The Heros - Odysseus, Jason and Aeneas
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Odysseus is unique among epic heroes in that his strength comes not from inhuman powers or exceptional physical ability, but mainly from his mind. Odysseus, regularly uses cunning, guile, and superiority of intellect to overcome obstacles. In this paper I will compare Odysseus to other epic heroes, both in terms of character and in terms of responses to crises, comparing his reactions with those of other heroes placed in similar situations.
The first hero I will compare him to is Jason, who had a similar adventure. His adventure was made to claim a throne that was rightfully his, just like Odysseus' adventure to get home to Ithaca and regain his throne. They both faced many perils on the sea, and both persevered to reach the end of the journey and gain the throne.
Jason's uncle Pelias had usurped the throne of Iolchus (much as Penelope's suitors threatened to do), which Jason had a legitimate claim to. Pelias wanted to get rid of him, but dared not to kill him outright. So, he agreed to abdicate the throne if Jason would journey and get the golden fleece, which was at a temple in Colchis (on the Black Sea). Pelias expected the voyage to be fatal, for it had danger at every step. However, Jason called for and received an impressive roster of heroes to aid him on his journey.
Jason set out for, and made it safely to, Colchis. Once there, he was received by the resident king,
Aeetes. Aeetes was used to getting visitors who had come for the fleece, and had devised a test for getting
rid of them. He had a standing challenge to give up the fleece to anyone who could tame two fire-breathing
bulls and then use them to plow a field with dragon's teeth.
Jason was confounded by how to pass this trial and was saved at the last moment by Aeetes'
daughter Medea, who gave him a potion of wild herbs that would protect him from the fire. With the help,
Jason easily tamed the bulls, and began to sow the field, but noticed that where he had put the teeth, soldiers
were springing up from the ground. Jason hid from them, but then came up with a plan for getting rid of
He picked up a huge stone and threw it into the middle of the mass of soldiers, killing one. A
quarrel immediately started amongst the soldiers over who had thrown the rock, and a fight broke out,
killing all but a few, whom Jason was able to easily overcome. With the help of Medea, Jason was able to
steal the fleece from its guardian, a dragon, by putting it to sleep, and escape from Colchis.
Jason's trip home, however, took much longer than the way from home, as he was blown off course
and had to overcome many obstacles to reach his home. Does this sound familiar? That sentence could be
used to describe the first half of the Odyssey, only it was Odysseus voyaging and not Jason.
These journeys are parallel, as they are seafaring trips made by a hero who is trying to get back
home. Both heroes face many dangers and are helped and hindered by divine powers along the way. Both
face Scylla and Charybdis, the Sirens, and other monsters that preyed on unsuspecting travelers.
There are many similarities between Jason and Odysseus. Both journey for long periods before
reaching their goals. They both rely more on their minds than on their muscles to overcome obstacles.
Perfect examples of this are Jason's plan to get rid of the soldiers on the field and Odysseus' outwittal of
Polyphemus. More physical heroes, such as Achilles or Diomedes, would have rolled their sleeves up and
tried to make solutions with their fists. Heroes like Odysseus and Jason, however, take the time to step back
and devise a plan.
In the present, I think it is more interesting to read stories of heroes who triumph through flexing their brains and not their biceps. Don't misunderstand me, stories of physical superiority can be great (look at present day sports movies), but they get repetitious really fast, such as many readers find in the Iliad, where the fights can get really repetitive. Stories of intellectual superiority, however, contain infinitive possibilities for new creativity. The ways the mind can triumph outnumber the ways the body can do so by a considerable margin and are a lot more interesting. How exciting would it be to read an Odyssey where Odysseus decided, at every turn, to say, "Well, it's go time"?
Instead, Homer gives us a wonderful story of a man who is not a marvelous physical specimen, using his mind to overcome the hurdles in his way. In the same manner, Apollonius creates a similar hero in Jason, who is another hero who relies more on the strength of his mind than that of his muscles.
The second hero I will compare Odysseus to is Aeneas, the subject of Vergil's epic the Aeneid. This work can be divided into what have been labeled Odysseic and Iliadic halves. Basically, in the first half, Aeneas gathers what he and his companions have left from the ruins of Troy, and are sailing around the Mediterranean looking for the land that has been promised them. Once they land there, they have a war with some peoples who are already living there and triumph.
