Homer’s Odyssey: The Voyages of Odysseus Described in 15 Artworks

Troy was destroyed, but the trials of clever Odysseus had just begun. Follow the Odyssey, his ten-year journey with perils at sea and vengeful deities as told through art.

Dec 27, 2020By Marian Vermeulen
odyssey artwork
Details of Odysseus and Polyphemus by Arnold Böcklin, 1896, via the Museum of Fine Arts Boston; with Odyssey: Odysseus and Penelope Reunited by Newell Convers Wyeth, 1929, via the Brandywine River Museum of Art, Pennsylvania


With the city of Troy lying in ruin, the Greeks took to their ships, heading home. Odysseus, the craftiest of the Greeks, who had the favor of Athena and had planned the Trojan Horse, sailed for his home in Ithaca. However, he was destined to journey long and suffer many hardships before finally achieving his homecoming. Homer’s great epic poem, The Odyssey tells of the ten years he spent in the attempt.


Odysseus and his men, sailing in six ships, first put ashore nearby at Ismarus, the land of the Cirons.  There they sacked the city and plundered it. Odysseus wished to turn and put to sea at once, but his men delayed and would not listen. They partied and caroused on the shores until other, more powerful Cirons came to the aid of their coastal kindred. They fought throughout the day, but by the time the sun was setting, the Greeks began to falter. Eventually, they fled to their ships, leaving behind thirty-six of their men, killed in action.


The Odyssey Begins 

jean veber ulysses and nausicaa
Ulysses and Nausicaa by Jean Veber, 1888, in the École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts of Paris


Into The Land Of The Lotus-Eaters 

After battling a wild storm, the Greeks finally managed to row to shore in the land of the Lotus-eaters. This land is given no name, but the inhabitants of it subsist on a Lotus flower. Odysseus sent a few of his men to investigate. The Lotus-eaters received them peacefully and gave them some of the flowers to eat. The men were instantly overwhelmed, forgot about their homes, and resolved to stay. Odysseus eventually forced them back to the ships and bound them to the benches below, where they lay weeping. He called back all of his men and they departed at once.


land of the lotus eaters robert s duncanson
Land of the Lotus Eaters by Robert S. Duncanson, 1861, in the Swedish Royal Collection, via Canvas Magazine


The Island of the Cyclopes


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Upon coming to the land of the Cyclopes, Odysseus was eager to meet with a Cyclops and see whether or not they were truly savages. Taking twelve of his men, they went up to the cave of Polyphemus to greet him. Yet when the giant returned from tending his flocks, the men panicked and hid within his cave. He settled a rock against the cave opening as a door, unknowingly blocking them within. Upon learning of their presence, the Cyclops laughed at Odysseus’s attempts to offer friendship. He immediately killed, dismembered, and ate two of the Greek men.


Polyphemus slept well that night, but Odysseus and his men cowered in fear throughout the night. They could not simply attack him as he slept, as they could not move the stone that blocked the entrance. The giant fed on two more men for breakfast, and after a day of tending his flocks in the fields, enjoyed another two for dinner. However, Odysseus managed to get him drunk, and he and four of his men drove a hot wooden spike into his eyes and blinded him.


the blinding of polyphemus
The Blinding of Polyphemus, in the Museum of Archaeology in Sperlonga, via the Ministry of Heritage, Culture and Tourism Lazio


Polyphemus staggered to the entrance and drew back the stone, but waited by the mouth of the cave to catch Odysseus and his men. Odysseus, therefore, lashed together the thick-fleeced rams in groups of three. Each one of the surviving men clung underneath the middle sheep as they ran out of the cave. Safely out, Odysseus taunted Polyphemus. In his rage, the giant hurled bits of the mountain at the Greek ships, but they sped out away and escaped back to where they had left the other ships.


