The True Hero

JESSELYN ONG | KHIU ZUYU (chloe) | AMELIA OW

(L02)

Portrait of Homer. Roman copy after a Greek Hellenistic original. By Marie-Lan Nguyen. Via Wikimedia Commons

Loyalty. Perseverance. Bravery. These are some traits that heroes embody. Story after story have been written about heroes, whether fiction or fact. In this post, we will focus on the values heroes possess and how the values portrayed by them are significant to the Greeks, as well as us. To illustrate these better, we will be look specifically at one story; namely, The Odyssey.

A BRIEF LOOK INTO THE ODYSSEY

Odysseus was a hero in the Greek epic poem, The Odyssey, written by Homer between the 8th and 9th century BCE. In case you have not had the chance to read The Odyssey, here’s a brief glance into The Odyssey (you can read the full text here).

In The Odyssey, Homer documents Odysseus’s ten year journey home to Ithaca after the fall of Troy. It opens with Penelope, Odysseus’s wife, being chased by 108 men who were called “the Suitors”. It then goes on to document Telemachus, Odysseus’ son, and his journey to seek out information on his father (Odysseus). In the next part of the epic, we learn about the challenges that Odysseus faced, trapped in the island of Ogygia and escaping, fighting monsters and dealing with the wrath of the gods. The Odyssey concludes when Odysseus returned to Ithaca and entered the competition for Penelope’s hand while on the disguise. In the end, he won, and went on to slay all the Suitors with aid from the Goddess Athena, his son Telemachus, swineherd Eumaeus, and cowherd Philoetius.

THE DARK AGES

Little is known of the Dark Ages of Greece (i.e. the period during which The Odyssey was written). Due to the collapse of the Mycenaean civilization, the Greeks suffered ‘severe conditions of life’, which was indicated by their ‘lost their knowledge of writing when Mycenaean civilization was destroyed’. Although this source suggests that the lost may not be total, we can be certain that the damage was heavy. This means that little information was documented during this period of time. As The Odyssey was one of the few epic poems composed during this time, it can give us potential insight to Greek culture and why Homer wrote the way he did.

As established above, the Greeks suffered terrible conditions of life when the Mycenaean civilization collapsed. This could have been what was reflected in The Odyssey, as Homer documents many of Odysseus’s adventures, many of which involving danger, adventure and courage. These aspects would have been what Homer was experiencing during his time, and could be what instigated him to write such epics.

It is also possible that many Greeks were afraid and fearful during the Dark Ages, as there was not much that was documented apart from war. Little archeological evidence such as pottery, instruments, or written literature was uncovered during that time, which shows that art, literature and music were not of importance. This implies that there was not much people could do for leisure. As the Greeks were known to travel, Homer would have had a high likelihood of having travelled, and even if he did not, it would not have been difficult to find someone who had travelled. He would have been able to document stories from travel experiences of either his own, or others (or both!), and retell them in the form of The Odyssey. As Homer had a literary background, he would be able to sensationalize his tales and make them appealing to the masses. Storytelling would have been a form of leisure for the people of that age, and by telling stories of courage and bravery, the civilians would have hope and persevere on through the tough times, as did Odysseus.

In this post, we will discuss the values that the Odyssey embodies and why these values are significant not only to history, but to Greek culture. Do note that when we talk about Greek culture, we refer mainly to Greek culture during the Dark Ages, as you will notice that we reference The Dark Ages often when you read on.

VALUES THAT THE ODYSSEY EMBODIES

Instead of being negative and keeping hopes down during unsettling times, The Odyssey pushed forward by using positive tactics we can all learn from: perseverance, hard work, determination, and also keeping that little glimmer of hope and faith in our hearts. As established earlier in this post, The Dark Ages was when the Dorians (i.e. warmongers) ruled. It would be safe to assume that the Greeks of that time could have been living in constant fear and worry. In this case, Homer could have written The Odyssey to instill hope, courage, and faith in the Greeks, and the Greeks of the time would have someone they could look up to as a hero. Of the many heroic values that The Odyssey demonstrates, we will go more into depth more on two aspects that have been cited by other sources, namely, loyalty and perseverance; we will first bring up some examples of loyalty and perseverance that were demonstrated in The Odyssey, and will then go on to establishing the significance that these two traits had on the Greeks of the Dark Ages.

Odysseus and wife Penelope. Photographed by H. R. Wacker. By Johann Heinrich Wilhem Tischbein [CC]. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Odysseus and wife Penelope. Photographed by H. R. Wacker. By Johann Heinrich Wilhem Tischbein [CC]. Via Wikimedia Commons.

