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Odysseus’ Character Traits

Homer’s Odyssey is a vivid illustration of the values and traditions of the ancient Greeks. By reading these stories of the ancients, we “live” what they lived, and experience what they experienced. Our culture gains a more profound understanding of their culture and what their lives were like. Through the ordeals of Odysseus, Telemachus and Penelope, Homer captures the essence of Greek culture. The ancient Greek culture, similar to many other ancient cultures, carefully constructed a hero, Odysseus, and imbued him with the ideal traits of their own society. Male heroes typically displayed traits such as strength, honour and mental prowess. In The Odyssey, the hero Odysseus epitomizes the esteemed traits of the ancient Greeks by exemplifying the characteristics of cunning and physical fitness.

Homer gives the reader a sense that of all the traits admired by the Greeks, a person’s mental prowess and cunning are the most valued. Although the ancient Greeks appreciated a man for his physical traits, they realized that without the strength of mind, a man will not truly succeed. The Odyssey underscores this concept by entertaining the reader with the untimely deaths of a few beautiful men. The death of Achilles is the most noteworthy example of this belief. Having been given the choice of living a long life without the hope of ever achieving kleos (glory), or being glorified and dying young, Achilles chose the latter. With definitely more brawn than brain, Achilles fulfilled his destiny when he was struck down with an arrow in his heel and was banished to the world of Hades. On his journey to the underworld, Achilles mentions to Odysseus, “I’d rather slave on earth for another man – /…than rule down here over all the breathless dead” (11.556-558).

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Odysseus possesses the mental ability that Achilles lacks. His cunning is mentioned numerous times, a testimony to the esteem in which the Greeks held this trait. Perhaps Odysseus’ cleverest ploy is on the island of the Cyclops, in the cave of Poseidon’s son, Polyphemus. When rudely asked his name, Odysseus cleverly responds; “Nobody – that’s my name. Nobody – / so my mother and father call me, all my friends'” (9.410-411). Cunningly using deceit to deceive the one-eyed giant, Odysseus manages to escape the Cyclops’ lair without incurring the wrath of the entire island. Odysseus’ clever mind plays on the weaknesses of others and, rather than his physical strength, it is the tool that he draws upon to assist him. He is greatly admired for this trait and is often called “the man of twists and turns” (1.1). In the story, the goddess of wisdom, Athena, chose to bestow her attention on Odysseus as his patron. In this way, Homer emphasizes the value that Greeks placed on strength of mind by linking the great goddess to Odysseus.

The Odyssey often mentions the physical characteristics of Odysseus, portraying them in a light that shows the Greeks’ high regard for the physical abilities of their heroes. First, put to the test in Troy, Odysseus reveals his strength as he “marched right up to Deiphobus’s house/ like the god of war on attack” (8.580-581). Comparing a mortal to the god of war is extraordinary praise, demonstrating both the great physical strength that Odysseus must possess and the admiration that the ancient Greeks have for him. The ancient Greeks were a people that revelled in the delights of physical challenges. Their invention of the Olympics is the best example of this. They valued a man’s ability to run, throw the javelin or discus, wrestle and fight. It is natural for a Greek to instill some of their values into their stories. In The Odyssey, Odysseus participates in a mini-Olympics at the palace of Alcinous, King of the Phaecians.

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After hurling a discus further than all others, Odysseus crows “I’ll take on all contenders, gladly /…I’m no disgrace in the world of games” (8.244-245). Odysseus is a match for any man in the world of physical strength, and Homer demonstrates this numerous times, showing again the esteem that the Greeks placed on the physical strength of men. Our hero Odysseus is not a perfect man. He has faults that become apparent in The Odyssey. His faults however are perhaps emphasized to illustrate another belief of the ancient Greeks, that men are not perfect. The traits that Odysseus does possess are ones that were highly valued by the ancient Greek culture – the strength of mind combined with physical prowess. Thus, The Odyssey can be read not only as a great work of literature but also as a lesson in the morals and values honoured by the peoples of Homer’s age.

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Odysseus' Character Traits. (2021, May 16). Retrieved July 7, 2022, from