Posted by: aboutalbion | November 12, 2012

Is Odysseus a hero?

I have just finished my first reading of Homer’s ‘The Odyssey’ [T E Lawrence’s translation], and I am struggling to say anything sensible about it.

I appreciate the host of references to cultural practices, which I assume reflect the cultural practices known to the author in ‘Greece’ (shall we say around 700 BCE).  At that time, it seems that hindrances to the carrying out of human plans were attributed to the unwanted attentions from a family of related divinities, and that these divinities expected a range of sacrifices to be made at (almost) any place or time.

I’m aware that it is politically correct to say that ‘The Odyssey’ is one of the foundation stories of western literature.  But what can I say about the main character, Odysseus?

Is Odysseus a hero?

My dictionary states the following three usages for the word ‘hero’: “a person, typically a man, who is admired for their courage, outstanding achievements, or noble qualities; the chief male character in a book, play, or film, who is typically identified with good qualities, and with whom the reader is expected to sympathize; (in mythology or folklore) a person of super-human qualities and often semi-divine origin, in particular one whose exploits were the subject of ancient Greek myths”.

So far as I can see, Odysseus is a hero in the tautology of the third usage.  However, on account of his vanity (in not taking advice on his journey) and his merciless cruelty (in killing the maids who had consorted with the suitors), I am unable to view him as a hero in the first two usages.

In this story, Odysseus loses (by untimely deaths) all the men who had sailed for home with him from Troy and, when home, Odysseus summarily kills all the suitors in his house.    Overall, I find that the sacrifice of so many lives, in order that Odysseus can personally flourish and realise his full potential, a deeply troubling story line.  The ideology, that if you kill enough people then paradise is achievable, made several unwelcome appearances on the world-wide stage in the twentieth century … and most sensitive people said ‘never again’.

I am interested to discover that Margaret Attwood has retold Homer’s story from the perspective of Penelope, Odysseus’ wife.  Maybe, I should read her book for contrast.

[Homer (1992) The Odyssey (translated by T E Lawrence).  Ware: Wordsworth.
Atwood, Margaret (2008) Penelopiad: The Myth of Penelope and Odysseus.  Canongate.]


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