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The heroes of the Greeks were an intricate part of society. After the gods and demi-gods of Greece, the heroes were extremely revered by the people. One hero in particular has distinguished himself from the rest through his quest and adventures. That hero is Odysseus. Odysseus displays the necessary qualities to be honored as a hero, but also has distinguishing traits that set him apart from the rest. In order to describe the traits that contrast Odysseus from the customary Greek hero, it is first necessary to define what a hero was in those days and then to illustrate the similarities Odysseus shared with them. Upon such disclosure, the true character and distinction of Odysseus will be better known.
According to mythology and legend, a hero is defined as a man or a woman, often of divine ancestry, who is gifted with great courage and strength, celebrated for his or her bold exploits, and favored by the gods. On that same note, Fee states that ?The hero?s stature and divine purpose is initially established by his miraculous conception, birth, and initiation. Often the hero is conceived by or watched over by a god or other superhuman creature, and the genesis of the hero almost always has supernatural qualities that mark it as special.? (Fee, p. 119) Some heroes that have been helped or favored by the gods are Agamemnon, Achilles, Heracles, Theseus, Jason, and of course, Odysseus.
Agamemnon was a great king who led the Greeks in the Trojan War. In this quest, he had the support of almost all of the Olympian gods and their eagerness to help. He also rallied other heroes, such as Achilles and Odysseus, to fight with him. Hera was the most significant of the gods to help the war efforts, as well Dionysos. Next was Achilles, who was also helped by Hera, and by Athena, who strongly suggested that Achilles not kill Agamemnon in rage. Most significantly, Achilles had the great support of his mother, Thetis. She would often solicit the help of other gods, namely Zeus, on behalf of her beloved son. She even tried to make Achilles immortal by dipping him into the river Styx, but could not cover his heel. This prompted her to seek the help of Hephaestos, who made impeccable, protective armor for her dear son. Heracles is a hero whose main aid came from Zeus, his father, and Athena, who saved him from a storm in time to avert peril. Zeus quite often made sure that his son was well protected. The hero Jason also had a lot of help from many gods. Hera, Artemis, Apollo, Demeter and most importantly, Athena helped him. Athena was the driving force behind building his ships for his quest. This finally brings us to Theseus, who was also in the favor of Athena. He sacrificed the Bull of Crete (or Marathon) to her in praise, for she was the goddess associated with Athens where he was trying to regain his throne.
Like all of these heroes, Odysseus too, was in favor of most of the gods. In fact, all of the Olympian gods aimed to help him, except Poseidon. When Odysseus was fighting in Troy with the other heroes, the gods, especially Hera, were on their side, as previously mentioned. Later, on his adventures to getting home to Ithaca, Hermes helped him outwit Circe, the witch. He gave Odysseus the moly plant, which only gods can uproot, in order to be immune to Circe?s potions and to save his crew. Then, when Odysseus was stuck on the island of Ogygia, being held captive by Calypso, the Olympians voted to help him out to get him off the island. They told Calypso to release him and she consequently gave Odysseus rations to survive as well as materials to build himself a raft.
