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Things are not always as they seem. A hero may be more than the sum of his deeds, or perhaps much less. Throughout Greek mythology, heroes wage war and titans clash, often resulting in the praise and immortalizing of the names of great men who triumph in glory. However, when examined closely, that glory may be undeserved. The heroism of Akhilleus and Odysseus in Homer’s The Iliad and The Odyssey is simply a byproduct of the intervention of the gods.
One of the mightiest warriors in The Iliad, Akhilleus, is well known for his courageous actions and headstrong, unwavering leadership. To many, he seems to be part god, and the gods usually favor him, perhaps because they see something familiar in him. However, Akhilleus’ courage and valor are only a facade that masks the true directors of his action.
After a heated argument with Agamemnon, Akhilleus plans to kill his foe right away, yet the goddess Athena steps in to advise Akhilleus to put away his sword, saying: “Here is my promise, and it will be kept: winnings three times as rich, in due season, you shall have in requital for his arrogance. But hold your hand. Obey” (138). Clearly, it is Athena that is responsible for this wise decision that later gives Akhilleus the upper hand. Had Akhilleus acted on his own impulses, his revenge would have been significantly decreased.
As part of his payback, Akhilleus decides to withdraw from the fighting and wishes ill upon his own people, the Akhaians, in hopes that they will see how crucial his role was in war. He petitions his immortal mother Thetis: “If you can, stand by me: go to Olympus, pray to Zeus… cling to his knees and tell him your good pleasure if he will take the Trojan side and roll the Akhaians back to the water’s edge, back on the ships with slaughter” (143-144). Zeus agrees to this and puts in motion a plot that will bring glory to Akhilleus by aiding the Trojans. This shows Akhilleus’ dependence on his mother and the gods to come to his aid, thus proving him to only be a hero through divine conspiracy, rather than dealing with matters himself.
In addition, Akhilleus’ goddess-mother Thetis also pleads with the gods’ metalsmith, Hephaestus, to design a new suit of armor for her son. Hephaestus is glad to help Akhilleus, replying, ” No trouble about the arms. I only wish that I could hide him from the power of death in this black hour – wish I were sure of that as of the splendid gear he’ll get, a wonder to any one of the many men there are” (219). Akhilleus is once again lent a hand of protection in the form of a marvelous armor suit that helps to protect him on the battlefield, making him seem like a mighty warrior to the Trojans. Without this “handiwork of immortals” (224), Akhilleus would not have instilled such fear in the hearts of the Myrmidons, causing them to tremble and revere him as their mighty leader (223).
After Akhilleus makes known his return to the war, the Akhaians decide to feast before making their next attack. However, Akhilleus is filled with such remorse for his dear friend Patroklos that he cannot bring himself to eat. The gods observe him and have pity on him as Zeus speaks to Athena: “There he sits, before the curving prows, and grieves for his dear friend. The other soldiers flock to meat; he thirsts and hungers. Come, infuse in him sweet nectar and ambrosia, that an empty belly may not weaken him”(232). This shows that Akhilleus, by himself, did not contain the strength to fight in the battle, for his stomach would have given into its hunger. However, because of the Zeus’ pity on him and his instruction to Athena to fill his body, he is only then fully prepared to fight heroically.
Akhilleus is filled with revenge, killing almost every soldier that he comes in contact with, causing many to fall into the river of the god Xanthos. The pollution of the river angers the god, who attacks Akhilleus and threatens to drown him. However, “Poseidon, Athena, and Hera come to Akhilleus’ aid, and the fire god Hephaistos uses his flames to overcome the raging river” (235). Akhilleus would have drowned had it not been for the intervention of the gods.
