Odysseus in the post-heroic age

An interesting contrast to contemplate: On the one hand, Homer’s Odyssey has been beloved from antiquity to the present. On the other hand, in much ancient literature after Homer, Odysseus is presented in a somewhat suspicious light. The contrast with Aeneas in Virgil’s epic is especially pointed. Where Aeneas gets all his men safely to their destination, Odysseus fails to do so. (Also, he “lies,” but that’s a topic for another day.)

The contrast between Odysseus and Aeneas is especially compelling to me because both heroes have been influential, in different times and places. What I especially wonder about is why? In different renderings of Odysseus, whose perspective is focalized, and what is gained and lost through that focalization?

One passage in Homer that I find telling is Odyssey 12.116-120, in which Circe warns Odysseus that he will not be able to save all his men from Scylla. Circe is helping Odysseus chart his journey toward home and preparing him for the challenges that he will have to face. He will have to pass through a narrow straight between Charybdis, a whirlpool that will inhale his entire ship, or Scylla, a six-headed monster who will grab men off the deck of his ship. Circe advises Odysseus to choose Scylla: Better to lose six men than the entire ship. But of course, Odysseus persists in attempting to devise a clever scheme that will enable all his men to survive, and this is when Circe, perhaps exasperated at his audacity, tells him:

“Unwearying man, of course, you are again concerned with warlike works and suffering. Will you not yield even to the deathless gods? I tell you, she is not mortal, but deathless evil, marvelous, dreadful, grievous, and wild, not to be fought with. There is no defense. The mightiest course is to flee from her.”

«σχέτλιε, καί δή αυ τοι πολεμηια έργα μέμηλε
και πόνος. ουδέ θεοισιν υπειξεαι αθανάτοισιν;
η δέ τοι ου θνητή, αλλ’ αθάωατοω κακόν εστι,
δεινόν τ’ αργαλέον τε καί άγριον ουδέ μαχητόν
ουδέ τις έτσ’ αλκή φυγέειν κάρτιστον απ’ αυτης.»

This is my clumsy (and perhaps incorrect, please feel welcomed to correct) translation. I used both “marvelous” and “dreadful” because I’m striving to hold onto moments that may seem incongruous to a modern mindset, rather than to smooth them into something recognizable and comfortable. Specifically here: Immortal powers are something to marvel at, even in their capacity to provoke dread and grief.

Looking at the Iliad and the Odyssey together, a through-line of the poems is the transition from the Heroic to the post-Heroic age. The Iliad is set during the Trojan War, which Zeus devised to end the age of Heroes. The Odyssey is set in the “after.” Odysseus earns his kleos (immortality through poetic song) by surviving the war, accepting his suffering, and achieving his return to his home and mortal identity. Looking at the Iliad, the Odyssey, and Hesiod’s Theogony and Works and Days together, another through-line emerges: Odysseus as a sort of prototype for mortals who must acknowledge and defer to immortal powers. The powers may be benevolent or malevolent as they see fit. Mortals must relinquish a close association with the gods, accept that they cannot fight against them (as Achilles fights the river Scamander in the Iliad), and endure whatever suffering comes to them.

In this sense, Odysseus is a bit of an outlier. He is a Heroic-age hero, and he is not. How to accommodate this paradox in the Hellenistic and Roman empires, when emperors portrayed themselves as heroes and to a degree supplanted them in importance?

As always, I would love to hear your thoughts, feelings, opinions, etc. in the comments.

5 thoughts on “Odysseus in the post-heroic age

  1. This was so interesting – as all of your posts are. I don’t have anything to add, as I’m stuck when it comes to Odysseus. For me, he was a very positive figure when I knew relatively little about him. I love trickster tales and admire clever people, and I tend to prefer heroes who have more than brute strength going for them, so Odysseus was my guy. So much so that I didn’t really think too much about some questionable stuff he did.

    Then, I read “The Iliad” last summer, as you know :-), and he was a far less likeable guy…and THEN I found out that he’s the one who supposedly throws Hector’s son over the walls of Troy. I get why he did it. But as a father who loved his own son, how could he? This was a BABY! And I say this as someone who doesn’t think babies are anywhere near as cute as cats. 🙂 Anyway, all that to say, that was just the straw that broke the camel’s back.

    However, your insights about the imperfect nature of Greek heroes has helped me find peace with Odysseus. But I’m disappointed in him. Still, I do value the idea that heroes can be flawed, that they don’t have to embody EVERY good quality – in fact, heroes who do that, like Superman (in a general knowledge way), I actually find quite boring, and certainly less relateable and true to life than someone like Odysseus, I guess. But still, dang it he did do some pretty crappy stuff….

    So, all that to say, I can’t really weigh in properly. It’s interesting to think of Odysseus as sort of representing us mortals a bit, the way you put it. But I don’t feel any closer to him with that insight. I feel closer to someone like Penelope, actually, who not only has to deal with the whims of the gods, but also of men. Or someone like Hector, even, who has to try to be a hero and be brave while wishing he could just live peacefully with his family and see his son grow up – especially seeing as the entire conflict he’s caught up in was not his fault.

    ….But then again, what does that say about how I view the human condition? Kind of depressing and passive? Maybe it is better to see Odysseus as our representative after all.

    Thanks for giving me something to ponder, as always!

    Also, I don’t speak or read Ancient Greek but your translation felt very natural and was very eloquent – I liked it!

    1. Thank you, as always, Alysa 🧡 I’ve really fallen in love with translating. There’s something very meaningful and touching to me about this act of trying to bridge a gap in language. And I am really intrigued by this insight of yours, from who you connect to in the epics to what that says about how you view the human condition. That is really profound! I’m often saying how the way we talk about books is a rehearsal for how we are in the world, and you have just illustrated that in a really powerful way!

      1. I love what you said about translation – I totally agree. You put it into words so well! Have you ever thought about doing any long-form translations? Maybe your own version of “The Odyssey?”…..
        As for the Homeric characters I feel represent the human condition being a rehearsal for how I am in the world…now I’m torn. I so admire Penelope and Hector and I guess I do have many of the same values. But I’d rather rehearse to be a badass….but I am not a badass, so…. I guess it’s true…sigh.

  2. This debate about whether Odysseus was a hero was presented in my earliest greek mythology class. Although the context was not from antiquity, heroic or post heroic age, but rather between the ancient view and the modern. As a debate among my classmates, it first introduced me to the idea that the ancient society had a completely different perspective than modern readers. It taught me to seek an ancient context and understanding of mythology. As my studies continued into college I was often surprised when the ancient context was ignored. Not that there is no place for modern analysis, of course.

    1. Agreed, I wouldn’t say there is NO place for modern analysis, but when it’s not mediated by understanding of foundational differences, it can veer into irrelevancy because it only tells us about ourselves not about the ancient culture being (theoretically) studied. It can become a kind of narcissistic exercise where we’re obsessively staring at ourselves in the mirror and not understanding what we’re seeing.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: