A Teleological Odyssey: Homer’s Ethical Realism and Odysseus’ Emotional Labors

The implicit epistemology of the heroic world is a thoroughgoing realism.” Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue (p. 129).

Suppose we were wanderers who could not live in blessedness except at home, miserable in our wandering and desiring to end it and to return to our nativecountry. We would need vehicles for land and sea which could be used to help us to reach our homeland, which is to be enjoyed But if the amenities of the journey and the motion of the vehicles itself delighted us, and we were led to enjoy those things which we should use, we should not wish to end our journey quickly, and, entangled in a perverse sweetness, we should be alienated from our country, whose sweetness would make us blessed.” Saint Augustine, On Christian Doctrine

Joseph Cooper with Murph
Joseph Cooper, acted by Matthew McConaughey, in the movie Intersteller

In Christopher Nolan’s recent science fiction epic, Interstellar, the character Joseph Cooper is confronted with two tasks that seem, at times, to be in conflict. On the one hand, he must remain true in his role as a father to his motherless daughter Murph. On the other hand, he must also fulfil his role as a human being tasked with the job of saving the human race.

The drama of the film occurs within the space where these two roles (and the goals attached to them) seem to be in tension with one another. Not only does Cooper’s mission involve taking a journey away from earth (and therefore away from his daughter), but he reaches a point of having to weigh the odds between saving only his daughter’s generation vs. saving future generations of humans who do not yet exist.

Robin Phillips comments on InterstellarIn both his role as Murph’s father and his role as rescuer of the human race, Cooper must wrestle against the enemies of physics, necessity and ignorance, as well as the challenges posed by the dark interior world of the human psyche. This makes for an intensely exciting story. But what ultimately makes Interstellar such an intensely human story is that Cooper must grapple with questions we all face. Cooper must weigh the good of the present against uncertain goods in the future; he must compare what is good for his family with what is good for humanity; he must consider what to prioritize between his duty as a father and his duty as a human being. By the end of the story, Cooper manages to fulfill all these goals, but not before facing numerous obstacles that threaten to sidetrack him from the tasks he has been appointed to fulfill.

The ingredients that make Interstellar such a compelling story are the same ingredients that go into making any story great. Although the film is futuristic sci-fi, it wrestles with the same human themes we find in some of the oldest human literature.

9780060931957In this post I want to talk about one ancient work of literature that wrestles with very similar questions, namely Homer’s Odyssey. Like Cooper, Odysseus has a set of obligations constituted by his role in the world, and he too must battle against both external and internal pressures that stand in his way. Odysseus, like Cooper, must travel on a journey in order to reach his appropriate end. In both Interstellar and the Odyssey, this end has a geographical destination that corresponds with the protagonist discharging the end (telos) appropriate to his particular vocation.

In this post I will be considering the nature of Odysseus’ obligations and the various external and internal pressures that threaten to side-track him from faithfully executing his ethical obligations. The first part of this post will consider the teleological-orientation of Homeric society in general, while the rest of the post will explore the various labors Odysseus endures that threaten to sidetrack him from appropriately discharging his duties. The references to the Odyssey correspond to Lattimore’s translation.

Virtue In Homeric Societyjg33

In his book The World of Odysseus, M.I. Finley described the type of heroic society depicted in Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. Finley made the observation that “The basic values of society were given, predetermined and so were a man’s place in the society and the privileges and duties that followed from his status…”

In the type of society Homer describes, a person only needed to identify his connection to a variety of social groups (household, village, tribe, nation) to know what his obligations and goals were. To be virtuous in this context simply means to live according to the end constituted by one’s station. As Alasdair MacIntyre expressed it in After Virtue: “…in heroic society…I am answerable for doing or failing to do what anyone who occupies my role owes to others… all morality is always to some degree tied to the socially local and particular…”

We can thus talk about virtue being teleological in Homer. What I mean by this is that virtue is structured towards certain final ends. In this way of conceiving things, what is good for a thing is what will enable that thing to realize its proper end or telos. The proper end of each person, in turn, is constituted by their particular role within Homeric society. This notion of a person realizing the telos proper to his or her station and vocation (the two concepts are pretty much synonymous within ancient societies) is related to what we might call the ‘heroic ideal’, the system of values in which the notion of kleos (“what people say of you”) is central. Within the Homeric system, people speak well of a person who exhibits excellence in discharging the tasks appropriate to his or her vocation.

