“Sing to me of the man, Muse, the man of twists and turns driven time and again off course, once he had plundered the hallowed heights of Troy.” So begins the epic tale of Odysseus, “the man of twists and turns” and king of Ithaca who, after he and his fellow Greeks achieved victory over the kingdom of Troy (a campaign recounted in the Iliad), sets off on his return voyage told in the Odyssey (“Ὀδύσσεια”).1 That trip, which should have taken no more than a few weeks, becomes instead a journey of ten years as Odysseus and his men are confronted by storms, creatures of all kinds, and interventions by the gods.
The fate of Odysseus’ household on the island of Ithaca, located off the western coast of Greece, is the focus of the first part of the Odyssey. In the absence of Odysseus, his house has fallen under assault by a gluttonous group of men, the “suitors”, who rival one another for the hand of his faithful wife, Penelope, as they linger day after day, taking advantage of the family’s hospitality. His son, Telemachus, on the cusp of manhood, sets out for news of Odysseus, but returns home without certain information while the suitors plot his murder.
Well into the text, Odysseus describes the circumstances of his much delayed return. Sailing homeward from Troy, the 12 ships bearing Odysseus and his countrymen are hurled off course by a storm and a series of fantastic events begins. They survive the land of the Lotus-eaters, where they nearly succumb to forgetfulness after consuming the potent lotus plant, and then land on the island of the one-eyed Cyclopes. One Cyclops, Polyphemus, begins to devour Odysseus’ companions before the cunning Odysseus and his men take up a fiery stake and put out the creature’s single eye, escaping to their ship, and earning the wrath of Polyphemus’ father, the god Poseidon. Blown off course again, the group is attacked by the Laestrygonians, boulder-throwing giants, who destroy all of the ships but that of Odysseus and consume their crews. Odysseus’ ship next lands on the island of Circe, a sorceress who transforms Odysseus’ comrades into swine, brings Odysseus to her bed, and keeps him with her for a year. Following Circe’s release of Odysseus and his men, Odysseus makes a brief descent into the underworld, where he encounters a variety of dead including comrades who fought in the Trojan War, Heracles, his own mother, and the prophet Tiresias, who foretells his journey home. Returning to the surface and sailing onward, Odysseus has his men tie him to the ship’s mast while they plug their ears to avoid the tempting and deadly cry of the Sirens. After further events that result in the destruction of his ship and his remaining men, Odysseus reaches the island of the nymph Calypso, who holds him there as her lover for seven years.
Finally, Odysseus returns to Ithaca, where he had last stepped foot 20 years before. Observing the behavior of the suitors firsthand while disguised as a beggar, he crafts a plan: He blocks the doors of the hall, and with his son Telemachus at his side, assails the suitors with arrows and runs them through with spears while the goddess Athena protects him from the suitors’ weapons. Having slaughtered the abusive lot, Odysseus and Penelope are at last reunited.
According to ancient tradition, the Iliad and the Odyssey were both the poetic creations of a blind poet named Homer. Although Homer may be a fictitious person, these epic poems, or parts of them, must have been sung for some time by actual poets who knew them from memory at a time when writing was non-existent in Greece. Probably in the 8th century BC, the poems were written down for the first time following the Greeks’ borrowing of the Phoenician alphabet. The Iliad and the Odyssey were read throughout antiquity, and further served as a major point of reference for Greek works across genres, and, in Latin, most importantly provided a source of inspiration for the creation of the Aeneid, the epic foundation story of the founding of Rome which the poet Virgil composed in the 1st century BC.
Along with other myths, many scenes from the Homeric epics were taken up within ancient visual culture. One of the earliest examples is the blinding of Polyphemus, painted in the 7th century BC on the well-known Eleusis Amphora, which was used as the container for a child’s burial. Much later, together with many other aspects of culture which the Romans adopted from the Greeks, the Odyssey became represented in Roman art. The finest examples include the 1st century BC Odyssey Landscapes which decorated a luxurious house in Rome, and the 1st century AD sculpture groups within a grotto at the villa of the emperor Tiberius at Sperlonga, on the coast between Rome and Naples.
