A Study of the Different Influences in the Character of Odysseus
The Odyssey, by Homer, tells the tale of warrior-king Odysseus and his misadventures and accomplishments along his journey. With strength of character, a quick wit about him, and the gods on his side, Odysseus suffers through enumerable trials in order to see his wife, Penelope, and son, Telemachus after twenty odd years stranded at sea. Despite Odysseus managing his way back home, reuniting with his son and wife and reclaiming his kingdom from the hands of the suitors, his story is not without its sorrows. Having borne the many physical and psychological traumas as a result of his strange encounters, it is safe to say that Odysseus has remained steadfast in his hopes of one day returning to Ithaca, motivated by the love for his family and the safeguarding of his crown from those that sought to tear his family and kingdom apart. Over the course of his journey, Odysseus must choose between succumbing to his grief and sorrow and accepting defeat or push past it and move onward for the sake of getting back home.
Perhaps one of the first few obstacles that Odysseus had to overcome in order to carry on with his journey was his unfortunate run-in with the Laestrygonians, a race of giant cannibals on the island of Lamos. The Laestrygonians play an integral part in setting the stage for Odysseus’ heroics by providing him a challenge that requires decisive leadership and action in order to overcome. Having their ships sunk and the scouts sent by Odysseus butchered and devoured by the Laestrygonians, Odysseus and what remained of his crew watched on in sheer terror at what could’ve become of themselves had they been seen. Needless to say, it is no simple task to have to watch your comrades torn limb from limb and eaten before your very eyes, though they seize the opportunity to escape while hidden away from the giant cannibals. With this, Odysseus enters the first stage of grief: denial. Successful in his escape, Odysseus and his shipmates were out of harm’s way, and so let themselves take a moment to mourn their fallen brothers-in-arms, having witnessed the first of many horrors to come their way: “We sailed on in shock, glad to get out alive/ But grieving for the comrades we’d lost.” (Book X, lines 149-150) A hard pill to swallow, Odysseus nonetheless stomachs his fear and worry for not only his safety, but that of his crew as well, and stays true to his mission. The Laestrygonians are among the most brutal and vicious monsters Odysseus confronts, and for him to face them early on in the story establishes the tone of the story and foreshadows worse things to come.
Another prime example of how sorrow had molded Odysseus into a hero, was during his stay on the island of Ogygia with the goddess Calypso. Presently, Odysseus’ love for his family and home is tested. She attempts to seduce him into being her lover and extending him the offer of immortality, every man’s pipe dream, Odysseus declines her generous offer, thinking on the love he has for his wife and son and desperate to get back to them. Following quite some time apart from his family and kingdom, Odysseus would choose to follow his heart wherever it led him, and it pointed towards home. As a statement of fact, Odysseus was heartbroken he might never see home again and even admitted this to Calypso right before they hopped into bed together once more: “Still I want to go back/ My heart aches for the day I can return to my home./…/ God knows I’ve suffered and had my share of sorrows/ In war and at sea. I can take more if I have to.” (Book 5, lines 219-224) Here, Odysseus is willing to suffer through more of what’s to come, villain or vice, in order to see himself home once more. Calypso offered him the world, but despite the clear temptation that would’ve surely brought down any average hero. However, it has been established that Odysseus is no mere mortal, with a few gods on his side, there are still others working against him and his goals. Calypso serves as a crutch for Odysseus, with her allure of comfort and ease roping him in, but to no avail. Despite the temptation of forgetting his past and starting a new life of pleasure and contentment, Odysseus’ soldiers on as he has done before.
A third instance of Odysseus quite literally, stuck between a rock and a hard place, was when he encountered Scylla and Charybdis as he sailed from the island of Aeaea where he resided with Circe. Two of the deadliest sea-monsters in Greek myth, Scylla and Charybdis are the threshold Odysseus must cross in order to see his family and home on the other side. Scylla is a six-headed serpent who is known for plucking six men of ships that pass by her, one each for head; Charybdis, on the other hand, is a whirlpool monster that slowly draws in ships until they sink into the bottom of the ocean. While Scylla delivers a quick death, Charybdis, on the contrary, ensures a slow, painstaking demise that ends with a crushing blow to the ships and loss of life. It is here that Odysseus must make a difficult decision that only a hero in a position of power could make. Odysseus, warned of the impending dangers and entrusted with the knowledge that six of his own crew will die and the rest will be sucked into Charybdis, is tormented by the idea of seeing his crew die horrible deaths, them having come this far for only to face an untimely demise: “And Scylla devoured them at her door, as they shrieked/ And stretched their hands down to me/ In their awful struggle. Of all the things/ That I have borne while I scoured the seas, I have seen nothing more pitiable.” (Book XII, lines 263-267) Distraught over the death of the remainder of his crew, Odysseus has reached the end-stage of grief: acceptance. Watching everyone around him drop like flies, Odysseus has come to understand that only he is meant to survive the perils of his journey, and that he too is subject to the whims and arbitrariness of the gods.
To conclude, Homer’s portrayal of Odysseus as a hero is not without its merits, but his heroics are grounded in the sorrow and grief that he endures time and again, which puts him in the position to either cower to those feelings and flee from one situation after another; or stand his ground, brave the monsters and men that impede his journey, and fight the good fight until his very last breath. Grief and sorrow can be a double-edged sword in the hands of a hero such as ‘godlike’ Odysseus, whom has what it takes to either wield it as an instrument of motivation and firm leadership, or he can fall on his sword and call it quits while he still has the life to do so. Choosing the former, Odysseus throws himself back into the fray and wrestles with the anguish of not only losing his closest allies but seeing them die horrible deaths. He eventually triumphs over not only the monsters of myth but conquers his inner demons and wins back his family, home, and the crown.
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