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Teddy Larkin

Classical Mythology
Analysis of the Character of Odysseus
Greek legends originate as oral stories containing some factual basis from an
earlier era, focus on the adventures of a hero, and eventually are written down. Bards,
oral poets of the 8th century who recited everything from memory, were termed
reputation preservers as their poems would keep the anecdotes of bygone men alive,
however, they could only distribute these living memories to others on an individual
level. Therefore any human being who was capable of transcribing the antiquities of men
was exceptionally important around the 8th century BC. The possibility of ones
exemplary achievements being preserved and remembered yields the extremely attractive
concept of kleos apthitonImmortal Fame. Heroes in Greek legends could only
achieve Imperishable fame by subscribing to aristos, literally translated as best,
which is when a hero has his finest moments in battle (a hero goes out to prove that he is
aristos). Such legends can be extremely flexible and adaptable depending on the poet
since different authors of the same legend often conveyed contrasting illustrations of
heroes and even completely different accounts of the same legend (a living story). One
particular first-rate instance of poets conveying a hero with contrasting identities is seen
through Odysseus, a well-known hero in several Greek legends.
Homer, through this epic poem, tells the fantastical story of Odysseus crossing the
border between civilization and the unknown on his ten-year nostos (journey home) to
Hellas following ten years of fighting in the Trojan War. The Odyssey or Odysseia
literally translates to Odysse (act or story) aristea (aristos); thus The Odyssey can be

interpreted as Odysseus acts of aristea on his quest to reach kleos apthiton. Throughout
the prequel to the Odyssey, Homers Iliad, kleos apthiton was only achieved through
brawn on the battlefield during the Trojan war. The Odyssey acts as a liminal force in
Greek poetry as the aristos of Odysseus occurs in the foreign wilderness and it is through
intellect, creativity and adaptability that he attains kleos apthiton.
Odysseus is always portrayed as a deceitful and dishonorable man in Greek
legends, yet the renowned old fashioned and epic poet, Homer, casts a much more
favorably light on Odysseus in his epic poem Odyssey. Therefore, as Homer begins his
Odyssey, he faces the extremely difficult challenge of repairing the negative connotations
that the other poets associated with Odysseuss persona and portrays him as a good
leader. Homer insists that we cannot blame Odysseus for his men not making it home,
excuses Odysseus for not going down like a captain goes down with his ship and claims
that he and his men were up against so many impossible divine obstacles that there was
no way he could have saved any of his men and it is remarkable that Odysseus himself
still survived. (Aka: Only the Hero matters!)
Odysseus is central to the poem, a heroic individual but the shift has moved from
the civilized Trojan War to the unknown wilderness where Odysseus is isolated from
Greece and is trying to get back home to civilization. Homers attempts to rehabilitate
Odysseus persona in the Odyssey parallel how the Theogony rehabilitates the persona of
Zeus. Zeus transitions from a misanthropic and violent deity to civilized and
philanthropic deity after swallowing intellect and gaining wisdom (Athena). Similarly to
Zeus transformation from a wild deity to a civilized deity, in the Odyssey, Odysseus
relies on his wisdom/wit in the wilderness and back in the civilized worlds of the Iliad,

Greece/Troy, he relies on his brawn and strength. Odysseus is a cunning and

manipulative hero in foreign lands but when he comes back to civilization, Odysseus
turns to brawn. Odysseus operates in foreign lands but the civilized hero is conflicted
when applying Greek customs and hospitality, Xenia, to the wilderness, where barbarians
do not subscribe to any form of moral code. Homer attempts to portray Odysseus exotic
adventures and challenges as having the underlying goal of protecting civilization since a
true Greek hero forms wall around civilization to keep the monsters of the unknown out
of Hellas.
The first sentence of the Odyssey is a traditional invocation of the Muses by the
poet: Muse speak through me about the man much turned man who experienced
(suffered) many evil things once he had destroyed the sacred high city of the Trojans.
Homer commences his epic by portraying Odysseus as a victim of extremely unfortunate
circumstances. The very first adjective Homer applies to Odysseus in the Odyssey is
polytropos, which literally means much-wandering but Homer intended its
metaphorical meanings as well: turning many ways (wily or crafty) and the man of
twists and turns (labeling Odysseus as a troubled hero that leads to a clever hero).
Homers Odysseus contains many of the qualities of an Ancient Greek hero:
strength, wisdom, courage, nobility, a thirst for glory, and confidence in his authority. His
most distinguishing trait, however, is his sharp intellect. MLS Chapter 20 even states that
Agamemnon, the lord of men, is less in council than Odysseus. Both in ancient Greece
and still to this day an individuals reputation is determined by how others view him/her:
assessing his/her character, values and behavior according to the prevalent societal
standards. Zeus himself upholds Odysseus' character as described by Homer in a

