After making my way through the Iliad recently, I’ve moved on into the Odyssey, trying to get the entire piece read by my Thursday afternoon class that covers it. In the course of considering Odysseus, and knowing what sort of disdain Virgil will be sending his way when we get to the Aeneid, I’m trying to get to the heart of how I see this guy as a heroic character.
When we consider other narrative work written from deep antiquity, specifically the Patriarchal and Exodus stories of the Torah, we find similarly flawed characters. I’ve heard it said that Joseph and Jesus are the only characters in the Bible about whom nothing bad is ever said. That leaves a lot of fairly prominent people, even if we restrict ourselves to the Torah.
So is Odysseus really no different from Abraham, calling his wife his sister, or Jacob, cheating everybody in sight, or Moses, striking the rock? I don’t think so.
The Biblical characters are interesting and, with the exception of Joseph, presented as flawed. They accomplish significant things despite those flaws because they follow God’s lead.
Odysseus, on the other hand, seems to accomplish great things in the face of the gods. He angers Poseidon and Helios quite directly. Athena aids Odysseus, but even in this I do not get a sense that he benefits from obedience.
Cruel Odysseus, as Virgil calls him, is a difficult character. He claims to be longing for home all along the way, yet he does not hurry along the way. He winds up in the beds of Circe and Calypso for one and seven years respectively. Granted, Calypso won’t let him leave, but his cooperation in amorous matters is not as much a foregone conclusion as Odysseus makes it seem.
As I have been making my way through this hero’s story, I’m reminded, strangely enough, of “Rip Van Winkle.” As I read Irving’s story, Rip did not fall into some peculiar spell in the mountains and sleep for decades. Instead, he ran off, escaping his “termagant wife” and came home when he could no longer be a vagabond.
Is that essentially what happened to Odysseus? We have his account to tell us about the events that led him to Calypso’s island. Did those things actually happen? Or did he invent them to escape blame for his delay and the loss of his men? It’s not as if Odysseus has a great history of truth-telling. Most of his account to the Phaeacians seems fairly self-serving, but not all of it.
A Christian could allegorize the Odyssey as a spiritual quest of a lost soul attempting to find its home. Upon reaching Ithaca, his sometime goal, this lost soul discovers that the object of his quest does not provide long-term satisfaction. This leads us to the tradition found in Virgil and Tennyson (and alluded to in Homer) that Odysseus did not stay home after book 24 of the Odyssey.