In this series of posts, I examine the various versions of Odysseus/Ulysses that appear in the classical texts of the Greeks and Romans in an attempt to create a clear picture of who Odysseus really is. Most of the content in this series was written in February of 2013, as part of an assignment for a advanced literature course at Santa Clara University called Classical Mythology in the Western Tradition. In this class, we traced two major mythological figures, Odysseus and Helen, through the western literary tradition, from the ancient days to their modern incarnations.
Introduction to the Series
Suppose that Laertes, the father of Odysseus, wanted us to answer the question that all fathers ask themselves at one point or another: “What kind of person is my son? Did I raise him to be a good man, with good moral principles and the qualities one needs to succeed in the world?” Because Odysseus is a literary creation, the only evidence we can give Laertes are the stories which have been written about his son.
As we gather evidence for Laertes, we might ask Homer to tell—or rather “sing”—about Odysseus, the “man of twists and turns.” So, to find out what qualities Odysseus has and whether these characteristics are good or bad, we must follow the major appearances of Odysseus in classical literature: from the Homeric epics to the tragedies of Athens to the Roman era of Ulysses.
As will be demonstrated, Odysseus is an adaptable, cunning, and intelligent man, who is often dishonest and untrusting. He is pragmatic: almost everything he does is for the purpose of achieving a practical outcome. He possesses tremendous skill in persuasive rhetoric and storytelling—which helps him to be a highly successful liar. In addition, some texts say that he is known to keep information and emotion locked up.
These qualities might be either good or bad, depending on how he uses them. When Odysseus possesses an acceptable moral standard and uses those morals to stabilize his qualities, he becomes a great hero and leader. When his morals become too flexible and he becomes an amoral pragmatist or a pandering politician, these same traits of Odysseus are condemned, but they do not carry any morality on their own. Odysseus requires a strong sense of morality to be a good hero and leader because he is an adaptable man, who often alters his own system of morality to fit the situation.
In many cases, his skills and qualities might become bad ones: practicality becomes his priority, allowing him to justify any action—any use of intelligence, deceit, or persuasive rhetoric—for practical gains. This is what makes Odysseus such a dangerous figure: it is easy for his strongest and potentially most heroic qualities to turn into hated and condemned characteristics.
Keeping Things Under Control in the Iliad
Let us start with the Odysseus seen in Homer’s Iliad. What type of hero and leader is Odysseus within the context of a war epic, amidst the violence of the bronze age? Is he an effective bronze-age warrior?
Our first impression of him is a positive one: Agamemnon, in a stunning exhibition of weak leadership, entirely misreads the morale of his troops and, to test them, tells them all to immediately sail home. They all run to the ships, of course, and Odysseus, urged on by Athena, persuades the men to stay at Troy (Iliad II.100-330, from the translation by Richmond Lattimore).
Odysseus is automatically considered a hero, for the goddess appears to be on his side. He has her favor, and therefore, is likely to succeed as a hero. Paradoxically, the opposite is true too: because he is likely to succeed, the gods support him. Regardless, Athena’s presence here says that Odysseus is a good hero, supported by a deity, and in terms of larger epic themes, reminds us of the ever-constant influence exerted by the gods on human affairs.
As for persuading the men to stay at Troy, Odysseus demonstrates extraordinary awareness of power structures. To convince a man of power or rank, he uses “soft words… to restrain him”. He kindly tells the “man of influence” not to be a coward and to keep the men in line. He reminds them of what Agamemnon said about his test, and warns them of what Agamemnon might do to the men for failing it.
As for ordinary soldiers, however, Odysseus simply scolds them and hits them with his staff. He demands that they, “skulker[s] and coward[s]”, submit to superior leadership. Odysseus, in this way, manages to keep the entire army in line (Iliad II.188-210). He uses his knowledge and awareness of social statuses to persuade each man appropriately, according to that man’s rank and level of political influence. He is adaptable: he understands the variations between situations and how to properly adapt to each one.
The Humiliation of Thersites
Odysseus then beats and humiliates Thersites, a man hated by the soldiers. The men laugh, their mood restored (Iliad II.243-277). It does not matter that what Thersites says is technically correct: Agamemnon has taken the best loot for himself and he has dishonored Achilles by taking his prize, the girl Briseis (Iliad II.225-242). Odysseus achieves results: he momentarily unifies the Achaeans—who moments before were prepared to go home—in their common hatred of Thersites.
Here, we see the early trappings of the morally ambiguous and pragmatic Odysseus: he utterly humiliates a man, who in fact speaks the truth, for the practical purpose of making the rest of the men happy. Homer, though, throws aside this concern, for “ugly” Thersites has no “decency”. He is “vain” and “abuses” the leaders of the army with his words. In light of these characteristics and actions (Iliad II.212-225), he is clearly meant to be seen as a negative figure. This makes it all the easier for us to recognize the good results produced by Odysseus without moral objections to his treatment of Thersites.
Homer therefore does not wish to portray Odysseus negatively; he wants the tactics used by Odysseus to appear effective, but with no reason to be called amoral or immoral. Odysseus creates a moment of common mirth—a moment of unification—and chooses that time to launch into a persuasive speech. This is the best time to do so, when they are all joined together in laughter.
