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The Real Heroism of Odysseus

Francesco Primaticcio’s “Ulysses and Penelope”

“Odysseus has before him the fantastical dream of every man: immortality and sex. He ultimately gives that up for mortality with his family.”

Homer was a poet with an agenda. While it is fashionable to sideswipe Homer as having never existed, serious classicists, like M.L. West, know that Homer—“the poet”—was real. A careful study of Homer’s language and epic composition certainly suggests that a final redactor almost certainly stood over the finished product of the Iliad with a significant contribution to its final form and message. The verdict is outstanding on the Homer of the Odyssey, to which I agree—the poet of the Odyssey is not the same as the poet of the Iliad—but pedantic concerns of authorship distract us from the content and message of the Odyssey and the fact that final redactor also stood over the final composition of that great work which bears Homer’s name. We should address the content of the Odyssey rather than the endless question of Homeric authorship which bores people away from its remarkable content; when we do, the Homer of the Odyssey was also a poet with an agenda.

It is deeply lamentable that in our iconoclastic age Homer is being pillaged by our supposed guardians of culture. W.H. Auden must be weeping in his grave. It is commonplace to hear how Homer glorified violence, “toxic” male masculinity, and represents the fountainhead of everything to be despised in today’s humanities department: the dead white European male. Such views do a great injustice to Homer, for Homer soars above all later literati because of his upending the Hesiodic masculine fantasy and giving to posterity the quintessential heroic ideal of love embracing death that has moved all subsequent great art and stories. The Homeric revolution was, first and foremost, a call to the power of love: Achilles and Patroclus, Hector and Andromache, Priam and Hector, Achilles and Priam, and, of course, the most famous of all: Odysseus and Penelope.

The Homer, of the Iliad, as I have written, is the first humanist in the West and advanced a song of love and forgiveness. The Homer of the Odyssey, as we know, articulates the song of the returning husband and the restoration of the family. Taken in continuity, the Trojan War begins in marital infidelity and is only ended through marital fidelity. Quite the odyssey, all things considered. The humanism of the Iliad is retained in the humanism of the Odyssey; our epics sing of mortal men and the deeply flawed passions rather than the gods and immortality (as Hesiod does in the Theogony). The torch of human love is passed from Hector, Priam, and Achilles to Odysseus, Telemachus, and Penelope in this continuity of heroic humanisms in the Homeric epics.

Competing Heroisms

Homer was concerned with composing an epic that subtly challenged the violent heroism praised by Hesiod. As I have previously written, “The Iliad is not an epic of hyper masculinity and war as it can easily and superficially appear to be at first glance. Rather, it is a grand love poem of cosmic scope and proportions. For the Iliad is not merely a love story like a romance between two individuals but a love story that brings forth salvation in the cold and dark cosmos governed by lustful strife, war, and rape.” The heroic ideal in the Iliad, exemplified by Hector, Patroclus, and Achilles, stand in stark contrast to their heroic foils who stand with their feet firmly planted in the Hesiodic cosmos: Diomedes, Menelaus, and Agamemnon. Homer’s Iliad presents a subtle critique of martial greatness in contrast to loving kindness—the highest heroism of all.

The heroism of Hector is not in his martial prowess (though he certainly has that) but his soft, caressing, tenderness on the walls of Troy as he strips off his war armor to hold his weeping son Astyanax and comfort his distraught wife, Andromache. Likewise, the heroism of Patroclus is the healing touch he provides to Eurypylus as he staggers back to the Achaean ships with an arrow wound in his thigh and the other Greeks who remember his loving kindness after his death, including Menelaus and Briseis. The heroism of Achilles reaches its magnanimous manifestation in his forgiving Priam and lifting him up as a friend, bestowing peace, and returning Hector’s body rather than his battlefield fury.

If Homer articulated an alternative vision of heroism contra Hesiod, what was the Hesiodic ideal of heroism?

Hesiod’s Theogony gives us the portrait of the poet’s sublime imagination, a heroism rooted in sexual violence, lust, and castration: of conflict, war, and usurpation. The muses sing of Zeus, the one god among many gods and ancient deities who ascended to the top of Olympus through unmitigated violence. Violence, as any reader of Hesiod’s sublime poem knows, is what is celebrated. There is the sexual violence of Uranus over Gaia; the patricidal violence of Kronos as he castrates Uranus; and the usurping violence of Zeus who leads the Olympians in overthrowing the Titans. Zeus then slays Typhoeus and cements his headship over the pantheon.

