The Background to the Story After ten years, the Trojan War is over and the Achaeans head for home—with varying results. Some, like Nestor, come home quickly to find things pretty much as they left them. Others, like Agamemnon, arrive home to find things considerably changed. Still others, like Menelaus, wander for a time but eventually return home safely and little the worse for wear.
Odysseus, on the other hand, has been having no end of trouble getting home. As the story opens, we find ourselves in the tenth year since the end of the war, a full 20 years since Odysseus first left his home and wife Penelope to sail off for Troy with the rest of the Achaean forces.
Book 1: Athena Inspires Telemachus In a council of the gods, Athena asks her father Zeus why Odysseus is still stuck on Calypso's island ten years after the end of the war. Zeus responds that Poseidon is angry at Odysseus for having blinded his son, Polyphemus. But since Poseidon is temporarily absent, Zeus gives Athena permission to begin arrangements for Odysseus's return. Athena goes to Ithaca in disguise and inspires Odysseus's son Telemachus to go in search of news of his father. Heartened by her words, Telemachus announces his intention to sail to the mainland.
Book 2: Telemachus Sails to Pylos
Telemachus calls an assembly and asks for assistance in getting to the mainland. His independent attitude does not sit well with his mother Penelope's suitors, who oppose him in the assembly so that he does not receive the aid he sought. After making secret preparations, Telemachus and the disguised Athena depart for Pylos that same evening.
Book 3: Nestor Tells What He Knows Telemachus and Athena arrive in Pylos, to find Nestor and his family offering sacrifice to Poseidon. After joining in the ritual, Telemachus introduces himself to Nestor and explains his purpose in coming. Nestor has heard news of the returns of both Menelaus and Agamemnon, which he relates to Telemachus, but has had no news of Odysseus since all of the Achaeans left Troy ten years previously. Nestor sends Telemachus, accompanied by one of his own sons, Pisistratus, to visit Menelaus in Sparta.
Book 4: In the Home of Menelaus and Helen Telemachus and Pisistratus arrive at Menelaus's home during a celebration, and are warmly entertained by Menelaus and Helen. Menelaus tells a long story of his adventures on the way home from Troy, including news that he got from Proteus in Egypt that Odysseus was alive on Calypso's island. Meanwhile, back in Ithaca, the suitors learn of Telemachus's secret departure and are not pleased. They plot to ambush and kill him on his way home. Penelope also learns of her son's departure.
Book 5: Odysseus Sets Sail for Home— and is Shipwrecked At another council of the gods, Zeus orders Hermes to go to Calypso and tell her to let Odysseus leave for Ithaca. Calypso is unhappy, but obeys the order. She offers Odysseus a chance to become immortal and to live with her forever; which he declines. Odysseus builds a raft with tools and materials she provides, and sails off. Poseidon comes back from feasting with the Ethiopians and wrecks the raft in a storm. Odysseus, with the help of a sea goddess, is washed safely ashore in the land of the Phaeacians.
The Phaeacian Princess Nausicaa finds the shipwrecked Odysseus asleep behind a bush. Odysseus asks Nausicaa for help. She gives him some clothing to wear and sends him into town to find the palace of her father, Alcinous.
Book 7: Odysseus and the King of Phaeacia Odysseus arrives at the palace and begs the assistance of King Alcinous and Queen Arete. He gives an edited version of his "adventures" to date, but does not disclose his identity. He deftly turns aside Alcinous's suggestion that he should remain in Phaeacia and marry Nausicaa.
Book 8: The Phaeacians Entertain Odysseus The Phaeacians treat Odysseus to a day of feasting, song, and athletic events. When Odysseus begins weeping during Demodocus's tale of the Trojan War, Alcinous cuts the banquet short. At dinner that evening, Odysseus speaks highly of Demodocus's skill and offers him a prime cut of his own portion. When Demodocus sings the story of the Trojan Horse, Odysseus begins crying again, and Alcinous asks Odysseus who he is and why stories about Troy make him cry.
