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Summary of Curriculum Standards...........................2 About National Players .............................................3 Background: About Homer........................................4 Background: The Trojan War.....................................4 The Epic.....................................................................5 Verse..........................................................................6 Poem Synopsis...........................................................7 Poem Continued........................................................8 Key Players.................................................................9 Adaptations..............................................................10 Mythology................................................................11 Heroes......................................................................12 Hero’s Journey ........................................................13 National Players’ Production...................................14 Key Words ..............................................................15 Bibliography ...........................................................16 Further Reading .....................................................17

The exercises and information in this study guide are geared towards fulfilling the Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts and Literacy for Grades 11-12. Writing • Write informative/explanatory texts to examine and convey complex ideas, concepts, and information clearly and accurately through the effective selection, organization, and analysis of content. • Write narratives to develop real or imagined experiences or events using effective technique, well-chosen details, and well-structured event sequences. • Produce clear and coherent writing in which the development, organization, and style are appropriate to task, purpose, and audience. • Develop and strengthen writing as needed by planning, revising, editing, rewriting, or trying a new approach, focusing on addressing what is most significant for a specific purpose and audience. • Conduct short as well as more sustained research projects to answer a question (including a self-generated question) or solve a problem; narrow or broaden the inquiry when appropriate; synthesize multiple sources on the subject, demonstrating understanding of the subject under investigation. Speaking and Listening • Prepare and participate effectively in a range of conversations and collaborations with diverse partners, building on others’ ideas and expressing their own clearly and persuasively. • Respond thoughtfully to diverse perspectives; synthesize comments, claims, and evidence made on all sides of an issue; resolve contradictions when possible; and determine what additional information or research is required to deepen the investigation or complete the task. • Work with peers to promote civil, democratic discussions and decision-making, set clear goals and deadlines, and establish individual roles as needed.

Getting the Most from this Guide Our study guides are designed with you and your classroom in mind, with information and activities that can be implemented in your curriculum. National Players has a strong belief in the relationship between actor and audience. Without either participant, there is no theatre. We hope this study guide will help bring a better understanding of the plot, themes, and characters in the play so that you can more fully enjoy Macbeth.Feel free to copy the study guide for students and other teachers and to use any essay, exercise, or discussion question as you see fit.




Now celebrating its 65th season, National Players is America’s longest-running touring company, and has earned a distinctive place in American theatre by bringing innovative and accessible productions to audiences across the country. Founded in 1949 by Father Gilbert Hartke, a prominent arts educator and Catholic priest, National Players has performed in theatres, gymnasiums, opera houses, and outdoor playing spaces all around the country. Hartke’s mission— to stimulate young people’s higher thinking skills and imaginations by presenting classic plays in surprisingly accessible ways—is as urgent and vital today as it was over 60 years ago. Since 1952, Olney Theatre Center has been the artistic home of National Players and has broadened its engagement to stimulate all learners, regardless of age, background, or location. Through the years, Players has been privileged to perform on 10 USO tours, at five White House visits, in the Arctic Circle, and throughout 42 states and territories. Having performed for over 2.8 million audience members, National Players is proud to continue collaborating with audiences around the world today. Committed to excellence on and off the stage, over 700 artists have been proud Players, and continue to promote good work in New York, Hollywood, and other communities across the country.

Tour 24, 1972-73 The Birds

These are four images from past National Players productions, each a stage adaptation of a work of literature. Consider: What do you notice about the pictures? What mood do they invoke? What kind of story do they appear to be telling?

Tour 59, 2007-08 The Call of the Wild


National Players offers an exemplary lesson in collaboration and teamwork-in-action: the actors not only play multiple roles onstage, but also serve as managers, teaching artists, and technicians. This year, the Players consist of 10 actors. They travel across the country and visit schools and art centers. A self-contained company, National Players carries its own sets, lights, costumes, and sound; that means that the actors you see have to rebuild the set and hang lights themselves for more than 70 performances. They also have to memorize lines for three different plays—Macbeth, The Comedy of Errors and Odyssey—often performing more than one a day. It is a lot of work, but the Players are dedicated to celebrating and teaching literature and performance to as many audiences as possible.

Tour 64, 2012-13 Animal Farm

Tour Tour 65, 65, 2013-14 2013-14 Odyssey Odyssey


4 The Odyssey and its predecessor, the Iliad, are the two oldest components of the Western literary canon. Although they are still traditionally attributed to the ancient Greek poet Homer, most of the facts about his life are entirely speculative. For centuries, scholars and historians have pondered The Homeric Question: Did Homer exist? If so, did he write both the Odyssey and Iliad, or were they composed by multiple authors? Were the epics original, or the transcription of a traditional oral story? Here are some theories scholars have posed regarding the epics and the supposed writer behind them: He lived in the 9th century B.C. Allusions in the texts to items and concepts specific to the Bronze Age indicate that Homer lived around 800 B.C., 140 years after the Trojan War.

