Off with whose head?

By Samantha

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

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6 responses to “Off with whose head?

  1. Throughout the course of “The Odyssey”, Athena plays the role of a guide and protector for both Odysseus and Telemachus. She constantly helps both men overcome challenges and warns them of lurking dangers, “Picked men of the suitors lie in ambush, grim set in the straits between Ithaca and rocky Same, poised to kill you before you reach home.” (XV. 32-34*) Athena is very sympathetic to Odysseus and wants him to return home despite Poseidon’s will. She is doing whatever it takes to get him back home, whereas Poseidon is doing everything in his power to prevent that. What we have here is a battle of some sorts between two gods. However, Athena has Zeus’ blessing. He doesn’t forbid Athena from helping Odysseus and Telemachus, in fact he encourages it, “ You conceived it yourself: Odysseus shall return home and pay the traitors back, Telemachus? Sail him home with all your skill-” (V. 26-28*). Athena is by no means overstepping her boundary, she has been told by Zeus to help Odysseus return home and aid Telemachus in his travels.

    * Sorry for the translation, I have a different translation of the text.

  2. Wow. I really enjoyed this entry. I had never really reflected on Odysseus’ negative, even sinful traits. Usually his manipulative qualities translate as necessary means to a long, sought-after end. Really though, why do we assume that Odysseus should return home? Sure, anyone can relate to homesickness and loneliness, but when does that become justification for killing, plundering, and leading others into danger. Why does Odysseus get some reprieve from morality while we are judging characters like the Cyclops and even Telemakhos for, what I think is a more petty crime, inhospitality? Shouldn’t our moral measuring stick apply to all the characters equally? Even in today’s society, a person returning home from a journey like Odysseus’ would be more guarded with his wrongs along the way. But Odysseus flaunts his sins, and somehow the Greek’s skewed morality applauds them.

  3. Samantha,
    You bring up an interesting point in your first paragraph discussing the evolution of morals from Ancient Greek times to today. In reading your reflection upon Odysseus and his experience with the seven deadly sins I began to think of Odysseus as an Archetypal character, a point that Michael made in our outdoor class last week. If we analyze Odysseus as this archetypal character and thus classify him as the protagonist we would expect to see in him a certain growth that you mention in your post. Yet in looking at Odysseus as an Archetypal protagonist we may be forgetting the historical purpose that this story served – to entertain an audience. Even if Odysseus does not grow at all, the stories of his travels are intriguing and the inconsistencies and human element in his thought process are things that everyone in the audience would have been able to relate to. Maybe The Odyssey is not meant to teach a lesson about how one should grow, rather it is a story about a psychologically common man in some uncommon situations.

  4. Whether or not such “sensual” material is a “shock to read” in modern society depends on which version of modern society you are viewing the material through. On one hand there is the version described, which embraces traditional Judeo-Christian values. On the other hand is the real society that hides behind this mask while it spews crude language, sits gawking at lewd images and leaves its mother to die in the gutter in pursuit of personal profit. The Odyssey is no shock to our system.

  5. Great post with many thought-provoking questions, Sam. There’s one thing I want to push back on, though. You write:

    “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?”

    First of all, “The Odyssey” is an epic poem not a novel. That’s an important difference right there. If you think about the epic poems you know (“The Iliad,” “Gilgamesh,” perhaps even part of the Old Testament), do any of their protagonists look much like what we’re used to from novels?
    Second, does EVERY protagonist really have to grow and change over the course of a story, even a novel? Can you think of counter-examples? EJ, I think, makes a very good point when he distinguishes between “archetypal” and “psychological” stories. But are there other useful categories that we might add? Or to put it slightly differently: what purpose does the story of Odysseus serve? Are there alternatives to an archetypal quest narrative and a psychological study?

  6. I found this post very interesting and thought provoking. While reading this epic poem, I haven’t really reflected on the negative qualities of Odysseus. I have just pictured him as this studly epic hero to which no rules seem to apply. For example, it just seemed part of his “job description” to go around killing or injuring others, such as the Cyclops. However, I was almost appalled and disgusted when reading about how the Cyclops would just devour a couple of Odysseus’ men at a time. I never thought of their being a comparison between Odysseus’ actions and either Poseidon’s or the actions of the Cyclops. There are many similarities that I did not think about. In today’s world, I do think that many people would have issues with Odysseus returning home because of some of his actions, such as blinding the Cyclops.

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