Odysseus: The Modern Hero

Reading The Iliad in 2015 is a conundrum. We have to reconcile our modern cultural values, our ideas of heroism and our image of these mythic figures that is informed by movies starring Brad Pitt and throwaway references to things such as the famous Achilles Heel in television with what is given to us on the page. Stepping into Troy, we expect a Superman-like figure: mild mannered, diplomatic, and willing to fight for what is “just.” Instead, we get an argumentative Achilles, an uncooperative, self-centered young man, whose heroics we only see in possibly four books out of the twenty four in the entire volume. I argue that The Odyssey offers us something more recognizable as our modern ideals of heroism, and this heroism is recognizable because it is informed by the women that Odysseus interacts with on his journey home, including the goddess Athena, the nymph Calypso, and the housemaid, Eurycleia[1]. My argument will be informed in small part by addressing the new ideas of community, family and belonging that we are introduced in The Odyssey by relating it to a psychological theory by Maslow. It will also draw parallels to the women that encourage heroism in our modern superheroes, specifically the relationships between Clark Kent (Superman) and Lois Lane; Kent and his mother, Martha; and a lesser known character, his friend, Chloe Sullivan.

One of the first steps in determining what is so modern about Odysseus is setting his situation up in contrast with Achilles. The Iliad is a book about man; by this, I mean it is both about men but also about the passions that comprise and control mankind. If one thinks about this in the context of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, The Iliad portrays a lot of the desires that are set out in stages one and two. These levels are very individualistic and involve physiological needs, such as food, sleep and water, as well as a desire for security, stability and law. The very nature of the Greek army, a collection of several Greek Kings as military leaders that are often divided amongst themselves is proof that we have not reached a level of community. Odysseus starts to move past this in his journey. While he does have the same basic needs of food, water and safety that characterized much of The Iliad, we see Odysseus on a quest for to return to the place where he feels loved, and also where he belongs.

This leads us to the introduction of women as forefront characters in this poem. Arguably, a sense of community, love and belonging are all notions of compassion that is associated with femininity, or motherhood. It is only just, then, that Athena, a female deity takes interest in Odysseus. While Odysseus can match the goddess in a game of wits (Book 13, lines 328-340), Odysseus does look to his patron goddess as a figure of comfort. In Book 13, he says, “You were kind to me in the war years,…But once we’d sacked King Priam’s craggy city,…I never saw you, never glimpsed you striding along my decks/to ward off some disaster. No, I wandered on,…til the gods released me from my miseries at last.” (Book 13, lines 357-365) This shows that while he is a mortal image of her, a worthy competitor or even a match, Odysseus looks to the goddess as a source of safety, comfort and stability, while physiologically, he may not be safe. Moving from one uncertain adventure to the next, having this womanly figure to present next to him is comforting, which is one of the reasons that Odysseus fights to get home to Penelope. She represents all of these things for him. This desire for the hero to have a motherly and comforting figure around is something that is not unique to The Odyssey, but is one of the reasons there are very few depictions of Superman without Martha Kent woven into the story some way. Though Superman is foreign to Earth, it is Martha Kent’s love and compassion that guides Clark in his journey to be a better human, and thus a compassionate hero.

Odysseus’ relationship with Calypso only serves to solidify Odysseus’ desire to achieve a sense of safety, but also belonging and love. Calypso is indeed the temptress figure in the poem, but one ought to consider what precisely is tempting about Calypso. It is not that she is offering him sex; Odysseus never willingly goes to bed with any of the women that he encounters along his journey home. Calypso instead offers her island. This is a place that he might be able to call home, and it would not be settling. In Book 5, the island, specifically the cave in which Calypso lives, is described as smelling of “cedar cleanly split” and “sweetwood,” (Book 5, p. 154, line 66), having “thick, luxuriant woods” and “a vine laden with clusters, bursting with ripe grapes.” Line 81, the narrator says, “Why, even a deathless god who came upon that place would gaze in wonder,” making the reader understand that Odysseus, if he wanted, could give up his fight to get home to Ithaca, right then, and live in an awe-inspiring place where he would want for nothing for the rest of his life. While he does not truly desire Calypso, because he mourns being away from his beloved Penelope, he does not deny Calypso’s attributes. He says, “’Ah great goddess,…All that you say is true, how well I know. Look at my wise Penelope. She falls far short of you, your beauty, stature. She is mortal after all and you, you never age or die….” (Book 5, p. 159, lines 236-241) Yet, he does not stay because he and his wife had already established a sense of belonging and familial devotion that characterizes the third stage in Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.