It is also important to note, however, that despite being favored by most gods, the hero almost always came into conflict with at least one of the gods during his or her quest. The hero would often do something characteristically selfish, and swiftly anger one of the gods. This brings us to Agamemnon?s problems with Artemis. On the way to fight the Trojan War, Artemis stopped the winds from allowing the ships to sail on to Troy, because she was angry with Agamemnon for boasting that he was a better shot than she was. She demanded that Agamemnon sacrifice his daughter Iphigeneia to her in order for the winds to pick up again. He was obviously distraught, but then conceded. Clytemnestra, his wife, was appalled, but Iphigeneia was brave and offered herself to Artemis. Artemis was impressed, spared her, and replaced with her with a doe. Soon after, the winds resumed, and the ships could sail on. Related to this, Achilles had problems with Apollo when he killed his son, Tenes. He averted the wrath of Apollo though, by giving the weapons that killed Tenes to Philoctetes, who was the one to suffer. The next conflict to be seen is between Heracles and Hera. Hera hated Heracles from the moment she found out that he was the son of Alcmena by her ever-adulterous husband, Zeus. She constantly tried to kill him or bring him danger, especially when she tried to interfere with the completion of his twelve labors. At one point, she brought sleep upon Zeus so that she could bring a terrible storm to where Heracles was sailing. ?Heracles might have met his fate if Zeus had not awoke in time.? Subsequently, there was disharmony with Jason and Zeus, because of Jason?s association with the witch Medea. She brutally and dishonorably killed the prince Absyrtus when on Jason?s ship and as a result, the ship, the Argo, was caught in a terrible storm and subject to disorientation because of Zeus. The only way to get back home was to seek help from Circe. Apart from this, there was a minor altercation with Theseus and Dionysos. There was no major conflict, as Theseus was unaware that Dionysos fell in love with his savior Ariadne when they stopped on the island of Naxos, and kidnapped her. The last of the conflicts to be mentioned before Odysseus, is that of Bellerophon and Zeus. Bellerophon suffered the spite of Zeus when he tried to fly up to the dwelling of the gods with his horse, Pegasus. Pegasus was taken away from him and he was flung back to earth.
Odysseus? major conflict was with the god Poseidon. During his wanderings, Odysseus ended up on the island where the Cyclops lived. He and his men got trapped in a cave with the Cyclops, Polyphemus, who was the son of Poseidon. In order to escape, Odysseus devised a plan where he and his men would drive a burning stake into Polyphemus? one eye, then escape clutching the bellies of his sheep. At first, he identified himself as ?Nobody? to Polyphemus, but as he and his men were sailing away, his ego got the best of him and he revealed his true identity. He yelled to the Cyclops, ?If anybody asks who robbed you of your eye, you may tell him that it was Odysseus the sacker of cities, the son of Laertes, King of Ithaca!? (Green, p. 314-315) And so, with that foolish announcement, Odysseus brought upon himself a curse from Poseidon, who was avenging his son?s blindness. This curse would prove to be costly, as it would be the cause of the extension of Odysseus? journey by another ten years and of the evils he experienced on his way home.
The next important trait of a hero is the quest or adventure that the hero embarks on. A hero?s life would be rather insignificant if he did not have a quest in which he could set out on and fight for a great cause in order to prove himself. This quest of the hero almost always begins with some sort of act of initiation. In the case of the heroes of the Trojan War (Agamemnon, Achilles, Odysseus), the event that sparked their quest was the kidnapping of Helen. Agamemnon was the main leader of this quest and summoned the rest of the men to help him. When Achilles was at this War, he had another quest within it to avenge the death of his cousin, Patroclos. During a battle, Hector killed Patroclos (the initiating event) and stole his armor which was borrowed from Achilles. Achilles then vowed to kill Hector, and succeeded.
Oftentimes, the quest of the hero lasted a long time and was laden with adventures. This is the most evident in Odysseus? travels, as described by Homer in ?The Odyssey?, and in those of Heracles, Jason and Theseus. Odysseus? entire adventure, spanning from his involvement in the Trojan War to his journey home afterwards, lasted altogether twenty years. This is longest recorded journey among the heroes. In addition, heroes encounter many confrontations and fight in battles with monsters, demons or other creatures. Odysseus, in company with the other heroes, did this too. All the heroes present at the Trojan War (Agamemnon, Achilles and Odysseus) fought many battles and exemplify this aspect. In addition to the Trojan War, Odysseus encountered creatures such as the Lotus-eaters, the Cyclops, Polyphemus, the witches Calypso and Circe, the Sirens and the monsters Scylla and Charybdis. Other heroes too, encountered creatures as well. Heracles encountered various monsters and beasts from his quest of the twelve labors. Jason came across the dragon that guarded the Golden Fleece in his quest to regain the throne at Iolcos. And, Theseus met with creatures and beasts, such as the Minotaur, from his own labors in his quest to regain the throne at Athens.
