The Odyssey

 

            The Odyssey by Homer is the epitome of the Greek epic.  It tells the story of Odysseus, one of the greatest Greek heroes, known for his wit and intelligence, and his quest to return home.  During his journey, he encounters countless obstacles and opposition, many caused by conflicts in the realm of the gods.  However, other problems he certainly brings upon himself because he does not learn from his mistakes. 

            Odysseus’ most devastating error during his journey is to taunt Polyphemus and bring the wrath of Poseidon upon himself.  In the end however, Athena appeals to Zeus to overturn Poseidon’s anger and helps Odysseus return to his home.  Odysseus lets his pride take control when he tricks Polyphemus and gives his name in a boast.  In return, Polyphemus prays to his father Poseidon to curse Odysseus with a long and hard journey home.  Odysseus, contrary to his usual foresight, completely loses his head in this situation.  The first time he turns throws words back to the furious Polyphemus, the Cyclops merely hurls a portion of a cliff at the sailors, the current caused by this huge projectile washing them back to shore.  One would think after the results of this first taunt, Odysseus might have been glad to escape with his life and put all his efforts into getting away.  But not our fearless hero Odysseus, despite his crew’s fervent pleas, Odysseus throws another taunt that dooms him and his men.  Even though Odysseus had to suffer for his decision, he only does so superficially.  He causes the death of his crew and prolongs his own time away from home, but he never takes responsibility for his mistake.  He does not repent, only cries and laments his own fate.  Athena takes Odysseus’ fate into her own hands and allows him to return home.

            Odysseus decides to stay with Circe after his men are turned into pigs, but he is allowed to leave when he wishes it and is given help and advice.  Odysseus thinks only of himself and his own pleasure when he decides to stay.  He knows that Circe is a potentially dangerous immortal and certainly not to be trusted since she had turned all his men into pigs, yet he accepts her invitation to feast with her and stays for many seasons.  One would think that Odysseus with his high intelligence would be wary of a woman who would trick unsuspecting strangers and do harm to them.  Odysseus does not consider his men and is delaying the completion of his quest by dallying with Circe.  However, as Fate would have it, he is allowed to leave without protest when he wishes it.    Circe even gives aid and a prophecy of the future as he leaves.  Odysseus encounters many more trials as he continues with his quest.  He makes a sojourn into the underworld, evades the snare of the enchanting Sirens, escapes a six-headed monster, and loses all his crew to a thunderbolt from Zeus.  Alone, he makes his way to Calypso’s island, an immortal that seems eerily similar to Circe.  He enjoys himself with Circe in the beginning, paying no heed to the wife that he left behind in Ithaca so many years ago.  There is arrogance involved as well, pride that he, a mere mortal, is desired by a divine nymph.  He soon realizes that his infidelity is a mistake, but this time he is not so lucky for Calypso is intent on keeping him by her side.  He is forced to stay for many years until Zeus compels the nymph to let him go.

            Odysseus is very circumspect in revealing his identity to Penelope and Laertes, but both welcome him back with open arms.  Odysseus has many chances to reveal himself to his wife, but he waits until he does due to his pride.  His tragic flaw that has caused him so much trouble in the past, he still has not learned to control.  He first tests Penelope for her faithfulness, which he had no right to do because he himself had not been faithful.  He refuses to tell her outright that he, the beggar, was really Odysseus in disguise.  Even after he had killed all the suitors and sat alone with Penelope, he waited for her to determine for herself that it was indeed her lord returned.  He brings upon himself a test from Penelope of his identity.  However, he flies into a rage at his wife because she claims to have moved his bed.  Odysseus does not learn from this experience, and does not seem to realize that straightforwardness is sometimes necessary.  He proceeds to tease his grieving father, pretending to be a traveler that met Odysseus many years ago.  One would think that Odysseus has more compassion and sympathy for his father and would want to ease his father’s suffering by telling the truth immediately.  It is not until Laertes audibly groans with sorrow that Odysseus reveals the truth.  He is received with open arms and happiness all around though he certainly would have deserved it if both Penelope and Laertes had been furious for his deception.

            Odysseus is fundamentally flawed with hubris, as is a necessary part of all Greek heroes.  However, his inability to learn from previous mistakes goes beyond his hamartia.  Being an extremely intelligent and clever man, it should not be too difficult to put two and two together and remember some of the devastating consequences of past mistakes.  Perhaps, it is not his own fault that he fails to learn from the past.  The help of the gods, namely Athena, have a negative impact on Odysseus.  Every time he gets himself into an awkward situation, Athena or another woman is there to bail him out.  When it comes to his pride, even his intelligence and rationality cannot control him.  Odysseus shows the reader that even heroes are human and prone to make mistakes.