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Modern scholarship suggests that the Odyssey was written about a generation after the Iliad but by a different poet who knew the Iliad very well and patterned this poem on the earlier one. It features a hero who more than anything else wants to make a name for himself and achieve enduring fame. This is the primary motivation for the warriors at Troy.
Sometimes it involves sacrificing the good of one’s community or family.
An episode with the Cyclops illustrates this motif of honor in the poem. Odysseus does not have to confront the Cyclops, but he does. Despite the loss of six of his best men, Odysseus adds to his reputation and glory. Once he has escaped, Odysseus makes sure that the Cyclops knows who it was who bested and blinded him, even at the risk of getting himself or more of his crew killed by the one-eyed giant.
The motif is underscored by the kinds of temptations Odysseus resists on his way home, all of which encourage him to lay down his arms and live a long, happy, and anonymous life. The Lotus-Eaters, Circe, the Sirens, and the Phaiakians all make this offer to Odysseus. Most notably, Calypso offers him immortality but at the cost of reputation, fame, and being remembered. Odysseus turns down all of them. Odysseus, however, still persists, risking his life in order to win the kind of honor that outlives and thus defeats death.
Odysseus constantly chooses the difficult and dangerous way to keep on adding to his name—to be a mortal hero rather than an anonymous immortal. The poem is set in peacetime and has an entirely different ambience from the great war poem on which it is modeled. A third of this poem deals with hospitality and feasts and sacrifices. Odysseus in a way is fighting to get back home to this kind of life. Odysseus’s antagonists are giants, monsters, witches, and nymphs, who observe none of the rules of heroic fighting and therefore have to be opposed with wit and guile.
Odysseus’s triumphant return home is no heroic victory, since—appallingly outnumbered—he is forced to kill in cold blood 108 suitors for his wife Penelope. Hence his heroic epithet, which translates as “wily” or “many-faceted,” as opposed to the heroic epithets of the heroes of the Trojan War (e.g., Achilles being described as “swift-footed”). Hence Odysseus’s ability to tell stories and lie when in a tight spot, as opposed to the hatred of the heroes of the Trojan War for a man “who says one thing but hides another in his heart.”
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