Penelope, the faithful wife of Odysseus, kept her suitors at bay through weaving on a loom

We just have to open up the Odyssey to see this dynamic at work. Penelope, as the wife of Odysseus, realizes her telos through continued fidelity to her husband, even at a time when it seems hopeless to imagine that he will ever return and when insolent suitors are vying for her hand in marriage.

Odysseus, as a warrior before the gates of Troy, realized his telos through the qualities that constitute excellence for a warrior, qualities such as loyalty, courage and cunning. After the defeat of Troy, it is no longer Odysseus’ role as a warrior that determines his ethical obligations but his role as a king and husband. Given these roles, it is taken for granted that his duty is to return home to his wife and take up the rule of his island kingdom.

This highlights an important point about ancient Greek thinking concerning virtue. One’s moral obligations were organically interconnected to the facts of the social structure. The sense in which virtue was embedded in the roles constituted by one’s social space adds a rich layer of significance to the journeying them in the Odyssey. As MacIntyre writes, “Individuals inherit a particular space within an interlocking set of social relationships… It is to find oneself placed on a journey with set goals; to move through life is to make progress—or to fail to make progress—towards a given end.”

In this type of social ecosystem, there was no need to make the spurious move from is to ought since one’s “ethical obligations” (if we can use the term without anachronism) were seen to be embedded within the very fabric of social life. To quote again from MacIntyre’s After Virtue:

 41fSNp32vRL“…morality and social structure are in fact one and the same in heroic society. There is only one set of social bonds. Morality as something distinct does not yet exist. Evaluative questions are questions of social fact. It is for this reason that Homer speaks always of knowledge of what to do and how to judge. Nor are such questions difficult to answer, except in exceptional cases. For the given rules which assign men their place in the social order and with it their identity also prescribe what they owe and what is owed to them and how they are to be treated and regarded if they fail and how they are to treat and regard others if those others fail….

“Thus this type of heroic poetry represents a form of society about whose moral structure two central claims are made. The first is that that structure embodies a conceptual scheme which has three central interrelated elements: a conception of what is required by the social role which each individual inhabits; a conception of excellences or virtues as those qualities which enable an individual to do what his or her role requires…”

The teleological-orientation of this ethical scheme, which we have seen was closely aligned with a person’s socially-constituted role, created the context for all sorts of dramatic tension within Greek literature. Many stories explored what happened when a person’s fate or weakness prohibited him from discharging the obligations appropriate to his telos, as in the tragic Oedipus Rex story.

Aigisthus Kills Agamemnon, urged on by Clytemnestra
Aigisthus Kills Agamemnon, urged on by Clytemnestra

One of the themes of the Odyssey is whether Odysseus will be able to realize his proper telos and return home, or whether he will be side-tracked by the numerous obstacles the gods throw his way. Similarly, it remains an open question whether Penelope will remain faithful to her distant husband, or whether she will succumb to the suitors and follow in the footsteps of Clytemnestra, the unfaithful wife of Agamemnon who murdered her husband after his return from Troy (or at least, helped her lover Aigisthus to murder him).

If we attend closely to the nature of the obstacles Odysseus faces in his attempt to fulfil his telos, we will see that they are far from straight-forward. Many of his temptations are psychological and emotional. However, it is Homer’s teleologically-oriented ethical realism that creates the dramatic context for the emotional labors Odysseus will face. It is now time to look more closely at the nature of these obstacles.

A Word About Obstacles

In referring to ‘obstacles’ that Odysseus has to overcome on his voyage home, I shall be working on the basis that these obstacles (particularly those narrated in books 9-12 of the Odyssey) form a series of tests. By including Charybdis and Scylla as the same test or by omitting to include Odysseus’ encounter with the Phaiakians as one of the tests (since it is really the first stage of his journey out of ‘no man’s land’ rather than a test of the same nature as the others), we arrive at twelve labours or tests. In his Heroes of the City of Man, Peter Leithart suggests that this number is significant: by giving him twelve labors, Homer is revealing Odysseus to be a hero of the same stature as Hercules, suggesting that his labors are actually heroic exploits.

