I recently published a novel, Tales of Odysseus, which is the story of Odysseus’s return from the Trojan war, based on one of Homer’s two sagas, The Odyssey. Who was Odysseus, and why did Homer make him the hero of this lesser story? Much of Odysseus’s back story is found in The Illiad, the greatest of Homer’s epics, which is poorly captured in the unfortunately mediocre film “Troy”.
If you have seen Troy, you may recall that the great hero of the Illiad is Achilles, played in the film by Brad Pitt. It is he who kills Hector, the greatest of the Trojan heroes, and is in turn killed by a poisoned arrow, shot in the heel by Hector’s younger brother, Paris (yes, it is a man’s name), who started the whole war by stealing away the Spartan king Menelaus’s wife, Helen, who’s face was immortalized as the face that launched a thousand ships.
But if you read the Illiad, you soon discover another hero, Odysseus, the King of the small Aegean island of Ithaca. It is Odysseus who finds Achilles when his mother has disguised him as girl and hidden him among the women of Scyros. More importantly, after Achilles is killed by Paris, and the Trojans withdraw behind their walls, it is Odysseus that comes up with the idea to build a huge statue of a horse, pretending it is a gift, but actually concealing men within it. When the Trojans go to feast, the Greeks inside the horse (including Odysseus himself) open the gates to the rest of their army, take the city, and win the war.
The Odyssey contains a couple of short stories about illustrate his character. The first is told by Helen to Odysseus’s son, Telemachus, when he visits Sparta seeking news of his father:
I could not tell or even number all of the adventures of Odysseus, so many were there. But, ah, what a deed he dared in the land of the Trojans. He covered his body with unseemly stripes, cast a sorry covering about his shoulders, and disguised himself as a beggar. Like a servant, he entered the city of the Trojans and went down its wide ways, and no one knew who he was. I alone recognized him in his disguise, and tried questioning him, but he avoided answering me. Finally I swore a great oath not to reveal Odysseus to the Trojans before he returned to the Greek ships and their camp. I washed him, anointed him with olive oil, and clothed him, and he told me all the plans of the Greeks. After slaying many Trojans with his long sword, he returned to the Greeks and brought back word of all he had seen. The Trojan women wept aloud, but my soul was glad, for my heart had changed and I wished to go back to my home. I moaned for the blindness that Aphrodite had cast over me, when she led me away from my own country, forsaking my child, my bridal chamber and my lord, who lacked nothing, neither wisdom nor beauty.
The other is a short story that Odysseus, disguised as a beggar, tells his swineherd, Eumaeus, to prove that he knows Odysseus:
When I was young, and my faith in might was steadfast, I fought with the Greeks in Illium. We planned an ambush and led our troops beneath the walls of the city of Troy. Odysseus, son of Laertes and Menelayus son of Atreus were the leaders and with us was a third in command, Antiloccus, son of Nestor. When we reached the wall of the city, we lay in the thick brushwood near the citadel, crouching in our armor among the reeds in the marsh land. Night came on and the weather grew foul and frosty. The north wind blew down upon us, and snow fell from above, and crusted on us, bitterly cold like the ice that formed thickly on our shields. We all had mantles and doublets, and slept in peace with our shields buckled close about our shoulders. But when Antiloccus had joined us, he had left his mantle behind with his men, thinking that he would not be cold. He wore only his polished leather armor. It was the third watch of the night and the stars had passed the zenith, when he woke Odysseus who was near him. ‘Lord Odysseus,’ he said, ‘I fear that I shall die of this wintry cold, seeing that I have no mantle. Some god tricked me into wearing only a doublet, and there is no way to escape my fate.’ Odysseus whispered back ‘Be silent, lest the men hear you.’ Then he raised his head upon his elbow, and spoke. ‘Friends, a vision from God came to me in my sleep. I saw that we would have the chance to end this war with this one ambush. I would like one of you to tell Agamemnon, lord of the host, in case he wishes to send us a greater company from the ships.’ Thoas, son of Andraemon, stood up quickly and cast off his purple mantle. Once clear of the area, he ran for the ships. Antiloccus lay gladly in the man’s discarded cloak, until golden throned Eos showed her light.
My novel tells the story of Odysseus’s journey home from Troy. My non-fiction book, “An Encyclopedia of Ancient Greek and Roman Mythology”, contains a good summary of Odysseus’s story in both the Illiad and the Odyssey: