ODYSSEUS AS A CLASSIC GREEK HERO by Petunia Hinkledopper
“ Sing to me of the man, Muse, the man of twists and turns driven time and again off course, once he had plundered the hallowed heights of Troy. Many cities of men he saw and learned their minds, many pains he suffered, heartsick on the open sea, fighting to save his life and bring his comrades home.” Translated by R. Fagles (1966)
The sharpness with which he led his men in the Trojan War is the same devious aptitude he uses to find his way back home after the war. It is also the same intelligence he uses to outwit monsters and other foes who block his path and threaten his men’s lives.
While Odysseus demonstrates cunning, farsightedness, adaptability and other aspects of intellectual prowess, he is by no means a physical weakling! He is not enormous, but he is powerful, and he is both an excellent athlete and a formidable soldier. This combination of intellectual and physical excellence is called “arete” in Greek.
In order to use his cunning and his strength, Odysseus must be willing to face danger with courage. He does not shrink away from his leadership role in times of great peril. From http://www.bulfinch.org/fables/ships/grkship1.html
Odysseus also has the help of the gods at times. In the beginning of the epic, Athena represents Odysseus favorably to the other gods at council meetings. Ultimately, Zeus helps Odysseus rule peacefully once he finally arrives home.
Of course, the gods are not always pleased. Poseidon makes Odysseus’s journey a true test of his wit and valor.
Odysseus is also an aristocrat. He is a member of the ruling class who seeks to recapture his “rightful” place after his long years away at war. He returns to one last battle in which he takes revenge on interlopers…rude, crass suitors for his wife’s affections and possessions…and reasserts his claim to his palace, a beautiful wife and a loyal son to be his proper heir.
A few notes on his atypical status….
Yes, like most classic heroes, Odysseus must prove himself again and again and again, and the perceptions others have of him are of vital importance to his heroic stature, but………..
… .unlike heroes such as Beowulf who search out the dragon and the danger….
Odysseus is always willing to find another way around the danger if possible. He doesn’t run, but he is willing to hide…behind disguises, behind well-timed silences, amongst sheep and at a dinner table. (Oh, yes! Odysseus loves to eat!)
As with many tragic heroes, Odysseus has faults that lead to disaster. Unlike tragic heroes, Odysseus is able to use his conniving to escape the ultimate price others have to pay for his mistakes.
Odysseus has a voracious appetite and a mortal’s weakness for comfort.
He wastes valuable time from his “nostos,” or journey home, on Calypso’s island where he indulges in sex, food and a basically hedonistic lifestyle. When he finally misses the excitement of activity and glory, he politely leaves for home.
He wants to colonize the Cyclops’ island. When he and his men are trapped and in severe danger of being eaten down to the last man, Odysseus thinks of a clever ruse to escape the monster. Just before he and his men are truly free of the beast, his appetite for fame makes him careless and he reveals his name. By doing this, he earns Poseidon’s wrath.
When Odysseus and his men slaughter the Sun’s flocks, and when they eat the fruit of the lotus and forget about their homes, Odysseus as the leader is responsible for the fall into temptation.
Odysseus possesses a cunning wit, and he uses it more than he uses his aging physical strength.
He is brave, but he prefers to defeat his enemies with clever deception rather than meet them head-on.
He is on a journey home, and he must pass many trials to reach the safety of his home.
He must take the hero’s journey into the underworld and return, emerging as a new, wiser and more mature man.
He has weaknesses, but he manages to overcome them to complete his journey and reclaim his home and family.
He interacts with the gods and receives both their favors and their curses.
He is ultimately a heroic figure, a literary icon and an adventurer’s idol.