage.28
In one day he reached the goat-island, situated north of the country of the Lotophagi.29 He there left behind eleven ships, and with one he sailed to the neighboring island of the Cyclopes (the western coast of Sicily), where with twelve companions he entered the cave of the Cyclops Polyphemus, a son of Poseidon and Thoosa. This giant devoured one after another six of the companions of Odysseus, and kept the unfortunate Odysseus and the six others as prisoners in his cave. In order to save himself Odysseus contrived to make the monster drunk with wine, and then with a burning pole deprived him of his one eye. He now succeeded in making his escape with his friends by concealing himself and them under the bodies of the sheep which the Cyclops let out of his cave; and Odysseus, with a part of the flock, reached his ship. The Cyclops implored his father Poseidon to take vengeance upon Odysseus, and henceforth the god of the sea pursued the wandering king with implacable enmity.30 Others represent Poseidon as angry with Odysseus on account of the death of Palamedes.32
On his further voyage he arrived at the island of Aeolus, probably in the south of Sicily, where he stayed one month, and is said to have been in love with Polymele, the daughter of Aeolus.32 On his departure Aeolus provided him with a bag of winds, which were to carry him home, but his companions, without Odysseus' knowing it, opened the bag, and the winds escaped, whereupon the ships were driven back to the island of Aeolus, who was indignant and refused all further assistance.33
After a voyage of six days he arrived at Telepylos, the city of Lamus, in which Antiphates ruled over the Laestrygones, a sort of cannibals. This place must probably be sought somewhere in the north of Sicily. Odysseus escaped from them with only one ship,34 and his fate now carried him to a western island, Aeaea, inhabited by the sorceress Circe. A part of his people was sent to explore the island, but they were changed by Circe into swine. Eurylochus alone escaped, and brought the sad news to Odysseus, who, when he was hastening to the assistance of his friends, was instructed by Hermes by what means he could resist the magic powers of Circe. He succeeded in liberating his companions, who were again changed into men, and were most hospitably treated by the sorceress. When at length Odysseus begged for leave to depart, Circe desired him to descend into Hades and to consult the seer Tiresias.35
He now sailed westward right across the river Oceanus, and having landed on the other side in the country of the Cimmerians, where Helios does not shine, he entered Hades, and consulted Tiresias about the manner in which he night reach his native island. Tiresias informed him of the danger and difficulties arising from the anger of Poseidon, but gave him hope that all would yet turn out well, if Odysseus and his companions would leave the herds of Helios in Thrinacia uninjured.36 Odysseus now returned to Aeaea, where Circe again treated the strangers kindly, told them of the dangers that yet awaited them, and of the means of escaping.37 The wind which she sent with them carried them to the island of the Sirens, somewhere near the west coast of Italy. The Sirens sat on the shore, and with their sweet voices attracted all that passed by, and then destroyed them. Odysseus, in order to escape the danger, filled the ears of his companions with wax, and fastened himself to the mast of his ship, until he was out of the reach of the Sirens' song.38
Hereupon his ship came between Scylla and Charybdis, two rocks between Thrinacia and Italy. As the ship passed between them, Scylla, the monster inhabiting the rock of the same name, carried off and devoured six of the companions of Odysseus.39 From thence he came to Thrinacia, the island of Helios, who there kept his sacred herds of oxen. Odysseus, mindful of the advice of Tiresias and Circe, wanted to pass by, but his companions compelled him to land. He made them swear not to touch any of the cattle; but as they were detained in the island by storms, and as they were hungry, they killed the finest of the oxen while Odysseus was asleep. After some days the storm abated, and they sailed away, but soon another storm came on, and their ship was destroyed by Zeus with a flash of lightning. All were drowned with the exception of Odysseus, who saved himself by means of the mast and planks, and was driven by the wind again towards Scylla and Charybdis. But he skillfully avoided the danger, and after ten days he reached the woody island of Ogygia, inhabited by the nymph Calypso.40 She received him with kindness, and desired him to marry her, promising immortality and eternal youth, it he would consent, and forget Ithaca. But he could not overcome his longing after his own home.41
Athena, who had always been the protectress of Odysseus, induced Zeus to promise over that Odysseus, notwithstanding the anger of Poseidon, should one day return to his native island, and take vengeance on the suitors of Penelope.42 Hermes carried to Calypso the command of Zeus to dismiss Odysseus. The nymph obeyed, and taught him how to build a raft, on which, after a stay of eight years with her, he left the island.43 In eighteen days he came in sight of Scheria, the island of the Phaeacians, when Poseidon, who perceived him, sent a storm, which cast him off the raft. On the advice of Leucothoe, and with her and Athena's assistance, he reached Scheria by dint of swimming.44 The exhausted hero slept on the shore, until he was awoke by the voices of maidens. He found Nausicaa, the daughter of king Alcinous and Arete; she gave him clothing and allowed him to follow her to the town, where he was kindly received by her parents. He was honored with feasts and contests, and the minstrel Demodocus sang of the fall of Troy, which moved Odysseus to tears, and being questioned about the cause of his emotion, he related his whole history. At length he was honored with presents and sent home in a ship.
