Odysseus the jerk

A terrible (fictional) person

While modern audiences tend to be sympathetic towards the trickster hero Odysseus, the leading character of the epic poem that is named after him, a closer look reveals him to be a terrible person.

Josho Brouwers

Monday’s article about the suicide of the Greek hero Ajax spawned some interesting discussion afterwards that centred on what a truly awful human being is Odysseus. Audiences have become accustomed to Odysseus in modern retellings that generally portray him in a good light.

To name just two brief examples, Sean Bean plays him as a resourceful and down-to-earth leader in the movie Troy (2004), while Armand Assante’s more scrappy Odysseus in the TV miniseries The Odyssey (1997) comes across as a more or less decent person. And we certainly shouldn’t apply our modern ideas of what constitutes as morally good behaviour unto the (mythical) past.

But when you read the ancient sources, Odysseus often engages in behaviour that is unsavoury even by the standards of the brutal world familiar from Greek myth. I have touched upon two examples in earlier articles. Yesterday, I pointed out that Odysseus’ wrongful appropriation of the armour of Achilles drove Ajax to insanity and suicide. Even earlier, I discussed an episode in the Iliad in which the enemy scout Dolon begs for mercy, only to have Odysseus smile at him, knowing full well that Diomedes would chop off the hapless Trojan’s head when they were done interrogating him.

A trickster and a cheat

Lest we forget, it’s Odysseus who ultimately comes up with the trick of the Trojan Horse, which ensures that the Greeks are able to capture and sack Troy. The end result is nothing short of gruesome: the city is levelled, with all of the male Trojans, including male children, murdered and the women carted off as slaves. Only a relatively small number of Trojans manage to escape under the leadership of Aeneas and head west, where they would mix with Italic women and become the progenitors of the later Romans.

Of course, Odysseus certainly experienced his fair share of setbacks. After having been embroiled for ten years in the Trojan War, it would take him another decade to return home. But while he pined frequently to see his wife, Penelope, again, and prayed fervently that she had stayed faithful to him, this didn’t preclude him from engaging in amourous encounters during his long journey home.

While in the Odyssey he spends most of his time with Calypso crying for home, other stories mention the children he fathered with various women he met along the way. With the witch Circe, for example, he unknowingly fathered a child (about whom more later). As catalogued by Irad Malkin in his Returns of Odysseus (1998), the king of Ithaca was sometimes “regarded as a progenitor of royal houses or entire peoples” (p. 4).

But perhaps you might say that all’s fair in love and war. The Trojans had insulted the Greeks and were fated by the gods to be destroyed anyway. In that light, perhaps Odysseus shouldn’t be judged too harshly. But there are plenty of other instances, in addition to the ones pointed out earlier, in which Odysseus behaves in a manner unbecoming of what we would consider decent behaviour.

Odysseus beats the common man

In the second book of the Iliad, the Greeks have hit a low point and want to go home. Odysseus grabs the sceptre from Agamemnon, a symbol of power, and chases after the Greeks. In Richmond Lattimore’s translation, “Whenever he encountered some king, of man of influence,” Odysseus would speak to him with “soft words” (Il. 2.188-189). But if he encountered “some man of the people who was shouting, he would strike at him with his staff, and reprove him also” (Il. 2.198-199).

One man in particular managed to draw the leaders’ ire. Thersites is described in the poem as “the ugliest man who came beneath Ilion” (Il. 2.216), and he was hated in particular by Achilles – known for being an attractive and therefore, in the logic of the epic world, a “good” man – and Odysseus, the clever trickster.

Thersites speaks harsly to Agamemnon, but before the latter can reply, Odysseus pounces, insulting the man before beating him with the sceptre. In Lattimore’s rendition, “a bloody welt stood up between his shoulders under the golden sceptre’s stroke, and he sat down again, frightened, in pain, and looking helplessly about wiped off the tear-drops” (Il. 2.267-269). The other men laugh, but also joke a bit at Odysseus’ expense, saying that “this is far the best thing he ever had accomplished” (Il. 2.274).

