Literature and Composition
Stokol | D Track
January 19th, 2018
An Age of Heroes
The Ancient Greeks defined a hero as an individual aided and favored by the gods and who acts in bravery. There is no greater embodiment of this definition than the hero of The Iliad, Achilles. In Robert Fagles translation of Homer’s The Iliad, he sets these standards when speaking to his goddess mother about his imminent demise: “I’ll meet my death freely/ … for not even Hercules fled his death, for all his power, / favorite son … to Zeus” (The Iliad 18.137-140). In Robert Fagles translation of Homer’s The Odyssey, the bravery of Odysseus’s deeds is not as obvious. Upon closer examination, however, the deeds of Odysseus can be seen as brave and he is seen as favored by the gods, proving him to be a Greek Hero,
Though at times frightened, Odysseus always acts in a brave manner; this is especially highlighted in “The Kingdom of the Dead” where Odysseus overcomes his fears to finish his goal. Odysseus accounts his initial reaction stating the grim display as “great armies of the dead/ … wrapped in bloody armor – thousands/ swarming around … from every side/ unearthly cries – with bleaching terror gripping me” (The Odyssey 11.45-48). Homer intentionally lays out a grim and menacing scene to explore the depths of Odysseus’s bravery. Graphic displays of “bloody armor” and “great armies of the dead” are intentionally used to invoke the trauma the Trojan War. The imagery of Odysseus being “swarmed” by bloodied shades furthers the notion of fear as it shows how trapped Odysseus is. If that were not enough, Odysseus explicitly describes himself as “gripped with fear,” proving how effective this scenario is in frightening Odysseus.
Nevertheless, he continues with “a sharp sword beside his hip…/ alert … never letting the ghosts/ … near the blood” (The Odyssey 11.53-55). This illustrates bravery, as even though Odysseus is frightened, he holds a “sharp sword” indicating his readiness to fight the source of his fear and finish his goal. He stands there determined to stand his ground “never letting the ghosts” prevent him from meeting Tireses. Given his unwillingness to yield, as shown by the absoluteness of the word “never”, and taking into account how Homer specifically creates a scenario that forces Odysseus to relive his trauma, Odysseus shows a high level of bravery. This display of bravery supports the claim that, by the Greek definition, Odysseus is a hero.
The second facet of Greek Heroism, favor of the gods, is no clearer than in Odysseus’s battle with the suitors in “Slaughter in the Hall”. In this battle, Odysseus is directly aided by the disguised Athena. Testing his bravery, Athena disguised as Mentor says to Odysseus, “Come old friend, stand by me! … / see how Mentor … / kills your enemies” (The Odyssey 22.244-246). Athena, without using her godly powers just yet, stands besides Odysseus with the intention of “killing his enemies”. The consequence of this being she is actively fighting beside him in order to “kill” the suitors. This is direct aid from the goddess proving, at the very least, she favors his intention. She additionally addresses Odysseus as an “old friend”, which is an homage to their relationship, which has been proven at several points of The Odyssey where Athena has shown a liking to Odysseus.
If that is not enough, when the suitors hurl their spears, “Athena sent the whole salvo wide off the mark” allowing for Odysseus and his allies to counter attack with their own spears (The Odyssey 11. 269). First of all, this assistance proves that Odysseus showed enough bravery to be worthy of Athena’s aid, further going to support that Odysseus is a hero. Secondly, Athena is specifically credited in this quote as the cause the suitors missing, meaning she now is directly influencing the fate of the battle in favor of Odysseus. The use of “salvo”, instead of a word connoting a less coordinated attack, demonstrates that without the aid of Athena the magnitude of the attack would have been lethal to Odysseus and his allies. Athena, by this point, is not only saving Odysseus’s life but also intimidating the suitors by having their shots miss “wide off the mark”. The addition of “wide” demonstrates a degree of excessiveness, which Athena, being the goddess of wisdom, does with a strategy. By casting doubt in the suitors own abilities, she emboldens Odysseus and his allies and frightens the suitors, making them easier to overcome. This excessive aid proves that not only does Athena favor Odysseus intentions, but has an interest in his wellbeing, fulfilling the second criteria of being a Greek Hero.
Throughout The Odyssey, Odysseus has proved through his deeds an unwavering bravery and the gods, Athena in particular, have shown him their favor. This allows Odysseus to join with the likes of Achilles and Hercules and take his rightful place in the Pantheon of Greek heroes. The Greek definition of a hero has laid the foundation for contemporary and fantasy definitions of heroism. That being said the Greeks noticeably did not set moral standards for what a hero is to be. Odysseus’s deeds and actions may not hold under the modern idea of heroism. Regardless, in order to mitigate the bias of time and examine the Odyssey as intended, the acts and deeds of Odysseus must be compared to the definition of the time.