Book 5 Essays

By Thomas Van Nortwick


Athena pleads Odysseus's case with Zeus, who sends Hermes to Kalypso's island to demand Odysseus's release.

After 2,350 verses, Homer finally brings his hero onstage. We have already seen him through others’ eyes, in Ithaka, Pylos, Sparta, even on Olympus. From the poet himself we have learned of Odysseus’s versatility, intelligence, and self-control won through suffering, of his futile attempt to protect his crew members from a death brought about by their own folly. His fellow warriors in Pylos and Sparta have attested to his sterling qualities. From Nestor we have heard of his great intelligence and mastery of deceit, his eloquence and sound advice in councils; from Menelaus, his steadfast loyalty and friendship. Now he is stranded on the island of the nymph Calypso, where the poet is about to take us, but not before a crucial interlude on Olympus.

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Everything in Books 1–4 bears witness to the terrible cost of Odysseus’s absence from Ithaka. In the poem’s opening scenes, we see the loutish suitors rampaging unopposed through the royal household, eating, drinking, and chasing the maids. Penelope remains cloistered upstairs and Telemachus struggles in vain to take charge. His journey to Pylos and Sparta is meant to help him address his deficiencies by learning about his father, what kind of man Odysseus is, if he still lives, and if so where he might be. Telemachus needs to grow up, either to help Odysseus retake control of Ithaka or to take over himself.

The episodes that follow in Books 5–6 show us how the Greeks’ view of human experience is influenced by the categories of gender as they understood them. By “gender” I mean a cultural construct, organized around the polarity of masculine/feminine, as opposed to “sex,” a biological category defined by male/female. Today we understand that a human being, wherever she, he, or they may fall on the biological continuum, may exhibit both masculine and feminine patterns of behavior. Greek artists also acknowledged this distinction, although sometimes with a different emphasis than ours. As Odysseus makes his way from the island of Calypso to the island of the Phaeacians, we will see that the forces threatening his progress are almost all feminine: mortal women, goddesses, or parts of the natural world that the Greeks associated with feminine power. The first four books of the Odyssey are focused on the disorder that follows from the absence of masculine leadership in Ithaka and the efforts of Telemachus to counter it by consulting masculine authority figures—including, indirectly through the memories of others, his father. Once Odysseus reappears, his adventures are dominated by his struggle to overcome feminine forces, beginning with Calypso and Nausicaa and continuing through Books 9–12.

Homer signals a strong break in the narrative at the beginning of Book 5. Eos, the goddess of the dawn, rises to mark a new day:

Ἠὼς δ᾽ ἐκ λεχέων παρ᾽ ἀγαυοῦ Τιθωνοῖο
ὤρνυθ᾽, ἵν᾽ ἀθανάτοισι φόως φέροι ἠδὲ βροτοῖσιν·

Dawn rose from her bed, where she lay beside noble Tithonus,
so she could bring light to the immortal gods and to mortals.

Odyssey 5.1–2

The event is a familiar one in Homeric epic, but the phrasing is not. These two lines appear only here in the Odyssey and once in the Iliad (Il. 11.1–2). Much more common is the single verse formula that appears twenty times in the Odyssey:

ἦμος δ᾽ ἠριγένεια φάνη ῥοδοδάκτυλος Ἠώς

Now when early-born, rosy-fingered Dawn appeared

Odyssey 2.1, etc.

Given the many variables that must have influenced a poet’s choices within the traditional style of early Greek hexameter, it would be risky to assume we know for sure why this unusual phrasing appears at the very beginning of Book 5 instead of the much more common single-verse formula. Still, the content of 5.1–2 is particularly suggestive. The story of Tithonus is one version of a common myth about a goddess taking a mortal lover. We will hear more about other examples later in Book 5, when Calypso complains that other deities have been able to keep their mortal lovers, while Zeus is forcing her to give up Odysseus. Homer is tuning our ears for the episode soon to come on Ogygia.

The story of Tithonus does appear elsewhere in early greek  hexameter poetry in the Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite, a short poem (293 verses) probably composed around the same time as the Odyssey. We learn there that Zeus has become angry with Aphrodite, because she has forced him to sleep with mortal women. In retaliation, he fills her with the desire for sex with a mortal man, in this case Anchises, a prince of the royal family in Troy and the father of Aeneas. After the tryst, Aphrodite tells the story of Tithonus and Eos: The Dawn goddess goes to Zeus and asks permission to make Tithonus immortal but neglects to ask that he also be ageless. All goes well for a few years, while Tithonus is in his prime, but when the first gray hairs appear on his head, Eos kicks him out of bed and keeps him on a maintenance diet of ambrosia. As old age approaches and he becomes physically feeble, she takes more drastic action, locking him away in a bedroom forever. He is reduced to a tremulous voice, fading away but never dying. Aphrodite tells Anchises this pathetic story as a cautionary tale. If the prince could remain as handsome and desirable as he is now, she would take him for a husband. But she will not ask Zeus to make him stay as he is and so old age, which the gods hate, will eventually come for him as it does for all mortals (Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite 218–46). For now, we only know that Odysseus is being held against his will by the nymph on her island, not the details of the arrangement (Od. 1.13–17). By introducing Tithonus here, the poet raises the specter of a dismal future for Odysseus, trapped on the island of the nymph, invisible to all who love him and depend on him, wasting away in feeble oblivion but never dying.

Our first stop after Eos rises is Olympus, where the gods are meeting. This divine assembly seems to echo the meeting on Olympus in Book 1 (1.26–95), when Athena’s complaints to Zeus about Odysseus’s captivity on Ogygia lead to a two-pronged campaign: the goddess will go to Ithaka and get Telemachus moving, while Hermes visits Calypso to deliver Zeus’s command that she release Odysseus. As it turns out, we only hear about the first part of the divine initiative in Books 1–4. Book 5 will describe the second.

This latter divine assembly has come in for a lot of scrutiny by classical scholars. Is it the same one as in Book 1? Do the two parts of the divine plan occur simultaneously, though the poet describes their fulfillment serially? Or should we assume that several days pass between the two assemblies? In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, before the work of Milman Parry and others on the oral tradition behind the composition of the Homeric epics, repetition was frequently suspect, a sign of some later, inferior poet adding material to a hypothetical “original” poem. In this case, the suspicion would be that the journey of Telemachus in Books 1–4 was added to an earlier version of the Odyssey, now lost, which began with the material in Book 5. Now that we are inclined to see repetition as a fundamental part of oral poetry, these theories are much less compelling. In any event, we will follow our usual practice in these essays of trying to understand the poem that has come down to us—which is, after all, the only Odyssey we have.

Whatever the antecedents of Books 1–4 might have been, the assembly in Book 5 is integral to the debut of Odysseus in the present poem. Major movements in Homeric epic are usually prompted in some way by the gods. By gathering them a second time, the poet signals a new direction in the plot, while reminding us of the urgency we felt in Book 1 when hearing about the divine response to the chaos in Ithaka. Odysseus’s heroic stature is further marked by the attention that his dilemma draws from the gods. We see a similar narrative pattern at the end of the Iliad, in that case underscoring the importance of both Hector and Achilles there. Lamenting the abuse of Hector’s corpse by Achilles, Zeus sends Iris to deliver two commands, that Thetis tell Achilles to release Hector’s body to Priam and that Priam travel to the Greek camp, accompanied by Hermes, to beg Achilles for his son’s corpse (Il. 24.64–280). In both poems, the hero causes the gods to assemble and act on his behalf, a sure sign of his exalted status: The welfare of the hero becomes part of the destined order of the cosmos that the gods oversee.

The assembly opens with Athena’s plea for the release of Odysseus from the clutches of the nymph Calypso. The goddess is somewhat bitter:

"Ζεῦ πάτερ ἠδ᾽ ἄλλοι μάκαρες θεοὶ αἰὲν ἐόντες,
μή τις ἔτι πρόφρων ἀγανὸς καὶ ἤπιος ἔστω
σκηπτοῦχος βασιλεύς, μηδὲ φρεσὶν αἴσιμα εἰδώς,
ἀλλ᾽ αἰεὶ χαλεπός τ᾽ εἴη καὶ αἴσυλα ῥέζοι·
ὡς οὔ τις μέμνηται Ὀδυσσῆος θείοιο
λαῶν οἷσιν ἄνασσε, πατὴρ δ᾽ ὣς ἤπιος ἦεν."

“Father Zeus and all you immortal, blessed gods,
let no one who is a sceptered king now be gentle
and sweet, having righteous thoughts in his mind,
but instead, be always harsh and act severely,
seeing how no one of those he ruled remembers
godlike Odysseus, who was sweet, like a father.”

Odyssey 5.7–12

Athena’s words here recall her reproach of Zeus in the first assembly, where she accuses him of hating Odysseus, who has been a dutiful hero, and leaving him at the mercy of Calypso (1.44–62). The tone of Zeus’s initial response in both cases is indignant:

"τἐκνον ἐμόν, ποῖόν σε ἔπος φύγεν ἕρκος ὀδόντων."

“My child, what kind of word has escaped the barrier of your teeth?”

Odyssey 5.22 = 1.64

In Book 1, Zeus denies that he hates Odysseus, saying that the problem lies with Poseidon, whose son Polyphemus the hero has blinded. Here, his response reveals an important aspect of the poem’s plot:

"οὐ γὰρ δὴ τοῦτον μὲν ἐβούλευσας νόον αὐτή,
ὡς ἦ τοι κείνους Ὀδυσεὺς ἀποτίσεται ἐλθών; "

“Was this not your plan, as you counseled it,
that he would return and punish those men?”

Odyssey 5.23–24

These latter two verses reappear verbatim at the end of the poem, when Odysseus and his family face off against the families of the dead suitors (24.479–80). In both cases, Zeus implies that Athena has already planned out the triumph of Odysseus and can make it come to pass. She has already composed her own story (see Introduction).

The implication of these verses, that Athena has already arranged for Odysseus to succeed in his mission, is tantalizing, taking us into the thicket of possibilities surrounding the operation of divine will and human choice in the poem—an arresting topic but well beyond the scope of this essay. For our purposes here, another approach might be more useful. The Odyssey is a poem about the power of stories. Odysseus is a master storyteller, but there are many others, Phemius, Mentes, Nestor, Menelaus, Helen, Demodocus, Eumaeus, Theoclymenus, Penelope. Homer suggests that some of the stories in the poem are true, some false, but the flow of stories is constant. We might say that the most characteristic act in the poem is creative storytelling. Zeus’s reply to Athena suggests that behind the story that the poet has received from the muse another artist is at work, who is creating, or perhaps has created, another story inside the Odyssey. The full richness of Odysseus’s character only emerges in the interaction of Athena’s story and its fixed parameters with the more expansive world the poet creates around it. As we encounter the hero for the first time in the poem, Homer lets us peek behind the curtain and see that the story the poem tells is rather more complex and multilayered than we might first suspect.

Zeus now affirms much of Athena’s plan: Odysseus will reach the Phaeacians, who will eventually bring him safely back to Ithaka, laden with loot. Homer does not keep his audience engaged with the prospect of surprise endings: we know how this story will end. Rather, his hold over us comes from his teasing and manipulation of expectations raised by that knowledge. We know Odysseus will get home, but not when and how.