One night as he had fallen asleep in his ship, it reached the coast of Ithaca; the Phaeacians who had accompanied him, carried him and his presents on shore, and left him. He had now been away from Ithaca for twenty years, and when he awoke he did not recognize his native land, for Athena, that he might not be recognized, had enveloped him in a cloud. As he was lamenting his fate the goddess informed him where he was, concealed his presence, and advised him how to take vengeance upon the enemies of his house.
During his absence his father Laërtes, bowed down by grief and old age, had withdrawn into the country, his mother Anticleia had died of sorrow, his son Telemachus had grown up to manhood, and his wife Penelope had rejected all the offers that had been made to her by the importunate suitors from the neighboring islands.45 During the last three years of Odysseus' absence more than a hundred nobles of Ithaca, Same, Dulichium, and Zacynthus had been suing for the hand of Penelope, and in their visits to her house had treated all that it contained as if it had been their own.46 That he might be able to take vengeance upon them, it was necessary that he should not be recognized, in order to avail himself of any favorable moment that might present itself. Athena accordingly metamorphosed him into an unsightly beggar, in which appearance he was kindly treated by Eumaeus, the swineherd, a faithful servant of his house.47 While he was staying with Eumaeus, his son Telemachus returned from Sparta and Pylos, whither he had gone to obtain information concerning his father. Odysseus made himself known to him, and with him deliberated upon the plan of revenge.48 In the disguise of a beggar he accompanied Telemachus and Eumaeus to the town; on his arrival he was abused and insulted by the goat-herd Melanthius and the suitors, who even tried to kill Telemachus; but his old dog and his nurse Eurycleia recognized him, and Penelope received him kindly.
The plan of revenge was now carried into effect. Penelope, with great difficulty, was made to promise her hand to him who should conquer the others in shooting with the bow of Odysseus. As none of the suitors was able to manage it, Odysseus himself took it up, and having ordered all the doors to be shut, and all arms to be removed, he began his contest with the suitors, in which he was supported by Athena, his son, and some faithful servants. All fell by his hands, the faithless male and female servants as well as the suitors; the minstrel and Medon, the herald, alone were saved.49 Odysseus now made himself known to Penelope, and went to see his aged father. In the meantime the report of the death of the suitors was spread abroad, and their relatives now rose in arms against Odysseus; but Athena, who assumed the appearance of Mentor, brought about a reconciliation between the people and the king.50
It has already been remarked that in the Homeric poems, Odysseus is represented as a prudent, cunning, inventive and eloquent man, but at the same time as a brave, bold, and persevering warrior, whose courage no misfortune or calamity could subdue, but later poets describe him as a cowardly, deceitful, and intriguing personage.51 Respecting the last period of his life the Homeric poems give us no information, except the prophecy of Tiresias, who promised him a painless death in a happy old age;52 but later writers give us different accounts.
According to one, Telegonus, the son of Odysseus by Circe, was sent out by his mother to seek his father. A storm cast him upon Ithaca, which he began to plunder in order to obtain provisions. Odysseus and Telemachus attacked him, but he slew Odysseus, and his body was afterwards carried to Aeaea.53 According to some Circe called Odysseus to life again, or on his arrival in Tyrrhenia, he was burnt on Mount Perge.54
Odysseus is portrayed on numerous Greek vases in episodes of the Odyssey, such as puncturing the eye of Polyphemus, hanging beneath the ram that guides him out of the Cyclops' cave, tied to the mast of his ship to resist the songs of the Sirens, during the massacre of the suitors, etc. On later red-figure vases and on reliefs and murals Odysseus is depicted wearing a short chiton and a pilos (a conical hat), the traditional clothes of travelers and sailors.55 Of the murals the most famous are the frescoes with Odysseus (ca. 40 BCE) in the collection of the Vatican Museum.
