(Gentle Readers: The following is a summary of several posts about Odysseus for my myth class.)
Homer’s Odyssey, read by many as the story of Odysseus, has perhaps exerted a fantastic influence on the reception of the survivor of the Trojan War. One of the things I like to encourage is the idea that rather than representing the standard view of the figure, the Homeric epic goes to great lengths to reform and re-present a traditional figure whose broader mythical tradition may have been a bit more positive.
(And it is fair to say that a close reading of the Odyssey itself can produce less-than-favorable revelations regarding the man it sings about.)
Part of the difference represented by Odysseus, I think, is that he is not strictly speaking a demi-god: instead of being a child of a god endowed with super-human ability, he is something somewhat mundane, a human being one step closer to the messy world of his audiences. He is, as the epic announces, the “many-minded man” and a “man of many shapes”. For this reason especially, he becomes a protean figure in myth.
The epic may play with this when Odysseus reveals himself to Telemachus in book 16, his son at first balks, certain that this man in front of him is a god or some delusion. Odysseus responds memorably (16.204):
“No other Odysseus will ever come home to you”
οὐ μὲν γάρ τοι ἔτ’ ἄλλος ἐλεύσεται ἐνθάδ’ ᾿Οδυσσεύς
A groundbreaking television documentary in the ancient world entitled “So You Think You Know Odysseus” might start out with his biography as popularly known and then look more closely at the epic itself. For instance, though we often talk about his son Telemachus, his wife Penelope and his father Laertes, we often miss the small detail presented in the epic that Odysseus has a sister named Ktimene. What is going on with her? Well, it seems that she was married off into the murky relationships that pervade the background of the Odyssey‘s rather unclear presentation of the geography and politics of the islands around Ithaca, a tale which makes Laertes out to be a conqueror and brings Odysseus’ rule into question.
But if we leave the Odyssey and look into the mythical tradition, we find that Odysseus dies–according to some–because he is defecated upon by a bird. He has a grandson related to Nestor. And he has up to 18 separate children apart from Telemachus. He was, in many ways, a classic, wandering inseminator.
But he was also a bit of a scoundrel. According to one tradition, he tried to stab Diomedes in the back while they slipped out of Troy. The negative associations of Odysseus become standard during the classical age when he appears often (but not always) as a bit of a villain in Tragedy and as a counter-figure in oratory where Socrates prefers Palamedes to Homer’s hero.
But it would certainly be unfair to say that the dangers of Odysseus weren’t present in the epic itself: during the middle of his own story, Odysseus as much admits that his own actions were in part cause of his (and his family’s) suffering. In the mythical tradition, Odysseus is positioned as the remorseful cause of Ajax’ madness, the vengeful scourge of Palamedes, the manipulative master of Philoktetes, and the captain who loses all his ships. His suffering is endemic. He is never innocent. But he carries on.
I think that this traces in part to his essential humanity: for Plato, Achilles was the best man who went to Troy, and Odysseus was the “most shifty“. His changeable nature, rather than seeming heroic, is more real, more relatable, and far less than ideal. And this is what makes him so much more like us.
The “human-ness” of Odysseus is part of what made him appealing to later philosophers, the Stoics, as a survivor. The continuation of his tale makes him an apt metaphor or available allegory for the struggle of mankind to survive after the stories are done being told.