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The expectations a hero must meet are ever-changing. Historically, a hero was a strong man, one who acted as a protector and warrior on the battlefield capable of fantastic feats. Today, many associate the word with popular fictional characters possessing supernatural abilities and acting as innovators, and this perception is not as different as it may seem from the former. The origin of heroes dates back to the dawn of language itself: a time in which societal values were expressed through story and song, and in the case of ancient Greek culture, through orally composed epic poems with typically partially divine partially mortal protagonists facing a series of moral, physical, and mental challenges. Their actions in these situations parallel the values of the society in which the epic was written and shared. And a perfect example of a work in this genre is Homer’s Odyssey, a story of Odysseus’ voyage home to his wife Penelope and son Telemachus, who strives to be the leader his father was while a multitude of suitors infests his home with the intention of marrying Penelope. Both father and son are protagonists in Homer’s story, but only one fits the criteria for an epic hero. Odysseus is a protector and innovator, bridging the gap between ancient and modern to create a timeless character. But while Odysseus continuously portrays the definition of a leader, hero, and shepherd, his son Telemachus illustrates the flaws of an overly-assertive and impetuous ruler, establishing a dichotomy between those who are just in their authority and those who abuse it.
Before delving into the Odyssey’s complex portrayal of leadership, there is key background knowledge that must be addressed: the agenda behind an epic. Epics are quite literally products of their time as they are written with the specific purpose of encompassing the values of those who wrote, told, and sang them and to export a way of life from a Greek perspective. In a way, epics can be considered works of persuasive writing, the authors arguing their definition of civilization to the audience and to one another. An epic hero, usually the main character and protagonist, is socially defined as he embodies the traits and ideals the storyteller value. Consider Captain America as an example of what it means to be socially defined. Although making his first appearance in 1941 in Captain America Comics, the hero did not rise to popularity until Marvel’s revival of his comic in 1964, 17 years into the Cold War period and 2 years following the Cuban Missile Crisis-arguably the peak of the war. Captain America was the hero U.S. citizens terrified of the spread of communism looked to (the target demographic for comic books had a much wider range at the time). Adorned in colors and patterns purposefully meant to resemble the American flag and wielding a shield with a similar design, Captain America was liberty, justice, and freedom personified, and his shield was meant to represent the preservation and protection of these American values, thus explaining the reason for his admiration and relevance in an era plagued with communism. In the case of the Odyssey, what makes Odysseus a socially defined hero is the contrast between his unwavering displays of chivalry and hospitality despite all torture and heartache he faces, and the animalistic behavior of the suitors who seize his home without regard, slaughter his cattle and harass his wife and son. Simply put, Odysseus is a hero because he represents everything the Greeks valued about civilization together with everything his family back in Ithaca struggles without in a city invaded by the rude and uncongenial.
The Odyssey is largely considered a story of homecoming, identity, and hospitality. The reader joins Odysseus in his seemingly endless struggle as he attempts to return home to his wife while Telemachus ventures far and wide in search of news of his father’s whereabouts, and while the two lead fantastically different adventures, the unfaltering kindness of others does the same in guiding each of them on their journeys. In a modern and western world, the compassion and generosity with which the protagonists are met might be considered strange or overbearing, but in Homer’s time, this courtesy was expected. Exploring aspects of his language can provide a broader understanding of the significance of this staple in Greek culture. Specifically: “Xenia”. The term Xenia was often used to “describe the virtue of showing generosity or courtesy to strangers of any condition and creating a genial relationship between host and guest” (CITATION). It should also be noted that the first letter is capitalized, calling special attention to the ideology just as any proper noun would a name, place, or title. The concept was so customary and embedded in Greek society that the amalgamation of values relating to the practice warranted the creation of a proper noun to incorporate the meaning of respect, civility, and kindness, one that set this code of conduct in vocable stone. The reader can judge how civilized a character is by the degree of Xenia offered, for example, upon Telemachus’ arrival in Pylos, Nestor’s son Pisistratus promptly welcomes both he and Mentor (Athena in disguise) with arms outstretched:
He took them by the hand. He had them sit,
as members of the feast, upon soft fleece
spread on the sands, beside his father and
his brother, Thrasymedes. And he fetched
choice shares of vitals for the newfound guests.
Then he poured wine into a golden cup;
and with the words that welcomed them, he pledged
Athena, daughter of aegis-bearing Zeus.
It is difficult for Odysseus to demonstrate generosity of the same caliber as Nestor or Pisistratus. After ten years of imprisonment on Ogygia with the nymph Calypso, he brought nothing along as he set sail for home but a boat crafted by his own two hands. Even then, his boat was torn to shreds by the great storm Poseidon sent to throw Odysseus off course. He had no wine, bread, or blankets to offer, and after“…[Odysseus’] eyes were never dry,/ and his sweet life was squandered as he wept/ for his dear home…”.
Odysseus is obviously not without his flaws, and his status as an epic hero is often disputed due to his demonstrations of hubris and pride throughout his travels. This argument is mainly justified by his actions following the encounter with Polyphemus, the Cyclops son of Poseidon. After Odysseus and his men find themselves trapped in Polyphemus’ cave, Odysseus devised a plan. Prior to blinding the Cyclops with a burning olive stake, Odysseus claims his name is “No-one” knowing when Polyphemus cried out for help, he would claim “No-one, No-one is using treachery”, leading his fellow Cyclops to believe he is alone and simply ill. Odysseus and his men were able to escape, but just before leaving the island, his pride taunts him to shout: “‘Cyclops, if any mortal man should ask/ about the shameful blinding of your eye,/ tell him that the man who gouged you was/ Odysseus, ravager of cities: one/ who lives in Ithaca—Laértës’ son’”. Had Odysseus not claimed it was he who deceived and blinded Cyclops, Polyphemus’ father Poseidon would not know who was to blame, and it was he who sent a great storm Odysseus’ way.
Alden, M. J. “The Role of Telemachus in the ’Odyssey.’” Hermes, Franz Steiner Verlag 2nd Qtr.,1987, pp. 129-137
Fletcher, Judith. “WOMEN’S SPACE AND WINGLESS WORDS IN THE ODYSSEY.”
Phoenix, vol. 62, no. ½, Classical Association of Canada, Spring-Summer, 2008, pp. 77-91
Jones, Peter V. “The Kleo of Telemachus: Odyssey 1.95.” The American Journal of Philology, vol. 109, no. 4, The Johns Hopkins University Press, Winter, 1988, pp. 496-506
Mandelbaum, Allen, translator. The Odyssey. By Homer, Bantam Books, 1990.
Morrison, James. “Homeric Values.” A Companion to Homer’s Odyssey, edited by James Morrison, Greenwood Press, 2003, pp. 21-26 Worman, Nancy
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