The background to Ulysses

Prepared by Danis Rose

The novel that is now Ulysses began life as a quasi-autographical sequel to A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. The action was to take place on on 8 October 1904, the day he had left Ireland with Nora, rather than, as it later became, 16 June 1904, the day he first went out with her. It was to centre on the character Stephen Dedalus and to extend his story from the point where it ended in the earlier novel. Subsequently, this plan was modified and the centrality of the young man erased. Even so, the four episodes that Joyce drafted with the sequel still in mind — Telemachus, Nestor, Proteus and Scylla and Charybdis — remain deeply rooted in the real-life activities of James Joyce in and around Dublin in 1904.

Mary or May Murray (May Goulding in the novel), Joyce's mother, was born on 15 May 1859. She married John Stanislaus Joyce, a man ten years her senior, on 5 May 1880 against the wishes of her father (and his mother). As the years of her married life passed by, she grew increasingly burdened. She bore in all seventeen children, of whom not all - including the eldest, James — survived. This procreative fecundity was embedded in a katabasis of relentless social decline.1 (Mary's father, it should seem, was a shrewd judge of character.) Inexorably, she fell ill in early 1903 and was incorrectly diagnosed as suffering from cirrhosis of the liver. By April she was bed-ridden, was attended by a doctor she named Sir Peter Teazle and was cared for by her sister Josephine (‘Aunt Sarah’ in the novel).

James Joyce, the eldest surviving son, was at the time sojourning in Paris. As his mother's condition worsened, he was summoned home to Saint Peter's Terrace by a stark telegram. On his return, he offered what solace he could to the dying woman, except where such solace would compromise his anti-religious stance. He liked to play the piano and sing to her; she liked in particular to hear him sing Yeats's lyric “Who Goes with Fergus”.

It soon became apparent to everyone that the woman was dying of cancer. In this terminal condition, literally with her last living breaths, in vain she implored her son James to make his peace with God, to confess his sins to a priest and to take the Eucharist. On one such occasion, her fervour and despair was so great she vomited bile into a bedside basin.

In the beginning, while his wife decayed, John Joyce, Joyce's boastful father, made a show of reforming himself. This pretence was short-lived, and he soon reverted to type. One incident reported by Richard Ellmann sharply depicts the man's personality:

One hopeless night he reeled home and in his wife's room blurted out, ‘I'm finished. I can't do any more. If you can't get well, die. Die and be damned to you!’ Stanislaus screamed at him, ‘You swine!’ and went for him murderously, but he [Stanislaus] stopped when he saw his mother struggling frantically to get out of bed to intercept him. James led his father out and managed to lock him in another room. Shortly after, tragedy yielding to absurdity, John Joyce was seen disappearing around a corner, having contrived to escape out of a second-floor window.2

Mary Murray died on 13 August 1903, aged forty-five. At the end she fell into a coma. Her family knelt by her bedside, praying for her soul. Her brother John, outraged that neither James nor Stanislaus would kneel, demanded they do so. They refused.

At her interment in Prospect Cemetery in Glasnevin she was wrapped in a plain brown habit.

Shortly thereafter the Joyce household seriously fell apart: the centre could no longer hold. What remained of the furniture was pawned or sold. John Joyce, whose entire existence seems to have been fuelled by a short-sighted hypothecation of the future, took out a final mortgage and quickly squandered the money. To his son's horror, he even pawned the treasured piano. Joyce's sister Margaret (‘Poppie’), who was twenty years old at the time, meanwhile took upon herself the surrogacy of mother. She was to mind the children until 1909 when (possibly in relief) she entered a convent.

