Vocabulary in The Odyssey
"Sooth" means truth, so a soothsayer is literally a "truth-teller" and acts like a fortune teller. In ancient Greek and Shakespearean tragedies, soothsayers were wise men who foretold the future, but often left somewhat cryptic clues as to what that future would be. Penelope's desire to speak to a soothsayer signifies that she's become desperate for answers, whereas Telemachus had given up hope, until Athena came.
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.
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.
Odysseus' house and possessions are reflections of his great social standing, with items like this ewer, or oval pitcher, displaying his considerable wealth and prestige. Even before Odysseus fought in the Trojan War, he was a respectable man with lands and money to his name. His absence, however, has depleted his wealth considerably, as the suitors eat up his flock.
A bearing-post "bears" the weight of a building and is essential to its structure. It recalls the image of Atlas, who bears the weight of the heavenly spheres on his shoulder, and foreshadows a more significant bearing-post that Homer will reveal later in the poem.
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.
In general, a blandishment is a piece of flattery used to manipulate someone. In this context, however, "blandishment" is a somewhat sanitized description of the truth, which is that Calypso is using her powers of song to enchant Odysseus and force him to stay with her. It's also suggested that she uses other means (potions, etc.) to keep him at her side.
This phrase appears again and again in Homer's works. It means that one must necessarily do something or that it's in one's nature to do something. There's a tension in this about whether or not it's speaking to fate (as in, he must do this to finish the story) or if it's just a part of his character (as in, he would do that). In this example, it appears that Orestes "must needs" kill Aegisthus because he wanted to.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
A hand-picked crew of men loyal to the suitors, not to Telemachus, and likely to get rid of him the first chance they get. This is what Athena is guarding against by "beating up" her own volunteers. It's obvious that the suitors are pleased to have Telemachus out of their hair, and that's reason enough for him to decline their invitation to join them.
That is, to round up volunteers. Notice that Athena gives Telemachus an easy task (getting their supplies) while saving herself the difficult one of finding sailors who support Telemachus' cause. Likely, she'll use her powers as a goddess to recruit men for the voyage and will help Telemachus along the way by making sure that these men, and Telemachus himself, stay in line.
That is, to fight over his food. Notice the curious use of the possessive "his." As a suitor, Leiocritus wouldn't be entitled to anything but Telemachus' hospitality, but, like the others, seems to already think of the estate as "his," making all of the other suitors his enemies. Though Leiocritus threatens anyone who stands in the suitors' way, it remains to be seen if, once the obstacles to their success destroyed, the suitors will be able to divide the spoils amicably.
This marks the first and only time that Mentor speaks in the poem as himself. In every other case, "Mentor" is actually Athena in disguise, appearing to guide Telemachus in his journey in much the same way she appeared earlier. It's her guidance in The Odyssey that led to the word "mentor" being adopted in the English language to mean a teacher or a wise person who provides guidance.
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.
This tambour frame, a circular frame for use in sewing, becomes a symbol both of femininity and fate, as Penelope uses her sewing to hold the suitors at bay. In the course of this poem, the frame will take on increasingly layered meanings and will, like Odysseus' bow, represent the split between "women's work" and men's work.
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.
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.
"Criers" were men who ran through the streets of a city, giving its citizens news and announcing meetings. Telemachus wants to make a show of this gathering and intends to finally put the suitors in their place. Otherwise, there would be no reason to call them together at the assembly. All of this is meant to bolster Telemachus' ego.
Penelope essentially says that if she'd known about Telemachus' trip she would've told him, "Over my dead body." Though Penelope and Telemachus' relationship has been portrayed as strained, the familial ties in ancient Greece were particularly strong and demanded utter devotion on the part of mothers. Penelope's threat here is all too real.
An enclosed space or enclosure, particularly of a religious variety. In this case, it refers to an area of the castle that was closed off and, thus, the perfect place for Aegisthus to set his trap for Agamemnon. He hid his soldiers on one side while waiting for his moment to strike on the other.
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, 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.
That is, slowly, or an inch at time. This may refer to the process of "wasting," which occurs when the body of a starving person begins to break down its stored fat and tissues for energy, this shedding a great deal of weight in a short amount of time.