Again, the temptation of the hero with a sense of belonging, home and love is something that is recognizable in today’s superheroes. There are an endless number of times when Superman desires nothing more than to stay with his love, Lois Lane, and settle into a home life, neglecting to a degree his duty as a superhero. The comparison works because if these heroes, Odysseus or Superman, decide to give in completely to the idea of home and belonging, the tempted home or the real one, their lives as heroes are finished. In the end of The Odyssey¸ we know that still, Odysseus’ arrival home to Ithaca is not the end; he still will continue on a last set of adventures. In Book 23, Penelope asks her hero of a “trial still to come,” (p. 464, line 297), to which Odysseus replies that he does in fact have to go on one last trip before he can settle down at home for good (p. 464). It is here, in the Odyssey, rather than in The Iliad, that we see a picture of what would be worth giving up the traditional type of heroism for.

The last relationship that will be explored in this paper is the much overlooked rapport between Odysseus and the nurse, Eurycleia. Though it seems out of place in comparison to Odysseus’ relationship with immortal women, it is appropriate to discuss the loyalty that Eurycleia displays. She offers him loyalty in the form of longevity in that she is the one that has known and loved Odysseus the longest. It is Eurycleia who first recognizes him even when he comes home, though is disguised as a beggar (Book 19, p. 405, lines 535-538,) and it is also she whom Odysseus first trusts to guard the secret of his identity (“Not a word to anyone in the house,” Book 19, p. 406, line 550.) Her love and devotion for her master even wins over the respect ancient Greeks were expected to have for the dead. Despite her sorrow for the death of others, she cannot conceal her feelings of triumph at her master’s victory against the suitors, to which Odysseus replies, “’Rejoice in your heart, old woman—peace! No cries of triumph now. It’s unholy to glory over the bodies of the dead.” (Book 22, p. 452, lines 435-437). It is in this phrase that we see why his servants admire him. Unlike Achilles, Odysseus respects humanity, because he recognizes that he himself is human. Odysseus does not glorify violence; he lives by a moral code, something Achilles lacked as he dragged Hector’s body around Troy, ignoring his opponent’s dying plea to be returned to his family in death.

The modern reader cannot recognize the heroism in Achilles’ mutilation of Hector’s body. They can, however, relate to a hero being human enough to inspire awe of those around him, especially those that take care of him. In television saga Smallville, which chronicles the life of Clark Kent before he dons the iconic red cape, we are introduced to his friend and future acolyte, Chloe Sullivan. Chloe and Eurycleia function in similar ways: they have known the hero since childhood, guards their secrets and empowers them to engage in their heroics, while also sharing in their victory. Another modern, and more recognizable, example of this type of acolyte might be Bruce Wayne’s servant, Alfred Pennyworth.

It is the women that Odysseus comes into contact with during his journey that make him a modern hero. His desire to reach beyond the battlefield leads him to search for fulfillment in domestic life. It is in these places that Odysseus finds women that help him discover a sense of belonging, that are loyal to him, both of which give him a reason to fight. These types of figures, as I have shown, are also crucial the development of one of today’s heroes, Clark Kent. Heroes do not exist in a vacuum; their stories are all interconnected because of their immortality. This immortality, aided by female figures, is what makes an ancient hero, such as Odysseus modern by our standards.

[1] Disclaimer: This paper depends a lot on traditional ideas of femininity and gender roles, many of which can be disputed based on modern views.

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