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Historical Context in The Odyssey
The Odyssey is set in ancient Greece. Many of the locations mentioned are real, physical places, and the events of the story are shaped by the gender dynamics, social customs, and religious beliefs of this era.
Historical Context Examples in The Odyssey:
"for he feared his wife's resentment..." See in text (Book I)
This sheds light on some of the complex gender dynamics at work in this poem. While this is a male-dominated society, and women are considered property in many ways, their emotional lives are still as rich and varied as they would be now, and though women have no real political clout, they nevertheless wield some level of power over their husbands.
"those whom Odysseus has won..." See in text (Book I)
In this case, both the people of Ithaca, whom Odysseus rules, and the servants of the house, whom he owns. In ancient Greece, most servants were slaves and indentured workers "won" (or captured) in war. Some of these slaves might also have been given as gifts, from one man of position to another, as a token of his esteem. Upon Odysseus's death, these slaves wouldn't have been set free but would've passed down to the heir, Telemachus.
"for speech is man's matter..." See in text (Book I)
In ancient Greek tradition, women were subservient to men and were relegated to the roles of mother and wife. Though female gods like Athena were powerful in their own right, the Greek pantheon was dominated primarily by males, just like Greek literature. Speech or writing were part of the male domain, but there were still a few female poets in ancient Greece, of which Sappho is probably the most famous.
"bards do not make the ills they sing of..." See in text (Book I)
Unlike modern-day poetry, Homer's works serve a dual function as an epic poem and an historical account, with many people and events in The Odyssey (particularly where it pertains to the Trojan War) being, by some measure, factual. As a bard, Homer wouldn't have created this history, but he would have embellished its emotional and psychological content, which is what Penelope responds to here.
"Hellas and middle Argos..." See in text (Book I)
This refers to the region of Greece from Laconia in the south to Elis in the north that had the most concentrated development and most powerful Greek city-states, including the kingdoms of Agamemnon, Menelaus, Nestor, and several other of the most important Greek kings and war heroes. Odysseus, though not a king, would be well-known among them and listed in this category of great men.
"built a mound over his ashes..." See in text (Book I)
In ancient Greek tradition, heroes were burned on a funeral pyre built of wood, then the ashes were lain in the ground and covered with a mound of dirt. Often in war men will not have this luxury, and when men are lost at sea, their bodies can't be glorified this way. Telemachus wishes there had been a body because that would've made him the rightful heir to Odysseus' home and solved all of his problems with the suitors.
"flower of all the Argives..." See in text (Book I)
That is, Helen of Troy. Originally hailing from the city-state of Argos, Helen later married King Menelaus, Agamemnon's brother, and was seduced by Paris, the prince of Troy, who took her away from Menelaus in an act sparking the Trojan War. Famed for her beauty, Helen's was "the face that launched a thousand ships."
"Temesa..." See in text (Book I)
A city on the Southern coast of Italy that was well-known for its copper mines. In ancient Greece, long-distance trading was conducted primarily by ships, with traders like the Taphians and the more famous Phoenicians dominating most trade routes. Copper would've been a major commodity at the time this poem was written and was used in everything from armor to coinage to buildings.
"An upper servant..." See in text (Book I)
In ancient Greece, even servants were divided into social classes, with "upper" servants working in the dining hall and the house proper and "lower" servants working in the fields or the stables. The upper servants weren't treated better in any way, and all servants were likely to be slaves or indentured servants working off a debt.
"he was vexed that a stranger should be kept waiting for admittance..." See in text (Book I)
Ancient Greeks had a strong sense of etiquette and decorum. Their word for this was xenia, which dictates that hosts follow very formal procedures in the care of their guests. Any breach of xenia would've constituted an unforgivable breach of their moral code and would've reflected poorly upon Telemachus (and, by extension, Odysseus). In this tradition, any question the guest had would've been asked only after their other needs (for food and drink, etc.) had been met.
"mixing wine with water in the mixing-bowls..." See in text (Book I)
In ancient times, Greeks routinely mixed wine with water in order to dilute it and make it last longer. This practice was especially common among the nobles, who signified the status of their guests by how much or how little water was mixed into their wine. Basically: the stronger the wine, the greater their social status, suggesting that these guests, who have a great deal of water in their wine, are, in the end, not very important.
"Mentes, chief of the Taphians..." See in text (Book I)
It often happened that the gods would disguise themselves as mortals when they wanted to interact with people on Earth. Here Athena chooses to be chief of the Taphians, a group of well-known traders and pirates, because she knows that Telemachus is familiar enough with the Taphians to respect Mentes and to believe that he has, indeed, heard of or met Odysseus in his travels.