Paean, the Greek physician of the gods, was often considered an epithet of Apollo, the god of plague and healing. In Greek, "paieon" literally means healing, and healers were often generically referred to as Paeeon.
Perfidy, meaning, deceitfulness, treachery, or an act thereof. Typically, an act of perfidy requires there to have been an act of trust that was then broken or betrayed. That trust would've here been placed on Clytemnestra, Agamemnon's "wicked wife," who was unfaithful to him and plotted his demise.
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.
In Greek and Roman culture, men of the upper classes routinely had affairs with women of the lower or slave classes in order to produce male heirs. Since Helen was seduced by Paris and lived with him in Troy, Menelaus named his son "Megapenthes," meaning "great sorrow," in recognition of his grief over the loss of Helen.
Hecatombs are an extensive sacrifice, originally of a hundred oxen. Homer uses this line to emphasize the hierarchy between humans and gods; humans live to satisfy the gods while gods live to enjoy the servitude of humans.
Argus was appointed by Hera to guard Io, who was turned into a heifer and chained to a sacred olive tree. Zeus sent Hermes to kill Argus because he had fallen in love with lo and wanted to steal her back from Hera.
In addition to the somewhat foreboding presence of the temple of Poseidon, this is another ominous statement about the Phaeacians. While it could be that Nausicaa means that they might be critical, the term ill natured implies that they might be mean or hostile, especially considering that it's been made clear that they don't like strangers and her worrying about her reputation.
In general, xenophobia, or the fear and hatred of outsiders, was extremely uncommon in ancient Greece, where people practiced the tradition of xenia, which derives from the same prefix, xeno-, meaning stranger or guest.
This line has two meanings. First, Alcinous wants Odysseus not to be sad and assumes that this can be achieved by changing the subject. Second, he wants to himself enjoy the festivities, and he can't do that with someone weeping so "piteously" beside him.
In this case, not a piece of the metal copper or a coin but a large copper vessel, such as a pot or tub, used to fill water, either for baths or laundry. Alcinous is instructing his wife to prepare a proper bath for Odysseus, who, having spent so many days at sea, likely smells of brine and fish.
Ares, god of war, one of the Twelve Olympians and son of Zeus and Hera. Ares was known to be a particularly hot-headed and violent god associated with battle and slaughter. He also happened to be a great lover, and there are almost as many tales of his love affairs and offspring as there are of his participation in wars.
Another way to say this is that he bites the hands that feeds him. As a stranger in the court, and not knowing all the customs of the land, he of course wants to make sure that he doesn't alienate his host or risk making enemies among the nobles. Thus this statement becomes one of respect and is intended to reflect well upon his character.
That is, of small stature. Odysseus here makes a generalization about men who are "of weak presence" (not very strong or skilled in battle), who nevertheless become leaders because of their quick mind. Keep in mind that Euryalus has just accused Odysseus of this exact thing and that Odysseus is turning it back on him.
Reviled, meaning "to abuse" or "to insult." In this passage, Euryalus questions Odysseus' character, accusing him of having no loyalties and being concerned only with his self-interest, thus "reviling" (denigrating, insulting) him.
Minstrelsy, meaning entertainment or singing. In ancient Greece, minstrels were often servants, like bards, called upon to sing ballads and play live music. From the Middle Ages onwards, "minstrel" was a generic description for a singer, until it became a racially charged word in the early 20th Century.
Lay, in its noun form, refers to a short lyric or narrative poem intended to be sung, like The Odyssey itself. Lays were generally performed from memory with musical accompaniment from a lyre or a pan-flute.
The muse referenced here would be Calliope, the muse of epic poetry. Note that the bard never speaks without inspiration (literally translated as "breath") from the muse, suggesting that all poetry comes from this inspiration rather than from the bard's own imagination.
Another name for Delphi, the home of the Oracle of Delphi, whose oracles were supposed to come from Apollo himself. Pytho was also home to the mythical Python, the earth-dragon of Delphi, depicted in art and literature as a serpent and enemy of Apollo.
Notice how Homer describes Polyphemus in relation to humanity instead of in terms of his extraordinary physicality. The poem celebrates humanity by showing the great feats that mortals, such as Odysseus, can accomplish. The Cyclops, neither a god nor human, is thus considered the outcast.
