In preparation for a lengthy essay on Homer's Odyssey concerning heroism, what is the Greek definition of heroism/a hero? What is heroism in ancient Greek culture? What heroism is in the Odyssey?...

In preparation for a lengthy essay on Homer's Odyssey concerning heroism, what is the Greek definition of heroism/a hero? What is heroism in ancient Greek culture? What heroism is in the Odyssey? How does heroism apply to Odysseus? How exactly did Odysseus' intellectual growth from hero to intellectual hero come about, and why is his growth important?  

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Tamara K. H. | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

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The word hero comes from the ancient Greek word heros, which is translated as a "'protector' or 'defender'" though, on the whole, when applied to heroes, the term developed two different meanings ("Hero: Etymology"). One ancient Greek meaning of hero was originally as a demigod, meaning half god and half man ("Hero"). A demigod was born of both god and mortal parents. The belief in demigods also correlated with the cult of hero worship. In this cult, deceased individuals were worshiped, much like in ancestor worship, through sacrificial offerings and other activities, for great deeds the individuals accomplished while alive (Stevanovic, "Human or Superhuman: The Concept of Hero in Ancient Greek Religion and/in Politics," p. 7). Myths developed around these worshiped heroes, and they were thought of as divine ("Human or Superhuman," p. 8). However, the ancient Greek definition of a hero progressed through time. Soon, heroes became defined as those who "display courage and the will for self-sacrifice" when faced with peril or misfortune ("Hero"). Heroes were particularly recognized as such when they were in an unlikely position to act heroically, specifically when they were in disadvantaged positions. It should also be noted that their heroic acts of self-sacrifice and courage were done for the "greater good of all humanity" ("Hero"). This type of hero was especially defined as a war hero ("Human or Superhuman," p. 6). These war heroes were typically those who heroically chose to die young in battle ("Human or Superhuman," p. 7). Furthermore, while these two definitions of a hero, the divine hero and the warrior hero, seem separate and distinct, scholar Lada Stevanovic argues that they are actually connected. Both definitions can be seen as a means of conquering death because the ancient Greeks also believed that death brought rebirth and new life. So, even the warrior hero who died young in battle can be celebrated as a means of conquering death by bringing new life through death ("Human or Superhuman," p. 12).

Odysseus in Homer's Odyssey both does and does not fit the two ancient Greek definitions of a hero. First, he does not fit the demigod definition of a hero because he was actually born of two mortals, Laertes and Anticlea. However, it can be argued his actions do correlate with the literal meanings of the Greek word heros in that he was a "protector" and a "defender." It can also be argued he certainly does, in several ways, fit the definition of a warrior hero. Odysseus can certainly be recognized as a "protector" and "defender" with respect to many things. First, while not detailed in Homer's Odyssey, we know Odysseus fought nobly in the Trojan War. We see evidence of his heroism in battle in the Odyssey with respect to how the gods and goddesses assist Odysseus in returning home. Both Athena and Hermes play an essential role in helping Odysseus return home and conquer the suitors and would not have done so, especially Athena, goddess of war strategy and justice among other things, unless they did not think Odysseus was worthy of praise and admiration (eNotes, "The Odyssey by Homer: Themes"). Hence, we certainly know Odysseus fits the definition of a hero due to his bravery exhibited in battle, showing that he is a "protector and a "defender." We also see him acting as a "protector" and "defender" during the course of his journey home. Though he encountered many turmoils, and though he lost many men, he used a great deal of intelligence and cunning to escape from many situations and to rescue as many of his men as possible. In addition, his role as a "protector" and a "defender" also proves him to fit the definition of a warrior hero. As has already been said, in fighting to protect the Greeks in the Trojan war, Odysseus proved himself to be a warrior hero. He also showed himself to be a warrior hero in the many battles he had to fight through tricks and cunning in order to remain alive and keep as many of his men alive as possible during his journey home. However, according to Stevanovic, the term warrior hero is also generally applied to warriors who bravely died in battle. So, one respect in which Odysseus does not fit the definition of a warrior hero is that he actually successfully remained alive, unlike his fellow warrior heroes Achilles and Agamemnon.

Another aspect in which Odysseus does not fit the definition of a warrior hero, making him a very unusual and even brand new type of hero, is with respect to his behavior towards the suitors. Odysseus behaved in a way that no hero has behaved before him: He tolerated all kinds of "insults and abuses" from Penelope's suitors. However, he did so with the intent of tricking the suitors. He even hid his identity with the intention of tricking and destroying the suitors. His successful annihilation of the suitors is evidence that his craftiness certainly was necessary and certainly worked. Hence, through the Odyssey, we see that Homer has indeed broadened the definition of the ancient Greek hero. Suddenly, a hero is one who can be called heroic in life, not just in death, and one who is cunning enough to defeat his foes. We can further see that in defeating the suitors he was able to regain control of and protect his own kingdom, showing us that his heroic actions were for the greater good of humanity.

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