"Ithaca..." See in text (Book I)
Odysseus' home and final destination in his journey, Ithaca is a small island west of the Peloponnese. Of the seven main Ionian islands, it's the second-smallest, with a population around 3,000. In The Odyssey, Ithaca's exact population is unclear, but would've likely been in the hundreds, with a large number of able-bodied men living at Odysseus's home as guests while they attempt to woo his wife.
"Sparta and to Pylos..." See in text (Book I)
Greek city-states. At the time, "Greece" wasn't yet a country and was, instead, a group of warring city-states all vying for dominance of the Peloponnesus. These city-states, Sparta and Pylos, lie east of Ithaca, Odysseus' island home on the Ionian sea, and therefore lie closer to Troy and the route on which Odysseus travels in his return home. It would've been difficult for news of Odysseus to travel much farther than Sparta.
"Cyclopes..." See in text (Book I)
A race of giants said to have been born with one eye in the center of their foreheads. Homer never explicitly states that the Cyclopes have one eye, but his contemporary Hesiod does, and modern interpretations of the text have used Hesiod's description, citing a lack of physical details in Homer's account. Odysseus will recount the tale of this blinding later in the poem.
"Phorcys..." See in text (Book I)
Though not a Titan, Phorcys is said to have descended from Gaia and Pontus, a pre-Olympian sea god. Phorcys rules over the hidden waters of the deep and sired a number of monstrous children, including Echidna (the half-woman, half-snake) and all three Gorgons, including the infamous Medusa, who could turn men to stone by making eye contact.
"Atlas..." See in text (Book I)
A Titan, Atlas sided against Zeus in the war against the Olympians. For his part in this unsuccessful coup, Zeus decided that Atlas wouldn't be imprisoned with the other Titans in Tartarus, but would, instead, be condemned to forever hold the heavenly spheres on his back, thus preventing the earth from meeting the heavens and returning to its original state.
"Cronus..." See in text (Book I)
A Titan, Cronus descended from Gaia, a personification of the earth, and Uranus (also known as "Father Sky"). He would later become leader of the Titans when he overthrew his father, only to himself be overthrown by Zeus and imprisoned in Tartarus (a dark abyss) with the other Titans. Athena alludes to this in order to emphasize Zeus' power and lineage. In that sense, it's an attempt to stroke his ego before she asks him a favor.
"Athena..." See in text (Book I)
Daughter of Zeus, goddess of wisdom, Athena is said to have been born when Zeus, complaining of a migraine, asked one of the gods to split his head open. Athena, fully-grown, and dressed all in armor, emerged from his forehead and immediately became Zeus' favorite. Her fondness for Odysseus stems from his own wisdom and cleverness, for which he was well-renowned.
"Hermes..." See in text (Book I)
Messenger of the Greek gods, Hermes is Odysseus' great-grandfather and will often help Odysseus by informing him of all the dangers that lie ahead. Homer portrays him as a guide or a bringer of good luck in The Iliad, where he sides with the Greeks against the Trojans and helps them to win the war.
"men lay blame upon us gods..." See in text (Book I)
In Greek mythology and literature, there exists a tension between a man's "fate" and the unpredictable will of the gods. It often happens that men are ruined by the gods for no reason, and this results in feelings of resentment and distrust. A man might say that the gods caused his troubles instead of taking responsibility for his own actions because it was well-known that the gods were capricious.
"Orestes..." See in text (Book I)
Son of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra, Orestes wasn't home in Mycenae when Agamemnon was killed, returning only seven years later to avenge this death by killing both Aegisthus and his own mother Clytemnestra. In The Odyssey, he's used as an example for Odysseus' son, Telemachus, whose own mother is beset by suitors in Odysseus' absence.
"Agamemnon..." See in text (Book I)
King of Mycenae, son of Atreus, killed by Aegisthus upon his return from the ten-year Trojan War. His story parallels Odysseus' in that they're both returning from the war as heroes to find that their house is in shambles. The difference is: Agamemnon's wife cheats on him and plots against him while Odysseus' wife, Penelope, remains faithful.
"Aegisthus..." See in text (Book I)
Born of a rivalry between his father and the house of Atreus, Aegisthus grew up to kill Atreus so his father could reclaim the throne. Later, Agamemnon, Atreus's son, took the throne back, only to leave to fight in the Trojan War. While he was gone, Aegisthus had a torrid affair with Agamemnon's wife, Clytemnestra, and the two murdered him upon his return.
"but the other gods met..." See in text (Book I)
Notice that the other gods are actively cutting Poseidon out of the loop on this. In Greek mythology, this kind of behavior was common on Mount Olympus and led to much inner turmoil, including an attempt by Hera to overthrow Zeus and take the throne for herself. Zeus punished Poseidon for his role in this attempted overthrow by forcing him to build a great wall around the city of Troy.
