Chapter 20

The Returns and the Odyssey

The returns from Troy of the Achaean heroes, other than Odysseus, were narrated in a lost epic called Nostoi [nos'toy], “Returns.” The return of Odysseus is the subject of Homer’s Odyssey.


Ajax the Lesser (Son of Oileus) and Agamemnon. Athena raised a storm in the Aegean in anger at the sacrilege of Ajax, son of Oileus, during the sack of Troy (see MLS, Chapter 19). The storm wrecked much of Agamemnon’s fleet (with which Ajax was sailing), and Ajax, who boasted of his escape from drowning, was killed by Poseidon with his trident. A second storm struck the fleet, wrecking many more ships on the coast of Euboea. Agamemnon finally reached Mycenae, where he was murdered by Clytemnestra and Aegisthus (see MLS, Chapter 18).

Menelaüs. Menelaüs reached Egypt after losing five ships in another storm. The sea-god Proteus told him how to appease the gods and sail back safely to Greece. The visit of Menelaüs to Egypt fits with the legend (see MLS, Chapter 19) that Helen spent the years of the war in Egypt, while her phantom went to Troy. Seven years after the fall of Troy, Menelaüs and Helen reached Sparta safely and resumed their life together. At his death Menelaüs was transported to Elysium (rather than Hades), because, as the husband of the immortal Helen, he was the son-in-law of Zeus.

Nestor, Diomedes, and Philoctetes. Of the other Peloponnesian leaders, Nestor returned to Pylos safely. Diomedes, who had wounded Aphrodite at Troy, returned to Argos to find that the goddess had caused his wife, Aegialia, to be unfaithful. He left Argos and came to Italy, where he founded several cities. Philoctetes returned to Thessaly and also was driven out by his people. He too went to Italy and founded several cities. The stories of Diomedes, Idomeneus, and Philoctetes seem to be connected with the foundation of Greek colonies in Italy (the first at Cumae in 732 B.C.).

Idomeneus. Idomeneus returned to Crete to find that his wife, Meda, had been unfaithful with Leucus, who then murdered her and her daughter and made himself king over ten cities. Leucus drove out Idomeneus, who went to Italy. Another story of the exile of Idomeneus is that he vowed to Poseidon that he would sacrifice the first living thing that came to meet him if he returned home safely. His son was the first to meet him, and Idomeneus sacrificed him. In punishment for the killing, the gods sent a plague on the Cretans, who drove Idomeneus out.

Neoptolemus. Neoptolemus went by land back to Phthia with Helenus and Andromache (see MLS, Chapters 18 and 19). With them and his wife, Hermione, he went to Epirus as king of the Molossi. He was killed at Delphi and was honored there with a hero-cult.


The return of Odysseus (Ulysses) is narrated in the Odyssey. It was delayed for ten years by the anger of Poseidon. When, after many adventures, he reached his home, he found his wife, PENELOPE [pe-nel'oh-pee], hard pressed by many suitors, who were ruining his property and plotting to kill his son, TELEMACHUS [te-lem'a-kus], or TELEMACHOS. Odysseus killed them all and was reunited with Penelope, resuming his rule over Ithaca.

The Mini-Odyssey of Telemachus. In the first four books of the Odyssey Telemachus, helped by Athena, went to Pylos and Sparta to find out news of Odysseus from Nestor, Menelaüs, and Helen. On his return he avoided an ambush set by the suitors.

Calypso. Odysseus, meanwhile, had been living for seven years on the island of Ogygia with the nymph CALYPSO [ka-lip'soh], or KALYPSO, daughter of Atlas. He refused her offer to make him immortal, and she was ordered by Zeus, through his messenger, Hermes, to release him. She helped him build a raft, and he sailed away towards Ithaca.

