Homer’s epic poem “The Odyssey” is about Odysseus’ decade-long quest to return to his homeland after the war, and the term has become synonymous with any lengthy, taxing journey or process, and especially the retelling of it.
Odysseus’ tale is a long and complex one, with many facets. He first appears prominently in his attempt to avoid involvement in the Trojan War. Before her marriage to Menelaus of Sparta, Helen was sought as bride by most of the kings of the Greek states, including Odysseus. They made a pact between them to support whomever Helen eventually chose, and after her abduction by Paris of Troy, Menelaus sought the assistance of her former suitors in his war to reclaim her. Odysseus, warned by an oracle that his return would be long-delayed if he joined the expedition, tried to evade his commitment by feigning madness, plowing his fields with his plow yoked to an ox and a donkey, and sowing salt instead of seed. But an agent of Menelaus lays Odysseus’ infant son Telemachus in front of the plow, and when Odysseus swerves to avoid him his ruse is exposed, and he is forced to join the Greek army.
The war itself drags on for ten years, with first one side and then the other gaining advantage, until both camps are exhausted. Odysseus conceives of a stratagem to take the city, and causes the Greeks to fashion a huge wooden horse, ostensibly as an offering to Poseidon for their safe passage home. The Greek troops are embarked, and the ships leave their beachhead, but lie in wait not far off, while Odysseus and a picked band of men conceal themselves within the hollow form of the horse. When the Trojans find the offering, they are elated that the Greeks have departed, and bring the horse into the city as a memorial to their victory. But under cover of darkness, Odysseus and his men slip out, open the gates, and admit the returning Greek army into the city; Troy is sacked and burned, and most of its citizens slain. Our term a “Trojan Horse”, meaning a trick or concealed stratagem for overcoming another, stems directly from this tale.
Odysseus’ homeward voyage is indeed protracted, with many adventures along the way, including sojourns with the Lotus-Eaters, who bring forgetfulness; Circe the enchantress, who turns his crew into swine [see also her asteroid entry]; the nymph Calypso, with whom he spends years; Aeolus, master of the winds; multiple storms which blow them off course; and encounters with the Cyclops Polyphemus; the Sirens; the six-headed monster Scylla and the whirlpool Charybdis, among others. In each instance, it is Odysseus’ intelligence and cunning which rescues himself and his companions, and eventually brings them home.
During his twenty-year absence, his faithful wife Penelope has been importuned by a number of suitors for her hand, who all assume Odysseus is dead and gone. Unwilling to commit, or abandon her husband, Penelope devises a number of delaying tactics, the most famous of which is to say that she cannot choose a new husband until she has finished a burial shroud for her father-in-law. Each day she diligently weaves the shroud as her would-be suitors watch, and each night she unwinds the day’s weaving. Eventually, her deception is uncovered, and her suitors demand she choose from among them. At this point, Odysseus returns, and with the help of his now adult son Telemachus, they slay Penelope’s suitors, and Odysseus reclaims his wife and home. [See also the entry on Penelope for a fuller version of her story and astrological usage.]
Astrologically, Odysseus represents cunning, guile, the ability to fool or manipulate others, keen intelligence, and perseverance or determination. It can also indicate exile or expatriation, long absence from home, extensive travel, and being homeless, ungrounded or rootless.