Responsibility in the Odyssey is not as straightforward as one might expect.

On one hand we have the immortal gods of Mount Olympus, forever involved with inducing the hearts of men for the sake of honor, glory and doom. The gods, though often overly emotional, are usually upfront and honest by claiming some responsibility for the joys and miseries of the mortals below. On the other hand we have mortal men, subject to the powers above to either rise as heroes, forever renowned, or to simply fade away with paling reputations. Men are not so lucid on the subject of responsibility, as more often than not they cast blame on the powers above rather than on their own folly. There is no question that mortals and immortals alike are subject to the whims of fate. However, we are told by Zeus that men “compound their pains beyond their proper share” (The Odyssey 1.40). By applying this principle primarily to book twelve we will see that, despite many complaints, men must bear responsibility for the majority of their suffering. In order to demonstrate that men are responsible for at least some, if not most of their misery, we need to draw lines between fate and what is in addition to fate. We are reminded that Odysseus is fated to one day return home. When we say ‘fated’ it is made clear in the context of Homer’s epic that he will return home, no matter what happens. The gods have no power to change fate, even if they express desire to do so. Without a doubt, Poseidon would like to oversee Odysseus’ death himself. However, “he does not kill the man; he only buffets him away from home” (1.74-75). He is unable to change what is fated. Polyphemos even acknowledges this limitation of the gods in his prayer to Poseidon: “grant that Odysseus never see his home… [but] Should destiny intend that he shall see his roof again…far be that day” (9.578-582). What this paper seeks to question is not fate, but what is in addition to fate: how he will return home, and how the decisions of himself and his crew add further joy or misery to that fate. Before focusing on the events of book twelve, it may be best to discuss some major additions to fate that show some evidence of Odysseus and his men making life harder than it ought to be. What I’m referring to is the episode where Odysseus and his men encounter


Polyphemos and pluck out his eye. After the whole event of escaping the cave, Odysseus displays some rather questionable qualities of heroism in his boasting to the Cyclops. Not only does he bring his friends into immediate risk of death by provoking the Cyclops to throw boulders, but he ultimately condemns them to hardship and eventual death. Odysseus was, according to Polyphemos, “foretold…to come” (9.558), fated to pluck his eye out. Polyphemos understands that this is fate and knows that fate cannot be changed. Given this, Polyphemos attempts to make the best of it. He offers Odysseus friendship and Poseidon’s favor in some hope that Poseidon will heal his eye. Odysseus ungraciously rejects this offer, and by doing so subsequently provokes Poseidon’s wrath. Odysseus claims that this act would bring “destruction for my ships…and death for those who sailed in them” (9.605). Here we see evidence that Odysseus claims no responsibility for his actions, but chooses instead to blame the gods for his forthcoming tribulation. This, however, is not the case, as will be shown later. To be fair to Odysseus, Polyphemos had shown less than credible intentions throughout the encounter. For all Odysseus knew, this could have been a trick of vengeance. He had no idea what the consequences of his actions would be. This gives Odysseus the benefit of a doubt. But, as we will see in book twelve, there is clear evidence that Zeus’ principle is true, and that men bring more misery than fate prescribes. In book twelve we see the crew returning from the “homes of Death” (12.31) so that Odysseus could “tell all that [he] had seen” (12.43) to the goddess Kirke. In doing so, Kirke tells Odysseus the directions by which he will get home, along with some invaluable advice about what he will soon encounter. First, she tells him to avoid the lure of the Seirenes by using beeswax to plug the crews’ ears. He heeds this advice without hesitation. Secondly, she warns him of the dangers of Skylla and the whirlpool. To this Odysseus asks how he might “fight off Skylla” (12.134), almost boasting of his fighting skill. Kirke immediately condemns this notion,


