A few years ago, I did an online course on Greek and Roman Mythology together with my mother. As part of the course, we were required to read the Greek epic, Odyssey and parts of the Roman epic Aeneid. Both are pivotal myths from the Mediterranean culture, but they throw up two sharply contrasting models for their heroes.
Homer’s Odyssey is the older myth. Homer is believed to have composed it around 600BC. But the events he describes are supposed to have taken place centuries earlier.
The central theme of the 12,110 line epic is espoused in the first line,
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.
The Odyssey is the story of a man. A wily and cunning man with a twisting nature whose life followed an equally twisted path. The man in question is Odysseus, the cleverest of the Greek heroes at the sack of Troy. The famous Trojan Horse is considered his idea.
The Trojan Horse
The Odyssey is about what happens to him after his victory at Troy. Unlike his comrades, his path home to his kingdom of Ithaca takes 10 years. During which he and his family back home suffer various misfortunes.
The poem begins not with Odysseus but on Mount Olympos where the gods review his situation and that of his family. His wife Penelope is besieged by suitors who believing Odysseus dead have come to court his wealthy widow. They lodge themselves in her house and proceed to devour Odysseus’s fortune in one long party.
Odysseus’s son Telemachus has grown into a teenager without ever knowing his father. Upon coming into manhood, he tries to call the people of Ithaca to turn out the suitors. The people refuse to help him and his enemies, the suitors pity him.
He finally manages to procure a boat to search for news of his father.
The boy Telemachus leaves in search of his father
He reaches Sparta where king Menelaus assures him that he has heard of his father’s death. Then something happens which I would never have figured out on my own.
Telemachus with King Menelaus and Queen Helen
When Menelaus hears of the mess the suitors have made of Odysseus’s home, he offers his sympathy to Telemachus but offers no help. While sparing no expense in gifts, Menelaus never offers to help Telemachus recover his inheritance from his mothers’ suitors.
I now realize that this is central to Telemachus’s own life. The most important virtue in the ancient world was self-reliance and the ability to shape one’s own life. This differentiated the heroes from the slaves. Menelaus expected Telemachus to set his own house in order by himself. When Telemachus left Ithaca, he was a boy asking others to help him with what he needed. When he returned, he knew he had to do the needful himself. Although he hadn’t figured out how.
During all this Odysseus himself was trapped by the sorceress Circe on an island. Trapped may be the wrong word, for he was also Circe’s lover. But it took divine intervention before Circe agreed to let him go. At that point, we see a transformation in Odysseus. Till now he was morose and gloomy. Suddenly he comes alive and sets about building a raft to take him home. Again, the hero is only happy when he is making his working to make his own destiny. And then with scarcely a goodbye to his lover, he sets off home.
Odysseus leaving Circe
But there is a strange dichotomy at the heart of the Odyssey. Throughout the narrative, Odysseus struggles to direct his own life. He never gives up. Yet again and again, his arrogance invites the wrath of the gods who punish him by driving him away.
Eventually, it is only when the gods take pity on his condition that he manages to reach Ithaca and exact a bloody revenge on his suitors.
Odysseus slays the suitors
The heroes of the Odyssey are all tricksters. Odysseus lies, cheats and robs all to benefit himself and is celebrated for it. His wife Penelope tries to trick the suitors and later tests the returned Odysseus to make sure it is really him. Telemachus starts as blunt and headstrong, but by the end is his father’s companion in trickery.
On the other hand, Odysseus’s men get only passing mentions. One presumes they also had homes and families, but their lives are but incidental to the life of the great man himself. There are no scenes of Odysseus lamenting their deaths.
The character of Odysseus reflects the nature of Greek society of the time and the values they held important. By any modern standard, Odysseus would be considered a selfish brutal monster, yet in his environment, he was a hero.
This I found in sharp contrast with the character of Aeneas in the Roman epic Aeneid which was written about 600 years later and reflected a very different world. But that is for another post.