In the remainder of this post I will not be looking at all of Odysseus’ labors, but those labors that involve women, since these are more interesting for me since they involve psychological and emotional tests Odysseus’ has to endure to remain faithful to his telos.

Circe: The Enchantress Lover

A painting on a Greek vase depicts Circe working her magic.
A painting on a Greek vase depicts Circe working her magic.

When Eurylochos explains to Odysseus that the enchantresses Circe has turned twenty-two of his men into swine, Odysseus is met by Hermes who tells him exactly what to do to escape Circe’s spell. If this is a test for Odysseus, it seems straight-forward enough: all he needs to do is to follow Hermes instructions correctly. But I would suggest that the main part of the test comes later when Odysseus is tempted to remain with Circe. We are not told explicitly that Circe tried to keep Odysseus as Kalypso later will, and indeed, when he expresses the desire to leave, Circe helps him by giving him advice. Even so, we may reasonably infer that the temptation to stay must have been present. After all, Odysseus spent a year with Circe (9.467) “feasting on unlimited meet and sweet wine” (10.468, 12.30) and it was only when his companions approached the subject that he gave any thought to continuing his journey (9.471-475). Furthermore, to continue his journey meant leaving all the ease, luxury and sexual pleasure that Circe afforded for a journey that made Odysseus no longer want to live just to think about it (10.498).

Given the above, it seems that Odysseus must have here been under a temptation similar to that encountered in the land of the Lotus eaters. The Lotus eaters, we recall, gave men honey sweet fruit which made them “unwilling…to go away…and forget the way home.” (9.95-97) In the land of the Lotus eaters it was three of Odysseus’ men, not Odysseus, who were in danger of settling down there for the rest of their lives with no thought of return. With Circe, on the other hand, it seems that Odysseus is in danger of completely forgetting his homeward journey and, consequently, the telos appropriate to his role as husband and king.

Waterhouse's Painting of Circe
Waterhouse’s Painting of Circe

Both the Lotus eaters and Circe represent the threat of death—not physical death but death of the heroic ideal. By ‘heroic ideal’ I mean a system of values in which the notion of kleos (‘what people say of you’) is central. Kleos can be achieved in many ways, chiefly through glory in battle (Il. 12.322-28), but also though whatever other means the gods might appoint, as in the case of Telemachos who will ‘win a good reputation’ (1.95) not through fighting (that comes later when his father returns and after he has already achieved a degree of kleos) but through travelling to visit and talk to the great fighters of the Trojan War. Odysseus also achieves kleos through travels, since it is through travels (first to fight at Troy and then to return home to his kingdom) that Odysseus strives to fulfil the duty constituted by his role in society. In this regard it is instructive that in the fifth line of the Odyssey the Greek word which Lattimore renders ‘struggling’ has connotations of struggling to attain or achieve something which relates to one’s honour. It is precisely this honour that is threatened by Circe. Circe, like the Lotus eaters, offered a long life of ease and luxury but the excellence of Odysseus’ glory is gone—a glory that can only be had through embracing his responsibilities as a warrior, father and king. For Achilleus, to have returned home would have meant turning his back on the heroic ideal whereas for Odysseus, for whom kleos is only through homecoming, his temptation is to abandon his quest for the long life of ease offered by women.

The Siren Call of Death

Odysseus still has two similar tests awaiting him still, both of which involve women. The first of these is the incident with the Sirens. This is one of the most moving passages in the entire Odyssey. It is here that we catch a glimpse of the emotional side of Odysseus’ character. For the Greeks, to feel and express strong emotion was a sign if vigor and strong masculinity.

Circe tells Odysseus what he needs to do if he is to successfully pass the test with the Sirens. The Sirens will enchant any who happen to hear their song—their beach is strewn with the bones of sailors who have listened to the irresistible music. Circe’s instructions are simple: melt down wax to stop the ears of the men. Then Circe—who must know Odysseus well by this time—adds that if he wants to hear the music he must have his men bind him against the mast with ropes. The men are given strict instructions that when he implores them to loosen the ropes they must tie them fast with even more lashings. (12.39-54) Here is the painting John Waterhouse (1849- 1917) made of Odysseus tied to the mast listening to the Sirens while the sailors row on with plugged ears.


