Odyssey Term Paper

When we compare the Odysseus of the Odyssey with his character in the former epic, as well as with Achilles and Hector, we see the changing face of Homeric heroism. To use the words of Phoinix in the Iliad, a hero should be “a speaker of words and one “accomplished in action” (Iliad.IX.443). The Iliadic Odysseus fits easily into this description, being fully adept in combat and speech. A hero is one who should stand out from the rest of the people (“aristos”), by birth and by endeavour. He should be favoured by the gods and worthy of their divine patronage and assitance, not because he needs it but because he deserves it. He should always be in the frontline, winning “kleos” (=everlasting fame), aiming to die gloriously if needs be. He is an orator, passionate in debate and skilled in rhetoric. In addition, the heroes of the Iliad also have their own particular character traits that identify them. In many ways, Odysseus in the Odyssey is similar to the Achilleus, with aspects of Hector also (due to his love for his family). Odysseus is loved by his family and even refers to himself as father of Telemachus in the Iliad, rather than son of Laertes as we might expect (Iliad.II.260). In the Odyssey, returning home (= “nostos”) to his family is his sole goal.

Achilleus is the primary hero of the Iliad’s plot and the chief example of heroism in the poem. When roused, he is a barely controlled whirlwind of mayhem, more like a god than a hero. As Odysseus is a hero like Achilleus, he also goes into these bloodlusts. There is an instance in the Iliad where Odysseus is so enraged and fearsome when he sees his companion Leukos struck down that the Trojans recoil from his aristeia (=bloody frenzy of a hero) and “gave way in the face of the man” (Iliad.IV.497). However, Achilleus’ speech making, whilst passionate and fiery are not as eloquent as Odysseus. Antenor recalls such rhetoric that he describes Odysseus’ words “drifting down like the winter snows” (Iliad.III.212) and Homer describes him as “like Zeus in counsel” (Iliad.II.636). He will continue to be a great orator in the Odyssey, as Alcinous observes – “You have a grace upon your words” (Odyssey.IX.367). Achilleus though is removed from the comradery of the other Greeks and acts as a maverick. As Odysseus moves into the Odyssey, he adapts and builds upon the original model of heroism with additional characteristics. Whilst Achilleus is a savage of demonic anger, strength and reflex, Odysseus of the Odyssey becomes a true man of “metis” (=cunning), guile and strategy.

Odysseus’ changing behaviour in the Odyssey is an example of ring composition. Odysseus begins his narrative with his sailing from Troy to Ismarus. Here he briefly recounts how he sacked the Kikones, in an archetypal Iliadic fashion, a mere raid for more spoils to take home to Ithaca. Near the end of the poem he uses his sword for the second time , slaughtering the suitors in the palace. There are occasional lapses to his Iliadic character midway. Examples include his anger at inappropriate speaking out (compare Thersites in the Iliad (II.246) to Eurylochus in the Odyssey Book X), as well his donning of his armour beneath the cave of Scherie, despite Circe saying it was useless to do so. However over the journey there is a marked change as Odysseus progressively alters his behaviour from the Odysseus we saw in the Iliad. One subtle piece of evidence for this is the mere way that he introduces himself. At the beginning of his travels, he declares himself to Polyphemus as the “sacker of cities” (Odyssey.IX.504), a very Iliadic label. But when he introduces himself to King Antinous, near the end of his travels, he counts his “crafty designs” as his most noteworthy claim to fame. This indicates his emergence from the values of the warrior age.

One reason for the transformation of Odysseus is the very different subject matter of the Odyssey compared to the Iliad. Whilst the storyline of the former is a single hero with his men travelling through a fairyland, encountering strange beasts and peoples, the latter is a gritty tale of war, with armies pitched in bloody combat, glory being won or lost as warriors lay down their lives in the dust. Odysseus is forced to change his behaviour to survive this different world, and if it weren’t for his skills of strategy and rhetoric he would perish. If Achilleus for example had seen Polyphemus “slapping” his comrades’ heads onto the floor like “puppies” (ref. Odyssey.IX.289), he would have done what Odysseus consciously controls himself from doing, killing the monster immediately and thus unknowingly dooming them all to imprisonment within the sealed cave. The rhetoric of Odysseus wins over the princess Nausicaa on the shores of Scherie. He makes the astute judgement that traditional supplication would be inappropriate in his naked and grimy state (i.e. clutching her knees), a decision uncommon to the brash, swearing Achilles, unused to such subtle female interaction. It is in this way that Odysseus ensures welcome for himself in the land of the “sneering” (ref Odyssey.VII.17) Phaiakians. This is not to say that his stubborness and single-minded nature does not ever endanger himself or his crew, indeed they suffer as a result. Examples include his secrecy in not telling them about the bag of Aiolos as well as his stubborn control of the rudder until he tires as they sail from Aiolia, which leads to their reverse. This dogged attitude is an unresolved issue of the supressed Iliadic warrior coming through, though in general it is under control. He ponders the voice of his archaic warrior (e.g. after being blown back to Aiolia, when Eurylochus is insubordinate on Aeaea) but his new heroic character is superior.

