Odysseus and His Not-always Heroic Odyssey

By: John Donovan  | 

Odysseus
After Odysseus' men blind Polyphemus the Cyclops, Polyphemus calls on Poseidon to avenge him. As a result, Odysseus has bad luck from that day forward on his 10-year journey back to Ithaca and his wife Penelope. mikroman6/Getty Images

In ancient Greece, no one played the part of hero better than Odysseus, the legendary king of Ithaca. His exploits in the Trojan War won him the hearts of his country, and his perilous, decadelong adventure home after the war, as detailed in the Homeric epic poem the "Odyssey," has solidified him through millennia as a kind of hero's hero.

That's depending, of course, on your definition of hero. Because, nowadays, Odysseus might not be considered all that.

"People [now] tend to think of a kind of CNN hero; the people who have given their community a new water supply or rescued orphans or something like that. That's not the ancient Greek hero in general," says Richard Martin, a professor in the department of classics at Stanford University. "The ancient Greek hero is more like athletic heroes with us. They can be terrible people, off the court, but they are celebrated because they are so amazing at the things that they do.

"Odysseus is famous for being able to disguise himself, for tricking people, for lying, for saving his skin, even at the expense of maybe his crew members. Most conspicuously, he's the one who kills 108 generally unarmed young guys in his own house, all of them, because they were courting his wife. That's the kind of ethical problem that apparently the original author or authors of the 'Odyssey' didn't think was a problem."

trojan horse
It was Odysseus' idea to build the Trojan Horse and leave it at the gates of Troy to end the Trojan War.
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Who Was Odysseus?

One of the most famous names in Greek mythology, Odysseus — who may be based on a real person — was king of the island of Ithaca, related (in some accounts) to the god Hermes. Odysseus eventually married Penelope, the cousin of Helen of Troy, and the couple gave birth to a son, Telemachus.

Odysseus was known as a talented orator but, more so, as a cunning trickster who could disguise both his appearance and his voice. His sneaky ways, according to legend, paid off when he devised a way to end the Trojan War. It was his idea to build a giant wooden statue of a horse — the Trojan Horse — and leave it at the gates of the walled city of Troy as an apparent gift of surrender from the retreating Greek army.

After the Trojans wheeled the horse inside the gate, Odysseus and many of his soldiers, hidden inside the statue, popped out, knocked off a few Trojans, opened the gates for the rest of the Greek army to enter, and thus ended the 10-year war.

Odysseus, in true underhanded fashion, really didn't want to be in Troy in the first place, and tried to get out of the war. But he had sworn to protect Helen of Troy (as part of a deal to win Penelope's hand), and when his lame attempt to get out of his duty failed, he eventually left for Troy, knowing that it had been prophesied that it would take some time to return to Ithaca.

It did. The war took a decade. His trip home, which involved all sorts of adventure and peril — a journey that was first described in voice and in poem, later on papyrus in the first renditions of the "Odyssey," and in countless ways since — would take another 10 long years.

odysseus
The enchantress goddess Circe turns all the Greeks except Odysseus into pigs.
Digital Public Library of America

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The Odyssey

Odysseus and his odyssey are practically synonymous. The word — defined as "a long journey full of adventures" — literally comes from the man's name.

In his decade at sea, among other perils, Odysseus encounters:

  • The lotus-eaters, who feast on a plant that makes them lazy and listless. When Odysseus' crew partakes of the plant, they, too, fall under its spell, and it's up to Odysseus to pull them away again.
  • Aeolus, the god of wind, who initially helps in Odysseus' journey by bagging favorable winds. When the crew opens the bag, though, bad winds blow the ships off course.
  • Poseidon, god of the sea, who makes things difficult after Odysseus blinds Poseidon's son, the one-eyed Polyphemus. Odysseus, not coolly, mocks the monster after his escape, which enrages Poseidon further.
  • The enchantress goddess Circe, who first turns all the Greeks but Odysseus into pigs. Odysseus becomes Circe's lover for a year, finally convincing her to let him and his men continue their journey.
  • The dangerous sirens, who lure unwilling sailors toward catastrophe on the rocks through their tempting songs. Odysseus fills his crew's ears with wax and has his men strap him to a mast of a ship to resist the sirens' call.
  • The father of all gods, Zeus, who destroys all of Odysseus' ships and kills all his men after the crew fed on forbidden cattle belonging to the sun god Helios. Odysseus survives, washing up on the shore of an island where he spends seven years as the lover of the nymph Calypso.

All the while, more than 100 suitors, wannabe kings every one, are vying to convince Penelope that Odysseus is not coming back.

In later tellings of his story, Odysseus may be known as a clever, sometimes cynical manipulator. But his drive to return to his wife, his son and his kingdom is a central theme in every version. He is perseverance personified.

"The upside to him is that he can endure anything. He can teach his heart — he's always talking to his heart, the emotional core, which the Greeks call thumos — that he can control himself," Martin says. "So that's heroic."

Odysseus
Odysseus returns to Ithaca and makes himself known to his wife Penelope.
Digital Public Library of America

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After the Odyssey

When Odysseus finally returns to Ithaca, he kills Penelope's suitors and a few treacherous maids — not heroic in today's terms, admittedly, but effective if you're trying to regain your throne — and his odyssey comes to an end.

After that, the story of Odysseus is not as clear. Hundreds of years after the "Odyssey" was circulated widely — it was written in the eighth century B.C.E. — many writers and scholars began to embellish and even change the story outright. Many suggest that Odysseus lived out his life in peace on Ithaca, Penelope and his only son, Telemachus, by his side. Others say he wandered inland, finally settling far from the sea. Others say he had as many as 13 children.

Another mostly lost epic poem, the "Telegony," tells the story of Telegonus, the son of Odysseus and Circe (the result, evidently, of Odysseus' year with Circe during his odyssey). When Telegonus goes to Ithaca in search of his father, the two men, unknown to each other, square off in a fight, and Odysseus is killed by a spear made from the spine of a sea turtle.

The widowed queen Penelope and her son, Telemachus, accompany Telegonus back to Circe's island. And this is where — again, this is a different story from the "Odyssey," written by a different author much later, though still considered part of what is known as the "epic cycle" — things get a little weird.

In the "Telegony," Telemachus (Odysseus' son by Penelope) ends up marrying Odysseus' former lover Circe, and Telegonus (Odysseus' son by Circe) ends up with Penelope.

"It's totally soap opera stuff," Martin says. "But it's out there."

Not heroic, perhaps. But as with all things Odysseus, it's a story worth the telling.

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