Man’s best friend Although the story of Odysseus’ dog is not included in the National Players’production of Odyssey, the anecdote serves as an insightful glimpse into Odysseus’ character. Read the following account, and consider what it reveals about the hero’s personality:

When he sailed off to war, Odysseus left behind Argos, his faithful dog. Argos was terribly neglected and abused after Penelope’s suitors invaded her home. When Odysseus finally returned home, disguised as a beggar, Argos immediately recognized his beloved master. Odysseus saw his faithful companion, infested with lice and living in filth, and shed a single tear... “But Argos passed into the darkness of death, now that he had fulfilled his destiny of faith and seen his master once more after twenty years.” - Book 17, l7. 317-360

He was blind. In some dialects, Homer’s name is synonymous with “blind,” and one Homeric Hymn references a blind singer named Chios. He did not write both the Iliad and Odyssey. Stylistic and thematic differences between the two epics indicate that the stories may have been composed by two different authors. He was illiterate. In 1930, a scholar named Milman Parry studied oral poetry and proved that it is possible for stories to survive multiple retellings. Writing may not have existed during Homer’s lifetime, leading some scholars to believe that he sang and performed his poems. If this is the case, the epics were probably passed along for generations, altering somewhat each time.

About Homer

An artist’s portrayal of Homer, circa 8th century BC, from the British Museum.

The Trojan War Odysseus’ story depicts his prolonged homecoming from the bloody ten-year conflict between Troy and Greece. The Odyssey is, in fact, a sequel to Homer’s earlier epic, the Iliad, which depicts some of the defining moments from the war. The Trojan War originated from a quarrel between the goddesses Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite, each of whom desired a golden apple which was marked for “the fairest.” Zeus ordered Paris, the vain and beautiful prince of Troy, to determine the apple’s owner. Paris chose Aphrodite, goddess of love and beauty, who in exchange promised him the most beautiful woman in the world. Unfortunately, this woman, Helen, was already married to Menalus, King of Sparta. When Paris took Helen back with him to Troy, Menalaus’ brother, Agamemnon, led an army of Achaean troops to the city to wage war. For ten years, the Achaeans besieged Troy, resulting in the deaths of many renowned Greecians.

Odysseus, a warrior renowned for his strength and cleverness, initially refused to participate in such a fickle war. He wanted to remain home with his wife, Penelope, and young son, Telemachus. He feigned madness to avoid fighting, but was tricked into slipping out of his guise in order to save his son. Reluctantly, he left home to serve in the war. Odysseus knew that the key to victory was breaching Troy’s impenetrable city wall. He ordered the construction of an enormous wooden horse, inside of which he and his soldiers hid and waited. The rest of the Greek army sailed away, and the Trojans, enthralled that their enemies had retreated and tricked into believing the horse was an offering to Athena, brought the enormous structure into the city. That night, after the Trojans fell into a drunken, celebratory stupor, Odysseus and the Achaeans attacked. They slaughtered soldiers and civilians alike, ensuring victory for Greece.



The Genre An epic is a long narrative poem, written in an elevated language and style, that deals with the trials and achievements of a great hero. The epic celebrates virtues of national, military, religious, political, and historical significance. First told around 700 BC, Homer’s the Odyssey is partly a sequel to the Greek poem the Illiad, making it the second oldest epic in Western literature and one of the oldest stories of all time. In many ways, it sets the pattern for the genre, neatly fitting the definition of a primary epic (one that grows out of oral tradition). Because they often detail stories

Epic Simile A simile is a figure of speech in which two disimmilar things or concepts are shown to be similar, often through the use of “like” or “as.” For example: “The girl’s hair is like sunshine.” or “His breath is as rank as an old gym sock.” An epic simile, sometimes called a Homeric simile for the poet’s extensive use of the device, employs the comparison to expansive proportions. In poetic form, it is several lines in length and usually describes something imaginary or strange with something familiar. The following is an epic simile from the Odyssey, depicting Odysseus and his men blinding the Cyclops: “As a blacksmith plunges a glowing ax or adze In an ice-cold bath and the metal screeches steam And its temper hardens—that’s the iron’s strength— So the eye of the Cyclops sizzled round that stake!” (9.438-41).

