Odysseus: Real Life Hero or Myth?

by Gretchen Patterson

Headline banner for the Odyssey
The Odyssey by Homer

In 1997 the television broadcast of the Odyssey was ambitious, reaching for the elusive gold ring of ratings popularity, and therefore, advertising dollars to fatten the bank accounts of network executives. The sizable and talented cast includes Armand Assante as Odysseus, Greta Scacchi as Penelope, Isabella Rossellini as Athena, with Bernadette Peters and Vanessa Williams as the witches, Circe and Calypso, respectively. Alan Stenson plays the mature Telemachos, and Nicholas Clay is the handsome King Menelaus. Director Andrey Konchalovsky teamed with Chris Solimine to adapt and write the screenplay, the executive producers were Francis Ford Coppola, creator of The Godfather, and Robert Halmi, Sr., who developed the very successful mini-series, Gulliver’s Travels. The Odyssey garnered an Emmy Award for Outstanding Special Visual Effects, and Andrey Konchalovsky won the Emmy for Outstanding Director for a Mini-Series. However, the film received mixed reviews as to the overall success and appeal of the TV adaptation. On the one hand, bringing Homer’s classic tale to a global audience certainly enriches cultural literacy. M.S. Mason, writing in 1997 for the Christian Science Monitor declared that the three part Odyssey series, “is not wholly successful as a unified work of art, though it is sumptuous entertainment…Still, it’s an exciting adventure with much to recommend…including dazzling cinematography, and meaningful messages.” Mason is so correct. The Odyssey is still a successful and important document.

On the other hand, corrupting the dialogue with Hollywood’s version of Homer simply robs the viewers of the authenticity and richness of his words. In his review for the Metro magazine, Zack Stentz states, “the script…relies instead on the sort of mock-profound speech declaimed in posh British accents that was used to denote high seriousness in 1950’s Bible movies.” The sets, costumes, and special effects are superb, and while the cast is stellar, the performance of Armand Assante as Odysseus seems stiff. This role did not use his excellent acting abilities to the fullest, but perhaps the dull dialogue was responsible for the lackluster performance. Greta Scacchi’s performance as the practical, yet spirited Penelope was genuine, as was Isabella Rossellini’s portrayal of the goddess, Athena. The best acting role belongs to Eric Roberts as the wickedly charming, articulate Eurymachos. The watery, wave like face of Poseidon rising out of the sea while talking to Odysseus, and the Winged Messenger, Hermes, are just two of the special effects that brought the Greek gods to life.

Neptune, God of the Sea
Neptune - God of the Sea

Beginning with the Minoans of Crete and the Mycenaeans of Athens, Thebes and other ancient cities, the Greek people merged with the native cultures on the Aegean peninsula, establishing a powerful, influential society whose teachings and democratic principles still echo as this series reminds viewers, in today’s society. This period also introduced Homer, Hesiod, and other early Greek literature preserved by oral tradition. In particular, Homer’s epic poem, The Odyssey remains a classic study of one man’s battle against angry gods and harsh elements as he makes his way homeward after the ten-year long battle of Troy, and the rescue of King Menelaus’ beautiful wife, Helen. Greeks regarded the chronicle as more than just literature, and valued the legend as a symbol of Hellenic unity, heroism, and a source of moral and practical instruction.

The Trojan Horse
The Trojan Horse

Presented here is a brave, courageous man who, through trickery, brought about the end of the Trojan War, but his arrogance and boasting of said deed renders him the object of Poseidon’s wrath. Odysseus thus begins a decade of hardship as he attempts to sail across the Aegean Sea to Ithaca, where waits his faithful wife, Queen Penelope, their son, Telemachos, and some not-so-noble suitors, the mnesteres who seek marriage with the Queen, thereby gaining the throne and lands of Ithaca.

Composed between the eighth or seventh centuries B.C.E., The Odyssey contains 12,110 lines of dactylic hexameter verse. References to Homer and quotations from the poems date to mid-seventh century B.C.E. Other Greek poets, such as Archilochus, Tyrtaeus, and Sappho, adapted Homeric phraseology and meter to their own purposes, and scenes from The Odyssey and The Iliad became popular in Greece around the sixth century B.C.E. This epic tale encompasses a non-linear plot involving gods, goddesses, warriors, witches, and queens. Throughout the story, both the hero and his compatriots make life-changing choices as they seek to overcome the obstacles and challenges encountered on their voyage home. When the evening’s entertainment consisted of singing, dancing, and oral recitations, a good storyteller, aoidos, or professional singer, rhapsode, would be welcome in a king’s hall.

Homer sculpture
Bust of Homer

Homer relied upon memory, and a lifetime of traditional oral recitation, as opposed to reading from a scroll or text. Homer’s works continue to influence scholars and students alike, as they analyze and interpret the blind poet’s intentions recorded eons ago. Both dramatic poems are literary survivors before the Dark Age of Greece, and the very fact of their longevity makes a powerful statement. So much history has been lost through the centuries, especially during the Middle Ages, that the preservation and survival of these epic poems is an endorsement to Homer’s singular popularity. For generations, numerous scholars and the Catholic Church kept the archaic scripts intact and through the ages, close readings of The Odyssey have given critical writers a wealth of material for many literary points of view. In terms of human lifespan, the antiquity of Homer’s works seems almost overwhelming; three thousand plus years is a long time line. The world today is in many ways a ‘throw away culture.’ New technological advances, especially in the realm of electronics, dictate the constant search for a newer product, a better upgrade, or outright replacement. Yet, in the modern world, Odysseus’ twenty-year journey from home to Troy and back again still inspires fascination.