Lastly, Akhilleus’ most admirable act was to finally slay the Trojan leader Hector. Although it was the spear of Akhilleus that wounded his enemy, it was actually Athena who was responsible for his downfall, having posed as Hector’s “good soldier, Dephobos,” who failed to supply him with his spear at a critical moment in his battle with Akhilleus (243). In his last words, Hector comes to this realization, crying, “Athena tricked me” (243). Ultimately, the gods were behind every courageous act of Akhilleus, shaping circumstances to favor him and giving him aid in time of need. Thus, not Akhilleus, but the gods are the true heroes in this story of The Iliad.
In the same way that Akhilleus is known for his courage, Odysseus is known for his keen mind and cunning strategies in Homer’s The Odyssey. In this piece of literature he is depicted as an epic hero, characterized by his deceit that aids him in his many endeavors. However, similar to Akhilleus, it is the intercession of the gods that make Odysseus appear heroic, rather than his own merit.
After Odysseus has been held captive on Kalypso’s island for over eight years, Athena petitions Zeus to order his freedom. Hermes delivers the command to the nymph: “send him back in haste. His life may not in exile go to waste. His destiny, his homecoming, is at hand, when he shall see his dearest, and walk on his own land” (333). This shows that Odysseus is incapable of completing his quest on his own; he requires the authority of Zeus and the aid of the other gods to grant him his freedom, allowing him to continue on his “heroic” journey home.
Following his departure from Kalypso’s island, Odysseus has a deadly encounter with the wrath of Poseidon, who engulfs him in the waves of the sea. Had the god Ino not stepped in and offered Odysseus help, saying: “make my veil your sash; it is not mortal; you cannot, now be drowned or suffer harm” (338). Again, the gods supply much-needed aid when Odysseus is faced with disaster. Without it, he would likely have perished, putting an untimely end to his heroic reputation.
On another leg of his journey, Kirke transforms Odysseus’ men into pigs. When Odysseus goes to investigate, the god Hermes meets him on his way, giving him vital information, saying, “But I can tell you what to do to come unchanged from Kirke’s power and disenthrall your fighting crew: take with you to her bower as amulet, this plant I know—it will defeat her horrid show . . .” (394). This shows that only with the help of Hermes was Odysseus able to overcome Kirke’s spell and daringly rescue his men.
Having overcome the many obstacles along the way and finally returning to Ithaca, Odysseus is again in need of assistance from the gods to carry out his revenge and free his wife from the suitors. In this final stretch of Odysseus’ journey, he is extremely reliant on Athena to retake what is rightfully his. Odysseus asks of Athena: “Breathe valor in me the way you did that night when we Akhaians unbound the bright veil from the brow of Troy! O grey-eyed one, fire my heart and brace me! I’ll take on fighting men three hundred strong if you fight at my back, immortal lady” (444). Clearly, even Odysseus gives Athena the credit for supplying him with the courage and “valor” needed to carry him this far. He claims that it is only with her at his back that he will confront the large number of suitors ready to fight should he return to his home. So, Athena devises a plan for Odysseus, saying, “Now, for a while, I shall transform you; not a soul will know you…” (444). This allows Odysseus to observe the occurrences of his household so he can distinguish the faithful from the rest and so he can meticulously plan revenge within his own home. Without the powers of Athena, he would not have had this advantage over the suitors, and the resulting triumphant battle would not have taken place as it did.
A hero is someone who is able to stand alone in the face of adversity and to boldly and independently meet trying circumstances with courageous actions and the wisdom necessary to make difficult choices. Clearly, there is a discrepancy between who the Greeks esteemed to be a hero and who truly acted heroically. The gods played an essential role in the success of Akhilleus and Odysseus. Therefore, the gods deserve credit for the heroism of these men. Without divine intervention, the names of Akhilleus and Odysseus and the records of their heroic deeds would have been nothing more than forgotten tales of mediocre men.
Homer. The Iliad. Trans. Robert Fitzgerald. Literature of the Western World. Volume 1. New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 2001. Pages 127-272.
Homer. The Odyssey. Trans. Robert Fitzgerald. Literature of the Western World. Volume 1. New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 2001. Pages 273-594.
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