Along the way, the hero is also certain to encounter a femme fatale or an enchantress, who tries to add difficulty to the task at hand, but also sometimes ends up helping out. Helen can be considered a femme fatale of the heroes of the Trojan War, as she essentially set the War in motion that caused the deaths of many men. Theseus had Ariadne, though she was not very much of a detriment to him. She helped him out of the labyrinth, but then caused a delay in his quest when Dionysos kidnapped her. And of course, Odysseus had the witches Circe and Calypso who interfered with his quest and greatly delayed his return home. Circe kept Odysseus on her island for a year by making him lose track of time, and Calypso kept him hostage for seven years.
The last major part of the quest, before actually returning home, is the hero?s journey to the underworld or close encounter with death. During Heracles? labors, he went to the underworld to steal Hades? watchdog, Cerberus. He also wrestled with death himself in order to bring the princess, Alcestis, back to life. Theseus went with his friend Peirithoos to the underworld to help him try to get Persephone from Hades. They failed, and Peirithoos was doomed to stay in the underworld. Theseus would have been doomed to the same fate, but Heracles came down to save him and brought him back to Athens. Then of course, Odysseus descended to Tartarus, home of Hades, in order to seek the help of Teiresias the prophet. He was told by Circe to go there to find Teiresias in order to find out how to get back home to Ithaca. After descending to the underworld, the hero?s return is symbolic of a rebirth. His life has new vision and a new sense of aspiration to complete the quest. Most significantly throughout the quest, the hero displays great bravery and valiance, in addition to selfishness. He relies greatly on his strength and status to defeat his enemies. Odysseus once went to confront enemies ?wearing [only] leather caps and no armour, but taking their swords.? (Green, p. 240) This demonstrates great confidence in himself.
The last common characteristic the heroes share, is their death. The death of a hero is customarily tragic. It can be ascertained that the hero is betrayed by someone close to him, and killed in order to take what he has. Agamemnon, upon returning from the War, was dishonored by his wife Clytemnestra. She preferred the arms of Aigisthus, and together, they killed Agamemnon. Paris killed Achilles in the Trojan War, by shooting an arrow that hit Achilles in the heel, his only weak spot, when the War was almost over. Theseus was killed by being pushed off a cliff at Schyra, after successfully exiting the underworld and coming home to refine Athens. This at last brings us to Odysseus. After a journey of twenty years, fighting to get home, he finally succeeded. He was at home, living peacefully with his faithful wife Penelope, when his son by Circe, Telegonas, came to Ithaca by accident of a storm, and unknowingly killed his father, Odysseus. With that, end the similarities that Odysseus shares with the other heroes.