"Olympian Zeus..." See in text (Book I)
King of the Greek gods, Zeus rules from Mount Olympus and was known for his trademark thunderbolts and his affinity for women. Zeus was the son of Titans Cronus and Rhea and husband of Hera, with whom he gave birth to many gods, including Ares, the god of war. He sired more than 100 children in his time.
"hecatomb..." See in text (Book I)
In ancient Greece, a public sacrifice of 100 oxen made to please the gods. The Greek gods were notoriously capricious and could only be appeased by means of incredible sacrifice, usually involving slaughter or wine. Since then, the word "hecatomb" has come to mean a great loss of life, particularly for a cause.
"at the world's end..." See in text (Book I)
In ancient times, the known world was small, encompassing primarily Europe and the Mediterranean. Scientists also believed that the world was flat, which meant that it had an "end" or edge that ships were rumored to fall over once in awhile. In reality, Ethiopia is only about 2,300 miles from Greece.
"goddess Calypso..." See in text (Book I)
Technically a nymph, Calypso is said to be the daughter of Atlas, the Titan who was condemned to carry the heavenly spheres on his shoulders for eternity. In The Odyssey, Calypso uses her voice to enchant Odysseus, trapping him on the island of Ogygia. Other accounts of the same story suggest that Calypso bore Odysseus a son or two.
"sacked the famous town of Troy..." See in text (Book I)
In The Iliad, Odysseus was credited with the idea that ultimately led to the downfall of Troy: the Trojan Horse. Inside the horse were highly trained soldiers who would bust free and sack the city after the Trojans brought the Horse in, thinking it was a gift. This earned Odysseus a reputation as a strategic thinker and made him one of the heroes of the Trojan War.
"except Odysseus..." See in text (Book I)
After defeating Troy, Odysseus and his men were detained by various gods or nymphs. In addition to being punished for eating Apollo's cattle, they spent a year with Circe, a powerful nymph who turned several of Odysseus's men into pigs, and then spent seven years with Calypso, who enchanted them with her singing.
"Sun-god Apollo..." See in text (Book I)
In ancient Greek mythology, Apollo was sometimes associated with the sun god Helios and was said to have ridden in a golden horse-drawn chariot, the chariot of the sun. Every day, he drove the sun chariot across the sky, at night traveling through Oceanus to reach the chariot's original position in the morning.
"TELL ME, O MUSE..." See in text (Book I)
Homer repeats the opening line of The Iliad, which in the original Greek reads, "Sing to me, O Muse." Poets in ancient Greece often performed or "sang" their poems for an audience and frequently called upon the Muses for inspiration. Here, Homer uses a poetic apostrophe to address Calliope, the Muse of epic poetry. There were nine Muses in all.
"watches of the night..." See in text (Book II)
A "watch" in this context means a time period in which someone stands watch or acts as a lookout in case of danger. On the Aegean and Mediterranean sea, danger would've been either an enemy ship, an oncoming storm, or, in certain stories, a fantastical sea monster, often beset upon the sailors by Poseidon. To the ancient Greeks, the open seas were notoriously treacherous, something to be both feared and respected.
"Erinyes..." See in text (Book II)
Also known as Furies, the Erinyes are a group of vulture-like women who would appear any time they were called upon to punish the mortals who'd committed crimes against their families, especially matricide. Once the Erinyes were called upon, they would torment their victim, a process that could take hours or years. This often sparked an escalating cycle of revenge which inevitably ended in tragedy.
"Tyro, Alcmena, Mycene..." See in text (Book II)
Here Homer refers to famous women of the past, including Mycene (namesake of the city Mycenae), Alcmena (mother of Heracles), and Tyro, one of the many consorts of Poseidon. Notice that, with the exception of Alcmena, a mortal, the women listed here are either nymphs or royalty, and that this is the level of social status required for a woman in ancient Greece to be great. Suggesting that Penelope is better than these women is hyperbolic, but telling: any powerful woman, they suggest, is to be feared.
"Send your mother away..." See in text (Book II)
In ancient Greece, if a widowed woman didn't remarry, the custom was that she return to her family home. In this case, doing so would require Telemachus to pay back Penelope's dowry in livestock and find some way to save their estate without going bankrupt. As a suitor, it's not Antinous' place to demand anything but an answer, but because there is a power vacuum, he feels he has the right to do so.
"Ilius..." See in text (Book II)
Ilium, another name for Troy, gave The Iliad its name and was well-known for its twelve immortal horses, the Hippoi Troiades, owned by one of the kings of Troy. Homer was likely also alluding to the Trojan Horse, the famed downfall of the city and brain-child of Odysseus, an important figure in the Trojan War.