What do the Sirens sing about? Their song promises knowledge of “everything that the Argives and Trojans did and suffered in wide Troy” (12.189-190). Since their song, which begins with the words “come this way, honoured Odysseus” (12.184), is clearly tailor-made to be most effective in luring Odysseus, we may ask why a song about the Trojan War would be effective to this end. In addressing this question we must keep in mind that earlier in the narrative (though not earlier in Odysseus’ life), when Odysseus was at the land of the Phaiakians, it was the songs about his exploits in the Trojan War, not the story about Ares and Aphrodite’s adultery, that moved Odysseus to tears. Why is this?

To say that Odysseus is susceptible to experience nostalgia at the remembrance of his past is perhaps too simplistic a way of stating the matter. He seems to be going through what many people find at the remembrance of past experiences, namely that in retrospect the past can assume a quality that evokes a yearning sensation. This is not a yearning to return to those experiences anymore than the intense longing one may be flooded with at the sight of a far off hill can be satisfied by actually going to the hill. Rather, the remoteness and inaccessibility of past experience conveys to it an other-worldly quality since subconsciously it becomes paradigmatic of the innate longing we all have for something that no earthly experience can provide but which is tantalizingly suggested during times of intense emotion, beauty or joy. C. S. Lewis wrote about this peculiar type of ‘joy’ as an experience in which

The weight of glory…the sense of want is acute and even painful, yet than mere wanting is felt to be somehow a delight… These things – the beauty, the memory of our own past – are good images of what we really desire… For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never visited.

Lewis goes on to conclude (there is not space to present his entire argument) that the object of this intense desire is not to be located in any of the things that actually awaken it. This is particularly relevant to Odysseus’ desire for the Sirens. Had his desire been granted when he asked his men to untie him from the mast, he would have spent the rest of his days listening to their music on the beach but always longing and never actually possessing that peculiar ‘something’ that the beauty of their song suggested but could not provide.

Circe says that the provision given to enable Odysseus to hear the enchanting music was so that he “can have joy in hearing a song of the Sirens” (12.52) As she refers to this unsatisfied longing as ‘joy’ rather than frustration, this would seem to refer to the kind of joy that Lewis described as both delight and pain to the one who experiences it. This understanding of the paradoxical conjunction of joy and melancholy, longing and satisfaction, may help to explain other passages in the Odyssey. In the very moving scene when Odysseus’s men who had been turned into swine are restored to their former humanity, Odysseus explains how “the lovely longing for lamentation came over us” (10.397-98 See also Il.3.139). Longing is seen as something lovely even when that longing has as its object something sad. This melancholic longing, the very pain of which is joy to Odysseus, is something he seeks out. For example, Odysseus says to Eumaios the swineherd that

But we two, sitting here in the shelter, eating and drinking,

Shall entertain each other remembering and retelling

Our sad sorrows. For afterwards a man who has suffered

Much and wandered much has pleasure out of his sorrows.
(Od. 15.398-401)

A similar situation occurs when Odysseus is at the Phaiakians court being entertained by Demodokos. He is reduced to uncontrollable weeping when Demodokos tells of the quarrel between him and Achilleus (7.75-92). This experience of weeping and lamentation is so precious to Odysseus that on the next available opportunity he praises Demodokos and requests that he and take up “another part of the story” (8.485-498). Odysseus has sought another opportunity to weep and does so again in full force.

Only by viewing Odysseus’ encounter with the Sirens in terms of this complex psychological tapestry are we able to fully understand its significance. It is significant not so much because it tests Odysseus (though it does do that, even though the ‘test’ part of it was passed before he even reached the sirens as a result of taking the necessary precautions) but because it reveals his deep emotional intensity. Odysseus’s emotions are what make him the strong character that he is, but his emotions also make him vulnerable to certain types of temptations, particularly temptations posed by women.

Kalypso: Draining out the Sweet Lifetime

An ancient Greek depiction of Kalypso
An ancient Greek depiction of Kalypso

After passing the temptation to bed down (both metaphorically and literally) with Circe for a life of ease but no glory, and after successfully navigating his way through the emotional labyrinth presented by the Sirens, Odysseus still has another woman awaiting him, a woman who represents the greatest threat to his homecoming yet. I’m referring, of course, to Kalypso (sometimes spelled Calypso).

