From Epic to Hellenic: Part Five of Six

From Epic to Hellenic: Part Five of Six

Connecting tradition with heroism

This is part five of a six part article exploring the Classical traditions of heroism. My high school philosopher teacher once remarked that one can perceive perfection as a balance. With that in mind, consider the idea that perfection in a hero is found in the balance of masculinity and femininity.

Interestingly enough, Homer’s other epic Odyssey chronicles the long, arduous journey home of the cunning hero, Odysseus that reflects the same heroism archetype as the Iliad. Similar to Achilles in the Iliad, Odysseus feigns insanity by plowing the beach to attempt to evade the “draft” that the Greeks had for the Trojan War. The reason that Odysseus tries to evade war is unknown, but it can be attributed to the same sort of hubris that Achilles had.

Perhaps Odysseus thought that his cunning trumped other men’s abilities, so he did not want to risk his life. Odysseus’ cunning and unparalleled intelligence spawns the Trojan Horse, which ultimately ends the Trojan War with a victory for the Greeks. The Odyssey picks up where the Iliad left out, detailing Odysseus’s travels home, where he encounters Polyphemus, almost loses his memory at the Land of the Lotus Eaters, and many other struggles that are designed to make him lose his way. One of the struggles that Odysseus faces is similar to what Achilles faced in the Iliad, which is the effect of deadly pride.

The Sirens sing the future of men and reveal knowledge that one cannot find anywhere else. However, the Sirens lure men to their death with their voices by tempting and coaxing them off the boat they are on. Odysseus instructs his men to tie him to the ship and to plug their ears with beeswax, but Odysseus himself longs to hear their voices and believes that he harnesses enough strength to resist the temptation that the Sirens present. Ulysses and the Sirens by John William Waterhouse artfully illustrates the scene with a glowing Odysseus perching forward, leaning towards the dark and gloomy Sirens.

The colors that Waterhouse uses show the godliness that Homer gives to Odysseus. While Achilles literally almost became a god due to the powers of the Styx, Odysseus’ godlike characteristics lie more in his wit and his desire of forbidden and telling knowledge.

These godlike characters may differ in the characteristics that extenuate their godliness, but Homer unites them with respect to their pride. Similar to the Iliad and Achilles, Odysseus does not perish because of this pride even though he almost does with the Sirens. In fact, Odysseus never dies in the Odyssey itself. In both epics, Achilles and Odysseus are plagued with this form of insurmountable pride, but this pride never kills them. Achilles dies of a flaw independent of internal characteristics and Odysseus lives to tell the tale of how he narrowly escapes the Sirens.

Homer’s two-fold heroism archetype in both the Iliad and the Odyssey synthesizes together to show the different aspects of a Greek hero. Rutherford opens up by discussing how the Iliad and the Odyssey are very different works, but are believed to have been written by a single poet. However, the differences between the two are with the narrative especially regarding the hero.

In the Iliad, Achilles as a hero is skimmed over way more than Odysseus is. Odysseus has a happy ending where he returns home, slays the suitors, and resumes his marriage with Penelope. However, Achilles does not have a happy ending as Briseis is taken away from him and he eventually dies. The treatment of heroes is very different and leads some Classists to believe that the epics were written by different poets. However, Rutherford points out that the two epics are similar in length to one another, more so than other epics. The structure and the meter of the poems also give evidence that the poems are written by the same poet.

Cover Image Credit: On the Screen Reviews

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