"Athena endowed him..." See in text (Book II)
In ancient Greece, as in most of history, physical attractiveness was prized and was typically considered a sign of one's goodness, godliness, and actual worth. "Kallos," the Greek word for beauty, has a more abrasive, powerful connotation, carrying with it the license to be cruel, vain, and powerful, and to be admired for it. Kallos is a counterpoint to "kleos," or glory, to which men aspire.
"screamed with delight..." See in text (Book III)
This sacrifice is one of the most detailed in all of Greek literature. Eurydice’s reaction may seem to be morbid behavior, but the sacrifice of an animal was considered to be an honor as much for the animal as it was for the people performing it. The Greeks took these ceremonies very seriously, only using animals that had never been used for work and were in perfect health.
"go away early..." See in text (Book III)
Although they weren’t always practiced, temperance and moderation were valued in Greek society.
"to keep up his name..." See in text (Book IV)
Telemachus is the last in his line, the only son of Odysseus and heir to his kingdom. If Odysseus doesn't come back, and Telemachus fails to produce a male heir before he dies, then the estate will be broken up regardless of whether or not the suitors manage to take it.
"to cross over to Elis..." See in text (Book IV)
Elis, a region in Southern Greece, was bordered on the north by Achaea, on the east by Arcadia, on the south by Messenia, and on the west by the Ionian Sea. To cross over to Elis, the mainland, from Ithaca, the sea, would've required a ship and a few days' journey.
"Rhadamanthus..." See in text (Book IV)
Rhadamanthus, son of Zeus and Europa, brother of Minos, the first king of Crete, who ordered that every nine years seven boys and seven girls be sent to the Minotaur in the labyrinth. Rhadamanthus led a just life and upon his death became a judge of the dead and the ruler of the Elysian plains.
"ruined himself by boasting..." See in text (Book IV)
The ancient Greeks, drawing on Aristotle's philosophies about human behavior, believed in hamartia, or a fatal flaw of personality that affected many heroes. One of the most common flaws was hubris, that is, pride or boasting.
"ambrosia..." See in text (Book IV)
The food of the gods, distinct from the nectar, or drink, of the gods. In ancient Greek mythology, ambrosia was said to confer longevity and, in some cases, immortality on whomsoever ate it, which led to it being eaten by mortals only on very rare occasions. Idothea is again going above and beyond to help Menelaus.
"Halosydne's chickens..." See in text (Book IV)
Halosydne, an epithet of Amphitrite, the goddess of the sea and wife of Poseidon. The Greek word halosydne literally means sea-fed, so it's a very appropriate adjective for describing the seals described here as "chickens," or animals bred to feed gods and humans.
"and mimicked all our wives..." See in text (Book IV)
Menelaus attempts to explain away this act of treachery as the gods' will, but Helen's measured and deliberate actions in this scene seem to suggest that she's trying to lead the Trojans to their hiding place. An alternate reading would be that she's trying to draw the Greeks out to ambush the Trojans, but this seems unlikely.
"the Trojan women..." See in text (Book IV)
In Euripides' tragedy The Trojan Women, Hecuba, the Queen of Troy, and her attendant maidens famously mourn the deaths of the fallen Trojans. "Lamentation" in ancient Greece was a ritualized process involving shaved heads and funeral garb and would've lasted for an extended period of time.
"how Telemachus is now placed..." See in text (Book IV)
Notice that Pisistratus uses the word "placed" in this line. It emphasized not only his social position, as someone whose father is missing, but his physical presence on the estate, which is required of him to have any real say in how the house is governed. Greek life was grounded in lands and estates, and the management of these would've consumed Odysseus's daily life, in lieu of war.
"Artemis..." See in text (Book IV)
Artemis, daughter of Zeus and Leto, goddess of the hunt, animals, childbirth, and virginity. Artemis was typically depicted with a bow and arrow and was widely revered as one of the most beautiful and powerful goddesses in the pantheon.
"and one soon tires of it..." See in text (Book IV)
In ancient Greece, as in many cultures, the traditions of mourning required that the Greeks perform their grief in a number of highly ritualized ways, including the observation of burial rites, periods of mourning, and the wailing Menelaus refers to here, which saw men and women alike crying melodramatically in public. Menelaus tired of this mourning, which is to say, he tires of the performance.
"under the yoke..." See in text (Book IV)
A yoke, or type of harness, was used to attach horses to chariots, which were then pulled in tandem by teams typically consisting of two, four, or eight horses. Given the singularity of the word yoke, we can assume that Telemachus and Pisistratus are riding on a single chariot led by two or four horses.
