Illustration of Odysseus tied to a ship's mast

The Odyssey

by Homer
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What are examples that demonstrate the good or bad leadership or decision-making abilities of Odysseus in The Odyssey?

Odysseus is a Greek epic hero, and therefore, he is flawed at times. In Book IX, for example, he makes a poor decision to eat the fruits of the Lotus Eaters in spite of his men's advice that they continue on their way. In Book XI, he makes another poor decision to call out Polyphemus' name, which enrages the god Poseidon and delays Odysseus’s return home.

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Odysseus is an epic hero, but he is flawed at times; therefore, he makes both wise and poor decisions throughout the poetry. Here are examples:

Wise decisions

  • One of the most telling examples of both the flaws and greatness of Odysseus is in Book IX. First of all, a storm sent by the god Zeus causes them to go off course for nine days, and Odysseus and his men end up at the island of the Lotus Eaters. After being given the intoxicating fruit, the men lose all desire to do anything but remain on the island and eat the fruit. Courageously, however, Odysseus drags his men one-by-one back to the ship and locks them up there. 
  • Once the men return to normal, they sail near the island of the Cyclops, "a rude and lawless folk." Odysseus and his men cannot see in the moonless night, and their ships are beached on a nearby island that is populated with wild goats. The next day, the men kill some goats for food. Odysseus tells his men that he will take some with him in order to discover who the strange men on the island of the Cyclops are. 
  • Once trapped in the cave by Polyphemus, Odysseus realizes that only this giant has the strength to move the huge rock covering the opening. So, while the Cyclops tends his sheep the following day, Odysseus finds a staff in the cave, and uses fire to fashion the staff into a spear. When the giant returns, Odysseus cajoles him and gets him drunk on wine he has brought; further, he tells the Cyclops his name is "Nobody." Then, when his men drive the red-hot staff into the giant's one eye, Polyphemus cries out and others come, but to their query about what is happening he shouts, "Nobody is trying to kill me" (9. 455), so the others depart. The next day, Odysseus and his men make their escape by clinging to the undersides of the sheep because the blind Polyphemus can only know if all the sheep are moving out by feeling their backs.
    As Odysseus and his crew set sail, Odysseus, in the heroic tradition, calls out to Polyphemus, telling him that if "ever mortal man asks you the story of the ugly blinding of your eye, say that Odysseus made you blind." To this, Polyphemus replies that it was predicted that he would suffer under Odysseus. Then he prays to his father Poseidon to avenge him.
  • In Book XII, as Odysseus and his men approach the island of the Sirens, Odysseus seals the men's ears with beeswax, and he has himself bound to the mast of the ship so he cannot move. The Sirens' song is so seductive that the men will respond and be captivated and unable to escape the island. 

Poor decisions

  • When Odysseus and his men arrive on the mainland of the Cyclops, Odysseus's crew urges him to take available provisions, but not to linger. To his and others' detriment, Odysseus does not heed this advice and the Cyclops Polyphemus, the son of Poseidon, emerges from his cave. At first, he makes a demonstration of hospitality; however, he soon devours two of Odysseus’s men, and then imprisons Odysseus and the rest in his cave for future meals. 
  • The departing act of Odysseus as he calls out his name demonstrates his hubris. He has made the mistake of pitting his human prowess against that of Poseidon's divine vengeance, and he and his ships later suffer the consequences, as they are greatly delayed in their return by storms created by Poseidon, a god of the sea.
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There is enough evidence to argue that Odysseus is in fact a very poor leader who allows his own personal desire for glory and fame to cloud his judgement as a leader and place his men in danger. A classic example of this occurs in Book 12, where, in spite of having been warned about the futility of trying to oppose Scylla, Odysseus firstly does not tell his men about the monster that awaits them and secondly dons his armour in order to fight the creature. He shows himself to be very arrogant, ignoring the advice from Circe who knows more than he does about Scylla's strength and might. The result is tragic for the men of Odysseus:

Scylla pounced down suddenly upon us and snatched up my six best men. I was looking at once after both ship and men, and in a moment I saw their hands and feet ever so high above me, struggling in the air as Scylla was carrying them off, and I heard them call out my name in one last despairing cry.

One way of reading the text is to see it as suggesting that these men died as a result of the arrogance of Odysseus, and if he had heeded the advice of Circe and not tried to go for glory himself, he would have saved the life of these men, which is perhaps why he is so haunted by their deaths.

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