Homer’s The Odyssey contains the most extensive account of the adventures of an epic Greek hero Odysseus. However, for many decades critics have argued whether or not Odysseus is, indeed, a hero. Reading The Odyssey, one notices many differences between Odysseus and the typical heroic images in other ancient myths, such as Achilles in The Iliad.
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Odysseus shares some characteristics with other epic heroes, for instance, his physical strength, but also has many other qualities, which distinguish him from a traditional epic image, such as wit, cunning intelligence, patience, and stateliness; moreover, he also possesses some negative qualities that are not generally attributed to epic heroes: for example, pride, unfaithfulness, and poor leadership qualities. Positive traits help Odysseus in his journey and grant him the support of higher powers, whereas other, less exemplary qualities, halt him on his way to Ithaca by creating various obstacles.
Odysseus’ wit has been the subject of many critical studies and explorations. Indeed, legendary epic heroes are not typically shown to be fluent in words. Odysseus, on the other hand, freely uses rhetoric to achieve his goals. For example, Zerba discusses the episode in the land of the Phaeacians with regards to Odysseus’ wit and his use of language: “his performance impresses Alkinoos, lord of the Phaiakians, so much that the king likens him to a singer of tales […] who has spoken both knowingly […] and with a pleasing form […] in his words” (314-313).
Zerba argues that it is Odysseus’ story that helps him to get a new ship and crew from the Phaeacians: “Odysseus’ tale of his wanderings in the court of the Phaiakians […] is delivered in the effort to secure safe passage to Ithaka and to acquire guest-gifts that will enhance his status, is in this sense provisional” (317). However, despite the need to win the audience, Odysseus also uses rhetoric to establish his authority; in his storytelling, he is always somewhat distant from the listeners: “Odyssean charisma, in both the personal sense attached to the character of the man and as a predominant mode of discourse in the epic as a whole, involves standoffishness and deferral” (Zerba 324).
The distance establishes a particular kind of hierarchy and the audience’s respect towards Odysseus, which is vital for him to gain help from the Phaeacian king and to earn a passage home.
Another quality, which is, on the contrary, typically heroic, is Odysseus’ strength. It is also crucial in the Phaeacian episode, as Rankine shows in her article “Odysseus as a Slave.” According to Rankine, having no status or resources upon arrival to Phaeacians poses a substantial threat of enslavement for Odysseus: “The structure, however, follows that of our examples of enslavement: the entry of an outsider, the mock cooption of the outsider into the community, and the trial of this potential opponent, which leads to his domination” (44).
In this case, the contest becomes a way for Odysseus to establish his authority and prove himself a strong opponent. Despite the fact that The Odyssey does not elaborate on the fighting skills of Odysseus until the later books and the slaughter of Penelope’s suitors, during the contest Odysseus proves his physical strength in front of the audience, including the Phaeacian king Alcinous (Homer VIII.216-223):
Up he sprang, cloak and all, and seized a discus,
huge and heavy, more weighty by far than those
the Phaeacians used to hurl and test each other.
Wheeling around, he let loose with his great hand
and the stone whirred on—and down to the ground they went,
those lords of the long oars and master mariners cringing
under the rock’s onrush, soaring lightly out of his grip,
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flying away past all the other marks.
Rankine claims, “Athletics amount to surrogate warfare and the captors want a formidable opponent they can claim to have dominated, as they would have done in war” (43). However, this scene shows Odysseus not as an equal to Phaeacians, but as their superior, and thus earns him respect and freedom instead of a threat of captivity.
Being the rightful King of Ithaca, Odysseus is shown as a majestic figure throughout the story. The importance of his stateliness is highlighted by the influence of Goddess Athena on Odysseus’ appearance. She casts a veil to make Odysseus seem broader and more beautiful at several points during The Odyssey. Firstly, when Nausicaa’s maids find him by the river (Homer VI.237-246):
And then, once he had bathed all over, rubbed in oil
and donned the clothes the virgin princess gave him,
Zeus’s daughter Athena made him taller to all eyes,
his build more massive now, and down from his brow
she ran his curls like thick hyacinth clusters
full of blooms. As a master craftsman washes
gold over beaten silver—a man the god of fire
and Queen Athena trained in every fine technique—
and finishes off his latest effort, handsome work,
so she lavished splendor over his head and shoulders now.