Further Reading

Heubeck, A. J. Hainsworth, and S. West, eds. 1989. A Commentary on Homer’s Odyssey, vol. I, Books I–VIII, 51–66. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Thalmann, W. 1992. The Odyssey: An Epic of Return, 31–46. New York: Twayne Publishers.

Tracy, S. 1990. The Story of the Odyssey, 28–29. Princeton: Princeton University Press.


A description of Kalypso and her island. Kalypso welcomes Hermes.

Homer launches Hermes’s journey to Calypso’s island with a characteristically expansive description, taking seven verses to tell us that the god put on his sandals and picked up his wand:

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ὣς ἔφατ᾽, οὐδ᾽ ἀπίθησε διάκτορος ἀργεϊφόντης.
αὐτίκ᾽ ἔπειθ᾽ ὑπὸ ποσσὶν ἐδήσατο καλὰ πέδιλα,
ἀμβρόσια χρύσεια, τά μιν φέρον ἠμὲν ἐφ᾽ ὑγρὴν>
ἠδ᾽ ἐπ᾽ ἀπείρονα γαῖαν ἅμα πνοιῇς ἀνέμοιο.
εἵλετο δὲ ῥάβδον, τῇ τ᾽ ἀνδρῶν ὄμματα θέλγει,
ὧν ἐθέλει, τοὺς δ᾽ αὖτε καὶ ὑπνώοντας ἐγείρει.
τὴν μετὰ χερσὶν ἔχων πέτετο κρατὺς ἀργεϊφόντης.

[Zeus] spoke and the messenger, slayer of Argos, did not disobey.
Right away he tied under his feet the beautiful sandals,
ambrosial and golden, that carried him over the water
and across the boundless earth like a puff of wind.
He took up the wand, with which he enchants the eyes
of mortals, whomever he wishes, and then wakes them from sleep.
Taking this in this hand, the strong slayer of Argos flew off.

Odyssey 5.43–49

Ornamental epithets slow the pace of the story, lingering on the gleaming, divine footwear and the magical powers of the wand. Homer uses his leisurely traditional style here to mark an important transition. After the urgent discussion on Olympus, these verses shift our attention to a more timeless world of beautiful objects that symbolize the unchanging power of the gods.

Virgil, always a brilliant student of Homer, puts these verses to powerful use:

Dīxerat. Ille patris magnī pārēre parābat
imperiō; et prīmum pedibus tālāria nectit
aurea, quae sublīmem ālīs sīve aequora suprā
seu terram rapidō pariter cum flāmine portant.
Tum virgam capit: hāc animās ille ēvocat Orcō
pallentēs, aliās sub Tartara trīstia mittit,
dat somnōs adimitque, et lūmina morte resignat.

So he spoke. That god prepared to obey the command
of his mighty father; first he bound to his feet the golden
sandals that carry him aloft on their wings, swiftly
over the sea or the land with the blowing wind.
Then he took up his wand, by which the god calls back
pallid souls from the dead and sends others down to misty Tartarus;
he calls them from sleep and opens their eyes in death.

Aeneid 4.238–44

The Odyssey’s poet wants us to pause over his verses, slowing the pace of the plot and preparing us for a different world. Virgil, as he so often does when conjuring Homer’s poems, has a darker vision. Aeneas, recently emerged from a winter spent with Dido, marvels at the buildings surging up in Carthage under the queen’s leadership. Jupiter, meanwhile, goaded by the ranting of Dido’s jilted suitor, senses that Aeneas’s mission to bring the Trojans to Italy may be in jeopardy. He sends Mercury (the Roman Hermes) down to deliver his command: Aeneas must leave at once for Italy. No more dawdling with the queen. The allusions to Homer equate Dido, a selfless leader whom Juno and Venus have manipulated into falling in love with Aeneas, with Calypso, a divine nymph intent on keeping a mortal lover for herself. Dido, arguably the noblest of all the heroes in the Aeneid, is reduced to a pawn in the cruel game the goddesses play with her and Aeneas. She will die soon—committing suicide with Aeneas’s sword—while Calypso lives on after Odysseus leaves, momentarily disappointed but immortal. The dynamic that Virgil’s allusion highlights, between divine immortality and human existence, bounded by time and circumstance, will be at the heart of Odysseus’s encounter with Calypso.

His equipment secured, Hermes launches from Pieria, a peak near Olympus. As he flies over the sea, the poet compares him to a tern, dipping its wings into the sea, skimming over the water looking for fish. The arresting image of the god floating over the waves, perhaps dragging a sandal through the brine, can obscure the fact that Homeric gods regularly beam themselves in and out of the human world, without suiting up and laboriously making their way (e.g., Od. 1.96–104). That we are invited to contemplate Hermes in flight, with his special gear, suggests that the poet wants to impress upon us how far the god must go to reach Calypso’s island (τηλόθ᾽ ἐοῦσαν, 55). Like many of the places Odysseus passes through on his way home, Ogygia is a wholly mythical island. The important thing we are to keep in mind is not only that the nymph’s home is far away from where other humans live but that even gods must make a long trip to get there.

Hermes finds Calypso in her cave, singing and spinning wool. Cedar wood burns in the hearth, releasing a sweet fragrance that wafts out over a fecund and exotic landscape, woods teeming with alder, poplar, and fragrant cypress through which birds flit, meadows thick with violets and parsley. At the cave’s mouth are four springs, all in a row, and around the opening grapes vines cluster, heavy with fruit. There is order here, but not human order. The burbling springs and darting birds, the woods and flowers, all seem to respond to the nymph’s magical, beguiling voice. Calypso’s power over nature is expressed through the senses: fragrance, physical beauty, and music. Her music contrasts tellingly with songs of bards like Phemius in Book 1 (325–27), whose subject is usually the famous deeds of men. While their art is always in the service of human memory, preserving the self-asserting, heroic acts that found and secure civilization, the power of Calypso’s singing is aimed at exerting an extra-human control over nature, creating a seductive venue in which men forget their mortality and its imperatives. This is the music of the Sirens, who draw men to their doom with alluring songs. Odysseus, we will later learn, has escaped their power on his way to Ogygia, only to fall under its spell again (12.39–54; 165200; 447–50).

Everything here signals both beauty and, in the masculine imagination of this poem, seductive danger. Weaving and singing like Calypso’s are both associated with feminine wiles in the Odyssey. As the fragrance of the burning wood wafts around her, the nymph sits on a shining chair and will offer her guest a cup of ambrosia. In early Greek poetry, the combination of fragrance, ambrosia, and shining cloth is always associated with trickery. This is a decidedly feminine milieu, as the Greeks understood gender: an enclosed, womblike cave set in a space articulated by natural growth. The boundaries of nature and culture, a crucial polarity in the Greeks’ characterization of human experience and gender in particular, are blurred here: the springs are “all in a row” (70), but they gush forth amorphous water; the grape vines around the cave’s entrance soften the stone and mask its contours. Human civilization is a masculine project in Greek myth, the product of the imposition, by human intelligence, of limits to channel the power of nature and create meaning. The feminine world that Calypso inhabits threatens the hard edges of those boundaries, obscuring their control and the meaning they generate.

Having touched down, Hermes marvels at the exotic venue. Such are its wonders that even gods are amazed, the poet tells us. When he enters the cave, Calypso recognizes him immediately, because immortals always know each other, even if they live far apart. Calypso has questions for him, but first she must offer him the appropriate hospitality. All this attention to how gods behave and what they do in each other’s presence invites us to think about the parameters of their existence as opposed to the limits of human life, about how the nymph’s exotic existence fits with that of the Olympian gods and, by implication, with the experience of mortals. By insisting on the remoteness of Calypso’s island from both humans and gods, the poet establishes Ogygia as a way station in more than one way: geographically but also existentially; it is a place where the boundaries of human and divine are blurred, prompting us to focus on the most enduring question raised by all early Greek literature: what does it mean to be human?


Further Reading

Austin, N. 1975. Archery at the Dark of the Moon, 138–152. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Pantelia, M. 1993. “Spinning and Weaving: Ideas of Domestic Order in Homer.” American Journal of Philology 114: 493–500.

Van Nortwick, T. 1980. “Apollonos Apate Associative Imagery in the Homeric Hymn to Hermes.” Classical World 74: 1–5.

———.1992. Somewhere I Have Never Travelled: The Second Self and the Hero’s Journey in Ancient Epic, 96–107. New York: Oxford University Press.

———.2008. The Unknown Odysseus: Alternate Worlds in Homer’s Odyssey, 14–15. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Vernant, J.-P. (1982) 1996. “The Refusal of Odysseus.” In Reading the Odyssey, edited by S. Schein, 185–189.  Reprinted. Princeton: Princeton University Press.


Hermes delivers Zeus's message to Kalypso, who reluctantly agrees to release Odysseus. 

Homer has just given us a glimpse of his hero, weeping on the shore of the island, longing for home. Now, after Calypso offers the proper gestures of hospitality, the two gods get down to business.

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The exchange that follows is the first in a series of delicate character studies, far richer than might be required to move the plot along. Hermes begins somewhat nervously—we can almost see him shifting in his seat. Calypso has asked him “god-to-god” (97), and he will tell her the unerring truth, since she has urged him to do so. He has not come willingly, for who would want to travel so far over the vast deep ocean? There are no cities nearby, no humans available to offer sacrifices! Clearly anxious about the nymph’s response to his news, he finally delivers the message: she must send Odysseus home. Hermes’ discomfort at bearing the bad news might prompt us to ask why he, an immortal god, would be afraid of a minor nymph. He is only following orders, after all. But Homer’s light touch urges us to view the exchange through the lens of human relationships, complicated, often driven by undercurrents that go unspoken. The tone here is of a brother treading ever so lightly with a touchy sister. By establishing this context for the conversations that follow, the poet creates a charming atmosphere for these important negotiations. At the same time, he allows himself to work the boundary between human and divine while exploring his main theme, the crucial interaction of divine will and human choice.

Calypso is angry. The male gods are cruel, jealous of goddesses who take mortal lovers while they themselves do so with impunity. She cites the examples of Eos and Demeter, both of whom took mortal lovers who were then killed by the gods, but—perhaps calculating how far to push things—does not mention the number-one offender among the males, Zeus. She tells the story of how she saved Odysseus as he clung to the keel of his ship, the rest of which Zeus had destroyed along with his shipmates. Then come two startling verses:

"τὸν μὲν ἐγὼ φίλεόν τε καὶ ἔτρεφον, ἠδὲ ἔφασκον
θήσειν ἀθάνατον καὶ ἀγήραον ἤματα πάντα."

“I loved him and nursed him and told him
I would make him immortal and ageless forever.”

Odyssey 5.135–36

This is not the picture of an all-powerful being snatching a boy toy for her amusement. She loved Odysseus and nursed him and wanted him beside her forever. Now the poet’s phrasing in verses 1–2 echoes in our ears. Calypso is not Eos, cruelly entombing her lover in endless decay because of her careless request to Zeus. She wanted Odysseus—still wants him—because she loves him. Her tenderness contrasts with the rapacious arrogance of male gods. We are witnessing powerful emotions.