James hung on at Saint Peter's Terrace until March 1904 when, on the pretext of requiring a piano in the furtherance of a musical career, he abandoned the piano-less and penniless family to its fate. Using money borrowed from acquaintances, he rented a commodious room spanning the first floor of a house at 60, Shelbourne Road, a house owned by the Kernan family. He hired a piano from Piggott's, the House of Music.3 (An invitation to call upon his friends, the Cousins, each morning and use their piano was imperiously declined.) He got on well with the Kernans and was allowed to slip behind in his rent. By late August, however, mounting debts made his status as a non-paying guest untenable and he was shown the door. Stanislaus writes tellingly of this period:

Jim's landlady and her husband have shut up house and gone away on a holiday, and Jim has consequently left Shelbourne Road — for the time being at any rate — since the 31st August. It is now the 14th September. In that time he has stayed first two nights at a Mr. Cousins’ [in Ballsbridge] on invitation, then a few nights at Murrays, and being locked out there, one night with a medical student,O'Callaghan. At present he is staying on sufferance with Gogarty in the Tower at Sandycove. Gogarty wants to put Jim out, but is afraid that if Jim made a name someday it would be remembered against him (Gogarty) that though he pretended to be a bohemian friend of Jim's, he put him out. Besides, Gogarty does not wish to forfeit the chance of shining with a reflected light. Jim is scarcely any expense to Gogarty. He costs him, perhaps, a few shillings in the week and a roof, and Gogarty has money. Jim is determined that if Gogarty puts him out it will be done publicly. Cousins and Mrs Cousins, especially, invited Jim to stay for a fortnight, but Jim found their vegetarian household and sentimental Mrs. Cousins intolerable, and more than this he did not like their manner to him. They made no effort to induce him to stay longer.4

Gogarty (‘Buck Mulligan’ in the novel), lately returned to Dublin from Oxford, had on 24 June 1904 rented the Martello Tower, a heavy, squat, granite structure at Sandycove, from the Secretary of State for War at a yearly rent of £8-0-0. He grandiosely named his temporary residence the Omphalos and, prophetically, pronounced it to be the centre from which would spring a new ‘Hellenisation of Ireland’.5 (The original omphalos (or ‘navel of the world’) was located at Delphi and marked by a squat stone shaped somewhat like a Christmas pudding and decorated with multi-coloured woollen ribbons.

His proposed relationship with Joyce was comically straightforward: he would pay the rent while Joyce would do the housekeeping. Between chores, Joyce could write his poetry and his books. Gogarty, meanwhile, bursting as he was at the seams with seed, would set himself up as a professional impregnator in an Institute for Insemination for Ladies to be created by him on an off-shore island such as Lambay Island.

Joyce's brief sojourn lasted until the small hours of the morning of 14 September 1904. Samuel Chenevix Trench (‘Haines’), a neurotic English chap Gogarty has befriended while at Oxford and a zealot of the then ‘Irish renaissance’, had stopped over at the tower while returning from a characteristically rugged canoeing trip in the west of Ireland. On the night in question, Trench woke up in a sweat from a nightmare, raving about a black panther pacing about in the room, and, catching hold of a revolver he had with him, discharged it blindly at the hallucinated beast. He then resumed his uneasy slumber. Shortly thereafter he was up again, raving again, and Gogarty wryly shouted at him to leave the beast to him, took the parabellum and deliberately aimed and fired at some tin pots suspended on a shelf above the somnolent Joyce's head. Woken from a dream reputedly of melons, Joyce rose, dressed in silence and silently quit the scene, footing it all the way back to the city. He had finally had had it with the insufferable buffoon. As for Trench, he was to go on and blow his brains out some five years later.

The following night Joyce stayed with the Cousins and, after that, slouched home to Saint Peter's Terrace. Meanwhile he arranged for his belongings to be returned to him:

My trunk will be called for at the Tower tomorrow (Saturday) between 9 and 12. Kindly put into it — a pair of black boots, a pair of brown boots, a blue peaked cap, a black cloth cap, a black felt hat, a raincoat and the MS of my verses [later to form Chamber Music] which are in a roll on the shelf to the right as you enter. Also see that your host [Gogarty] has not abstracted the twelfth chapter of my novel [Stephen Hero] from my trunk.6

In his retelling of events in Ulysses, Joyce strays from the facts. He leaves not in the dead of night but early in the morning, like Hamlet a reluctant avenger. He is portrayed as paying the rent while the others sponge off him. He has no manuscripts and no clothes beyond what he is wearing, which apparel includes a tatty second-hand pair of black trousers borrowed from some anonymous patron, a ‘good pair’ of cast-off shoes cadged from Mulligan and his very own black hat, a relic of Paris. Remarkably, though short-sighted, he has no glasses: his vision, accordingly, is somewhat impaired throughout the day of 16 June 1904.