The change in Odysseus’ appearance is noticed by the princess, who becomes attracted to him and thus decides to take him to her father, the Phaeacian king.
The second time when Athena influences Odysseus’ appearance to make him appear more majestic occurs towards the end of the story (Homer XXIII.174-184):
And Athena crowned the man with beauty, head to foot,
made him taller to all eyes, his build more massive,
yes, and down from his brow the great goddess
ran his curls like thick hyacinth clusters
full of blooms. As a master craftsman washes
gold over beaten silver – a man the god of fire
and Queen Athena trained in every fine technique –
and finishes off his latest effort, handsome work…
so she lavished splendor over his head and shoulders now.
He stepped from his bath, glistening like a god,
and back he went to the seat that he had left.
Odysseus’ appearance is important here, as it is a moment of revelation when he shows Penelope his true identity after spending the day in disguise. Penelope admits that he looks “the way he looked,/ setting sail from Ithaca years ago/ aboard the long-oared ship” (Homer XXIII.196-198). The revelation is significant not only because it marks the hero’s return, but also because Penelope’s cooperation eventually helps Odysseus to defeat the suitors and to re-establish his authority as the king.
Arguably the most important quality Odysseus possesses and the one that helps him the most on his journey is his cunning intelligence, and there are two factors that account for such importance. Firstly, Odysseus’ intelligence is one of the main reasons for Athena’s affection towards the hero and thus, her help, which saves Odysseus’ life on numerous occasions and grants him safe passage home. Athena admits the fact that she favors Odysseus’ for his cunning intelligence: “That’s why I can’t forsake you in your troubles— /you are so winning, so worldly-wise, so self-possessed!” (Homer XIII.376-377). Athena comes to Odysseus’ aid right from the start of the poem, allowing him to escape from Calypso’s island.
She also saves his life from Poseidon’s wrath after Odysseus blinds his son Polyphemus, helps Telemachus to grow from boyhood into manhood so that he would become a reliable ally to Odysseus after his return, negotiates with the gods that want to inflict harm on Odysseus, and so on. The Goddess’ influence on the story is substantial, which makes Odysseus cunning intelligence an essential quality for his return home: “Athena and Odysseus are the perfect partners in the cunning arts (kerdea)” (Mitova 2).
Zerba stresses another important aspect of Odysseus’ intelligence: his skepticism. In Odysseus’ wanderings, Zerba argues, his skepticism and mistrust are vital for him to stay alive: “As an instrument of survival for those who have been alienated from the ones they love and exposed to the ebb and flow of rumor, skepticism offers a way of coping with a world that is deeply contingent, opaque to understanding, and fraught with competing views” (317). For instance, Odysseus’ skepticism prevents him from falling under the spells of Circe and Calypso (Homer IX.29-33):
Calypso the lustrous goddess tried to hold me back,
deep in her arching caverns, craving me for a husband.
So did Circe, holding me just as warmly in her halls,
the bewitching queen of Aeaea keen to have me too.
But they never won the heart inside me, never.
Despite the fact that Odysseus still had to spend several years on Calypso’s island and over a year with Circe, his intelligence has prevented him from sharing the fate of his teammates, who remained in captivity for the rest of their lives.
Patience is another characteristic that helps Odysseus in his journey, particularly due to the numerous cases where he uses a disguise to conceal his identity. For example, even as he finally reaches Ithaca, he cannot appear at his palace’s doorstep in his real appearance; he has to disguise himself as a beggar in order to devise a plan to slaughter Penelope’s suitors who have been taking residence at his home.
Disguise allows Odysseus to penetrate into the palace, to get enough support by revealing his true identity to Penelope, Telemachus, and some other trusted characters, and then to take the suitors by surprise, murdering them and reclaiming his power over Ithaca. While in disguise, however, he experiences a lot of humiliation from the ignorant suitors and the maids who sleep with them. For instance, Odysseus is mocked and insulted by Melantho (Homer XVIII.366-378):
She was Eurymachus’ lover, always slept with him.
She was the one who mocked her king and taunted,
“Cock of the walk, did someone beat your brains out?
