Odysseus: A Good Role Model?

Though it was written towards the end of the 8th century BCE, there is one Classical Epic Poem that is known even today by all: The Odyssey by Homer.  Specifically, this essay addresses a translation by Robert Fitzgerald.  The Odyssey features Odysseus, a Greek adventurer, on his 10-year journey back from Troy to Ithaka, following the Trojan War.  In the style of classical epics, this story takes place over an immense setting, offering Odysseus a chance to serve as a representative of Greece to the many foreign cultures he encounters.  Beyond this, though, The Odyssey further attempts to glorify Odysseus by portraying him as a leader throughout the story.  It shows how Odysseus leads his crew through the monstrous obstacles they encounter, such as Cyclops, the Polyphemus, and Scylla and Charybdis, the six-headed monster and whirlpool that accompany each other.  While Odysseus is a good leader throughout this because he stands up for his crewmen, and fights for and beside them throughout his journey, he isn’t sufficiently communicative enough in the end, which brings death to his entire crew, and the extension of his journey due to mistakes.

While Odysseus acts as a leader by delegating certain work, such as scouting ahead on Aeaea and the island of the Laistrygonians, there are certain tasks that he takes on himself, such as venturing to Kirkê’s hall to save his crew after hearing from Eurýlokhos that they have vanished.  In fact, just as he prepares to leave for Kirkê’s hall, Eurýlokhos “[puts] both his hands around [Odysseus’] knees in desperate woe, and [says] in supplication: ‘Not back there, O my lord… You, even you, cannot return, I know it, I know you cannot bring away our shipmates” (173; bk. 10, lines 290-294).  Despite this obvious risk to his existence, and even to the livelihoods of the remaining platoon of crewmen, Odysseus ignores this, and, in yet another show of courage, begins the journey to Kirkê’s hall anyways.  While this might seem a bad move by a leader, as it demonstrates absolutely no clear strategy, Odysseus’ strategy might have been to expect advice from the gods.  Even if this weren’t so, it is important to emphasize the fact that he has much more than courage in battle than normal humans, which is one of the elements of any classical epic. Of course, when Hermês arrives, he confirms Eurýlokhos’ statement by saying, “If you go to set [your friends] free you go to stay, and never more make sail for your old home upon Thaki” (173; bk. 10, lines 314-315).  Even so, he continues by giving Odysseus a solution: a molü flower.  This flower allows Odysseus to overcome Kirkê’s potion, but Hermês’ solution further requires Odysseus to sleep with her to fully earn her trust.  This, in itself, would have been something only a hero could have/should have done.  A normal person believes in loyalty to one’s spouse, and giving this up is a great sacrifice that is not made in vain.  Herodotus confirms this in Herodotus’ Histories, in which he observes the polygamous behaviors of external cultures with disgust, confirming that the Greek norm was monogamy.  By doing this, Odysseus proves that he will give anything to save his crew.  Furthermore, it is foreseeable that Homer would give Hermês this role, as giving the gods a role of mentorship is a common element in classical epics.

Despite this effort to save his crew from Kirkê, Odysseus’ attempts to protect his crew, as a good leader should, don’t end up working out, as, by the time the reader first sees him on Ogygia, Calypso’s island, his entire crew is dead, having been sucked into Charybdis after being shipwrecked by Zeus.  The reason for this shipwreck is described by Teirêsias of Thebes when Odysseus and his men visit him in the underworld by the order of Kirkê.  “When you make landfall on Thrinakia… you’ll find the grazing herds of Hêlios by whom all things are seen, all speech is known.  Avoid those kine… If you raid the beeves, I see destruction for ship and crew” (188; bk. 11, lines 120-127).  Unfortunately, Odysseus is the only one who Teirêsias tells this to, so his crewmen don’t abide by this rule.  This isn’t due to the fact that Odysseus doesn’t tell them not to kill the cattle, though, even if he is very hesitant to make landfall on Hêlios’ island.  Odysseus says, “Eurýlokhos, they are with you to a man.  I am alone, outmatched.  Let this whole company swear me a great oath: Any herd of cattle or flock of sheep here found shall go unharmed; no one shall slaughter out of wantonness ram or heifer” (219; bk. 12, lines 380-386).  As most leaders assume, Odysseus takes it as a given that his crewmen will listen to him, since he knows best, as a leader should.  However, what he fails to recognize is that, despite the fact that he might appear like a god in his figure and personal qualities, the gods still have much more power than him, and, thus, much more capability to protect his crewmen.  This is what drives Eurýlokhos to justify the killing of the cattle by first “[cutting] out the noblest of these cattle for sacrifice to the gods who own the sky” (221; bk. 12, lines 443-444).  According to the traditions they have learned since they were born, sacrificing animals to the gods gains their protection, and thus, justifies disobeying their leader.  Alternatively, despite the fact that Odysseus just led the crew through extensive obstacles, more or less safely, this could signify that he doesn’t have his crew’s complete trust and respect.  He may be a hero, but he has enough flaws to cause problems for his people.  Thus, to be a better leader, he should have formed a better connection with them that would have put him above the gods in their eyes.

While the death of the rest of his crew may be more their fault than his, Odysseus could have easily prevented the death of Elpênor, who died after falling from a ladder in Kirkê’s hall while the rest of Odysseus’ crew returned to their ship.  The key to this would have been better organization. If Odysseus had made sure that every single soldier was there, he could have prevented Elpênor’s death.  Furthermore, doing so would have allowed them to avoid returning to Aeaea from the underworld on the command of Elpênor.  When Odysseus encounters him in the underworld, he tells him, “Remember me, I pray, do not abandon me unwept, unburied, to tempt the gods’ wrath, while you sail for home” (187; bk. 11, lines 80-83).  While it is bad enough that Odysseus’ lack of organization as a leader allowed Elpênor to die, it is even worse that he didn’t notice this immediately and give him a proper burial.  A good leader cares about the people he leads, and in a culture that places such importance on the afterlife and related traditions, forgetting to offer a proper burial to one’s subordinate is a horrible offense.  The likely explanation for this is that Odysseus and his men were very anxious to get off of Aeaea.  While both this and the mistake that this caused for Odysseus seem horrible, both are meant to represent one of the main elements of classical epics: the failings and shortcomings of the hero.  Odysseus may be a great hero, but Homer has to maintain the idea that Odysseus is still human, and thus makes mistakes, just like everybody who hears the story.

Being the hero of a Classical Epic, Odysseus is the greatest leader that there can be, if the characteristics valued in a leader are superhuman courage and loyalty to his cause and people in battle, but, since this is the main purpose of a hero, he doesn’t end up succeeding in other fields important to leadership, specifically communication and careful thought before any actions to prevent mistakes.  The reason this is predictable in an epic poem of this time period is that the hero can’t be made out to be perfect, as the Greeks believed that only the gods could be perfect.  Scallion confirms this role of gods in an article on HubPages called The Greek “Ideal.”  “Acting as role models of perfection, ancient Greeks would revere the gods associated with their particular trade.”  This allows Homer to give the Greek gods a role in The Odyssey, as mentors to Odysseus, just as they should be for all people listening to or reading the epic.  Ultimately, this all comes together to set an example for the Greeks listening to the epic of how they should behave and conduct themselves throughout their lives, through various trials and tribulations.  Unfortunately, in a society like ours which is based much less on the virtues that the Greeks valued (i.e. courage in battle), this doesn’t come off as obvious, as we notice Odysseus’ shortcomings a lot more.  Perhaps in a world constantly developing more conflicts, our values may soon align with those of the Ancient Greeks.


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