Odysseus, the man of many turns

Odysseus, the man of many turns, as Homer calls him in line one of the Odyssey, has been a continual source of inspiration and adaptation for European artists and authors such as Vergil, Dante, Shakespeare and Joyce to name but a few. No other classical hero has been the subject of so much moralistic controversy.

Throughout European literature and art, he has since been portrayed as a sixth century opportunist, a fifth century demagogue and a fourth century sophist. In the middle ages he has appeared as a bold baron, a learned clerk, an explorer; a prince and politician in the seventeenth century, in the nineteenth century a disillusioned aesthete and a Byronic wanderer as well as a proto-fascist or a humble citizen of a modern megalopolis in the twentieth century.

Of all heroes in Homer and indeed the whole of Greek and Roman mythology, Odysseus is by far the most complex in character and exploit. Odysseus vacillates between the two poles of intelligence - low and selfish cunning and exulted and altruistic wisdom.

The grandson of Autolycus

Odysseus appears in the Homeric epics with his formulaic adjectives without any introduction. He appears, therefore, to be a familiar figure already and this is backed up by the fact that there are twelve variations in the spelling of his name in Greek! Possibly there were two distinct people originally: Odysseus and Ulixes; however this would still suggest that the character is pre-Homer. Furthermore it is worthwhile observing that over two hundred and twenty versions of the Cyclops tale have been collected from sources extending from India to Ireland.

If Odysseus is a character whose origins and explanation prove elusive, we must remember that he is such a resourceful and unconventional personality who, as many a classics teacher will proclaim, spent nine years of his life in fabulous regions "beyond the reach of map or spade".

Odysseus' maternal grandfather, Autolycus, excelled all men in deceptions and fallacious oaths. Odysseus is therefore a strange mix: grandson of a nobleman and a trickster. If Odysseus has inherited more from his grandparents than his parents, as commonly happens, then it is not surprising he is endowed with a very complex personality. Wiliness is definitely in his blood, for example the night raid or "Doloneia" in The Iliad book 10, although his wiliness is not made overly manifest in Homer's other epic. The Odyssey, however, is a compendium of Odyssean and Autolycan cunning. It is therefore worth indicating that while his conduct differs in the two epics, there is an undoubted consistency in his reputation as in Iliad III., line 202, where Helen describes him as 'adept in all kinds of devices and toil'. At The Odyssey book III in line 121-2 Nestor says to Telemachus 'your father, the glorious Odysseus, used to be far outstanding in all kinds of devices'. The Greek word used for devices "doloi" is neutral and therefore does not indirectly rebuke Odysseus.

We must ask ourselves why there is such a change in Odysseus' role in the two poems. In the Iliad, he lives openly amid friend and foe; however in the Odyssey he is generally alone and moves amongst monsters, magicians and usurpers. The latter provide a much wider scope for his Autolycan talents. It has also been argued that Odysseus is compelled to tailor his nature to the uneasy environment of Achaean aristocrats at Troy. Definite signs of his deliberate self-restraint can be perceived, for example: Odysseus passes all the credit for the success of the Doloneia on to Athene and Diomedes. Agamemnon in Iliad IV and Achilles in Iliad IX both do offer an oblique criticism of Odyssean wiliness, albeit at highly charged emotional moments: 'hateful as the gates of hell', 'adept in evil devices' and 'of the artfully greedy heart' are amongst their exchanges. This can be passed off as rash criticism in the heat of the moment; nonetheless, does it betray the potentially darker side to supreme cunning and wiliness - such as deceit or malicious subterfuge?

Odysseus does not tell a deliberate or malevolent lie in the epics against a friend or colleague. His Autolycan tendencies do, however, make him very loathe to trust others. He who had deceived so many could not believe that after all that happened, others were not trying to deceive him. A perfect example of this is the bag of winds given to him by Aeolus; he did not trust his men enough to tell them what was inside. They assumed it was secret loot and to his credit he includes himself in the blame for the disaster that followed. He normally says 'my men's folly' but here he explicitly intimates 'our folly'.

The latent perils of wiliness are controlled by divine intervention, or more accurately by his special relationship with the goddess Athene.