narrative between Athena and Zeus where Athena compliments Odysseus repeatedly and
accuses Zeus of forgetting about him, essentially forcing Zeus to acknowledge and
express his love for Odysseus, Zeus asks: Now, how on earth could I forget Odysseus?
Great Odysseus who excels all men in wisdom, excels in offerings too he gives the
immortal gods who rule the vaulting skies? (Book 1 Lines 78-80). Additionally,
Odysseus is praised in The Iliad for being one of the Greek's finest warriors, not because
of this physical strength but because of his smart/conniving nature. Although Odysseus
has many heroic qualities, he still is far from perfect.
A few character flaws of Odysseus that Homer fails to fully vindicate include his
egotistical nature, selfishness, lack of trust, lustfulness, inability to control his anger, and
especially his obsession with everyone elses opinion of him (his reputation). Homers
Iliad depicts the supposed brave and strong Odysseus as a coward as he tries to elude
the Trojan War by pretending to be insane: he yoked an ox and an ass together and
refused to stop sowing salt into a field. Palamedes didn't fall for Odysseus trick and
placed young Telemachus in the path of Odysseus plow. Odysseus stops his plow to
save his son and was forced to join the expedition against Troy (MLS Ch19). Although
this story depicts Odysseus as a liar and a coward, it also explicates that he truly cared for
his family and loved his son enough that he was willing to sacrifice his reputation by
admitting to faking his own insanity and laying his own life on the line by going off to
fight in the Trojan War. Regardless, the fact that he stopped his insane facade and
decided to spare his own sons life does not even come close to portraying a respectable
persona, but merely demonstrations that he is not a complete monster. At one point even
Athena confirms the cowardice nature of Odysseus. Disguised as Metis, Athena tells

Telemachus that Odysseus came to her house, hunting deadly poison for the tips of his
arrows (Book 1, Lines 303-5). Heroes do not fight with arrows, especially arrows with
poisonous tips! A Greek hero is supposed stare his enemy in the eye and kill him with
sword on the battlefield. This dishonorable portrayal of Odysseus compares and equates
him to Apollo, the far-shooter, who was considered a barbarian. Athena, one of
Odysseus greatest admirers, reveals Odysseus was a dirty fighter, not an actual hero.
Odysseus eventually succeeds in his journey back to Ithaca, but all of his men are
killed in the process. Odysseus epically failed (haha) as a leader in protecting his men and
in the end seems like he is only in it for himself. In order to be a good leader a king
should be selfless and diplomatic in his decision-making as opposed to the egotistical and
heated nature Odysseus portrays in the Odyssey. One vivid example displaying Odysseus
foolishness occurs in Book 9 when his men insist that they leave the Cyclops cave.
Odysseus rejects their pleas due to his greed and desire for the Cyclops treasure. This
lust for wealth, pure lack of concern for his mens lives and ignorance of common sense
decisions ultimately results in the death of six of his men. While Odysseuss clever
thoughts and quick actions eventually results in his escape with the remaining six men of
his scouting party, he should have understood the immense danger they were in and left
the Island of the Cyclops with all of his men immediately. Watching Polyphemus
gruesomely devours six of his men did not invoke any feelings of regret or grief in
Odysseus. Immediately as Odysseus began to sail off from the island with the remainder
of his men, he places his mens lives at risk again as by childishly taunting the blinded
Polyphemus by shouting out his real name; making it possible for Polyphemus to identify
his tormentor to Poseidon, his father. Polyphemus then tears off a huge piece of earth

from a mountain and launches it absurdly close to their ship, nearly killing his entire crew
and himself. The immature act of celebrating his escape from Polyphemus also yields
Poseidons wrath; Odysseus should not have been happy or excited after leaving the
island but grim and mournful for the easily preventable loss of six men.
Homers tenth book of the Odyssey displays Odysseus as not trusting his men
enough to tell them what Aeolus had sent with him as a gift. As a result, his men were
curious and opened the bag of winds, only to send them sailing off in the complete wrong
direction. The result of stubborn Odysseus lack of faith in others additionally hindered
his journey home. Also a great leader should do whatever it takes to keep his men safe
and protected. He fails at protecting his men or holding much value to their lives, in
another scenario, when Odysseus saw his men go to Scylla, he did not try to stop them
even though he knew what would become of them. Odysseus would casually use his men
as bait in order to scout any land he didn't feel comfortable investigating himself. He was
absurdly nonchalant about his men dying and the only time he wept or complained was
for himself.
Odysseus does experience some personal growth throughout the Odyssey in terms
of patience and understanding. His trials have to do with refinement of spirit; his growth
is in the kind of judgment that will make him a better king. Early on, Odysseus feels
compelled to taunt Polyphemus the Cyclops as he escapes from the one-eyed monster.
When he returns to Ithaca, however, Odysseus behaves more prudently. He enters in
disguise in order to obtain information about the enemy as well as knowledge of whom to
trust. Even when he is mocked and assaulted by the suitors or his own servants, Odysseus
manages to maintain his composure and resist the urge to retaliate. When he does strike,

the time is perfect. By the end of the epic, Odysseus seems to be a more wise, perceptive
leader than he might have been had he sailed straight home from Troy. Homer does the
best he can in his attempt to portray Odysseus as a good leader and hero whose ultimate
motivation is protecting civilization. Unfortunately, Homer ultimately fails in this task
because as Odysseus was too immature, selfish, dishonest and cowardly to think of
anyone else besides himself. Although Odysseus may have been considered a great hero
by playing a major role in the defeat of Troy, Odysseus was far from a good leader or a
moral man.