Circe’s Island 


Odysseus and his men were yet to learn of the damage they had done, however. Polyphemus was the son of Poseidon, the god of the sea. In vengeance for his son’s blinding, Poseidon swore that he would keep Odysseus from reaching his homeland. Even so, they enjoyed some initial success upon leaving the island of the Cyclopes. They were hospitably welcomed on the island of Aeolus, the keeper of the winds. Aeolus bound the roaring winds in a sack and gave them to Odysseus. He left only the west wind to speed the Greeks on their journey home. Unfortunately, some members of Odysseus’s crew convinced themselves that the sack contained gold and jewels, and opened it, releasing the winds and raising a great storm.


circe wright barker
Circe by Wright Barker, 1889, in the Cartwright Hall Art Gallery, via Art UK


After barely surviving the storm, they eventually came to the Aenean island of Circe. She was a minor goddess, granddaughter of the great Titan Oceanus, and a skilled enchantress. A group of Odysseus’s men came to her house and found it patrolled by enchanted wolves and lions. Though the men were frightened, the animals welcomed them, rubbing along their legs and fawning upon them. Circe invited the men into the house and plied them with food and drink. Then, when they had relaxed, she turned them into pigs and shut them up in her pigsties. She would have done the same to Odysseus, but Hermes came to him and gave him an herb to make him invulnerable to her enchantments.


Unlikely Friends And Allies 


Armed with the herb, Odysseus first intimated and then befriended Circe. She not only released the pigs and returned them to their proper forms, but also hosted all of the Greeks, feasting and merrymaking, for a whole year. Finally, Odysseus and his men resolved to go on, and he begged Circe for leave to go. She gave it willingly, but told him that he must journey on to Hades and consult the blind prophet Tiresias. Following Circe’s instructions, they sailed to the entrance to Hades and Odysseus performed the proper ceremonies to open the doors to the underworld.


teiresias future odysseus
Teiresias foretells the Future to Odysseus by Henry Fuseli, ca. 1800, via National Museum of Wales, Cardiff


When Tiresias came forth, he warned Odysseus of Poseidon’s continuing vengeance. He also cautioned them not to disturb sheep and cattle of the sun god on the island of Thrinacia, or else face destruction. When Tiresias had finished, Odysseus stayed awhile, speaking with the ghosts of family and friends. First he saw his mother, whom he had left living when he departed for Troy, and numerous famous women throughout the ages. When the women had gone, the heroes that he had left dead at Troy came forth, Agamemnon, Achilles, Patroclus, and Ajax, and then all the great heroes of mythology. Yet finally, Odysseus tore himself away, and they sailed on toward Ithaca.


Perils At Sea 


Mythological Monsters 

the siren vase
The Siren Vase attributed to the Siren Painter, 480-70 BC, via the British Museum, London


Their next peril came at the island of the Sirens, two winged females, in the shape of hideous harpies. Yet their voices and their songs were irresistible to the men that passed. They sat surrounded by the bones and rotting flesh of those that were foolish enough to come to them. Odysseus’s men plugged their ears with softened wax, and Odysseus ordered his men to bind him to the mast that he might listen but not be able to go to them.

scylla charybdis adolf hiremy hirschl
Between Scylla and Charybdis by Adolf Hiremy-Hirschl, 1910, via Art History Project


Past the Sirens, they faced Scylla and Charybdis, two mighty immortal monsters. Charybdis lay under the sea and sucked in ships as a whirlpool, while Scylla lay in wait among the rocks. As they desperately navigated around Charybdis, Scylla pounced from above. She carried off six men, who screamed and cried out to Odysseus as she hauled them away: “Even so did Scylla land these panting creatures on her rock and munch them up at the mouth of her den, while they screamed and stretched out their hands to me in their mortal agony. This was the most sickening sight that I saw throughout all my voyages.”


Prophesies Fulfilled 


Finally escaping the straits, they came to the island of Hyperion, the sun-god, of which Tiresias had warned Odysseus. Odysseus wished to sail past without stopping, but his men, exhausted and hungry, begged him to stop. Reluctantly, Odysseus agreed, reminding them all not to touch any sheep or cattle they may find. They all swore to obey, and at first they did. However, the winds blew against them and they remained trapped on the island for a month. As the food supplies dwindled, the men became more desperate. Eventually they weakened and slaughtered the best of the cattle while Odysseus was away in the island hills.


theft of the cattle of helios
Theft of the Cattle of Helios by Pellegrino Tibaldi, 1550-51, in the Museum of Palazzo Poggi, Bologna, via the Web Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.


