ODYSSEUS (in Latin Ulixes, incorrectly written Ulysses), in Greek legend, son of Laërtes and Anticleia, king of Ithaca, a famous hero and typical representative of the Greek race. In Homer he is one of the best and bravest of the heroes, and the favourite of Athena, whereas in later legend he is cowardly and deceitful. Soon after his marriage to Penelope he was summoned to the Trojan war. Unwilling to go, he feigned madness, ploughing a field sown with salt with an ox and an ass yoked together; but Palamedes discovered his deceit by placing his infant son Telemachus in front of the plough; Odysseus afterwards revenged himself by compassing the death of Palamedes. During the war, he distinguished himself as the wisest adviser of the Greeks, and finally, the capture of Troy, which the bravery of Achilles could not accomplish, was attained by Odysseus’ stratagem of the wooden horse. After the death of Achilles the Greeks adjudged his armour to Odysseus as the man who had done the most to end the war successfully. When Troy was captured he set sail for Ithaca, but was carried by unfavourable winds to the coast of Africa. After encountering many adventures in all parts of the unknown seas, among the lotus-eaters and the Cyclopes, in the isles of Aeolus and Circe and the perils of Scylla and Charybdis, among the Laestrygones, and even in the world of the dead, having lost all his ships and companions, he barely escaped with his life to the island of Calypso, where he was detained eight years, an unwilling lover of the beautiful nymph. Then at the command of Zeus he was sent homewards, but was again wrecked on the island of Phaeacia, whence he was conveyed to Ithaca in one of the wondrous Phaeacian ships. Here he found that a host of suitors, taking advantage of the youth of his son Telemachus, were wasting his property and trying to force Penelope to marry one of them. The stratagems and disguises by which with the help of a few faithful friends he slew the suitors are described at length in the Odyssey. The only allusion to his death is contained in the prophecy of Teiresias, who promised him a happy old age and a peaceful death from the sea. According to a later legend, Telegonus, the son of Odysseus by Circe, was sent in search of his father. Cast ashore on Ithaca by a storm, he plundered the islands to get provisions, and was attacked by Odysseus, whom he slew. The prophecy was thus fulfilled. Telegonus, accompanied by Penelope and Telemachus, returned to his home with the body of his father, whose identity he had discovered.
According to E. Meyer (Hermes, xxx. p. 267), Odysseus is an old Arcadian nature god identical with Poseidon, who dies at the approach of winter (retires to the western sea or is carried away to the underworld) to revive in spring (but see E. Rohde, Rhein. Mus. l. p. 631). A more suitable identification would be Hermes. Mannhardt and others regard Odysseus as a solar or summer divinity, who withdraws to the underworld during the winter, and returns in spring to free his wife from the suitors (the powers of winter). A. Gercke (Neue Jahrbücher für das klassische Altertum, xv. p. 331) takes him to be an agricultural divinity akin to the sun god, whose wife is the moon-goddess Penelope, from whom he is separated and reunited to her on the day of the new moon. His cult early disappeared; in Arcadia his place was taken by Poseidon. But although the personality of Odysseus may have had its origin in some primitive religious myth, chief interest attaches to him as the typical representative of the old sailor-race whose adventurous voyages educated and moulded the Hellenic race. The period when the character of Odysseus took shape among the Ionian bards was when the Ionian ships were beginning to penetrate to the farthest shores of the Black Sea and the western side of Italy, but when Egypt had not yet been freely opened to foreign intercourse. The adventures of Odysseus were a favourite subject in ancient art, in which he may usually be recognized by his conical sailor’s cap.
See article by J. Schmidt in Roscher’s Lexicon der Mythologie (where the different forms of the name and its etymology are fully discussed); O. Gruppe, Griechische Mythologie, ii. pp. 624, 705–718; J. E. Harrison, Myths of the Odyssey in Art and Literature (1881), with appendix on authorities. W. Mannhardt, Wald- und Feldkulte (1905), ii. p. 106; O. Seeck, Gesch. Des Untergangs der antiken Welt, ii. p. 576; G. Fougères, Mantinée et l’Arcadie orientale (1898), according to whom Odysseus is an Arcadian chthonian divinity and Penelope a goddess of flocks and herds, akin to the Arcadian Artemis; S. Eitrem, Die göttlichen Zwillinge bei den Griechen (1902), who identifies Odysseus with one of the Dioscuri (Ὀλυκγες=Πολυδεύκης); V. Bérard, Les Phéniciens et l’Odyssée (1902–1903), who regards the Odyssey as “the integration in a Greek νόστος (home-coming) of a Semitic periplus,” in the form of a poem written 900–850 B.C. by an Ionic poet at the court of one of the Neleid kings of Miletus. For an estimate of this work, the interest of which is mainly geographical, see Classical Review (April 1904) and Quarterly Review (April 1905). It consists of two large volumes, with 240 illustrations and maps.