The Man of Many Ways

Homer's "Odyssey"

"I am a part of all that I have met." —Tennyson's "Ulysses"

Standing at the dawn of the tradition of European literature, Homer is credited with creating two enduring epic poems, the Iliad and the Odyssey. Both have influenced subsequent literature almost since they were first sung to rapt listeners hearing of the wrath of Achilles or the wanderings of Odysseus (known to Latin speakers as Ulysses). These epics depict the life of the Bronze Age seen through a lens of myth and legend.

As do all such stories, Homer's poems offer insight into human nature and into the hearts of men and women. The depiction of Achilles in the Iliad, for example,significantly shaped the character of Alexander the Great. However, the Odyssey examines the maturation of its eponymous hero and his son, Telemachus, while also revealing the strength of his wife, Penelope, and other women with whom Odysseus comes into contact.

Though the Iliad's Achilles is a nearly invincible warrior, his wrath prevents him from growing before he meets his tragic end. Odysseus, on the other hand, often pursues his adventures with foolhardy brashness but comes to appreciate and practice restraint in the end.

Odysseus's Character

Robert Fitzgerald's translation of the Odyssey begins by establishing the hero's character:

Sing in me, Muse, and through me tell the story
Of that man skilled in all ways of contending,
The wanderer, harried for years on end,
After he plundered the stronghold
On the proud height of Troy.

Odysseus is first of all crafty. Other translators have rendered "that man skilled in all ways" as "the man of many wiles" (Allen Mandelbaum), "the man of twists and turns" (Robert Fagles), and "the man who was never at a loss" (W. H. D. Rouse). The parallel to the patriarch Jacob, particularly in Genesis 27-31, is clear. Like Jacob, who outwits his brother into selling his birthright, deceives his father into giving him his older brother's blessing, and manipulates his father-in-law's herds to his advantage, Odysseus maneuvers both friends and enemies. While Achilles relies on his prowess, Odysseus uses his wits.

In the classic manner established by Homer's epics and laid out by Aristotle, the story of Odysseus begins in medias res—in the middle of things. Detained on the island of Ogygia for seven years, not altogether unwillingly, the hero is a captive of the nymph Calypso, who wants to marry him. Meanwhile, the goddess Athena decides to move Odysseus along on his way home. She also intervenes to get his son Telemachus started on his own journey toward manhood.

On Odysseus's island kingdom of Ithaca, his wife Penelope staves off 108 suitors by means of her own stratagems and maintains her faith that her husband will return home, which does happen, but not until much closer to the end of the book. The events that transpire between the introduction and that long-anticipated return reveal the impetuousness of Odysseus and recount his first movements toward maturity.

As Fitzgerald phrases it, Odysseus "saw the townlands and learned the minds of many distant men." Always three-dimensional, Odysseus encounters a long catalogue of characters in settings ranging from the anarchy of the Cyclopes to the utopia of the Phaeacians. He faces all kinds of threats, from the danger of wind and sea to the anger of a god and the desires of demi-goddesses. He experiences both loyalty and treachery on the part of his crew.

Despite its mythological milieu, Odysseus's life demonstrates the challenges that all people face. Everyone must contend with living in a fallen world filled with physical, emotional, and social conflicts. Odysseus models both the love of knowledge and the ability to change as a result of acquiring knowledge. He demonstrates exuberance for life as well as the cost of daring. He leaves his stamp on his world, and the world leaves its stamp on him.

Models for Modern Youth

Can Odysseus speak to today's young people and teenagers? He can and does. He speaks from centuries of human experience. The Odyssey is a story of men and women facing the challenges of life that result from war, from separation, and from jealousy. Odysseus's reputation as a major participant in the Trojan War follows him through episode after episode along his long journey home, and when he finally gets home, he must contend with a multitude of men seeking to seize his kingdom and supplant his rightful heir by marrying his wife. He returns to meet a son who has never known him and a wife who has longed for him throughout ten years of war and a subsequent ten years of journeying. His story also reveals the value of relationships forged in childhood and young adulthood as he garners support for his triumphant return.

While some today dismiss the faithful Penelope as a one-dimensional character, she is not. For twenty years, she raises her son alone, with some small assistance from Mentor, a sort of coach. For seventeen years, she rules as Ithaca's queen before abusive and presumptuous men who seek to marry her begin to prey on her hospitality (a requirement of Greek custom and religion). Cleverly, she manages to delay them for three years. Even when her husband returns, Penelope tests him in what may be the most telling marital scene in Greek literature. As Odysseus models manhood, Penelope provides an archetype of both wifely fidelity and feminine strength.

Even Odysseus's son has a story to tell. Spurred on by Athena, Telemachus sets out on his own "odyssey" to discover the truth about his father, especially attempting to find out what has happened to him. He travels to other kingdoms and meets other legendary kings who knew his father. In fact, the son of one such king becomes his companion, advising him about the courts they visit. Through Athena's intervention, Telemachus avoids trouble with his mother's suitors and eventually assists his father in preparing to administer justice upon the suitors who have pillaged their home.

The Odyssey not only offers models for manhood and womanhood, but it also sketches out the relationships within a family. Throughout the epic, the experiences of the major characters offer insight into such areas as good government, respect for parents and others in authority, the practice of hospitality, the dynamics of loyalty, and even a morality that seems almost Christian, particularly insofar as Odysseus's maturation plays out. When Athena intervenes in the Iliad, Achilles puts aside the sword with which he intended to kill the Greek commander Agamemnon but not the anger that he continues to harbor against him. In contrast, when Athena instructs Odysseus to quell his anger in the final scene, he obeys the goddess. Without conflating the Greek gods with the one true God, one can identify a common thread that runs through both the ancient Greek and the Christian moral codes, the virtue of turning away from revenge. Despite the code of vendetta that prevailed in the Bronze Age, the Odyssey points to a line that should not be crossed, lest justice be transformed into unbridled vengeance.

A Classic in Verse or Prose

Available in numerous verse translations, the Odyssey has also been rendered into prose. For readers who have yet to achieve an appreciation for poetry, the prose may be the better introduction to this Greek classic. Whether selecting verse or prose, practical wisdom points to choosing a relatively recent translation. At least eleven have been made since the turn of this century, and some of the sixteen translations made between 1960 and 2000 have come to be regarded as nearly classics in their own right.

The themes of the quest and of self-discovery have appeared since the dawn of storytelling. The Odyssey is a shining example that has influenced Western culture from the beginning. 

is a retired secondary teacher of English and philosophy. For forty years he challenged students to dive deep into the classics of the Western canon, to think and write analytically, and to find the cultural constants reflected throughout that literature, art, and thought.

This article originally appeared in Salvo, Issue #59, Winter 2021 Copyright © 2024 Salvo |


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