"who look like sons of Zeus..." See in text (Book IV)
In ancient Greece, the appearance of men who appear to be gods or the sons of gods would've been both an event of great importance and a cause of considerable trepidation, as the Greek gods were notoriously selfish and often brought disaster to houses they visited. Eteoneus should know better than to hesitate around them, and Menelaus is wise in treating them kindly.
"city of Lacedaemon..." See in text (Book IV)
Lacedaemon, a city in Laconia, the principal region of the city-state Sparta. In Greek mythology, Lacedaemon also referred to the king of Laconia, son of Zeus and Taygete, one of the seven daughters of the Titan Atlas, collectively known as the Pleiades. It's said that Lacadaemon renamed the city after his wife, Sparta, who also happened to be his niece.
"the river Styx..." See in text (Book V)
The Styx is one of five rivers in Hades that was used to ferry souls to the underworld. Calypso swears honesty to Odysseus upon the river Styx because it is known to be the most serious symbol a god can swear upon.
"But Athena resolved to help Odysseus..." See in text (Book V)
Athena again demonstrates great humility in this instance. Although she creates the dangerous obstacles for Odysseus during his voyage home, she also consistently aids him with his journey. This relationship alludes to the historical treatment of Greek parents to their children. Sometimes parents would make growing up difficult, so that their children would grow to be strong when they were older.
"Cadmus..." See in text (Book V)
Cadmus is the son of Phoenix, the King of Phoenicia, and brother of Europa. Europa was abducted by Zeus, and Cadmus was sent on a quest to find her. When he was unsuccessful, he consulted an oracle which advised him to give up his quest, follow a cow until she lay down, and where she lay down he was to build a city, which came to be known as Thebes.
"for the clothes Calypso had given him weighed him down..." See in text (Book V)
Notice how even after Odysseus leaves Calypso’s island, she hinders his progress towards home. Homer uses this metaphor to show how the power of the gods can reach anyone regardless of whether or not the god is physically present. Considering the time this was written, we can surmise this to be a reflection of the cultural values of respecting the unseen gods.
"Ceres fell in love with Iasion..." See in text (Book V)
Iasion was a Cretan youth who fell in love with the goddess of the harvest, Demeter. When they lie together in a field, Zeus becomes jealous of a mortal’s relationship with a god and strikes Iasion with a single lightning bolt and kills him. This sets the example that mortals should never go against the wishes of immortals.
"Tithonus..." See in text (Book V)
Tithonus is the son of Laomedon, King of Troy, who falls in love with Eos. They have children, and Eos asks Zeus to grant Tithonus eternal life. Although Zeus grants her wish, because she forgets to ask Zeus to grant Tithonus eternal youth, Tithonus grows very old and withers in his immortality.
"He looked like some lion..." See in text (Book VI)
Virility is one of the prized Greek virtues, and this powerful simile expresses the raw masculinity that Odysseus represents in the eyes of Nausicaa. Since we know that Nausicaa is looking for an appropriate suitor, this would be a very attractive quality in a mate.
"did the whole voyage in a single day..." See in text (Book VII)
Long-distance seafaring was notoriously dangerous in ancient Greece, with many ships being lost to the seas and the fickle will of the gods. To make a long voyage in a single day was virtually impossible and should signal the extreme skill and speed of Alcinous' ships and sailors.
"my parents are to blame for that..." See in text (Book VIII)
In ancient Greece, physical deformities and birth defects were thought to be a result of the sins and character flaws of a child's parents. For Hephaestus to be thus deformed would mean that his parents had committed some terrible acts that blemished him forever.
"Philoctetes..." See in text (Book VIII)
Philoctetes, the son of King Poeas of Meliboea, and a great archer in his own right. According to legend, he was stranded on the island of Lemnos by the Greeks after a wound on his foot began to fester and smell. The Greeks later came back in search of his weapons, which had once belonged to Hercules, and rescued Philoctetes.
"showing himself a proper man..." See in text (Book VIII)
In ancient Greece, a man's masculinity was measured by his feats of strength and courage either in battle or during a pentathlon such as this. Odysseus, a man primarily known for his cunning, happens to be a man of great strength, as well, but can't be guaranteed to win any contest like this.
"in the cloisters..." See in text (Book VIII)
There were two distinctive classes in Phaeacia: the members of the lower class, who were forced to find their own provisions, which they had to cook for themselves and eat in the yards and outer limits, and the upper class, who ate in the gazeboes or tents located in the inner court and had their meals prepared for them.
"groaning and tearing their hair..." See in text (Book X)
Odysseus's men are, understandably, not happy with this turn of events. Groaning, tearing one's hair, and even tearing one's clothes were common customs of mourning and distress during ancient times.