Despite these examples of the Ithakans being put in danger, Odysseus does learn about leadership, becoming more adept as he suffers. He does not have the luxury of forgetting his people for single combat, as the Kings of the Iliad do (e.g. Odysseus’ the use of a team to drive the sharpened stake into Polyphemus’ eye in the Odyssey). The changing way that he approaches a new island is evidence of this growing wisdom for command. Learning from the Kikones episode, Odysseus leaves the fleet off shore on an island and takes a small party inland at the land of the Cyclopes. At Telepylus, he keeps his ship separate from the others to ensure its safety and sends in only a few men. Learning from their demise, at Aeaea he sends in a more numerous party inland, half the men in fact, and gives command of it to another man (Eurylochus), the first instance of shared command. He also starts to tell his men more what he hears from counsels. Whilst he doesn’t tell the men about Aeolus’ sack of winds, he learns from his mistake and he does tell them the warnings of Teiresias about the cattle of Hyperion (even though they doomed themselves, despite Odyseeus’ efforts). Numerous disasters create a very thick skin around the hero, awarding him the epithet “long-suffering”. When Calypso warns him of danger on the sea, he is by now so accustomed that he merely states “So let this adventure follow.” (Odyssey.V.222)

The primary reason for the transformation of Odysseus, and the watershed in his attitude is Book XI – his visit to the underworld. Indeed, this act alone marks him out as a hero, when one considers the other mortals that have walked the same path (e.g. Hercules, who in fact did not return – Odyssey.XI.632). It is a trial that cannot be met with brute force. Here he meets Achilleus, the dead quintessential Iliadic hero. Odysseus is undoubtedly envious of the glory achieved by Achilleus in his death, as he has just been told by Teiresias that he himself will die of old age in a far off time, after the completion of his last voyage. He tells him “[do] not grieve, even in death, Achilleus” (Odyssey.XI.486). Achilleus completely counters this: “I would rather follow the plow as thrall to another man, one with no land allotted him and not much to live on, than be a king over all the perished dead” (Odyssey.XI.488). This is a sharp change to the vision of war portrayed in the Iliad. However, this new view is evident throughout the Odyssey. Even Menelaus echoes the words of Achilleus that he would sell the majority of his estate if “the men were alive who died in those days in wide Troy” (Odyssey.IV.97) and Helen uses a potion to help forget these pains of war. The simile of the weeping widow on the battlefield used when Odysseus cries at the feast of Alcinous is also well chosen. If Odysseus had been hoping for a nostalgic talk of Iliadic times in the Underworld he was sorely dissapointed. With this knowledge then , Odysseus continues his travels and endures further suffering. The most symoblic image of this is of him clinging to the fig tree above Charybdis at the end of Book XII.

Another consequence of his visit to the Underworld is his association with divine judgement. He saw the punishments of those such as Tityos, Tantalos and Sisyphos (Odyssey.XI.576-635) and is truly aware of the consequences of trangsgressions. Hero blends in with a role as agent of the gods. Whilst he was always been associated with the gods, and specifically with Athene in the Iliad, the relationship with Athene in the Odyssey becomes even more personal. Odysseus walks with the goddess, who feels genuine affection for him (“stroked him with her hand” Odyssey.XIII.288). He is the human closest to her own heart (“best of all mortal men for counsel and stories, and I among all the divinities am famous for wit and sharpness” Odyssey.XIII.298). The two sit down together and hatch a plan, which Athene takes full co-operation in, to eradicate the suitors. When the final battle is complete, his position as Odyssean divine agent, not an Iliadic warrior is established by his rebuke of Eurycleia’s crowing – It is not piety to glory so over slain men. These were destroyed by the doom of the gods’ (Odyssey.XXII.412). He disassociates himself with their death, an action completely different to Achilleus. Compare Odysseus’ taking of vengeance on the suitors with Achilleus–Ę dragging the body of Hector around the walls of Troy! The eventual laying down of Odysseus with his wife at the end of the story (to say nothing of the farsical peace with the suitors’ relatives afterwards) resolves the themes and the hero–Ęs purpose is accomplished. His retelling of his endeavours to Penelope point out the wisdom and experience he has acquired. His final ability to put down his sword and armour for ever settles the problem Hector had of not being able to be a hero and a father (ref. Crying of his son when he sees Hector with his helmet on), whilst Achilleus could never be without war. Whilst Odysseus is fated to die of old age in his bed in his family home, Achilleus died young and in battle, as his nature demanded.


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