Joyce's rebellious mind-set in 1904 is well described in a letter he wrote to his paramour Nora Barnacle on 29 August:

My mind rejects the whole present social order and Christianity — home, the recognised virtues, classes of life, and religious doctrines. How could I like the ideas of home? My home was simply a middle-class affair ruined by spendthrift habits which I have inherited. My mother was slowly killed, I think, by my father's ill-treatment, by years of trouble, and by my cynical frankness of conduct. When I looked on her face as she lay in her coffin — a face grey and wasted with cancer — I understood that I was looking on the face of a victim and I cursed the system which has made her a victim. We were seventeen in family. My brothers and sisters are nothing to me. One brother alone [Stanislaus] is capable of understanding me.
    Six years ago I left the Catholic Church, hating it most fervently. I found it impossible for me to remain in it on account of the impulses of my nature. I made secret war upon it when I was a student and declined to accept the positions it offered me. By doing this I made myself a beggar but I retained my pride. Now I make open war upon it by what I write and say and do. I cannot enter the social order except as a vagabond.7

Joyce, an apostate vagabond aspiring to the high office of heresiarch, quit Ireland on 8 October 1904, accompanied by the red-haired ex-convent girl, Nora Barnacle. He was not to return except briefly in 1909 and 1912. In the words of Yeats, Joyce left ‘in flight from the object of his hatred, bearing in mind always in minute detail, even to the names over the shops, the Dublin that he hated but would not forget’. It may be more factual to add: and bearing in his pocket a copy of Thom's Dublin Directory.


James Joyce's reliance on Homer's foundational epic, the Odyssey, for backbone, so to speak, throughout the construction of his novel Ulysses was extensive, and both general and particular. In instances, it is purely allusive, as when Stephen notices that he has somehow hurt his wrist but cannot remember how or when. In the slaughter scene (Od. 22) his counterpart, Telemachos, is wounded in the wrist by an ash spear thrown by Amphimedon. Another physical example is the scar by which Odysseus, unrecognizable after his twenty-years' absence, establishes his identity, a scar arising in youth from being gored by a boar while out hunting with his grandfather. Bloom's cicatrice is more modest and recent, arising from a mere bee-sting. When Bloom lights his cone of incense in his house he is echoing Odysseus' fumigation of the banquet hall after the slaughter of the suitors, with its attendant stench of excrement and blood. Objects are also re-presented: the mysterious moly that protects Odysseus from the spells of Kirke reappears in Dublin as a black, shrunken potato carried as a charm by Bloom. The rickety tray on which, in Calypso, Bloom carries her breakfast upstairs to Molly is meant to invoke the raft on which Odysseus escapes his emotional enchainment by the goddess Kalypso. The interconnections ramify and are not even now all detected.

The manner in which Joyce introduced Homer into his writing was not straightforward. With Joyce, nothing is straightforward. By 1917 he had decided to write a new novel using as a phantom model the narrative of the Odyssey. To this end, while yet unaware of how exactly he would use the material he was collecting, but with the clear intention of doing so, he engaged in a research project: to learn what he could about the Greek language and about Homer, from the perspective of the Homeric texts and, beyond that, from the pertaining scholarship. As he proceeded to piece Ulysses together, initially from fragments of prose written earlier as a planned but discontinued sequel to A Portrait, he sought retrospectively to impose a Homeric parallelism on these, but in a rather strained way. They simply didn't map. When it came to his divorce from his obsession with himself as the idealized character Stephen Dedalus and his creation of a new more realistic version of himself as the older Leopold Bloom, he was able, as he had not yet written anything in this vein, more appropriately to align his evolving novel with his selected model.