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It may seem odd for me to suggest that Kalypso represented a temptation for Odysseus rather than just an obstacle. This is because our first impression of Odysseus’s reaction to Kalypso is characterized by Odysseus emotions after seven years there. But he did not spend all seven years down at the seashore “breaking his heart in tears, lamentation, and sorrow” (5.83 & 157) for lack of a means to escape. Homer tells us that

…the sweet lifetime was draining out of him,

as he wept for way home, since the nymph was no longer pleasing to him.” (5.152-154)

The implication is that there was once a time before Odysseus had grown tired of Kalypso when he did not merely “lie beside her, of necessity ” (5.154) but out of desire. At one time at least Kalypso seems to have proved a temptation to threaten his homecoming in a way similar to Circe. It is true that Odysseus has little choice in the matter, though presumably Kalypso only held him captive after Odysseus ceased to find her pleasing.

It is surely more than coincidence that there is a link between Circe and Kalypso in so far as our first introduction to both women is to find them singing sweetly and weaving on a loom. (5.61-61, 10.221-222). In her mind, Kalypso weaves a life for Odysseus that would involve him abandoning the proper end that he, as the husband of Penelope and as the King of Ithaca, is obligated to pursue.

Though it is speculation, perhaps the reason Odysseus ceased to find Kalypso pleasing was because he eventually remembered his purpose and knew that he must try to find a way home. When his homecoming seemed totally hopeless, and when his desire for it was literately killing him (5.152), it must have been a great temptation to capitulate and accept the life of ease and luxury that Kalypso offered in this setting that was so idyllic that it rivaled mount Olympus for beauty (5.73-74, 5.75-76). When we remember the powerful way in which Odysseus is affected by things of beauty, and when we remember how vulnerable he is to being tempted by women and a life of ease, it becomes reasonable to view Kalypso as a temptation to Odysseus.

The psychological pressure that Kalypso exerted on Odysseus must have also formed a difficult obstacle for Odysseus. Kalypso has convinced herself that her conduct has Odysseus’ best interests in mind, that if he knew all the hardships he were to undergo before getting back to his country then he would surely choose to stay with her and be her husband. (5.206-209)

calypso-odysseus-1The explicit physical possessiveness Kalypso exercises in containing Odysseus on the island and causing him to sleep with her (a point around which Homer leaves room for speculation) parallels an implicit psychological possessiveness that characterizes the nymph’s entire relationship with him. Kalypso seems to feel that she owns Odysseus because she rescued him (5.129-130), that she has a right to weave out his future like the thread on her loom (5.135) and that she is in a better position than Odysseus to judge what his true needs and desires really are (5.206-210). She says to Hermes that she loves and cherishes Odysseus (5.135), but it is a consuming ,devouring and selfish type of love rooted in her own dependency needs. Beneath it all lurks a brooding jealousy of Odysseus’s lawful wife since Kalypso knows Penelope shared something with Odysseus that she never could. Kalypso would rather keep Odysseus on her island until the day of his death than to set him free to return to Penelope, which is the implication of her bitter response to Hermes’ assertion that Odysseus is not appointed to die here. (5.111-120)

I mentioned that Kalypso had certain dependency needs that she wanted Odysseus to fulfill. It is interesting that there is a reciprocal dependency since Odysseus’ only means of escape rests with Kalypso. When Hermes is sent to liberate Odysseus, he has to first go and command Kalypso to allow it, showing again the extent to which Odysseus is completely dependent on his nymph jailor. This is a very different kind of dependence than the psychological dependency-needs that Kalypso has towards Odysseus (i.e., her need for him to love her and her need for him to need her), yet the fact that they both need something that only the other can provide, and that their respective needs are mutually exclusive, makes their relationship a psychological drama.

