The Odyssey

Distribute a guide about The Odyssey that provides discussion and essay questions as well as activities to precede, accompany, and follow reading.
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The Odyssey

by Homer


The Odyssey is an excellent work of literature for ninth or tenth grade students to read. By this time most students have already been introduced to mythology, so that the world of Odysseus is not completely foreign to them. Learners of all ability levels enjoy the adventurous and imaginative stories of the Greek gods and mortals, and The Odyssey is a good introduction to similar stories, such as Beowulf, that they may encounter later in their high school studies.

Lower-performing learners can follow this story. The language at times may seem formidable, but with additional visuals and frequent plot summaries, they should be able to understand the basic journey of Odysseus and the obstacles that he encounters along the way. Students can enjoy studying the interesting customs and beliefs of the ancient Greeks, evaluating characters and their decisions throughout the story as they delight in the action and adventure.

One of the themes of The Odyssey is the development of Telemachos from a dependent boy into a mature, responsible adult. Students can identify with the fact that he begins to accept more responsibility as he grows up. He is trying to figure out who he is and what he should do with himself, especially in the absence of his father. Students who live in a one-parent home can identify with his dilemmas. They may also recognize some of Penelopeia's and Odysseus's situations and feelings, especially those of helplessness, mistrust, and yearning. The value of family and home in the epic can be stressed in the classroom.

When students read this epic, they will be developing skills that may not be addressed in shorter works of literature. They will learn to follow the activities of several characters at a time; they will become comfortable with settings and names that may be foreign to them; they will relate to characters with whom they initially thought they had nothing in common; and they will become more mature readers, putting aside the immediate gratification of simply finishing the epic for the joy of the adventure.

The teacher may wish to prepare less mature students for some material that appears in the story. In particular the term bitch appears several times, and there are a few sexual references. Each teacher needs to decide how to address these matters with students. The following is a list of page numbers teachers may want to be sure to preview before reading them with the class: 64, 94, 118, 119, 132, 196, 210, 220, 226, 259.

This guide includes activities to precede, accompany, and follow reading. The discussion and essay topics can be expanded as necessary to suit the educational needs of students. These activities are meant to help students understand the story and its characters and themes, as well as explore issues dealt with in the book that are important in students' lives today.


Before reading Homer's The Odyssey, students should be introduced to the concepts of epic poetry and epic heroes, as well as to the author and his preceding work, The Iliad.

An epic poem is a long narrative poem. Epic dramas frequently are broadcast on television, usually shown for several hours each night for a week (e.g.: North and South and Roots). An epic is not something that can be told in one sitting. These tales are complex, revolving around several main characters and spanning many years. Homer's epics tell of the adventures of heroes. Some translations retain the format of a poem, while some are in prose story form.

An epic hero is a man who seems able to conquer most problems he encounters, although he does not possess any "super" powers. He is faithful to his family, his country, and his god. He is brave; although he often feels fear, he overcomes his fears because he knows he has responsibilities, which are mainly to defeat evil and allow goodness to prevail. The epic hero is intelligent. Because he has no special powers, he must rely on his brain to get him out of difficult situations. Sometimes, however, a higher force or being will help guide him on his quest. This greater force does not do things for him, rather the force helps him do things for himself.

In Homer's The Iliad, Odysseus participated in the Trojan War. The most famous story from this epic is that of the Trojan horse. Odysseus and his men built a giant wooden horse and left it outside the gates of Troy as a peace offering. The Trojans accepted it and rolled it into the city. However, the Greeks had hidden inside the horse, and that night, they sneaked out of the horse and opened the city gates to the entire Greek army. Because of this trick, the Greeks won the Trojan War.

Students also may be interested to know that when soldiers came to recruit Odysseus to go to war, he tried to escape enlistment by pretending to be mad. However, they proved his sanity by throwing his infant son, Telemachos, in the way of his plow. Odysseus swerved to miss the child, thereby proving his mental stability.