In the Bloom-centered episodes this parallelism was thematic: he shaped his episodes to match the various “books” of the Odyssey, transposing the dynamics of the Homeric narrative into what was then a modern 1904 setting. When he reached Cyclops, the altercation with the citizen in Barney Kiernan's public house, he began to use a new literary aide: the listing on large note-sheets of textual elements for inclusion. Up to then, he had used small notebooks as a cache. Starting with Cyclops and continuing on to Penelope, he gathered new material (new elements from external source-texts and recycled material from notebooks compiled earlier). These included indexes from a copy of a translation of the Odyssey in his possession. These notes were used most particularly in the closing episodes such as Eumaeus, and we have thus a disproportionate use of his model across the full text as ultimately realized. His subsequent attempts (via his various “schemas”) to convince the world that he had ab initio structured his new novel with Homer in mind are retrospective inventions, half-truths and unreliable. He ultimately failed perfectly to squeeze the square peg of the OdysseyUlysses, but he certainly tried. While he had Homer in mind from the beginning (from 1917), his re-use of pre-Homeric materials introduced an inalienable incongruity. Stephen's mother is dead, spent, and, unlike the living mother of Telemachos, not conceivably an object of anybody's lust.

His procedure for the later, post-Calypso episodes was first to take notes directly from his Homer source and, in the subsequent course of composing, to use these for fine-point detail. Thus, via his note-taking, we can accurately trace, for example, the linen hanging up to dry in the kitchen (in Ithaca) back to the stringing up of the fornicating maids on a continuous piece of sailor's rope in the palace at Ithaca, their heads all in a row (Od. 22). Without the testimony of these notes, this correspondence (and many others) might seem farfetched. In the commentary that follows I indicate the general correspondence between the texts, Joyce's and Homer's, and supply Joyce's note-sheet elements that directly derive from Homer.


As for Homer, a few words should be said, as Joyce's Ulysses resembles in the particulars of its composition Homer's prototype in ways that even Joyce did not appreciate. Let us therefore first look briefly into the history of Homeric scholarship.

1000 – 800 B.C.
The Homeric Period

800 – 550 B.C.
The Ionian Period

In this period the aedes (singers) composed the six poems entitled Kypria, Aethiopis, The Little Iliad, The Sack of Troy, the Returns (Nostoi), and the Telegony. These, taken together with the Iliad and the Odyssey, comprise the entire “Epic Cycle” of Troy from the earliest times up to the death of Odysseus.

800 – 700 B.C.

In 753 B.C. Rome is founded.

550 – 300 B.C.
The Athenian Period

This period extends from the time of Solon and Peisistratos to Aristotle. In antiquity, it was widely believed that the Odyssey and the Iliad were first put together in Athens in the late sixth century by the tyrannical Peisistratos (608-527 B.C.), ruler of Athens, in the so-called Pesistratean Recension. This is referenced by the Roman orator Cicero (De orat. 3.137) and also in other surviving sources, including in two Lives of the poet. More recent scholarship, however, suggests that Peisistratos saw to it that existing written fragments of the text were collected together and missing lines supplied by the rhapsodes and Homerids.8 There is no question here of a “critical edition”. Evidence from the earliest texts on papyrus in the third century B.C. down to the middle of the second century B.C. reveal there was no “standard” or “definitive” text of Homer; but from 150 B.C. onwards a single “Atticized” version (prepared by Aristarchos from various copies of the works) achieves a status close to canonicity. This edition was written in the full “Ionic” alphabet of 24 letters that became the standard Athenian alphabet in 403/2 B.C.