As soon as Calypso speaks, we begin to move beyond the familiar paradigm of the seductive, detaining woman who would keep the hero from completing his mission. Her name, transparently allegorical (“I will cover up,” from the verb καλύπτω), points toward such a figure, but as he often does, the poet plays against our expectations. The character of Circe, another detaining woman whom, as we will learn, Odysseus has already encountered earlier in his return journey, has its origins in myth and folktale, a version of the powerful witch who might beguile the unsuspecting hero or even an Indo-European mistress of animals. Calypso has no such analogue and seems to be Homer’s invention, a strikingly original figure whose portrayal is at the heart of a delicately nuanced episode. What we learn from Odysseus’s encounter with her will resonate throughout the rest of the poem.

The intimacy we sense in Calypso’s relationship with Odysseus comes not just from Homer’s use of the verb φίλεόν (135). She becomes emotionally accessible to Odysseus—and so to us—because she wants something important to her that she cannot have. That frustrated desire makes her vulnerable, emotionally needy, feelings with which we humans can readily identify. Homeric deities are usually remote figures precisely because, being omnipotent, they are rarely denied something important to them. They may be temporarily annoyed by events on Earth or Olympus, but finally nothing can disturb their blissful existence for long. Only one other prominent scene in Homeric poetry parallels the exceptional dynamic at work in the Calypso episode, when Zeus looks down on the battlefield in Iliad 16 and realizes his mortal son Sarpedon is about to die at the hands of Patroclus:

τοὺς δὲ ἰδὼν ἐλέησε Κρόνου πάϊς ἀγκυλομήτεω,
Ἥρην δὲ προσέειπε κασιγνήτην ἄλοχόν τε:
"ὤ μοι ἐγών, ὅ τέ μοι Σαρπηδόνα φίλτατον ἀνδρῶν
μοῖρ᾽ ὑπὸ Πατρόκλοιο Μενοιτιάδαο δαμῆναι.
διχθὰ δέ μοι κραδίη μέμονε φρεσὶν ὁρμαίνοντι,
ἤ μιν ζωὸν ἐόντα μάχης ἄπο δακρυοέσσης
θείω ἀναρπάξας Λυκίης ἐν πίονι δήμῳ,
ἦ ἤδη ὑπὸ χερσὶ Μενοιτιάδαο δαμάσσω."

Seeing them, the son of devious Kronos
felt pity, and spoke to Hera, his wife and sister:
“Ah me, Sarpedon, the dearest to me of all men,
is fated to die at hands of Patroclus, son of Menoitios.
My heart is divided in two ways as I ponder,
whether I should snatch him alive from the sorrowful battle
and set him down in the fertile land of Lycia,
or kill him at the hands of the son of Menoitios.”

Iliad 16.431–38

We might suppose that Homer is about to settle a vexed question: Can Zeus change fate (μοῖρα)? Typically for Homeric poetry, the apparently clear outlines of this metaphysical question are blurred in the event. Hera tells Zeus to go ahead and save his son, but none of the other gods will approve of him. Exerting his unconquerable will in this case will breed resentment among the other Olympians. Instead of the supreme deity of the universe, Zeus here appears as the father of a fractious family, trying to keep the peace.

Zeus decides to let Sarpedon die, a decision that prompts him to shed tears of blood on the battlefield. After Patroclus kills Sarpedon, Zeus arranges for the twin deities, Sleep and Death, to carry his corpse home to Lycia. There he will be accorded a hero’s burial, marked by some of Homer’s most sublime verses, a haunting prelude to the funeral of Hector that ends the poem:

καὶ τότ᾽ Ἀπόλλωνα προσέφη νεφεληγερέτα Ζεύς:
"εἰ δ᾽ ἄγε νῦν φίλε Φοῖβε, κελαινεφὲς αἷμα κάθηρον
ἐλθὼν ἐκ βελέων Σαρπηδόνα, καί μιν ἔπειτα
πολλὸν ἀπὸ πρὸ φέρων λοῦσον ποταμοῖο ῥοῇσι
χρῖσόν τ᾽ ἀμβροσίῃ, περὶ δ᾽ ἄμβροτα εἵματα ἕσσον:
πέμπε δέ μιν πομποῖσιν ἅμα κραιπνοῖσι φέρεσθαι
ὕπνῳ καὶ θανάτῳ διδυμάοσιν, οἵ ῥά μιν ὦκα
θήσουσ᾽ ἐν Λυκίης εὐρείης πίονι δήμῳ,
ἔνθά ἑ ταρχύσουσι κασίγνητοί τε ἔται τε
τύμβῳ τε στήλῃ τε: τὸ γὰρ γέρας ἐστὶ θανόντων."

And then Zeus the Cloudgatherer spoke to Apollo:
“Go now, dear Phoibos, and rescue Sarpedon
from the battle and cleanse away the dark blood,
then bear him further off and bathe him in the streams of the river;
anoint him with ambrosia, wrapping him in in immortal garments.
Then send him to be carried by two swift messengers,
the twin brothers Sleep and Death, who will
set him down in the rich countryside of broad Lycia,
where his brothers and countrymen will give him proper burial,
with a funeral mound and marker; for this is gift of honor for the dead.”

Iliad 16.667–75

As we witness Zeus struggling over his decision, he moves closer to us because he faces, as humans so often do, a painful, and apparently unavoidable, loss. That his decision casts him in the role of a loving father tangled in the crosscurrents of familial conflict, as opposed to the male boss of the universe, and makes him emotionally available to us as he is nowhere else in the poem.

Homer creates the same dynamic in his portrait of Calypso. She wants Odysseus and cannot have him, and that loss colors all of her interactions with him. She accedes to Zeus’s orders, as she must, but grudgingly:

"ἀλλ᾽ ἐπεὶ οὔ πως ἔστι Διὸς νόον αἰγιόχοιο
οὔτε παρεξελθεῖν ἄλλον θεὸν οὔθ᾽ ἁλιῶσαι,
ἐρρέτω, εἴ μιν κεῖνος ἐποτρύνει καὶ ἀνώγει,
πόντον ἐπ᾽ ἀτρύγετον· πέμψω δέ μιν οὔ πῃ ἐγώ γε·
οὐ γάρ μοι πάρα νῆες ἐπήρετμοι καὶ ἑταῖροι,
οἵ κέν μιν πέμποιεν ἐπ᾽ εὐρέα νῶτα θαλάσσης.
αὐτάρ οἱ πρόφρων ὑποθήσομαι, οὐδ᾽ ἐπικεύσω,
ὥς κε μάλ᾽ ἀσκηθὴς ἣν πατρίδα γαῖαν ἵκηται."

“But since there is no way for another god
to get around or render useless the purpose of cloud-gathering Zeus,
let him be gone, if he himself asks for and urges it,
upon the barren sea. I will not send him anywhere!
For there are no oared ships and sailors here with me,
who would carry him on the broad back of the sea.
I will, however, freely counsel him, nor will I hold anything back,
so that he might arrive safely at his own native land.”

Odyssey 5.137–44

The language here brims with anger but also a certain forlorn resignation. What I have translated as “let him be gone” (ἐρρέτω, 139) carries a darker tone, something like, “to Hell with him!” Achilles uses the same verb in angrily refusing to accept any apology from Agamemnon when the embassy of his fellow warriors comes to beg him to return to the battle (Il. 9.377). The nymph’s injured feelings make her petulant, unable to yield gracefully. She offers some self-justification—she has no ships and sailors here—but then bows to the inevitable: she will give him advice and at least not hinder him.

The modulation of the emotional register in this exchange is so masterful that we don’t notice that the transaction of Zeus’s command—tell the nymph to release him—has occupied our imagination far longer than would be necessary to advance the plot. But Homer will use all of this rich material in the exchanges between Odysseus and Calypso that follow. For the moment, we wonder whether this anger and hurt will spill over onto Odysseus and how he will find his way around them if it does.

Further Reading

Clay, J. 1983. The Wrath of Athena: Gods and Men in the Odyssey, 213–239. Princeton. Princeton University Press.

Peradotto, J. 1990. The Man in the Middle: Name and Narration in Homer’s Odyssey, 102–106. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Segal, C. 1992. “Divine Justice in the Odyssey: Poseidon, Cyclops, and Helios.” American Journal of Philology 113: 489–518.

Thalmann, W. 1992. The Odyssey: An Epic of Return, 47–50. New York: Twayne Publishers.

Tracy, S. 1990. The Story of the Odyssey, 30–33. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Van Nortwick, T. 1992. Somewhere I Have Never Travelled: The Second Self and the Hero’s Journey in Ancient Epic, 58–59. New York: Oxford University Press.

———. 2008. The Unknown Odysseus: Alternate Worlds in Homer’s Odyssey, 16–17; 53–57. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.


Hermes departs, no doubt relieved. After his elaborate entrance, one verse is enough to get him offstage (148). His brief but vivid appearance has served Homer’s purposes and now he can vanish. The poet turns his attention to the relationship between Calypso and Odysseus, a charged one, as we now discover. She finds him on the seashore:

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τὸν δ᾽ ἄρ᾽ ἐπ᾽ ἀκτῆς εὗρε καθήμενον: οὐδέ ποτ᾽ ὄσσε
δακρυόφιν τέρσοντο, κατείβετο δὲ γλυκὺς αἰὼν
νόστον ὀδυρομένῳ, ἐπεὶ οὐκέτι ἥνδανε νύμφη.
ἀλλ᾽ ἦ τοι νύκτας μὲν ἰαύεσκεν καὶ ἀνάγκῃ
ἐν σπέσσι γλαφυροῖσι παρ᾽ οὐκ ἐθέλων ἐθελούσῃ:
ἤματα δ᾽ ἂμ πέτρῃσι καὶ ἠιόνεσσι καθίζων
δάκρυσι καὶ στοναχῇσι καὶ ἄλγεσι θυμὸν ἐρέχθων
πόντον ἐπ᾽ ἀτρύγετον δερκέσκετο δάκρυα λείβων.

She found him sitting on the shore; nor were his eyes
ever dry of tears, and his sweet life ebbed away
as he wept for a way home, since the nymph no longer pleased.
But night after night he slept beside her in the hollow cave
by necessity; she wanted him, but he was unwilling.
Sitting every day on the rocky seashore,
tearing his heart out with tears and groans and sorrow
as he gazed, weeping, upon the barren sea.

Odyssey 5.151–58

After witnessing her wrenching exchange with Hermes, we know that Calypso loves Odysseus, and now we might wonder how he feels about her. The phrase, οὐκέτι ἥνδανε (153) would seem to settle the issue. But the adverb also casts some doubt perhaps on how long he has been suffering under the nymph’s sway and might make us curious about what their life together was like before he withdrew his affections. This relationship, which we are seeing played out before us, seems to have a complicated history and stirs a tickle of curiosity: He is “unwilling” (154) now. What broke the spell for Odysseus? What kind of control did Calypso have over him? Did he once love her or was it only a physical bond? Was the sex always “forced” (ἀνάγκῃ, 154)? The answers, if we could have them, would make no difference to the advancing of the plot. But the mere suggestion that there is this kind of complicated backstory charges the rest of their interactions with tension, which Homer will use to deepen his portrait of Odysseus and his loving captor.

