The Odyssey

Few stories in literature so perfectly capture the adventure and frustration associated with travel than the tale of the Greek hero Odysseus. For ten years, Odysseus, the clever king of Ithaca, wandered the Mediterranean Sea, desperately trying to return to his home in Greece. It seemed simple enough at first: the Greeks, fresh from their victory against the city of Troy in the Trojan War, set sail with plunder and slaves captured from the fallen city.

Early in the voyage, a storm blew Odysseus' ships to the land of the Lotus Eaters. The lotus was a local flower that caused anyone who ate it to become sleepy and forgetful. Some of Odysseus' men (who tended to be a very difficult bunch for Odysseus to control) ate the lotus flower and then refused to get back aboard the ship, preferring to stay on the beach and nap their lives away.

"Cyclopes," The voyage and Travayle of Sir John Maundeville; Which Treateth of the Way Toward Hierusalem and the Marvayles of Inde With Other Islands and Countreyes, 1883, From The Library at The Mariners’ Museum, G370.M26.

Odysseus and his remaining men escaped, only to wind up on an island inhabited by the Cyclopes, one-eyed giants with a dangerous reputation. The travelers were then captured by Polyphemus, an unpleasant brute even by Cyclopes standards, whose sheep Odysseus had unknowingly killed. Trapped in a cave by Polyphemus, Odysseus and his men escaped by driving a sharpened stake into the giant's single eye. This enraged Polyphemus' father, the sea god Poseidon, who punished Odysseus by repeatedly driving his fleet off course, forcing him to spend ten agonizing years trying to sail home.

Next, when they tried to anchor in a cove, a tribe called the Læstrygonians slaughtered all of Odysseus' men but those aboard his own ship. Escaping from the carnage, the survivors encountered Circe, a sorceress who lived on the island of Ǽæa. She turned the men into pigs, which Odysseus could only undo with the aid of magic herbs provided by the messenger god Hermes. Before he left, Odysseus was warned by Circe to beware of Scylla and Charybdis, two monsters that inhabited either side of the straits between Italy and Sicily. Scylla was a monstrous six-headed dog, while Charybdis was a giant whirlpool; both had developed a taste for sailors. Odysseus timed his men's rowing perfectly to sail between them, losing just six men, one to each of Scylla's mouths.

On Sicily, the men once again made the mistake of killing the wrong person's livestock. This time it was the sun god Helios who was angry at Odysseus' impertinence, so he requested that Poseidon stir up a killer storm as punishment. The god of the sea was only too happy to oblige, and in the ensuing shipwreck, only Odysseus survived. He washed up on the island of Ogygia where the goddess of silence, Calypso, lived. She fell madly in love with Odysseus and tried to convince him to marry her. Odysseus ended up spending eight years with Calypso, who eventually allowed him to build a ship and return to Ithaca and his beloved wife Penelope.

Upon returning to Ithaca, Odysseus and his son Telemachus set about regaining Odysseus' crown from a band of usurpers who had overtaken the kingdom and tried vainly for ten years to convince Penelope to marry one of them. The story ends, happily enough, with Penelope and Odysseus reuniting after the father and son have killed the would-be suitors.

Odysseus's tale, supposedly written down as The Odyssey by famed Greek poet Homer sometime around 750 BC, has long been revered as the greatest piece of travel/adventure literature ever produced. Readers often try to accuse Odysseus of having a mad form of wanderlust, or an uncontrollable desire to travel. But this is unfair, as Odysseus didn't really have a choice about where he went; it was the sea god Poseidon who kept pushing his ship off course. Odysseus, whether he meant to or not, became the embodiment of what later explorers often were: part diplomat and part soldier. He faced adventure willingly, often convinced an unwilling crew to follow his orders, and was more than willing to use his wits or his sword to solve any problem that arose.