Odysseus and Athene

She chewed a hangnail. "I read some book about brains," she said. "My room-mate had it and she kept waving it around. It was like, how five thousand years ago the lobes of the brain fused and before that people thought when the right side of the brain said anything it was the voice of god telling them what to do. It's just brains." "I like my theory better," said Shadow "What's your theory?" "That back then people used to run into gods from time to time" - Neil Gaiman, American Gods

In the Odyssey Athene intervenes openly and unambiguously in Odysseus' affairs except when she must guard against the anger of Poseidon. She intervenes in his affairs at the beginning, middle and end of both epics. The influence of Autolycus, his deceitful grandfather, is hinted at only towards the end of the Odyssey; Her influence is clearly the stronger of the two. It is interesting to note that in the Iliad Achilles and Diomedes are certainly the favoured heroes of Athene. Odysseus is certainly not portrayed as the foremost Achaean hero at Troy: Achilles, Ajax, Diomedes and Hector all surpass him in martial valour and athleticism. Athene's purpose in the Iliad is a military one: to bring about the destruction of Troy. Physical violence had to prove a failure first before Odysseus' wooden horse won victory for the Greeks.

This leads us to ask the question: What factors make Odysseus very much Athene's favourite in the Odyssey? By the time The Odyssey begins Odysseus is the only Greek champion who has not yet reached home. Very early in the Odyssey, Odysseus has his character traits and future relationship with Athene subtly depicted, for example in book II he calms a mutiny with his "gentle words" and he is said to be 'equal to Zeus in counsel'. His quelling of the mutinous commoner Thersites is one of the most celebrated incidents in European literature. Indication of a special relationship with Athene was given before the Doloneia in Iliad X. Before setting out on the night raid he prayed:

"... hear me, daughter of Zeus, who dost ever stand by me in all my toils - no movement of mine escapes thee - now show me thy special love, Athene, and grant that we may return again with glory and great success..."

But this is the Iliad and, as is indicated above, Athene's main purpose is to promote the victory of the Greeks and Diomedes and Odysseus are employed as the best instruments for her partisan policy.

It is possible to trace a consistent piety toward Athene on the part of Odysseus, for example during the funeral games; here, during the foot race with the Locrian Ajax, swiftest of all the Greeks, Athene makes Ajax trip up. Consider Ajax's anguished retort:

"...confound it, the goddess who... stands by Odysseus and helps him like a mother"

Odysseus progresses in the Iliad from being Athene's effective agent to her special protégé. Yet note that the last reference to him in the Iliad is an expression of odium at his success. Ajax's remark "like a mother" forms a pivotal role: Homer extends the relationship of the two into motives of personal sympathy and affection. The scene in Odyssey XIII, in which Odysseus eventually lands back in Ithaca contains the explanation of their special intimacy:

"...and that is why I cannot desert you in your misfortunes: you are civilised, so intelligence, so self-possessed"

This urbane civility does not alter his violent revenge on his wife's suitors. There is a strong contrast between his tender, loving scenes with Penelope and the barbarous hanging of the disloyal servants. There is no inconsistency here in Homeric epics.

Gladstone was most impressed with Odysseus' handling of the insult from the Phaeacian prince who taunted him as resembling a merchant rather than an athlete. Gladstone commented that it demonstrated "...more than any composition... up to what point emotion, sarcasm and indignation can be carried without any loss of self-command". Compare for instance the exchanges between Achilles and Agamemnon in Iliad I where self interest, passion and indignation are in complete control.

Odysseus refuses to celebrate his slaying of the suitors and abruptly checks Eurycleia from doing so. He makes a marked departure from the norm of the Homeric hero and sees himself as merely an instrument of destiny in punishing harshness, inhumanity and folly. Men reap what they sow and this fits with what Zeus pronounces at the beginning of the Odyssey. Stanford draws a possible moral conclusion:

"Only by Odyssean self-control and moderation can men achieve victory in life. In contrast, the wrathful, vainglorious Achilles, the arrogant and grasping Agamemnon, the headstrong Ajax and the self-centred and unscrupulous Autolycus paid their penalties"

Athene is interestingly not really the great moral goddess that some would believe her: she does, for example, cruelly deceive Hector in his duel with Achilles. She is primarily a very strong, powerful and partisan warrior goddess. She chooses to help Odysseus for two reasons: First, because he was the sharpest instrument for the overthrow of Troy; secondly because she liked his personal qualities and had a strong fellow feeling for his wiliness. Homer is possibly utilising this relationship to express Odysseus' more humane instincts, namely his desire for a less violent society, within the constraints of militaristic epic society. Intelligence and gentleness are Odysseus' great attributes. It is significant that the gentle or courteous figures - Odysseus, Menelaus and Nestor - are the only characters portrayed by Homer as having arrived home safely home from the war. Heroic poetry will always offer undeserving losers, such as Hector, as well as deserving winners such as Odysseus. Homer seems to accept this as an inevitable truth but with no comparison. The end of the Iliad, it may also be worthwhile to observe, engenders sad resignation and desolate hopelessness, for all its sombre magnificence; the end of the Odyssey, on the other hand, with its promise of peace and reconciliation, is reassuring and confident.