Aeneas and Odysseus are comparable characters. They're both survivors, able to keep going when everything is stripped from them. Indeed, Aeneas is wandering the Mediterranean as his poem opens, with everything that remains of his past loaded into his ships. Odysseus is stripped of his crew and his direction many times, from storms taking out his ship to winds blowing him off course. They both have divine blood in their veins; Aeneas is the son of Aphrodite, Odysseus the great-grandson of Hermes. Even though Hermes' blood is only one eighth of Odysseus, the family craftiness still shows. However, in Aeneas, the divine lineage tends not to show as apparently as it does in Odysseus.
Both these heroes fight at Troy, and both spend a great deal of time sailing around, being frustrated by a divine nemesis. They both show frustration when a storm appears on the horizon in very similar remarks: "Triply lucky, all you men to whom death came before your fathers eyes Below the wall at Troy!" (Virgil, I.134-136) and "Wretched man--what becomes of me now, at last?...Three, four times blessed, my friends-in-arms who died on the plains of Troy those years ago...Would to god I'd died there too" (Homer, V.329-341). They both are delayed by women- Aeneas by Dido, Odysseus by Circe, Nausicaa and Calypso.
However, differences become apparent when the gods arrange the hero to leave. Odysseus owns up, telling the women straight out how he belongs in Ithaca, whereas Aeneas tries to sneak behind Dido's back. With regards to women and, by extension, facing bad situations, Odysseus has more grace.
Both Odysseus and Aeneas travel to Hades and meet their fathers. They do and they also see a character to whom they call out to, but who ignores them because of an incident in the past. Odysseus sees Ajax. Aeneas sees Dido. Odysseus and Aeneas repent over their wrongdoings toward Ajax and Dido, but it is too late. The shades of the deceased turn away.
Once Aeneas lands in Italy, the poem shifts to a more Iliadic tone. In this section of the poem, another remarkable similarity is shown. There is a scouting mission by night done by two men in both the Iliad and the Aeneid, with several components that match exactly. Diomedes and Odysseus set out on the field at Troy, and Euryalus and Nisus set out on the field at Latinum. The two men find the enemy sleeping, and Diomedes/Euryalus goes into a rage, slaughtering sleeping men until Odysseus/Nisus decides that they've had enough for the night. In the Aeneid, though, the mission ends in disaster. Euryalus lingers and takes a spoil off one of the corpses, a golden helmet. The reflections off the helmet attract the attention of sentries, and the two men are killed. Once again, the Greeks are more prudent, as Odysseus knows when to say when, something the Trojans are less likely to do.
Yet, while Odysseus has much in common with other heroes such as Jason or Aeneas, he also can be on a different level, that of the great heroes of myth. He can truly be counted among Heracles, Achilles, Theseus, Perseus and other heroes who are more godlike than mortal. What sets him apart, however, is that heroes on this level often tend to be impulsive, arrogant and violent, while Odysseus is calm, collected and thoughtful. A good example of Odysseus' moving onto that higher level is the story concerning the Palladium. Homer doesn't mention this incident, but the Palladium was a statue of Athena held inside Troy. It was prophesied that Troy would never fall while it had this statue inside the city walls. Odysseus, disguised as a beggar, made his way into the city and managed to carry the statue off out of the city! This really goes beyond the scope of some heroes and puts Odysseus in the higher ranks. This is pretty comparable to Hermes' stealing of Io from Argus2. They both stole an object being watched by a hundred eyes or more.
Odysseus really is, in my mind, one of the greatest heroes in Greek mythology. He's in a three-way tie for first in my book. His cunning and guile are more interesting to modern readers than some other hero's physical prowess. While he resembles other heroes, he truly moves beyond them in being an intellectual hero, and this makes him a more complex character than other, more physical heroes who tend to show up in Greek mythology.
Homer. The Odyssey. Trans. Robert Fitzgerald. New York: Vintage Books, 1962.
Virgil. The Aeneid. (Robert Fitzgerald, trans.) New York: Vintage Books.1983