A background for reading the Odyssey:
In the opening lines of the Odyssey, Zeus condemns Agisthos for ignoring divine warnings: "Don't kill the man, don't touch his wife, or face a reckoning. . . ." Agisthos refuses to listen and seduces Clytemnestra and murders King Agamemnon on his homecoming day. As foretold, Agamemnon's son Orestes returns and takes Agisthos' life in bloody revenge. The story of the House of Atreus casts Agamemnon as arrogant yet victim, and above all we recognize Agamemnon's son, Orestes, as slayer and avenger. The story of Agamemnon's murder at the hands of Agisthos influences the behavior of Odysseus, Penelope, and their son Telemakhos, and our understanding of their family drama. Telemakhos, for his part, must live up to the actions of Orestes and overcome his father's enemies, primarily the brazen suitors. The Odyssey implies (in a subtextual way) that the fate of the suitors must coincide with the fate of Agisthos. As Telemakhos says to Nestor (The Lord of Western Approaches) in Book III, line 218 and 219, "I wish the gods would buckle [Orestes] arms on me! / I'd be revenged for outrage / on my insidious and brazen enemies." At this point, Telemakhos cannot even imagine the possibility of bringing the suitors down.
In Book XI, the ghost of Agamemnon establishes the tradition of misogyny when, in the underworld, he tells Odysseus the story of how his unfaithful wife Clytemnestra (and her lover Agisthos) murder him. "Land your ship/ in secret on your island; give no warning. / The day of faithful wives is gone forever." Agamemnon's warning justifies Odysseus' dolos--he returns home disguised as a beggar, a disguise that Helen says he used before to enter the citadel of Troy (Helen tells Telemakhos and Menelaus this story in Book IV--foreshadowing the dolos that Athena will use once again to allow Odysseus to gain access to his own great hall in Ithaka). Penelope, for her part, must avoid becoming another Clytemnestra, the archetype of the Terrible Woman/Mother (femme fatale), and therein verify the archetype of the Good Woman/Mother. However, Penelope is not ultimately predictable, for she has hidden depths and surprises, even for Odysseus; she tests his identity with her story of the marriage bed in Book XXIII. Regardless of Penelope's character, Agamemnon's story of his wife Clytemnestra continues to define--in literature, art, song, and politics--male fear of treacherous female behavior. Homer uses the story of The House of Atreus as the first tableau of principle in the Odyssey; the story of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra and their son Orestes is juxtaposed to the story of Odysseus and Penelope and their son Telemakhos in order to underscore the meaning of heroism and ethics in Homeric culture.
In Book IV, Menelaus and Helen are reconciled, living in Sparta after the fall of Troy. Telemakhos journeys to their kingdom in search of information about his missing father. In a series of two tales (told under the guise of conveying information about Odysseus), Homer dramatizes the reality of betrayal and loyalty in the relationships between husbands and wives. Helen tells Telemakhos about the Trojan War and how she recognizes Odysseus when he enters the city of Troy in disguise (and how she converses with him but does not give him away to the Trojans). Her story here, once again, not only foreshadows Odysseus' return to his own Manor in disguise, but casts her as loyal and pro-Greek. In contrast, Menelaus tells Telemakhos the story of how Helen attempted to betray the Greek warriors (hidden inside the Trojan Horse) by calling out each man's name in the voice of his wife. Her calling out to the men inside the wooden horse suggests that she wishes to protect the Trojans from Greek treachery. The pro-Greek position of loyalty she attributes to herself in her own story is juxtaposed to her husband's account of her attempt to betray the Greek warriors inside the belly of the horse. So, while Clytemnestra more clearly represents an archetypal antithesis to Penelope, Helen (as wife) is more complex and more ambiguous because she is undefined and unlimited, even though her mythos is shame. She represents the unknowable and mysterious quality of women, the archetype of goddess and lover. These two women /wives, then, define Penelope's actions to come and add suspense to the dramatic outcome of the epic.
Odysseus is presented as a perennially lying narrator, most evidently in the series of stories he tells under the assumed identity of the Cretan at the house of Eumaios, the swineherd in Book XIV. The use of honeyed speech (which often includes lies and flattery) suggests that the heroic qualities in the Odyssey are significantly more complex than the single quality of prowess so essential to the heroes in the Iliad. In the Book XIII of the Odyssey, Athena calls Odysseus a chameleon, a bottomless bag of tricks. Notions of trickery as heroic combines with the reality that Odysseus uses flattery to get what he wants when he supplicates himself among the Phaiakians; we may suspect that our intelligent and crafty hero has a strategy in mind as he tells the stories of his sailing from Troy. Glenn W. Most suggests in his essay "The Structure and Function of Odysseus's Apologoi" that Odysseus relates these exemplary accounts of hospitality--both positive and negative, monstrous and divine--as parts of one sustained attempt to persuade the Phaiakians to receive him well and return him home. We cannot easily separate truth from reality here, for Odysseus is a known fabricator of rhetorical illusion; flattery and lies are a weapon and a tool for achieving specific goals. Odysseus is the champion coyote or trickster. and consequently he himself is always, always skeptical and leery of guile. In Greek culture, the true test of the hero and prophet includes the innate ability to "see" truth behind the world of appearances. This heroic quality becomes not only the identifying mark of an authentic hero and divine seer, but later becomes the thematic philosophy in Plato's "Allegory of the Cave."
"What of my sailing, then, from Troy?" Ody's words in Book IX mark the beginning of the ring composition, the famous account of his amazing journey. The individual episodes are arranged in a ring with the nekuia--the view of the underworld afforded by Book XI--at the center. The story begins in the land of the Phaiakians at the Great Hall of King Alkinoos and his Queen Arete. The audience listens as Odysseus tells the story:
Troy (IX, lines 39)
Kikones (IX, lines 43-70)
two-day storm followed by drifting (IX, lines 71-88)
Lotus Eaters (IX, lines 89-109)
Kyklops (IX, lines 110-593)
Aiolos, including storm (X, lines 1-85)
Laistrygones (X, lines 86-142)
Kirke (X, lines 143-592) Link to Dosso Dossi's painting "Circe and Her Lovers in a Landscape," c. 1514.
Elpenor's death, departs from Aiaia (X, lines 596-620)
Nekuia, the underworld (XI, lines 1-718)
return to Aiaia, Elpenor's burial (XII, lines 1-169)
Seirenes (XII, lines 170-240)
Skylla and Kharybdis (XII, lines 241-312)
Helios's cattle, then storm (XII, lines 313-502)
Kharybdis and Skylla, (XII, lines 503-529)
Kalypso (XII, lines 530-532) reference to Book VII
Odysseus ends his storytelling and we are, once again, back in the Great Hall of the Phaiakians. The ring composition sets up correspondences and contrasts directed at King Alkinoos and Queen Arete. Odysseus portrays his travels as an inquiry into the mystery of strange lands to "find out what the mainland natives are--for they may be wild savages, and lawless, or hospitable and god-fearing men." For Odysseus, the primary goal (telos) of the ring composition is to win himself passage home; these stories are designed to convince the King and Queen to align themselves (and their idyllic kingdom) with civility and therein facilitate the hero's cherished homecoming.