Book 9: Odysseus Tells His Story-Polyphemus and the Cyclopes
Odysseus reveals his identity and tells his story, beginning with his departure from Troy with 12 ships. He sacks Ismarus in Thrace, is blown off course to the land of the Lotus-Eaters, and eventually reaches the island of the Cyclopes, one-eyed giants who are sons of the sea god Poseidon.
Odysseus and the crew of his ship go to investigate this island and end up imprisoned in Polyphemus's cave. The giant finds the intruders and eats several of them for dinner. After a similar breakfast, he takes his flocks of sheep and goats to graze, leaving Odysseus and his remaining men penned in the cave. Upon Polyphemus's return, they manage to get the giant drunk and blind him. The next day they escape from his cave hiding under the bellies of his sheep and goats. Odysseus unwisely reveals his true name, and Polyphemus asks his father Poseidon to avenge his injury.
Book 10: Odysseus Tells His Story-At the Islandsof Aeolus and Circe Odysseus and his surviving crewmen now sail to the island of Aeolus, king of the winds. Aeolus gives Odysseus a bag containing all the winds that would blow him off his homeward course. They sail away and come close enough to Ithaca to see the watch-fires, when Odysseus falls asleep at the helm and his crew, thinking the bag contains a hoard of gold, untie it and release the captive winds - which blow them right back to Aeolus's island.
Aeolus refuses to help them again, saying that they are obviously cursed by the gods.
Odysseus and his crew set sail once more and eventually reach the land of the Laestrygonians, who destroy all but one of his ships. The survivors sail to Circe's island, where most of them are promptly turned into pigs by this enchantress. Odysseus, forewarned by Hermes, avoids Circe's trap and frees his men. They remain with Circe for a year before Odysseus's men ask to leave. Circe tells Odysseus that he must first visit the underworld and consult with the shade of the prophet Tiresias on how best to get home.
Book 11: Odysseus Tells His Story-In the House of the Dead Obeying Circe's instructions, Odysseus and his men sail to the underworld, where they make sacrifices to Hades and Persephone, and consult Tiresias. When Tiresias retires, the shades of Odysseus's mother and several of his comrades at Troy appear, including those of Achilles and Agamemnon. Odysseus also witnesses the punishment of several notorious offenders against the gods.
Book 12: Odysseus Tells His Story— The Sun-God's Cattle
Upon his return from the underworld, Odysseus receives sailing instructions from Circe: how to avoid the lure of the Sirens, how to get past the monster Scylla and the whirlpool Charybdis, and above all, not to harm the cattle of the sun-god on the island of Thrinacia. Cast upon Thrinacia by a fierce storm and out of provisions, Odysseus's men disobey him and slaughter some of the cattle. The sun god complains to Zeus, who destroys the ship with a thunderbolt. Only Odysseus survives, and he drifts to Calypso's island by hanging on to floating wreckage. This ends Odysseus's story as told to the Phaeacians
Book 13: Return to Ithacaand the Stone Ship The Phaeacians return Odysseus and all his treasures to his home of Ithaca while he himself is deep asleep. Athena, in disguise, meets Odysseus and he tries to trick her, without success, with a false story about himself. She reveals her identity and tells him how much she cares for him, and together they plot a stratagem for dealing with Penelope's suitors. After stowing Odysseus's treasure safely in a cave, Athena disguises Odysseus as an ancient beggar and sends him on his way. Poseidon, angry that the Phaeacians have helped Odysseus get back to Ithaca, turns their ship into a huge stone, visible to onlookers on shore and rooted to the sea-bottom.
Book 14: The Loyal Swineherd Odysseus makes his way to the dwelling of Eumaeus, a swineherd who has remained loyal to his long-absent employer. Odysseus, still in disguise, entertains Eumaeus with some "lying tales" about himself.
