In this unit, students will examine how a hero’s journey takes many forms, from traveling through forbidding places to exploring the mind. This is for freshmen students.
This unit focuses on Homer’s Odyssey.
This unit focuses on Homer’s Odyssey.
Videos from Sparknotes:
Some constructed response questions pick two:
The epic is a long narrative poem about a national or legendary hero. Ancient Greece produced two epics—the Iliad and the Odyssey—which are considered the first great works of Western literature. The Odyssey is named for its hero, Odysseus, who is also known as Ulysses. The Iliad is not named for its hero, Achilles, but for Ilium, or Troy, the setting of the action.
Since classical times, both epics have been attributed to a poet named Homer. We know almost nothing about him. Seven different cities claimed to be his birthplace, but none could prove the claim. There is a tradition that Homer was blind, and an ancient bust shows him to be so. If he was blind, he must have had his sight as one time, for the poems are so rich in visual imagery that they are clearly the creation of someone who had observed the world carefully.
Scholars have established that the Iliad was composed sometime between 900 and 700 B.C. and that it preceded the Odyssey by some years. The raw material of both epics was a well-known body of legend about the most famous event in Greek history, the Trojan War, which had occurred several centuries earlier, about 1200 B.C. The probable cause of the Trojan War was economic. Troy’s location enabled it to control all trade and shipping through the Dardanelles: once Troy was destroyed, the Greeks could expand their trade routes as much as they pleased. According to legend, however, the war began when Helen, the most beautiful woman in the world and wife of King Menelaus of Sparta, was kidnapped by Paris, a young Trojan prince. It took several years for the outraged Menelaus to assemble an army, for Greece was not a unified nation at that time. Kings and soldiers from all over Greece—Achilles and Odysseus among them—sailed to Troy to bring back Helen. The war went on for ten years, and finally the Trojans were defeated.
Homer used this legendary material as the basis for his poems. He added an original plot structure, realistic characters, dialogue and detail, and tales of fabulous monsters. Against the drama on earth he set the drama of the Olympian gods and goddesses, who were interested in human affairs and who often intervened to protect or punish mortals. Homer’s portrayal of the gods made them seem human. They quarreled and loved and were jealous of each other. Although Homer occasionally treats the gods lightly, he is always respectful. A pervasive theme throughout these epics is that respect for the gods is essential to survival.
When the poems were first composed, they were not written down. They were passed orally from one generation to the next. They were memorized by traveling poets called rhapsodes, who recited the epics in the banquet halls of kings and nobles. Both poems were recited in public every four years in Athens at the festival of Athena, goddess of wisdom and patron of the city. In time, the study of Homer’s epics became the basis of Greek education. From Homer, Greek youths learned how to tell a story, to portray character, to give a speech, and to express the Greek ideals of thought and action. The Iliad and the Odyssey became models for later writers, notably the Roman poet Virgil, author of the Aeneid.
The Iliad opens in the tenth—and last—year of the Trojan War. The war is at a stalemate, and in the Greek camp there is much dissension. Achilles, the greatest warrior among the Greeks, and Agamemnon, the leader of the Greeks, have had a bitter quarrel over a captive slave girl. Achilles has withdrawn from the way and is sulking in his tent. His absence from the field gives the Trojans an advantage in the war. Only after Hector, the great Trojan hero, kills Achilles’ friend Patrocles does Achilles return to combat. He kills Hector, and his victory demoralizes the Trojans. The Iliad ends with a twelve-day truce in which both sides bury and mourn their dead.
Homer tells about the last days of the Trojan War in his second epic. The man responsible for the fall of Troy is Odysseus, the shrewdest of the Greeks. He conceives a plan to leave a huge wooden horse filled with Greek warriors outside the gates of Troy. Believing that the Greek ships have sailed for home and that this wooden horse is an offering to the gods, the Trojans bring the horse within their gates. When the Trojans are off guard, the Greeks slip out of the horse and open the city gates to their own army.
Because Odysseus is instrumental in the destruction of Troy, he angered the gods who are sympathetic to Troy. They vow that he will have a long and difficult journey home. This homeward journey—which takes ten years—is the subject of the Odyssey.
The Odyssey is a very long poem—11,300 lines divided into twenty-four books. The poem has three major plot strands. First, there is the story of what happens in Ithaca to Odysseus’ wife and son as they await his return. The second story is the tale of Odysseus’ wanderings during the ten years following the Trojan War. These two strands come together when Odysseus returns to Ithaca and joins forces with his son, Telemachus, to destroy their enemies.
People have interpreted the Odyssey in many different ways. Some read it simply as an exciting adventure story. In this sense, with its emphasis on character and plot, it has been rightly called a forerunner of the novel. Others interpret the Odyssey as the story of every human being, who must overcome temptations and obstacles in the journey through life and in the effort to find a place of peace and joy.
You will be reading some of the best-known excerpts from the poem. In Part 1 of the unit, you will read about the adventures of Odysseus and his crew as they attempt to return to Ithaca. In Part 2, you will read how Odysseus takes his place as rightful king of Ithaca. The text is a translation from the Greek by the American poet Robert Fitzgerald.
Now watch this video: Introduction to the Odyssey
Here is a PDF file of an Introduction to the Odyssey: odyssey-book-intro