The epic hero of The Odyssey, Odysseus is a fascinating character full of contradictions. While he is intent on returning home to his faithful wife, Penelope, and his adult son he has barely seen, Telemachus, Odysseus also willingly beds down with not one but two beautiful goddesses during his travels and expresses little remorse for his infidelities - though he rails against the suitors who are trying to capture his wife.
The contradictions extend to Odysseus' intellect. Blessed with great physical strength (which he amply demonstrates, despite his years, at several moments), he has an equally keen mind that bails him out of many dire straits. There is no better "improviser" or "strategist" in Greek mythology, though the label attached is often "cunning" or "deceiver"; indeed, many Greeks saw Odysseus' habit of lying as a vice and a weakness. His penchant for disguise complements his ability to make up plausible stories about his background. Although Odysseus' ingenuity comes across as his chief weapon, his Achilles' heel of sorts is the frequency with which he falls victim to temptation and makes grave tactical errors, none more so than when adding insult to injury to Polyphemus and revealing his true name. Still, Odysseus is aware of this flaw, and bids his men to tie him up when they pass by the Sirens, the exemplars of temptation. By the end of his journey, he has learned to resist temptation, willingly suffering abuse by the suitors to meet his eventual goal of destroying them.
Despite his occasional gaffe, Odysseus is a courageous and just leader who inspires admiration and respect from his shipmates and servants; the faithfulness of his dog and swineherd after so many years says as much. The near-constant protection he enjoys from the goddess Athena seems justifiable for a man who has endured so many hardships, and cast away so many luxuries, to reunite with his beloved family.
Odysseus' son, Telemachus, undergoes a miniature odyssey of his own. A callow 20-year-old afraid to challenge the suitors at the start of the poem, by the end, thanks in part to Athena's grooming, he is an assured, mature young man ready to take on the suitors.
During his short journey to learn about the father he does not know, Telemachus is the beneficiary of "xenia," the Greek term for hospitality. He repays the favor to others who need help and is a respectful traveler. Though he has not inherited his father's gift for cunning, The Odyssey ends with the promise that Telemachus will one day make a fine ruler of Ithaca.
The beautiful wife of Odysseus, Penelope has always given critics difficulty. Does she refrain from expelling the suitors only because she fears their retribution, as she claims, or does she in some ways enjoy the attention? Though she weeps for Odysseus nightly, she does not even force the suitors to act with proper decorum.
However, her faithfulness to her husband does remain steadfast, and she even shares his proclivity for trickery, promising to remarry once she has finished weaving a shroud for Laertes, but unraveling it each night (the suitors catch on after a few years). Penelope is also fiercely protective of Telemachus, and speaks out against the suitors when she hears of their plans to murder him. After Odysseus' disguised arrival, Penelope's loyalty to her husband is more evident, as is her sadness over his presumed death.
Daughter of Zeus and goddess of wisdom and battle (and of the womanly arts, though this is barely touched upon), Athena is Odysseus' most powerful ally. Frequently appearing throughout The Odyssey in disguise, she offers instructions, encouragement, and magical protection to Odysseus and Telemachus, whom she grooms in the ways of a prince. Yet she also tests Odysseus at times; when he is disguised as a beggar, she provokes the suitors to abuse him to see, ostensibly, if Odysseus will give in to temptation and fight back. She also does not intervene in the climactic battle until the end, once Odysseus has proven his mettle.
Led by the manipulative Antinous, the hotheaded Eurymakhos, and the rational, somewhat decent Amphinomos, the suitors, numbering over one hundred, ungratefully live off Odysseus' estate in their pursuit of the beautiful and wealthy Penelope. They revel nightly with Odysseus' food and his willing female servants and bully around Telemakhos, defying the sacred Greek value of "xenia" (hospitality). Homer's unsympathetic portrait of them ensures that the audience enjoys the suitors' extremely violent end.
God of the sea, Poseidon is Odysseus' central antagonist for the middle section of The Odyssey. Enraged over Odysseus' blinding of his Cyclops son Polyphemus, Poseidon is directly responsible for most of Odysseus' troubles at sea.
Servants of Odysseus
Odysseus' servants are split into two camps according to loyalty. His swineherd Eumaeus and old nurse Eurkyleia epitomize the loyal servants, while the siblings Melanthius and Melantho lead the backstabbing group that sides with the suitors.
The Odyssey Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for The Odyssey is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.