The Curious Origin of the Word ‘Odyssey’

By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)

Where does the word ‘odyssey’ come from, and what does it mean? In order to delve into the origins of ‘odyssey’, we have to travel back almost three thousand years to ancient Greece and one of the most exciting narratives in the whole of world literature.

So if you’re ready, let’s embark on an etymological odyssey …

The original odyssey described the journey of Odysseus, the great hero of the Trojan War in ancient Greek literature. The Odyssey, the epic poem attributed to the poet Homer, details Odysseus’ journey home after the Greeks have won the war against the Trojans. It takes Odysseus ten years to get home, during which time he has plenty of adventures, encounters sorceresses, allows himself to be seduced by beautiful women, and narrowly avoids ending up being eaten by various monsters.

We don’t meet the title character, Odysseus himself, until the fifth book. The first few books instead focus on Telemachus, Odysseus’ young son, who is back home on the island of Ithaca, trying to rule in his father’s absence. Meanwhile, a group of suitors are hanging around Odysseus’ home, hoping that news will arrive of his death so they can move in and ask Penelope, Odysseus’ wife, to marry them.

Then, Odysseus is finally introduced, on the nymph Calypso’s island, where he has been captive for the last seven years. No sooner has he left her behind than he ends up on the island of the Phaeacians, where he falls in love with a princess named Nausicaa. He tells the Phaeacians about his adventures prior to his time on Calypso’s island.

One of the most famous episodes in the Odyssey takes place on the island of the Cyclopes. Finding the cave of Polyphemus, a Cyclops who is the son of the sea god Poseidon, Odysseus and his crew go inside to find it unoccupied and stocked with all manner of provisions.

When Polyphemus returns home with his flock and finds Odysseus and his men inside the cave, he takes a large stone and blocks the entrance, imprisoning them inside.

But when Polyphemus falls fast asleep, Odysseus spies his chance, driving a wooden stake through Polyphemus’ one eye, blinding him. The next day, Odysseus and his men, having tied themselves under the Cyclops’ sheep, manage to get away without him noticing.

However, the Greeks loved a bit of hubris, or rather they hated those who possessed it: swaggering pride or over-confidence. As he sails away from the island, Odysseus cannot resist telling Polyphemus his real name, so the Cyclops will always remember that wily Odysseus was the one who blinded and outwitted him.

Polyphemus prays to Poseidon, his father, for revenge, and Odysseus’ crew have a rather eventful journey home. But Odysseus does eventually get home to Ithaca, where he vanquishes the suitors, and is reunited with his wife and son.

Because Odysseus’ journey home was marked by adventure, the term odyssey, derived from the title of Homer’s poem, was applied to any long and adventurous journey, and the upper-case ‘O’ which initially headed the word was dropped, and thus Odysseus’ role in inspiring the word became obscured. Indeed, the success of the noun odyssey in English may be linked to the ‘odd’ sounded in the first syllable, suggesting a series of oddities or strange happenings which characterise an adventurous journey or voyage.

In his 1886 novel Kidnapped, Robert Louis Stevenson used the word (but retained the upper-case ‘O’) to refer to a modern journey: ‘This is a great epic, a great Odyssey of yours.’ In the early twentieth century, the obscure modernist poet H. R. Barbor wrote a poem, ‘Subjective Odyssey’, published in the magazine Wheels in 1921 and describing a journey around the modern city.

But oddly enough, the most famous modernist work to draw on the story of Odysseus is one which substitutes his Greek name with his Latin one, Ulysses: James Joyce’s 1922 novel Ulysses is set in early twentieth-century Dublin but uses the voyage or ‘odyssey’ of Odysseus/Ulysses as the inspiration for the journey of Joyce’s latter-day wanderer, Leopold Bloom.

There is a long-standing theory that Odysseus was so named because he was ‘hated by gods and men’, and the name Odysseus was derived from the ancient Greek ὀδύσασθαι meaning ‘to hate’. This word is linked to the classical Latin odium which gives us our English word ‘odium’ – and we all know what it means to describe someone as ‘odious’. Although this etymology is disputed and the grounds for it spurious, it would make sense, for Odysseus was the most cunning of all of the Greeks, and nobody likes a clever-clogs.

Comments are closed.