"The Odyssey"
Guiding Questions
Adapted by Nada AbiSamra


"The Odyssey has been read continually for almost three thousand years because it touches on just about every aspect of human life, the kinds of problems we are all confronted with throughout our lives. The Odyssey raises such fundamental questions as:


         What does it mean to be human?

         What is life for?

         What is responsible and irresponsible behavior?

         How do we grow up and become mature adults?

         What role does the other sex play in our lives?

         What is the significance of home?

         How do we make decisions?

         What role does suffering play in our lives?

         How should we treat one another?

         Is violence ever an appropriate strategy for solving a problem?

         How does the divine enter our lives?"


The Odyssey begins twenty years after Odysseus has left his kingdom of Ithaca, an island off the northwest coast of Greece. Ten of those years were spent fighting in the Trojan War (Homer's Iliad is an extended account of part of that war). Other episodes are alluded to or partly narrated in Book 8 of the Odyssey. For the last ten years, Odysseus has been making his way home to Ithaca in the teeth of considerable adversity.

Book I opens with a twenty-five line introduction in which the poet invokes the muse for inspiration and gives a brief description of the present state of affairs. Odysseus, now in his tenth year of trying to get home, has been held captive by Calypso, a beautiful goddess-nymph, for the last seven years. His main adversary is Poseidon, god of the sea, who is doing everything he can to keep Odysseus from reaching Ithaca since Odysseus blinded Poseidon's son Polyphemus in an incident described fully in Book 9. The story gets going with a council of the gods at which Zeus decrees that Odysseus will reach home. Hermes, messenger of the gods, goes off to inform Calypso that she must allow Odysseus to proceed on his way. Athena, patron goddess of civilization, heads off to Ithaca to begin dealing with a situation which has been going on there for some time: Odysseus’ wife Penelope is under increasing pressure from the eligible bachelors of Ithaca to marry one of them, and Odysseus's son Telemachus, now twenty or twenty-one years old, has grown up without a father and is himself becoming increasingly angry and frustrated over the constant presence of Penelope's suitors in the palace and their rude and arrogant behavior.

In their deliberations, Zeus and his fellow deities contrast the impending homecoming of Odysseus to his long-suffering but loving and loyal wife Penelope with another homecoming, ten years earlier, of Agamemnon, the commander-in-chief of the Greek army that had fought at Troy. His wife Clytemnestra and her lover, Aegisthus, murdered Agamemnon on his return. Agamemnon’s death was avenged by his son Orestes. (Agamemnon's homecoming and death are mentioned several times throughout the Odyssey, especially in the first four books of the poem.)  The pressure grows on Telemachus to measure up to Orestes’ standard of decisive action. In Homer's poems, gods and goddesses play a very active role in the affairs of human beings. The ancient Greeks regarded love, wisdom, war (to give three examples) as forces so strong that there was something beyond the merely human about them, something god-like, which the Greeks would then personify as Aphrodite (love), Athena (wisdom), Ares (war). If you think that the Greeks didn't take the divine seriously, note how conscientiously Nestor and his family conduct a sacrifice to Athena at the end of Book 3 and compare that to how carefully we are used to conducting our religious ceremonies.

Questions: Book 1 to Book 5

Book I

What is the basic situation of each of the main characters—Odysseus, Telemachus, Penelope — at the opening of The Odyssey and how does Homer present it to us? How long has Odysseus been absent from Ithaca? Who is Athena? Why does she appear disguised? What song does the minstrel Phemius sing, and why does Penelope object to his song? What do the suitors seek? How does Telemachus react?

