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.