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.
Often depicted as a primordial god, Erebus is not only the personification of darkness, but also represents a region of darkness in the underworld on the path to Hades in Greek mythology. This region is where the dead go immediately after dying and is sometimes used interchangeably with Tartarus.
A Gorgon was a female monster from ancient Greek mythology, typically depicted as one of three sisters with hair made of snakes. It's unclear to which Gorgon Odysseus is referring here, but most likely he means Medusa, the most famous Gorgon, who could turn men to stone with a single glance.
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.
The chaotic nature of war is reflected in the Greek view of Ares, whose short temper and frequent fits of rage make his dealings with both fate and warriors inconsistent. Neoptolemus wouldn't necessarily have had the blessing of Ares, but he would've been much indebted to the god in any case.
Hellas meaning Greece and Phthia meaning the southern region of the kingdom of Thessaly. The word Hellenistic derives from the word Hellas and refers to anything from ancient Greece or pertaining to their customs and philosophies.
A merchant or fraudster who makes disingenuous claims about his skills, abilities, and wares with the intent of misleading or swindling his customers and the general public. As a noble with a purple mantle, Alcinous would have no reason to believe Odysseus was a charlatan, except for his reticence to reveal his identity earlier.
Redound, meaning to reverberate or echo, or more rarely result or have consequence. Likely, this is an alternate spelling of the more common word "resound," which also means to echo or reverberate. The translator may also be trying to make a verbal pun to the word "renown," meaning great fame and esteem.
Niggardly, or being like a niggard, someone who's mean, parsimonious, and stingy. Arete is urging the men to give Odysseus lavish presents as a reward for his heroism (a plea that reinforces Alcinous' previous order for them to each give him cloaks, shirts, and gold).
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.
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.
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.
In modern parlance, feckless means to be shiftless or irresponsible, but its original definition was to be timid, weak, or helpless. Some of these spirits, the psykhai (or people who haven't been properly cremated) are able to harm the living, but helpless to do anything about their situation.
A unit of measurement. In modern times, a cubit generally refers to the distance between the elbow and the tip of the middle finger, but in ancient Greece it was understood to be eighteen to twenty-two inches long.
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.
In Greek mythology, Sirens are dangerous and beautiful creatures that use their enchanted voices to lure sailors towards them. If a ship didn't take precaution, such as Circe has suggested, they would follow the Sirens' song and crash their ships on the rocks around the Sirens' island.
In Greek mythology, Arethusa is a nymph who fled her home in Arcadia when Alpheus, the river god, fell in love with her. Arethusa prayed to Artemis, her friend, who helped Arethusa flee Alpheus by transforming her into a freshwater spring on the island of Ortygia in Syracuse.
A diadem is a headband or crown decorated in jewels worn as a symbol of sovereignty and power. In this instance, Odysseus is using the word figuratively to represent his victory in Troy that extinguished its power.
Naiads are water nymphs who are found beside wells, springs, fountains, streams, and other freshwater sources. Homer’s inclusion of these freshwater gods could be a metaphor for the end of Odysseus's sea journey and a transition to his continued journey on land.
The Phoenicians were the most successful traders in the ancient world and commanded much of the waters in Eastern Mediterranean. Perhaps because of their skill as traders, they had a reputation for being self-interested, and were frequently depicted as swindlers such as this man.
It's not entirely clear whether Odysseus is referring to the Egyptians or to his own men, who are furious at him for surrendering to the enemy. Greeks aren't traditionally depicted as carrying "ashen spears," so these may be the Egyptians disobeying their king's wishes.
Notice that Odysseus isn't technically speaking about himself here. Though he may seem poor because of his appearance, he has all of the gold given to him by Alcinous and his men, and he's assured of regaining his own lands one he dispatches of the suitors.
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.
The use of the plural "lords" here is interesting. Eumaeus could be making a generalized statement about servants whose masters are young men filling their fathers' shoes, or he could be referring to the suitors in particular, who are all themselves young lords in Ithaca and behave as though they own Odysseus' lands.
