The Odyssey begins ten years after the end of the ten-year Trojan War (the subject of the Iliad), and Odysseus has still not returned home from the war. Odysseus' son Telemachus is about 20 years old and is sharing his absent father's house on the island of Ithaca with his mother Penelope and a crowd of 108 boisterous young men, "the Suitors", whose aim is to persuade Penelope to marry one of them, all the while enjoying the hospitality of Odysseus' household and eating up his wealth.
Odysseus' protectress, the goddess Athena, discusses his fate with Zeus, king of the gods, at a moment when Odysseus' enemy, the god of the sea Poseidon, is absent from Mount Olympus. Then, disguised as a Taphian chieftain named Mentes, she visits Telemachus to urge him to search for news of his father. He offers her hospitality; they observe the suitors dining rowdily while the bard Phemius performs a narrative poem for them. Penelope objects to Phemius' theme, the "Return from Troy", because it reminds her of her missing husband, but Telemachus rebuts her objections.
That night Athena, disguised as Telemachus, finds a ship and crew for the true Telemachus. The next morning, Telemachus calls an assembly of citizens of Ithaca to discuss what should be done with the suitors. Accompanied by Athena (now disguised as Mentor), he departs for the Greek mainland and the household of Nestor, most venerable of the Greek warriors at Troy, now at home in Pylos.
From there, Telemachus rides overland, accompanied by Nestor's son, Peisistratus, to Sparta, where he finds Menelaus and Helen, who are now reconciled - Helen laments her fit of lust brought on by Aphrodite that sent her to Troy with Paris. He also hears from Helen, who is the first to recognize him, that she pities him because Odysseus was not there for him in his childhood because he went to Troy to fight for her and also about his exploit of stealing the Palladium, or the Luck of Troy, where she was the only one to recognize him. Menelaus, meanwhile, also praises Odysseus as an irreproachable comrade and friend, lamenting the fact that they were not only unable to return together from Troy but that Odysseus is yet to return.
Both Helen and Menelaus also say that they returned to Sparta after a long voyage by way of Egypt. There, on the island of Pharos, Menelaus encountered the old sea-god Proteus, who told him that Odysseus was a captive of the nymph Calypso. Incidentally, Telemachus learns the fate of Menelaus' brother Agamemnon, king of Mycenae and leader of the Greeks at Troy: he was murdered on his return home by his wife Clytemnestra and her lover Aegisthus.
Charles Gleyre, Odysseus and Nausicaä
Escape to the Phaeacians
The second part tells the story of Odysseus. After he has spent seven years in captivity on Ogygia, the island of Calypso, she falls deeply in love with him. But he has consistently spurned her advances. She is persuaded to release him by Odysseus' great-grandfather, the messenger god Hermes, who has been sent by Zeus in response to Athena's plea. Odysseus builds a raft and is given clothing, food, and drink by Calypso. When Poseidon learns that Odysseus has escaped, he wrecks the raft but, helped by a veil given by the sea nymph Ino, Odysseus swims ashore on Scherie, the island of the Phaeacians. Naked and exhausted, he hides in a pile of leaves and falls asleep. The next morning, awakened by the laughter of girls, he sees the young Nausicaa, who has gone to the seashore with her maids to wash clothes after Athena told her in a dream to do so. He appeals to her for help. She encourages him to seek the hospitality of her parents, Arete and Alcinous, or Alkinous. Odysseus is welcomed and is not at first asked for his name. He remains for several days, takes part in a pentathlon, and hears the blind singer Demodocus perform two narrative poems. The first is an otherwise obscure incident of the Trojan War, the "Quarrel of Odysseus and Achilles"; the second is the amusing tale of a love affair between two Olympian gods, Ares and Aphrodite. Finally, Odysseus asks Demodocus to return to the Trojan War theme and tell of the Trojan Horse, a stratagem in which Odysseus had played a leading role. Unable to hide his emotion as he relives this episode, Odysseus at last reveals his identity. He then begins to tell the story of his return from Troy.
Odysseus Overcome by Demodocus' Song, by Francesco Hayez, 1813–15
Odysseus' account of his adventures
After a piratical raid on Ismaros in the land of the Cicones, he and his twelve ships were driven off course by storms. They visited the lethargic Lotus-Eaters who gave two of his men their fruit which caused them to forget their homecoming, and then were captured by the Cyclops Polyphemus, escaping by blinding him with a wooden stake. While they were escaping, however, Odysseus foolishly told Polyphemus his identity, and Polyphemus told his father, Poseidon, that Odysseus had blinded him. Poseidon then cursed Odysseus to wander the sea for ten years, during which he would lose all his crew and return home through the aid of others. After the escape, Odysseus and his crew stayed with Aeolus, the ruler of the winds. He gave Odysseus a leather bag containing all the winds, except the west wind, a gift that should have ensured a safe return home. However, the greedy sailors naively opened the bag while Odysseus slept, thinking it contained gold. All of the winds flew out and the resulting storm drove the ships back the way they had come, just as Ithaca came into sight.