Places: Odyssey

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First transcribed: c. 725 b.c.e. (English translation, 1614; new translation, 1996)

Type of work: Poetry

Type of plot: Epic

Time of work: Years immediately following the Trojan War

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places Discussed*Ithaca

*Ithaca. OdysseyOdysseus’s home, a mountainous island to the west of mainland Greece, and the primary setting of the first two and last twelve books of the twenty-four-book poem. The two key locations on Ithaca are the palace of Odysseus and the hut of the swineherd Eumaeus. Odysseus’s twenty-year absence has finally resulted in the palace being overrun by 108 suitors for the hand of his wife and supposed widow, Penelope. Ironically, while the greedy and disrespectful suitors have turned the formerly noble palace into a place of lawlessness and disorder, the humble hut of the apparently lowly Eumaeus exemplifies the courtesy and hospitality that the suitors fail to observe.


*Troy. City on the west coast of Asia Minor (now part of Turkey) and the site of the Trojan War, where Odysseus and the Greek armies spend ten years fighting the Trojans to recover Helen, the wife of the Greek leader Menelaus. The final year of that war serves as the focus of The Iliad (c. 800 b.c.e.; English translation, 1616), the narrative of life during wartime that serves as a companion piece to The Odyssey.


*Pylos and *Sparta. Greek kingdoms visited by Odysseus’s son, Telemachus, in books 3, 4, and 15 of the poem, which constitute a sort of miniature, parallel version of Odysseus’s much longer journey. These kingdoms also offer a contrast to Ithaca in that they are models of the proper observance of social decorum and order. Pylos is ruled by Nestor, the wisest of the Greeks, and Sparta is ruled by Menelaus, the husband of Helen, whose abduction by Paris had begun the war. His introduction to these men, both great heroes of the Trojan War, and his ability to win their approval, serve as symbolic markers of the young man’s psychological and social “voyage” from adolescence to maturity. While the “Telemachia,” as it is sometimes called, has a relatively minor plot function, it does allow for considerable exposition, as the rulers inform Telemachus about key sections of the story of Troy and Odysseus’s wanderings.


*Argos (AR-gohs). Greek home of Agamemnon, brother of Menelaus and leader of the Greek armies in the Trojan War. Agamemnon’s own homecoming from the war, which results in his murder by Aigisthos, lover of his unfaithful wife, Clytemnestra, is frequently mentioned in the poem as a contrast to the homecoming of Odysseus to his own faithful wife, Penelope. A further parallel is developed between Orestes, the son of Agamemnon, who revenges him by killing Aigisthos and Clytemnestra, and Telemachus, who will assist his own father in the massacre of the suitors.


Skheria (skeh-REE-ah). Land of the Phaeacians, where Odysseus arrives after having been freed from Ogygia. There, Odysseus relates the full story of his ten-year journey to the Phaeacians, who then provide him with gifts and transportation to Ithaca. The Phaeacians, identified as kin of the gods, are distinguished by their respect for established custom, hospitality, and generosity, and Odysseus pointedly contrasts their civilized behavior with the barbaric treatment he receives at several places he visits on his journey.

Cave of the Cyclops

Cave of the Cyclops. Island dwelling of Polyphemos, a member of the race of Cyclopes–giant cannibals who exemplify the dystopian world of savagery and barbarism that the poem frequently juxtaposes with examples of civilized societies. The Cyclopes dwell in caves rather than crafted structures and do not farm their land or build ships. Odysseus and ten companions find themselves trapped within the cave of the Cyclops Polyphemos, who eats his guests rather than providing them with aid and gifts as is the custom at such exemplars of civilized behavior as Pylos, Sparta, and Skheria. Odysseus and some of his men escape after blinding Polyphemos. Polyphemos’s request that his father, the sea god Poseidon, revenge him against Odysseus, results in Odysseus’s ten years of forced wandering.


