By Sarah

In class and through this blog, Odysseus’ validity as a deserving hero has been contested and tried. Mulling all this over, I keep coming back to one central thought (one that doesn’t diss Odysseus quite so much). Mentioned a few times in our class discussions, but usually for a mere minute as not all have heard of it, the hero’s cycle has been a tiny voice in the back of my head throughout my entire rereading of The Odyssey. For those of you who also learned and had drilled into you the steps of the cycle, bear with me for a half a blog post or so. Those not already illuminated to Joseph Campbell’s monomyth, read up.

First step of the journey, our illustrious hero is called to action. Sometimes this call must be interpreted to mean “sent,” as with Odysseus; his journey is forced upon him when Poseidon rages and sends him half way around the world and back again. Associated with this first step are refusal of call, supernatural aid, and the crossing of the first threshold. Check, check, check: difficulty in keeping hope on the journey (Kirke, Laistragonians, Kalypso), help from gods and goddesses such as Athena and Hermes, and escaping various trials.

Campbell’s next major step is titled “Initiation,” but encompasses the majority of the journey in most cases, extending past the initial obstacle.  Here the hero falls into and rises from the abyss, defeats enemies, is tempted, overcomes, and changes (presumably for the better). Again, Odysseus irrefutably experiences all in some manner, keeping himself in the game for the title of hero.

Finally, said hero reaches the return step. The return is characterized by a difficult adjustment, run-in with adversity (aka need for trickery), assistance from a mentor, and assimilation of past and present, journey and home.

It is clear that Odysseus fits all steps and could probably enter the “Hero’s Journey” competition and beat out the rest. We could argue here whether or not he deserves to win, whether the actions justify the title, whether Joseph Campbell’s formula is genius or bogus.

This once again brings into question the idea of hero, one we’ve discussed quite a bit in this course already. From broad to far-reaching to atypical, the term hero is certainly not a one-definition entity.  In so much as Joseph Campbell defines, specific pieces are necessary to earn it. But take his terms at a looser value, and they can be manipulated to accommodate characters less blatantly heroic.

As we are introduced more and more to Penelope, her own story matches a simpler version of the hero’s journey.  Her departure is a leaving of home in a different sense; instead of leaving her home, her home leaves her.  When speaking of refusal, it could hardly be clearer that she is unhappy with circumstances. Introduction of immortals affects her indirectly, Poseidon’s wrath reaching her through her husband’s absence. Penelope’s Initiation stage contains tricks, obstacles presented and overcome in the form of the suitors and her outwittings of them. Each time she despairs and considers giving up hope that Odysseus will ever return, she teeters on the edge of the abyss, but never manages to fall in. Had she chosen a suitor, she would have ended her story there, never to inch any closer to hero-status. Penelope’s return stage is the one I found most interesting. Assimilation of “the before” and “the now” for the queen is difficult.  Even before Odysseus is unveiled, she is barraged with rumors, omens, dreams, and promises that the time for his homecoming is fast approaching. After so many years of hoping, she wisely doesn’t allow herself to believe readily these messages.

Penelope is definitely changed after her twenty year ordeal, and her tale fits the hero’s cycle mold. So is she then a hero? Who’s to say that only those already defined as such should be put to the test? Telemakhos too, could be put to the test. And what of Eurymakhos- o my swineherd!- who was so loyal and who too endured hardships before his life in Ithaka.

From this I’m left thinking what defines a hero as such, if just because you can fit a mold you can claim hero-ness, if being a hero is really a valiant aim at all. Are there lots of heroes, lots of false heros, or just lots of different kinds of heros? And when/if many can be heroes, does becoming so lose its reason- is it even worth working for? If not, what are we left with, what should we look for? Joseph Campbell provides a template, but as with most things in life it is left to us to decide what its consequences and meanings are for ourselves.


14 responses to “Hero-ness?

  1. I would agree that are different types of heroes. There are sports heroes like Kobe Bryant who win championships and are going for a three-peat this year. Then their are also heroes like Adolf Hitler, who most people would not consider a heroe. However, some still look up to him because of his amazing leadership he exhibited in World War II.

  2. I completely agree with Sarah’s assessment that Penelope is a hero. In a certain light, Penelope goes through the same if not more difficult hardships as Odysseus. Penelope faces challenges that a woman would face in ancient Greece, mainly marriage. In a sense, Penelope’s heart/loyalty is tested throughout the long and arduous twenty years while Odysseus’ strength and mind are challenged vigorously. In my opinion and according to Campbell’s model for a hero, Penelope fits the bill nicely as heroine, becoming a foil to Odysseus’ hero journey by overcoming different yet equally challenging trials and hardships.

