The Odyssey by Homer is one of the first known examples of ancient Greek literature. This work contains a significant number of different stories about different heroes that represent the Greek world outlook. One of the most interesting questions concerns the development of Odysseus’s personality throughout the story. One can see that all twists and turns influence the main character in a varying degree. However, it is not clear whether Odysseus is capable of reflecting and drawing lessons from all challenges. This paper examines how Homer portrays the hero of his epic poem and gives examples of how Odysseus’ character develops through the story. An analysis of Odysseus’ journey based on the episodes with Phaeacians, Cyclops, and Scylla demonstrates that his personality and reactions are constantly changing.
An analysis of Odysseus’ name deserves a particular attention as a constitutive element of his personality. The eighth song describes Ulysses’ stay on the island of Phaeacians, where he finds himself after the collapse of the ship. Nobody knows him, but friendly Phaeacians welcome him and invite to the feast. During the feast, Odysseus asks Demodocus to sing about the Trojan horse, which he not only witnessed but also devised. It is an unusual situation for the epic poem because the hero asks to sing about his exploits. Demodocus sings about the destruction of Troy, and Odysseus begins to cry, remembering their fallen comrades. It forces the king Alcinous to ask what is the reason for his sorrow and who he is and where he lives, because, according to his words, “surely no man in the world is nameless, all told” (Homer, 1996, 8:621).
“Now let me begin by telling you my name …
I am Odysseus, son of Laertes … my name has reached the skies” (Homer, 1996, 9:21-23).
This situation is very strange because the hero, who was present at the feast only as a character of Demodocus’s songs, suddenly appears in person and identifies himself as Odysseus. The inability to hide his name for a long time proves that Odysseus as well as Alcinous considers the name as an essential part of any hero.
In his wanderings, Odysseus tries on different roles. He is one of the leaders of the Achaeans, a trader, a poor traveler (so it seems to Nausicaa), and a beggar (by adopting this role, he sneaks unrecognized into the Troy). However, the variety of guises corresponds to the hero’s skills. Ulysses may be a mighty warrior, a helmsman (for example, when he directs the ship on the way that the Circe sorceress showed him), a carpenter (he makes a raft in order to swim away from the island of the nymph Calypso), an athlete (on the island of Phaeacians, he wins the competition in the discus throwing), and even a magician. On the island of the Cyclops, Odysseus finds himself in a very dangerous situation; he and his companions enter the cave of the huge Cyclops Polyphemus, which has an incredible strength and eats human flesh. However, Ulysses finds a way out of the situation. He waters Cyclops with delicious and very strong wine and then opens his name.
“Nobody – that’s my name. Nobody –
so my mother and father call me, all my friends” (Homer, 1996, 9:408-09).
Drunken Cyclops believes in this false name and pays for it. When blinded, he calls other Cyclops for help, but they cannot do anything because he claims that no man caused him harm. The name “Nobody” actually symbolizes a refusal of the personality. Odysseus is forced to do this in order to gain invulnerability in front of the impending doom. And this step is remarkable for the character. Odysseus may lose his individuality, but this also means a loss of identity as well as a social and heroic status. That is why sailing from Cyclops’s island and feeling relatively safe, Odysseus reveals the truth about who actually blinded him to his enemy.
“Cyclops – if any man on the face of the earth should ask you
who blinded you, shamed you so – say Odysseus,” (Homer, 1996, 9:558-59).
The reader can see that the main character is constantly changing his identities, but it should be examined whether he is actually capable of unconventional actions in complex situations. An epic hero is often shown as a so-called God’s marionette. Gods often intervene in the course of actions, urging the protagonist to take this or that decision and using him as a tool for achieving their goals. However, Ulysses is a much more complicated personality. Being a man of twists and turns, he is able for reflection and adoption of his own decisions, which are not prompted by any divine force. After receiving Circe’s instructions, Odysseus leaves her island and successfully passes the island of the Sirens. Then Ulysses and his cohort are approaching to a narrow strait between Scylla and Charybdis. Since it is impossible to swim safely between the rocks, Odysseus chooses the lesser evil proposed by Circe. He swims up closer to Scylla that devours people, trying to save the entire ship from Charybdis. However, understanding that he will inevitably lose some of his comrades, Ulysses violates regulations of the sorceress and arms for battle with the monster.
“But now I cleared my mind of Circe’s orders –
cramping my style, urging me not to arm at all.
I donned my heroic armor, seized long spears” (Homer, 1996, 12:245-47).
Odysseus cannot defeat Scylla and thereby he condemns his companions to death. He knows that Scylla is immortal and invulnerable. In this case, such an impulse, which occurred against all common sense and logic, just proves that not all the characters are of the same type and act schematically. Ulysses makes his own choice; and it is not the choice of Circe, who gave him instructions, and not the wish of gods, but his own internal decision. One may find that a lack of description of the internal struggle of the hero denies his inner world, but the compressed epic manner of description is deceiving. The modern understanding of the inner world and emotions and the way they should be expressed are quite different from the ancient Greek style. Moreover, Odysseus is a hero that is capable of reflection; therefore, he feels guilt in case he makes a mistake. When Ulysses tells Phaeacians about the adventure in the cave of Polyphemus and his choice to stay and wait for the owner of the cave, instead of taking the advice of colleagues, he says “But I would not give way – and how much better it would have been …” (Homer, 1996, 9:256-57). So, thinking about the rejected option and recognizing that it was better, Odysseus understands his mistake and, therefore, feels guilty. Such feeling proves that the main character has the freedom of choice and actions.
An experience is one of the most important factors that form a basis of personal development. One can take new information from the experience in order to complement his/her view of the world. The adventure in the cave of Polyphemus left its imprint in the mind of Odysseus, and he recalls it in critical situations. The first example is Ulysses’ reminder of that situation to his comrades before passing between Scylla and Charybdis.
“Friends, we’re hardly strangers at meeting danger –
and this danger is no worse than what we faced
when Cyclops penned us up in his vaulted cave” (Homer, 1996, 12:226-28).
The second example of the use of the experience is the time when unrecognized Odysseus is ready to kill all hateful maids and suitors of Penelope. The second case is particularly interesting because of the words that Odysseus says:
“Bear up, old heart! You’ve borne worse, far worse,
that day when the Cyclops, man-mountain bolted
your hardy comrades down” (Homer, 1996, 20:20-22).
After remembering the Cyclops, Odysseus calms down and is no longer thoughtlessly trying to take rapid revenge on his enemies. He thinks about better ways to kill the suitors. Patience is the quality that is extremely important in this case.
The main question is whether to consider the patience and other abilities as inherent qualities of Ulysses or to suggest that he learned them during his wanderings. On the one hand, the second opinion helps to expand the field of analysis, involving new approaches and methods, including methods from other areas of the humanities. On the other hand, the first point of view suggests that the personality of the main character does not develop since all qualities are inherent. Therefore, there is no need for a deep examination of Ulysses’ motives in every particular situation. Such opinion requires the analysis that is based on the genre of the story and looks quite logical, consistent, and solid.
The cultural value of The Odyssey lies in a full description of the human character as well as customs and features of the ancient Greeks. The extreme accuracy in details of the story helped Homer to create the effect of maximum authenticity and realism, and without Ulysses this epic poem would disintegrate into separate subjects. Odysseus is a constantly changing personality that is independent and can make personal decisions and take responsibility for their results. However, he is not an ordinary person. His numerous skills and abilities give him sufficient opportunities to overcome the enormous obstacles and achieve the main goal, which is returning to home Ithaca.