Odysseus – Trojan War Hero and Unfortunate Wanderer

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Odysseus (Roman equivalent Ulysses) was one of the most famous heroes of Greek mythology, known for his bravery, intellect, wit and cunning. He’s best known for his involvement in the Trojan War and for his twenty-year long journey back to his kingdom in Ithaca, detailed in Homer’s epics the Iliad and the Odyssey. Here’s a closer look.

Who Was Odysseus?

Odysseus was most likely the only son of King Laertes of Ithaca and his wife, Anticlea. After his father’s death, he inherited the throne of Ithaca. Odysseus married Penelope of Sparta, and together they had one son, Telemachus, and reigned over Ithaca. Odysseus was a fantastic king and a mighty warrior.

Authors such as Homer wrote about his superior intellect and talent for oratory. Homer even equaled his wit to that of Zeus, emphasizing the idea of his intelligence.

Odysseus in the War of Troy

Trojan war
The Trojan War

Odysseus was an influential character in the War of Troy for his deeds, his ideas, and his leadership, along with the likes of Achilles, Menelaus, and Agamemnon. Odysseus’ return home after the war was the beginning of one of ancient Greece’s most widespread stories.

The War of Troy is one of Ancient Greece’s most recorded events. This conflict originated because Prince Paris of Troy took Queen Helen of Sparta from her husband, King Menelaus. Menelaus began planning an offensive against Troy to bring back his wife, regain his dignity and destroy the city of Troy.

Odysseus was deeply involved in the war of Troy since he was one of the commanders of the forces. With his skills in oratory and his smart ideas, he was a critical figure in the victory of the Greeks.

The Beginning of the War

When King Menelaus of Sparta started looking for the help of the kings of Greece to invade Troy, he sent an emissary to recruit Odysseus and his forces. Odysseus had received a prophecy that said that if he left Ithaca to join the Greek forces in the War of Troy, many years would pass before he could return home.

Odysseus tried to avoid participating in the war because he was happy in Ithaca with his wife and his newborn baby. He tried to fake madness so that he could refuse assisting King Menelaus without offending him. For this, Odysseus started plowing the beach with an ox and donkey yoked. Menelaus’ emissary, however, would not desist, and he put Telemachus, Odysseus’ son, in his way. The king had to stop his plowing in order not to hurt his son, and the ruse was discovered. Having no choice, Odysseus gathered his men, joined the invasive forces of King Menelaus, and headed into the war.

Odysseus and Achilles

The Greeks sent Odysseus to recruit the great hero Achilles. Thetis, Achilles’ mother, had advised him not to engage in the conflict. Odysseus, however, convinced Achilles otherwise, saying that if he fought, he would become famous and great songs and stories would always be told about him due to the magnitude of the war they were about to fight in. Achilles accepted Odysseus’ proposal, and accompanied by the Myrmidons of Thessaly, went to war with the Greeks.

Odysseus was also involved in the conflict between King Agamemnon and Achilles after the king stole the hero’s war bounty. Achilles refused to fight for Agamemnon, who was the commander of the forces, and Agamemnon requested Odysseus to talk him into returning to the war. Odysseus was able to convince Achilles to rejoin the war. Achilles would become an influential figure in the conflict without whom the Greeks would probably not have been victorious. Thus Odysseus’ role in convincing Achilles to join the war effort was paramount in importance.

The Trojan Horse

Trojan horse Greek myth

After ten years of war, the Greeks had not been able to penetrate the walls of Troy. Odysseus, with Athena’s influence, had the idea of building a hollow wooden horse with enough room to hide a group of soldiers inside. That way, if they managed to get the horse inside the walls of the city, the hidden soldiers could go out at night and attack. Odysseus had a group of craftsmen dismantle ships and build the horse, and several soldiers hid inside.

The rest of the Greek army hid out of sight of the Trojans and then hid their ships where the Trojan scouts could not see them. Since the Trojans thought the Greeks had left, they were lulled into a false sense of security. Seeing the horse standing outside the city gates, they were curious, believing it to be an offering of some sort. They opened their gates and took the horse inside. Inside the city walls, there was feasting and celebrating. Once everybody had retired at night, the Greeks began their offensive.

Led by Odysseus, the soldiers who hid inside the horse came out and opened the city gates to the Greek army. The Greeks destroyed the city and killed as many Trojans as they could. In their ravaging, they also acted against the sacred temples of the gods. This would infuriate the Olympian gods and cause a new turn of events after the war. Thanks to Odysseus’ idea, the Greeks could finally put an end to the conflict and win the war.

