Illustration of Odysseus tied to a ship's mast

The Odyssey

by Homer
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What heroic traits has Odysseus displayed in the episodes with the Lotus-eaters and the Cyclops?

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To begin, both the encounter with the Cyclops and that with the Lotus-eaters serve as episodes in a journey that takes Odysseus away from Troy and far from the realms of Greek civilization. In this respect, the entire story he tells the Phaecians is emblematic of Greek notions of heroism, bound up as it is in this larger voyage filled with extraordinary struggles, triumphs, and sorrows. He's a very larger-than-life kind of personality, and that is a central trait to any classical hero.

Favoritethings has already addressed the question of the Lotus-eaters. To this I would only add that in The Odyssey, Odysseus stresses his own personal role in bringing the crewmen back with him; he doesn't delegate it to others. He takes on responsibility for them and then gives the order to leave the island. Odysseus is active rather than reactive and does not shy away from the challenges which face him.

His encounter with Polyphemus is one of the most famous incidents in the poem, and an episode that illustrates Odysseus's cunning and ingenuity in how he out-thinks and outmaneuvers a far more powerful opponent. In this alone, he embodies traits of the hero. On the other hand, to contemporary audiences, certain elements of this encounter can be problematic. Take, for example, his final decision to give Polyphemus his name. From a modern perspective, this is pure arrogance: pride overcomes good sense, to disastrous effect. On the other hand, when addressing a question such as yours, you should consider how cultural norms evolve over time, as what was considered heroic by Ancient Greek standards won't necessarily reflect what is considered heroic today. In any case, classical heroes tend to reflect larger-than-life personalities and accomplishments, suspended somewhere between the realm of humans and the realm of gods. Even when Odysseus makes this gross error in judgment, acting purely out of ego, he might still be living up to the heroic literature. Odysseus wants to make his achievement known, and he wants Polyphemus to know who it was that defeated him.

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When his ships arrive at the land of the Lotus-eaters, Odysseus intelligently sends only three men to investigate the inhabitants.  This way, he only sacrifices three men if the natives are violent (which they are not).  When those three eat the lotus offered to them, they no longer care to return home, and Odysseus must forcibly drag them back to the ship.  He could simply have left them there and saved himself the trouble, but his loyalty to them and their families (who are waiting for them back home) compelled him to save them from themselves.  This shows his compassion as well.

Although Odysseus certainly does make some missteps with Polyphemus, the Cyclops, he does display his forethought and bravery when he realizes that he cannot kill the monster but will have to wound him instead.  Although Odysseus could kill him, he realizes that there will be no one to lift the stone from the door to the cave and that he and his men will perish inside.  Instead, he devises a plan to get the monster drunk and then stab him with a sharp stake in his one eye, blinding him.  This will mean that he is still capable of moving the stone but less able to catch Odysseus and his men.  This plan is ingenious and thoughtful; a man with less forethought might simply have killed the monster and condemned himself and his crew to certain death.


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