of cultural and historical significance, epics comprise some of the most influential works in the canon of Western literature. Some of the most notable examples of the genre include the Epic of Gilgamesh (Mesopotamia, circa 13 BC), Beowulf (Old English, circa 8 BC), Metamorphoses (by Ovid, 1st century AD), and Paradise Lost, which tells the story of Adam and Eve’s fall from grace (by John Milton 1671). Consider: How might the story of Adam and Eve be considered an epic? What other classical stories can you think of that fit the epic genre? Invocation of a muse Before the epic begins, the poet calls upon a god or muse for inspiration. In ancient Greece, listeners believed such an invocation allowed a god to inhabit the poet, making his epic divinely inspired. Gods or supernatural beings Gods frequently take part in the action to affect an outcome, sometimes guiding or assisting the hero. Digressions The poem moves away from the main storyline to describe the history of various props (such as a scepter or weapon) or relate the ancestry of a warrior in what may seem like over-elaborate detail. An oral poem was the repository of an entire cultural memory, so audiences appreciated these details. Elevated diction. The text employs a dignified, objective tone and many figures of speech. Superhuman hero The narrative focuses on the exploits of a hero or demigod who represents the cultural values of a race, nation, or religious group. He often displays superhuman strength or skill. The hero’s success or failure will determine the fate of his people or nation.

An illustration by William Blake of Milton’s Paradise Lost, depicting the Serpant’s temptation of Eve.


Vast setting The action covers a wide geographic area, usually including magical realms. Statement of theme The poet explains the main purpose of the epic and allows listeners or readers to focus on how the poem is presented instead of what it is about. Repetition In oral discourse, words disappear as soon as they are uttered, so repetition is a necessity. Sometimes, a series of lines will repeat, not because oral poets are unimaginative, but because they often describe situations in a consistent formulaic manner. It also keeps meter and memory flowing smoothly. Epithets A poet describes, in metrical form, the characteristics of gods and heroes. For example, Odysseus is described as “the man of twists and turns” (I.1), a “godlike” man” (II.261), and a “Great teller of tales” (IX.1). In medias res This is Latin for “in the midst of things.” Epic stories usually begin in the middle of the narrative’s action and employ flashbacks or narrative descriptions to explain prior events.



Dactylic Hexameter

—U|—U|—U|—U|—uu|—X It sounds something like this: dum diddy | dum diddy | dum diddy | dum diddy | dum diddy | dumdum Unlike most English verse, the meter does not allow departures from the basic norms. Shakespeare’s metric variations from iambic pentameter, for example, would not have been allowed. Dactilic hexameter is not commonly used in the English language, but the most famous example is Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s 19th century poem Evangaline. Try to read the following line using the metrical pattern above: This is the | for-est pri | me-val. The | mur-muring | pines and the | hem-locks. Though it is always metrically regular, Homer’s verse never becomes monotonous. This regularity imposed on variety is Homer’s great metrical secret, the strongest weapon in his poetic arsenal. The long line, no matter how it varies in the opening and middle always ends in the same way, builds up its hypnotic effect in book after book.

Did you know? “Dactyl” comes from the Greek word “daktylos,” which means “finger.” Take a look at your finger – any finger except for your thumb. Notice that it has one long joint followed by two short joints. That’s the idea the Greeks were trying to get across in calling this meter dactylic, because its feet are shaped like fingers—one long syllable followed by two short syllables. Fun fact: Pterodactyl literally means “winged finger.”

Trying it out

Below is an excerpt from Homer’s invocation of the Muses, from the opening portion of Robert Fagles’ translation of the Odyssey. Read the verse with meter and rhythm in mind, and consider the characteristics of an epic poem listed on the previous page:

Sing to me of the man, Muse, the man of twists and turns driven time and again off course, once he had plundered the hallowed heights of Troy. Many cities of men he saw and learned their minds, many pains he suffered, heartsick on the open sea, fighting to save his life and bring his comrades home. But he could not save them from disaster, hard as he strove— the recklessness of their own ways destroyed them all, the blind fools, they devoured the cattle of the Sun and the Sungod wiped from sight the day of their return. Launch out on his story, Muse, daughter of Zeus, start from where you will—sing for our time too.

The written language of The Odyssey was never spoken. The text is an artificial, poetic construction containing elements of vocabulary and phraseology that originated at different dates over the course of 200 to 500 years. Homer’s text follows the rigid metric formula of epic verse by using the hexameter. This is a line, of six metrical units (feet), which may be made up of either dactyls (long-short-short) or spondees (long-long) in the first four places but must be dactyl and spondee (in that order) in the last two. The syllables are literally long and short; the meter is based on pronunciation time, not, as in the English language, on stress. A dactylic line might look something like this (where— is a long syllable, u a short syllable, U either one long or two shorts, and X either one long or short syllable):

Consider: 1. What is the purpose of these opening lines? 2. Do you notice any poetic techniques specific to epic poems? How do they function within the epic as a whole? Exercise: It is important to understand the origin of the Odyssey as an oral narrative. Many singers contributed to its final rendition by assimilating, combining, and refining elements before writing developed. Homeric poems adhere to particular formulas and rhythms that are best explored when put to music. In groups, choose a popular melody and fit the above opening lines to it. Feel free to explore multiple songs, as some will fit better than others. Using the epic poem as lyrics, share these songs with your class.