Odysseus’ Return Home

Odysseus is best known as the hero of Homer’s Odyssey, an epic that describes the many encounters and trials Odysseus and his men faced on their return to Ithaca. The hero would visit many ports and many lands in which he or his men would suffer various calamities. 

The Land of the Lotus-eaters

The first stop in Odysseus’ return home was the land of the Lotus-eaters, a people who created food and drinks from the lotus flower. These food and drinks were addictive drugs, which caused men to disregard time and made Odysseus’ crew forget their goal of returning home. When Odysseus realized what was happening, he had to drag his men to their ships and lock them down until they had sailed and left the island.

The Cyclops Polyphemus

The next stop of Odysseus and his crew was the island of the cyclops, Polyphemus. Polyphemus was the son of Poseidon and the nymph Thoosa. He was a one-eyed giant. In Homer’s Odyssey, Polyphemus traps the voyagers in his cave and closes the entrance with a gigantic boulder.

To escape from the cave, Odysseus made his men sharpen a spike so that they could attack the cyclops in his single eye. When Polyphemus returned, Odysseus used his superb oratory skills and talked to Polyphemus for long hours while the cyclops drank wine. Polyphemus ended up drunk, and Odysseus’ men used this chance to attack his eye with the spike, thus blinding him.

The day after Polyphemus’ blinding, Odysseus and his men tied themselves to the cyclops’ sheep, and they were able to escape when he let them out to graze. When Polyphemus realized that Odysseus and his men had escaped, he asked for the help of Poseidon and cursed Odysseus with the loss of all his men, a terrible journey, and troubles upon arriving in Ithaca. This curse was the beginning of Odysseus’ ten-year-long return home.

Aeolus, the God of the Winds

Their next stop was the island of Aeolus, the god of the winds. Aeolus, master of the winds, wanted to help Odysseus on his journey and gave him a bag which contained all the winds except the West Wind. In other words, only the wind he needed was allowed to blow, while all the winds that would hinder his journey were bagged up. Odysseus’ men did not know what was inside the bag and thought that the god had given Odysseus a great treasure that the king was keeping to himself.

They departed the island of the god and sailed until they were in sight of Ithaca. When Odysseus was asleep, his men looked for the bag and opened it just as they were nearing Ithaca’s shores. Unfortunately, the winds were unleashed and took the ships far away from their home. With this, they arrived in the land of the Lastregonyan, a race of cannibal giants that destroyed all their ships but one and killed almost all Odysseus’ men. Only Odysseus’ ship and its crew survived this attack.

The Enchantress Circe

Odysseus and his remaining men next stopped at the island of the enchantress Circe, who would cause more trouble for the voyagers. Circe offered a feast for the voyagers, but the food and drink she gave them had drugs and turned them into animals. Odysseus was not among the group who attended the feast, and one of the men who escaped, found him and told him what had happened.

Hermes, the herald of the gods, appeared to Odysseus and gave him an herb that would turn his crew back into men. Odysseus was able to convince Circe to transform the voyagers into men again and rescue them. Circe is enchanted by his bravery and determination and falls in love with him.

After that, they remained in Circe’s island for some time before sailing to the underworld following Circe’s advice. The enchantress told them to go there looking for Tiresias, the Theban seer, who would tell Odysseus how to return home. In the underworld, Odysseus met not only Tiresias, but also Achilles, Agamemnon, and his late mother, who told him to hurry back home. Upon returning to the world of the living, Circe gave the voyagers more advice and some prophecies, and they sailed to Ithaca.

The Sirens

On the journey back home, Odysseus would have to face the sirens, dangerous creatures with the faces of beautiful women who killed those who fell for their beauty and their singing. According to the myth, Odysseus instructed his man to block their ears with wax in order not to listen to the sirens song as they passed near them.

Scylla and Charybdis

The king and his men next had to cross a narrow channel of water guarded by the monsters Scylla and Charybdis. On one side, there was Scylla, who was a dreadful monster with six heads and sharp teeth. On the other side, there was Charybdis, who was a destructive whirlpool that could destroy any ship. When crossing the strait, they came too close to Scylla, and the monster killed six more of Odysseus’ men with her heads.

Odysseus and the Cattle of Helios

One of Tiresias’ instructions to Odysseus and his men had been to avoid eating eat the sacred cattle of Helios, the sun god. However, after spending a month in Thrinacia due to bad weather and running out of food, his men could not bear it anymore and hunted down the cattle. When the weather cleared, they left the land but Helios was angry at their actions. In revenge for killing his cattle, Helios asks Zeus to punish or he would no longer shine the sun over the world. Zeus complies and makes the ship capsize. Odysseus loses all his men, becoming the only survivor.