From the pen and mind of Hesiod, violence is the heroic ideal. In Homer, violence is deconstructed—as Caroline Alexander wrote—and turned on its head. The Hesiodic ideal of heroism is found wanting from Homer’s magisterial mind. Homeric heroism is found in the magnanimity of healing love; forgiveness is the highest manifestation of that heroism. At least in the Iliad. 

The heroic ideal of Homer in the Odyssey is different than the magnanimous forgiveness articulated in the Iliad. The heroism of the Iliad has a cosmopolitan intent to it: forgiveness of an enemy; the heroism of the Odyssey has a traditional imperative to it: restoration of the family. But that is too superficial of a reading, however true the basic thesis is. The heroic ideal of the Odyssey goes far beyond the mere returning husband and filial restoration and is also equally as deep as the magnanimous heroism articulated in the Iliad as we journey into the underworld of metaphysics and human nature for the first time through the song of the “man of twists and turns.”

The Heroic Imagination of the Odyssey

The song of a returning husband only glances the surface of the monumental, though flawed, achievement of the heroic ideal in the Odyssey. Love and its relationship to death is one of the seminal topics of philosophical inquiry. It has captured the imagination of writers from Greek antiquity, the biblical authors, Richard Wagner, to my former teacher Sir Roger Scruton. The Homer of the Odyssey offers his genius to the competing images of heroism: to embrace death through love (the love of a mortal no less who shares in our mortal love). In the unescapable reality of mortality, that common condition we all share, we find the highest manifestation of heroism—the acceptance of death and our refusal to run from it.

“Sing to me of the man, Muse, the man of twists and turns driven time and again off course, once he had plundered the hallowed heights of Troy.” The opening of the Odyssey, like the Iliad, is deeply radical when compared against Hesiod. Hesiod’s muses sing of gods: “From the Muses of Helicon let us bring our singing, that haunt Helicon’s great and holy mountain, and dance on their soft feet round the violet-dark spring and the altar of the mighty son of Kronos…From there they go forth, veiled in thick mist, and walk by night, uttering beautiful voice, singing of Zeus who bears the aegis.” Homer’s muses sing of mortal men. The conscionable shift is from the heavens (Hesiod) to the earth (Homer) and makes the realm of mortality the principal focus of action. Homer, right from the start, informs us that his heroism is about us: flesh and blood human beings and not the immortal gods and nymphs who often wreak havoc over the world and their human playthings.

The Odyssey begins with a family estranged; Telemachus, the son of Odysseus, is despondent about the declination of his household. Many suitors have occupied the home of Odysseus and begun courting, or trying to seduce, Penelope. Telemachus does not get on well with any of the suitors, especially Antinous—the most vile and violent of the suitors. That the Odyssey begins with Telemachus and his journeys to find his father is important. The epic is larger than just Odysseus though the epic bears his name. While the Odyssey is named after Odysseus, it includes the trials and journeys of Telemachus and Penelope. It encompasses a world of many people. It is an epic of the family rather than a single individual even if a single individual is the primary protagonist.

But after Telemachus sets sail to find his father, the perspective shifts to Odysseus, and the song becomes the story we all know. The great warrior and strategist, schemer and trickster, is now shipwrecked on Calypso’s Island. Calypso has held Odysseus captive for seven years, fallen madly in love with him, and still wants to keep the king of Ithaca as her sexual captive. 

Odysseus has two encounters with femme fatale divinities in the epic. Calypso and Circe. While ideologically-driven feminist readings want to cast Calypso and Circe in the victimized position in accordance with the 21st century’s political zeitgeist, the reality is that Odysseus has been victimized by Calypso and Circe. Moreover, it is critical that we understand Odysseus’s refusal to transcend his mortality for their immortality. For that is what they offer to him: immortality and unlimited sexuality, the two things that male nature supposedly seeks and which Odysseus himself is often guilty of exhibiting. Odysseus has before him the fantastical dream of every man: immortality and sex. He ultimately gives that up for mortality with his family.

It is also fashionable, considering the exoteric narrative, to condemn Odysseus for his infidelity to Penelope. Penelope, who has wasted away the prime of her life with her husband gone, remains faithful to Odysseus throughout the narrative. Yet so too does Odysseus’s yearning heart seek restoration with Penelope. Odysseus, as Eva Brann noted, does overcome the temptations of Calypso and Circe. He remains a dutiful husband, brushing away transcendent transfiguration for the fleeting nature of mortality. But why?

