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The Old Testament and the Greek Mythology have played great roles in the formation of Western culture. The great heroes of the Trojan War have inspired many artists and writers in their creative works and they do stimulate brave people today to undertake heroic adventures. The adventures of Odysseus during the Trojan War narrated in The Iliad and his heroism on his return to Ithaca which is narrated in the Odyssey stand out to be exceptional pieces of heroism, bravery, and shrewdness. Unlike the other great heroes in the Trojan War like Achilles or Hector who were great warriors, Odysseus’ name is known more for his sharp intelligence, diplomatic strategies, his leadership qualities, and cunningness. He is, thus, regarded as the most prudent of the leaders of Troy. Even Zeus speaks of Odysseus: “He is not only the wisest man alive but has been the most generous in his offerings to the immortals who live in the wide heaven” ( Book 1. Odyssey, p. 5). Unlike the early Greek culture which was primarily a product of great battles, chivalry, romance, belief in Greek Mythology, and bravery, the early Hebrew culture was strongly rooted in religion and absolute faith in God’s designs. The Hebrews, descendants of Abraham, are specially chosen by God to be his people- a blessed generation. They blindly believed in God’s promises and remained faithful and righteous before him. Joseph stands out to be a hero in The Old Testament because, from the stature of a slave sold to an Egyptian merchant, he grew to be the powerful administrator in Egypt, second only to Pharaoh: all these were the result of his faith in God, and God’s grace was always with him: ” The LORD was with Joseph and he prospered…”( Genesis 39:2). Thus, both these heroes differ a lot in their heroic deeds but the two have a strong message to convey to the generations which followed them.
Odysseus all throughout his heroic journey enjoyed the special favor of Goddess Athena, the Goddess of Wisdom. In the Iliad, we find her intervening many times to ensure Odysseus’s safety during the Trojan War, and in The Odyssey, Goddess Athena disguises herself as young maidens or old ladies to assist him whenever he is in trouble. For instance in Book 7, we find her covering him with mist so that no one distracts him on the way to the palace of Alcinous. At another instance ” Athena invested his head and shoulders with a divine beauty, and made him seem taller and broader, so that he would inspire the whole Phaeacian people not only with affection but with fear and respect, and might emerge successfully from the many tests they later subjected him to” (Book 8. Odyssey, p. 106).In the same way, god’s blessings and protection were with Joseph all throughout his life and it was because of God’s inspiration that he was able to interpret the dream of Pharaoh. Even when he was in prison “the LORD was with him, he showed him kindness and granted him favor in the eyes of the prison warder”. (Genesis 39:20-21). Thus divine protection is the key factor behind each one’s success and growth.
Odysseus is strong-willed and he is described as the“lion- hearted Odysseus” (Book 5, Odysseus, p. 72). He is always moved by his own convictions. This is evident from the instance when Leucothoe the White Goddess asks him to jump into the sea to save himself from the wrath of Poseidon, wearing the veil she gives him: he reacts: “ No I will not leave the raft for the moment….I shall do what I myself think best. As long as the joints of the planks hold fast, I shall stay where I am and endure the suffering.” (Book 5. Odyssey, p. 80). Odysseus is keen to return to his homeland and he is determined to undergo any length of hardships and tribulations in his attempts. As he suggests: “So true it is that a man’s fatherland and his parents are what he holds sweetest, even though he has settled far away from his people in some rich home in foreign lands.” (Book 9. Odyssey, p. 125)
Odysseus faces a variety of obstacles on his return to his homeland but his shrewdness and heroic deeds see him through. First, he reaches the country of Lotus-eaters where many of his comrades forget all thoughts of return and leads a life of idleness. He succeeds in making them get back to the ship and continues his journey. Then he reaches the land of the Cyclops where he faces a real threat to his life from Polyphemus, the son of Poseidon. However, he designs a plan to save himself. He intoxicates the cruel gigantic Cyclopes with the wine he brought and with the help of his men pierces the monster’s single eye with the sharpened piece of olive wood. The clever Odysseus had introduced himself as ‘Nobody’ and therefore the Cyclops’s cry for help- “O my friends it’s Nobody’s treachery, not violence that is doing me to death” (Book 9. Odyssey, p. 136) – doesn’t find any responses from the other Cyclops who lived in the nearby caves. Again we find the sharp intelligence of Odysseus in the way he escapes from the cave even though the giant stood at the entrance of the cave, making sure that only his sheep went out of it: “Their master, though tortured and in terrible agony, passed his hand along the back of all the animals as they stopped in front of him; but the idiot never noticed that my men were tied under the chests of his own woolly rams” (Book 9. Odyssey, p. 137). After escaping from the cruel Cyclops, his adventurous journey takes him to Circe whose heart he wins, and later at her advice, he visits the land of the dead where he meets his dead mother, the great warrior Achilles, Ajax, and the great prophet Teiresias who warns him not to kill any of the Sun-god’s cattle and fat flocks when they reach the isle of Thrinacie: “If you leave them untouched and fix your mind on returning home, there is some chance that all of you may yet reach Ithaca, though not without suffering. But if you hurt them, then I predict that your ship and company will be destroyed…” (Book 11. Odyssey, p. 162). Odysseus took watch over his companions when they passed through the sun- god’s domain, but unfortunately he went to a short sleep and his men “ proceeded at once to round up the pick of the Sun- god’s cattle” (Book 12. Odyssey, p. 189). This ultimately caused their ruin, and as Teiresias had prophesied, his ship was destroyed and all his men were killed by strong lightning, and tempest and Odysseus were left alone to pursue his goal.