Books 1—4: Telemachus It has been ten years since the Greeks attained victory in the Trojan War, but Odysseus has still not returned home. In his absence, a horde of suitors has all but taken over the home of Telemachus, now 20 years old, and his mother, Penelope. Odysseus’ protrectress, Athena, wants him to return to Ithaca. Disguised as a Taphian chieftan named Mentes, she urges Telemechus to search for news of his father. Telemachus leaves, encounters the old warrior Nestor, and finds Menelaus and Helen in Sparta. Menelaus informs him that Odysseus is being held captive by Calypso.

Books 5—14: Odysseus We hear of the events of the ten years between the end of the Trojan war and the beginning of the Odyssey. For seven years Odysseus has been kept on Calypso’s island, Ogygia, because the nymph is in love with him. Hermes, sent by Zeus in response to Athena’s plea on Odysseus’ behalf, convinces Calypso to let him go. Odysseus leaves on a raft, but Poseidon, who hates Odysseus for blinding his son, the Cyclops, destroys the raft. Odysseus washes up on the shore in the land of the Phaeacians. He is found by the maiden Nausicaa, who takes him home, where he is shown hospitality. He remains for several days, takes part in a pentathlon, and hears a blind singer perform two narrative poems. Odysseus then asks the poet tell the story of the Trojan Horse. Unable to hide his emotions, Odysseus reveals his identity. He then begins to tell the story of his return from Troy: In the story, he and his men are driven off course by storms on their way back from Troy. They meet the lotus-eaters, whose fruit causes them to become lethargic and forget their desire for Ithaca. After escaping, they are captured by the Cyclops Polyphemus. Odysseus devises a stratagem to escape, and blinds Polyphemus. Poseidon, Polyphemus’ father, curses Odysseus to wander the sea for ten years. Aeolus, the master of the winds, gives Odysseus a bag containing all the winds but the west wind, which he lets loose to drive the ships to Ithaca. Odysseus’ men release the winds, causing a storm that sends them off track and farther from Ithaca. They encounter the Laestrygonians, a group of canni-

POEM SYNOPSIS bals who devour the entire fleet of ships except Odysseus’. He sails to Circe’s island, who turns his crew into pigs. He bargains with the sorceress, who agrees to change his men back in exchange for his love. He remains for one year. Odysseus summons the spirit of Tiresias from the underworld to advise him on how to appease the gods. He meets the spirit of his mother and other famous figures, including Agamemnon, who tells him about Clytemnestra’s betrayal. The crew returns to Circe, who sends them on their way. Per her instructions, the crew plugs their ears to resist the Sirens’ song, but Odysseus ties himself to the ship’s mast to listen to the music. The ship successfully maneuvers past Scylla and Charybdis. The crew lands on the island where Helios, the sun god keeps his sacred cattle. The crew ignores Circe’s advice and sacrifices one of the cows. As punishment, all of Odysseus’s men are killed in a shipwreck. Finally, Odysseus washes up to Calypso’s island, where he stays for seven years. Odysseus concludes his story. The Phaeacians agree to help him return home. Upon his arrival in Ithaca, Athena disguises Odysseus as a beggar to test his household’s loyalty. He is found by his swineherd, who shows him hospitality.

A Greek lekythos (vessel used for storing oil) from about 480 BC, depicting Odysseus escaping from the Cyclops.



Books 15—24: Telemachus and Odysseus Reuinite

Telemachus evades an ambush organized by the suitors on his way back from Sparta. He meets his father, who reveals his identity, and the two men decide the suitors must be killed. Still disguised, Odysseus tests Penelope’s fidelity. When Eurycleia discovers an old scar and realizes Odysseus’ identity, she tries to tell Penelope but Athena prevents Penelope from hearing; Odysseus swears the housekeeper to secrecy. The next day, at Athena’s prompting, Penelope convinces the suitors to compete for her hand by using Odysseus’ bow in an archery competition. The man who can string the bow and shoot it through a dozen axe heads would win. Odysseus takes part; he alone can string the bow and shoot it through the dozen axe heads. He then turns his arrows on the suitors and with the help of Athena, Telemachus, Eumaeus the swineherd, and Philoteus the cow- herd, he kills all the suitors. They also hang twelve of their household maids, who had betrayed Penelope. Finally, they mutilate and kill the goatherd Melanthius, who had mocked and abused Odysseus. Finally, Odysseus identifies himself to Penelope. She is

doubtful at first, and tests him with a question only he could answer. He proves himself by telling her of their bed, which he had carved from a living oak tree, rooted in their bedroom. The next day, Odysseus and Telemachus visit the farm of his father Laertes, who accepts his son only after Odysseus correctly describes the orchard that Laertes had given him. Meanwhile, the citizens of Ithaca have been planning to avenge the murder of the suitors, their sons. The goddess Athena intervenes and persuades both sides to give up the vendetta. After this, Ithaca is at peace once more, concluding The Odyssey.

