A Hero Shot A Man, Just to…Kill Me: Achilles and Odysseus, Again

Sophocles, fr. 965

“I am called Odysseus for evil deeds correctly:
For many who have been my enemy hate me.”

ὀρθῶς δ’ ᾿Οδυσσεύς εἰμ’ ἐπώνυμος κακῶν•
πολλοὶ γὰρ ὠδύσαντο δυσμενεῖς ἐμοί

Yesterday, I was editing a manuscript and thinking about Odysseus’ so-called “lying tales” in books 13-20 of the Odyssey. In one of them, he talks casually about murdering the son of Idomeneus. A song burst fully formed into my head. I made a poll. Over 3500 people voted.

(And, yes, as twitter let me know, it should be “shot” not killed”). To be honest, I thought the answer was clear and tried to direct it a bit:

And I was not the only one to consider Odysseus’ character the crueler one:

I suspect that the issue here for most voters was really: who’s your favorite hero and who seems violent to you. Everyone knows Achilles is a cross between the Hulk and Superman and he just kills everything. Most people forget that Odysseus leaves a trail of slaughter in his wake too.

Earlier polls I have run seem to indicate that while the Iliad and Odyssey are pretty close in popularity people have a more positive view of Odysseus. I have spent several years working on a book on Odysseus (after working on the Iliad for over a decade). I think these evaluations of the characters are from an overall feeling and not an actual engagement with the texts.

I continued this conversation on and off line with Justin Arft:

Erik, who is in Germany, had some comforting words over text:

Erik text

I received another text from an actual resident of Reno, who had some thoughts:

Jed Text

My emotional stability did not increase during the day:

There were some cogent responses:

Achilles is intense, like super intense, like there is extra and then there is Achilles extra. He gets his feelings hurt and then asks for Zeus to make his own people die. Patroklos dies because Achilles is so damn sensitive. Achilles’ rage is the point of the whole poem. But he is not calculating. He feels. He reacts. He regrets.

But behind all the arguments is a basic misunderstanding of what it means to be a hero in ancient Greece. They are not simple figures. They are not heroic in the modern sense. The word heros: can mean a man in the prime of his youth; or, a member of a race of superpeople before our current race of mortals; or, a person who follows a particular narrative/paradigmatic arc. It is value neutral when it comes to “good” and “evil”.

Erwin Cook writes well about this, noting that what marks heroes out in Greek myth and poetry is their ability to suffer or cause suffering to others.

Fortunately for the next 24 hours I found like-minded people to suffer with:

Despite Achilles’ constant lead, there was a chorus of objection:

My friend Sean texted this morning with the most plausible explanation for the outcome:

Sean Text

And I think people just didn’t get the question:

But, come on, Odysseus kills 108 unarmed people, has the slave-women hanged and does many other totally questionable things in his epic. In the Iliad, he lies to Dolon and has Diomedes kill him after he has informed on the Trojans. He’s a dark mage, a necromancer! And even the Odyssey is deeply ambivalent about his crimes: Teiresias implies that the suitors are only in Ithaca because of Odysseus’ mistakes!  The epic ends with the people of Ithaca splitting a vote whether to try to kill him or not.

Outside of the epics: he frames Palamedes and has him stoned to death; he tricks Achilles into coming to war; he strands Philoktetes for being wounded and then gets him to come back to Troy; he tries to stab Diomedes in the back; he is known for arranging for the killing of Astyanax. He probably killed Hecuba too.

He is also known in later traditions for wanting to kill Telemachus. Otherwise, he’s busy in myth having children all over the Mediterranean. When he gets home, he cries about his dog but not his wife.

Don’t get me wrong, I think Odysseus is important, but Emily Wilson is totally right in saying he is a “complicated man”. He is a survivor- and he teaches us about the compromises one must make and risks one needs take to survive. He is not a hero, he is not divine. He is like us.  And this is not always good. He minimizes slavery and manipulates his slaves, he is definitely more into truthiness than truth. And he is his own worst enemy: he needs to figure this out before he can even start to go home.