When he returned and smelled the roast meat, he knew at once that his men and ships were now condemned. When the winds shifted seven days later they sailed away, but the gods came after them with a vengeance, and a great storm came up. Poseidon roused the sea, and the winds howled against them. Zeus hurled thunderbolts that broke the ships to pieces and threw the men into the raging sea. Only Odysseus survived, washed ashore on the island of Calypso.


Imprisoned On The Island Of Calypso


Calypso was a nymph goddess, daughter of the Titans. Finding Odysseus washed ashore, she took him in and cared for him, soon falling in love. Determined to have him as her husband, she kept Odysseus imprisoned on her island for seven years, promising him immortality if he would marry her. Yet Odysseus longed only for home and his wife Penelope, and finally the gods took pity on him. Zeus sent Hermes to command Calypso to release Odysseus, and she begrudgingly obliged. She helped Odysseus build a raft, but warned him that his hardships were not yet over.


calypso's island departure of ulysses
Calypso’s Island, Departure of Ulysses, or Farewell to Calypso by Samuel Palmer, 1848-49, via The Whitworth, University of Manchester


So it proved, for when he embarked on the raft, Poseidon spotted him, and sent a storm that tossed the raft about and broke it to pieces. Odysseus was left clinging to one plank of the raft. Poseidon retired to his palace, considering his work done, but Athena brought Odysseus safely to shore. He collapsed from exhaustion in the country of the Phaecians. The next morning the princess of that land, sporting with her handmaidens, found him and brought him to the palace.


Odysseus’ Escape And Homecoming 


Back To Ithaca

reunion of odysseus and telemarchus
Reunion of Odysseus and Telemarchus by Henri-Lucien Doucet,  1856-95, via the Art Renewal Center, Port Reading


The Phaecian king Alcinous welcomed Odysseus and invited him to a great feast. During the course of the night, Odysseus told the long tales of his hardships to his hosts. When he had recovered, the Phaecians took him upon their own ships back to his homeland in Ithaca.


Disguised as an old beggar by Athena, Odysseus received the hospitality of a young swineherd, Eumaeus. Athena, meanwhile, went to fetch Odysseus’s son Telemachus, who had been seeking news of his father in Sparta. Telemachus made his way to the house of Eumaeus, who was a dear friend of his, and so met Odysseus while he was still in disguise. Athena pulled the disguise from Odysseus and Telemachus realized that it was his long lost father. They embraced and wept.


An End To The Odyssey

ulysses recognized by dog argos
Ulysses Recognized by his Dog Argos attributed to Jean-Joseph Espercieux, ca. 1812, via Sotheby’s


Together they made a plan to eject the wild suitors from Odysseus’s house who had, for ten years, taken over the palace and vied for Penelope’s hand. Odysseus came down to the city still disguised, but was recognized by his old dog, Argos: “When he marked Odysseus standing near, he wagged his tail and dropped both his ears, but nearer to his master he had no longer strength to move. Then Odysseus looked aside and wiped away a tear.” Having finally seen his master, the faithful hound finally took his last breath. However, Odysseus’s true identity was not discovered by any other in his house.


odyssey trial of the bow
The Trial of the Bow by N.C. Wyeth, 1929, via the Philadelphia Museum of Art


At the urging of Athena, Penelope decided to hold an archery contest to determine which suitor she would choose. Whichever man could shoot an arrow through twelve axe-heads would be the winner, and gain her hand in marriage. Odysseus was the only one who could complete the challenge, and having shot the arrow, he threw off his disguise, and together with Telemachus slaughtered the suitors. Convinced of his identity, Penelope “flew weeping to his side, flung her arms about his neck, and kissed him. Then Odysseus in his turn melted, and wept as he clasped his dear and faithful wife to his bosom.”


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By Marian VermeulenMarian has been a devoted student of the ancient world since primary school. She received her BA in History and Philosophy from Hope College and has continued researching and writing on topics of ancient history from the Assyrian Empire to the Roman Empire and everything in between. She enjoys dabbling in historical fiction, but generally finds the actual true individuals of history and their stories more fascinating than any fictional invention. Her other passion is horses, and in her spare time she enjoys starting young horses under saddle and volunteer training for the local horse rescue.