Despite being written approximately 3000 years ago, The Odyssey, by Homer, challenges us to question ourselves and our priorities, while simultaneously questioning Odysseus. At the start of his journey, Odysseus longs for action, glory, and excitement. He’s a young man, seeking adventure一something that many young people can relate to. He defends, he fights, he conquers. He builds his reputation, leaving one title for himself: a hero. However, after travelling to Hades and witnessing real death, he aches for life; the mortality of his loved ones, the reconnection with his family, the evasion of death. Odysseus has that life altering moment. He experiences something so significant that he realizes exactly what he wants一needs to be doing. In reality, most of us aren’t fortunate enough to have that momentous experience or realization. There’s no big BOOM!, or if there is, it often blows over quickly, whether that’s positive or negative. Prior to this significant event (Odysseus’ visit to Hades), Odysseus’ personal characteristics and desires are questionable. He allows himself to be tempted by several obstructions blocking his path home, such as the beautiful goddess, Kirke, or the glory of beating the Kyklops, regardless of the effect it would have on his crew. Moreover, Odysseus’ reluctance to travel home to his parents, wife, and child demonstrates how little he prioritizes family. To contrast, after going to Hades, Odysseus’s likeability increases, because he has a sudden shift in his priorities and values. This raises the question, did Odysseus need this profound, life-altering experience to grow? What does that reveal about us? Is personal growth acquired through multiple life experiences, or through one earth-shattering one?
Preceding this event, would we consider Odysseus heroic? Is he a good person? We recognize Odysseus as a hero, but as I was reading The Odyssey, I repeatedly found myself contemplating that. On a spectrum ranging from good to bad, Odysseus is morally grey at best. Yes, he is courageous, intelligent, and brave, but he is also disloyal, hubristic, and hypocritical. During Odysseus’ hard times, I feel sympathy for him. For instance, the scene when he sees his mother in Hades, without knowing she had died, is heartbreaking, because we see vulnerability and tenderness within him. Nonetheless, the brutal deaths of the maids and suitors had me reconsidering my stance on those qualities, due to how rapidly he can turn his compassion on and off.
Throughout this poem, I began to grasp how consistent human nature is. Although we have evolved tremendously on superficial levels, we’re still fundamentally the same as characters in The Odyssey. People still have that unwavering ambition that we see within Odysseus, the wise intelligence Penelope possesses, and the sheer heartbreak Anticlea is pained with. In modern life, we observe Telemakhos’ coming-of-age story retold in many contexts, and we feel ourselves experiencing it. People encounter the same temptations Odysseus does, underneath different, luring facades. The problematic patriarchal society we’re trying to move past is so difficult to conquer, because it’s been rooted in society since before the 8th century BCE. We may think that we’re different to these characters, and in many ways we are. But ultimately, we can see ourselves in them. The reason why we can read a book like The Odyssey and raise questions such as, ‘Why do we suffer?’ is due to the poem’s emphasis on human nature, and our ability to connect with it. As we have discussed in class, it has a different effect on us depending on our life experience and emotional state. The Odyssey was a challenging read, but due to this reason, I’m certain I will one day read it again.