The Odyssey is an epic account of survival and homecoming. The poem tells of the return (or in Greek, nostos) of Odysseus from the Greek victory at Troy to Ithaca, the small, rocky island from which he set out twenty years before. It was a central theme of the Trojan legend that getting home again was at least as great a challenge for the Greeks as winning the war. Many heroes lost their homecomings by dying at Troy, including Achilles, the greatest warrior of the Greeks, whose decision to fight in the full knowledge that he would not survive to go home again is told in the Iliad, the other epic attributed to Homer. Others were lost at sea or met disaster when they finally arrived home. The story of the returns of the major Greek heroes was a favorite subject of heroic song. Within the Odyssey, a bard is portrayed as singing "the tale / Of the hard journeys home that Pallas Athena / Ordained for the Greeks on their way back from Troy" (1.343-45), and we know of an actual epic, no longer surviving, that was entitled the Nostoi or "Returns" of the Greeks. The Odyssey is also a version of this story, and it contains accounts of the homecomings of all the major heroes who went to Troy. But it gives that story a distinctive emphasis through its focus on Odysseus, who is presented as the hero best suited to the arduous task of homecoming and the one whose return is both the most difficult and protracted and the most joyful and glorious.
In telling this story, the poet has also given the greatest weight, not to the perilous, exotic sea journey from Troy, on the west coast of Asia Minor (present-day Turkey), to the shore of Ithaca, off the west coast of Greece, but to the final phase of the hero's return, his reentry into his household and recovery of his former position at its center. As a result, the Odyssey is, perhaps surprisingly, an epic poem that foregrounds its hero's experiences in his home and with his family, presenting his success in picking up the threads of his previous life as his greatest exploit. The Odyssey charges the domestic world to which its hero returns with the same danger and enchantment found in the larger, wilder realm of warfare and seafaring. Seen from the perspective of his wanderings, Odysseus' home becomes at once more precious and more precarious. As he struggles to reestablish himself in a place that has been changed by his twenty-year absence, we are made to reconsider, along with him, the value of the familiar and the danger of taking it for granted.