A Study of the Characters Odysseus and Poseidon as Depicted in Homer’s Odyssey
After the events of the Trojan War, Odysseus and his men headed back home to Ithaca. En route, they unknowingly stopped at the island of the Cyclopes to gather supplies for their long journey home. Unfortunately, the inhabitants of the island were not very friendly – particularly one Cyclops named Polyphemus. In an attempt to hide from the other giants, Odysseus and his men hid in Polyphemus’s cave. Polyphemus then trapped the men inside with a massive boulder blocking the only way in and out. One by one, Polyphemus ate Odysseus’s crew.
Odysseus, keeping a level head, came up with a plan to escape. Odysseus had some undiluted wine on his person, and cleverly offered it to Polyphemus without telling him how strong the wine was. Polyphemus eagerly took the wine, became drunk, and promptly fell asleep. Odysseus and his remaining men heated a wooden stake in a fire, and proceeded to blind Polyphemus’s one eye. After howling in pain, the men hid under the giant’s sheep, where they could not be felt and eaten. The next morning, when Polyphemus let his sheep out to graze, Odysseus and his men snuck out underneath the sheep’s wooly bellies, and escaped to their ship. Polyphemus realized that the men had escaped after Odysseus was already at sea. Polyphemus threw a (poorly-aimed) boulder at the ship, and called out to his father Poseidon for vengeance. Poseidon, in his rage, destroyed Odysseus’s ship, as well as his entire crew, over a ten-year journey back to Ithaca. Odysseus only survived because he had Athena’s favor and protection.
Odysseus was acting out of self-defense. As captain and king, he had a duty to protect himself and his men at all costs. He used his wits to escape a life-threatening situation. He also did not know that Polyphemus was son of Poseidon. Regardless of who Polyphemus was, Odysseus did not kill him, despite the threat against Odysseus and his crew; it would have been just as easy to kill him while drunk or asleep. Poseidon, being a god, acts out of extreme emotion, and decides that the injury of his son warrants mass-murder. Odysseus thought rationally and spared the man-eating Polyphemus; Poseidon acted irrationally, and eradicated Odysseus’s crew. Poseidon could have been more merciful and wiped out Odysseus and his crew quickly. Instead Poseidon extended Odysseus’s punishment and caused him to suffer as he watched his entire crew die over the course of ten years. Furthermore, this extended journey caused turmoil in Odysseus’s Kingdom of Ithaca.
When Odysseus left for Troy, his son, Telemachus, was too young to take the throne. This left Penelope running the entire country. While Odysseus was gone, suitors came to court Penelope, raiding his palace while they were there. Since there was no proof that Odysseus survived the Trojan War, the suitors constantly pressured Penelope to remarry. She did not want to, instead stalling the suitors until Odysseus returned because she believed that he was still alive.
Before Poseidon did anything to Odysseus, he had to get his idea approved by Zeus, king of the gods. Furthermore, Odysseus was in Poseidon’s domain, the ocean, for most of his journey, which puts Odysseus in a precarious position already. Poseidon’s intended target was Odysseus; the rest of the crew was collateral damage, but also emotionally hurt Odysseus. Odysseus knew he was in the domain of a deity that could wreck him on every level; he had plenty of opportunities to brace himself in case things went wrong.
Poseidon, as a deity, demands more respect than a typical human. In Poseidon’s mind, this special treatment extends to his son. Injuring his son Polyphemus was considered a personal insult. Unknown to Odysseus, he had divine protection from Athena – a rival deity to Poseidon. Therefore, Poseidon already did not like Odysseus; stabbing Polyphemus in the eye just added to Poseidon’s hatred. Poseidon did not harm Odysseus, but made him suffer, just like his son, by killing his men slowly. Let the punishment fit the crime.
Moreover, there are times when Odysseus was not only selfish, but genuinely irreverent. While Penelope was upholding her marriage vows, Odysseus had an affair with Circe, a sorceress who had turned his men into pigs while he had his fling. He also deliberately went past the island of the Sirens, just because he wanted to hear their song for himself. Finally, he allowed his men to eat sacred cattle of the god Helios for a week. This one act condemned his entire fleet, ship and men, to destruction. Zeus struck the ship with lightning, forcing Odysseus to swim to an island and live with a Calypso, a sea nymph, for seven years. The rest of his men drowned. This shows that Odysseus did not always respect the gods, and acted selfishly whenever it suited him.
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