Book 15: Telemachus Heads for Home Telemachus takes his leave of Helen and Menelaus. Telemachus offers passage to the seer Theoclymenus, who is fleeing vengeance for a kinsman's death. Back in Ithaca, Eumaeus tells Odysseus the story of his life. Telemachus evades the suitors' ambush and sends Theoclymenus home with a friend, as he intends to visit Eumaeus in the country before returning to the palace and the suitors.
Book 16: Father and Son Reunited
Telemachus goes to Eumaeus's hut, where Odysseus reveals himself to his son and impresses on him the need for secrecy and deception if they are to overcome the suitors. Meanwhile, the ship the suitors had sent out to ambush Telemachus returns, and the suitors try, without success, to come up with an alternative plan to get rid of him.
Book 17: A Beggar at the Gate Telemachus returns to the palace and speaks with his mother. Eumaeus brings Odysseus to the palace. On the way they encounter the goatherd Melanthius, an ally of the suitors, who insults Odysseus. As Odysseus enters the palace, an old hunting dog recognizes him and dies on the spot. Most of the suitors treat Odysseus with at least grudging respect, but Antinous throws a footstool at him. Penelope asks Eumaeus to arrange a meeting with her disguised husband.
Book 18: The Two Beggar-Kings Odysseus is insulted by Irus, a professional beggar whom the suitors favor. The two men fight, much to the amusement of the suitors, and Odysseus quickly subdues Irus. Penelope comes to the hall to extract presents from the suitors and to announce her intention of remarrying. Odysseus is insulted by the maid Melantho and Eurymachus, one of the leading suitors, who throws another footstool at him.
Book 19: Penelope Interrogates her Guest Odysseus and his son take all the weapons from the great hall, assisted by Athena. Melantho again insults Odysseus. Penelope speaks to her disguised husband, who claims to know Odysseus and tells her that he is nearby and will be home quickly. She does not believe him, but orders bis old nurse, Eurycleia, to wash him. The nurse recognizes Odysseus by a scar he received as a young man and is sworn to secrecy. Penelope details the trial of the bow, by which she will choose her new husband on the following day.
Odysseus lies awake plotting revenge until Athena puts him to sleep. On the next day, the loyal oxherd Philoetius arrives at the palace, where Odysseus is again insulted by one of the suitors, Ctesippus, who throws an ox-foot at him. The suitors all laugh at this, which Theoclymenus interprets as a sign that they are all marked for death.
Book 21: The Great Bow of Odysseus Penelope fetches Odysseus's hunting bow and announces the test: she will marry the man who can string the bow and shoot an arrow through the rings on twelve axe-heads set in a line in the ground. Odysseus reveals himself to his two loyal servants and enlists their help in getting revenge on the suitors. None of the suitors is able to string the bow. Telemachus is on the point of succeeding when Odysseus stops him. Telemachus, by prearrangement with his father, sends his mother from the hall and gives the bow to Odysseus, who strings it and shoots an arrow through the axes.
Book 22: The Death of the Suitors With his next arrow, Odysseus shoots Antinous and announces his true identity to the rest of the suitors. Odysseus, Telemachus, Philoetius, and Eumaeus, assisted by a disguised Athena, kill all the suitors. When all the suitors are dead, the disloyal maids are hanged and Melanthius is punished. The loyal servants begin to clean the palace after the slaughter.
Book 23: The Reunion Old Eurycleia wakes Penelope with the news that her husband has returned and destroyed the suitors. Penelope refuses to believe it. When he answers her trick question about their marriage bed, she accepts him as her husband and they retire to bed after making plans to deal with the relatives of the suitors whom Odysseus has just killed. Before they sleep, Odysseus tells his wife his true story.
Book 24: Peace at Last
The shades of the suitors arrive in Hades, and tell Agamemnon and Achilles of Odysseus's triumphant revenge on them for their destruction of his estate. Odysseus goes to meet his aged father Laertes in the country and, after telling him another "lying tale," reveals himself to his father. The suitors' relatives arrive at that point, seeking vengeance for the deaths of their kinsmen. Athena and Zeus intervene in the fighting that ensues and, after a few of the suitors' relatives are killed, Athena makes peace.