Odysseus' relationships with other characters

Odysseus is singularly amd obtrusively lonely in Homeric epics. Can his aloofness amongst his associates at Troy and his companions at sea be the natural consequence of a character dominated by consummate intelligence, supremacy, infallibility and deceit?

In the Odyssey, his relationships are primarily with different women. Homer portrays relationships between husbands and wives as affectionate, honourable and equal. Odysseus' first appearance in the Odyssey in sitting on the beach of Calypso's island, weeping and gazing forlornly beyond the horizon. Each day he wastes away with homesickness.

Calypso plays some very strong cards to keep Odysseus with her, especially the promise of eternal youth. But Homer has made it explicit from the outset that the dominant desire of Odysseus is to go home. He longs for the oikos and to see "the smoke rising from his own land". He is driven by love for home, Penelope and the life he had been so unwilling to leave behind before he departed for Troy. The movement of the Odyssey is essentially inwards - towards home and normality. There seems to be some creative license used in the portrayal of Odysseus in later poems by such poets as Dante, Pascoli and Tennyson where Odysseus' urge is centrifugal and ever seeking the exotic. There is a contrast between the harsh, rugged Ithaca and the flower-strewn, languorous life in an aromatic island such as Calypso's. However the life of idle hedonism would never satisfy an early Greek eager for action, society and renown. His liaisons with Circe and Calypso can be excused on the grounds of supernatural coercion. Nausicaa is a mere episode in Odysseus' journey home and is not allowed by Homer to become a major theme: the romantic overtones and potential marriage between the two are only envisaged on the part of Nausicaa. The pathos that is aroused when Odysseus is united with his father, Laertes, who works in the briars of an outlying farm in a dirty and patched tunic should also be noted. Some have argued that there was latent tension between father and son and this might explain why Laertes no longer lives at home and why he resigned his kingship in the first place before Odysseus went off to Troy. This, however, cannot detract from the poignancy and warmth of the relationship between Odysseus and his mother Anticleia. The scene in the underworld is also important because it highlights the resolution and concern of Odysseus for his comrades: he will not allow his mother's ghost, whom he did not know was dead, to drink the blood until he has first interviewed Teiresias. Anticleia, Homer says, pined away to a sad death "...yearning for him, her only son, for his thoughtfulness and for his kindly ways."

Odysseus and the Homeric hero

Odysseus is of course not the main figure in the Iliad: he is surpassed in most heroic respects by Achilles, Ajax, Agamemnon, Diomedes and the like. Perhaps it would be better to say that the two main themes of the Iliad - the wrath of Achilles and the death of Hector - do not allow Homer much room to express the full and complex character of Odysseus. He naturally dominates the Odyssey and becomes particularly obtrusive as he moves amongst 'foolish shipmates, ruthless monsters and greedy usurpers."

There are traces, delicately painted by Homer, of a non-aristocrat and even non-Achaean hero, for example, his Autolycan ancestry, his short sturdy legs and his skills in archery. Much has been made of Odysseus' ostensibly ravenous hunger in the Homeric epics; does he care more about his stomach than is proper for a hero? One should always look carefully at the context of Odysseus' utterances on food; for example, many of them are provoked by days without food and tremendous physical hardship. It would be unfair to say that he worships food but rather that he freely acknowledges it as an inescapable elemental force in human life. He is undoubtedly an unconventional hero; however, charges of cowardice do not really stand up. He is often accused of running away or at least showing reluctance in the face of ensuing battle or physical conflict; but one need only recall the Cyclops incident, Scylla and Charybdis and the visit to the land of the dead to appreciate that Odysseus was displaying fortitude in the face of superhuman and horrific danger. He merely draws attention to himself displaying cunning stealth and deliberation in the face of those who know only physical violence. Furthermore, in a similar way, Odysseus's prudent resourcefulness distinctly sets him apart from the reckless and uncompromising passion of Achilles.