If we had any doubt about Calypso’s continuing love for Odysseus, her first words to him remove it:

"κάμμορε, μή μοι ἔτ᾽ ἐνθάδ᾽ ὀδύρεο, μηδέ τοι αἰὼν
φθινέτω: ἤδη γάρ σε μάλα πρόφρασσ᾽ ἀποπέμψω.”

“Poor fellow, please do not mourn any longer, nor waste
your life away, since I will send you on with my whole heart.”

Odyssey 5.160–61

Though hemmed in by Zeus’s command, the nymph presumably still has plenty of leverage in this relationship and could take out her anger toward the gods on Odysseus. Her obvious affection shows her rising above those impulses. Not only will she not stand in the way of his leaving, but—contrary to the spirit of her response to Hermes—she will help him build a boat to sail away in. In response, Odysseus is alarmingly blunt. Rather than acknowledging Calypso’s solicitous affection, he lashes out. The goddess’s offer looks like another plot against him! He does not trust her to keep her promise and demands that she swear an oath not to harm him. These words seem to signal either recklessness or despair, hardly evidence of the smooth talker we have been led to expect. Is he willing to risk never leaving the island?

We needn’t have worried:

ὣς φάτο, μείδησεν δὲ Καλυψὼ δῖα θεάων,
χειρί τέ μιν κατέρεξεν ἔπος τ᾽ ἔφατ᾽ ἔκ τ᾽ ὀνόμαζεν·
"ἦ δὴ ἀλιτρός γ᾽ ἐσσὶ καὶ οὐκ ἀποφώλια εἰδώς,
οἷον δὴ τὸν μῦθον ἐπεφράσθης ἀγορεῦσαι."

So he spoke and Calypso, shining among goddesses, smiled,
caressing him with her hand and speaking to him by name.
“You are naughty and no fool besides,
the way you speak to me and reason with me.”

Odyssey 5.180–83

The dynamic between the two here resembles Odysseus’s exchanges with Athena, his most passionate advocate, in Book 13 (13.287–351). In both cases, the hero’s suspicion is met by affection, amusement at his cheekiness, and even a certain admiration. Athena will be by his side the rest of the way home, clearing the way for his triumph in Ithaka. Because both Calypso and Athena have power over Odysseus, their forbearance carries a whiff of the maternal. We will learn in Book 11 that the hero’s mother Antikleia is already dead but her ghost still yearns for him and worries over his future. Other female figures fill the role of ally and protector in her absence, Calypso, Leukothea, Nausicaa, Arete, Circe. In each of these cases, the primary role these characters play is not maternal, and the resulting relationships reflect an array of emotions along a continuum from sexual desire to familial affection. Odysseus’s journey home is punctuated by his interactions with powerful female figures, whose attentions are sometimes welcome to him, sometimes not—and sometimes both at the same time (see the Sirens, 12.39–54; 165220). And all of them are partial realizations of his bond to Penelope. Through its hero’s many encounters with the feminine on his journey home, the Odyssey offers the richest meditation on the relationship between men and women in all of Greek literature. As Odysseus and Calypso spend their last day together, the portrait of their bond will deepen yet more.

Further Reading

Dimock, G. 1989. The Unity of the Odyssey, 63–75. Amherst: The University of Massachusetts Press.

Pucci, P. 1979. “The Song of the Sirens.” Arethusa 12: 121–132.

Van Nortwick, T. 2008. The Unknown Odysseus: Alternate Worlds in Homer’s Odyssey, 18–19. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.



Kalypso makes one last attempt to persuade Odysseus to stay with her and become immortal, but he insists on returning home to his mortal wife, even if the journey means more suffering for him. 

Calypso leads her unwilling paramour back to the cave, where all the niceties of hospitality are observed: human food for Odysseus, nectar and ambrosia for her. The conversation to come between the two will be definitive for our understanding of Odysseus and his motivation for pressing on for home, a negotiation articulated through the polarities of mortal and immortal, time and eternity. The poet eases us into this rarified air gently.

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We are told that Odysseus sits in the chair occupied by Hermes when he delivered Zeus’s command to the nymph, an exchange focused on the boundaries between human and divine, male and female. Calypso speaks for us in asking the obvious questions: Why would the hero want to leave her island and the blissful existence she offers him, immortal life in paradise beside a beautiful nymph, to embark on a journey destined to bring pain and loss? Surely Penelope, a mortal woman, cannot compete in beauty with her? Because the poet has already let us see into Calypso’s heart, we hear the plaintive tone that runs under her words. This is not an inquiry driven by disinterested curiosity. The nymph is in pain, deprived of love and genuinely baffled. Why can she not have the man she wants?

Odysseus is famous for his eloquence and never has it been more important than at this moment. His earlier outburst does not bode well for his self-restraint here. In the event, he delivers a masterful speech, evidence of the great skill and tact we have heard so much about in Books 1–4. There can be no explaining his choice to this powerful being without offending her, so he does not explain. He admits that his behavior makes no sense from her point of view and passes quickly to his stubborn desire, ending with a defiant assertion of his will to survive. Homer gives Calypso no reply and the exchange ends with their retiring to bed to make love. Given what has preceded, we cannot see this final union as forced in any way. Indeed, the poet’s beautifully modulated scene leads us to the conclusion that of all their nights together, this one is the least forced, the most tender. Odysseus has revealed his preference as gently as he can, and we are left to imagine Calypso’s feelings from her actions.

Homer’s portrait of the relationship between Odysseus and Calypso is powerfully moving in the moment, the delicate interplay of emotions creating an intimacy that draws us in. At the same time, Odysseus’s choice reverberates throughout the rest of the poem. To grasp its full significance, we need to see it against the backdrop of the story Menelaus tells to Telemachus in Book 4, about when he was marooned by the gods in Egypt (4.351–592). Blown off course on his way home from Troy, Menelaus and his men are trapped by adverse winds on Pharos, an island off Egypt. Their supplies have run out after twenty days and things are looking grim, when Eidothea, a friendly nymph and daughter of Proteus, The Old Man of the Sea, approaches Menelaus as he wanders alone. She urges him to lie in ambush and restrain her father when he returns from herding his seals. Proteus knows all the secrets of the sea and can tell Menelaus how to get home, but he is also a shapeshifter and will only reveal what he knows if Menelaus is able to wrestle him to a draw, keeping him from escaping by assuming different forms. The nymph helps the Greeks to orchestrate an elaborate plot, requiring them to disguise themselves as seals and then jump the old man. The plan succeeds after Proteus tires of changing shape. Under questioning from Menelaus, he reveals the fates of Ajax, Agamemnon, and Odysseus after they left Troy: the first two have died, the third is marooned on Calypso’s island.

This sad news is offset by what Menelaus hears from the old man about his own fate:

"σοι δ᾽ οὐ θέσφατόν ἐστι, διοτρεφὲς ὦ Μενέλαε,
Ἄργει ἐν ἱπποβότῳ θανέειν καὶ πότμον ἐπισπεῖν,
ἀλλά σ᾽ ἐς Ἠλύσιον πεδίον καὶ πείρατα γαίης
ἀθάνατοι πέμψουσιν, ὅθι ξανθὸς Ῥαδάμανθυς,
τῇ περ ῥηίστη βιοτὴ πέλει ἀνθρώποισιν:
οὐ νιφετός, οὔτ᾽ ἂρ χειμὼν πολὺς οὔτε ποτ᾽ ὄμβρος,
ἀλλ᾽ αἰεὶ Ζεφύροιο λιγὺ πνείοντος ἀήτας
Ὠκεανὸς ἀνίησιν ἀναψύχειν ἀνθρώπους:
οὕνεκ᾽ ἔχεις Ἑλένην καί σφιν γαμβρὸς Διός ἐσσι."

“It is not fated for you Menelaus, nourished by the gods,
to die and meet your end in horse-pasturing Argos,
but to the Elysian fields and the ends of the Earth
the gods will send you, where sandy-haired Rhadamanthus
lives, and where life is most easy for mortals:
no snow, no harsh winter nor any rain is there,
but always the clear breath of the blowing wind
comes from the Ocean, to refresh mortals.
This is because Helen is yours and you are son-in-law to Zeus.”

Odyssey 4.561–69

There is much in Menelaus’s story that looks forward to the Calypso episode. Both heroes are kept from returning home by divine powers; each has a crucial encounter with a friendly nymph (in Odysseus’s case, two different nymphs, as we will see); in each case, the hero’s bond with his spouse proves to be decisive for his future happiness. This last parallel is also where the two heroes part ways. Because he “has” Helen (569), the daughter of Zeus, Menelaus will not die, but live on forever in a blissful place that sounds a lot like Ogygia; Odysseus, because he chooses Penelope over Calypso, will live a finite life and suffer great hardships. Menelaus, in other words, will have what Odysseus declines.

These two episodes exemplify a compositional practice that we have seen on a smaller scale in the first two lines of Book 5. Homer’s method of composition is analogical, using repeated elements in his traditional style to build his characters by accretion. (See Introduction: The Uses of Anonymity) We see Achilles in Books 19–22 of the Iliad, for example, through the lens of Diomedes in Books 5 and 6. Both warriors rampage through the Trojan ranks until they meet gods. Diomedes has been told by Athena not to attack any deity except Aphrodite, and so when Apollo reveals himself, Diomedes backs off. Achilles, faced with the anger of the river god Scamander in Book 21, keeps right on killing, eventually provoking a response nearly fatal to him (Il. 5.124–32; 431–36; 21.214–382). When Diomedes, having dispatched many opponents, meets the Trojan Glaucus on the battlefield, the two discover that their fathers were friends and decide to cease fighting, exchanging gifts instead. The corresponding episode for Achilles is his pitiless killing of Hector in Book 22 (Il. 6.119–236; 22.247–360). The penumbra of Diomedes’s measured heroism lies behind Achilles’s excesses, helping us see what makes Achilles so unique and so dangerous: he always goes too far, ignoring the limits that civilizing norms place on human behavior. By crossing over the boundaries that define human experience, he prompts us to think about why they are where they are and consequently, what it means to be human.

Likewise, Menelaus’s easy existence, both in Sparta and later in the Elysian Fields, throws into relief the life that Odysseus chooses when he leaves Calypso. Though the blissful existence of the gods is often held out in the Iliad and Odyssey as the ultimate goal for mortals, the poems paint a more complicated picture. For Achilles, who would seem to be the hero best equipped to achieve a divine existence—something his divine mother thinks is his due—striving for godlike omnipotence is disastrous, leaving him alone and miserable. In the Odyssey, the places that approximate the easy life of the gods exude in prospect a changeless stasis that the poem portrays as potentially dangerous for a hero. Though Odysseus faces all kinds of threats on his way home, physical and psychic, the common denominator is passing into nothingness, dying alone where he will be forgotten, a dismal end that Telemachus foresees for his father (1.159–62). In this sense, the seemingly delightful existence that Calypso offers Odysseus is parallel to the threat of being eaten by Polyphemus or drowning at sea. To be the man he is supposed to be, Odysseus must constantly be on guard against the forces of annihilation by acting out into the world to assert his existence. The choice he makes in rejecting the nymph’s offer is an existential one, affirming that for him, to be alive is to create himself through action, continually asserting himself in the face of the void. The high point of Odysseus’s encounters with other societies is very often when he passes from being an anonymous stranger to the hero Odysseus: having been nobody, he becomes the hero Odysseus again. The pattern recurs several times in the poem, culminating in the recognition scene in Ithaka in Book 23 (181–230).