  3. Sarah,
    The notion of Odysseus as a hero is something I have been thinking of as well. In high school I was able to take a class titled “Hero’s Journey” in which we explored the archetypes established by Carl Jung (the founder of analytical psychology) and looked for ways in which we all fit into these archetypes. While this high school course was more focused on defining ourselves as a person, we briefly discussed the origins of these archetypes and their relation to classical works. Odysseus fits nicely into the archetypes of the “Anima” and the “Self.” While further, more detailed exploration of these particular archetypes will direct us away from the text and more towards abstract ideals and our own lives, it builds upon Sarah’s original point and makes clear the meaning of Odysseus’ archetype in our own lives. For the intellectually curious, a more detailed explanation of the Jungian archetypes can be found at. http://changingminds.org/explanations/identity/jung_archetypes.htm

  4. Sarah raises a lot of interesting insights regarding the true definition of a “hero”. I agree with her assessment that both Penelope and Eurymakhos possess heroic qualities. Therein, I think, lies the key distinction at hand: what sets apart people of heroic character, and those who are publicly hailed as “heroes” (like Odysseus)? The fact that Odysseus was a man, king, warrior, and favorite of the gods certainly propelled his heroism into the public spotlight. The heroism of Penelope—a woman—and of Eurymakhos—a lowly swineherd—on the other hand, went largely unnoticed.
    Perhaps Odysseus’ feats (i.e. war triumphs) were more tangible and impactful than those of his wife and swineherd. Still, I have to wonder: what drove Penelope and Eurymakhos to persevere in their courage, loyalty, and virtue, despite the fact that they would never receive recognition for it? Is that perseverance even more heroic than heroic acts?

  5. I wholly agree with your classification of Penelope and Telemakhos as heroes according to Campbell, but in my opinion Odysseus doesn’t quite fit the description. During Telemakhos’s journey, we see him grow from a child to a man. Penelope grew as well, becoming more independent and willful throughout her “journey”; but what about Odysseus? He seems to be (more or less) the same man at his “homecoming” as he was when we first encountered him. He remains a man primarily of strength, cunning, purpose, and yes, arrogance. In Odysseus’s initiation phase of his journey, he certainly defeats enemies, is tempted both by the sirens and Kirke, and overcomes all his obstacles. Does he change at all because of this? I personally see little character development in Odysseus throughout the epic, especially when compared to his son or (to a lesser extent) his wife.

  6. I love how you took Penelope and applied the hero cycle to her in an inverse way. It really clicked how the patriarchal society in Greek culture was so much less forgiving compared to society nowadays.

    Though still portrayed as a sympathetic character and the epitome of feminine beauty, she holds her own as a strong character against the suitors. Her journey through the hero cycle makes her that much stronger, paralleling her husband and making her encounter with Odysseus as her husband a satisfying end to both their journeys, as her wit matches her husband’s, “[Penelope said] Make up his bed for him…Place it outside the bedchamber my lord built with his own hands…[Odysseus responds] ‘An old trunk of olive grew like a pillar on the building plot, / and I laid out our bedroom round that tree…'” (23.202-204, 216-218). By testing Odysseus with a secret only known to herself and her husband, she ascertains it is truly Odysseus by the slight hints she drops and that he picks up. They are equals in wit and are truly husband and wife by this similar characteristic.

  7. There are two different kinds of heroes. The first are the great Heroes (capital h). These are the main protagonists of a story and the ones with the most influence; that is, they affect the most people. Prime example: Batman. The second kind are the minor heroes (lower-case h). These are the everyday people that help out and can seem to “save the day” every once in a while. Prime example: yellow pages commercial showing the mechanic and garbage man and telephone repair man etc. in yellow capes.
    Odysseus is certainly a great Hero. His actions affect a great number of people that includes his entire crew and to some extent all of Ithaka. Penelope, while certainly a strong candidate for the hero’s journey, doesn’t have quite the influence that Odysseus has. Only the suitors and Telemakhos are affected. Telemakhos as well, on a relative scale, has much less influence than Odysseus and would thus only be a minor hero.
    Being a minor hero is not a bad thing. Many people would prefer it over the high stakes and pressure of being a great Hero. It doesn’t make them any less important, it only means they are on a different scale. Like the yellow pages commercial, you wouldn’t usually think of your plumber as a hero, but if your toilet is clogged or broken, he’s the only one who can save the day. You certainly won’t find Superman ever doing something like that.

  8. Reading The Odyssey, I have never really thought of Penelope as being a hero, and it makes sense, Sarah, as to what you are saying. All that Penelope had to deal with, not having her husband, having suitors constantly in her house and eating her food, dealing with a troubled son at times, etc. does almost elevate her to a higher status. One doesn’t think of her in the typical heroic model, such as one may think of Odysseus being such a great warrior and leader of people. I do like the different outlook as to what it means to be a hero

    And I agree that there are many different types of heroes, especially in today’s world. The guy you sit next to in the airport, who appears to be some average joe, could be a hero to a lot of people because maybe he is a firefighter or police officer. It just makes you wonder.