Odysseus and Calypso

After the ship capsized, the tides washed Odysseus ashore onto the island of the nymph Calypso. The nymph fell in love with Odysseus and kept him captive for seven years. She offered him immortality and eternal youth, but the king refused her because he wanted to return to Penelope in Ithaca. Years later, Calypso decided to let Odysseus go with a raft. However, the king once again suffered the wrath of Poseidon, who sent a storm that destroyed the raft and left Odysseus in the middle of the sea.

Odysseus and the Phaeacians 

The tides washed the battered Odysseus onto the beaches of the Phaeacians, where Princess Nausikaa took care of him until he was healthy. King Alcinous gave Odysseus a small ship, and he was finally able to return to Ithaca, after decades away.

Odysseus’ Homecoming

Ithaca had long forgotten Odysseus since it had been many years since he had last been there and many believed him to be dead. Only Penelope had remained convinced that her husband would return. In the absence of the king, many suitors tried to marry her and claim the throne. Penelope’s one hundred and eight suitors lived in the palace and courted the queen all day long. They also plotted to kill Telemachus, who would be the rightful heir to the throne.

Athena appeared to Odysseus and updated him about the situation in his palace. Following Athena’s advice, Odysseus dressed as a beggar and entered the palace to see firsthand what was happening. Only Odysseus’ maid and his old dog were able to recognize him. Odysseus revealed himself to his son, Telemachus, and together they planned a way to get rid of Penelope’s suitors.

Penelope had organized a contest in which her suitors had to use Odysseus’ huge bow to throw an arrow through twelve ax-heads. After all the suitors tried and failed, Odysseus stepped up to the task and accomplished it. He revealed his true identity and, as planned, Telemachus closed the doors and took all the weapons in the room away. One by one, Odysseus used his bow to end the life of all the suitors. Odysseus and Penelope were once again together, and they reigned over Ithaca until Odysseus’ death.

The Death of Odysseus

Not much is known of Odysseus’ life after he regains his throne in Ithaca. Numerous accounts exist, but they often contradict each other, making it difficult to pick one narrative.

In some accounts, Odysseus and Penelope live happily together and continue to rule over Ithaca. In others, Penelope is unfaithful to Odysseus which prompts him to either leave or to kill her. He then goes on another journey and marries Callidice in the kingdom of Thesprotia.

The Influence of Odysseus on Modern Culture

Odysseus has influenced literature and modern culture in many ways and is one of the most recurring characters in Western culture. His wanderings have influenced many books including James Joyce’s Ulysses, Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, Eyvind Johnson’s Return to Ithaca, Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad and many more. His story has also been the central focus of several movies and films.

Odysseus  encounters with legendary creatures and strange worlds is one of the earliest examples of the fantastic journey genre. Influences of Odysseus’ travels can be seen in major classics such as Gulliver’s Travels, The Time Machine and The Chronicles of Narnia. These stories often serve as  political, religious or social allegories.

The wanderings and trials of Odysseus

Odysseus Facts

1- What is Odysseus most famous for?

Odysseus was famous for his wit, intellect and cunning. It was his idea to sack the city of Troy with the Trojan Horse. He is also famous for his long journey back home which took decades and consisted of many trials and tribulations.

2- Is Odysseus a god?

Odysseus wasn’t a god. He was the king of Ithaca and a great leader in the Trojan War.

3- Which was Odysseus’ kingdom?

Odysseus ruled over Ithaca.

4- Was Odysseus a real person?

Scholars debate whether Odysseus was real or simply a figment of Homer’s imagination. It’s likely that Odysseus is pure fiction, but some archeological evidence suggests that there may have been a real person on whom Odysseus was based.

5- Did the gods hate Odysseus?

The gods who sided with the Trojans during the war did not look kindly on Odysseus, who played a major role in winning the war for the Greeks. Additionally, Poseidon was angry at Odysseus for blinding his son Polyphemus, the cyclops. It was this action that led Poseidon to bring misfortune on Odysseus during his voyage.

6- Who are Odysseus’ parents?

Odysseus’ parents are Laertes and Anticlea.

7- Who is Odysseus consort?

Odysseus’ consort is Penelope.

8- Who are Odysseus children?

Odysseus has two children – Telemachus and Telegonus.

9- Who is Odysseus’ Roman equivalent?

Odysseus Roman equivalent is Ulysses.

In Brief

Odysseus’ story is one of the most colorful and interesting myths in Greek mythology, that has inspired literature and culture in more ways than one. Famous for his courage, bravery and resilience, his adventures are among the best known of Greek mythology. His predominant role in the Trojan War led to the victory of the Greeks, and his disastrous return home was the source of many myths.