Homer begins his Odyssey by invoking the help of his muse. In this invocation, he reveals the theme of his epic.
The epic concerns the extensive travels of a versatile man named Odysseus. The action takes place during the years following the fall of Troy. He lives in Ithaca, and he wants to sail straight home, but he winds up visiting many different lands. He suffers many hardships and loses all his men.
Homer begins his epic in medias res, which means “in the middle of things.” Odysseus has suffered shipwreck, and an amorous nymph named Calypso is detaining him in her grotto on a sea-girt island called Ogygia. In spite of her blandishments, he longs to return home.
All the Greek gods sympathize with Odysseus – all except Poseidon. Odysseus has blinded the Cyclops Polyphemus, a son of Poseidon and the nymph Thoosa. For this reason, Poseidon cherishes an inveterate hatred for the wily Greek leader.
While Poseidon was occupied in Ethiopia, the rest of the gods held a council. Athena asked Zeus to help Odysseus return to his homeland. At her suggestion, they sent Hermes to command Calypso to allow Odysseus to return home.
Meanwhile, Athena went to the island of Ithaca, the home of Odysseus. She wanted to offer encouragement and wise counsel to Telemachus, the son of Odysseus.
Telemachus needed counsel at this time. Odysseus had been gone for nearly twenty years, and it was generally believed that he had perished. As a result, host of suitors wanted to marry Penelope, who was supposedly a widow. They invaded the home of Odysseus and demanded that Penelope choose one of them. When she delayed, the suitors ate and drank at Odysseus’ expense.
Athena came disguised as a friend of the family. Telemachus led his guest into his house, and servants served a meal. The two then conversed with one another. They had to talk quietly, so that the suitors could not overhear.
Since Telemachus had not yet met the man who Athena pretended to be, he asked her to identify herself. She claimed to be Mentes, with whom Odysseus had often associated before he sailed to Troy.
In a clever manner, Athena introduced the subject about which she wished to speak. She explained that she had dropped in for a visit because she thought that Odysseus had already returned home. Then she assured the young man that his father was still alive and would soon come home.
Athena pretended that she did not know why there were so many men gathered in the house of Odysseus. She commented on their ill manners and asked Telemachus to explain.
In reply, Telemachus complained about his troubles. His father had disappeared, and the leading men of Ithaca and neighboring islands wanted to marry his mother Penelope. The marriage proposals were hateful to her, and she could not cope with the situation. The suitors were taking advantage of her helplessness and eating up the family wealth.
Athena then gave Telemachus the following advice. She suggested that he call an assembly of the men of Ithaca the following day and complain about the conduct of the suitors. In this way, he might induce the suitors to leave his home. Moreover, if his mother wished to marry, she should return to her father’s house, so that her father could make the necessary arrangements. Telemachus himself should travel abroad to make inquiries concerning his father. He should board a ship and travel to Pylos to consult with Nestor. Then he should go to Sparta to confer with Menelaus.
Athena then told Telemachus what to do if he received news concerning his father. If his father was traveling homeward, Telemachus should wait patiently till he arrived. If his father was dead, Telemachus should honor him with burial rights. Then he should figure out some way to kill the suitors. Athena also advised him to give his mother to some man in marriage [presumably not one of the haughty suitors, since they were supposed to be killed].
Finally, Athena urged Telemachus not to act like a child. He was now a man, and he should act like one. She cited the example of Orestes, who had gained glory by avenging the death of his father Agamemnon.
After giving this advice, Athena, still pretending to be Mentes, told Telemachus that she had to leave. Her companions were waiting for her.
To the amazement of Telemachus, his guest seemed to fly away like a bird. He figured that his visitor must have been some divinity. With renewed courage, Telemachus approached the suitors.
Phemius, the bard, happened to be entertaining the suitors. Penelope, who was upstairs in the women’s quarters, listened carefully. Together with two handmaids, she went downstairs.
Phemius was singing a sad song about the return of the Greeks from Troy. Penelope asked him to sing about something else. She explained that she missed her husband and the song that Phemius was singing intensified her grief.
Telemachus begged his mother not to criticize the bard for his choice of songs, since it was Zeus that put them into his heart. He urged her to return upstairs and tend to her own work. He pointed out that making speeches was his concern, since he had authority in the house.
Since Telemachus had never asserted himself before, Penelope was amazed and apparently pleased. However, the promise that her son showed could not efface the grief she felt over her missing husband. She cried herself to sleep.
Telemachus fulfilled the promise implied in his words to his mother. He told the suitors about the assembly that he planned to call the following day. At this assembly, he was going to call upon them publicly to leave his house.
If they wanted to feast daily, Telemachus told them to do so in their own houses. He suggested that they take turns sponsoring the festivities. If they continued to feast daily at his expense, he warned them that he would call upon the gods, and the suitors would consequently perish in his house.
Like Penelope, the suitors were amazed at the newly acquired boldness of Telemachus. However, they were not pleased. Antinoüs, the most outspoken suitor, expressed the hope that Zeus would never make Telemachus king of Ithaca.
In reply, Telemachus said that he would like to be king if Zeus chose him. However, whether or not he became king, he insisted that he was master of his own home.
Eurymachus, a somewhat hypocritical suitor, agreed that no one should deprive Telemachus of his own property. He was pretending to be nice because he wanted information. After his captatio benevolentiae, he asked the young man about his recent visitor. He also asked whether the guest had any news about Odysseus.
By this time, Telemachus knew that his guest had been Athena in disguise. However, he told Eurymachus that the name of his guest was Mentes and offered other pertinent information.
Telemachus did not tell Eurymachus what his guest had said about the imminent return of his father. Instead, he told Eurymachus that he no longer had any confidence in hopeful reports concerning Odysseus.
The suitors continued to enjoy themselves all day. In the evening, they became sleepy; so they returned to their own homes to retire for the night.
The sleeping quarters of Telemachus were located in a high building in the courtyard. Eurycleia, an elderly lady who had been his nurse, guided him with a torch. Though he went to bed, he did not get much sleep that night. He was thinking about the trip suggested by Athena.
This summary is based on the Greek text presented online by Sacred Texts. I also consulted an offline English translation by Allen Mandelbaum. For most of the proper names, I followed his transliterations.