The Phaeacians and Princess Nausicaä. The raft of Odysseus was wrecked by Poseidon near the island of Scheria, home of the PHAEACIANS [fee-ay'shi-anz], or PHAIAKIANS. Helped by Leucothea (a sea-goddess, once the Theban princess Ino), he reached land, where he was helped by the princess NAUSICAÄ [naw-sik'a-a], daughter of King ALCINOÜS [al-sin'o-us], or ALKINOOS, and Queen Arete. The Phaeacians were seafarers living a peaceful and prosperous life, and the splendid palace of Alcinoüs was equipped with gold and silver guard-dogs (made by Hephaestus) and with fifty golden torch-bearers in human form. The women were skilled weavers, and outside the palace were beautiful gardens and orchards. Odysseus appealed to Arete for help, and Alcinoüs honored him with a banquet at which the bard, DEMODOCUS [de-mod'o-kus], or DEMODOKOS, sang of the love of Ares and Aphrodite and the revenge of Hephaestus (see MLS, Chapter 5). Then he sang of the wooden horse and the sack of Troy, at which Odysseus wept. Invited by Alcinoüs, he told his story.

Maron of Ismarus. When Odysseus and his companions left Troy, they sacked the Thracian city of Ismarus, or Ismaros, sparing the priest of Apollo, Maron, who gave them twelve jars of wine.

The Lotus-Eaters. Then the Greeks sailed to the land of the lotus-eaters, where whoever ate of the fruit of the lotus forgot everything else and only wished to stay, eating lotus-fruit. Yet Odysseus managed to leave with his men.

The Cyclopes and Polyphemus. They sailed to the island of the CYCLOPES [seye-kloh'peez], or KYKLOPES, one-eyed giant herdsmen living in caves. Odysseus and twelve companions waited in the cave of the CYCLOPS [seye'klops], or KYKLOPS, POLYPHEMUS [po-li-fee'mus], or POLYPHEMOS, son of Poseidon, who returned from his herding in the evening and ate two of Odysseus’ men; he ate four more the next day. Odysseus gave Polyphemus some of Maron’s wine and said that his name was “Nobody” (in Greek, Outis). Then, while Polyphemus lay in a drunken sleep, Odysseus and his companions drove a heated wooden pole into his eye. When the other Cyclopes, hearing the cries of Polyphemus, came to the cave (which was closed by a huge rock) to ask what was wrong, he cried out, “Nobody is killing me,” and they left.
Next morning Odysseus tied each man to the undersides of three sheep and himself clung to the belly of the biggest ram. Thus, as the blinded Cyclops felt the sheep when he let them out of the cave (having removed the rock), he could not discover the men, and so they escaped and went back to their ship. As they sailed away, Odysseus shouted out his real name, and Polyphemus tore off part of a mountain and threw it, nearly wrecking the ship. He prayed to Poseidon for vengeance on Odysseus, asking that if he did return home it would be after many years, alone, in distress, and upon another’s ship, and that he would find trouble at home. This was the source of the anger of Poseidon, who granted his son's prayer.

Aeolus. Odysseus sailed to the island of AEOLUS [ee'o-lus], or AIOLOS, who gave him a bag holding all the winds and showed him how to release the wind favorable for his return. But just as he was in sight of Ithaca, he fell asleep, and his men opened the bag. All the winds rushed out and blew them back to Aeolus, who refused to help them any more.

The Laestrygonians. Next they came to the land of the LAESTRYGONIANS [les-tri-goh'ni-anz], or LAISTRYGONIANS, who sank all the ships except one and ate the crews.

Circe. With the surviving ship, Odysseus sailed to Aeaea, home of CIRCE [sir'see], or KIRKE, daughter of Helius, the Sun. She transformed Odysseus’ crew into pigs, but Odysseus himself, warned by Hermes, used the herb moly as an antidote to Circe’s charms and forced her to change his men into human form once more. He lived with Circe for one year and she bore him a son, TELEGONUS [te-leg'o-nus], or TELEGONOS. Circe eventually let him go, and he sailed to the Underworld, to consult Tiresias.

The Book of the Dead. The Book of the Dead (Book 11 of the Odyssey) tells how Odysseus went to the entrance to the Underworld and there talked with many spirits of the dead, primarily with Tiresias, who foretold the difficulties yet remaining on his journey and at his return, and foretold also the events of the rest of his life and the manner of his death. Odysseus spoke with Agamemnon, Achilles, Ajax (son of Telamon), and his mother, ANTICLEA [an-ti-klay'a or an-ti-kleye'a], or ANTIKLEIA, and he saw many other heroines.