In this Athenian period, as Athens, dedicated to the goddess Athene, grew in splendour, we find the institution in the city of a new “contest of music” for rhapsodes, citharodes and êtai at the quadrennial “Panathenaic” festival.9 A nomos (rule) confined the rhapsodes to reciting the epics of Homer (the Iliad and the Odyssey) according to a prescribed text, each participant continuing where his predecessor stopped. The prize was, evidently, given to the best recitation with attention paid to fidelity to the “standard” version.

300 – 200 B.C.
The Alexandrine Period

The form of the Homeric poems, their canonicity, was more or less established by around 150 BC. After the establishment of the Libraries of Alexandria, its scholars (those such as Zenodotos of Ephesus, Aristophanes of Byzantium, and, in particular, Aristarchus of Samothrace) helped to establish a canonical text by a process of collation of copies of the texts at their disposal and the exercise of nuanced, critical judgement. The poems formed the core of the ancient Greek and Roman educational curriculum and were thus profoundly influential.

These scholars at Alexandria were the first to segment the texts into 24 parts each. This division was purely for ease of reference for their learned commentaries and the so-called “books” (a misleading term) were more properly “letters” – the twenty-four letters of the alphabet at that time: thus d.101 was the code reference to line 101 in the fourth manuscript roll (d), allowing a neat cross-referencing between text and commentary. (The “new spelling” of 24 alphabet letters dates from 403 B.C. There were, earlier, only 20 or 22 letters in their alphabet.) The scholars edited the texts by expunging lines believed to be spurious interpolations and indicating by diacritics and special signs other suspect lines.

In the Classical period, several of the “books” (individually and in groups) were given their own titles: the first four, focusing on Telemachos, were commonly known as the Telemachy. Odysseus' narrative (Od. 9), featuring his blinding of Polyphemos, was traditionally called the Cyclopeia. Od. 11, the section describing the discourse with the spirits of the dead is known as the Nekyia. Od. 9 – 12, in which Odysseus recounts his adventures for his Phaeacian hosts, were collectively referred to as the Apologoi (Odysseus' stories). Od. 22, in which he kills the 108 suitors, had been given the title Mnesterophonia (the slaughter of the suitors).

200 B.C. – 100 A.D.
The Pergamean Period

In this period the Library of Pergamon was founded by the Attaloi, rivals of the Ptolemies. Weak scholars, the copyists of the Epics reclaimed the spurious lines eliminated by the Alexandrian scholars, and these persist into modern times.

300 – 500 A.D.
The Roman Period

In this “decadent” period, the fame of Virgil and his Aeneid eclipsed that of Homer; knowledge of and admiration for the Epics declined.

600 – 1400 A.D.
The Byzantine Period

In this period, we see a revival of the study of Homer, but no fresh scholarly input.

1500 – 1600 A.D.
The Italian Period

In this period, admiration for the Epics spread throughout Italy. In Florence, the first Italian edition of Homer was printed in 1488 at the expense of B. and N. Nerili and J. Acciajuoli. Other editions followed shortly after: Venice (the 3 Aldine Editions of 1504 to 1524), Strasbourg, Basle, Rome, and the Estienne Brothers (1525 – 1566).

1700 – 1800
The Anglo-French Period

In this period which saw the emergence of modern science we find a revival of original scholarship on Homer, spearheaded by Fr. Hédelin, Abbot of Aubignac. Hédelin conjectured that the Epics were not single unified poems like the Aeneid, but a twofold collection of chants (or canticles), each of which was a separate composition and was intended to be recited as such.

In 1713 Richard Bentley restored to the texts of Homer the old letter digamma that the Athenian scholars had suppressed.10 The Frenchman C. d'Ansse de Villoison uncovered in the library at Venice a Byzantine MS of the Iliad (the celebrated Venetus A) that carried the original marginal notes and critical signs, indicating suspected textual corruption, of the Alexandrians. This text, he held to be the “true” Homeric testament of antiquity. He expounded on the nature of the Epics as a matrix of various compositions dating from different times over a protracted period: a golden age of poetry that anonymously voiced the music and thought of the Greek people as a creative whole.

