What type of a hero is Odysseus? How does he compare with other heroes?
Odysseus is a rare hero in Greek tales in that he is rather righteous and level-headed. In many Greek tales, including the Iliad, the hero figures are driven by passion, ambition and arrogance (and often a combination of all three). While Odysseus certainly puts his will toward vengeance on display at the end of The Odyssey, he remains a hero defined by intelligence, a sense of duty and perseverence.
“Yea, and if some god shall wreck me in the
wine-dark deep,even so I will endure…
For already have I suffered full much,
and much have I toiled in perils of waves and war.
Let this be added to the tale of those.”
As we know from the early sections of The Odyssey, Odysseus is also very crafty and potentially dishonest. However, any tendency toward duplicity is tempered by the fact that we are expected to see his actions as justified by the righteousness of his cause. When Odysseus again demonstrates this quality toward the end of The Odyssey, we see his lies in the same light.
The first natural points of comparison for Odysseus are the other major figures in The Iliad, a tale that features Odysseus as a voice of reason among a group of hot-headed kings and demi-gods.
Achilles is a hero of a classic type in The Iliad. He is strong, partially divine, incredibly brave and fierce in battle and also a loyal friend to those who are good to him. He is not, however, a person to look past a slight or to look beyond his own interests at any given time. At the end of The Iliad, Achilles delivers victory to the Greeks and (contrary to recent dramatic simplifications of the story) he remains alive and acts with honor to allow a proper funeral for Hector, the Trojan champion. While Achilles demonstrates his sense of honor here, he has already shown that his aims are definitively selfish and the glory he wins on the field of battle belongs to him alone (not to Greece or its various kings).
The other heroes in The Iliad are arguably less complex than either Odysseus or Achilles. Ajax is brave and strong and loyal. He is painted along these lines without much nuance. The brother kings, Agamemnon and Menelaus, are politicians of varying ability who attempt to organize a massive army made up of diverse groups and peoples and do so largely with their own interests at heart. They are ruthless and manipulative, but they rely on others in large part to finish the work they started. In particular, they rely on Achilles and Odysseus. Odyssues, for his part, is consistently depicted as being self-reliant.
One can argue that each of these heroes (Achilles, Ajax, Agamemnon and Menelaus) are “larger than life” characters, whereas Odysseus is portrayed as a crafty and brave but remarkably human figure. The fact that Odysseus works for the good of the nation (however loosely defined) sets him apart from other heroes of this tale and also places him in rare company amongst the figures of Greek literature in general.
Tragic heroes like Oedipus and Antigone are compromised in terms of their moral standing and the righteousness of their characters. Mythic heroes like Hercules and Theseus, sons of gods, were imperfect as people and as adventurers. Odysseus may not have been perfect either, but he didn’t kill his own wife and child in a blind rage like Hercules. Also, Odysseus never gave up on his quest as Theseus did.
Odysseus may not be alone as a righteous Greek hero, but this quality certainly serves to distinguish him from many of the most famous Greek heroes. The fact that The Odyssey ends with a reestablishment of social order and family harmony also stands as a uniquely positive conclusion to a Greek tale.
“Now from his breast into the eyes the ache
of longing mounted, and he wept at last,
his dear wife, clear and faithful, in his arms,
longed for as the sunwarmed earth is longed for by a swimmer
spent in rough water where his ship went down
under Poseidon's blows, gale winds and tons of sea.
Few men can keep alive through a big serf
to crawl, clotted with brine, on kindly beaches
in joy, in joy, knowing the abyss behind:
and so she too rejoiced, her gaze upon her husband,
her white arms round him pressed as though forever.”
This ending is possible in part because The Odyssey is a epic poem and not a tragedy, but even in The Iliad and in many of the Greek myths, the resolution of the journey is a proclaimation of the superiority of the gods over man and a call for mortal humility. Here instead we get a testament to the value of perseverence.
Odysseus as warrior hero was well-covered by the other commenter. However, if you are looking for a comparison of Odysseus to modern heroes, he has some similarities as well as some significant differences.
First, Odysseus is smart and quick, and these are qualities that we still prize in our heroes of today. When we think of heroes like Harry Potter or Katniss Everdeen, we likely think of them as perceptive and insightful. They tend to make good decisions because they can quickly perceive and understand what is around them, what the risks are, and so forth.
On the other hand, Odysseus is quite proud and a bit arrogant. In fact, these qualities sometimes get him into trouble. For example, when he and his men have all but escaped Polyphemus's island, Odysseus insists on telling the Cyclops his name. This, of course, enrages the monster, who then hurls great boulders into the sea to try and push Odysseus's ship back to shore, endangering all of his men's lives. And, more importantly, Polyphemus can now share the name of the man who blinded him with his father Poseidon, the god of the ocean, which is precisely how Odysseus needs to get home. Polyphemus prays to his father and Odysseus's journey takes ten more years. However, this quality of bravado was sort of expected at the time, even though we no longer like it so much. Arrogance and excessive pride are characteristics we tend to discourage; we prefer our heroes to be humble—again, I cannot help but think of Harry Potter, for example.
When we speak of Odysseus, we are speaking of one of the original heroes of the ancient world. He is probably the best known hero apart from Achilles and Hector. From this perspective, we can say that there were two archetypal heroes in the Greek world. The first one was Achilles. This is the type of hero that we automatically think about. Achilles is a fierce warrior who knows no fear. He lives for glory. For example, when he was given the option to live a long life or die a glorious death as a young man, he chose the second option. To Troy he went and made a name for himself.
The second type of hero is Odysseus. He is very different than Achilles. What characterizes Odysseus is not so much military prowess but cunning and craft. He is the one who knows how to talk to people, smooth things over when there is conflict, the one who through strategy can win battles. According to the Homeric tradition, it is Odysseus who builds the wooden horse to defeat the Trojans. In addition, he is the one in the Odyssey, who outwits the Sirens, Circe, and Polyphemus (to name a few).
In summary, Odysseus is the warrior of craft and Achilles is the warrior of brawn.