The Odyssey is a story about a story. It is a song of heroic pilgrimage. Once we recognize that Odysseus shuns immortality and embraces the decaying reality of Ithaca, of Penelope and Telemachus, we realize that it is a journey to death accompanied by love that makes death worthwhile; for the love that Odysseus embodies is the love that makes death painless. It is the love that brings serenity amid chaos, darkness, and death.

Now we begin to see that the Odyssey is more than a song about finding a home, returning to a home, or the homestead—as is fashionable from conservative readings of the epic. The real heroism sung of in the Odyssey is the acceptance of mortality (our human nature), the embrace of love and in that embrace of love the acceptance of death (the fullest reality of human nature). Odysseus can be a sexual captive, a sexual slave, to the goddesses; he spurns this sexual immortality for the fleeting heartbeats of Penelope and Telemachus. The heroism that is extolled in the Odyssey is the heroism that embraces mortal nature against the phantasmagoria of transcendence, a heroism that embraces the imperfect beauty of this world rather than the illusory beauty of the divines.

When Odysseus makes landfall and is taken to the Phaeacians, he recounts his adventure to the intrigued court. Odysseus, as we know from the Iliad, was one of the heroes of the Trojan War. He played a prominent role in the destruction of Troy. Yet that is not what Odysseus tells his Phaeacian hosts (or at least, this is not what Homer wants to retell within the Odyssey). Instead, he recounts that odyssey of “twists and turns” that has led him to their island. He sings of the trials and tribulations of his return turned tragic sojourn. The song that we ought to remember about Odysseus is his journey toward that mortal love which calls him home, not his military exploits. 

If the Homer of the Odyssey wanted to praise martial virtue like Hesiod, he had every opportunity to do so. Instead, our poet sings of the heroism of the binding reality of love. It is a love that sees Telemachus search for his father, while Penelope remains true to her wedding vows despite all the pressures thrust onto her by the suitors. And Odysseus forsakes the offer of immortal transcendence and eternal pleasure for mortal decay and fleeting peace. It is far more heroic, Homer is asserting through the epic, to embrace the realities of mortal love than masculine gory-glory or eternal sexual pleasure with the gods.

The song of heroic mortality and filial love reaches its climax in the underworld. Odysseus journeys into the realm of the dead and meets the heroes of the Trojan Wars and the temptations of sexual desire. There, Odysseus meets Agamemnon, Ajax, and Achilles; he also sees many of the most beautiful women in Greek lore: Antiope, Alcmena, Megara, Epicaste, and Chloris.

Conversing with Agamemnon about his demise, the King of the Mycenaeans exclaims, “Odysseus, mastermind of war, I was not wrecked in the ships when lord Poseidon roused some punishing blast of stormwinds, gust on gust, nor did ranks of enemies mow me down on land—Aegisthus hatched my doom and my destruction, he killed me, he with my own accursed wife.” Agamemnon warns against a woman’s trust. Implicitly, he is suggesting that Odysseus should not be so foolish as to seek a running return with his wife, though Agamemnon qualifies this implicit rebuke by suggesting that Penelope would not betray him as Clytemnestra betrayed Agamemnon. 

Talking to Achilles, the reality of the embrace of love and death under the bond of the family is brought to the fore. Odysseus showers Achilles—that terror of the Trojans—with praise. Achilles rebuffs the praise Odysseus gives him. Achilles says the most memorable lines of the poem, “I’d rather slave on earth for another man—some dirt-poor tenant farmer who scrapes to keep alive—than rule down here over all the breathless dead. But come, tell me the news about my gallant son.”

Achilles, far from having satisfaction in ruling “over all the breathless dead,” is a grieving a wounded soul because he had abandoned his family and now seeks to hear the news of his gallant son, Neoptolemus. Odysseus obliges and tells the great killer what he knows. But what Achilles desires—too late for him, however—is not immortal fame but mortal love. Achilles would have rather spent an unfamous life as “some dirt-poor tenant farmer” so long as he cradled his children and caressed his wife as he tells Odysseus. But the vainglory of war tempted him; all for naught. Achilles, here, serves as a warning in the Odyssey. 

The revelations that come in the middle of the book, in the realm of the dead, have something in common: filial betrayal. Agamemnon was betrayed by his wife. Achilles is distraught for having abandoned his family. Both implore Odysseus not to make the same mistake.

