Prompt 2 – The Humbling of Odysseus
The Odyssey presents its readers with many moments of grief – Penelope grieves over the possible loss of her husband, Telemachus is riddled with the grief the suitors give him by trying to take over his missing father’s estate. Perhaps the most striking example of grief is during Odysseus’ entrapment on Calypso’s island, Ortygia. Odysseus’ grievance and longing for home is a departure from the strong and brave attitude we expect to see from a ‘Trojan War Hero’.
An important question that we face while trying to achieve a deeper understanding of the text is what ‘nostos’ or ‘returning home’ means to soldiers. Odysseus leaves home for the same reason most other soldiers do – to attain ‘kleos’, or ‘glory’. However, ‘nostos’ holds a dual meaning for Odysseus – the general meaning of homecoming, and the personal meaning he attaches to it of ‘coming to’. By dramatizing the difference between Odysseus’ present circumstances during his homeward voyage and his internal desire to return home, grief opens up and elaborates the interior space of his character in a way that his heroic actions do not.
Until Book 5, we have only heard glorious war stories about Odysseus from King Nestor, King Menelaus and Helen as they pass on information about Odysseus to Telemachus. However, Odysseus is introduced to us in Book 5 in a very emasculated manner, crying on the beach on Calypso’s island. This underwhelming introduction is in stark contrast to the Odysseus that is portrayed in the stories and points to a change in his character.
“But as for Great Odysseus- Hermes could not find him within the cave.
Off he sat on a headland, weeping there as always,
Wrenching his heart with sobs and groans and anguish,
During his seven years on Calypso’s island, Odysseus deals with having no active challenge. He has no way of being a hero in Ortygia. He has no control over his entrapment because he has no way to escape. The word Calypso means ‘eclipse’ and Odysseus’ stay on her island is like an eclipse of the life he has known and what he has known of himself until this point, as a warrior and a hero. He experiences an outpour of emotions like longing and frustration as he grieves for home while being stuck on Ortygia. This represents his transition from the trajectory of a ‘War Hero’ to a man who accepts his grief, desperation and helplessness on the island.
Odysseus’ identity is redefined through his grieving period. This can be seen by comparing his old behavior with the difference in the way he handles situations that happen after his encounter with the Underworld. Earlier, Odysseus’ behavior seems reckless, as he always wants to explore the new lands he comes across during his journey back home. For example, he wants to explore the land of the Cyclops, “I’ll go across with my own ship and crew/ and probe the natives living over there. What ‘are’ they- violent, savage, lawless/ or friendly to strangers, god-fearing men” [217/173-177], despite being uncertain of whether it is safe or not. He tries to attain glory by making a name for himself in as many foreign lands as he comes across. This creates a tension between ‘kleos’ and ‘nostos’ because the readers question the urgency with which Odysseus wants to return home.
Odysseus makes an error in judgment when he reveals his name to the Cyclops, putting his men and himself into danger and prolonging their suffering and arduous journey. As the ship sails away from the Cyclops’ island, Odysseus reveals his identity to the Cyclops against the wishes of his men – “So they begged but they could not bring my fighting spirit round.”[227/556-557] It is his ‘hero’s heart’ that Odysseus must learn to curb before he can return to the civilized life at Ithaca. The very qualities that served him in battle defeat him in peace.
However, after Odysseus’ encounter with the Underworld where he meets the prophet Tiresias, when his ship is reaching the island of the Sun, he says to his men, “Here they warned, the worst disaster awaits us. Row straight past these shores – race our black ship on.” [279/299-300] Here we see Odysseus trying to restrain his thirst for adventure. He seems to have learnt his lesson from the grief he experiences after his encounter with the Cyclops, caused by Poseidon, who makes his ‘nostos’ more difficult due to storms on the journey back.
This restraint is also seen when he returns to Ithaca. He avoids the pompous mistake that got Agamemnon killed. He appears to have become more cautious. Instead of arriving all puffed up and victorious, he disguises himself as a beggar. When Eumaeus, the loyal swineherd, and Odysseus are going into the city of Ithaca, they come across the goatherd Melanthius who insults and taunts them and tries to injure Odysseus. “Odysseus was torn… should he wheel with his staff and beat the scoundrel senseless? – Or hoist him by the midriff, split his skull on the rocks? He steeled himself instead, his mind in full control.”[362/256-260] This reaction is very different from the impulsive behavior we see earlier with the Cyclops. Subsequently, the Homeric epithet attached to Odysseus’ name also changes from ‘cunning’ to ‘cool tactician’ after his return.
Thus, we see that Odysseus goes to war as a masculine prototype – brave, strong and known for his ‘cunning’. However, he returns to Ithaca asleep on a bay where the Phaeacian ship had dropped him. Odysseus’ arrival at Ithaca is understated. In Book 23, when Penelope finally sees Odysseus, she thinks, ‘One moment he seemed…Odysseus, to the life- the next, no, he was not the man she knew, a huddled mass of rags was all she saw”. [458/107-110] Although this is probably meant literally because Odysseus is dressed as a beggar, it can also be interpreted in a metaphorical sense because the changed Odysseus may be unrecognizable to her. He is longer the hero who has control over his men and every situation he is in as he did during the war, but he is now vulnerable to the grief that has matured him, as he learns to curb his ‘warrior’s heart’.
The Odyssey ends without throwing light upon Odysseus’ second journey where, based on Tiresias’ advice, he must leave home again and make sacrifices to appease Poseidon. “But once you have killed those suitors in your halls – … go forth once more, you must…” [177/176-178] Only once he does this, can he finally be at peace. However, the story ending before Odysseus sets off again can suggest that he never does actually achieve peace of mind.
Thus, the Odyssey beckons the readers to think of the deeper, universal questions – Can soldiers ever truly be themselves again after experiencing war? Odysseus’ Hero’s Journey changes him as it leads to his ‘coming to’. His image of a Trojan War Hero and his heroic actions portray him as a two-dimensional and unchanging character, repeatedly depicting him as ‘cunning Odysseus’. However, his moments of grief show character development as he matures in an emotional sense because he accepts his inability to control every situation he is in and his vulnerability to grief. Thus we see in the Odyssey that grief plays a more significant role in Odysseus’ development than his heroic actions do.