Illustration of Odysseus tied to a ship's mast

The Odyssey

by Homer

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How does Odysseus display hubris in The Odyssey?

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In regards to Greek tragedies, hubris is defined as excessive pride or confidence, which is a serious character flaw that leads to the demise of many heroic men. In Homer's classic epic The Odyssey, Odysseus displays hubris several times throughout the narrative, which causes him and the members of his crew significant anguish and suffering. The most prominent example of Odysseus displaying hubris takes place in book nine, when he sails to the land of the lawless Cyclopes. Once Odysseus and twelve of his companions enter the cave of Polyphemus, Odysseus's men urge him to steal valuable resources and immediately return to their ships. However, Odysseus displays hubris by refusing to leave the cave, dismissing his men's concerns, and expecting to be shown hospitality. Tragically, Polyphemus enters the cave and proves to be a ruthless, violent creature, who eats Odysseus's men. Fortunately, Odysseus cleverly devises a plan to escape the cave by blinding Polyphemus. As Odysseus and his men are sailing away, he taunts the injured Polyphemus and reveals his real name. Odysseus's show of hubris causes him and his crew severe anguish as they incur the wrath of Polyphemus's father, Poseidon, who makes their journey significantly more difficult.

Odysseus once again displays his hubris when he and his men arrive on the island of the Laestrygonians. Despite their previous misfortunes, Odysseus confidently sends three scouts to investigate King Antiphates's palace. Odysseus is confident that the king will accept them as his honored guests and treat them with proper respect. However, Antiphates proceeds to eat one of the scouts, instructs his army of giants to sink Odysseus's ships, and Odysseus's crew narrowly escapes the island as the giants destroy the rest of their fleet. After two horrific experiences scouting unknown islands with hostile inhabitants, Odysseus continues to display hubris by sending half of his crew to investigate Circe's dwelling when they arrive at Aeaea. This is another terrible decision and Circe turns Odysseus's men into pigs. Fortunately, Odysseus is able to overcome Circe's magic and forces her to transform his crew back into men. Overall, Odysseus's hubris influences him to make impetuous, reckless decisions, which results in the destruction of his fleet and makes his journey significantly more difficult.

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The Greek word hubris is often translated into English as "pride," particularly the type of pride that leads to a fall, since it is yoked together with the concept of nemesis in Athenian tragedy. However, the word had a more technical meaning in Greek, which we might translate as "disgraceful conduct, offensive to the gods."

There is much discussion about whether Odysseus's behavior in the Homeric poems ever amounts to hubris. It is clear that he never manages to do anything which offends the gods en masse, since Athena remains his patron and protector throughout. Several of Odysseus's actions amount to hubris in the sense that we use the word in English. The most obvious of these is in the Iliad, when he hits Thersites on the head for speaking the truth about Agamemnon. However, there are several similar instances in the Odyssey, mainly concerning the treatment of his crew. He refuses to tell them what is in the bag of the winds, and waves away their perfectly sensible objections to staying with Circe, the enchantress. His most significant display of pride is when he defiantly shouts out his own name to Polyphemus while sailing away from the country of the Cyclopes.

Any of these might be classified as hubris as we use the word today. In the Greek sense, however, Odysseus is never guilty of hubris. He does not forget himself in revealing his name to Polyphemus. Any Greek hero would have done the same, since it was important for a hero that his name should be remembered and linked with his deeds. His actions certainly annoy Poseidon, but Poseidon hates Odysseus (and his patron, Athena) in any case. The final proof that Odysseus is not hubristic is that he survives, relatively unscathed, at the end of the poem. It is notable that his crew (who do not survive) are guilty of hubris in slaughtering the cattle of the sun.

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Hubris is having too much pride and believing you can do no wrong. It is self-confidence run amok.

Odysseus has many reasons to be proud of himself, especially in the context of his warrior culture. He is strong, brave, wily, smart, and overall a good leader. But he brings disaster his way when he gets too cocky.

The most famous example of his hubris is when, having blinded the Cyclops and made his escape, he can't resist shouting out his identity to his injured foe. This allows the god Poseidon to punish him and his crew:

if any man on the face of the earth should ask who blinded you, shamed you so – say Odysseus, raider of cities, he gouged out your eye…

This is a extremely foolish thing to do. The smart move would have to been to get away unidentified, but Odysseus cannot stand the idea that the Cyclops wouldn't know who had bested him. Odysseus just has to have credit for what he did, as if there will be no consequences. It is like having to tell your enemy that you robbed his bank.

And then, still swaggering, Odysseus has the nerve—or hubris—to say to his men:

Did I not keep my nerve, use my wits, to find a way out for us.

Odysseus will learn to be less arrogant, but not yet.

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An additional example of Odysseus's hubris comes in Book IX when he tears into his men, calling them "mutinous fools." They are indeed in a restless mood. After all, the men are starving, and so they don't take kindly to Odysseus telling them to put to sea after they've barely finished plundering Ismara— the land of the Cicones.

In recounting his tale, Odysseus puts the blame squarely on his crew's shoulders for the misfortunes that subsequently befall them, such as an attack by Ciconian reinforcements. In blaming his men for everything that's gone wrong, Odysseus is displaying great pride and arrogance, not to mention a distinct lack of leadership. He can't very well blame hungry, thirsty men for wanting to take the opportunity to fill their bellies. That he does so is a clear indication of hubris.

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Another important Greek idea is hubris. In our modern usage of the word, it means excessive ego or pride. In ancient Greece, it meant specifically excessive pride toward the gods. Many tragedies occur because a human defies or insults a god. In The Odyssey, Odysseus’s hubris gets the better of him when he taunts Polyphemus. He is so confident and arrogant about his triumph over the Cyclops that he makes a terrible mistake. When he gives his real name to Polyphemus, he incites the anger of Polyphemus’s father, the sea god Poseidon.

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