Your Odyssey

Odysseus’ adventure takes a full 10 years to complete. In this exercise, compare his journey to one of your own. 1. What is the longest or most exciting journey you have ever completed? It might be a family vacation, a field trip, or a walk in the woods. 2. Using the details from this journey, create your own odyssey. Make a list of stops you made, people you met, and tasks you completed. 3. Draw a map to correspond with your personal odyssey. Use the image below as inspiration.

“Dactyl” comes from the Greek word “daktylos,” which means “finger.” Now take a look at your finger – any finger except for your thumb. You will probably notice that it has one long joint followed by two short joints. That’s the idea the Greeks were trying to get across in calling this meter dactylic, because its feet are shaped like fingers—one long syllable followed by two short syllables.

Courtesy of


9 Greek mythology contains hundreds of characters—gods, demigods, mortals, monsters—so keeping track of relationships and histories can be challenging. In the Odyssey alone, there are dozens of characters with whom Odysseus and his crew interact along their journey. To make matters more complicated, each actor in the National Players’ production portrays multiple roles. This chart outlines basic relationships among the key players in Odysseus’ story.

ATHENA Godess of wisdom, daughter of Zeus, protector of Odysseus

The Family

Solid lines represent allies and family Dotted lines represent enemies CAPITALIZED NAMES represent gods and supernatural beings Lowercase names represent mortals POSEIDON God of the sea, younger brother of Zeus

ZEUS Ruler of the gods

The Gods


The Sea

HERMES Messenger god, son of Zeus

POLYPHEMUS Cyclops, son of Poseidon

Laertes and Anticlea Parents of Odysseus

Penelope Queen of Ithaca, wife of Odysseus

CALYPSO Sea nymph, holds Odysseus captive

Odysseus King of Ithaca

Aeolus and his Wife Ruler of the four winds

Telemachus Son of Odysseus and Penelope

Ithacans Antinous Leader of the suitors

Eurymachus and Amphinomous Suitors

Tiresias Blind prophet

Eurycleia Odysseus’ faithful nurse

Eurylochus Captain

Sailors and Soldiers

Perimedes Captain

Kapor Helmsman Melantho Servant girl Polites Seaman

CIRCE Enchantress, Odysseus’ lover

Penelos Elpenor Seaman Young seaman

Agamemnon and Achilles Heroes of Trojan War



Film and Stage

Make it your own

After reading about some Odyssey interpretations below, complete one of the following exercises: 1. Write a monologue from the perspective of another character from a specific scene in The Odyssey. Consider to whom the character is speaking, where he or she is, and the events preceding the scene. 2. Rewrite a scene from The Odyssey, setting the story in another time or place. For example, you may re-imagine the Siren scene in a school cafeteria.

Literature Because the Odyssey is a cornerstone of the Western literary canon, many writers have either adapted it into other mediums or used elements of the story as inspiration for their work. Odysseus’ sprawling tale, as well as Homers’ elegant verse, have influenced a variety of poems, novels, stories, plays and more. Homer’s work even inspired another epic, Virgil’s The Aenid. Written around 20 BC, the narrative tracks Aeneas, a Trojan who appears in the Odyssey and Iliad. The story begins with the Sack of Troy and Odysseus’ wooden horse, then follows Aeneas to Italy where the Romans eventually reign. Lord Alfred Tennyson penned Ulysses in 1842, a poem in blank verse that narrates the hero’s life after the close of Homer’s story. Tennyson describes Ulysses (Odysseus’ Roman name) in his later years in Ithaca, reminiscing about his days of glory and adventure on the sea. Finally, he calls upon his mariners to set off on another journey:

Push off, and sitting well in order smite The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths Of all the western stars, until I die. It may be that the gulfs will wash us down: It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles, And see the great Achilles, whom we knew. Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’ We are not now that strength which in old days Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are; One equal temper of heroic hearts, Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

In 1922, Irish writer James Joyce published one of the most famous retellings of Odysseus’ story, an 18-episode novel entitled Ulysses. The book follows Leopold Bloom’s journey through Dublin over the course of a single day, paralelling locations and interactions in the poem with relatively ordinary events in Bloom’s life.

