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.
On a certain level, Odysseus/Ulysses always maintains a certain set of characteristics: he is a cunning, dishonest man, who almost always has the success of a practical goal in mind. His skills include his intelligence, his ability to adapt to different situations, and his excellent use of language, which includes his ability to lie and twist the truth. He is known to keep information to himself and to lock up his emotions, often out of distrust or for the purpose of attaining a goal.
In Homer, these qualities are considered heroic, for Odysseus is a bronze-age warrior who uses them in pursuit of good and morally acceptable goals: the pursuit of fame and the success of the Greeks, in the Iliad, and, in the Odyssey, the defense of xenia and the punishment of his enemies. Moral failures on his part are not condemned but accepted as part of his innate complexity and of the journey he must make as a man trying to reintegrate into society.
Sophocles’ Ajax emphasizes Odysseus’ adaptability and practical self-interest, but grounds these characteristics in a new, democratic moral philosophy. From then on, though, Odysseus drifts further and further from these moral groundings. In the Philoctetes, he uses deceit and violence against a friend to achieve his goals; in the Hecabe, he uses language to manipulate a bloodthirsty mob; and in Seneca’s Trojan Women, he uses torture and cruel tricks of cunning to achieve a practical goal.
These actions are all condemned, to one degree or another, yet he is considered heroic by earlier texts in which he uses similar tactics. Whether he is condemned or admired in each text depends on whether he is grounded in a good form of morality that is accepted by the culture in which that version of Odysseus/Ulysses was created—whether bronze-age Greece or democratic Athens.
Let us look briefly at another of Odysseus’ characteristics, which does not appear in all texts: his emotional restraint. In the Odyssey, he keeps information and emotion close to his chest: part of his untrusting anchinoos and his enduring polutlas. Sometimes, as when he must lie to Penelope to protect his identity, this is admired because he does so out of a practical concern that he will be discovered by the suitors and be unable to take his vengeance for their infractions against xenia, as morally expected.
At times, this leads to problems, like when he causes pain and grief for his father, but that is only part of the final lesson he must learn before returning home. Much later, in Seneca’s Trojan Women, this emotional restraint is taken to a cruel and cold extreme as Ulysses uses any means necessary to find and kill Astyanax.
The point is that Odysseus’s qualities—his intelligence, use of language, emotional restraint, practicality, adaptability, and lies—can be considered either good or bad at different times: they are morally neutral. To be considered a good man, hero, warrior, and leader, Odysseus must ground his abilities and qualities in a positive moral standard. Without this morality, he could easily justify the use of his many skills for dubious purposes. This is what makes Odysseus/Ulysses so dangerous: it is easy for him—in his practical, adaptable way of thinking—to drift away from proper moral conduct.
This seems like a viable conclusion on the nature of Odysseus, but as we come to expect in literature, there are exceptions. We have said that the listed characteristics that appear throughout the above texts cannot be considered precisely good or bad: this is true, for the most part, except that the Aeneid explicitly condemns Ulysses’ dishonesty.
Most texts that condemn Ulysses do so on the basis of the moral adaptability that allows him to justify many terrible actions, like murder. The texts that praise his dishonesty do so because he achieves a decent, moral goal in the end. The Aeneid, though, condemns the lies for the sake of being lies.
Most of the texts do not consider lies on their own to be negative (perhaps the Philoctetes does, but this might only be a judgment against lying to one’s friends) so we can still say that not all authors agree on whether Odysseus’ qualities are good or bad. Plus, Ulysses is a direct enemy of Aeneas, whose city was destroyed because of Ulysses. Of course Aeneas in his account would condemn dishonesty: a lie caused his side to lose the war.
Another possible exception is the Metamorphoses, where Ulysses justifies the terrible sacrifice of Iphigenia for practical goals: some may say that this is exactly what a cunning politician, detached from a moral system of thinking, would do. So, if our theory holds, Ovid should condemn this moral adaptability, yet Ulysses receives victory, honor, and glory.
Ovid’s point, though, has nothing to do with morals; rather, his purpose is to praise the eloquent, clever language of Ulysses because Ovid himself enjoys the use of rhetoric. Therefore, the full scope of my conclusion does not apply quite so precisely when the morality of Ulysses is irrelevant to the larger literary purposes of the author.