Helen of Troy
Helen of Troy

The particular quality of this co-dependent relationship is not dissimilar to the relationship between Helen and Aphrodite in the Iliad. As the survival of Odysseus’ homecoming hinges entirely on the goddess Kalypso’s fiat, similarly Helen’s survival in the land of the Trojans hinges entirely on the goddess Aphrodite’s fiat. (Il. 3.414-17) Helen longs to be with her original spouse and not to be in Troy (Il. 3.139, 3.428-29 – though there are alternative ways of interpreting these passages) but is controlled by Aphrodite (Il. 3.399-401, 3.414-17) even as Odysseus longs to escape from Kalypso’s island but is restrained by Kalypso. Helen had not felt discontent in the early days when Paris had pleased her yet now sleeps with him out of necessity (Il. 3.410-447) just as Odysseus had not always felt discontent in the early days when Kalypso had pleased him but began to sleep with her out of necessity. (Od. 5.154) Aphrodite claims to love Helen (Il. 3.388 ) just as Kalypso claimed to love Odysseus, yet in both these cases it is a ‘love’ that is not self-giving but entirely self-seeking, possessive and contingent on what the goddess can receive from the mortal. As Kalypso tries to deny Odysseus his homecoming because of psychological and sexual needs only he can fulfill, Aphrodite’s denial of Helen’s request to leave her alone (Il. 3.399-401) seems to also stems from Aphrodite’s psychological and sexual needs that only Helen can fulfill. The entire section at the end of Iliad book 3, described by Willcock as “a strangely disturbing scene”, shows the extent of Aphrodite’s sexual dependency on Helen. This dependency is complex since it is indirect and seems to be fulfilled by proxy through Helen’s erotic connection with Paris. Hence, Aphrodite goes to such lengths as to teleportate Paris from battle to bedroom (Il. 3.382), then approaches Helen in disguise to try and persuade her to join Paris in bed (Il. 3.383-394), then blackmails the resistant Helen until she “was frightened and went” (Il. 3.418-19), all in order to orchestrate a situation in the day for Helen and Paris to have sex. Aphrodite’s vicarious interest in this sexual relationship is no doubt the context of Helen’s suggestion that Aphrodite go to bed with Paris herself (Il. 3.406). The parallels between Aphrodite and Kalypso are significant, as both reveal a similar disordered type of love. Even as the disordered love that Aphrodite has for Helen corrupted both her and Paris, so the disordered love that Kalypso has for Odysseus threatens to turn him away from true human flourishing.

Remember that in Homer (and there is good reason to take Homer is paradigmatic of the ancient world in general, at least on this point) ethics do not exist as an isolated moral code, an alien duty imposed on us independently to considerations of human flourishing. Rather, the virtuous life is the life of flourishing, even when it leads to suffering and hardship. Odysseus could have avoided much pain by staying with Kalypso, and the text even suggests that he could have been happy with her. However, to do so would have been for Odysseus to abandon the teleology attached to his various vocations (King of Ithaca, husband of Penelope, and father of Telemachus). Human flourishing is not associated with happiness so much as with meaning (the distinction has been explored in depth by Viktor Frankl and maps over easily to the world of Homer), while meaning is derived from the faithful execution of one’s purpose. The entire Odyssey of Homer hinges on these types of vocation-based virtues.

I have already suggested that in the long interval between the time when Kalypso ceased to please Odysseus and when Hermes was sent to liberate him, it must have been a great temptation to Odysseus to stop struggling against what seemed the inevitable and to accept Kalypso’s offer. It is here that Odysseus’ greatest strength as well as his greatest weakness emerge. We see his strength exhibited in the marvellous words he delivers in response to Kalypso’s final pressure to stay.

Then resourceful Odysseus spoke in turn and answered her: ‘Goddess and queen, do not be angry with me. I myself knowt hat all you say is true and that circumspect Penelope can never match the impression you make for beauty and stature. She is mortal after all, and you are immortal and ageless. But even so, what I want and all my days I pine for is to go back to my house and see my day of homecoming.  And if some god batters me far out on the wine-blue water, I will endure it, keeping a stubborn spirit inside me, for already I have suffered much and done much hard work on the waves and in the fighting. So let this adventure follow.’ (5.214-224)

These words reveal a stubborn, focused determination without which Odysseus surely would not have got passed his first ‘female test’. He has shown himself capable of not becoming “entangled in a perverse sweetness” that would alienate him from his true country and the obligations appropriate to his role as Penelope’s husband and Ithaca’s king. This struggle not to become entangled in the things of the journey but to remain focused on his true country has proved as much a task for Odysseus as any one-eyed beast or six headed sea monster. Even when Odysseus is most set on homecoming he can get easily distracted. That this also reveals Odysseus’ greatest weakness is confirmed by the fact that most of his temptations are addressed at this level. The temptations seek to entice Odysseus to turn aside from pursuing his goal.