The question that hovers uneasily is this: If returning to his customary roles as king, husband, father, and son in Ithaka is the final affirmation of Odysseus’s identity, which has been at issue all through the poem, then why does the life that awaits him at home resemble, in its static and hierarchical structure, the unchanging places that he has worked to escape in order to assert his existence? The tension that arises from this paradox informs the entire story of Odysseus’s return and makes us wonder whether the hero we have come to know will be able to rest at home. Has Homer created a hero who cannot be contained by the poem?

Further Reading

Anderson, W.S. 1958. “Calypso and Elysium.” Classical Journal 54: 2–11.

Nagler. M. 1974. Spontaneity and Tradition: The Oral Art of Homer, 64–111. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Van Nortwick, T.1992. Somewhere I Have Never Travelled: The Second Self and the Hero’s Journey in Ancient Epic, 39–88. New York: Oxford University Press.

———. 2008. The Unknown Odysseus: Alternate Worlds in Homer’s Odyssey, 7–12; 74–78. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.



Odysseus builds a boat.

The last night of lovemaking marks a turning point. Having faced the inalterable fact of Zeus’s command and pressed Odysseus about his motives for leaving, Calypso seems to accept that she will have to let her lover go. From now on, Odysseus’s trajectory will be toward the human world of time and change.

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The Phaeacians will be the last waystation, isolated and exotic like Calypso but human, nevertheless. Odysseus will fill in the backstory for them and for us when he tells them about his adventures between Troy and Ogygia in Books 9–12. When Calypso and Odysseus rise from bed the next morning, they apply themselves to the task of building a boat, a quintessential task of human culture. Homer signals the change in tone with a return to a measured, traditional style:

ἦμος δ᾽ ἠριγένεια φάνη ῥοδοδάκτυλος Ἠώς,
αὐτίχ᾽ ὁ μὲν χλαῖνάν τε χιτῶνά τε ἕννυτ᾽ Ὀδυσσεύς,
αὐτὴ δ᾽ ἀργύφεον φᾶρος μέγα ἕννυτο νύμφη,
λεπτὸν καὶ χαρίεν, περὶ δὲ ζώνην βάλετ᾽ ἰξυῖ
καλὴν χρυσείην, κεφαλῇ δ᾽ ἐφύπερθε καλύπτρην.

Now when early-born, rosy-fingered Dawn appeared,
Odysseus put on an outer cloak and tunic,
and the nymph wrapped herself in a long silvery robe,
filmy and beautiful, and around her waist she drew a belt,
of lovely gold, and on her head she fixed a veil.

Odyssey 5.228–32

The language here is formulaic, the nouns appearing with their familiar epithets, beginning with the common one-line formula for the coming of dawn. The sentence structure is also regular, with a high coincidence between verse structure and sentence structure and no harsh enjambment. In verses 231–32, a complete thought ending the previous verse is followed by runover adjectives that elaborate the thought but maintain the regular structure, one of the poet’s most familiar methods of composition. The overall effect of this style is to slow down the pace, with fewer verbs and more adjectives, and summon the familiar domestic world of the Homeric poems.

Characteristically for his poetic practice, the poet has created the Calypso episode, so strikingly fresh and compelling, by working with what looks like a typical scene in Homeric poetry. In Book 10, later in the poem but earlier in the chronology of the story, Odysseus tells the story of his pleasant year with the witchy nymph Circe. He has relaxed with her for a year but is now nudged into action by his crew, who are eager to press on for home. He climbs into her bed and asks her to make good on her earlier promise to help him find his way home. She is happy to oblige but delivers some bad news: the Greeks must first travel to the Underworld, where Odysseus will consult with the seer Teiresias about what lies ahead. (Her detailed instructions apparently take all night and lovemaking is replaced by mapmaking):

ὣς ἔφατ᾽, αὐτίκα δὲ χρυσόθρονος ἤλυθεν Ἠώς.
ἀμφὶ δέ με χλαῖνάν τε χιτῶνά τε εἵματα ἕσσεν·
αὐτὴ δ᾽ ἀργύφεον φᾶρος μέγα ἕννυτο νύμφη,
λεπτὸν καὶ χαρίεν, περὶ δὲ ζώνην βάλετ᾽ ἰξυῖ
καλὴν χρυσείην, κεφαλῇ δ᾽ ἐπέθηκε καλύπτρην.

So she spoke, and then Dawn of the golden throne came.
The nymph dressed me in an outer cloak and tunic,
and the wrapped herself in a long silvery robe,
filmy and beautiful, and around her waist she drew a belt,
of lovely gold, and on her head she fixed a veil.

Odyssey 10.541–45

This passage is as closely parallel as it can be to the description of Calypso and Odysseus above, given the slight change in the situation in Book 10 (Circe has just spoken, Calypso has not; Circe dresses the hero, Calypso does not.). In both cases, Odysseus has just spent the last of many nights with a powerful female deity, a “detaining woman” who has agreed to release him and help him find his way back to Ithaka. The poem’s structure—as opposed to the chronology of the story—invites us to view Circe through Calypso. Both are potential threats to the hero’s return; both attempt to use sexual conquest as a method of control. Calypso succeeds for a time, but before Odysseus encounters Circe, Hermes supplies him with the magic drug moly, which makes him immune to Circe’s power (10.281306). When Odysseus comes looking for the crewmen Circe has turned into pigs, the witch’s welcome is elaborate:

ἔστην δ᾽ εἰνὶ θύρῃσι θεᾶς καλλιπλοκάμοιο·
ἔνθα στὰς ἐβόησα, θεὰ δέ μευ ἔκλυεν αὐδῆς.
ἡ δ᾽ αἶψ᾽ ἐξελθοῦσα θύρας ὤιξε φαεινὰς
καὶ κάλει· αὐτὰρ ἐγὼν ἑπόμην ἀκαχήμενος ἦτορ.
εἷσε δέ μ᾽ εἰσαγαγοῦσα ἐπὶ θρόνου ἀργυροήλου
καλοῦ δαιδαλέου· ὑπὸ δὲ θρῆνυς ποσὶν ἦεν·
τεῦχε δέ μοι κυκεῶ χρυσέῳ δέπᾳ, ὄφρα πίοιμι,>
ἐν δέ τε φάρμακον ἧκε, κακὰ φρονέουσ᾽ ἐνὶ θυμῷ.
αὐτὰρ ἐπεὶ δῶκέν τε καὶ ἔκπιον, οὐδέ μ᾽ ἔθελξε,
ῥάβδῳ πεπληγυῖα ἔπος τ᾽ ἔφατ᾽ ἔκ τ᾽ ὀνόμαζεν·
‘ἔρχεο νῦν συφεόνδε, μετ᾽ ἄλλων λέξο ἑταίρων."

I stood at the doorway of the lovely-haired goddess,
and standing there, I shouted, and the goddess heard my voice.
She came and quickly threw open the shining doors
and called, inviting me in. I followed, much disturbed in my heart.
Leading me in, she offered me a chair with silver studs,
lovely and highly wrought, with a stool for my feet.
Then she made me a potion to drink in a golden cup,
and with evil thoughts in her heart put a drug in it.
She gave it to me and I drank it, but it did not enchant me.
Striking me with her wand, she spoke and named me:
“Now go into the sty and sleep with your companions.”

Odyssey 10. 310–20

“Opening the shining doors,” (312) is a gesture with sexual overtones in early Greek hexameter poetry (cf. 10.230, 256; 6.18–19; Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite 60, 236); Circe’s offer of a seat and drink mimics proper gestures of hospitality, but masks malign intent. When Odysseus draws his sword, the sexual symbolism continues:

ἡ δὲ μέγα ἰάχουσα ὑπέδραμε καὶ λάβε γούνων,
καί μ᾽ ὀλοφυρομένη ἔπεα πτερόεντα προσηύδα·
"τίς πόθεν εἶς ἀνδρῶν; πόθι τοι πόλις ἠδὲ τοκῆες;
θαῦμά μ᾽ ἔχει ὡς οὔ τι πιὼν τάδε φάρμακ᾽ ἐθέλχθης·
οὐδὲ γὰρ οὐδέ τις ἄλλος ἀνὴρ τάδε φάρμακ᾽ ἀνέτλη,
ὅς κε πίῃ καὶ πρῶτον ἀμείψεται ἕρκος ὀδόντων.
σοὶ δέ τις ἐν στήθεσσιν ἀκήλητος νόος ἐστίν.
ἦ σύ γ᾽ Ὀδυσσεύς ἐσσι πολύτροπος, ὅν τέ μοι αἰεὶ
φάσκεν ἐλεύσεσθαι χρυσόρραπις ἀργεϊφόντης
ἐκ Τροίης ἀνιόντα θοῇ σὺν νηὶ μελαίνῃ.
ἀλλ᾽ ἄγε δὴ κολεῷ μὲν ἄορ θέο, νῶι δ᾽ ἔπειτα
εὐνῆς ἡμετέρης ἐπιβείομεν, ὄφρα μιγέντε
εὐνῇ καὶ φιλότητι πεποίθομεν ἀλλήλοισιν."

Crying out, she ran under the sword and grasped my knees,
and in her distress she spoke to me and uttered winged words:
“Who are you and where are you from, what city, what parents?
Wonder grips me that you drank my drugs and are not
enchanted; for no other man could resist these drugs,
once he drank them and they passed the barrier of his teeth.
The mind in you is proof against enchantment.
You must be Odysseus, man of many turns, who
the Slayer of Argos with his golden wand kept saying
would come from Troy with your dark ship.
But come now, sheathe your sword, and let us two
climb up on my bed, so we might mingle there
in lovemaking and trust each other.

Odyssey 10.323–35

This negotiation, so transparently symbolic, is a gendered power struggle. Circe plans to take away Odysseus’s human form, turning him into another pig alongside his unfortunate crewmen, an erasure of his fundamental identity that echoes his captivity on Calypso’s island. Though we have seen earlier (10.212–19) that she has all kinds of animals roaming around her land, a porcine existence seems a to reflect what lust can bring out in a man’s nature. The moly that Hermes has supplied blocks her power and she submits immediately, her posture and his phallic sword suggesting that he has neutralized her sexual power with his own self-assertion. At this point, Circe ceases to be a threat to Odysseus’s manhood and human identity, becoming instead a generous helpmeet, freeing his crew from animal form and offering him sex without strings attached. With this shift in her persona, the figure of detaining woman fades, to be replaced by other mythical paradigms and much of the energy in her relationship with Odysseus goes with it.

