The Legend of Ulysses

                                                  By Homer

 

The Odyssey is the sequel to Homer’s great story the Iliad. This epic legend traces the homeward journey of the hero Ulysses (also known as Odysseus). Ulysses was the friend of Achilles and inventor of the Trojan Horse, and he was renowned for his intelligence and charm. The Legend is about his efforts to sail home to his wife and child on the island of Ithaca. The problem is that Ulysses seems to have been lost at sea on the return journey, and trouble is brewing at home for his wife and child.

Ten years have passed since the fall of Troy, and the Greek hero still has not returned to his kingdom in Ithaca. A large and rowdy mob of young men – looking for a rich spouse – has overrun Odysseus’s palace and pillaged his land in their continuing effort to court his wife, Penelope. She has remained faithful to Odysseus, but as a woman in a sexist age, she will have to give in to a powerful suitor at some point – such is the power of men in this ancient age. Penelope stalls for time. Prince Telemachus, Odysseus’s son, wants desperately to throw the suitors out, but he does not have the strength, confidence, or experience to fight them. One of the suitors, Antinous, plans to assassinate the young prince, eliminating the only opposition to their dominion over the palace.

Unknown to Penelope and the suitors, Ulysses is still alive. The beautiful nymph Calypso, possessed by love for him, has imprisoned him on her secret island. Although he enjoys the company of a beautiful goddess, he longs to return to his wife and son. He would leave if he could, but he has no ship or crew to help him escape.

Meanwhile, the gods engage in a debate about whether to let Ulysses get away from Calypso’s romantic prison. And while the gods and goddesses of Mount Olympus argue about Odysseus’s future, Athena – Ulysses’ strongest supporter among the gods – resolves to help Telemachus get his father back. Disguised as a friend of the prince’s grandfather, Athena convinces the prince to call a meeting of the island assembly, at which he tells the suitors to leave his mother and his property alone. She goes on to prepare him for a journey to Pylos and Sparta, where the kings Nestor and Menelaus – Ulysses’ companions during the war – live in splendor after their victory in Troy. These kings inform Telemachus that Ulysses is alive and trapped on Calypso’s island. Athena confirms their story, and she lets Telemachus know that his father will soon be freed from Calypso. Accordingly, she orders Telemachus to return home and prepare for a fight to free the island kingdom form the suitors. Meanwhile, back in Ithaca, Antinous and the other suitors prepare an ambush to kill Telemachus when he reaches the home port.

On Mount Olympus, Zeus sends the messenger god Hermes to rescue Ulysses from Calypso. Hermes orders Calypso to let Ulysses build a raft and leave. She gives in to the superior power of Zeus. Then the homesick hero sets sail. But when Poseidon, god of the sea, finds him sailing home, he sends a storm to wreck Odysseus’s ship. (Poseidon has harbored a bitter grudge against Ulysses since the hero blinded his son, the Cyclops, earlier in his travels.) Athena intervenes to save Ulysses from Poseidon’s wrath, and the hero lands at the island of the Phaeacians. Nausicaa, the beautiful young Phaeacian princess finds Ulysses – exhausted – on the beach. She shows him to the royal palace, and Ulysses receives a warm welcome from the king and queen. When he identifies himself as the great Ulysses, his hosts, who have heard of his exploits at Troy, are stunned. They want him to marry their daughter, but when Ulysses insists on returning to his wife, they promise to give him safe passage to Ithaca. At the farewell banquet, everyone begs to hear the story of his adventures. Ulysses agrees, and the story moves into a first-person narrative.

Ulysses spends the night describing the fantastic chain of events leading up to his arrival on Calypso’s island. He recounts his trip to the Land of the Lotus Eaters (drug addicts), his battle with the Cyclops (giants), and his love affair with the goddess Circe (women love Ulysses.). He tells also of his frightening journey into Hades to meet dead Achilles and the prophet Tiresias; he tells of his fight with the sea monster Scylla and how it killed his sailors. The Phaeacians are thrilled by the story.

When he finishes his story, the Phaeacians return Ulysses to Ithaca, where he seeks out the hut of his faithful shepherd, Eumaeus. Though Athena has disguised Ulysses as a beggar, Eumaeus warmly receives and nourishes him in his hut. Ulysses soon encounters Telemachus, who has returned from Pylos and Sparta despite the suitors’ ambush, and reveals to him his true identity. Ulysses and Telemachus then devise a plan to massacre the suitors and regain control of Ithaca.

When Ulysses arrives at the palace the next day, still disguised as a beggar, he endures abuse and insults from the suitors. The only person who recognizes him is his old nurse, Eurycleia, but she swears not to disclose his secret. Penelope takes an interest in this strange beggar, suspecting that he might be her long-lost husband. Quite crafty herself, Penelope organizes an archery contest the following day and promises to marry any man who can string Ulysses’ great bow and fire an arrow through a row of twelve axes - a feat that only Ulysses has ever been able to accomplish. At the contest, each suitor tries to string the bow and fails. Ulysses steps up to the bow and, with little effort, fires an arrow through all twelve axes. He then turns the bow on the suitors. He and Telemachus, assisted by a few faithful servants, kill every last suitor.

Ulysses reveals himself to the entire palace and reunites with his loving Penelope. He then travels to the outskirts of Ithaca to see his aging father, Laertes. They come under attack from the vengeful family members of the dead suitors, but Laertes, reinvigorated by his son’s return, successfully kills Antinous’s father and puts a stop to the attack. Zeus dispatches Athena to restore peace. With his power secure and his family reunited, Ulysses’ long ordeal comes to an end.