Why not go bed down at the blacksmith’s cozy forge?
Or a public place where tramps collect? Why here—
blithering on, nonstop,
bold as brass in the face of all these lords?
No fear in your heart? Wine’s got to your wits?—
or do you always play the fool and babble nonsense?
Lost your head, have you because you drubbed that hobo Irus?
You wait—a better man than Irus will take you on,
he’ll box both sides of your skull with heavy fists
and cart you out the palace gushing blood!”
A similar scene happens during the suitors’ feast, when Ctesippus insults Odysseus, throwing an ox hoof in his face (Homer XX.321-339). In both scenes, patience and self-restraint are vital for Odysseus not to disclose his real identity too soon, which would ruin his plan and put his life in danger. Thus, patience is a beneficial quality that helps Odysseus to return as the King of Ithaca in the conclusion of the story.
Odysseus’ pride acts as the counterpart to his patience, and it is one of the few negative qualities that cause substantial trouble to Odysseus and show his less heroic side. The best part of the story to examine the portrayal of Odysseus’ pride is the Cyclops episode in Book IX, which “presents a conflict between civilized humanity and a subhuman culture trapped in a primitive pastoral stage” (Dayton 1). Odysseus and some of his crew members are captured by Polyphemus.
The Cyclops eats two of Odysseus’ men each day until Odysseus develops a plan to escape. He and his men blind Polyphemus with a wooden staff and manage to flee from the cave. Before blinding the Cyclops, Odysseus tells him that his name is Nobody, which helps them escape: when Polyphemus calls to his neighbors for help and tells them that Nobody injured him, the other Cyclopes disregard the alarm and don’t help Polyphemus to catch Odysseus. However, as soon as Odysseus feels safe on board of his ship, his pride takes over, and he calls to Polyphemus again (Homer IX.558-562):
if any man on the face of the earth should ask you
who blinded you, shamed you so—say Odysseus,
raider of cities, he gouged out your eye,
Laertes’ son who makes his home in Ithaca!
Odysseus’ pride would not let him leave his heroic actions unknown, so he reveals his name to the Cyclops. Such arrogance is punished straight away: Polyphemus prays to his father Poseidon to punish Odysseus. For the rest of Odysseus’ travels, Poseidon represents the main opposing force to Odysseus: “Poseidon, after delivering an angry monologue, causes a storm, and Odysseus reacts with a despairing monologue in which he wishes he had died at Troy […] The raft is then hit by a wave that knocks Odysseus off and destroys the boat’s rudder and superstructure” (Scodel 9). Thus, Odysseus’ pride is a negative quality that causes a lot of trouble for the hero.
As Rankine notes, “It has not been unusual for modern readers (such as Toni Morrison) to raise the question of Odysseus’ polygamy” (41). Indeed, whereas there are numerous occasions in the text that show Odysseus’ love for his wife Penelope, he has sexual intercourse with both Calypso and Circe. Despite the fact that Calypso held Odysseus captive, which implies that “to assume Odysseus is free to act as he wants with Calypso would be as inappropriate as reading the American slave woman’s coitus with her master as voluntary” (Rankine 41), his last intercourse with the Nymph can hardly be deemed forced (Homer V.248-251):
Even as he spoke
the sunset and the darkness swept the earth.
And now, withdrawing into the cavern’s deep recesses,
long in each other’s arms, they lost themselves in love.
Odysseus also spends over a year with Circe, despite not being affected by her guile. At first, he appears with the intention to kill Circe and to free his men, however, he decides to spare her life and becomes her lover instead (Homer X.383-386):
she began to swear the oath that I required—never,
she’d never do me harm—and when she’d finished,
then, at last, I mounted Circe’s gorgeous bed …
Overall, Odysseus’ infidelity to Penelope causes a significant delay in his return to Ithaca and poses a danger to his men and his life, too.