Though Odysseus was similar to other heroes in many ways, he was quite distinct in others. The main distinction between Odysseus and the other heroes, as noted by Homer, is his metis, which other heroes did not have; at least not in great measure. Metis is defined as cunning intelligence, which is the epitome of Odysseus? character. He displays this throughout his quest: at the Trojan War and on his journey home. During the long War, Odysseus did not rely on his strength and size as much as other heroes did. First of all, he was not that large of a man in stature, ?he was below medium height,? (Green, p. 227) and second, he had a much more powerful mind to his advantage. Odysseus was considered the great strategist and councilor to those around him. ?The self-control of Odysseus makes him a hero no longer dependent on menos or mana. He is without passion, ?and so belongs to a new civilization.? (Levy, p. 145) Menos or mana is defined as ?the heroic energy which is a sign of their divine ancestry and upon which their leadership depends; now brought into conflict with the accepted loyalties of organized warfare.? (Levy, p. 15) Odysseus was the mind behind the idea of the Trojan horse, and rallied the men to join him inside. This idea would prove to be the turning point of the War that swayed the favor to the Greeks. Troy, ?after ten years of siege has been taken chiefly by his ingenuity.? (Levy, p. 146)
Like other heroes, he was fearless, but his fearlessness greatly surpassed that of the others. At one point in the War, Agamemnon was prepared to admit defeat and run away. Odysseus would hear nothing of it and said to him, ?We will fight, every one of us, and perish to a man rather than run away. Be silent, if you have no other advice to give, for it would be shameful if the common soldiers heard the King of Men utter such cowardly words.? (Green, p. 245) This quote also exemplified the strong and fierce attitude of Odysseus. He would never be commanded to do things as other heroes would. Instead, he was the one to command and lead. Even, Heracles, who was son of Zeus, followed orders from others. He was servant to Eurystheus during his twelve labors, and listened to him for each task he had to complete. Jason and Theseus also followed orders from other mortals in order to proceed in their quests. Odysseus on the other hand, had a powerful mind of his own. He followed the advice of the Immortal gods and Circe, the witch, but only when they were being helpful to him. Beyond that, if he sensed any wrongful intentions, he ignored them.
Odysseus? cunning intelligence is exemplified on his journey home as well, as recounted by Homer. Many times he outwitted opponents through trickery and ingenious schemes. The first was how he escaped the Cyclops, Polyphemus? cave. When the Cyclops was away, Odysseus and his men made a spear and heated it in the fire of the cave. Once the Cyclops fell asleep, Odysseus plunged the spear into his one eye, and blinded him. Anticipating that other Cyclops would come to help, Odysseus said his name was Nobody so that when asked who was hurting him, Polyphemus would reply ?Nobody is slaying me by guile! Nobody is slaying me by force!? (Green, p. 313) This prompted the others to simply leave and they were none the wiser to Odysseus? scheme. Polyphemus? blindness then allowed Odysseus to fasten his men and himself to the bellies of the Cyclops? sheep, so as to be undetected when the Cyclops let them out to graze.
Another example of his trickery is with Circe. With the help of Hermes, he was able to eat moly and be immune to her potions. Consequently, he was able to instill fear into Circe and save his men, forcing her to turn them back into men from swine. Odysseus was also the only man to ever outwit the Sirens. The Sirens? song was so beautiful that it inspired those who heard it to jump off their boat to swim to them, and in due course led them to their death. To conquer them, Odysseus stopped the ears of his men with wax so their song would not tempt them, and they would still be able to steer the ship. He then had them tie him to the mast, which enabled Odysseus to hear their song, but kept him from jumping off the boat to his death. This gave him the knowledge that no other person had ever had the intelligence to gain.
Odysseus was the most famous Greek character and is still very well known today. He is a very important part of Greek history and the Greeks continue to admire him. His story, as told by Homer in ?The Odyssey?, is still esteemed, highly regarded and jovially recounted. Essentially, Odysseus was the last of the great heroes. His death marked the end of the Heroic Age, and there was no one of great prestige after him.
BibliographyBurkert, Walter. Homo Necans. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983.
Cotter, Wendy. Miracles in Greco-Roman Antiquity. New York: Routledge, 1999.
Dowden, Ken. The Uses of Greek Mythology. London: Routledge, 1992.
Fee, Christopher R., and David A. Leeming. Gods, Heroes, & Kings. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.
Green, Roger Lancelyn. Heroes of Greece and Troy. New York: Henry Z. Walck, Inc., 1961.
Levy, G.R. The Sword from the Rock. London: Faber and Faber Limited, 1953.
Rouse, W.H.D. Gods, Heroes and Men of Ancient Greece. New York: NAL Penguin Inc., 1957.
The Volume Library (2). Nashville: The Southwestern Company, 1995.
Vernant, Jean-Pierre. Myth and Society in Ancient Greece. Brighton: The Harvester Press Limited, 1980.
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