Aiaia (ay-EE-ah). Home of the enchantress Circe, a place of seductive beauty and ease, in which Odysseus is detained for more than a year on his journey home. Circe’s custom is to turn visitors into wolves, lions, and swine, in a symbolic reversal of proper hospitality, which makes the proper treatment of guests one of the highest attributes of true humanity. Even though he is not literally transformed into an animal, Odysseus is seduced by Circe’s hospitality into forgetting his mission to return home. As always, however, Odysseus chooses the hardships of the return home over the temptations of an easy life away from society and his duty.


Nekuia (neh-kew-ee-ah). Underworld home of the dead. It is presented somewhat inconsistently as a remote northern location on the earth’s surface and as an underground realm. Odysseus journeys there in book 11 to get instructions from the prophet Tiresias and meets the shades, or ghosts, of several figures from his past and from Greek mythology. The shades of the dead suitors appear there at the end of the poem as well.

Island of the Sirens

Island of the Sirens. Home of the Sirens, whose irresistible songs enchant sailors into running their ships ashore, with usually disastrous results.


Scylla and Charybdis. Mythical monsters that guard a strait through which Olysseus’s ship must pass. Scylla, a monster with twelve legs and six heads, and Charybdis, a gigantic whirlpool, flank a narrow strait between headlands. Their significance lies in the idea that Odysseus cannot possibly get home without passing between them and losing some of his crew. In modern parlance, their names have come to signify any dilemma in which a person is forced to choose between two unavoidable yet thoroughly unpleasant alternatives.


Thrinakia (THREE-nah-kee-ah). Island of the cattle of Helios, lord of the sun. Odysseus’s men unwisely slaughter some of the sacred cattle, for which transgression Zeus hits their ship with a thunderbolt. Odysseus is the only survivor.


Ogygia (OH-gee-jee-uh). Edenic island of the nymph Calypso, on which Odysseus is shipwrecked after the destruction of his ship by Zeus. This episode constitutes Odysseus’s most powerful temptation to abandon his journey home, as Calypso offers him not only worldly pleasure and luxury, but immortality: He will neither die nor grow old if he stays.


Olympus. Mountain in northern Greece traditionally believed to be the home of the gods. The poem narrates several meetings the gods have to discuss and direct Odysseus’s fate. The civilized societies and customs depicted in the poem are always in some sense versions of this Olympian society.

BibliographyBrann, Eva. Homeric Moments: Clues to Delight in Reading the “Odyssey” and the “Iliad.” Philadelphia: Paul Dry, 2002. A close and witty exploration of the experience of reading Homer.Camps, W. A. An Introduction to Homer. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1980. Excellent source for beginners. Provides an introductory essay that compares The Odyssey with the Iliad. Includes extensive notes and appendices to each work.Dalby, Andrew. Rediscovering Homer: Inside the Origins of the Epic. New York: W. W. NOrton, 2006. Dalby explores the historical development of written poetry and examines the debate regarding the authorship of Homer’s epics.Gaunt, D. M., trans. Surge and Thunder: Critical Reading in Homer’s “Odyssey.” London: Oxford University Press, 1971. Designed for general readers. Gaunt translates selected passages, explaining fine points of language and meaning that are lost in translation. Text includes explication, analysis, and discussion. Has a guide to pronunciation, a list of Greek proper nouns, and an index of literary topics.Lamberton, Robert. Homer the Theologian: Neoplatonist Allegorical Reading and the Growth of the Epic Tradition. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986. Addresses The Odyssey as allegory, presenting a commentary and summary of the work. Supports points with material from Greek scholars. General researchers will find particularly interesting its focus on Homer as theologian. Well-indexed, well-documented, scholarly.Mason, H. A. To Homer Through Pope: An Introduction to Homer’s “Iliad” and Pope’s Translation. London: Chatto and Windus, 1972. Mason devotes last chapter to The Odyssey and major translators of that work. Not recommended for beginning researchers.Taylor, Charles H., Jr. Essays on the “Odyssey”: Selected Modern Criticism. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1963. Seven selected essays, arranged chronologically. Taylor contends that interest grew in the “emblematic or symbolic implications” at work in events and images in the poem. Extensive notes.
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