  9. This appears to go against the general consensus, but I don’t feel that Penelope is a true hero. Yes, she may fit the model, but is being a hero really as simple as completing a few steps? Throughout the poem, Penelope often exhibits weakness, trapped by indecisiveness to tell the suitors to leave. All heroes seem to have their faults, but they also end up achieving. If truly a hero, she is a rather passive one, hiding behind her loom. She isn’t the initiator of change, or even a strong proponent. In Book I (line 408), and near the end, before Odysseus reveals himself, when Telemakhos speaks up, defending his father’s home, Penelope doesn’t say a word, “She gazed in wonder, turned, and withdrew” (XXI line 398). Yes, she may have the intentions of a hero, but action simply isn’t carried out. These identical reactions show that Penelope is a bystander in her own life experience, toughened over 20 years, but still not able to raise herself to the position of a hero.

  10. I love the assessment of Penelope’s own hero quest. Odysseus’ journey is truly epic, but Penelope’s journey is more relatable. She deals with real issues such as single motherhood and the maintaining of the house in the presence of the suitors; while Odysseus is off battling the Cyclops and resisting the Sirens.

  11. Christina and Adam, your posts made me think a lot. I agree with you Adam in your claims of Penelope’s passivity, and I think it ties in with Christina’s question about the difference between a person of heroic character and a true hero. Sure, Penelope fits the cycle. She is heroic. But is she then a hero? If many can fit into the cycle, and be “a hero,” then being so loses its weight I think.

  12. This post has me thinking that perhaps The Odyssey has set a precedent for what a heroic tale is, whether this was a conscious act by authors and storytellers over the centuries, or if it just coincidence that Odysseus follows Campbell’s hero mold almost exactly. Countless heroes have been dreamed up by authors over the centuries, and it is hard to ignore the question in my mind as to whether or not Odysseus is the “original hero” by today’s standards. From 1001 Nights to the Disney movie Hercules, these heroes follow the same basic structure of what the Odyssey holds inside its pages.
    At the same time, this does not account for our passive heroes. I agree with Sarah in that Penelope is a woman of very high moral character, especially being portrayed in light of Homeric society. It is true what Adam said about her having the intentions of a hero, but simply not following through. But let us remember that the world Penelope lived in did not allow her to act otherwise; had Homer given Penelope a more major and active role as being a heroine, there is a good chance the ancients would have turned their noses up to such, and hypothetically, The Odyssey may not have survived.

  13. I have to say that I disagree with Adam’s view of Penelope’s passiveness. Taking into account the role of women in Homeric society that Allison points out, I see Penelope as doing all in her ability to fulfill her journey. And what is her journey? Preserving family and home just as they were left by Odysseus. Try to tell me that she does not take a risk when she weaves and unweaves her loom every night, or when she tests her suitors with Odysseus’ bow. These behaviors surely are feats of cunning and trickery – two of the traits Odysseus is most known for. So, why is Penelope regarded as passive and inactive when clearly she has been actively deferring the suitors’ offers for years? Maybe the real issue with Penelope’s heroism comes in comparing the accomplishments of her journey to Odysseus’ journey. Her successes fending off suitors seem menial when compared with Odysseus’ victories over the likes of the Kyklops and Kirke. But, like Allison said, a woman accomplishing these massive feats would be almost fantasy in that day and age. Even in a story filled with grandiose and mythology, Penelope in a larger hero role would be too unreal. Homer crafted Penelope as a hero, in the largest way his society would allow.

  14. I think there are a lot of good things being said and a lot of good points being made. Michael’s point about there being Heroes, like Odysseus, and smaller heroes, like Penelope is great. There are definitely two different types of heroes, there are the great ones who display what we would say “heroic characteristics” such as bravery, wisdom, etc just like Odysseus. Then there are smaller ones who might not have those similar characteristics but are still to be admired. I agree with many of the you in that Penelope would be considered a lesser hero. She deals with so much pressure from the suitors and her father to marry, but resists. However, I think there’s one minor character that could be considered a lesser hero as well, who hasn’t been discussed and that is the swineherd, Eumaeus. Although Odysseus is gone for twenty years, Eumaeus is extremely loyal to his master. He basically carried on his life like Odysseus had never set sail for Troy. He loves Telemachus and treats him like his own son. Eumaeus also helps Odysseus and Telemachus in their slaying of the suitors showing both courage and loyalty to his masters. Although I don’t know if you would consider him a hero, he definitely displays some characteristics that make him admirable.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s