The Furies tempt Odysseus
The Temptation of Odysseus by the Furies

In ancient Greece, Odysseus was a role model and his story continues to generate approval among new readers. This epic is the first vital piece of literature that strives toward the duality of entertaining and illuminating a variety of human frailties and strengths. Did Homer intend to set forth moral values, a proper code of conduct, and introduce logical, enlightened thought to his fellow Greeks, or did he compose this tale simply to entertain and earn the singer several nights’ worth of room and board? There is little doubt that Homer’s depiction of the bard in hall is true, because after all poets must eat, too.

In 1954, Moses Finley used anthropological data to extrapolate Greek culture in Homer’s lifetime. His analysis showed that the Greek system of values and society was consistent with the poet’s narrative. Odysseus’ trek around the Mediterranean may only be a myth, and the truthful facts lost somewhere in the mists of time; yet Homer in all probability believed that such a voyage did occur. In 1870, Heinrich Schliemann financed the archaeological dig that revealed the site of ancient Troy. Proof that the existence and subsequent destruction of Troy occurred enlarges our realm of belief, allowing for the presence of a warrior-king like Odysseus. His tale of hardship and woe may have passed from singer to singer until Homer gave the story its lasting shape and voice.

The Cyclops
The Cyclops

Scholars still wonder if Odysseus was real or an allegorical hero—a man for listeners to emulate? Whether fact or fiction, or some poetic combination of both, readers will agree that Homer gave the king of Ithaca an amiable personality, human weaknesses, and an uncompromising determination to succeed. Odysseus has been described as cunning, clever, sly, and scheming; words that describe a man with the intent to arrive at Ithaca alive, to see his family, and regain home and property. The obstacles he confronted along the way would deter many a man or woman, yet he overcame each setback with calculated intelligence and common sense.

Wisdom comes through life experiences, and our hero was a wise man, but hubris brought him Poseidon’s displeasure, making life very difficult when the way home was in a Greek war ship, and on average, a five to seven day sail across the Aegean Sea. Odysseus’ difficulties commence upon setting off from Troy, thereby laying down the course of his epic journey. In Ithaca, Penelope and Telemachos embark on an equally difficult path when a plague of suitors descends upon the royal house, looking for marriage to the queen, and the acquisition of land, cattle, swine, olive groves, and vineyards. Queen Penelope, depicted as a loyal, smart, and crafty woman, seeks the means to evade the interlopers and remain true to her absent husband.

Penelope and her loom
Queen Penelope's Loom

The weaving and unraveling of Laertes’ funeral shroud is a tale worthy of its own narration, illustrating how she invented ways to ‘keep the wolves at bay.’ After twenty years, the travel weary Odysseus returns home. The old swineherd, Eumaios, recognizes his master and together with Telemachos, the three men devise a plan to defeat the interlopers. Disguised as a beggar by Athena, he limps into his palace to survey the unruly, unwanted guests. Penelope, unaware of the plan, proclaims her intent to marry the man who can string her husband’s bow. None of the men are able to accomplish this feat until the old beggar takes the bow in hand; his effort is successful, and the unwanted guests are quickly destroyed, either by arrow or spear. The last morsel of theatrical suspense occurs when a doubtful Penelope sets her own trap to ensure that the beggar man is her long lost husband. Odysseus faithfully describes the bed he built with his own hands, and they finally embrace in joyous recognition. Greek drama and theatre began with Homer and Hesiod regaling their listeners with stories of gods wreaking havoc and men defying the odds. The blind poet’s methods inspired and motivated future poets and playwrights such as Edmund Spenser, William Shakespeare, and Edgar Allan Poe.

When the epic is viewed through the microscope of reality versus fiction, readers assume the Greek mythological creatures did not truly exist, and Homer merely created the Cyclops, Scylla and Charybdis, the Sirens, Calypso, and Circe as inspiration for his listeners to seek the path of personal enlightenment and greater good. Bernard Frank states that “Like Dante, some two thousand years later in the Commedia, Odysseus traverses a living equivalent of these three regions…pre-Christian Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise.” Telemachus & Odysseus

Alan Stenson as Telemachus; Armand Asanti as Odysseus

The frustration and triumph of Odysseus over monumental roadblocks encourages readers to rise above the toils of life, to seek success, and stability within their own lives. Through the medium of his epic poems, Homer presented the concept between good and evil, showing that humanity had a choice between the two perceptions. Odysseus, whether a long ago real warrior or a fictional character, continues to enlighten readers with his intellect, courage, elaborate disguises, and struggle against the gods, nature, and mythical monsters. The nucleus of astonishing tales set around the Trojan War and its aftermath certainly breathes life into Odysseus’ three thousand year-old heroic journey.

Recommended readings:

Homer. The Odyssey. Translated by W.H.D. Rouse. (1937). Reprint, New York: Penguin,1999.
Bernard Frank. “Homer’s Odyssey.” Explicator 58, no. 4 (Summer 2000)
M. S. Mason. “NBC’s Sumptuous ‘Odyssey’ is must-read TV”. Christian Science Monitor 89,no. 120 (May 16, 1997)
Zack Stentz. “Old Gods Waken.” Metro. (May 15-21). 1997.