Odysseus: Good or Evil?
Odysseus is the main character of Homer’s tragedy The Odyssey. He’s stoic, brave, strong, and commonly assisted by the Gods. While he is widely considered the main hero, could he not be considered the villain from some points of view? To Polyphemus, a Cyclops that Odysseus tricked and attacked, our protagonist is no hero. Or perhaps to the suitors of Odysseus’ wife, Penelope, he is a villain. These contradictions to his noble character pose a question of whether Odysseus is truly a hero, or if he’s a villain.
Odysseus is described by Homer, author of The Odyssey, as “…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.” (Homer 112). In short, he’s a man who overcomes all the challenges and struggles that he faces—a strong character. He is married to Penelope who remains in Ithaca for many years, awaiting the return of her husband. He has a son, Telemachus, who remains loyal to his father, despite years of his absence. He is known as the conqueror of Troy and a hero to many. He’s a husband, father, and hero. But could it be that he’s a villain to some?
Odysseus is shown as loyal to his wife and is commonly helped by the goddess Athena, making him appear to be good, as a whole. In book five of The Odyssey, we’re shown that Odysseus is trapped on Calypso’s island, Ogygia, and has been for the past several years of his life. Athena goes to Zeus and asks him to order for the release of the hero; Athena seems to favor Odysseus, as she helps him with many other parts of his life, as well. She helps him win over the favor of Alkinoos and Nausicaa on the island of the Phaecians, “…so on this night the goddess, grey-eyed Athena, entered the palace of Alkinoos to make sure of Odysseus’ voyage home.” (Homer 118). Although Athena did help him off the island eventually, he did remain there for several years with the nymph, Calypso. He is sorrowful, because he misses his home and his wife. He has refused Calypso’s gift of immortality and eternal youth, for he would prefer his mortal wife over the witch. Though he was not faithful in body to his wife, his heart remained faithful for all the years he stayed with Calypso.
On the other hand, though he claims his heart is loyal to Penelope, he does have sex with Calypso nearly every night for the years he remains on the island, “…he lay with her each night, for she compelled him.” (Homer 115). This doesn’t exactly make him great husband material. In addition to being an adulterer, he’s also quite violent. When his ship was wrecked on the island of the Cyclops, he and his men strayed into the cave of Polyphemus. Polyphemus ate several of Odysseus’ men, which may seem savage at first. However, this Cyclops is a hunter-gatherer. He takes what food he can get; these are strangers that wandered into his home. Many would defend their home from strangers. But, in response to Polyphemus’ actions, Odysseus gets the Cyclops drunk and waits until he’s passed out. Once unconscious, our “hero” and his men drive a heated stake through the monster’s only eye to blind him. After he and his men have escaped, he can’t help but brag that he was the one that tricked Polyphemus. This lands him in some trouble with the god, Poseidon, who is the father of the Cyclops. This would make our protagonist seem selfish, unnecessarily cruel, and perhaps even a little daft.
However, Odysseus is overall a good man. He’s not perfect. He’s cruel, violent, and a bit dumb. But after all, he’s human. Humans make mistakes—this is what separates humans from gods. Though he has flaws, he loves his family and home with passion, fights for his men and their lives, and is Zeus-fearing (which, in that time, is a good sign). He is more than likely a villain to many (poor Polyphemus), but is a hero to his people and to the readers of The Odyssey.