1900 – 2000 A.D.
The German and Anglo-Saxon Period

The scholar Wolf spread the French theory of Homer across Germany. This saw the schism of schools into the “historic” school that maintained multiple-authorship and the “aesthetic” school that ascribed both Epics to a single author, Homer.

In this century, we find archeological evidence serving to nuance scholarship. The origins of the Epics is pushed well back into antiquity, as far as the Egyptian period when Thebes was the foremost and most cultured city of the world. It is in this period that we can seek the opulence and fame of princely heroes such as golden-haired Menelaos and Nestor, oldest and wisest of the Achaean princes, as immortalized by Homer.


2900 – 1050 B.C.
The Bronze Age, comprising
1. The Early Helladic Period: 2900 – 2000 B.C.
2. The Middle Helladic Period: 2000 – 1650 B.C.
3. The Late Helladic Period: 1650 – 1050 B.C.

1600 – 1100 B.C.
Period of the Mycenaean civilization in the last phase of the Bronze Age.

There was in this early period much intercourse and trade between the Hellenes (Achaeans, ancient Greeks) and the Egyptians; thus Helen of Troy obtained her soporific drug nepenthes from Thebes. The empire of Thebes was known to the Achaeans as Aigyptos (literally, the mouths of the Nile).

The Phoenicians most anciently operated out of the port of Sidon, gateway to Egypt, and they controlled all the waterways of the Mediterranean; but the hegemony of this thalassocracy had been surrendered by Homer's day. They nevertheless retained control of the western seas extending to Gibraltar (to the “Pillars of Herakles”), a place known to them as Kalpe, having lost that of the eastern seas to the Achaeans, an incursive war-like people. Even so, they still retained some interests in the area (ports, connections) for the purpose of commerce.

Greece was known to the early Egyptians as the “Isles of the Very Green”. The Pharaohs had seized the island of Minos as their station and employed Phoenicians vassals as their political and commercial agents.

The Aegean-Levantine civilization was created by Minos, son of Europa the Phoenician aided by Kadmos of Tyre and Danaos the Egyptian. From their ancient lands they imported into Greece an alphabet, written laws, the horse, the light war-chariot seating two persons, and the 50-oared vessel. They would also have brought with them their memories, and their rhapsodes with their chants and tales.11

ca. 1220 B.C.
The Trojan War begins and ends, late 13th – early 12th century B.C.

“Argos” é otherwise, the Isle of Pelops é was the ancient name for all Pelopennese. Agamemnon was the grandson of Pelops, a Phrygian who married an Achaean princess and settled in Argos, in the lordship of Elis.

The (Greek) helmet associated with the late Bronze Age was the boar's tusk helmet. Homer writes that Odysseus wore such a helmet.

The main deity at this period was not Zeus, but Poseidon.

ca. 750 B.C.
The birth of Homer.

Bérard conjectures that Homer was an individual é a highly sophisticated and literate individual12 – who further refined into two coherent Epics already-polished written materials (copied from oral ur-sources) that he had inherited from the cultures that surrounded him: specifically, the “Voyage of Telemachos” ([“Books”] 2, 3, and 4), the “Tales at the Court of Alkinoos” [5-12 and 13(a)], and the “Revenge of Odysseus” [13(b), 14-22, 23(a)]. The latter part of 13 (lines 297-372) plus the whole of 24, the epilogue, are later (post-Homeric) and spurious interpolations, as also is all of the tedious prologue (1).

The great antiquity of these tales is clear from the texts and from such detail as they provide of a (literal) world-view that is in the process of formation. Sea-straits are only becoming known and territories are still open to exploration.


The Odyssey (Odýsseia) and its sister epic13 the Iliad are the oldest literary works in the Western literary tradition.14 The Odyssey is composed in rhythmic and flexible dactylic hexameter (six-footed lines: the conventional meter for archaic Greek narrative verse).

