Odysseus as a Homeric Epic Hero
A Homeric epic hero is considered to be above a normal human being. The traits of a typical epic hero are strength, loyalty, courage, and intelligence. In fact, the Macmillan Dictionary for Students defines a hero as “one who is admired and looked up to for valor, achievements, and noble qualities” (483). Odysseus fulfills all of the requirements for an epic hero and more. He demonstrates his ability to be an articulate speaker, and his poise aids him on his journey. His endless curiosity has gotten him into dilemmas, while his superb displays of strength and cunningness have helped both him and his crew escape danger. His arrogance sets him back, but his loyalty is what drives him forward on his long and treacherous expedition. In the first few lines of The Odyssey, Odysseus describes himself as “formidable for guile in peace and war”. He knows that he is a formidable opponent, and there are instances in which his guile has caused both harmony and violence. No matter what challenges Odysseus faces, he always clearly demonstrates the characteristics of an epic hero.
An important trait that an epic hero must have is intelligence. Odysseus’s quick thinking, combined with his eloquence in speech and many other characteristics, has gotten him and his crew out of many tight situations. One situation, for example, was when Odysseus and his men were trapped in the Cyclops Polyphemos’s cave. Although Odysseus’s curiosity was what landed him into the situation in the first place, his masterful demonstrations of his articulation in speaking were what eventually helped him escape. He manages to win over Polyphemos in the story with a few well-spoken words and an offering:
“‘Kyklops, try some wine. / Here’s liquor to wash down your scraps of men. / Taste it, and see the kind of drink we carried / under our planks. I meant it as an offering / if you would help us home. But you are mad, / unbearable, a bloody monster! After this, / will any other traveler come to see you?'” (Homer 155)
Odysseus plays with the Cyclops’s emotions by luring him with the wine and calling him “a bloody monster”. The Cyclops is obviously pleased with the spoken words and gestures, and as a result, he gives in to his greed as he takes the wine. Odysseus’s confidence in his own ability was the first step towards his success with the Cyclops. However, he has to take it a step further in order to make a successful get-away. Once again, a demonstration of his sharp intellect shows how Odysseus is smarter and more cunning than the average human. A quote that demonstrates his intelligence is,
“But I kept thinking how to win the game: / death sat there huge; how could we slip away? / I drew on all my wits, and ran through tactics, / reason as a man will for dear life, / until a trick came-and it pleased me well. / The Kyklops’ rams were handsome, fat, with heavy / fleeces, a dark violet” (Homer 157).
Another example of Odysseus’s cunningness is shown after he killed all the suitors. He told Telemakhos and the servants to pretend like there was a wedding going on. That way, no one passing by from the outside would suspect anything. Odysseus knew that if news of the suitors’ death spread, then he would not be able to make a clean get-away to his father’s house. Odysseus said,
“Here is out best maneuver, as I see it: / bathe, you three, and put fresh clothing on, / order the women to adorn themselves,/ and let our admirable harper choose a tune / for dancing, some lighthearted air, and strum it. / Anyone going by, or any neighbor, / will think it is a wedding feast he hears. / These deaths must not be cried about the town / till we can slip away to our own woods. We’ll see / what weapon, then, Zeus puts into our hands” (Homer 433).
Odysseus has to consider the safety of everyone under his care, including the servants that had stayed faithful to him. Odysseus’s intelligent is not only demonstrated when he has to escape from a situation; he thinks through all possible scenarios, and then selects the one that will benefit the most people. He uses his quick thinking and ability to deliver appealing speeches to his advantage and in most of his situations, Odysseus tries to use all of the resources available to him.
Odysseus is not only clever and witty, but he is also fiercely loyal to his family and home. Throughout the book, Odysseus was completely focused on trying getting home to Ithaka and Penelope. His loyalty to his family and to his people is what kept him going through the hard times. Nothing is more important to an epic hero than honor and pride. A hero’s obligations are to his family and his lord (Savage). Odysseus clearly proves that he is loyal in many situations. One instance was when Odysseus’s men fell prey to the Lotus Eaters. Homer writes,
“Then I sent out two picked men and a runner / to learn what race of men that land sustained. / They fell in, soon enough, with Lotus Eaters, / who showed no will to do us harm, only / offering the sweet Lotus to our friends–/ but those who ate this honeyed plant, the Lotus, /never cared to report, nor to return; / they longed to stay forever, browsing on / that native bloom, forgetful of their homeland. / I drove them, all three wailing, to the ships” (148).