Later in Book 5, we will see that Odysseus encounters a second nymph and enters into another gendered power negotiation. For now, the focus shifts, as Calypso supplies the hero with the tools to convert trees into a boat to sail away in. Homer’s description highlights the civilizing force of the work. Odysseus uses the tools to limit and shape the natural growth of the trees, cutting, straightening, smoothing, until nature’s power is channeled into new forms that serve human needs. The magical, harmonious profusion of Calypso’s world is made to fit different symmetries for new purposes. The axe handle fits both the craftsman’s palms and its blade; the adze is polished smooth. After he cuts down the trees, Odysseus strips the bark and planes off the natural curves to make straight deck boards, which he fits to the uprights. He makes a rudder, so he can make the boat go straight; he covers the sides with wattles, to keep the water out. The boat itself reflects how the Greeks understood the process by which human civilization comes into being, the imposition of human intelligence on the raw power of nature. Now it will carry the hero away from the timeless realm of Calypso toward the human world created in Ithaka.

Further Reading

Nagy, G. 1979. The Best of the Achaeans, 298–300; 311. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Russo, J. 1966. “The Structural Formula in Homeric Verse.” Yale Classical Studies 20: 219–240.



Odysseus sails from Kalypso's island to Phaeacia, but Poseidon sends a storm to prevent him from reaching shore. 

The shipbuilding has taken four days, and on the fifth Odysseus is ready to launch. Calypso, whose resentment has apparently given way to good will, sends him off with a following wind and ample provisions:

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τῷ δ᾽ ἄρα πέμπτῳ πέμπ᾽ ἀπὸ νήσου δῖα Καλυψώ,
εἵματά τ᾽ ἀμφιέσασα θυώδεα καὶ λούσασα.
ἐν δέ οἱ ἀσκὸν ἔθηκε θεὰ μέλανος οἴνοιο
τὸν ἕτερον, ἕτερον δ᾽ ὕδατος μέγαν, ἐν δὲ καὶ ᾖα
κωρύκῳ· ἐν δέ οἱ ὄψα τίθει μενοεικέα πολλά·
οὖρον δὲ προέηκεν ἀπήμονά τε λιαρόν τε.

On the fifth day divine Calypso sent him from the island,
bathing him and wrapping him in fragrant clothing.
The goddess put two skins on board, one of dark wine,
while the other held water, and in a bag was food,
the sort of provisions to put strength in a man;
and she sent a following breeze, warm and gentle.

Odyssey 5.263–68

With these last gifts, we may sense that Calypso’s resignation to Odysseus’s destiny may not be absolute. She bathes him, a seemingly tender gesture, and yet being bathed by a woman can make a man vulnerable in the Odyssey. Water itself is feminine in the gendered division of the world as the Greeks saw it, amorphous, flowing across the clean boundaries that define things masculine. We hear from Helen that she got Odysseus to reveal his plans to her after bathing and dressing him (4.252–56). Later, he has a near miss when his old nurse washes his feet and recognizes him from his scar (19.467–90). When Nausicaa offers Odysseus a bath and clean clothes after he washes up on shore, he politely refuses on the grounds that it would be improper for young girls to see him naked. But we note that Athena chooses to enhance Odysseus’s appearance right after the bath, making him look younger and stronger, something the goddess does only there and once more in the poem, when Odysseus has been bathed after the slaughter of the suitors (6.232–35 = 23.159–62). In both cases, the goddess senses that her hero might need a little extra leverage after being bathed. Likewise, to be “wrapped” (ἀμφιέσασα) in anything by Calypso could be trouble, and especially when the clothes are “fragrant” (θυώδεα), perhaps carrying a scent the feminine power of which lingers. The import of these seemingly harmless gestures will soon be clear.

Odysseus sails happily away, continuing his mastery of the natural world, skillfully (τεχνηέντως) steering his boat through the waves, plotting his course by the stars. On the eighteenth day out, with the Phaeacians’ island in sight, comes a reckoning, as Poseidon, returning from a sojourn with the Ethiopians, spies Odysseus from afar. We know he is angry at Odysseus for blinding his son Polyphemus the Cyclops (1.68–71) and now there will be payback, as the god sends a storm to rip the boat apart, using the power of the elements to attack human order with chaos:

ὣς εἰπὼν σύναγεν νεφέλας, ἐτάραξε δὲ πόντον
χερσὶ τρίαιναν ἑλών· πάσας δ᾽ ὀρόθυνεν ἀέλλας
παντοίων ἀνέμων, σὺν δὲ νεφέεσσι κάλυψε
γαῖαν ὁμοῦ καὶ πόντον· ὀρώρει δ᾽ οὐρανόθεν νύξ.
σὺν δ᾽ Εὖρός τε Νότος τ᾽ ἔπεσον Ζέφυρός τε δυσαὴς
καὶ Βορέης αἰθρηγενέτης, μέγα κῦμα κυλίνδων.

So saying, he slammed the clouds together and stirred up
the sea, grabbing the trident with both hands and rousing gales
from all the winds at once; he smothered the earth and sea
with clouds, and black night rushed down from heaven.
East Wind and South Wind crashed together, and the raging West Wind
and the North Wind born from bright air rolled up a great wave.

Odyssey 5.291–96

Poseidon’s appearance here is consistent with the usual function of the gods in the Odyssey. In the Iliad, where the narrative urges us always toward recognizing the fact of human mortality as the ultimate source of meaning in the cosmos, the easy life of the gods frequently serves as a foil for the tragic nature of human existence. The Odyssey’s dominant rhetoric, by contrast, asks us to accept the return to right order, disturbed by Odysseus’s absence at Troy, as the ultimate goal of the narrative. The gods serve this imperative, helping or hindering the hero’s progress. In this sense, the most important deities in the poem are Athena and Poseidon, with Zeus refereeing between them.

The promising turn back toward human civilization symbolized by building the boat seems to have been wiped out by the god’s pique. Odysseus ruefully concludes that Calypso’s warning to him was right: much pain lies between him and Ithaka (5.206–10). In his despair, he wistfully regrets not having had a heroic death at Troy:

"τρὶς μάκαρες Δαναοὶ καὶ τετράκις, οἳ τότ᾽ ὄλοντο
Τροίῃ ἐν εὐρείῃ χάριν Ἀτρεΐδῃσι φέροντες.
ὡς δὴ ἐγώ γ᾽ ὄφελον θανέειν καὶ πότμον ἐπισπεῖν
ἤματι τῷ ὅτε μοι πλεῖστοι χαλκήρεα δοῦρα
Τρῶες ἐπέρριψαν περὶ Πηλεΐωνι θανόντι.
τῷ κ᾽ ἔλαχον κτερέων, καί μευ κλέος ἦγον Ἀχαιοί·
νῦν δέ με λευγαλέῳ θανάτῳ εἵμαρτο ἁλῶναι."

"Three and four times blessed were those Danaans who died
in wide Troy bringing favor to the sons of Atreus.
Oh that I had died and met my destiny
on that day when so many of the Trojans flung
their bronze-tipped spears at me as I stood over the dead son of Peleus.
I would have had my rites and the Achaeans would have given me glory.
Now I will receive as my lot to be taken by a dismal death."

Odyssey 5.306–12

Yearning for glory as a hedge against the anonymous death he seems to be facing, Odysseus steps back into his warrior persona from the Iliad. There, surrounded by Trojans, he contemplates the choice between fighting on against heavy odds or saving himself:

"ὤ μοι ἐγὼ τί πάθω; μέγα μὲν κακὸν αἴ κε φέβωμαι
πληθὺν ταρβήσας: τὸ δὲ ῥίγιον αἴ κεν ἁλώω
μοῦνος: τοὺς δ᾽ ἄλλους Δαναοὺς ἐφόβησε Κρονίων.
ἀλλὰ τί ἤ μοι ταῦτα φίλος διελέξατο θυμός;
οἶδα γὰρ ὅττι κακοὶ μὲν ἀποίχονται πολέμοιο,
ὃς δέ κ᾽ ἀριστεύῃσι μάχῃ ἔνι τὸν δὲ μάλα χρεὼ
ἑστάμεναι κρατερῶς, ἤ τ᾽ ἔβλητ᾽ ἤ τ᾽ ἔβαλ᾽ ἄλλον."

"Alas, what will happen to me? It will be a great evil if I run,
fearing their numbers, but deadlier still if I am taken
alone, since the son of Kronos has driven the rest of the Greeks to flight.
But why does my heart within me debate these things?
For I know that it is the cowards who run from battle,
and he who would win honor in battle must
stand firm, whether he be struck or strike down another."

Iliad 11.404–10

Through the tragic lens of the Iliad, the choice Odysseus faces there seems plain: ignominious survival or glorious death. In the event, he chooses to stand fast and is wounded but lives on to become the most famous survivor in western literature. His speech here, in the wake of Poseidon’s attack, is part of the definitive chain of events that begins in his delicate conversation with Calypso. He is presented there with another stark choice: unending but anonymous comfort or the perilous pursuit of his limited existence in time. His response is the first of many in the story, all aimed at avoiding the threat of being made into nothing, either through literal death or the existential erasure that constantly looms before him. That Homer shines such a bright light on this choice tells us it is definitive for our understanding of Odysseus.

As is so often the case, looking back from Virgil’s response to a passage from Homeric epic widens the context for our understanding of the source. In the midst of a storm arranged by his nemesis Juno, Aeneas channels Odysseus:

Extemplō Aenēae solvuntur frīgore membra;
ingemit et duplicēs tendēns ad sīdera palmās
tālia vōce refert: 'Ō terque quaterque beātī,
quīs ante ōra patrum Trōiae sub moenibus altīs
contigit oppetere! ō Danaüm fortissime gentis
Tӯdīdē! Mēne Īliacīs occumbere campīs
nōn potuisse tuāque animam hanc effundere dextrā,
saevus ubi Aeacidae tēlō iacet Hector, ubi ingēns
Sarpēdōn, ubi tot Simois correpta sub undīs
scūta virum galeāsque et fortia corpora volvit!"

Suddenly Aeneas’s body is limp with fear;
he groans, and stretching both hands toward the sky,
he speaks these words: “O three- and four-times blessed,
those who met their deaths under Troy’s high walls,
before the faces of their parents. O son of Tydeus,
strongest of the Greek race! Was I not to able to die
on Ilion’s fields, to expend my soul by your right hand,
when fierce Hector and huge Sarpedon fell by the spear of Achilles,
when shields and helmets and strong bodies of men
rolled under the waves of the river Simois?”

Aeneid 1.92–101

Aeneas is by any measure a reluctant hero, dutifully but not avidly shouldering his fated task of leading the Trojan exiles to a new home. He too will decline an offer from a woman he has been wintering with, the Carthaginian queen Dido, in favor of pressing on for “home,” in this case a new one he knows nothing about. But it seems clear that Aeneas, unlike his Homeric model, would rather stay with this woman, at least in preference to soldiering on toward the unknown. Jupiter orders him to leave Dido, a message that makes his hair stand on end in fear. He then tells his lover (in a speech that establishes him as at least tone-deaf if not a cad) that if he had his way, he would have stayed and died at Troy (Aen. 4.331–61).