lecturing that Skylla “cannot die…[that] no power can fight her” (12.139-141). Should Odysseus choose to stand and fight her he would condemn all of his men, rather than the six he would lose by rowing quickly past her. Regardless of this advice, Odysseus takes up arms when coming near Skylla’s cave. He claims that “Kirke’s bidding against arms had slipped [his] mind” (12.293). Luckily he appears to be the only one to have done so, for if the others had stopped rowing Skylla would have taken “them all, and the ship, too” (12.130). One might wonder that had this occurred in the Odyssey, where would Odysseus put the responsibility: on himself and his forgetfulness or on the gods? It would have been clear evidence that men do indeed add more suffering than fate allots. Regardless, we will now focus on the remainder of book twelve. Kirke gives Odysseus one final, simple piece of advice. She strongly advises him to not harm Helios’ cattle on the island of Thrinakia. This is nothing new as Teiresias had previously foretold Odysseus the trouble awaiting him, and that “the god who thunders on land prepares it” (11.115). Furthermore, Teiresias even told Odysseus how to avoid this anguish: “One narrow strait may take you through his blows: denial of yourself, restraint of shipmates. When you make landfall on Thrinakia…avoid those kine” (11.118-124). Kirke also repeats Teiresias’ warning to Odysseus should he fail to comply. She says, “But if you raid the beeves, I see destruction for ship and crew…Rough years then lie between you and your homecoming, alone and old, the one survivor, all companions lost” (12.167-170). Tragically, the simplest, most emphasized piece of advice is also that which goes unheeded. As Thrinakia comes into view from the ship, Odysseus sees the cattle and immediately remembers “the words of blind Teiresias…and Kirke” (12.346-347). Odysseus then goes on to remind the crew that “Nothing but fatal trouble shall we find here” (12.354), and that they should avoid the island all together. Remarkably, the crew nearly mutiny, giving Odysseus no choice but to ask for their word, that all of Helios’ herd “shall go unharmed” (12.384). All swear oaths to


their leader, because they already have provisions on board. Soon after their landing, a series of storms holds them there for about a month. One might question as to the nature of those storms. Surely Poseidon, in his rage, had something to do with them. Odysseus, unlike the encounter with Skylla, does not let the advice slip his mind. He reminds the crew again that certain doom awaits them if they harm the cattle. After Odysseus leaves to go and pray for some sort of deliverance, the crew contemplates the slaughter of the cattle. Eventually Eurylokhos succeeds in convincing the men to break their oaths. All the men are aware of the potential consequences of their actions, but frankly do not seem to care. Eurylokhos even asserts that it is “Better [to] open your lungs to a big sea…than waste to skin and bones” (12.451-453). For them it is more palatable to take the risk of drowning than starvation. Upon returning, Odysseus is horrified by their actions. He then blames Zeus for making him “sleep away this day of mischief” (12.476). Of course the story continues with the destruction and doom of his ship and crew. Years of wandering promised for failure soon follow. Zeus’ principle certainly applies here as Odysseus and his men were the sole weavers of their own misery. Some might argue that it was Poseidon, or Zeus or some god who brought the men to hunger and desperation in some cruel act to bring more suffering upon them. That may be true, but no god forced them to eat the cattle. Ultimately no god even forced them to land on the island. Those deadly decisions belong solely in the hands of the men. For this they reaped their reward: a death promised time and time again by god and prophet. These men added more misery than fate had promised. But what of Odysseus? Our man is keen to point out right away that he had no part in it; he was praying, put asleep by the gods. What an unlikely story. Did not “all the gods…all but Poseidon” (1.32-33) pity Odysseus? Regardless of whether or not the gods put him to sleep, Odysseus was charged to restrain his men and choose to leave them— unattended—like a toddler in a toy store. If one would argue for Poseidon’s part in this through


storms or sleep spells, then one would also have to accept that Odysseus equally gave his men no choice; for surely without his heroic endurance they would fail. We have seen throughout the Odyssey that Zeus’ principle does apply, and that men, particularly in book twelve, “with their own reckless ways compound their pains beyond their proper share” (1.39-40). This is not something of which heroes, such as Odysseus, are immune. Without fate Odysseus, himself, provokes the wrath of Poseidon. But even given the benefit of a doubt above, we can see the potential for failure in his prideful attempt at Skylla. If given further undue credit, we can still see that his actions and subsequently the actions of his men on Thrinakia add significantly to the hardship prescribed by fate. Tossing blame and responsibility onto the gods for all misery, as Zeus says, is shameless. To say that some god caused you to forget your cloak (14.579) and ultimately that “no one bears the blame but Zeus” (11.66) in all times of trial is simply unbefitting of any hero. Even in Homer’s epics it is possible to have too much pride. Note: line numbers refer to the English text in the Fitzgerald translation. W.D. Jay Matheson B00493718