1. Why does Homer open his "tale" with the supplication, "Tell me, Muse of that man, so ready at need, who wandered far and wide, after he had sacked the sacred citadel of Troy,..."?
2. Did Odysseus save his men from destruction? Why not?
3. Where had Odysseus been?
4. What is Odysseus trying to do now?
5. How does Homer describe Odysseus in this book? What does this tell us?
6. Did all the other warriors who fought at the battle of Troy get home?
7. Where is Odysseus now?
8. Who is Odysseus' hated enemy and why?
9. Who is Odysseus' protectress? What does this tell us about Odysseus?
10. Where is Poseidon, Odysseus' immortal enemy now?
11. Where are the other gods of Olympus?
12. As the gods congregate, what does Zeus complain about?
13. What example of man's actions does Zeus give to prove his point?
14. At this point what does Athena ask of Zeus? Why is she able to talk freely about this matter?
15. Does Zeus agree to allow Odysseus to return home? What are his instructions?
16. What literally is Odysseus' problem?
17. Odysseus has a weakness. Calypso plays on this. What is it?
18. Odysseus is supposed to be a good man.. What will a good man do in this "state of affairs"?
19. Athena goes to Ithaca and to Odysseus' palace. What circumstances and conditions does she find there?
20. Why doesn't Penelope "kick" them out?
21. Why do twenty to thirty-year old men want to marry Penelope, a forty-year old woman?
22. When Athena arrives at Odysseus' palace, how does she know that Telemachus is a virtuous young man?
23. Does Athena appear to Telemachus as a goddess?
24. As Mentes, what does Athena say he is doing in Ithaca?
25. What does Mentes Athena tell Telemachus about his father?
26. What does she tell Telemachus to do? Why?
27. What further instructions does Mentes Athena give Telemachus?
28. How do the suitors react when Telemachus tells them of the assembly
29. Does Telemachus realize that Mentes is really the goddess Athena?
30. Who is Eurycleia and what does she do for Telemachus?
31. Of what does Telemachus think as he drifts off to sleep?
32. Phemius is the minstrel in the house of Odysseus. Penelope asks him not to sing the song he signs for the suitors. Why? How is Phemius like Homer?

Book II

What is the function of the public assembly with which the book begins, and who called it? Summarize the arguments of the principal suitors and of Telemachus. Describe Athena's role.

1. What is the first thing Telemachus does the next morning? What does this tell us about government on Ithaca?
2. For the first time the suitors treat Telemachus with respect and politely step aside. Why?
3. How long has it been since an assembly has been called on Ithaca?
4. Any person may speak at the assembly if he has what in his hands?
5. Why has Telemachus called the assembly?
6. What does Antinous, head suitor, reply?
7. What does Antinous tell us that Penelope has been doing to hold off choosing a new husband from among the suitors?
8. What does this weaving and unraveling symbolize?
9. Why does Antinous insist that Penelope be sent back to her father's house?
10. Why doesn't Telemachus send his mother to her father's house?
11. When Telemachus again warns the suitors to leave, what sign does Zeus send to back him?
12. Who next warns the suitors?
13. How does Eurymachus, a suitor, answer?
14. What does Telemachus ask of them next?
15. Mentor speaks next. Who is he? Who does Mentor say is to blame for the disorder on Ithaca?
16. How does Leocritus, a suitor, answer Mentor?
17. After the people disperse, Telemachus prays to Athena to help him.
18. What instructions does she give him?
19. When Telemachus threatens the suitors who are feasting in his house again, what is their reaction?
20. What is Eurycleia's reaction when Telemachus tells her to pack provisions for his voyage?
21. Telemachus stills her fears telling her a goddess bids me to go. He makes her promise what? Why?
22. What does Athena do in the meantime?
23. Does Telemachus get away safely?

Book III

Who is Nestor and how does Nestor know Odysseus? Does Nestor know significant information about Odysseus that can help Telemachus find the answer to his quest for his father? What other stories does Nestor tell? Describe the details of Agamemnon's homecoming. Who is Orestes? What is Athena's role?

1. What worries Telemachus when he reaches Pylos? Why does Athena insist that he do the talking?
2. How is Telemachus received by Nestor of Pylos?
3. To whom is Nestor offering hecatombs? Why?
4. Why has Telemachus come?
5. What news does Telemachus get about his father?
6. Nestor mentions Orestes, Agamemnon's son, to Telemachus. Why?
7. Mentor Athena berates Telemachus many times. Why?
8. What is Telemachus' problem?
9. Is he learning anything in Chapter III?
10. What further information does Telemachus learn concerning Agamemnon's story?
11. Why did Agamemnon leave his lands in charge of a bard?
12. What further news do we hear concerning Menelaus?
13. Where does Nestor advise Telemachus to go for more information?
14. Where does Telemachus spend the night?
15. What offering does Nestor make in the morning? Describe it.
16. How does Telemachus get to Sparta?
17. How long does it take to drive to Sparta?

Book IV

Who is Menelaus? How does the court at Sparta compare with Telemachus' home in Ithaca? Who is Helen? What indications does Homer give of her extraordinary nature? What information does Menelaus give Telemachus about Odysseus? How does Menelaus know the various details about Odysseus' wanderings and present whereabouts? What plot do we learn threatens Telemachus? What are Penelope's concerns?