The Odyssey was copied and recopied through handwritten manuscripts in the Middle Ages, and in 1488 the first print edition was produced in Florence. As one of the classic texts of European, and indeed world literature, innumerable editions in Greek and in translation have been published since then. In the 20th century and beyond, the story of Odysseus has continued to influence literary and popular culture, from James Joyce’s 1922 Ulysses (the Latinized form of “Odysseus”) to the 2000 film O Brother, Where Art Thou, in which George Clooney plays Ulysses Everett McGill. The themes of the Odyssey are enduring: U.S. military veterans returning from recent wars in the Middle East have read the Iliad and the Odyssey within discussion groups and found parallels between their experiences and that of the war veteran Odysseus.2 In 2018, readers from around the globe voted the Odyssey to the top of the list in the BBC poll, “100 Stories that Shaped the World”.3
UC Berkeley’s Bancroft Library possesses an excellent selection of early editions of the Odyssey beginning with an example printed in Venice by Aldus Manutius in 1504. In addition, seven Egyptian papyri from the 2nd century BC to the 2nd century AD in The Bancroft Library’s Center for the Tebtunis Papyri preserve handwritten fragments or quotations from the Odyssey in Ancient Greek. One, for example, from the late 1st or early 2nd century AD and recovered from a house at Tebtunis, contains a fragment from Book 11 of the Odyssey which describes Odysseus’ journey to the underworld. Aside from modern editions in Ancient Greek, the University Library owns numerous translations in English and a wide variety of other languages such as Italian, Icelandic, Russian, Turkish, and Hebrew.
Ancient Greek, along with Latin, have been offered at UC Berkeley since the university’s founding in 1868, and originally constituted required subjects for the BA degree. Greek emerged as its own department when a departmental structure was established in 1896, eventually joining the department of Latin to form a new Classics department in 1937. Today, Homer is taught regularly within the Classics department in both Ancient Greek and in translation.4
Contribution by Jeremy Ott
Classics and Germanic Studies Librarian, Doe Library
- Homer. The Odyssey. Translated by Robert Fagles. New York: Penguin, 1996. Book One, lines 1-3.
- Ring, Wison. “‘Homer Can Help You’: War Veterans Use Ancient Epics to Cope,” AP News (March 13, 2018) (accessed 6/8/20)
- Haynes, Natalie . “The Greatest Tale Ever Told?,” BBC News (
- UC Berkeley Department of Classics – History, https://classics.berkeley.edu/about/department-history
Title in English: Odyssey
Imprint: Venitiis : [Publisher not identified], secundo cale[n]das nouem, 1504.
Language: Ancient Greek
Language Family: Indo-European, Greek
Source: HathiTrust Digital Library (Northwestern University)
Other Online Resources:
Digitized Papyri in the Center for the Tebtunis Papyri containing fragments or quotations of the Odyssey:
- P.Tebt.0270. Possibly a fragment of a grammar; lines 2-6 contain a quotation from the Odyssey, book 18, line 130.
- P.Tebt.0271 Recto. Fragment of Hesiod’s Catalog of women (the Tyro passage); lines 2-3 are identical to Homer’s Odyssey, Book 2, lines 249-250.
- P.Tebt.0696. Fragments from the Odyssey, Book 1.
- P.Tebt.0431. Fragments of the Odyssey, Book 11.
- P.Tebt.Suppl.01,032-01,033. Fragments of the Odyssey, Book 12.
- P.Tebt.0432. Fragment from the Odyssey, Book 24.
- P.Tebt.0697. Lines from Books 4 and 5 of the Odyssey.
Select print editions at Berkeley:
- Homērou Ilias = Homeri Ilias. Venice: Aldus, 1504.