Odysseus: a hero in every way. He is a real man, skilled in the sports, handy with a sword and spear, and a master of war strategy. Most of the challenges and adventures in his return voyage from Troy show us this even if we had no idea of his great heroic stature and accomplishments in the Trojan war. I found in my reading of the Odyssey that most of the trials the gods place upon him are readily faced with heroic means. These challenges are not necessarily welcomed by Odysseus but accepted as part of his role. He is the hero, its his lot to wield sword and shield and bravely face the next army or monster.
Then we begin to see more of the challenges do not require our hero to fight his way out. These threats are the most difficult problems for Odysseus to overcome. The tests like the isle of the lotus eaters, Circe’s island, and Calypso’s island were the hardest challenges for Odysseus. His encounter with Polyphemus the Cyclops, the Laestrygonians, Charybdis and Scyylla, and the kingdom of the dead: these dangers were on his level, heroic battles where he could fight valiantly and if it was his fate, die valiantly.
The challenges where heroic means were not a solution to overcome the danger were the most formidable tasks that could easily destroy Odysseus. Odysseus and crew are finally on their way home after the war, after nine days on the rough sea, they arrive at the isle of the lotus eaters. The lotus eaters are a group of people who have a lot of fun, thanks to their consumption of the lotus flower. This confrontation provides Odysseus and his crew with the first of their challenges (Odyssey 9:1-103). This threat is definitely one that a heroic confrontation is unlikely.
This danger is not any physical threat to him or his men. The lotus eaters create a situation where Odysseus and his crew are tempted by a gift. This gift of immediate gratification threatens to take away several their basic heroic element. By eating the lotus flower they would find immediate happiness, however they would never make it home. They would died old men on that island without their families, they would be broken in a sense. Without the memories of their homes, wives, and children they would be just a shell of who they were.
Odysseus would sooner die than to never see Penelope again and be robbed of their long term gratification of returning home. He would cease to be a man and a hero if he stopped caring and lived out the rest of his days on the island with the lotus eaters. On that level the lotus eaters were trying to rob the men of their memories. What do you have left without memories? Are you still a human being without your memories? Memories are what shapes a person and without them you’re just a shell, a shadow of what you were.
Odysseus responds to these tests as he knows best, with brute force, dragging his men back to the ship and lashing them down. They immediately depart the island so no others can be tempted by the lotus eaters. If by some chance fate he had gone first and tried the lotus flower, our hero’s voyage would have been over before it started and he would have not even put up a fight. However, he does learn to be more wary of the people he encounters along his journey. After two more stops Odysseus proves again that he is a real hero by out smarting the Cyclops and escaping the giant Laestrygonians.
However, even hero’s can’t win all of the time and he losses many of his men to the Cyclops and the cannibal Laestrygonians. By the time he arrives at Circe’s island his ship is the only ship left. Odysseus, being more cautious now, sends a group of men ahead to check out her house. The men called to Circe, and she came out of the house. She invited them in to share a meal. Unfortunately for them, Circe had mixed a magical drug into their food. This drug caused them to forget their native land, and turned them into pigs(Odyssey 10:146-268). Odysseus rushes off to save his men.
On his way, he meets up with the god Hermes. Hermes helps him out and gives him a plan to help save his men. So our hero is saved by the god Hermes from a horrible fate. Still Odysseus is not content to sail on and leave the goddess behind (Odyssey 10:269-532). Here Odysseus lost sight of his goal, thinking he was in full control of the situation. Only after a full year has past does he even ask Circe to help them on their way and only at the urging of his crew. He forgets that it was only by the gods help that he was able to triumph over Circe.
There was no other way he could have survived her magic. In a sense he is beat by her because he forgets his voyage home and wastes a year in tarring there. By forgetting the voyage he denies himself, a hero, and forgets his family and subjects in Ithaca. Exactly the same threat that the lotus eaters posed to Odysseus and his men. The temptation that Circe offers is a life of pleasure. Anything you desire: food, sport, beautiful women, anything at all. For a time Odysseus is taken in my her offer but thanks to his men he is able to break free of it and remember his home and family.
After many heroic deeds and much danger and peril Odysseus journeys to the underworld and back, escaped the sirens, evades Charybdis and Scyylla, and loses all of his men. His men eat the sungod’s cattle even after promising Odysseus that they wouldn’t, so Zeus kills all of his men by striking their ship with a bolt of lighting (Odyssey 11-13:1-452). Odysseus was adrift in the water for nine days with no hope at all. Then on the tenth day, he washed up on the island home of the nymph Calypso. Once he landed on the shore, he was discovered by the beautiful goddess Calypso(Odyssey 13:453-491).
Here Odysseus is tempted by Calypso. Her temptation is by far the worst for Odysseus, he doesn’t have his men to help him and he doesn’t have a ship to sail away in. Calypso is quite taken with him, and tempts him to stay with her. Hoping that he would become her husband, she offered him immortality and eternal youth, if only he would stay with her forever. However our hero struggles on and now after many years of hardship he never loses the sight of his wife Penelope, his family, and his people in Ithaca. For him to really be the hero he must return home no matter how long it takes.
Here faced with something so tempting, immortality and eternal youth, he withstands and mourns for home. So he endures and longs for home until time ran its course and the gods decreed that it was time for him to return. If Odysseus had given in to Calypso or any other of his temptations on the homeward voyage, however, that would be the a fate worse than death for a hero. He wouldn’t have made it home to reclaim what was his. He would never see his loving wife again or ever see his son. If he couldn’t ever get back then there would have been no reason to ever leave.
All of his heroic deed would have been in vain and no one would have even remembered him. He could not have fought the suitors and proved himself . The act of returning was always the ultimate goal for Odysseus and the temptations of happiness, beauty, immortality, and eternal youth were much harder for him to pass up every time he had to put his life on the line and fight an army or evade a monster. He could have given in to any of the temptations at any time and never had to endure the pain and strife that came from his homeward journey.
Without his heroic resources to help him escape the temptations by battling his way out or using his wit to escape he holds on and endures and finally returns. Dying on the battlefield would be a fantastic ending for a hero such as Odysseus. Dying alone without a fight or giving in and living without ever returning to his home or Penelope would be a fate no hero could accept. He would have been forgotten and others would claim what was his. Odysseus does endure and returns, escaping danger and great temptation to be the hero and claim his own.