If people nowadays find it difficult to understand why, as little as 30 years ago, fashion had them wearing neon leg warmers as a part of their everyday attire, imagine how much our views have changed since the time of the Ancient Greeks. Back then, it was considered to let random strangers into your house, offer your daughters for marriage at 14 years old, and even to let other people bathe you, among the many things we would consider very odd in our times. It is not surprising then that, because culture and society have evolved so much, many of our ideals and definitions of virtue are different as well.
In Homer’s time, Odysseus would have been regarded and celebrated as a great hero and warrior, and is very consistent in both character and story with the title of epic hero, which he shares with figures such as Beowulf from the Old English poem. But from a modern perspective, he doesn’t seem nearly as heroic as he is made out to be.
It seems that, in multiple cases, Odysseus failed to fulfill a very important criterion of modern heroism: putting the lives of others before your own. While I do not know much about his deeds at Troy, I am fairly confident from the account of his journey back home that Odysseus was not an expert at this. Many of his shipmates died on the way back home to Ithaca – were eaten by monsters or fell into the trap at Helios’ cattle-packed island – mainly as a result of Odysseus’ inability to convince them to do the intelligent thing, or otherwise, the fact that he didn’t really try in the first place. He also sends many of his men out “exploring” on potentially dangerous islands and most of them do not come back. A modern hero would take the risk upon his own shoulders and be more willing to sacrifice his life for his comrades rather than the other way around. Odysseus also makes many rash decisions that are often not well thought out. He almost gave himself away while disguised as a beggar multiple times, which threatened both his life, the life of his son, and the lives of his loyal friends.
Finally, it is quite evident that Odysseus relies on other people’s help ALOT throughout The Odyssey. He does not escape from Calypso’s island until the gods themselves convince Calypso to let him go home. Even then, she helps him build a raft and gives him food for the journey. He then lands on Scheria where Alcinous’ hospitality gets him to the next place, and so on. He requires Hermes’ flower to avoid getting turned into a pig by Circe. The only time he really solves a problem is when he is able to escape from the Cyclop’s cave by his own wit. Aside from that instance, however, he is constantly under the watchful eye of Athena who keeps him out of too much trouble and makes sure he doesn’t stray from his path home. She makes him “beautiful” and “strong” when he needs it, and makes him look like a beggar when it is necessary as well. There is simply too much “god-power” helping him out, whereas we appreciate strength that comes from within in a modern hero.
Although this was not a very detailed assessment of “heroism” in The Odyssey, I hope that I have at least made some sense and that you will not judge me too harshly. Farewell for now,