The Odyssey (feminine, peace) and the Iliad (masculine, war) comprise the chief body of the Greek “Epic Cycle”, though fragments remain of an alternative ending of sorts known as the Telegony.

The language of the poem is far from vernacular and is called Homeric or Epic Greek, a literary language or Kunstsprache that is a composite of Ionic and Aiolic dialects from different periods, with the predominant influence being Eastern Ionic. This unevenness speaks to its authorship in a place where different peoples and cultures thrived and interrelated. The text is formulaic to a marked degree, reflecting its origins in chants, with much repetition, especially of epithets. The goddess Athene, for example, is always glaucopis or grey- or sharp-eyed (owl-eyed).

The Odyssey begins in medias res, a literary device also used by later authors of literary epics, such as Virgil in his Aeneid, Luís de Camões in Os Lusíadas and Alexander Pope in The Rape of the Lock.

The events in the main sequence of the Odyssey (excluding Odysseus' embedded narrative of his wanderings) take place in the Peloponnese and in what are now called the Ionian Islands. Ithaca, the homeland of Odysseus, is difficult to locate exactly: it may or may not be the same island that is now called Ithake. The poem relates the story of a man, Odysseus, desperately seeking to return home after the ten-year-long Trojan War, a war in which he played a major role (by contriving the treacherous deceit of the infamous Wooden Horse), but who is frustrated in doing so by some of the gods for his general impiety.15

All of Odysseus' immediate co-combatants, his six-hundred-odd men, are killed as they voyage home, usually in some ghastly manner at the hands of cannibals or monsters. He himself is marooned for years, disconsolate, on Kalypso's enchanted island. He is thus abroad for no fewer than twenty years, the last three of which have seen the depredations by the suitors of his hard-earned property.

Back in Ithaca, the situation has become perilous. Penelope, daughter of an Arcadian king, Icarios, is a woman famed for her chastity and fidelity. Along with everybody else, she believes her husband to be dead, drowned off some coast on his return from Troy. She is now solicited to marry one or other of a band of noble youths (suitors) that refuse to leave Ithaca, where they are living off the fat of the land, until she agrees to a marriage. For three years she defers making a decision by the stratagem of weaving a “web”, a funereal shroud, for her (still living) father-in-law, Laertes. She weaves by day and unravels her work by night, thereby deferring indefinitely the critical choice. She is, however, found out and the suitors press her to decide even more urgently. They also conspire against Odysseus' son, Telemachos, an inexperienced boy of about twenty-one or so who was but an infant when his father went to war.16

Odysseus is ultimately carried home by the Phaeacians on a magical craft. Famous for their hospitality, they bestow gifts on him, a complete but noble stranger to them, in fulfillment of the virtue of xenia or noblesse oblige. (Slaves, of course, were treated roughly.) He returns to his home in the guise of an old, sinewy beggar and is recognized by his faithful, flea-bitten dog Athos. (Athos then expires.) By a series of tricks and with the aid of Athene, of Laertes and Telemachos, he contrives to slay the suitors (the Mnesteres) with bow and sword as they feast unsuspectingly at his banqueting table: a total of one hundred and twenty young men. Appropriately, the feast is in honour of Apollo, patron of archers.

The monstrous scale of this imagined and disproportionate retribution alarms the residents of Ithaca, especially those related to the slain, and they chase after the killers. In a conflict that ensues, Euphites, young Antinoos' father, is killed by old Laertes, magically rejuvenated by Athene. At this, the goddess intervenes and binds the warring parties to a pact: no more killing, you. And all's well that ends well.