Aeneas would have preferred to die in Troy less because he is hungry for glory than because he yearns for the connection to his family and friends. For Odysseus in this moment, we sense—though he is certainly determined to get back home—the balance tips the other way. The Calypso episode is all about the threat of losing his heroic identity in an endless, anonymous existence.

Further Reading

Austin, N. 1975. Archery at the Dark of the Moon, 139. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Carson, A. 1990. “Putting Her in Her Place: Women, Dirt, and Desire.” In Before Sexuality: The Construction of Erotic Experience in the Ancient World, edited by D. Halperin, J. Winkler, and F. Zeitlin, 135–169. Princeton: Princeton University Press.



Odysseus nearly drowns in the storm. Taking pity on him, Ino offers Odysseus a magic veil that will enable him to swim safely to shore. Suspecting the gods of another trick, Odysseus clings to what remains of his boat. 

Poseidon’s revenge continues. The hero, who was steering a straight course (ἰθύνετο, 270), is flung into the sea while the boat spins in circles; Calypso’s helpful following breeze is replaced by a maelstrom of winds clashing from all directions; Odysseus, who has been charting a course by looking up at the stars, is driven under the waves. We learn that the weight dragging him under the water has a specific source:

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τὸν δ᾽ ἄρ᾽ ὑπόβρυχα θῆκε πολὺν χρόνον, οὐδ᾽ ἐδυνάσθη
αἶψα μάλ᾽ ἀνσχεθέειν μεγάλου ὑπὸ κύματος ὁρμῆς·
εἵματα γάρ ῥ᾽ ἐβάρυνε, τά οἱ πόρε δῖα Καλυψώ.

The storm held him underwater for a long time, nor could he
rise up from under the force of the great wave,
for the clothing that Calypso gave him was weighing him down.

Odyssey 5.319–21

The unease we may have felt about the nymph’s enveloping presence at Odysseus’s departure returns here. Calypso’s power to “cover up” is carried by the clothing, dragging the hero down into the amorphous deep. Escaping the pull of Calypso’s undertow will be harder than her friendly farewell might have suggested.

Resurfacing, Odysseus crawls back onto what is left of his boat, now without rudder or sails, and waits for death. At this bleak moment, another friendly nymph appears:

τὸν δὲ ἴδεν Κάδμου θυγάτηρ, καλλίσφυρος Ἰνώ,
Λευκοθέη, ἣ πρὶν μὲν ἔην βροτὸς αὐδήεσσα,
νῦν δ᾽ ἁλὸς ἐν πελάγεσσι θεῶν ἒξ ἔμμορε τιμῆς.
ἥ ῥ᾽ Ὀδυσῆ᾽ ἐλέησεν ἀλώμενον, ἄλγε᾽ ἔχοντα,
αἰθυίῃ δ᾽ ἐικυῖα ποτῇ ἀνεδύσετο λίμνης,
ἷζε δ᾽ ἐπὶ σχεδίης πολυδέσμου εἶπέ τε μῦθον·

The daughter of Cadmos saw him, Ino with lovely ankles,
called Leukothea, who once spoke with a human voice,
but now has divine status in the waves of the sea.
She pitied Odysseus as he drifted, suffering hardship,
rose from the sea in the likeness of a sea bird,
and landing on the raft, spoke a word:

Odyssey 5.333–38

Another link between the Calypso episode and Menelaus’s escape from Egypt surfaces here, as Ino recalls Eidothea, the nymph who appears to help Menelaus (4.360–434). Menelaus learns from Eidothea that to make his way back home, he must capture and confine her father Proteus, imposing order on the potentially endless proliferation of natural shapes the old man can assume. To do so is to mimic the fundamentally masculine role in the creation of civilization, imposing limit and order on the raw power of nature. Ino’s intervention draws on the same reservoir of ideas about power and gender, as the helpful nymph offers Odysseus a way to escape Calypso’s feminine power and survive:

τῆ δέ, τόδε κρήδεμνον ὑπὸ στέρνοιο τανύσσαι
ἄμβροτον· οὐδέ τί τοι παθέειν δέος οὐδ᾽ ἀπολέσθαι.

Here, stretch this veil over your chest; it is divine;
you have no need to suffer or to die.

Odyssey 5.346–47

When the Ino urges Odysseus to take off the clothes Calypso gave him and wrap himself in her veil, she is making a more significant sacrifice than might be evident at a first glance. The κρήδεμνον, “veil” or “head binder,” appears frequently in Homeric poetry as a symbol of a woman’s modesty, in the case of married women, or chastity for unmarried women. When a woman goes out in public, she is expected to cover her face with a veil. To take it off is to make herself vulnerable to unwanted male attention; to voluntarily remove a veil in public can be seen as a gesture of abandonment, despair, or wantonness. Both Hecuba and Andromache tear off their veils when they see Achilles abusing the corpse of Hector (Il. 22.406, 469). Their gesture is a recognition of their coming violation—and that of the city of Troy, since the plural of κρήδεμνον is also used to describe the battlements of a city (cf., 13.388,  Homeric Hymn to Demeter 150)—at the hands of the Greeks, now that their defender is dead. In Book 6 of the Odyssey, the Phaeacian princess Nausicaa and her servants put themselves at risk when they take off their veils to play catch on the beach (6.99–100), an act that carries a tellingly ambiguous meaning for Nausicaa herself.

What Ino suggests here, if we read the symbols carefully, is a kind of surrender of her modesty as a woman to protect Odysseus from death in the amorphous, feminine water. She makes herself vulnerable—note that she immediately seeks the cover of the ocean once she gives him the veil (351–53)—so that he can survive to finish his masculine heroic mission.

With the appearance of Ino, the web of associations that links the episodes of Calypso, Circe, and Menelaus in Egypt is enriched yet further, as Ino’s offer to Odysseus parallels not only Eidothea’s to Menelaus but also Odysseus’s interaction with Circe. This latter exchange, seemingly quite different in tone and content from that of Odysseus and Ino, shares with it a similar dynamic. Both are essentially gendered power negotiations, in which a nymph’s surrender, tinged with sexual overtones, enables the hero to preserve his masculine power.

Odysseus, true to his suspicious nature, does not trust Ino. He decides to delay relying solely on the nymph’s assurances, clinging to the remnants of his boat as long as they hold together. Though the poet’s associative narrative pattern suggests parallels between Menelaus and Odysseus as each struggles to return home, we now reach a definitive difference: Menelaus gives his trust readily to his rescuing nymph, but Odysseus, both here and when Calypso first offers him her help in escaping her island, holds back. Poseidon will soon obviate any further resistance.

Further Reading

Nagler. M. 1974. Spontaneity and Tradition: The Oral Art of Homer, 64–76. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Van Nortwick, T. 2008. The Unknown Odysseus: Alternate Worlds in Homer’s Odyssey, 20–21. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.



Poseidon keeps up the pressure on Odysseus, who puts on the veil given to him by Ino. Athena calms the winds, but Odysseus continues to drift until he finally sees the rocky coast of Phaeacia.

Poseidon’s storm finishes the dismantling of the fragile boat, scattering the shattered timbers he had so carefully crafted into the vehicle for his return to human civilization. Odysseus has reached a low point in his journey. Instead of a boat, he is reduced to riding a passing spar like a horse, a conveyance that no one except Poseidon would find useful in the middle of the sea.

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Faced with annihilation once again, he must let go of his resistance to trusting Ino. He accepts the bargain she offers, shedding Calypso’s clothing, the last vestiges of her control over him, and wraps himself in Ino’s veil. With this new leverage, he once again begins the long climb back from powerless anonymity to heroic glory.

Satisfied that he has inflicted as much suffering as possible on Odysseus, Poseidon rolls away over the waves. The hero does not have to wait long for help:

αὐτὰρ Ἀθηναίη κούρη Διὸς ἄλλ᾽ ἐνόησεν.
ἦ τοι τῶν ἄλλων ἀνέμων κατέδησε κελεύθους,
παύσασθαι δ᾽ ἐκέλευσε καὶ εὐνηθῆναι ἅπαντας:
ὦρσε δ᾽ ἐπὶ κραιπνὸν Βορέην, πρὸ δὲ κύματ᾽ ἔαξεν,
ἧος ὃ Φαιήκεσσι φιληρέτμοισι μιγείη
διογενὴς Ὀδυσεὺς θάνατον καὶ κῆρας ἀλύξας

But Athena, daughter of Zeus, had other plans.
She restrained the flow of all the other winds
and told them to settle down and go to sleep.
Then she roused the swift north wind and broke down the waves,
until Zeus-born Odysseus might mingle with
the oar-loving Phaeacians, escaping death and destruction.

Odyssey 5.382–87


A symmetrical divine response to Odysseus continues, Poseidon attacking, Athena defending. The inverted gender implications of the imagery in the two interventions repay closer inspection. Poseidon, male god of the sea, brings chaos and disorder, smashing the boat and undercutting the masculine project of channeling natural forces to create human civilization. His subversive acts reflect his annoyance at being left out of the deliberations on Olympus. Athena, the warrior goddess born from Zeus’s head without benefit of a mother, gets the masculine project back on track by restraining the winds and cutting a path through the waves to afford a straight course toward the human civilization of the Phaeacians. At the same time, she “puts the winds to sleep,” like an indulgent mother, a role she will play for Odysseus more than once in the poem. Though feminine forces have often been the source of obstacles in Odysseus’s journey homeward, at this moment we seem to have reached a turning point: Calypso’s lingering hold on the hero slips away with the clothes he sheds, and both Ino and Athena play a supportive maternal role, buoying him up as he reemerges from the primal sea to be reborn on shore.

Homer’s vision here is, as often, thrown into relief when compared to Virgil’s later reworking of the same material in the Aeneid, in the storm that Juno sends to keep the Trojans from reaching Carthage. Poseidon’s anger stems from a specific act by Odysseus, the blinding of his son, Polyphemus, while Athena loves the hero because he embodies traits that remind her of herself (cf. 13.287–310). The consequences of these divine attitudes are grave for Odysseus and those he meets, but not cosmic in their reach. Aeneas, by contrast, carries the burden of Juno’s anger not because of who he is or anything he chose willingly to do, but because he is dutifully headed for Carthage, a favorite city of Juno’s which, centuries in the future, his descendants will destroy. Juno’s anger will cause her to harry the Trojans across the Mediterranean, as Poseidon’s resentment periodically punishes Odysseus and his crew. But the reach of the Roman goddess’s rage is much wider and deeper, sweeping up whole civilizations in its wake.