Because of its length and scope, the Odyssey is particularly challenging for directors to film and stage. One of the more well-known adaptations, for example, the 1997 TV film directed by Andrei Konchalovsky, was elaborate and somewhat popular with audiences, but it failed to stay accurate to Homer’s original story. The Siren sequence, for instance, is missing entirely from this version. Often, directors take elements from Homer’s story and craft a new interpretation of Odysseus’ travels altogether. In 2000, directors Joel and Ethan Coen filmed O Brother, Where art Thou?, which places Homer’s story in 1937 Mississippi. Odysseus’ challenges are altered for this setting; for example, John Goodman plays a conniving villain with an eye-patch, corresponding with the Cyclops (Image One). Other films have used elements of Homer’s story as well, though not as directly. The 2003 films Big Fish and Cold Mountain, for example, were inspired by the Odyssey, and both follow the adventures of husbands attempting to return home. National Players is not the first to adapt Homer’s tale into a play. The Penelopiad (Image Two), based on the 2005 novel of the same name by Margaret Atwood, premiered at the Royal Shakespeare Company in 2007. It narrates Penelope’s life while her husband is away, and features the 12 maids (who are eventually killed by Odysseus and Telemachus) as her chorus. Image One

Image Two



The Gods

Mythology is a collection of stories that were created to explain how the world and humanity came to be. The myths of Ancient Greece are both informative and entertaining; while they can be seen as sacred religious texts, they were also used to record cultural history. Thousands of years have passed since Mount Olympus was revered as the home of the gods and temples were places of worship and sacrifice. Today, these sacred Greek landmarks are tourist attractions and anthropological subjects, and thousands of mortals reach Olympus’ highest peak each year. The fantastical myths and epics of Ancient Greece, however, continue to fascinate and inspire artists and writers. Unlike the belief systems of many earlier civilizations, the Greeks created gods in their own image; Zeus, Hera, Posiedon and the rest were powerful and dangerous, but humanistically flawed. They quarreled amongst each other, fell in and out of love, made foolish blunders, and interacted with mortals. Gods took great inerest in the mortal world. They often treated humans like their playthings, helping or hindering their lives as they saw fit. Although the gods were dangerous and powerful, there was a degree of equinamity between mortals and immortals. The Greeks knew everything abou their gods—what they ate and drank, how they celebrated, their arguments and battles—so immortals were just as much subjects of amusement and humor as they were reverence and worship. Because Gods often interacted with and visited the human world, the land below Olympus was almost as magical and enticing as the gods’ realm; humans could visit the city where Hercules battled monsters, the seaside from which Aphrodite appeared, or Pegasus’ stable in Corinth.

Pallas Athena

Birth: Zeus seduced the goddess Metis, but fearful of a prophesy that claimed Metis would bear a child more powerful than himself, he swallowed her. Metis’ daughter, Athena, sprang from Zeus’ head, full-grown and in full armor. Patron of: Wisdom, war, architecture, artisans City: Athens Symbols: Owl, olive tree, snake, spear, helmet Accomplishments: Inventor of the olive and bridle In the Odyssey: Protector of Odysseus Character: The “gray-eyed” goddess, she is the ruthless and fierce protector of her patron city. She is Zeus’ favorite child—he even trusts her to carry his thunderbolts.


Birth: Son of the Titan Cronus and younger brother of Zeus, he and his other siblings were swallowed by their father, who feared that one of his children would defeat him. Zeus escaped and saved his siblings, whom he brought to Mount Olympus to rule with him. Patron of: The sea, horses, earthquakes, storms City: A palace beneath the sea Symbols: Trident, fish, dolphin, horse, bull Accomplishments: Father of many heroes, creator of new islands, gave the first tamed horse to man In the Odyssey: Furious at Odysseus for blinding his son, the Cyclops Character: Often portrayed with his three-pronged trident, he was known as the “Earth-shaker” for his temper.


Your Turn

With Athena and Poseidon in mind, complete the two exercises below: 1. Create your own Greek god or goddess. Determine his or her profile based on the information used above (symbols, accomplishments, etc). 2. Look up a complete list of the Greek gods and goddesses (this information is easily available at your school library, or online at http://www.greek-gods. info/). Choose one, read about him or her, and write a story in which he or she interacts with Odysseus.


HEROES The Classic Hero

The classic Greek definition of a hero differs somewhat from how the term is used today. Originally, a hero was descended from gods and therefore possessed superhuman strengths and abilities. His heroism was mainly based on militaristic prowess, not moral fortitude; in fact, many classic heroes demonstrated hubris, a blinding arrogance and pride. Heroes were the subjects of heated arguments among the Olympians; gods often rivaled over them, acting as either protectors or adversaries along the journey. Most importantly, a hero had to face death for the sake of glory and fame. Despite their ultimate mortality, heroes were the subject of cult worship among the Greeks, almost to the degree of the gods themselves. The definition of a hero has evolved dramatically since Homer’s lifetime. Today, the term tends to include moral as well as physical strength; heroes are expected to make sacrifices for the sake of others, not for personal gain. Superheroes, who usually maintain an alter-ego to mask their true identities, are lauded for their anonymity and selflessness.

Odysseus and his crew in a mosaic from the Bardo Museum.

