In the Greek language, Odysseus’ name means, “full of wrath.” Interestingly, his cunning, wit, and hubris are most often discussed, and very rarely do we find mention of his anger. Poseidon, on the other hand, rages against Odysseus because he blinded Poseidon’s son, Polyphemus. This deed and similar feats raise Odysseus in the esteem of the listeners during Homer’s time period. Applying this epic to today’s standards, however, brings new issues. Early Christian faith classified sins into seven different categories*, and this view has perpetuated throughout the following centuries until it is so ingrained in our culture that it becomes a shock to read through an open and sensual society such as the Greeks’. Looking at these characters through the lens of modern day ethics becomes a breathtaking view into ancient Greek society’s moral standards. How much have societal morals truly changed in light of right vs. wrong?
Let’s take the Cyclops instance, for example: a man-eating beast with one eye is an unacceptable personage under any circumstances, and to either audience, today or ancient Greece, it’s an abominable image. Hence, when Odysseus, in desperation, skewers and blinds Polyphemus, setting up an almost-comical scene with this great oaf that “fuddle[s]” and “flush[es],” and whose “‘Nohbdy, Nohbdy’s tricked me, Nohbdy’s ruined me!’” draws laughter from both Odysseus and any audience. Consider, though, if Odysseus’ actions are justifiable, and if so, by what morals?
From the early Christian view, Odysseus becomes guilty of all seven categorical transgressions. Starting in Book 1, Odysseus appears in distress over his imprisonment on Calypso’s Island; he despairs over his fate: never returning to his homeland, “such desire is in him [Odysseus] / merely to see the hearth smoke leaping upward / from his own island, that he longs to die.” (1.78-80). He also “shares [Calypso’s] bed” each night (lust), and his hubris or excessive pride ends in the Cyclops learning his name, cursing him, and thereby beginning the myriad of travels. Interestingly, Poseidon is equally as guilty for his desire for vengeance, classified as wrath. However, this viewpoint points the blame at a god, which, though not sacrilegious, still pins a being of large power and a part of the religious faith in Greek mythology. Today this would be viewed as blasphemy of God or similar figure of sacred authority. By placing both human Odysseus and immortal Poseidon in juxtaposition, how does this impact our understanding of the religious influences on cultural morality?
Note how, even though Odysseus is the main personage, Poseidon plays an equally important part: he is Odysseus’ nemesis, the fate he cannot escape. Without the sea god’s interference, there would be no story of Odysseus, there would be no long journey, and despite being wily and cunning, Odysseus would be a simple king, back from Troy. Placing these characters on opposite sides of the scale, yet balancing them with similar traits and equal determination: Odysseus unwaveringly continues to make his way home, Poseidon just as doggedly thwarts him with “rough ride[s],” “high thunderheads” and a “wall of rain” as he tries to escape Calypso’s Island. Athena, on the other hand, tries to help Odysseus by disguising herself and advising him or by working situations out to his advantage. In doing this, though, she is overriding Poseidon’s fulfillment of a curse he promised his son. As the older god, Poseidon should take precedence, but Athena still wields power as she is a goddess of equal strength and power, but more importantly, goes with Zeus’ blessing, “My child [Athena]…Could I forget that kingly man, Odysseus?…Only the god who laps the land in water, / Poseidon, bears the fighter an old grudge….” (1.86-91). Does Athena overstep her boundaries by challenging the will of an elder god? Or is she justified in aiding Odysseus, though Poseidon still works against her?
With both the gods and Odysseus in a triangle of modern day ethical questions, it’s hard to say who the protagonist is and who the antagonist is. By definition, the protagonist is a main character that grows and changes throughout a novel. However, does Odysseus change as a character throughout The Odyssey?
In the end, I wonder who should come out on top. Though a seeming heroic figure as the main character, Odysseus has little to admire besides his cunning and daring, with much left to be desired. Equally as intriguing, Poseidon, though a divine ruler, becomes swayed by human emotions such as attachment to his son and a desire for revenge. My question is, if Odysseus had made his journey today, would he deserve to make it back home?
*Seven deadly sins: Lust/extravagance, Greed, Gluttony, Sloth/Acedia/Despair, Wrath, Envy, Pride/Vainglory