The Temptation to Turn Aside

Consider how when Odysseus is at the Phaiakians he declines to compete in the games on the grounds that he is longing to go home. (8.152-157) Indeed, for a while during his visit with the Phaiakians it seems that Odysseus can think of little else but his homecoming. Nevertheless, given sufficient provoking (being taunted into competing), stimulation (Demodokos’ storytelling) and prompting (the request to identify himself which leads to his long story about his travels) he seems to lose some of the urgency that had characterized him prior to the games. Up until his departure he continues to make the most of this ‘stopover’ not dissimilar to the way he has sex with Kalypso the night before finally leaving her (5.226-227) or the way in which he prepared to listen to the music of the Sirens even though he knew he had to pass by. It is his ability to enjoy the journey and to make the most of every stop along the way that presents Odysseus with the greatest dangers. The danger is to mistake the means for the end, and for various points along the journey to become his new home.


Odysseus is an icon of true masculinity
Odysseus is an icon of true masculinity

Among the obstacles Odysseus encounters, more of them actually test his vulnerability and emotions than the cleverness for which he was famous. Interestingly, when a test is addressed to this level it usually involves a woman, and never an ordinary mortal woman. It would seem that Odysseus’ emotional constitution makes him susceptible to particular vulnerabilities which are drawn out and exploited by females characters. As we have seen, this involves Odysseus being vulnerable to the temptation for a life of ease, as well as vulnerability to temptations involving things that are good in themselves (i.e., beauty, and love) but which become evils when they threaten to detach Odysseus from his proper teleology.

This does not imply that Odysseus’ emotions should be viewed as a weakness. Odysseus’ first appearance in the Odyssey is when he is weeping. (5.151-153) This first scene is significant since it establishes Odysseus’ character. One feels that this emotional aspect of Odysseus’ character could only be omitted at the expense of his strength. In Homeric culture the strength of one’s emotions is inseparably linked to one’s passion. We see this in the fact that it is the archetypes of masculinity, namely Achilleus and Odysseus, who are the most emotionally sensitive and passionate if judged by their tendency to weep, wail and reach heights of emotional intensity. This not only increases our appreciation for Odysseus as a complex, multi-layered and extremely interesting individual, but challenges contemporary assumptions about gender stereotypes.

Penelope is an icon of true femininity
Penelope is an icon of true femininity

By understanding the role that women play in presenting such ‘dangers’ we can perhaps understand better why Odysseus is slow to reveal his identity to Penelope upon his return home (19.107-22, 165-7, 336-48, 209-12). When Odysseus saw Agamemnon in the land of the dead, Agamemnon had given him some stern warnings about “the schemes of women”. (10.438) Agamemnon’s words drew on his own experience of being murdered by his wife Klytaimestra upon his return home, but he also takes opportunity to mention Helen for whom “many of us died” (10.438). By the time Odysseus reaches home he has his own experience to add to that of Agamemnon. No wonder he is circumspect with Penelope and delays revealing his identity.

But if Odysseus is the icon of the faithful husband and king, turning aside from temptations to fulfill the telos appropriate to his station, Penelope is the icon of the faithful wife and queen, patiently waiting for her husband’s return from Troy against all odds. If women are portrayed somewhat negatively throughout the Odyssey (as being manipulative conniving creatures, threatening to reduce Odysseus to something less than a true man), it is the character of Penelope that redeems woman. In her we see a woman who is faithful to the obligations constituted by her vocation. In realizing the teleology proper to her vocation, she enables Odysseus to do the same, as it is the thought of her faithfully waiting for him that ultimately propels Odysseus in his homeward journey to what is at once his end, in the sense of being the destination to his travels, but which is also his end in the sense of his proper telos, the reason for which he exists.


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