On Loyalty

Examples in The Odyssey

In The Odyssey, loyalty is most discernible not in Odysseus, but the other characters. For example, Penelope (Odysseus’s wife), did not allow herself to be courted by any of her 108 suitors, choosing instead to await her husband’s return, even though there was no guarantee that Odysseus would return. Also, Eumaeus (Odysseus’s swineherd) and Philoetius (Odysseus’s cowherd) were dedicated to serving their master (Odysseus).

Why was this significant to the Greeks?

By writing the side characters as highly loyal people, Homer showed the Greeks that even if they did not think that they could play a very significant role in what they were doing, they too, should always keep their roots in mind and remain true to their roots. This would give the Greeks, who were living in a time of war and chaos, some sense of attachment and belonging to their Greek roots.

On Perseverance

Examples in The Odyssey

In the 10 year long journey home, Odysseus demonstrated much perseverance. During his journey back home, he overcame many obstacles, one of which was the man-eating Cyclops Polyphemos, son of Poseidon, god of the sea, who ate Odysseus’ men. Odysseus managed to escape after summoning his men to set fire to blind the Cyclops when he was asleep. The toughest test of his endurance and faithfulness was during the seven years he was captured by Calypso, a dominating goddess who was in love with him. Despite her alluring offer of granting immortality to him by becoming a goddess’ lover, Odysseus’ only wish was to be reunited with his family back home.

Why was this significant to the Greeks?

Several sources (1 & 2) have described how Odysseus has constantly demonstrated perseverance and this could be because the Greeks could have seen perseverance as a trait that one should have. Also, The Odyssey ended on a good note, which showed that perseverance does pay off. This could be used to demonstrate to the Greeks of the time that better times were to come if they persevered through difficult times. By creating Odysseus, a potential hero that the Greeks of the time could look up to, Homer could be giving the Greeks’ hope that difficult times would eventually come to an end, giving them the drive to work hard and persevere through tough times. In a sense, Odysseus is a living embodiment of the phrase: “Tough times don’t last, tough people do”.

WHY IS THE THE ODYSSEY SIGNIFICANT TO HISTORY AND GREEK CULTURE?

The Odyssey is significant to history because it is rich with virtues and values. These virtues and values are relevant to the mass audience, even to the young of modern times. For example, Telemachus, the son of the Trojan War hero Odysseus, persevered against all odds in search for his father and is eventually rewarded with a reunion with him. This shows a great part of how Eusebeia (Greek equivalent of piety) is performed by Telemachus, as well as his strong will anyone would admire him of. Telemachus’s role in The Odyssey plays a very significant part in demonstrating Greek culture. This is due to the fact that boys during that time were expected to look after their parents when they reached an old age (1 & 2). Telemachus displays the role of caring for his father very prominently in The Odyssey, which reflects how highly the Greeks hold this value at that time. Also, having this value demonstrated in the epic implies that Homer probably felt that Eusebeia  was a very important virtue that Greeks should uphold. Since the theme of Eusebeia lasted from the beginning of the epic right till the very end, it could mean that Eusebeia was among the values Greeks held at an utmost level of importance. Even up till the current modern 21st century times, Eusebeia, is a highly valued virtue that many cultures uphold. Even if we do not know the original term, many of us in the modern world believe that this is an important value to hold. Its relevance has not only amplified but has also withheld the test of time since Homer’s time. It could be possible that since The Odyssey has had such a large following since its publication, it became a driving force behind why Eusebeia, or what we now more commonly identify with as filial piety, is still being held at such a high level of importance today.

Eusebeia (i.e. Filial piety) is but one of the many examples of the virtues and values that The Odyssey upholds. Why this value is significant is because this example of filial piety shows how there is a possibility that The Odyssey has resulted in a ripple effect over time and that the values that this epic has embodied still holds true till date. In modern society, we view children who shun their elderly parents are condemned. Who knows, this condemning of said children could have stemmed due to the mark that The Odyssey has left. Perhaps there are more values that The Odyssey embodies that is reflected in modern society.

A FINAL STATEMENT

In this post, you have learnt about what The Odyssey is, the times during which The Odyssey was written, and the impacts of this Greek epic on the past as well as the present. You now know that such texts, whether fiction or fact, can play a very important role culturally and historically. Heroes written into stories give people hope and faith, but perhaps the true heroes are those writers like Homer who are brave enough take the step to pen these stories down.