1. Why has Nestor sent Telemachus to Sparta?
2. When Telemachus and Pisistratus arrive in Sparta, what celebrations are taking place?
3. What does this tell us of customs in Greece?
4. Has Helen had other children?
5. Is Menelaus hospitable to the two young visitors?
6. Is Telemachus impressed with Menelaus' palace and wealth?
7. Where has Menelaus acquired all his treasures?
8. What incidents do we learn about that happened at Troy from Menelaus and Helen?
9. What does this last story tell us about Menelaus?
10. Then why does Menelaus want Helen with him?
11. The entire company begins sobbing when remembrances of Troy and stories of the Greek heroes are discussed. What does Helen do as they sob?
12. Do Menelaus and Helen recognize Telemachus?
13. What does Telemachus learn about his father from Menelaus?
14. What more do we learn about Ithaca?
15. What gifts do Menelaus and Helen give Telemachus?
16. While Telemachus is in Sparta, what decision do the suitors come to in Ithaca?
17. Penelope hears of these plans of the suitors from the henchman Medon. What does she do?
18. How does Eurycleia in her answer to Penelope symbolize law and order?
19. How does Penelope symbolize the universal mother?
20. How does Penelope know Telemachus will return safely?
21. Where are the suitors this evening?
22. Proteus is a minor divinity of the sea who can change his shape at will. How are his changing shapes an explanation of the sea's nature to the Argives? (Achaeans, Greeks)?

Book V

What new gods do we meet in Book V and what are their roles in the course of this book? Who, and what, is Calypso? Why is she angry at the gods? Why does Odysseus reject Calypso's offer of immortality and wish to leave? Why does Poseidon wish to destroy Odysseus? How long does Odysseus remain adrift in the sea? To what extent does Odysseus rely on the help of gods, to what extent is he self-reliant?

Questions: Book 9

Book IX

Why does Odysseus begin to tell of his travels? Where does he begin his story? What are the attractions of the land of the Lotus Eaters? Why does Odysseus wish to explore the cave of the Cyclops Polyphemus? What is human, what is inhuman about Polyphemus? Describe the multiple ways Odysseus tricks Polyphemus. Why does Odysseus eventually tell Polyphemus his name, and what immediate consequences does this have?

Questions: Book 16 & Book 17

Book XVI

What are Odysseus' first words to Telemachus, and what is their purpose? What special part does Athena play in the recognition of Odysseus by Telemachus? Does Telemachus recognize Odysseus at once? Why not? What finally convinces Telemachus that his father has returned and stands before him? How do the suitors react to the news of Telemachus' return to Ithaca?


What information about Odysseus' whereabouts does Telemachus choose to tell Penelope, and what does he conceal? Why? What does Theoclymenus contribute to the interview with Penelope? Whom does Odysseus meet as he allows Eumaeus to guide him to town? What emerges from this meeting? Describe Odysseus' recognition by Argos, and Odysseus' reactions. How is Odysseus in beggar's disguise received by the suitors? Why does Penelope ask to speak with the beggar?

Questions: Book 21 to Book 24


Book XXI


What is special about the bow Penelope brings out for the contest? What must a contestant do to win the contest? Who first tries to string the bow, and nearly succeeds? How do the suitors try to make the task of stringing the bow easier? To whom does Odysseus now reveal his identity, and why? How do the suitors react to the "beggar's" proposal that he try the bow after all the others have failed? Who insists that he be given a chance, and why? Why does Telemachus so firmly order his mother out of the hall? Describe the swift series of events with which this book ends.





What is Odysseus' first target in this book, and why? What is the suitors' reaction? When does Odysseus explicitly reveal his true identity? What ensues? Who are Odysseus' assistants? What unexpected development nearly upsets Odysseus' careful strategy? What role does Athena play? Who begs for mercy and is denied? Who begs for mercy and has it granted? What does Odysseus tell Telemachus to do with the serving girls? What is in fact the fate of the serving girls?





What is Penelope’s initial reaction to the nurse's news of Odysseus' return? What other explanation does Penelope have for the massacre of the suitors? What other concerns does Odysseus still have? What so angers Odysseus about Penelope’s suggestion that his bed be moved outside the bedchamber for him to sleep on? Why must Odysseus travel yet again? How will Odysseus regain the wealth consumed by the suitors?





How does Homer round out his account of the suitors' fate? What is the theme of the interchange between Achilles and Agamemnon, and why might it be fitting for the final book of the epic? How accurate is Amphimedon's account of the causes of his and the other suitors' deaths? What is the situation of Laertes, Odysseus' father, when Odysseus comes upon him? What is the subject of the assembly called hastily in Ithaca, and what is its outcome? What roles does Athena play in effecting the final resolution of the book? What does Zeus decree, and how does it come about?


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