Odysseus, Master of Schemes

Great Mythologies of the World

Odysseus was a legendary king of ancient Ithaca, an island in the Ionian Sea. There is some disagreement in the stories about his parentage, but the rest of his life is described fairly consistently. He was married to Penelope, and together, they had a much-beloved son, Telemachus. Odysseus is hailed as a hero in the Trojan War but experiences a lengthy journey filled with hardship when he tries to return home.

We’ll look at Odysseus as the awed Greek hero celebrated in Homer’s Odyssey and other poems related to the Trojan War. We’ll pay particular attention to the ways in which Odysseus’s scheming and lies lead to heroic triumphs—and nearly kill him.

Opening of the Odyssey

Homer begins the Odyssey when Odysseus is near the end of 
his journey. He has been held captive by the beautiful nymph Calypso for seven years, and despite being nearly shipwrecked by a storm sent by Poseidon, he finally makes it to another island, Phaeacia. His hosts offer him a ship to Ithaca, but they ask him to describe his journeys before he leaves. We get to “eavesdrop” on these stories.

In the Homeric material, Odysseus’s stories focus on the years after the Trojan War and his efforts to return home to Penelope and his son. These stories are perhaps the best-known ones about Odysseus because they are the most entertaining, including monsters, gods and goddesses, and the underworld.

Over time, Odysseus’s adventures become increasingly discouraging and dark. Eventually, like Herakles, he and his men travel to the underworld. The spirit of Odysseus’s dead mother tells him that his wife is being pursued by suitors, who claim that Odysseus is dead and compete to take over his wife and home.

Odysseus resumes his journey home, avoiding the dangerous Sirens and navigating between the monster Scylla and the whirlpool Charybdis. But he continues to lose his soldiers and is ultimately trapped alone on an island as Calypso’s prisoner. It is here that we meet him at the beginning of Homer’s epic; at this point, Odysseus is not a confident war hero but a lonely wanderer, who wants nothing more than to return home.

Return to Ithaca

After being released from Calypso’s island and nearly drowned by Poseidon’s storms, Odysseus is brought, naked and alone, to the Phaeacian shore. When he finishes telling his story to his Phaeacian hosts, they deliver him to Ithaca, but he does not return in triumph. As a precaution, Athena disguises Odysseus as a poor beggar so that no one will recognize him.

Odysseus meets his wife without her recognizing him. Throughout the years of her husband’s absence, Penelope has remained faithful, but she and her son have been invaded by princes desiring to take over Odysseus’s kingdom and his wife. Penelope can no longer withstand the pressure to remarry.

Penelope tells the disguised Odysseus that she has decided to hold a competition among the suitors to select her future husband. They will be required to string Odysseus’s bow and shoot an arrow through twelve axe heads. Of course, Odysseus immediately decides to participate in the contest.
On the day of the contest, none of the suitors can string the bow, but Odysseus does and sends an arrow flying through all twelve axe heads. Then, with the help of Telemachus, Athena, and others, he attacks and kills the suitors who have presumed to take over his household. He orders the servant women who plotted with Penelope’s suitors to clean up their corpses, then hangs these women. Finally, he reveals himself to Penelope.

The Appeal of Odysseus

On a basic level, it’s easy to
understand why the stories of Odysseus have stood the test
 of time: Odysseus’s adventures are incredibly entertaining. After all, Odysseus battles with gods and monsters, is admired by men and desired by women, and stays faithful to his people and his family. He is the ultimate leading man and adventure hero.

For the ancient Greeks, the story of Odysseus was part history and part hero worship. It put Greek history on a cosmic stage, suggesting that the gods cared enough about the Greeks to occasionally intervene in their lives.

Note that Odysseus was not half-god, as Herakles was; whatever his parentage, he was a mortal. Therefore, as a hero, Odysseus set a standard against which all other men were meant to measure themselves—a high but attainable bar.

On another level, the Odysseus stories give us insight into distinctive mythic themes, including the theme of identity, which the stories explore in distinctive ways.

