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The world of the Odyssey and the Iliad

The Odyssey tells the story of Odysseus’ return home after the Trojan War, a journey that took him no less than ten years. During the course of his wanderings, he encountered many monsters (some of which may already be familiar to you – the Cyclops, the Sirens, Circe) and had to go down to the Underworld. When he finally returned, he found that his palace had been more or less taken over by the Suitors for the hand of his wife Penelope. Despite the protestations of Penelope and his son Telemachos, now just coming of age, the suitors are now consuming Odysseus’ wealth by riotous living.

But the Odyssey is much more than an exciting adventure story. It is not even presented in conventional, chronological sequence. Homer begins by giving us the scene in Ithaka, at Odysseus’ palace, where the suitors are carousing freely. Telemachos tries to assert his authority, to no avail, and then sets off in search of news of his father from two of the great heroes of the Trojan War, Nestor and Menelaos. Only then (Book 5) does the scene switch to Odysseus himself, on the island of Kalypso, his penultimate port of call. From there he sails to the island of the Phaiakians, where he is hospitably entertained (Books 6-8). There he is invited to recount his earlier adventures from the time when the Greeks left Troy. This is where Cyclops, the Sirens, Circe and the Underworld come in. The second half of the poem is a gradual build-up from Odysseus’ arrival in Ithaka, his reunion with Telemachos, and the plotting and exaction of revenge upon the suitors.

The Iliad introduces us to a totally different world. Set in the ninth year of the Trojan War, its theme is announced in the very first word of the poem – the anger of Achilles. The poem opens with an ugly quarrel between Agamemnon, the Greek commander-in-chief, and Achilles, the greatest fighter on the Greek side. Achilles stalks out of the fighting altogether, along with all his forces. When the fighting resumes, the Trojans gradually gain the upper hand, pushing all the way to the Greek encampment and so forcing the Greeks onto the defensive. An appeal to Achilles leaves him unmoved; but when the Trojans are so successful that they are on the point of setting fire to the Greek ships, Achilles relents as far as to allow his best friend and second-in-command, Patroklos, to lead his forces into battle. Patroklos is extremely successful, driving the Trojans right back again and into their city – but at the very walls of Troy he is killed. When this news reaches Achilles, his anger is redoubled by his grief at Patroklos’ death – redoubled, but now with a different target: Hektor, the Trojan leader who killed Patroklos, rather than Agamemnon.

Achilles hastily patches up his quarrel with Agamemnon, he re-arms, and then fights with berserk fury until he has killed Hektor. Even then, his anger is still not assuaged. After stripping Hektor he drags his corpse behind his chariot back to the Greek camp and there every day drags it three times around the tomb of Patroklos. The situation is only resolved when old King Priam, Hektor’s father, goes alone and unarmed, at the dead of night, in an act of desperate courage, to plead with Achillles for the ransoming of his son’s corpse. Only then does Achilles finally relent, and the poem ends with the Trojan laments for Hektor, followed by his funeral rites.

Prepared by the Open University Associate Lecturers, Jim Neville and Chris Wilson

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