Odysseus kills a rival

Originally, Odysseus hadn’t wanted to come to Troy. According to prophecy, he was destined to be away from home for two decades – a fate he naturally wanted to avoid. When the envoys arrived at Ithaca, he therefore feigned madness by pretending to plough salt in his fields, or some such variation on a theme (sources include Proclus’ summary of the Kypria, the Athenian tragedians, and others).

One of the envoys, Palamedes (who is never mentioned by Homer), didn’t believe that Odysseus was really insane. According to some sources, he somehow threatened Odysseus’ newborn son, Telemachus; the most commonly known story had him plop the infant in front of Odysseus’ plough on the assumption that if the hero is only pretending to be mad, he would avoid killing the child.

And indeed, Odysseus swerved out of the way to preserve Telemachus’ life, thus revealing to the envoys that he was quite sane and therefore fit to go to Troy. Palamedes had proven himself to be far too clever for the wiley Ithacan king and had thus earned Odysseus’ wrath. Naturally, there was only one course of action: Palamedes had to die.

But Odysseus was patient. He waited simply for the right opportunity to present itself. Palamedes, in the meantime, showed himself to be resourceful. While waylaid at Aulis, he is said to have taught the Greeks how to write and how to play with dice. This fueled Odysseus’ jealousy and hatred, and – according to some sources – also caused resentment among Agamemnon and Diomedes.

Hyginus (64 BC to AD 17), a Latin author, claims that what happened next was all Odysseus’ doing, as indeed does the author of the Bibliotheca (an ancient compendium of Greek myth). Odysseus convinced Agamemnon to move the Greek camp for one day, based on a dream he had experienced. The king agreed. Odysseus then buried a stash of gold underneath where Palamedes’ tent used to be.

Next day, the Greeks returned and Palamedes again pitched his tent on the same spot. Meanwhile, Odysseus had forged a letter, purportedly written by Priam, and sent this to Agamemnon. The letter noted the hidden gold. The Greeks confront Palamedes and a brief trial follows, after which the gold is dug up, seemingly proving that Palamedes was a traitor. He is then stoned to death.

Odysseus murders everyone

By the end of the Odyssey, it’s hard to claim that Odysseus hasn’t suffered any hardships. He arrives back in Ithaca a stranger in his own land. The goddess Athena, who has served as his protector and adviser, disguises him as a beggar so that he can scout out the situation. He reveals himself to two of his most loyal slaves, as well as to his son, Telemachus, who is by now all grown up.

But he doesn’t reveal himself to Penelope. His wife has all but lost hope entirely, with her house being overrun by hungry suitors who are literally eating Odysseus’ wealth and resources. But let’s look at this from the point of view of the people of Ithaca: what really were the chances that Odysseus was still alive after having been absent for twenty years? Should they have stayed loyal to a man who might as well have been a ghost?

Naturally, the poet of the Odyssey does his best to show the suitors as impolite boors, who even hatch a plan to kill the innocent young Telemachus upon his return home. They might have posed a threat to Odysseus, too, if he had simply walked back into his palace. But the plan that Odysseus comes up with the do away with the suitors and all who supported them, including a large number of slaves, is nothing short of ruthless.

With Telemachus and his two loyal slaves, Odysseus makes sure that all the weapons are removed from the palace. When he drops his disguise, the doors are locked and the slaughter begins: along with his allies, he slaughters everyone. True to form, murder only begets murder, and the relatives of the people he killed demand retribution; some of them even in get killed! They are placated only when the gods intervene and tell everyone to just go home and live in peace.

If the story of Odysseus shows anything, it’s that some men can get away with anything. Or can they? While the Odyssey ends on a more or less happy note, with Odysseus and Penelope reunited, that is not where Odysseus’ story ends. According to the final poem of the Epic Cycle, the Telegony, Odysseus was a little later slain by Telegonus, the son he had fathered with Circe.