Illustration of Odysseus tied to a ship's mast

The Odyssey

by Homer

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What quotes from The Odyssey illustrate how Odysseus is a hero?

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What makes someone heroic? There are a few definitions of hero, so I will pull quotes that help provide an excellent idea of how Odysseus fits the concept. Odysseus is clearly the hero of the story, though he has flaws like all Greek heroes. He fits the ancient Greek definition of a hero, and his story follows the hero’s journey framework set out in The Hero with a Thousand Faces.

Ancient Greek Definition

The ancient Greeks had a clear definition of Hero. They should be high-born, a warrior, loyal, and favored by the gods. Nearly all Greek heroes suffer from a flaw. Odysseus is a hero by that definition.

Odysseus is high-born, meaning he is a man of high station or class. Nearly every Greek hero is a demigod, prince, or king. Although he is not the son of a god, Odysseus is the great-grandson of the god Hermes. He is also the king of Ithaca. The island is not doing well in his absence, proving how important he is as a ruler. At the final confrontation, Odysseus’s status as king becomes essential when he justifies the defense of his house,

You yellow dogs, you thought I’d never make it home from the land of Troy. You took my house to plunder, twisted my maids to serve your beds. You dared bid for my wife while I was still alive. Contempt was all you had for the gods who rule wide heaven, contempt for what men say of you hereafter. Your last hour has come. You die in blood. (Book 22)

Odysseus is not only the rightful king and ruler of Ithica, but he is of more noble blood than any of the men who attempted to marry his wife. He slaughters the suitors, but he is justified in doing so as part of his high-born status—as it is a defense of his home and kingdom.

Odysseus is loyal, as he spends ten years attempting to get home to Ithaca. His wife and son are always on his mind, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t make mistakes along the way. One other sure sign of a classic Greek hero is their flaw. Odysseus’s flaw is hubris or excessive pride. He is a cunning and crafty man, tricking the cyclops Polyphemus early in the journey. He manages to escape without letting the monster know his name, but as he is escaping he feels the need to gloat and says,


If ever mortal man inquire

How you were put to shame and blinded, tell him

Odysseus, raider of cities, took your eye:

Laertes’ son, whose home’s on Ithaka! (Book 9)

All the trouble that Odysseus faces later in the journey stems from his pride in this interaction. If he had sailed away, without asking for credit for fooling the cyclops, he would have gotten home without incurring the wrath of Poseidon. However, because Odysseus claims responsibility for the attack, he is then saddled with the blame, and Poseidon curses him with rough sailing and makes his journey much longer than it should have been. Odysseus suffering from a flaw is traditional for a Greek hero, they are strong and mighty, but they cannot be perfect, so the flaw stands in to show that some part of them is still human.

Joseph Campbell’s Definition

In The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell laid out his theory of the “monomyth” or hero’s journey. The journey is described as a process that most heroes go through in the course of their adventures. Odysseus fits with many of the structures established in the hero’s journey system.

Odysseus’s journey is not just encapsulated in The Odyssey, but also The Illiad, so I will provide a few examples from The Odyssey that show how his story fits into the monomyth. For instance, stage five of the monomyth is “crossing the threshold,” which means the hero crosses from the ordinary world into the magical world. This happens when Odysseus leaves Troy after the war is over. He and his men set sail and encounter the island of the lotus-eaters. This is Odysseus’s first encounter with a supernatural challenge when his men become addicted to the lotus,

But those who ate this honeyed plant, the Lotus,

Never cared to report, nor to return:

They longed to stay forever, browsing on

That native bloom, forgetful of their homeland. (Book 9)

In Campbell’s estimation, a hero must face challenges that pull him out of the real-world. These challenges are what allow him to grow and show himself to be heroic. For example, Odysseus, in encountering the lotus-eaters, shows his resolve and leadership. He forces his men back on their boat and ties them to the benches so that he can return them to their homes.