Juno’s anger has its roots in the judgment of Paris, an event that precedes the Trojan War:

Arma virumque canō, Trōiae quī prīmus ab ōrīs
Ītaliam fātō profugus Lāvīniaque vēnit
lītora, multum ille et terrīs iactātus et altō
vī superum, saevae memorem Iūnōnis ob īram,
necdum etiam causae īrārum saevīque dolōrēs
exciderant animō; manet altā mente repostum
iūdicium Paridis sprētaeque iniūria fōrmae…

I sing of arms and a man, who first from the shores
of Troy came to Italy and Lavinia’s shores,
a fugitive by fate, much tossed on land and sea
by the force of savage Juno’s unforgetting anger.
not yet had the cause of her anger and savage grief
left her soul; there lingered deep in her mind
the judgment of Paris and the insult to spurned beauty…

Virgil, Aeneid 1.1–4, 25–27


In Virgil’s vision, Juno’s malignant rage stands behind all the subsequent suffering in the poem, the fall of Troy, the destruction of Dido, the subjugation of the native Italian people whom the Trojans will defeat. Its baleful effects stretch across the entire poem, fueled by jealousy and spite, producing immense suffering. Poseidon’s anger, which surfaces in the first divine assembly of Book 1, has a much more limited scope. He is understandably angry about his son Polyphemus being blinded and makes some short-lived meteorological mischief for Odysseus but acquiesces in Zeus’s verdict soon enough.

In the Odyssey, both Poseidon’s and Athena’s responses send mixed signals in terms of the traditional gender categories we have seen in the poem. The Sea God undermines the masculine order with his vengeful storm, while Athena steps in to restore masculine order. Virgil’s deities conform more strictly to expected behavior. The sources of disorder are invariably feminine, of order, masculine. The first scenes of the Aeneid reflect this pattern clearly: Juno’s rage drives her to seek out Aeolus, the minor deity in charge of the winds; she bribes him to send a storm to wreck the Trojan fleet by offering him a nymph to “marry”; he is outranked in the divine hierarchy and complies; Neptune, Aeolus’s male superior, then calms the winds and rolls away across the waves in his chariot, these last verses clearly modeled on Poseidon’s exit in Odyssey 5 (Aen. 1.51156; Od. 5.380–81).

A gendered division of human experience informs Virgil’s vision of the world in his poem, surfacing insistently throughout. The Odyssey reflects the same distinctions, but the boundaries are more fluid, allowing the poet to focus our attention on them to explore the varieties of human experience more fully. That Athena is a female deity and yet champions the male hero, sometimes acting as the agent of masculine order against feminine disorder, sometimes as a maternal protectress, expands the paradigms of gendered behavior in ways that provoke further reflection on their meaning. Odysseus himself embodies both masculine and feminine traits, as the Greeks saw them, boldly challenging sea monsters (e.g., 12.225–33) but also resorting to deception to outmaneuver more powerful adversaries. Much of the darkness in the Aeneid comes from the iron grip of higher powers who enforce the boundaries of human action to preserve their cosmic order. As we watch Aeneas and the Trojans respond to these forces, we learn about how human life can be destroyed but also ennobled by their struggles. The world of the Odyssey, by contrast, is a wide-open space for us to contemplate how our received ideas about human experience might be enriched by our loosening our grip on them.

Further Reading

Dimock, G. 1989. The Unity of the Odyssey, 70–73. Amherst: The University of Massachusetts Press.

Van Nortwick, T.1992. Somewhere I Have Never Travelled: The Second Self and the Hero’s Journey in Ancient Epic, 89–94. New York: Oxford University Press.



Odysseus struggles against the dashing waves to reach the shore of Phaeacia.

Book 5 opens with Odysseus marooned on the island of Calypso. By the time he finally crawls under the bushes on another island, he seems to have escaped the clutches of his affectionate captor. But the last word in the book might give us pause.

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ὡς δ᾽ ὅτε τις δαλὸν σποδιῇ ἐνέκρυψε μελαίνῃ
ἀγροῦ ἐπ᾽ ἐσχατιῆς, ᾧ μὴ πάρα γείτονες ἄλλοι,
σπέρμα πυρὸς σώζων, ἵνα μή ποθεν ἄλλοθεν αὔοι,
ὣς Ὀδυσεὺς φύλλοισι καλύψατο· τῷ δ᾽ ἄρ᾽ Ἀθήνη
ὕπνον ἐπ᾽ ὄμμασι χεῦ᾽, ἵνα μιν παύσειε τάχιστα
δυσπονέος καμάτοιο φίλα βλέφαρ᾽ ἀμφικαλύψας.

As when someone buries a burning log in a black ash heap
on the edge of a field, who has no neighbors nearby,
preserving the spark of a flame, with no other place to get a light,
so Odysseus covered himself up with leaves. And Athena
poured sleep over his eyes, so as quickly to relieve him,
by covering over his eyelids, of his painful toil.

Odyssey 5.488–93

Once again, the hero is “covered up,” this time by Athena. Is the hero free at last, or has he only moved from one kind of captivity to another? The nymph on Ogygia will not be the only agent of nothingness in the poem, it seems. The hero’s time (or perhaps, timelessness) with her is, as we will see, one of many descents into anonymity—sometimes voluntary, sometimes not—from which he must assert himself and make his way back to his heroic identity. As he struggles to reach Ithaka, the cycle will recur many times, building to the triumphant moment when Penelope acknowledges him as her husband (23.205–30). The Odyssey opens by asking, “Where is Odysseus?” But the more persistent question is, “Who is Odysseus?”

When Odysseus finally sights land after eighteen days at sea, Homer describes his joy with a striking simile:

ὡς δ᾽ ὅτ᾽ ἂν ἀσπάσιος βίοτος παίδεσσι φανήῃ
πατρός, ὃς ἐν νούσῳ κεῖται κρατέρ᾽ ἄλγεα πάσχων,
δηρὸν τηκόμενος, στυγερὸς δέ οἱ ἔχραε δαίμων,
ἀσπάσιον δ᾽ ἄρα τόν γε θεοὶ κακότητος ἔλυσαν,
ὣς Ὀδυσῆ' ἀσπαστὸν ἐείσατο γαῖα καὶ ὕλη,

As when life, so welcome to his children, returns to a father,
after he has lain sick, suffering pain, wasting long away,
and the hateful death spirit has attacked him,
but then the gods bring welcome release to him from the evil,
so the land and woods were welcome to Odysseus.

Odyssey 5.394–98

By portraying Odysseus as a child, the simile suggests a surprising parallel, the reverse of what we might expect, since he is a father struggling to get back to his children. But in another sense, the model fits: he is still, in the poem’s chronology as opposed to the story’s, early in his struggle to become himself again after seven years away from the world where his identity is established. When he crawls on shore, he is beginning again, like a child, naked and alone:

                 ἁλὶ γὰρ δέδμητο φίλον κῆρ.
ᾤδεε δὲ χρόα πάντα, θάλασσα δὲ κήκιε πολλὴ
ἂν στόμα τε ῥῖνάς θ᾽· ὁ δ᾽ ἄρ᾽ ἄπνευστος καὶ ἄναυδος
κεῖτ᾽ ὀλιγηπελέων, κάματος δέ μιν αἰνὸς ἵκανεν.
ἀλλ᾽ ὅτε δή ῥ᾽ ἄμπνυτο καὶ ἐς φρένα θυμὸς ἀγέρθη,
καὶ τότε δὴ κρήδεμνον ἀπὸ ἕο λῦσε θεοῖο.

                But his very heart was sick from the sea.
His skin was all swollen, and sea water gushed
from his mouth and nose; speechless and out of breath,
he lay faint, and a bitter weariness swept over him.
But when he revived and his life came back to him,
then he let go of the nymph’s veil.

Odyssey 5.454–59

Weak and barely breathing, the hero has escaped the annihilating force of the sea. Then he starts to breathe and gather life into himself again. In describing this recovery, Homer uses language that appears elsewhere associated with someone losing consciousness after a severe shock, followed by a symbolic rebirth (Il. 22.475; Od. 24.349). Under the twin bushes, Odysseus begins the process of coming back to life.

Because the series of cyclical movements from anonymity to identity that inform the Odyssey’s narrative structure begins on Ogygia, and because Odysseus appears there first, the episode is important for our understanding of the poem’s central character and for its overall meaning. The richness and subtlety of Homer’s description of the exchanges between Hermes, Calypso, and Odysseus focuses our attention on the hero’s choice; the decision he makes in response to the nymph’s offer of ageless immortality defines the terms of his existence as he sets forth into the story and toward Ithaka. For the Greek hero, to be unsung is to be as good as dead. Odysseus’s stay with Calypso, pleasant as it might have been in some respects, represents a symbolic death for the hero, the equivalent of the dismal end that Telemachus imagines for his father when Athena comes to rouse him in Book 1:

“ξεῖνε φίλ᾽, ἦ καὶ μοι νεμεσήσεαι ὅττι κεν εἴπω;
τούτοισιν μὲν ταῦτα μέλει, κίθαρις καὶ ἀοιδή,
ῥεῖ᾽, ἐπεὶ ἀλλότριον βίοτον νήποινον ἔδουσιν,
ἀνέρος, οὗ δή που λεύκ᾽ ὀστέα πύθεται ὄμβρῳ
κείμεν᾽ ἐπ᾽ ἠπείρου, ἢ εἰν ἁλὶ κῦμα κυλίνδει.
εἰ κεῖνόν γ᾽ Ἰθάκηνδε ἰδοίατο νοστήσαντα,
πάντες κ᾽ ἀρησαίατ᾽ ἐλαφρότεροι πόδας εἶναι
ἢ ἀφνειότεροι χρυσοῖό τε ἐσθῆτός τε.
νῦν δ᾽ ὁ μὲν ὣς ἀπόλωλε κακὸν μόρον, οὐδέ τις ἡμῖν
θαλπωρή, εἴ πέρ τις ἐπιχθονίων ἀνθρώπων
φῇσιν ἐλεύσεσθαι: τοῦ δ᾽ ὤλετο νόστιμον ἦμαρ.”

“Dear friend, would you be resentful if I speak my mind?
Dancing and singing are what these men care about,
an easy life, since they eat up another man’s substance,
whose bleached bones lie out on the beach,
festering in the rain or rolling in the wash of the breakers.
If these men were to see that man coming back to Ithaka,
they would all pray to be faster on their feet
instead of richer in gold and fine clothing.
But now, since an evil fate has fallen upon him, for us
there will be no comfort, even if some mortal says
he will return. His homecoming day has perished.”

Odyssey 1.158–68

This dark fate is exactly what Odysseus himself fears when Poseidon’s storm destroys his boat (306–12), disappearing alone with no one to preserve the memory of his kleos. But as we have seen, physical death is only one of the ways that Odysseus can be erased. When he leaves Calypso’s island, he chooses to define his identity through struggle, against all the numbing forces of oblivion, physical and psychic, that threaten to erase him. Athena’s final gesture is ambiguous, nurturing, and maternal, yet perhaps carrying too the lingering potential for submersion he fights against. In his final image, Homer gives us a reassuring sign: like a glowing ember, his hero is ready to burst forth into the light again.

Further Reading

Foley, H. 1978. “Reverse Similes and Sex Roles in the Odyssey.” Arethusa 11: 6–26.


Suggested Citation

Thomas Van Nortwick and Rob Hardy, Homer: Odyssey 5–12. Carlisle, Pennsylvania: Dickinson College Commentaries, 2024. ISBN: 978-1-947822-17-7.