Around 750 BCE, at the height of Greek civilization, a blind bard named Homer lived in Ionia, on the western coast of Turkey. Little is known about Homer, but his legacy lives on in his two great works – the Iliad and the Odyssey. While the former is formidable in its own right, it is in its sequel, the Odyssey, that Homer’s incredible craft is showcased. Detailing the adventures of Odysseus, the wily king of Ithaca, and his ten-year-long attempt to return to his country, the Odyssey explores lofty themes of human nature while remaining relatable to readers nearly three thousand years later.
The poem can generally be split into three parts: immediately post-Trojan War, when Odysseus begins to set sail for home; the true odyssey, in which Odysseus must overcome many obstacles on his way back to his home; and the return to Ithaca, the chronicle of Odysseus regaining his rightful position as king. However, it is not the events of the poem that are worthy of note – instead, it is the behavior of the hero himself. Through the interference of the gods, whether to aid or hinder, Odysseus withstands harrowing experiences, all of which leave him a man and hero changed for the better.
Odysseus is introduced to the audience as a god among men (in Ithaca, at least). However, this implies that Odysseus has never truly needed to better himself, making him vulnerable to hubris. Odysseus’ pride is justified to an extent, as seen when he and his crew are captured by the Cyclops, but Odysseus manages to trick the Cyclops and engineer their escape. However, just as they are about to sail away, Odysseus arrogantly stokes the rage of the Cyclops, not realising that the Cyclops he insults is the son of Poseidon, who then curses Odysseus. This is the catalyst for the change that Odysseus will undergo for the rest of the poem, because it makes it clear his pride will not serve him well in the future.
In the ten long years between Odysseus’ departure from Troy and his arrival in Ithaca, Odysseus faces countless struggles that mold him into a character that is capable of overcoming his previously debilitating hubris. He meets characters who are equally as clever and wily as he is, forcing him to recognise people outside of himself. Famous characters who make an appearance during this arc are Circe, the wickedly powerful enchantress of the sea; Scylla and Charybdis, two sea monsters who devastate Odysseus’ crew; and Calypso, who successfully manages to trap Odysseus on her island for seven years. However, these experiences are mitigated by divine interference, notably via Athena and Hermes.
By the final arc of the story, Odysseus has finally renounced his hubris and bowed to the will of the gods, while also being self-aware enough to understand his own worth. The situation in his country has deteriorated in his absence, and suitors of his wife, Penelope, have overrun the palace. Heeding the lessons of the past decade, Odysseus disguises himself as a poor beggar and wanders to the home of his loyal shepherd, Eumaeus, choosing to keep himself secret until he can determine who in Ithaca is truly loyal to him – a wise move, considering that the very next day, he is accosted by both one of his subjects and a suitor. By this point in his journey, Odysseus has learned how to let go of his pride with the knowledge that he will soon get his revenge.
It is this that makes Odysseus a revolutionary hero: not that he is strong enough to kill all the suitors, but that he is clever enough to both withstand the abuse directed towards him while betraying nothing, and to trick the suitors into underestimating him until the fatal moment. Because of the way he handles the unfortunate situation he is in, although Odysseus does not fit the usual definition of a Greek hero (that is, all brawn and no brains), throughout his journey, he learns to be a more balanced heroic figure, which undoubtedly cements his status as one of the foremost heroes in literature for all time.
– Mahak M.
Homer’s The Odyssey is available for checkout from the Mission Viejo Library. It can also be downloaded for free from Overdrive.