No matter what had happened, Odysseus is always unwilling to leave his men behind. He does not want his men to forget their ultimate goal: to get home to Ithaka. However, because the three men were not in their right minds, Odysseus had to go and retrieve them. Odysseus’s allegiance to his men is also shown through this quote, “She ate them as they shrieked there, in her den, / in the dire grapple, reaching still for me- / and deathly pity ran me through / at that sight- / far the worst I ever suffered, / questing the passes of the strange sea” (Homer 218). As a result of the loyalty and compassion Odysseus feels for his men, he describes losing his men as one of the worst things he had ever had to suffer through. He had been forced to watch his comrades die, knowing that there was nothing he could do to save them. Odysseus’s loyalty and devotion to his men would not let him abandon them in their time of need. Odysseus is faithful to his men, but ultimately, his loyalty is to his home and family. As Circe says to Odysseus during his journey, “Now give those kine a wide berth, keep your thoughts / intent upon your course for home, / and hard seafaring brings you all to Ithaka” (Homer 213). She warns him that if he does not obey her orders, then there would be destruction to come for him and his men. Knowing the consequences of killing Helios’s cattle, Odysseus is intent on avoiding the island. He truthfully tells his crew what Circe has said to him, because he wants them to understand his logic and his reasoning; he wants to get home as soon as possible, and if his men give into temptation and kill the cattle, then Odysseus knew that they would have to suffer much more. However, instead of feeling honored by Odysseus’s honesty, the men lash out at him and insist on stopping at the island. Odysseus has no choice but to forgo his previous plans, and his journey home is once again delayed. Odysseus’s final goal is to be able to see his home and family again, but difficult situations continue to hinder him. The only reason why Odysseus did not give up during his journey was because of his dedication and loyalty to his family.
An epic hero is also known for his love of glory through deeds. In the first few lines of The Odyssey, Odysseus calls himself, “formidable for guile in peace and war”. Not only does Odysseus’s wittiness bring about peace, it also brings and starts wars. An example of Odysseus’s guile bringing war is when he finally shows his true self to the suitors after disguising himself as a beggar. Homer writes,
“You yellow dogs, you thought I’d never make it / home from the land of Try. You took my house to plunder, / twisted my maids to serve your beds. You dared / bid for my wife while I was still alive. / Contempt was all you had for the gods who rule wide heaven, / contempt for what men say of you hereafter. / Your last hour has come. You die in blood” (410).
Odysseus’s patience had finally paid off, and he was able to take revenge on the suitors. His cunningness was why he mingled with the suitors. He had to patiently wait until the time was right to begin the bloodshed. Although Odysseus’s guile causes chaos and disruption, his intelligence also brings peace. An instance of him bringing peace is when he tells his father, Laertes, that he is alive and back from his quest: “I bring good news- though still we cannot rest. / I killed the suitors to the last man! / Outrage and injury have been avenged!” (Homer 454) Odysseus brings peace to his father by revealing that he had not died. Odysseus’s guile has served him well in many different situations. He was able to cause wars and battles, but he was also able to create peace.
Odysseus completely demonstrates all of the main characteristics of a Homeric hero. His strength, intelligence, and guile all serve him well when he is in struggling to get out of a certain situation. Odysseus’s loyalty is depicted throughout the whole poem, and his desperate need to see his home again is what pushed him forward in his journey home. Without all these qualities, Odysseus would not be considered a hero. However, because Odysseus manages to superbly display his heroic qualities in everything he does, he is considered to be one of the greatest epic heroes ever created.
Fitzgerald, Robert. The Odyssey. New York: Viking, 1996. Print.
“Hero.” Def. 1. Macmillan Dictionary for Students. 5 ed. New York: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, 1984. Print.
Savage, Mrs. . “Epic Poem.” Honors English Nine. Maranatha High School. Academic Center, Pasadena. 5 Nov. 2012. Class lecture.