Odysseus: Defining a Hero Scholars identify Odysseus as the epitomal classic Greek hero. In terms of modern notions of heroism, however, he may be interpreted differently. Consider: 1. Make a list of Odysseus’ characteristics and traits. How do these conform with classical heroic ideals? 2. Can Odysseus be considered a hero in a modern context? Why or why not? 3. Identify three people, fictional or real, whom you consider your heroes. How do they fit the classic heroic concept? The modern concept? 4. In Homer’s poem, Odysseus is hailed as “lionhearted,” (Book 3) “canniest of men,” (Book 8) and a “noble and enduring man” (Book 15) Do you agree with these characteristics? In your opinion, is he worthy of all the praise he receives?

George Washington crossing the Delware River, painting by Emanuel Leutze 1851.

Henry Cavill as Superman in the 2013 film Man of Steel, directed by Zack Snyder (photo courtesy of



In 1949, author Joseph Campbell explored cross-cultural notions of mythology and heroism in his nonfiction book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces. In the book, he introduces the concept of the Hero’s Journey, a storyline that he argues can be found in myths and legends around the world.

Your Challenge

Read about the following stages of the Hero’s Journey with Odysseus in mind. Hint: Try starting the Journey at Ogyia, the island where Odysseus is being held captive by Calypso.

BEGIN HERE The Departure

10. The Road Back

The Return 9. The Reward

The hero leaves behind this strange world to bring the reward back to his Ordinary World. The journey home may be even more trecherous than the quest upon which he embarked.

The hero finally earns the treasure he faced mortality to achieve, often a tangible representation of a larger goal (like an elixer of youth). He usually undergoes an inner transformation as well.

8. The Ordeal

He encounters the most dangerous obstacle of all, confronting his great1. The Ordinary World This is where the hero begins, un- est fear in the hopes of achieving his aware of the adventures to come. ultimate goal. There is tension in the hero’s life, a 7. Approach polarity between two different direc- The hero prepares for his major challenge. This may involve patiently waittions from which he must choose. ing, surveying the area, organizing resources, or simply storming ahead. 2. The Call to Adventure Destiny summons the hero to move from his ordinary world and into 6. Tests, Allies and Enemies The hero encounters a series of tests the unknown. He may be inspired and challenges to prepare him for the to embark on his own, forced by an obstacles ahead. These tests are often antagonistic force, or stumble upon instigated by a rival or enemy.

the quest accidentally.

3. Refusal of the Call


Terrified of what may lie ahead, the 5. The First Threshold hero attempts to avoid his call to ac- The hero enters the field of the untion. He may express hesitation or known, leaving his Ordinary World behind for a new region with unfamilphysically try to run away. iar rules and conditions.

4. Meeting of the Mentor Now

that he has accepted his quest, knowingly or unknowingly, the hero comes across a seasoned traveler of the worlds, often a supernatural being.

11. Resurrection

The climax of the hero’s tale. He reaches the threshold of his home, only to be tested once more. He is purified by a final sacrifice and undergoes a form of death and rebirth. This signifies resolution of his inner conflict.

12. Return with the Elixir

The hero either remains home or continues his journey, bringing along an element of the reward. He is now faced with the challenge of employing the wisdom he has gained and imparting it on the rest of the world.

END HERE Answer the following questions: 1. How does the skeletal outline reflect Odysseus’ story? In what ways does it differ? 2. How does Telemachus’ journey compare with this template? Penelope’s? 3.. What heroes or characters from other stories can you think of who undergo some version of the Hero’s Journey? They can be from books, films, video games, even real life.



National Players adapted Homer’s story into their own production. Homer’s text is difficult to adapt, for various reasons: it is an immensely long story; it is rarely in strict chronological order; Odysseus’ crew encounters dangerous and strange lands along their way; and there are various nonhuman characters they meet, including sheep, Sirens, and a cyclops. The Players needed to tell this sprawling story within the confines of a two-and-a-half hour play. Not only do 10 actors portray more than 30

characters, the production needs to be versatile enough to pack up and take on the road. Director Jason King Jones decided to divide the story into two parts. The first act of The Odyssey tracks Odysseus’ wanderings as told in Books 9—12 to King Alcinous. Like Homer’s version, the Players’ Odysseus recalls past events. In order to depict these flashbacks, two actors play Odysseus: the older recounting his story, the younger enacting the events. Act Two examines Odysseus’ return

From Poem to Stage

to Ithaca. Instead of flashbacks, action occurs in real time, depicting Odysseus’ reunion with Telemachus and Penelope and his conquest to regain power. The same actor who plays Old Odysseus in Act One continues the role in the second act, while the actor who plays Young Odysseus now portrays Telemachus. Post-show: Consider how the Poem Synopsis from this study guide compares with the Players’ performance. What changes to the story did you notice?