Most historians believe that Homer was a blind minstrel who lived about 3000 years ago. He was considered by the Greeks as their greatest and finest poet, traveling around the land singing stories to people for their entertainment and enlightenment. Students will recognize Demodocos as Homer's "cameo appearance" in this story.

List Of Characters

This list does not include all characters who appear in The Odyssey, but it does include the ones who are most essential to the action of the story. The "Pronouncing Index," beginning on page 300 of the Mentor edition, will assist the reader in sounding out many of the names throughout the story.

Alcinoos: King of the Phaiacians
Anticleia: Odysseus's mother who died while he was away from Ithaca
Antinoos: "Ringleader" of Penelopeia's suitors
Arete: King Alcinoos' wife, known for her kindness and beauty
Argos: Odysseus's old hunting dog
Athena: Goddess of wisdom; Odysseus's helper
Calypso: Witch/nymph who wanted Odysseus as her husband
Circe: "Terrible goddess with lovely hair, who spoke in the language of men" (115); daughter of Helios
Demodocos: Blind minstrel
Eumaios: Swineherd; a faithful servant of Odysseus
Eupeithes: Father of Antinoos
Eurycleia: Faithful old servant of Odysseus and his family; "she loved him [Telemachos] more than any other of the household, and she had been his nurse when he was a little tot." (21)
Eurymachos: One of Penelopeia's cruelest suitors
Hyperion: Sun-god
Iros: Beggar at Odysseus's home
Laertes: Odysseus's father; lives in seclusion in the country
Odysseus: Protagonist unable to reach home after the Trojan War; "wise beyond all mortal men" (12)
Melanthios: One of Penelopeia's cruelest suitors; a goatherd
Nausicaa: Daughter of King Alcinoos; "tall and divinely beautiful" (73)
Penelopeia: Odysseus's faithful wife
Philoitios: Faithful cattle drover
Poseidon: God of the sea; bore a lasting grudge against Odysseus; often called "Earthshaker"
Polyphemos: "Most powerful of all the Cyclopians" (12); son of Poseidon
Telemachos: Odysseus's son; "a fine-looking boy" (13); approximately twenty years old
Theoclymenos: Prophet who returns to Ithaca with Telemachos
Teiresias: Blind Theban prophet


Numerous words appearing in this epic may be unfamiliar to students. The following list is comprised of words that are either used repeatedly throughout the book or are archaic. These words can be used as the beginning of a vocabulary journal kept by students who will add unfamiliar words as they are encountered. Students should try to interpret the meaning of each word through context clues. For further understanding, students may want to group words according to similarities in meaning.

Periodic discussions over the meaning of the words in context of the story can lead to development in vocabulary skills and an increased understanding of the story. This procedure can be followed throughout the entire epic.

mentor: special teacher or leader
nectar and ambrosia: food and drink of the gods (wine and fruit)
nymph: beautiful immortal maidens who lived in mountains, forests, and water
cuckold: a man whose wife in unfaithful
cudgel: a short, heavy club
hind: a farm assistant; female of the red deer
lacrimation: excessive crying
minx: an ill-behaved, provocative woman
cajole: to persuade with flattery
gaffer: old man; employer or overseer

Journal Topics

Before the actual reading of the story, it is helpful to make students aware of some of the elements involved in this work. The following activities are designed to get students involved in their reading by encouraging them to think about some of these e lements. These activities can be done by small groups or as individual assignments. It will be helpful to have the resultant products shared with the whole class.

•Interview someone who has been on an interesting trip, possibly one that entailed some type of danger or excitement. Write a poem accurately depicting the journey, using as much detail and description as possible.

•Have you ever wanted to know what people said and thought about you when you weren't around? If you could disguise yourself in some way and be around the people you know, how would you carry it out? Describe your ideal disguise and a scenario that you imagine would take place if you could be "a fly on the wall."

•Do you believe in guardian angels? Explain and give examples.

•What are your strengths and weaknesses? Describe them and how they affect your life.

•Interview someone whose long-lost relative or friend eventually returned. Describe the experience. Don't forget to include the person's feelings throughout the entire experience.

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TeacherVision Staff

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