The way Odysseus takes precautionary measures to get rid of the bewitching divine song of the Sirens reinforces his shrewdness. He took large pieces of wax and plugged them in everyone’s ears so that the songs do not mislead them. He asked his men: “ You must bind me very tight, standing me up against the step of the mast and lashed to the mast itself so that I cannot stir from the spot. And if I beg and command you to release me, you must tighten and add to my bonds.” (Book 12. Odyssey, p. 184). Thus, Odysseus was always prudent enough to foresee imminent dangers. This is suggested by Goddess Athena when she says: “We both know how to get our way: in the world of men you have no rival in judgment.” (Book 13. Odyssey, p. 201). Finally, Alcinous arranges everything for his return and he reaches home back after many years of wandering and suffering. He takes revenge on his wife’s suitors.
Joseph, on the other hand, is a symbol of Christian love, forgiveness, and faithfulness. His father Jacob loved him more than his other sons and this caused a lot of grievances, hatred, and malice in the minds of other brothers: “When his brothers saw that their father loved him more than any of them, they hated him and could not speak a kind word to him” (Genesis 37:4). This hatred increased when Joseph told them about the two dreams he had, both of them pointing that his own brothers would be his servants in the future. This interpretation of the dream intensified their hatred towards him and they waited for a chance to get rid of them. They got the long-awaited moment at their disposal when Jacob sent Joseph to his brothers who were out grazing the flock and they planned to kill him: “ Here comes that dreamer” they said to each other: “ come now, let’s kill him and throw him into this cistern and say that a ferocious animal devoured him. Then we will see what comes of his dreams” (Genesis 37:19-20). Later they sold him to some Egyptian merchants and Potiphar, one of Pharaoh’s officials bought him. He was imprisoned due to the false accusation of Potiphar’s wife who prompts him to go to bed with her. From the prison, he interprets the dreams of both the Cupbearer and the Baker of Pharaoh who were also imprisoned. Things happen exactly Joseph had told them and later when Pharaoh himself comes across a dream which no one else can interpret, Joseph is called to the court to interpret it. Pharaoh saw the unusual sight of seven fat cows being eaten by seven ugly lean ones in his dream. Joseph said that the seven fat cows symbolized seven prosperous years which will be followed by seven years of famine as symbolized by the seven lean cows. Pharaoh becomes happy and entrusts Joseph with the task of meeting the famine.
The powerful God of Joseph designed the turning of events in such a way that his brothers who sold him came at his disposal, but being a faithful servant of God he doesn’t take revenge upon them. The famine became so severe that people from other countries including his own brothers were also forced to come to Egypt to collect the grains: “And all the countries came to Egypt to buy grain from Joseph, because the famine was severe in all the world.”(Genesis, 41:57). Thus he raises himself to heroic stature by saving the Egyptians and other nations from a dreadful famine with his wisdom and judicial actions. Thus he gains the appreciation of his countrymen and wins the special favor of Pharaoh who makes him the governor of the country.
But the real heroism of Joseph is seen in the way he treats his brothers who have done a lot of unjust cruel actions to him. Even when he reveals his real identity to them he is so cautious not to cause them any fear or feelings of insecurity. He believes it was God’s plan for him to make him serve many nations and people. This is evident when he tells them: “ I am your brother Joseph, the one you sold into Egypt! And now do not be distressed and do not be angry with yourselves for selling me here, because it was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you” (Genesis 45: 4-5). He proves himself to be a real follower of God by forgiving them unconditionally and showing compassion, love, and mercy towards them. After the death of Jacob, his father, his brothers are really frightened that Joseph would take revenge upon them for the cruelty they have displayed by throwing him mercilessly into the well and later for selling him to the Egyptian merchants as a slave. Joseph reassures them of his goodwill and tells them that it is God’s duty to repay them for their deeds, and not his. He tells them: “Don’t be afraid. Am I in the place of God? You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives. So don’t be afraid. I will provide you and for your children” (Genesis 50: 19- 21). He also makes provisions for them to lead a happy and prosperous life in Egypt.
Thus, both Odysseus and Joseph have registered a place for them in the history, culture, and religion of the Western world, and all throughout the world, they spread their heroic and noble values. Odysseus was a real Greek hero who believed in his own capabilities and always tried to accomplish the impossible. His thirst for adventure and search for the unknown makes him unique: even after setting his foot in his homeland, he longs to go for yet another journey. Joseph, on the other hand, believed that he was unable to do anything without the help of God and because of this strong dependency, adorns one of the important places in the whole of The Old Testament. He remains as an epitome of human endurance in the face of sufferings and misfortunes; and he strongly believed that all that happened in his life is for his good: “it was not you who sent me here, but God. He made me father to Pharaoh, lord of his entire household and ruler of all Egypt”. (Genesis 45:8). Thus, his strong belief in God, his wisdom, and his forgiving nature make him a real hero. It is thus clear that heroes never die and that they will always be alive in the minds of generations through arts and literature.
- Homer. The Odyssey. Trans.E.V.Rieu. Penguin Books, London & New York, 1991
- The Holy Bible. International Bible Society, Colorado, 1984.