Classical Mythology: Take the Long Way Home: Odysseus

Take the Long Way Home: Odysseus

Returning home to Greece from the Trojan War was no pleasure cruise. Indeed, very few of the Greek warriors made it home at all. Most of the returning ships were destroyed at sea. Even among those that remained intact, most arrived home only after being blown considerably off course, suffering delays that lasted up to several years (see All's Not Fair in Love and War: The Fall of Troy).

But of all the returning Greek heroes of the Trojan War, none took a more tortuous route than Odysseus. After 10 years of war, the king of Ithaca wandered the Mediterranean and its coastal lands for another 10 years before finally arriving home. When he got there, Odysseus didn't like what he found: a house full of “noble” men, each hoping to win his wife Penelope—and his fortune—for himself.

Is This the Stuff Heroes Are Made Of?

Odysseus came from a long line of thieves, tricksters, and scoundrels. His mother was Anticleia, daughter of the notorious cattle thief Autolycus. Odysseus's father in name was King Laertes of Ithaca. Yet a rumor spread that Anticleia was already pregnant when she married Laertes. Odysseus's real father may have been the infamous rogue Sisyphus, who seduced Anticleia to punish her father for stealing his cattle (see What the Hell? Adventures in the Underworld).

Odysseus's grandfather Autolycus had a great influence on the young boy. Asked by his daughter to name her child, Autolycus called the boy “Odysseus,” meaning “giver and receiver of pain”—in memory of all the misery Autolycus had caused and suffered in his roguish days. When he reached manhood, Odysseus began his travels with a trip to his grandfather. While hunting with the sons of Autolycus, a boar gored him in the thigh with its tusk, giving Odysseus a scar that he would bear for the rest of his life.

As a young man, Odysseus became friends with Iphitus, a son of Eurytus, the famed archer who had taught young Heracles how to draw a bow. Iphitus honored Odysseus with the gift of his father's bow, which Odysseus prized so highly that he refused to use it to hunt or to fight—with one notable exception some 30 years later.

Choosing Wisely

Mythed by a Mile

Some storytellers insist that Odysseus won the right to marry Penelope through an athletic contest (a foot race). Icarius, they say, offered Penelope's hand in marriage as the prize.

When the time came for Helen to choose a husband, Odysseus was the only one of her many suitors not to bring gifts. Strongly suspecting that Helen would choose the wealth of Menelaus over the assets of all other men, Odysseus instead turned his attention to her cousin Penelope. So when Helen's father Tyndareus worried that the rejected suitors would do harm to the chosen one, Odysseus suggested that all the suitors take an oath to protect the interests of whomever she chose. In return for this ingenious solution, Tyndareus put in a good word about Odysseus to his brother Icarius, Penelope's father. As it turned out, Odysseus made the right choice. Helen, who abandoned her husband, went down in legend as the most faithless of wives, while Penelope, who waited 20 years for Odysseus to return, earned fame as the most faithful wife of all.

Though Icarius consented to the marriage of Penelope and Odysseus, he wanted the couple to remain in Sparta with him. But the prince of Ithaca refused. As Odysseus drove off with her in his chariot, Icarius ran behind begging his daughter not to leave him. Penelope answered by raising her veil to cover her face, modestly indicating that she would go with her new husband. Icarius, left in the dust, later erected a shrine to modesty at that site.

Draft Dodging? Try Feigning Insanity

When Helen ran off to Troy with Paris, Odysseus was bound by his oath to help Menelaus recover her. Yet he was happily married to Penelope and had no desire to leave his wife and their new baby: a son named Telemachus.

Odysseus feigned madness in an attempt to avoid the war. When Palamedes came to recruit him, he found Odysseus, apparently insane and oblivious, guiding a plough hitched with a donkey and an ox and sowing salt in a field. But Palamedes suspected trickery, and proved it by placing the infant Telemachus in front of the draft animals and plow. When Odysseus turned the plow to avoid his son, his sanity was revealed.

Despite his reluctance, Odysseus became the most loyal of all of Agamemnon's troops. On the battlefield, Odysseus—who led 12 shiploads of men from Ithaca and the surrounding islands—demonstrated courage to the point of fearlessness. Even more so, however, he employed eloquence and wiles to defeat his enemies. It was Odysseus who:

  • Saw through Achilles' disguise and tricked him into giving himself away.
  • Lured Iphigenia to Aulis under the false pretense of wedding her to Achilles.
  • Manufactured false evidence to frame Palamedes as a traitor (a trick that led the Greeks to kill him).
  • Persuaded the Greek generals to award him, rather than Ajax, the armor of Achilles.
  • Devised the trick of all tricks, a ploy that would have made his crafty grandfather Autolycus and his wily father Sisyphus proud: the Trojan Horse. (see All's Not Fair in Love and War: The Fall of Troy for more on the wartime exploits of Odysseus.)

It seems clear that without the deviousness and powers of persuasion of Odysseus, the Greeks would never have won the war.

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Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to Classical Mythology © 2004 by Kevin Osborn and Dana L. Burgess, Ph.D.. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

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