Poor Leadership Qualities
Another character flaw that can be found in Odysseus is his poor leadership qualities. Despite being respected and even feared by his teammates, Odysseus fails to be an effective leader throughout the story, which causes significant troubles and delays. For instance, instead of sailing straight to Ithaca after the victory in Troy, Odysseus and his crew sail to Cicones. After killing the men of Ismarus, Odysseus and his men share their gold and their wives; however, when Odysseus commands his crew to go back to the ships and set sail, they do not listen, and this results in other Cicones coming to avenge the murdered men and killing many of Odysseus’ teammates (Homer IX.50-62):
Then I urged them to cut and run, set sail,
but would they listen? Not those mutinous fools;
there was too much wine to swill, too many sheep to the slaughter
down along the beach, and shambling longhorn cattle.
And all the while the Cicones sought out other Cicones,
called for help from their neighbors living inland:
a larger force, and stronger soldiers too,
skilled hands at fighting men from chariots,
skilled, when a crisis broke, to fight on foot.
Out of the morning mist they came against us—
packed as the leaves and spears that flower forth in spring—
and Zeus presented us with disaster, me and my comrades
doomed to suffer blow on mortal blow.
Another Odysseus’ leadership failure can be seen in the episode with the Cattle of the Sun. On the island of Thrinacia, where Odysseus and his crew were beached for over three weeks, Odysseus’ men disobey him and slaughter the cattle of Helios, causing the Gods’ wrath as Zeus punishes them, inflicting another shipwreck, which no one but Odysseus survives. In the end, Odysseus returns to Ithaca alone, having lost both of his crews, which once again proves his poor leadership qualities.
Some critics have also mentioned Odysseus’ weakness and passivity throughout the story: “From the moment Poseidon raises the storm until he reaches the river, Odysseus is unable to plan effectively […] Odysseus’ inability to make and carry out a reasoned decision is a pointed demonstration of his broader inability to act effectively” (Scodel 11). Indeed, at times it seems like the only force that drives Odysseus home is the divine help of Athena and other gods.
For instance, when Poseidon casts waves to wreck Odysseus’ raft, the hero is aided by Athena, Ino, and the river god consecutively (Scodel 13). The help of the gods follows Odysseus through his journeys, implying that he would not be able to survive and reach Ithaca on his own: “He is helped by both gods in a way that makes him less of ‘a hero developing with his circumstances’” (Mitova 4), mainly due to his character flaws that cause significant troubles throughout The Odyssey.
Mitova argues that the multi-dimensional nature of Odysseus’ character is implied by the hero’s name: she explains how the name Odysseus comes from Greek ôdusao, “which can have both an active and a passive meaning” (3). The closest alternative in English would be the word ‘trouble,’ therefore meaning that Odysseus can both cause trouble and be the trouble: “Odysseus has two aspects, a victim and a victimizer” (Mitova 3).
The diversity of character traits, positive and negative, seems to be a feature that distinguishes Odysseus from other epic heroes to the extent that makes the audience wonder if he can be named a hero at all. To me, the plot of the epic answers the question conclusively: the constant divine help, for example, is a strong indicator of Odysseus’ righteousness by the ancient order, whereas his successful return to Ithaca’s throne establishes his status as an epic hero, who has successfully combatted his enemies and obstacles on the way to his goal.
It is true, however, that “Odysseus does not represent ‘the commonest aspirations and failures of human nature’ – he is like no other mortal man in the Homeric epics” (Mitova 4). The fact that the poet decides to show his beneficial qualities, as well as the less exemplary characteristics, creates a new concept of the epic hero portrayal, making the character more believable and more relevant to the real world.
Dayton, John. “The Negative Banquet of Odysseus and the Cyclops.” Web.
Homer. The Odyssey, translated by Robert Fagles, edited by Bernard Knox, Penguin, 2006.
Mitova, Katia. “The Makers of the Odyssey: Athena and Odysseus.” Web.
Rankine, Patrice. “Odysseus as Slave: The Ritual of Domination and Social Death in Homeric Society.” Reading Ancient Slavery, edited by Richard Alston, Edith Hall and Laura Proffitt. Bristol Classical Press, 2011, pp. 34-50.
Scodel, Ruth. “Odysseus at Sea.” Papers and Monographs from the Norwegian Institure at Athens, series 4, vol. 2, 2014, pp. 9-15.
Zerba, Michelle. “Odyssean Charisma and the Uses of Persuasion.” The American Journal of Philology, vol. 130, no. 3, 2009, pp. 313–339.