The Men of The Odyssey: Heroic or Disloyal?
In Homer’s The Iliad, Achilles’ shield is described in great depth. On one portion of the shield, there is fashioned a scene with a golden herd of straight-horn cattle. They are being led along a fruitful riverside by a group of four golden shepherds
and nine hounds. Two lions approach the herd, and mutilate a mighty bull. The shepherds can do nothing but watch, as they dare not approach the predators. This scene is crucial in understanding the behavior of Odysseus’ men in the sequel to this epic, (The Iliad, p. 227).
’s The Odyssey
, Odysseus narrates a portion of the epic concerning his journeys and trials during his long quest home for Ithaca. Throughout these adventures, his men play an important role in determining the fate of the entire crew of his ship. At some points, he portrays them as being heroic, while at others, they seem barbaric in nature and disloyal to their captain.
These qualities of his men, and certainly others, are best exemplified through the episodes involving the Cyclopes and the Cattle of the Sun God.
Before comparing and contrasting the actions of the men during these two mini-stories, a good understanding of the inhabitants of the two lands is necessary. The Island of the Sun God, Helios, is referred to as "the world’s delight," as it provides habitation for this god’s limitless flocks of cattle. Conversely, the Island of the Cyclopes inhabits primitive one-eyed, half-man, and half-bestial beings, (p. 218). While Helios’ island is described as "noble," almost as golden as the sun itself, the land of the Cyclopes is illustrated as a land filled with wild vegetation, and neglected by its undemocratic and uncivilized people. This depiction of these people being poor gardeners coincides with previous evidence from this epic, and others, that this type of lifestyle being lived by the Cyclopes was looked down upon by the author, and by the gods, in particularly. The other land, therefore, is obviously blessed and considered to be holy to the gods.
Soon after landing on the Cyclopes’ Island, Odysseus takes a team of his best men with him to explore the new wilderness. They then discover the cave of Polyphemos, your everyday, average, sheep-herding Cyclopes. Odysseus’ men suggest taking the vision-impaired beast’s cheese and flocks and making a run for it, but the "raider of cities" insists on awaiting his homecoming in an attempt to see the caveman and what he has to offer. Had the great captain only done as his men had wished for in the first place, much grief would have been prevented from occurring in the ensuing events. After making handfuls of his men into meals, Odysseus finally defeats Polyphemos through his wit and tenacity. This event shows that the men are competent thinkers, but are so loyal to their captain that they’ll put their lives on the line for him for just about anything he asks them to do. This, however, does not automatically make them heroic, for they foolishly went along with Odysseus’ request instead of standing up and engaging in the less risky scheme.
This story can be related to the scene found on the shield of Achilles from Book 18 of The Iliad. The heartless lions can be related to the brutality of the Cyclopes, while the butchered bull can be compared to the men he devoured. With this in mind, surely the men were looked upon as noble or dignified by the author and the gods, just as was the bull in the incident on the shield.
The men do act heroically as they flee the wrath of Polyphemos. Odysseus acts foolishly by provoking the Cyclopes while preparing to set sail away from his island. They plea for him to stop, but stubborn Odysseus seems to like trash-talking the eyeless wonder. Had he listened to the counsel of his crew (just as last time), they all would have been much better off. Polyphemos prays to the great Poseidon, his father, and sentences Odysseus to his fate of years lost at sea.
The only reason Odysseus lands on Helios’ Island was because his men persuaded him to do so. He knew to avoid this land, for he was foretold of his inevitable fate long before he ever landed there. Tired from endless days upon the sea, the men were warned by Odysseus not to harm any of Helios’ hallowed herds. They eventually disregarded this order after many days of storms kept them from continuing on their journey, and their entire storage of food ran out. While Odysseus slept away the afternoon one day, one of his men, Eurylokhos, led the others to becoming disloyal to their captain, as well as their gods. They rounded up the cattle, prepared them ritually and ceremoniously, and feasted on the forbidden heifers. Because they had no wine and no barley meal, the men were unable to perform this ritual properly, which, we could then say, was playing with the gods. Their fate was soon fulfilled by the punishing blast of Zeus’ thunderbolt on Odysseus’ ship. He then became the only member of his entire crew to journey home.
This event shows the disloyalty of the men towards Odysseus as well as towards the gods. By playing games with them, they were asking for trouble, not being wise enough to heed the advice given to them by their great pilot. This situation is even more easily related to the scene found on Achilles shield. In both cases, there involves the slaughter of "golden flocks." In the case of Odysseus’ men, these are the cattle found on the Sun God’s Island. The lions are the crew of the great seafarer, and the golden shepherds are found in Helios, himself, caretaker of these divine bovine.
Sacrifices to the gods that go bad are catastrophic omens to the futures of characters in epics such as this. In Sophocles’ Antigone, the sacrifice of the prophet, Tiresias, goes bad. He explains that something terrible was to occur in the near future in the city of Thebes. Sure enough, things do turn for the worse but Antigone is then able to die as the great heroine she was destined to be.
In The Odyssey, two sacrifices go bad in the stories of the Cyclopes and the Island of the Sun God. Odysseus decides to sacrifice to Zeus the prize ram of Polyphemos’ herd. He then tells us, "…Zeus disdained my offering; / destruction for my ships he had in store / and death for those who sailed them, my companions." (p. 161). In the second case, his men produce for the gods an unacceptable sacrifice. After killing Helios’ cattle, the gods send "queer signs" to Odysseus’ men by making the cowhides "crawl," whether it was raw or roasted. These signs further show the impending doom for the unfaithful crew.
By looking back to passages from The Iliad and other plays by Sophocles, we can see how the behavior of Odysseus’ men can be regarded as heroic or disloyal in the episodes of the Cyclopes and the Island of the Sun God. Unfortunately, we can only make a few connections, because many of the ancient Greek epics were lost through the trials of time. Who knows what other great tragedies and comedies would have been considered masterpieces? Truly, The Odyssey is more than a masterpiece. It is a work of art with a new magnificence discovered each time it is read.