"many dead men's ghosts will come to you..." See in text (Book X)
According to Greek tradition, the souls in Hades were only the “shades” of their former physical selves, as their bodies had been either buried or burned. They craved their own physical substance, so the taste of blood would be tantalizing.
"to one who was far beneath me..." See in text (Book XI)
A reference to Eurystheus, king of the Tyrins. After being driven mad by Hera, Hercules consulted the Oracle of Delphi, who advised him to serve Eurystheus for twelve years in exchange for immortality. His Twelve Labours were assigned to him in this time and included slaying the Nemean Lion, killing the Hydra, and stealing the Mares of Diomedes.
"digging their beaks into his liver..." See in text (Book XI)
A common punishment in ancient Greece, the most common recipient of which was Prometheus, a Titan, said to have created mankind. Prometheus stole fire from Mount Olympus to give to the humans, which resulted in this punishment. Remember that Prometheus is an immortal and thus regenerates his liver every time it's eaten, thus prolonging his punishment for all eternity.
"Thetis..." See in text (Book XI)
Thetis, wife of Peleus and mother to Achilles. Thetis was a Nereid, or daughter of the ancient sea god Nereus, and according to some scholars was one of the first deities worshipped in ancient Greece. As mother, she would've retained rights over all of Achilles' possessions after he was killed.
"Eurypylus..." See in text (Book XI)
In The Iliad, there were two characters with the name Eurypylus: one who fought with the Achaeans on the side of the Greeks and one who fought with the Trojans for King Priam. It's unclear whether the two ever met in battle.
"Memnon..." See in text (Book XI)
Memnon, an Ethiopian king, son of Tithonus, who was cursed to live forever and continue to age. Memnon came to the aid of the Trojans during the war and led his men in battle until he was killed by Achilles, who was avenging the death of his great friend, Patroclus.
"Antilochus..." See in text (Book XI)
Antilochus, the son of Nestor, and another friend of Achilles to be cut down during the Trojan War. Antilochus was one of the many suitors of Helen before she married Menelaus, necessitating that he fight in the Trojan war, where he sacrificed himself to save his father.
"Patroclus..." See in text (Book XI)
Patroclus, son of Menoetius, and best friend to Achilles. In The Iliad, he convinced Achilles to let him lead the Myrmidons in battle, driving the Trojans away from the Greek ships and killing the Trojan warrior Sarpedon before being killed by Hector, a Trojan prince.
"close my lips nor my eyes..." See in text (Book XI)
In ancient Greece, it was tradition to close the lips and eyes of the dead and to place a coin over them to pay Charon, the ferryman on the River Styx, who conveyed them from the land of the living to the land of the dead. Without this payment, Charon might be less inclined to perform this service, and the spirits of the dead would remain waiting forever.
"cattle-lifting or sheep-stealing..." See in text (Book XI)
In order to fund his return journey home, Agamemnon would've necessarily had to steal some cattle and sheep in order to feed his men. He would've sometimes justified this by sacking the cities from which he stole, thus making the cattle the spoils of war instead of the product of thievery, which was not well looked upon in Greek society.
"a style about your language..." See in text (Book XI)
Alcinous here refers to Odysseus' facility with speech, for which he was well-renowned in both The Iliad and The Odyssey. In ancient Greece, the ability to speak with such style was considered a quality of the upper class, and thus Alcinous is also making a comment about Odysseus' social status.
"Dionysus..." See in text (Book XI)
Dionysus, the god of wine, madness, fertility, and ecstasy. His lavish and extravagant parties gave rise to the term Dionysian, a concept of irrationality and chaos that stands in contrast to the Apollonian, a philosophical concept derived from Apollo, the god of rationality and reason. Thus it's possible that what Dionysus said about Procris wasn't true, because he may just have been trying to create chaos.
"Procris..." See in text (Book XI)
Procris, the daughter of Erechtheus, the king of Athens. Procris suspects that her husband Cephalus has been having an affair, and when a servant tells her that Cephalus has called on Nephele (a cloud nymph), Procris follows them into a thicket, where Cephalus kills her with an arrow, thinking that she's a wild animal.
"Otus and Ephialtes..." See in text (Book XI)
Sons of Iphimedia, wife of Aloeus, from whom they draw their name, the Aloadae. In one story, they managed to trap Ares in a bronze jar for thirteen months (a lunar year). Had their stepmother not told Hermes of this the god of war might never have been freed.
"Orion..." See in text (Book XI)
Orion, a giant hunter immortalized in the constellation Orion. In some stories, Orion threatened to kill all the beasts of the earth while on a hunting trip with Artemis, the goddess of the hunt, but Gaia objected and sent a scorpion to kill him. Zeus then honored Orion by placing him in the stars.