Top left: Director Jason King Jones discusses staging of Odyssey during rehearsals. Top right: Old Odysseus (Alexander Korman) and Athena (Eliza Rose) rehearse a scene, working script in hand. Bottom: Odysseus and Penelope (Theresa Buechler) reunite in the second act, ready for the final performance with scenery and costumes.



Adaptation: To modify from one version to another. In the case of literature, books and plays are often adapted into other forms of media, including TV and film. Aenid: Virgil’s epic, written around 20 BC, narrating the journey of Aeneas as he flees from Troy and into Italy. Dactyl: A metrical unit made up of long-short-short syllables. Dactylic hexameter: The metric system used in Homer’s poems. Each line is composed of six metrical units, which in turn are composed of either dactyls or spondees. Diction: Word choice used in speech or writing. Digression: A break from the main narrative of a story. In an epic, this usually entails describing the history of props or relating the ancestry of a character. Epic: A lengthy narrative poem, usually recounting the details of a hero’s achievements. Epic simile: An extended simile, usually comprised of at least two lines, that describes something unfamiliar with a common object or idea. Epithet: A word or phrase that describes a particular character trait. Feet: The units that make up a metrical phrase in poetry. Hero’s Journey: The basic pattern for mythological stories that James Campbell argues can be found in various cultures. Hexameter: A metrical line of verse that consists of six feet. Homer: The Ancient Greek poet who penned the Odyssey and Iliad. Historians estimate he lived around the 8th century BC. Homeric Question: The scholarly debate regarding the authorship of the Odyssey and Iliad. Hubris: Extreme arrogance or pride, used in Greek storytelling to describe heroes. In media res: Literally “in the midst of.” Used to describe a story that begins in the middle of action. Lekythos: A Greek vessel used for storing oil. Muse: The nine Greek goddesses who personified art, literature, history, dance, music and the arts. Mythology: A collection of stories created to explain how the world and humanity came to be, Primary epic: An epic that originated through oral storytelling. Prose: Natural flow of speech. Simile: A comparison between two unlike things, usually through the use of “like” or “as.” Spondee: A metrical foot that consists of two long syllables. Trojan War: The ten-year war fought between Troy and Greece over the Trojan prince Paris’ abduction of the Greek queen, Helen. The Iliad: The first of Homer’s two epics, it depicts some of the major events that occurred during the Trojan war. Theme: The central topic or idea of a text. Essentially, “what the work is about.” Tone: A text’s attitude toward a subject and the reader. Ulysses: The Roman version of the name Odysseus. Also the name of a 1922 novel by James Joyce that adapted Homer’s Odyssey into a story about an Irishman. Verse: Poetic composition. Often used in early modern plays. Compare with prose. Virgil (70 BC—19 BC): A Roman poet, known best for his epic poem The Aeneid.



• British Museum: • Classic Hero: • Fagles, Robert, trans. The Odyssey. By Homer. New York: Viking, 1996 • Greek gods and goddesses: • Greek Hero: • Hero’s Journey: • History of Trojan War: • Homer and Oral History: • Homer biography: • Kirk, G.S. Homer and the Oral Tradition. Cambridge: University Press, 1976. • Ong, Walter J. Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word. London and New York: Methuen, 1982. • The Trojan War:


FURTHER READING Reading Companions

• Buxton, Richard. The Complete World of Greek Mythology A comprehensive anthology of Greek myths, including their origins, plots, themes and influences. Buxton also outlines relationships and includes relevant maps and illustrations. • Campbell, Joseph. The Hero With a Thousand Faces An examination of the hero’s journey through cross-cultural mythology. • Fagles, Robert, trans. The Odyssey One of the most comprehensive modern translation of Homer’s epic. • Hamilton, Edith. Mythology: Timeless Tales of Gods and Heroes An essential resource for beginners of the genre and subject, Hamilton provides a concise compilation of all the essential Greek myths, including accurate sources and contextual guidelines. • Heubeck, Alfred, Hainsworth, J.B., West, Stephanie eds. A Commentary on Homer’s Odyssey Succinctly introduces scholarly research on The Odyssey, as well as its relationt o other myths, the epic genre, and the translation and editing process. • Said, Suzanne. Homer and the Odyssey A rare gilmpse into the elusive figure who supposedly wrote the Odyssey, Said provides insight into the oral storytelling tradition. • Schein, Seth L. ed. Reading the Odyssey: Selected Interpretive Essays A collection of some of the most influential critical works of the last half century. • Woodward, Roger, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Greek Mythology Provides a detailed overview of ancient Greek culture and mythology, as well as the myth’s impact on contemporary art, literature, politics and philosophy.

Online Resources • Ancient Encyclopedia History, An interactive, educational website with a comprehensive section on ancient Greek myths. • In Our Time BBC, Scholars discuss the cultural significance of the Odyssey, the authorship debate, and the story itself. •Theoi Greek Mythology, A free, expansive reference website with information on the entire ancient Greecian world.

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