Given that the suitors have been eating up Odysseus' livestock for years and slaughtering at least one boar a day, we can work backwards to calculate that Odysseus likely had one or two thousand boars before the suitors showed up.
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.
Polypheides, father of Theoklymenus, the seer whom Telemachus meets in this scene. Polypheides was granted the gift of sight by Apollo, who made him the greatest seer in the world after the death of Amphiarus, a great warrior who was swallowed by the earth when Zeus threw a thunderbolt in front of his chariot.
Aurora, the goddess of the dawn. Aurora was the Roman epithet for the goddess, who was traditionally known in Greece as Eos, a Titaness, who rose each morning from her home on the far shore of Oceanus. Eos had a brother, Helios, god of the son, and a sister, Selene, goddess of the moon.
That is, the most measured answer, the one least likely to be wrong and falsely raise their hopes. Menelaus can't be certain of what this omen means, and Helen's reading, though correct, nevertheless isn't the wisest thing to say, because she can't be sure that it will come true.
Helen intends for Telemachus to give this dress to his bride on their wedding day. It seems strange that Helen gives him the largest one, but this might be explained in many ways: Helen might, for instance, typically sew for children and maids, making this the "largest" of a small batch.
Telemachus in essence orders Odysseus to run the gauntlet, begging from suitors who are more likely to abuse him than to give him any of their food and wine. Telemachus has to do this to keep Odysseus' identity a secret, but may also be wondering how far his father is willing to go to carry out his plan.
It's unclear whether or not Melanthius knows of the suitors' plan to kill Telemachus. If so, he might be saying that Telemachus is going to die, but he isn't sure when. If not, then he must believe that this will happen eventually, if not at the hands of the suitors but because the gods seem to be against Odysseus and his family.
Wanton meaning unruly, naught, or disobedient; also, reckless, willful, and wild. When applied to women, "wanton" generally refers to lust and sexual promiscuity, which just goes to show how gendered the English language has become.
That Homer describes their insolence as "old" suggests that there was a period of time when they weren't feeling as secure about their prospects but that (they think) this time has passed. For the suitors, the primary form of entertainment is competition, both in games and in their fight for Odysseus' estate.
Although Athena helps Odysseus with her godly powers, she only extends help to a certain point. Odysseus must still fight his own battles, and he is still a strong and heroic character without her assistance, as indicated by the word “still”.
This is another example of Homer’s wordplay. “Irus” is a play on “Iris”, a messenger goddess. Some of the townspeople nicknamed him this ironically because he is the complete opposite of any godly being: a beggar and a drunkard. He delivers messages out of dire need, not out of divine duty.
These sudden changes are not meant to be taken literally but rather metaphorically. It's unclear whether Theoclymenus sees these things because he's a seer and can foretell the future or because the suitors are behaving so strangely that it's as if the world is shrouded in darkness.
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.
Wheat and barley had to be milled or ground to turn it into flour for bread, which the Greeks considered essential to life. A large estate like Odysseus' would've had its own mill room, as we see here, but this wasn't true of smaller estates, and many women of the lower classes had to either make their own bread or buy it at market.
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.
That is, his inner organs, particularly his intestines. Some scholars believe that they also cut off his genitals in this process, but that's not explicitly stated in the text. Melanthius would've died of blood loss at this point, anyway.
That is, he won't "run them through" with his sword because that kind of death would be quick and painless. Instead, he wants them to die slowly and painfully, so he hangs them, leaving the nooses just slack enough so as not to break their necks but choke them to death.
A gadfly is a species of fly well-known for biting and goading cattle. In modern parlance, it also refers to an irritating or difficult person, so that if we liken the suitors to the cattle, Odysseus becomes the gadfly who, at least from their perspective, torments them unfairly.
Redoubtable meaning formidable or commanding, something that should be feared. In ancient Greece, spears were made of a sturdy wood like ash and tipped or "shod" with bronze to increase their damage. Without proper training, they could be clumsy in battle, so Odysseus' use of two spears here is impressive.
Most likely, a caduceus, a staff carried by Hermes and other heralds that gave the appearance of two snakes intertwining. Today, the caduceus is commonly associated with the practice of medicine, and its symbol is warn by doctors and professionals as a sign of their devotion to healing people.