Achilles’ rage is big and easy to conceptualize, easier to blame; Odysseus’ calculation is harder to understand and frame. We want to be like Achilles, I think, because we can blame our faults on emotions. That’s nature, right? We can’t control nature! It is harder to admit where we are like Odysseus because then we need to take responsibility for our faults. People who love Odysseus too often explain away his faults. (Which is why so much of Homeric scholarship refuses to acknowledge that Odysseus is crossing a line in killing the slave women, the suitors, blinding Polyphemos and more).

Not everything was about bashing Odysseus:

And some people worked hard to bring greater context to the song and the identification:

This probably undermines the entire enterprise:

Some people couldn’t play the game right!

There may have been some salutary effects:

Thank you to Carly Maris (@carmarky) for making this so I didn’t have to

thanks to everyone who played along and took what was a lark seriously. Apologies to all the wits and wiseacres I didn’t include in this post. The thread on twitter is pretty cool. But, as with everything, Plato did it first and better.

Plato, Hippias Minor 

364c

“Homer made Achilles the best man of those who went to Troy, Nestor the wisest, and Odysseus the most shifty.”

φημὶ γὰρ Ὅμηρον πεποιηκέναι ἄριστον μὲν ἄνδρα Ἀχιλλέα τῶν εἰς Τροίαν ἀφικομένων, σοφώτατον δὲ Νέστορα, πολυτροπώτατον δὲ Ὀδυσσέα.

365b

“Achilles is true and simple; Odysseus is shifty and false.”

ὡς ὁ μὲν Ἀχιλλεὺς εἴη ἀληθής τε καὶ ἁπλοῦς, ὁ δὲ Ὀδυσσεὺς πολύπροπός τε καὶ ψευδής

366a

Soc. “People who are many-wayed are deceptive because of their foolishness and thoughtlessness, or because of wickedness and some thought?

Hippias: Most of all, because of wickedness and intelligence.

Soc. So, it seems, they are really intelligent.

Hip. Yes, by Zeus, wicked smart.

Soc. And men who are smart—are they ignorant of what they do or do they understand it?

Hip. They really understand what they are doing. For this reason, they also do evil.

Soc. So, is it the ignorant or the wise who know these things which they understand?

Hip. The wise know these very things, how to deceive.

—ΣΩ. Πολύτροποι δ’ εἰσὶ καὶ ἀπατεῶνες ὑπὸ ἠλιθιότητος καὶ ἀφροσύνης, ἢ ὑπὸ πανουργίας καὶ φρονήσεώς τινος;

—ΙΠ. ῾Υπὸ πανουργίας πάντων μάλιστα καὶ φρονήσεως.

—ΣΩ. Φρόνιμοι μὲν ἄρα εἰσίν, ὡς ἔοικεν.

—ΙΠ. Ναὶ μὰ Δία, λίαν γε.

—ΣΩ. Φρόνιμοι δὲ ὄντες οὐκ ἐπίστανται ὅτι ποιοῦσιν, ἢ ἐπίστανται; —

—ΙΠ. Καὶ μάλα σφόδρα ἐπίστανται· διὰ ταῦτα καὶ κακουργοῦσιν.

—ΣΩ. ᾿Επιστάμενοι δὲ ταῦτα ἃ ἐπίστανται πότερον ἀμαθεῖς εἰσιν ἢ σοφοί;

—ΙΠ. Σοφοὶ μὲν οὖν αὐτά γε ταῦτα, ἐξαπατᾶν.

One thought on “A Hero Shot A Man, Just to…Kill Me: Achilles and Odysseus, Again

  1. Rob

    Well, I *thought* I got the question: when I wrote “Odysseus wouldn’t kill you without a reason. Like he wanted your stuff, or thought you were a bad house-guest.” I intended to suggest that he’d kill you for reasons only a psychopath would think justified it (and so was the more likely to do it just to watch you die). Oh well.

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