- Odyssey i, 329; xii, 85; xv, 362; xvi, 118 ff.
- Sophicles. Philoctetes, 417, with the Scholiast., Ajax, 190; Ovid. Metamorphoses xiii, 32; Ars Amatoria iii, 313; Plutarch. Greek Questions, 43; comp. Homer. Iliad iii, 201.
- Hesiod. Theogony, 1013 ff.; Eustathius on Homer, p. 1796; Scholiast on Lycophron, 795; Parthenius. Erotica Pathemata, 3; Pausanias. Description of Greece viii, 12.3; Servius on Virgil's Aeneid iii, 171.
- Dionysius, i, 72.
- Homer. Odyssey xix, 406 ff.
- Tzetzes on Lycophron, 1244.
- Homer. Odyssey xix, 413 ff.
- Odyssey xxi, 14 ff.
- ibid. i, 259 ff.
- Pseudo-Apollodorus. The Library iii, 10.9; Pausanias. Description of Greece iii, 12.2.
- Odyssey xxiv, 116 ff.
- Tzetzes on Lycophron, 818.
- Hyginus. Fabulae, 95.
- Pseudo-Apollodorus. The Library iii, 13.8; comp. Achilles.
- Dictys Cretensis, i, 4.
- Iliad iii, 205 ff.
- ibid. ii, 303, 631 ff.
- Dictys Cretensis, i, 20; comp. Euripides. Iphigeneia in Aulis, 100 ff.
- Odyssey iv, 342.
- Iliad iv, 494; v, 677; vii, 168; xii, 396, 404 ff.; xiv, 82.
- Odyssey xii, 545; Ovid. Metamorphoses xiii, init.
- Philostratus. Heroicus x, 12.
- Odyssey iv, 280 ff.; viii, 494; xii, 525.
- ibid. viii, 517.
- Virgil. Aeneid ii, 164.
- Odyssey iii, 163.
- ibid. ix, 39 ff.
- ibid. ix, 67, 84, 94 ff.
- ibid. ix, 116.
- ibid. i, 68 ff.; ix, 172-542.
- Philostratus. Heroicus ii, 20; comp. Palamedes.
- Parthenius. Erotica Pathemata, 2.
- Odyssey x, i ff.
- ibid. x, 80 ff.
- ibid. x, 135 ff.
- ibid. xi.
- ibid. xii, 1 ff.
- ibid. xii, 39 ff., 166 ff.
- ibid. xii, 73 ff., 235 ff.
- ibid. xii, 127 ff. 260 ff.
- ibid. i, 51, 58, iv, 82 ff. 555 ff. vii, 244 ff. ix, 28, 34.
- ibid. i, 48 ff.; v, 23; xiii, 131, comp. xiii, 300 ff.
- ibid. v, 140 ff., 234, 263.
- ibid. v, 278 ff., 445; vi, 170.
- ibid. xii, 180 ff.; xiii, 336 ff.; xv, 355 ff.; xvi, 108 ff.
- ibid. i, 246; xiii, 377; xiv, 90; xvi, 247.
- ibid. xiii, 70 ff.; xiv.
- ibid. xvi, 187 ff., 300.
- ibid. xxii.
- ibid. xxiii, xxiv.
- Virgil. Aeneid ii, 164; Ovid. Metamorphoses xiii, 6 ff.; Philostratus. Heroicus ii, 20.
- Odyssey xii, 119.
- Hyginus. Fabulae, 127; Dictys Cretensis, vi, 15; Horace. Carmina iii, 29. 8.
- Tzetzes on Lycophron, 795 ff.
- Pliny the Elder. Naturalis Historia xxxv, 36; Pausanias. Description of Greece x, 26 .1, 29.2; Eustathius on Homer, p. 804.
- Aken, Dr. A.R.A. van. (1961). Elseviers Mythologische Encyclopedie. Amsterdam: Elsevier.
- Smith, William. (1870). Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology. London: Taylor, Walton, and Maberly.
This article incorporates text from Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology (1870) by William Smith, which is in the public domain.