In the magical-world, the hero has many chances to show his skill or ability to overcome challenges. One occurrence of this is when Odysseus overcomes the challenge of Circe and forces her to free his men, who she has turned into pigs. Odysseus, using his cunning, manages to eat the molu plant that makes him immune to Circe’s potion. He then bests her with his sword,

Without a word, I drew my sharpened sword

And in one bound held it against her throat.

She cried out, then slid under to take my knees. (Book 10)

Odysseus shows the ability to overcome his challenges by guile and strength, which is part of Campbell’s “tests, allies, and enemies” section of the hero’s journey. Circe nearly tricks Odysseus because she acts like a friend, but she is exposed as being an enemy before Odysseus can be overcome.

The clear connection between Odysseus’s journey and the hero’s journey shows that he is a hero, not necessarily because of any single action but because his story matches up with the journey of all other traditional heroes. In overcoming challenges and traveling home, Odysseus fits into Campbell’s theory and is a mythological hero.

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TELL ME, O MUSE, of that ingenious hero who traveled far and wide after he had sacked the famous town of Troy. Many cities did he visit, and many were the nations with whose manners and customs he was acquainted; . . .

As The Odyssey opens, it is clear that it is a tale of Odysseus' heroism. Whereas The Iliad focused on a range of characters brought together by the Trojan War, the Odyssey is, as the name suggests, Odysseus' story. The mere fact that an epic poem is centered on Odysseus suggests he is truly exceptional. As one of the oldest remaining works of Western literature, the Odyssey's portrayal of heroism is highly influential

"Now I say by hook or crook this peril too shall be something that we remember. Heads up, lads! We must obey the orders as I give them. Get the oarshafts in your hands, and lay back hard on your benches . . . taken in all that I say . . ." That was all, and it brought them round to action.

This quote displays Odysseus' abilities as a leader. While some of his heroic qualities are individual, much of Odysseus' heroism is tied in with his ability to lead his men through supernatural perils.

And Zeus said, “My child, what are you talking about? How can I forget Odysseus than whom there is no more capable man on earth, nor more liberal in his offerings to the immortal gods that live in heaven? Bear in mind, however, that Poseidon is still furious with Odysseus for having blinded an eye of Polyphemus king of the Cyclopes.

Here we see Zeus himself praise Odysseus' heroism in some of the strongest words possible. This praise paired with the reference to Odysseus heroic defeat of Polyphemus makes clear that Odysseus is exceptional among men.

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Odysseus, the protagonist in Homer’s epic poem The Odyssey, displays the traits of a hero—a Homeric hero—throughout the tale. Zeus speaks with Athena at the start of the epic and extols the heroic virtues of Odysseus:

Could I forget that kingly man Odysseus? There is no mortal half so wise; no mortal gave so much to the lords of the open sky." Book One lines 84-86

Odysseus goes on to fulfill his role as a hero during the many adventures of the poem.

Rag of man that I am, is this the end of me? I fear the goddess told it all too well, predicting great adversity at sea and far from home. Book Five, lines 309-312

A Homeric hero understands his destiny and is prepared to suffer and die to fulfill it.

We beached there, and I told the crew to stand by and keep watch over the ship: as for myself I took my twelve best fighters and went ahead. Book Nine, lines 134-137

Odysseus is leading from the front here. He displays courage and teamwork, two traits of a hero.

My name is Nohbdy: mother father and friends, everyone calls me Nohbdy. Book Nine, lines 394 – 399

Here, Odysseus shows his cunning and intellect in tricking the Cyclops. A hero is intelligent; his greatest weapon is his mind.

We would entreat you, great Sir, have a care for the gods' courtesy; Zeus will avenge the unoffending guest. Book Nine, Lines 82-84

Respect for the gods is a trait of heroes. Invoking Zeus’s name here is Odysseus’ way of trying to talk his way out of trouble with Polyphemus.

I am Odysseus son of Laertes, known before all men for the study of crafty designs, and my fame goes up to the heavens. Book Nine, lines 19-20

The ultimate trait of a Homeric hero is Kleos, or fame upon others’ lips. Here, Odysseus says he is known and revered by all.


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