Updated: Dec 24, 2020
From the beginning the Greeks’ poetry was intended to be sung or recited. The subject was myth—part legend, part folktale, part religious speculation and partly based on the shadowy memory of an era before the Greek adoption of writing circa seventh or eighth century BCE. People in Homer's day had no access to the sort of historical records on which we today depend, especially regarding the period when Agamemnon supposedly led the Greeks to Troy. That is because a long dark age of unrest and illiteracy (1100-800 BCE) separated Homer's audiences from Achilles and Odysseus and the world embodied in Homeric myth. It was thought for many years the stories were written by a single poet; other scholars now contend that the stories originated in much earlier oral traditions and were edited and written down in something like their present form by a person or persons identified as ‘Homer’ about eighth century BCE. Some features date from the Minoan and Mycenaean age, perhaps to 1500 BCE and are supported by archaeological evidence: fine gold jewellery, seals and masks, or a boar’s tusk helmet worn by Odysseus in the Iliad (an example can be found in the Hellenic Museum).
Odysseus, (Latin Ulixes, English Ulysses,) is one of the most frequently portrayed figures in Western literature. According to Homer, Odysseus was king of Ithaca, son of Laertes and Anticalin, and father, with his wife Penelope, of Telemachus. He appears in both Homeric epics, The Iliad and The Odyssey, central works of ancient Greek literature. The Iliad is set at the culmination of the ten-year siege of the city of Troy by a coalition of Greek city states under Agamemnon. The Odyssey focuses on the journey home of Odysseus, king of Ithaca, after the fall of Troy.
We can picture him with long lustrous plentiful blond hair (all Greek heroes are blond while the Trojans are dark-haired.); beauty – of face and body – was a central feature of the hero, together with adornments – rings, brooches, earrings and combs, together with a lyre for music and song. Then the resplendent bronze armour: helmet with dancing horse-hair plumes, shield, armour for chest, shoulders and body, greaves for the legs, spear and dagger and long-bladed sword.
The Iliad, from ancient Greek ‘Ilios’, for ‘Troy’ has Achilles as the main protagonist, but much of Odysseus’ fame rests on his exploits there. He is portrayed as a man of outstanding wisdom and shrewdness, eloquence, resourcefulness, courage, and endurance. He plays a leading part in the reconciliation of Agamemnon and Achilles. He is a leader of men and his bravery and skill in fighting are demonstrated repeatedly. He describes himself as ‘…Odysseus … known to the world for every kind of craft’ (dolos) or as ‘raider of cities’. He will gladly employ deceit to win victory, but if necessary, will confront mortal danger alone and unafraid.
His guile is shown most notably in the episode of the Trojan Horse, which Odysseus devised to hide the Greek soldiers to enter the sleeping city of Troy and also in the night expedition with Diomedes. The latter shows Odysseus’ darker side. When he and Diomedes come across Dolon, a young Trojan, they interrogate him and afterward despite their assurances of his safety and his anguished pleading, slice off his head, which, ‘still speaking, dropped in the dust’. It is a shocking moment, made more so by the way Odysseus and the other Greeks exult in such deaths. Afterward, the two enter the Trojan camp to wreak havoc, slaying Rhesus, king of Thrace, and stealing his valuable horses.
The story of The Odyssey is a quintessential quest that relates to the passage through life. It speaks of the importance of loyalty, love, family and home. The Odyssey starts with Odysseus’ son Telemachus searching for his father, but Odysseus is a slippery figure, and at the beginning of the story is nowhere to be found. It is not until the middle of the story that we hear of Odysseus’ travails trying to return home – and the difficulties he encounters when he arrives.
His heroism, a different kind from Achilles’, was based on guile and his own many-sided style of courage. After he has blinded the one-eyed Cyclops, Polyphemus, it is his sheer trickiness in using the rams for his remaining shipmates and himself to escape. He rescues some of his hapless companions from their swinish form on the island of Circe. He will not leave them behind. But due to their folly and greed, all lose their lives and Odysseus alone reaches the idyllic island of the nymph Calypso where he spends seven unwilling years before he can set out once again for Ithaca.
Different adventures display different aspects of Odysseus’ wily cunning, clever versatility and sheer determination to live. The stories are told in Odysseus’ voice – Scylla, Charybdis, the Cyclops, the Sirens, Circe, Calypso. But each reveal something of Odysseus: his encounter with Scylla and Charybdis shows Odysseus’ pragmatic intelligence; faced with the choice of being totally engulfed by the whirlpool Charybdis, or snatched from above by Scylla a six-headed, rock-bound, man eating monster with guts made of dogs’ heads, chooses Scylla – she will only eat a man or two, but the ship will survive. He deafens his crew to the Sirens’ song – they tempt him to remain in his glorious past, itself a form of death; but he and we, learn, one must choose to move forward to the future.
There is a last, terrifying episode of the journey where the wrath of Poseidon is unleashed on him in all its elemental fury. The raft he built on Calypso’s island is smashed to pieces and a sea-torn and spent Odysseus fetches up on the land of the Phaeacians. During a dinner, Odysseus asks the bard Demodocus to sing the story of the wooden horse, but when the bard describes the appalling horror of the sacking of Troy, Odysseus cannot bear what he hears. Homer does not hold back showing Odysseus’ grief. He, sacker of cities, himself a mutilating criminal, now weeps over his crimes like the victims whose lives he has destroyed.
He is eventually wafted to Ithaca on a magical Phaeacian ship with a hoard of treasure. Athena disguises him as a beggar and he is recognised by only his faithful dog Argus and the swineherd Eurycleia. He has reached the most dangerous of all his landfalls. To survive this last trial he will have to call on all the qualities that mark him as a hero – the courage and martial skill of the warrior he was at Troy, but also the caution, cunning, duplicity and patience that brought him home.
He deceives with stories about who he was and where he came from, working towards confronting the group of suitors who have taken over his palace, fattened themselves with his food and drink, slept with his serving women and beleaguered his wife Penelope with insistent demands of marriage. He reveals himself to Telemachus and together they plan to defeat the suitors: the man who strings Odysseus’ great bow and fires an arrow through twelve axe handles will win Penelope’s hand. None can, until the ‘beggar’ succeeds and then, in a frenzy of violence, slaughters all the suitors. In what the reader feels is a step too far, all the serving girls who have slept with the suitors are pitilessly hanged. It seems Odysseus feels life’s problems can be solved by the imposition of authority. The poem knows they cannot. Odysseus is finally recognised by his splendid wife and eventually peace is restored to Ithaca.
The Iliad and The Odyssey originated some 4,000 years ago. Why are they still such a central part of western culture? Their account of war and suffering can still speak to us of the role of destiny in life, of cruelty, humanity, its frailty and the pains of existence. The immediacy of the stories emanates from the eternal principles at stake: what is life, something of everlasting value or a transient and hopeless irrelevance? What matters more, the city or the hero, the individual or the community?