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.