Embracing Love and Death

As Odysseus finishes his story to the Phaeacians, he embarks to sail the final waves to Ithaca. Athena, as we know, continues to aid her favorite son. Ithaca is revealed. Odysseus reunites with Telemachus. The man of “twists and turns” learns of what has befallen his kingdom and the scheming plots hatched by the many suitors. Despite the messy world of mortal love and lust, betrayal and deceit, Odysseus still opts to choose mortality with Penelope and Telemachus instead of immortality (and eternal pleasure) with Calypso or Circe. 

As in the Iliad, the Odyssey is radical in its humanistic disposition. The gods factor prominently just like before, but the gods are neither the subjects of praise (as in Hesiod) nor the subjects of our salvation. Instead, what is praised is the choice of a man—guided by Athena, the virgin goddess of wisdom, to be sure—to choose love and death with his family rather than eternal and immortal bliss with the fleeting shadows of the divines. After all, that is how the poem ends. Odysseus reclaims his home by vanquishing the suitors. Athena comes to restore peace at the poem’s conclusion. Odysseus is reunited with his family and the long arduous Trojan War, and all its associated labors and pains have come to an end.

Though the poem ends on this note of peace, the implied ending is far more dramatic than the peace orchestrated by reason (Athena). Odysseus, as we know, is mortal—as are Penelope and Telemachus. The immortal fame of Odysseus is not in his martial exploits but his forsaking transcendence for mortality; the hero’s embrace of his mortal nature is the highest manifestation of the heroic spirit to Homer, and that is what he wanted us to remember through the Odyssey. And what guides this embrace of mortality? Love. Odysseus would rather die, in love, than live in servitude and a slave to passions. And rather than sing about the Odysseus who was a great warrior, Homer sings to us that song of Odysseus choosing to die, in love, rather than live forever in such a way.

Mortality makes love meaningful because it creates an imperative for love, whereas the immortality of love offered by the divines leads to enslavement, an end to that imperative offered through our mortality. It is precisely this dichotomy that Homer brings to the fore in Odysseus’s “twists and turns” as he navigates the empty world of loveless immortality—whatever its comforts—back to the world of loving mortality despite its hardships and inevitability of death. The love offered by Calypso and Circe is no love at all. Their divinity is their unreality. Only the mortal flesh of another human heart can satiate Odysseus’s yearning heart.

The universality of the Odyssey is not in its political message but in its metaphysical message. And this is why Homer is now scorned; we live in a world that shuns metaphysics for the pure ideologies of the political zeitgeist. But Homer stands as an enduring challenge to that farce. The political heroes are all dead: Agamemnon, Ajax, Achilles, Aegisthus, Clytemnestra. Political entities rise and fall: Troy is destroyed, Mycenae in ruins, and Ithaca—in Homer’s time—is far from the fabled kingdom associated with Odysseus. 

Mortal love, a love between humans in contrast to political glory, is what is heroically sung about in the epic of twists and turns; twists and turns of the heart but twists and turns that lead us to embrace who we are: mortal lovers fated to die in each other’s arms, but in the tender caressing hold of a lover all the worries of the world dissipate in that blissful serenity offered in love. That is the most heroic ideal we can live, and it is open to everyone: from dirt-poor tenant farmers to kings and queens and everyone else in between. The Homer of the Odyssey gives us the first great epic that calls us to embrace mortal love as our greatest calling.

The Odyssey portrays for us the universal twists and turn of the human heart common to all—its desire for transcendence but the renunciation of that illusory phantasmagoria for the warm reality of a human embrace, an embrace that inevitably leads to our death, but a death that is more heroic than anything achieved by those who burned Troy. Homer calls us home. That home is more than a piece of land and more than a title of kingship. It is where the heart finds its embrace of the mortal other, destined to decay and die, but decay and die together in a loving embrace of serenity as we watch the sun set for the final time. There is nothing more heroic than that. And it is fitting that the Homeric journey which began in marital infidelity comes to a heroic conclusion in marital fidelity; where lust led to war in the beginning, love leads to peace at the end. Love is the only way home. Love is the only reality that brings peace.

Paul Krause is the editor at VoegelinView. He is the author of The Odyssey of Love and contributed to The College Lecture Today and the forthcoming book Diseases, Disasters, and Political Theory. He can be found on Twitter @Paul_jKrause

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