"Leda the wife of Tyndarus..." See in text (Book XI)
Leda, queen of Sparta, mother of both Helen of Troy and Clytemnestra. According to legend, Zeus fell into Leda's arms in the guise of a swan to escape the talons of an eagle, and Zeus later forced himself on her, resulting in either the births of Castor, Pollux, Helen, or Clytemnestra (textual accounts differ).
"was a certain excellent seer..." See in text (Book XI)
Homer never directly names this seer, but he's commonly believed to be Melampous, a famed soothsayer and healer from Pylos who was held captive for a year in the house of Phylakos. When his prison collapsed, he was asked to cure Phylakos' wife Iphiklos of infertility, upon which he was given the cattle he tried to steal and allowed to take Pero to wed his brother.
"Castor breaker of horses, and Pollux..." See in text (Book XI)
Castor and Pollux, son of Leda, queen of Sparta, who was raped by Zeus after he took the form of a swan. In many pieces of literature, they're known as the Dioskuri, and are often listed as brothers of both Helen, wife of Menelaus, and Clytemnestra, wife of Agamemnon.
"Epicaste mother of king Oedipus..." See in text (Book XI)
Epicaste, unbeknownst to her, married her son Oedipus and made him king of Thebes. Oedipus had been abandoned after birth and wasn't raised by Epicaste, who had no way of recognizing her son when he was grown. This story is recounted more fully in Sophocles' iconic play, Oedipus Rex.
"Megara..." See in text (Book XI)
Megara, wife of Heracles, mother of his sons, whom he slaughtered in a fit of madness induced by Hera. After his madness was cured, he fled to the Oracle of Delphi, leaving Megara behind as he attempted to repent for the murder of his children.
"Thebes with its seven gates..." See in text (Book XI)
Thebes, one of the most important of the Greek city-states, was known both for its seven gates, which made the city near impenetrable, and for its propensity to cause trouble, including the war known as the Seven Against Thebes, which was immortalized in the play of the same name by Aeschylus.
"Antiope, daughter to Asopus..." See in text (Book XI)
Antiope, the daughter of the river god Asopus, in later sources thought to be the mother of the nocturnal king Nycteus of Thebes. In her youth she was said to be very beautiful, and Zeus, seeing this, transformed himself into a satyr (a man with horse-like features) and forced himself on Antiope.
"Pelias and Neleus..." See in text (Book XI)
Twins Pelias and Neleus were abandoned on a mountain by Tyro, who was upset with Poseidon for disguising himself as Enipeus. The twins were raised by a stranger but later returned to kill Tyro's stepmother. Pelias, the more power-hungry of the two, banished his brother and Tyro's other children and made himself king of Thessaly.
"You have got here on foot..." See in text (Book XI)
In the afterlife, ancient Greeks were said to walk between the realms, moving between life and death in supernatural ways that defied the laws of physics. Thus Elpenor was able to make a long journey in a matter of hours or days.
"Erebus..." See in text (Book XI)
Erebus, a region of the underworld, the first stop for the dead before they move on to Hades. The word "erebus" literally means darkness, and the place Erebus has been depicted as a shadowy realm, a sort of in-between place where the light of day and the darkness of death merge.
"the river Oceanus..." See in text (Book XI)
Also known as the world-ocean, Oceanus was a giant river said to encircle the entire world. This river was personified by a deity of the same name, Oceanus, often depicted as a man with a great beard and the lower body of a serpent.
"Argo..." See in text (Book XII)
This reference is to the story of Jason and the Argonauts in which the Argo was the ship that carries Jason and his Argonauts on his legendary quest for the Golden Fleece.
"goddess dispersed the mist and the land appeared..." See in text (Book XIII)
The mist symbolizes the difficulties the gods give Odysseus during his voyage home. By dispersing the mist and showing Odysseus that he is in his home country, Athena shows readers how the gods help mortals. This dichotomy is a recurring theme in the story that can be read as a cultural reflection of the time The Odyssey was written: Although people believed the gods oftentimes helped people, they also believed gods caused them great harm.
"we had no sickness on board..." See in text (Book XIV)
In ancient times, seafaring was particularly risky because boats were not able to withstand foul weather and were often the method of transport for many airborne and infectious disease, including especially those transmitted by water and mosquitoes. Any journey by sea would've lost some men and ships to sickness regardless of the skill of the crew.
"tramps in want of a lodging..." See in text (Book XIV)
Travelers in ancient Greece were known to take advantage of the tradition of xenia to secure lodgings and meals while on the road. It would've been very easy for men who'd heard of Odysseus' absence to make up stories about him in exchange for dinner. Some appear to have claimed he was alive, while others told Penelope he was dead.