He appeals to their emotions, saying that he understands their homesickness, but that it is “disgraceful… to go home empty-handed”, which appeals to their sense of pride. Then, he reminds the men of Calchas’ prophecy of the war ending during the tenth year, that that day has almost come. The men applaud Odysseus’ words (Iliad II.291-335), showing Odysseus’ brilliant skill as a persuasive orator.
The Night Raid with Diomedes
In book ten of the Iliad, Diomedes chooses Odysseus to accompany him on a night raid because “he is best at devices”(Iliad X.247). This proves to be true: Odysseus uses his awareness—one might call it his cunning—to lay an ambush for Dolon, the Trojan spy (Iliad X.339-365).
He subtly convinces Dolon that he would not be killed, but makes no explicit promise as he squeezes Dolon for useful information: Odysseus learns the enemy’s sleeping arrangements and the value of king Rhesus’ horses. He then allows Diomedes to kill the spy (Iliad X.382-459) As Diomedes slays each enemy warrior, Odysseus mindfully clears the bodies out of the way so as not to frighten the horses as he leads them away (Iliad X.480-501).
Here we see effective use of his cunning, deceitful tactics to win glory and plunder in battle. This physical acquisition of loot represents an increase in the honor of an individual warrior. Notice how each man stays within his own sphere: Odysseus plans the ambush, deceives and questions Dolon, and using his awareness ensures the safe capture of the horses, while the main bulk of killing is left to Diomedes.
Homer makes it clear that the Odyssean heroic standard, which favors cunning, awareness, and deceit, can exist alongside the opposing Achillean heroic ideal, which favors direct combat, straightforward confrontation, and honesty. In fact, they can support and complement one another as they work towards the success of the task at hand: defeating Trojans, earning glory, and capturing loot.
Odysseus in the Iliad: Positive Qualities
In the Iliad, Odysseus is portrayed as a practical bronze-age leader, favored by the gods, who effectively uses intelligence, eloquent language, and cunning, with little to no hint of amorality (only in his treatment of Thersites, who is an ugly and disliked figure), to achieve his goals.
He uses his awareness of changing situations to adapt, to keep the army in line and ensure the success of his missions. He takes actions to unify the men and speaks persuasively to earn the support of his fellow warriors. His cunning trickery is especially useful in combat.
His qualities are considered positive here, for they contribute to the success of the task at hand: fighting the Trojans in combat and earning glory. That, after all, is the thematic basis of the entire epic: the quest for glory that is to be attained on the battlefield.
It does not matter whether one fights in daylight against hordes of enemies like Achilles or Diomedes does, at night in a silent raid like Diomedes does with Odysseus’ help, or uses eloquent language and persuasive tactics to keep command of one’s troops like Odysseus does; all are equally important in this bronze-age quest for fame. All are possible paths to achieving glory in battle and proving one’s honor.
Failure in the Embassy
Odyssean qualities, however, are not always successful. During the embassy to Achilles, Odysseus gives a long speech in which he offers to Achilles the same list of gifts that Agamemnon described earlier (Iliad IX.121-153, 262-299). He tactfully leaves out Agamemnon’s prideful demand that Achilles “yield place to me, inasmuch as I am the kinglier / and inasmuch as I can call myself born the elder” (Iliad IX.160-161).
He then replaces this with a manipulative substitute, appealing to Achilles’ own pride: “You may win very great glory among [the Achaians]. / For now you might kill Hector… / …he thinks there is not his equal / among the rest of the Danaans”(Iliad IX.303-306). This is a classic Odyssean move: the use of persuasive techniques and the manipulation of information to achieve a practical end goal, which is the return of Achilles to battle.
This is entirely ineffective against Achilles, who figures out that Odysseus is trying to manipulate him and announces that he “detest[s] that man, who / hides one thing in the depth of his heart, and speaks forth another”(Iliad IX.312-313). He fits perfectly the heroic archetype of one who hates liars and is honest and straightforward in his conduct. Despite Odysseus’ brilliant skill with persuasive words, he cannot convince Achilles.
Is this a sign of a weakness within Odysseus’ cunning, manipulative heroic model? No, for we have seen that the Odyssean hero can attain success and glory in war with these very same tactics.
Rather, his failure here only indicates the extent of Achilles’ unbreakable rage. Due to his deep anger, Achilles refuses to fight and cannot be persuaded by the logical, persuasive words of Odysseus, but only by a deep, emotional, and further rage-inducing impact—the death of his friend Patroclus. Odysseus’ failure here only emphasizes the Iliad‘s central theme of heroic wrath, or menin, which is the first word of the entire epic.
If you would like to read the Iliad for yourself and follow along with what I have written above, here are my recommendations. The text that I used in class was the translation by Richmond Lattimore. This version is known to be incredibly accurate to the original Greek of Homer, and if you use this translation, you’ll be able to easily find the passages that I refer to. However, Lattimore often comes across a bit stilted and awkward, since the flow of ancient Greek does not match so well with the English language.
For a more readable translation for a modern audience, I would instead recommend the popular Fagles translation, which is not as accurate when compared to the Greek but is smoothly rendered into perfectly understandable English. There are, of course, many other excellent translations, so please choose whatever version you find most enjoyable. Go here for a list of English translations of Homer.