The Sirens. Having returned to Aeaea, Odysseus sailed to meet the dangers of which Circe warned him. First were the Sirens, winged monsters with women’s heads, who by their song lured sailors onto the rocks. Odysseus sailed past them by stuffing his men’s ears with wax and having himself lashed to the mast.

The Planctae and Scylla and Charybdis. Then he avoided the PLANCTAE [plank'tee], or PLANKTAI (“wandering rocks”), by sailing close to CHARYBDIS [ka-rib'dis], who sucked in the water of the strait three times daily and spouted it up again, and to SCYLLA [sil'la], or SKYLLA (daughter of Phorcys), who snatched six sailors and ate them. Scylla had been changed into a monster through the jealousy of Poseidon’s wife, Amphitrite (see MLS, Chapter 7).

The Cattle of Helius. Odysseus next sailed to Thrinacia, where Helius pastured his cattle. Again he fell asleep, and his men disobeyed his orders not to touch the cattle and killed some of them for food. In response to Helius’ complaint, Zeus raised a storm that sank the ship, leaving Odysseus as the sole survivor. Once again escaping the dangers of Charybdis, Odysseus drifted to Ogygia.

The Phaeacians Bring Odysseus to Ithaca. After he had related his adventures to the Phaeacians, Odysseus was conveyed by them to Ithaca, where they put him on shore asleep, with the gifts they had given him. To punish the Phaeacians for helping Odysseus, Poseidon turned their ship into stone as it entered the harbor at Scheria.


The second half of the Odyssey (Books 13–24) narrates how Odysseus returned to his palace, killed the suitors, and was recognized and reunited with Penelope, and how he resumed his rule over Ithaca.

Eumaeus, Telemachus, and Irus. Athena helped Odysseus when he woke up after being put ashore. He was recognized by the swineherd EUMAEUS [you-mee'us], or EUMAIOS, and by Telemachus. Together they devised the plan for his entry, disguised as a beggar, into the palace, where he was insulted by the suitors and challenged to a fight (which he won) by the beggar IRUS [eye'rus], or IROS.

Penelope’s Web. Penelope was on the verge of having to choose a suitor as husband, for the suitors had discovered the ruse by which she had put off her choice. By day she would work on weaving a cloak to be a burial shroud for Laërtes, father of Odysseus, and by night she would unravel her work.

Penelope and the Beggar Odysseus. After the fight with Irus, she spoke with Odysseus (still in disguise), who gave an exact description of himself. Encouraged by this, Penelope told him of her plan to give herself next day to the man who could string the bow of Odysseus and shoot it through twelve ax heads.

Euryclea. Odysseus was bathed by his nurse, EURYCLEA [you-ri-klee'a], or EURYKLEIA, who recognized him from a scar caused by a boar’s tusk, but he prevented her from revealing his identity to Penelope.

The Contest of the Bow and the Battle in the Hall. Next day, when the suitors had failed even to string the bow, Odysseus did it effortlessly and shot an arrow through the ax heads. Then, helped by Telemachus and Eumaeus, he killed all the suitors after a battle in the hall, and he hanged the twelve maidservants who had been the suitors’ lovers.

Penelope and Odysseus Reunited. Still Penelope would not admit to recognizing him, until he revealed the secret of the construction of their bed, known only to him and Penelope. Then they were reunited in love and told each other of their patience and adventures over the twenty years of his absence.

The Triumph of Odysseus. The next day, Odysseus made himself known to his father Laërtes, and Athena brought peace between him and the families of the dead suitors, whose spirits went to the Underworld and there talked with Agamemnon’s ghost.


Tiresias foretold the rest of Odysseus’ life. He had to leave Ithaca once more, carrying an oar, traveling until he came to a people who did not know of the sea or ships. When a man would say that he had a winnowing-fan on his shoulder, he was to plant the oar in the ground and offer a sacrifice to Poseidon and all the gods. Then he would return to Ithaca, and death would come to him easily from the sea in his old age.
All this came to pass. Odysseus appeased Poseidon and lived out his life in Ithaca. Years later he was accidentally killed by Telegonus, who had come to Ithaca in search of his father.

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