"Helen's whole race..." See in text (Book XIV)
The ancient Greeks believed that ethics were genetically transmitted and that people would inherit the traits of their ancestors. Thus, the "race" of Helen would be one of unfaithful women, characterized, as Helen is, by their weakness and their immorality.
"when you have had your fill..." See in text (Book XIV)
Xenia was not only heeded by the nobility but by all social classes in ancient Greece. Eumaeus, though a swineherd, would be obliged to share his meager possessions with Odysseus, even if this was a burden on him. Luckily, Eumaeus doesn't seem to have many visitors, so this doesn't become a problem.
"Sidon..." See in text (Book XV)
Sidon, an ancient city in Phoenicia, now a major city in modern-day Lebanon. Homer was known to praise the skill of the Sidonian craftsmen, including especially their glass, purple dyes, and women's embroidery. Sidon was frequently the victim of conquering warlords and saw many different rulers in its time.
"kills them with his painless shafts..." See in text (Book XV)
In ancient Greece, the most honorable way to die was in battle, while the worst way was often to grow old and miserable and die of some terrible disease. For these people to be spared old age by Apollo and Artemis would mean a great deal to them and should indicate that they're of a particularly well-respected class.
"held them for a whole year..." See in text (Book XV)
This story will seem familiar to readers: it's been mentioned before by Odysseus in the story he told Alcinous and his men. Here, we see a somewhat more elaborated version, which may suggest that the exact details of the story were so well-known in Greece that Homer needn't relate the whole thing to his audience.
"a guest should never forget a host..." See in text (Book XV)
Xenia has two sides: it demands that hosts lavish their guests with food and wine, according to their means, and offer them gifts and assistance where appropriate; but it also demands that hosts follow the same rules and show their hosts the same deference shown to them.
"and wait till sundown..." See in text (Book XVII)
Typically, a woman whose husband was absent wouldn't receive guests after sundown for fear of an assault or a perception of impropriety. Odysseus here assumes a privilege that beggars weren't allowed, but which Eumaeus grants him because he's been injured and earned the respect of the house.
"Dmetor by name, son of Iasus..." See in text (Book XVII)
There are no other accounts of these characters in Greek literature, suggesting that Homer made them up entirely, as Odysseus has, or that they were of such insignificance that they were not documented in their time.
"commanding figure..." See in text (Book XVIII)
Notice how Athena performed similar enhancements on Odysseus’s body. This reflects what types of bodies Homer considers heroic. Odysseus is visually a classical hero, and Penelope’s unwavering devotion to her husband is now reflected in her looks. Homer links one’s strength of character with their outward appearance.
"Autolycus..." See in text (Book XIX)
It may be that Odysseus learned his craftiness and cunning from his maternal grandfather, Autolycus. Autolycus was a well-known thief in Greek mythology and even received the favor of Hermes, known for his patronage of thieves.
"but he that is righteous and deals righteously..." See in text (Book XIX)
Penelope's speech indicates that despite being self-absorbed in grief, she is not only able to understand the beggar's sorrows, but she is also able to reach out to him in kindness. Fair dealing with others is another virtue that was prized in Greek society.
"Sardinian fashion..." See in text (Book XX)
A reference to the island of Sardinia, near to Italy, located in the Mediterranean Sea. Sardinia was originally settled by the Phoenicians, Greeks, and Carthaginians prior to the sixth century B.C. The Romans conquered the island in 238 B.C. This reference to Sardinia is one of the factors that dates the Odyssey later than 1200 B.C.
"Pandareus..." See in text (Book XX)
Pandareus, a resident of Miletus and son of a nymph, was urged by his friend Tantalus to steal a bronze dog from the temple of Zeus on Crete. As punishment, Zeus either turned Pandareus and his wife to stone or killed them, leaving their daughters orphans.
"when it is all over..." See in text (Book XX)
In ancient Greece, an act of revenge such as Odysseus plans often sparked an endless cycle of revenge, spurred on by the vengeful Furies. Odysseus fears that when he kills the sons of all the noblemen in Ithaca, he will himself become a target, regardless of the justness of his actions.
"shovelled up the blood and dirt..." See in text (Book XXII)
In the outer court, the floor wouldn't necessarily have been stone or marble, and large portions of Odysseus' outer court was simply made of packed earth, which explains the ever-present "dust" on the floor, which the suitors "bit" when they fell face-first into it as they died.
"cattle-lifting or sheep-stealing..." See in text (Book XXIV)
Recall that Agamemnon's brother, Menelaus, asked almost the same question of Telemachus when they spoke in an earlier book. This repetition emphasizes their familial bond and further suggests that this kind of death (occurring during the process of stealing) was in fact very common in ancient Greece.