The Center for Western Studies recently finished studying Homer’s Odyssey. While reading, I noticed a very interesting theme in the story and its many admirable (and despicable) characters. Mainly, the ethical values of pagan culture.
Obviously, The Odyssey isn’t a Christian poem. It was written in nearly 700 B.C. in Greece, during something called the Greek Dark Ages. In the novel, a council of gods and an earth full of mythical beings were simply understood. The mythology of Ancient Greece was often kept and communicated by the bards, who would recite epic poems (like the Odyssey) with a musical accompaniment for generations upon generations. Therefore, by the time Homer sat down to transcribe The Odyssey, this enormous tale of heroism and adventure had already gained credibility through the years it had endured. Because of this, I believe it’s safe to say the attributes we see in such heroes as Odysseus, Telemachus, and many of the old war kings, were generally esteemed characteristics for the Greek people.
So what key characteristics did Ancient Greece look for in a hero? Who was their ideal man? We must look no further than Odysseus himself, the man to whom immortality was offered, the man whose ally is Athena herself, the man who outlived twenty long years of voyaging and heartache. Talk about a hero. His deeds go before him wherever he ends up; as soon as his name is spoken, his legacy is recalled by character after character. What does Homer have to say about his heart, however? Who is the man behind the bronze skin, curling locks of hair, and generally winning features? In other words, which secret characteristics do the gods honor? What attributes of the heart will benefit a man?
Loyalty was absolutely vital to every heroic character in the epic of the Odyssey. Telemachus risks his life to find news of his father. Penelope wastes away while waiting hopelessly for her sea-tossed husband. Odysseus himself denies a perfect, immortal nymph, Calypso, because his heart belongs in Ithaca with his wife. In the old war heroes, too, a strong sense of loyalty is felt between the men who fought beside each other. Telemachus, being the son of war-hero Odysseus, is granted the benefits of this loyalty in the form of feasts and bountiful gifts.
Another trademark characteristic of Odysseus is his endurance in suffering. For twenty years, “the man of twists and turns” fought to return to his home. Often we see Odysseus fall into temptation of weakness. His knees shake, his heart falls. As comrades die and his beautiful home is pulled farther and farther on the horizon, Odysseus is shown to be human in that he’s not immune to discouragement. Yet the man presses on. He steels himself and urges his weary heart to move forward. With such a mentality, the Man of Suffering earns the respect of Pallas Athena and reclaims his throne and glory.
Yet the Greeks were not simply men of brawn and might. As shown in Odysseus’ craftiness, Homer and the gods of Ancient Greece also favored a man with a quick and clever mind. Odysseus is a man of impressive intellect and charisma, able to outwit a gargantuan barbaric Cyclops with his sly deceit and win the hearts of a court of young Greek upstarts with his bard-like storytelling.
Thus we find three fundamental attributes of a Greek hero. Homer’s Odyssey reflects the culture and mindset of the time (as do many works of art). It was an age of men larger than life, an age that valued strong ties, patient endurance, and unceasing wit.