  • Unlike other Greek heroes, Odysseus changes his name and conceals or alters his identity several times throughout his adventures. And in a cruel twist of fate, the one time he proclaims his identity, as he and his men are escaping from Polyphemus, he endangers them all.
  • The scholar John M. Bell argues that at this moment, the folktale about a man escaping a monster becomes a myth—the mythic hero, even at the risk of endangering his own life and those of his men, must assert his identity. The story takes on significance beyond the events it describes.
  • Throughout Odysseus’s life, his identity is alternately concealed and revealed. This finally comes to an end when he returns home to reclaim his household and family.
  • More than any other Greek mythic figure, Odysseus searches for a place and time where he can be publicly at peace with his full, true identity. This personal search may be the key element of the Odyssey that distinguishes it from other Greek myths.
  • One by one, the sailors under his command fall away, ultimately leaving Odysseus alone and exposed. He finally returns home alone, disguised as a person at the very bottom of the social order. He has been humbled, stripped of companionship, and stripped of any meaningful identity. Only at that moment can he resume his rightful identity.
  • Paradoxically, the grand epic is ultimately a deeply personal story of one man losing himself, then finding himself again.

Odysseus’s journeys can also be read as metaphors for experiences in everyday life. True, most of us are not tempted by Sirens, but the Sirens represent temptations that we do face, temptations that initially seem attractive and that encourage us to turn away from a long, difficult path. Similarly, when Odysseus and his men travel to the “western edge of the world” or to speak with the dead, these journeys are metaphors for the times that we feel far from home, separated from comforting friends and family.

  • In the underworld, Odysseus learns that his mother has committed suicide and that his wife is being besieged by suitors who want to take over his throne and his family. At that moment, he is filled with a new sense of urgency about returning home. Joseph Campbell called these “belly of the whale” experiences.
  • Campbell argues that we all have these moments when we recognize that the old world we used to cling to is gone and that it is time to move forward toward a new world, whatever that might be.

It’s important to note that when Odysseus was born, his maternal grandfather gave him his name, which means “the son of pain,” and declared that the boy would earn his name in full.

  • It’s true that Odysseus experiences physical pain, but in many 
ways, this is insignificant. The physical challenges he faces in the Trojan War and on the long journey home are fleeting, secondary to the lasting changes he undergoes.
  • We can think of Odysseus as a “son of pain” in the sense that his character as a man was forged out of pain. His true pain is reflected in his stories of the journey home, stories in which his own pride and attempts at shrewdness cost all of his men their lives and delay his own return.
  • Physical pain is nothing to a hero; true hero’s pain is the pain of facing the losses that others have experienced because of your failings. And Odysseus’s character as a mature man is born out of this pain. Homer hints at this by inviting listeners to eavesdrop on this mature man’s reflections on the past 20 years of his life.

A Hero’s Transformation

Homer structures the Odyssey so that it is the tale of the telling of a tale. The fact that Odysseus is reminiscing is as significant as the contents of the story. His is a story of personal transformation, and Campbell argues that it is, in particular, the story of a hero’s transformation.

According to Campbell, the hero’s journey, or monomyth, includes three parts: First, the hero separates from his known world, either voluntarily or by force. Then, he encounters a previously unknown world and undergoes a kind of initiation, in which he is introduced to unimagined wonders and forces in the world. He survives this initiation but is transformed by it, and he subsequently returns to his former world a wiser man.

In Campbell’s thinking, Odysseus was the quintessential hero, forced against his will to take on a dreaded task,
separated from loved ones for decades, matured and humbled by his experiences and his own flaws, and reborn when he washes up on the shore of Phaeacia, naked and alone. He has changed from a proud warrior into a thoughtful man.

In the end, Odysseus seems to be both the mythological superman and everyman.

Initially, he comes across as the hero of a fantasy adventure, but as his story unfolds, he becomes much more relatable. Readers identify with his lifelong commitment to family and home, his struggle between desire and duty, and his acknowledgement that his strengths are, occasionally, also the cause of his undoing.

Odysseus’s journey is our journey, and ultimately, his goal is always to return home. In this, he embodies what we like to think are basic human impulses, and he is rewarded as we would like to be. He returns home from his labors, welcomed into the loving arms of his family, scarred but a little wiser.

Questions to Consider

  1. Odysseus’s adventures are often thought of as metaphors for broader human experience. Can you extrapolate from his adventures to discern some lessons for human life in general?
  2. How does Joseph Campbell’s model of a hero’s journey help us understand Odysseus’s story? What elements of the story might this model obscure?
From the lecture series Great Mythologies of the World
Taught by Professor Grant L. Voth, Ph.D. , Dr. Kathryn McClymond, Ph.D.Robert André LaFleur , Ph.D, and Julius H. Bailey, Ph.D