Throughout the epic, Odysseus is portrayed as a man of wiles and cunning, polytropos, a bare-faced liar and an avaricious plunderer, ptoliporthos: the sacker of cities. These traits were apparently considered admirable by the ancient Greeks, if not princely.17

Joyce had a copy of both of the poems in the original Greek and owned translations into English of the Iliad by Edward Earl of Derby, and others by A. Long, W. Leaf and E. Myers, as well as a study of the Iliad by W.L. Collins. He also had a bilingual version (Greek and Italian) of the Odyssey, an Italian edition of Od. 14, and translations of the whole work by W. Cowper and by T.E. Shaw. As well as these, he had a German commentary. He relied for his idea of Homeric scholarship on Walter Leaf's reconstruction of daily life in ancient Troy, Troy: A Study in Homeric Geography (especially chapter VI, “The Allies and the War”). Leaf's thesis is that the main reason for the war and the sacking of Troy, a toll-taking way-station and chief market town for many trade routes, was purely economic. The Greeks were obliged to deal with these merchants through Trojan middlemen at an annual “fair” at Troy that began in July and ended in September. On his view, they were envious at the city's prosperity and sought to break its monopoly by besieging the city and bankrupting it; the business about outrage at Helen's abduction and double marriage to Trojan nobles was purely ostensible.18

Joyce copied notes from Leaf into the now-lost MS VI.D.7, the second Ulysses notebook and dating from 1917. At the same date, in the Zentralbibliothek Zürich he also read studiously the scholar Victor Bérard's bulky two-volume study Les Phéniciens et l'Odyssée (Paris: Libraire Armand Colin, 1902), entering extensive notes from this source into two early notebooks (now VI.D.7 and VIII.A.5). He had at the time no idea of how precisely he would use this collected material, but he clearly intended it to form a major structuring influence. Bérard had his own original ideas regarding Troy, such as its location on an isthmus and its Semitic background. He also believed that, in constructing the various parts of the Epics, the author(s) used a number of early Phoenician sea-charts (periploi) that described sea-routes, ports and occasional perils for sailors. Nevertheless, Odysseus' route home is zig-zag and wind-defying. Bérard also notes that the poem's perspective is always inwards from the sea to the land and not the reverse. Joyce refers directly to this theory in Finnegans Wake I.5, where he parodies the creation of his Ulysses:

“Duff-Muggli […] first called this kind of paddygoeasy partnership the ulukkean or tetrachiric-quadrumane or ducks and drakes or debts and dishes perplex (v. Some Forestallings over that Studium of Sexophonologistic Schizophrenesis, vol. XXIV pp. 2-555) after the wellinformed observation, made miles apart from the Master by Tung-Toyd (cf. Later Frustrations amengst the Neomugglian Teachings abaft the Semiunconscience, passim), that in the case of the littleknown periplic bestteller popularly associated with the names of the wretched mariner […] a Punic admiralty report, From MacPerson's Oshean Round By the Tides of Jason's Cruise, had been cleverly capsized and saucily republished as a dodecanesian baedeker of the every-tale-a-treat-in-itself variety which could hope satisfactorily to tickle me gander as game as your goose.”

Joyce seems to have collaborated in the summer of 1929 (over a month's holiday at Torquay) with Stuart Gilbert, the first expositor of the Homeric allusions in Ulysses in his James Joyce's Ulysses, with specific reference to the indexes in these two 1917 notebooks. He must have brought the notebooks along with him.

Other pertinent texts that Joyce read were Samuel Butler's The Authoress of the Odyssey, 1897 [rpt. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1967]; and Padraic Colum, The Adventures of Odysseus and the Tale of Troy (New York: Macmillan Co., 1918). In copying Homeric material into the notesheets, he used S.H. Butler and Andrew Lang's translation (London: Macmillan & Co., 1897 and subsequent re-printings). Finally, he always claimed that he was thrilled as a school pupil at reading the essayist Charles Lamb's , an adaptation for children of the Odyssey. Lamb published the adaptation in 1808. He was a prominent early 19th-century children's author who, with his sister Mary, had been acclaimed a year earlier for a similar work of adaptation titled Tales from Shakespeare (1807).

Scholars today do not have a “definitive” text of the Odyssey or of the Iliad, but instead rely on papyri, medieval manuscripts, and other secondary sources.