Pride Incarnate

Pride Incarnate

A Story by John Kellogg
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The Odyssey Literary Analysis

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John Kellogg

Pride Incarnate

            The Odyssey is revered as one of the most influential and key insights into the Greek lifestyle and worldview existing in our world today. Thusly, with the Odyssey having such renown, and being so revered among modern cultures of the world, there are many ways the work could be dissected and analyzed. Three key aspects control the breath and soul of this classic epic, however, and it is these three aspects which must be viewed with utmost scrutiny to reveal the volksgeist, the spirit, of the Greek culture. Xenia is the Greek code for hospitality which is followed in varied stances throughout the Odyssey. Nostos is the right to return homeward and the underlying theme of the Odyssey.  Among these three aspects is the blunt and powerful hubris clinging to Odysseus upon his exiting of the Trojan War. Hubris is the overflowing of pride in oneself. Due to his hubris gained in the Trojan War, Odysseus suffers and endures many trials; the dissipation of this hubris " as a result of his wanderings and the xenia provided along the way " finally allows him to return home.

Greek culture was dominated by the sea, often divulged in the Odyssey which takes place in the 12th century B.C.  The stalling of Odysseus’s journey, while because of his pride, is also directly caused by the sea. Sea travel places Odysseus and his crew on different islands facing one challenge after another. Through the infinite power of the sea"or as the Greeks would say, Poseidon in his infinite power"many aspects of the sea are controlled. Oddly enough in the Odyssey, Homer only points out the sea as a god controlled force when punishment is near. Punishment is nearly always dealt to Odysseus who is the receiver of pain. This paints the sea as a malevolent force in the Odyssey after the events of the Telemachy (Eliot). The only positive result to the continual challenges faced by Odysseus and his men is evolution of their journey from differentiated xenia.

Greeks believe in a kind of advanced hospitality, majorly due to their seafaring ways, which drastically altered the ways they host guests. When a culture is on the sea from its beginnings, it evolves as a cultural norm to accept those who arrived onto shores as friends by giving them the best possible xenia. While this was sometimes taken advantage of by Greek enemies, the Greeks would not dare challenge this widely held belief both out of tradition and out of fear. This lead to the supreme fear a god may disguise his or herself into a newly arrived visitor and appear on their shores. The terrible wrath they could face, should they possibly offend a god, forever kept them from treating visitors with any amount of unsatisfactory hospitality (“Value of Hospitality”). This hospitality is caused majorly out of fear, which explains why Greeks showed kindness even toward enemies (Snell).

The Greeks had no concept of what we see and think of as free will. Homer developed the events of the Odyssey from his ancient concept of mind. The idea that everything is predetermined by fate was strongly held. The idea of free choice is not something that was accepted, because they believed it was not capable of a mortal possess. Gods, therefore, cause events and ideas to bloom in the minds and lives of Greek people. In modern times, when a choice is made that can affect a major outcome in life, it is often attributed to the free will of the participant. It is simply accepted that human beings are evolved enough to make their own choices. Greeks would counter assuredly that a god must have disguised themselves as someone well known and helped either bring along the path or plant the thought within the mind (Snell).

A drastic and key difference in this thinking highlights godly intervention in the Odyssey. This is illustrated perfectly in Calypso’s interaction with Hermes. She does not simply let Odysseus go off of her own free will. She lets Odysseus depart because of Hermes’s intervention on the behalf of Zeus. For Calypso to go against the will of Zeus would be the equivalent of Odysseus scoffing at Polyphemus. Calypso swears on the River Sticks to help Odysseus leave for she does not have the accumulation of pride which Odysseus had at the beginning of his journey. This example serves to show the fear held by even goddesses should they go against the gods. It also describes how according to Homer, Calypso could never had come up with this idea on her own accord (Homer Odyssey V.1-147).

Another example of this Greek style godly intervention is when Athena, while disguised as Mentes, helps push Telemachus toward Nestor and Sparta to learn more of his father’s fate (I.252-305). Godly intervention in the Odyssey is not always for the benefit of the characters receiving the interaction, for an insult to the gods can lead to an entirely different sort of godly intervention. These negative reactions by the gods are usually brought out by hubris rich actions against the Gods.

Hubris in the Odyssey is like a red rose in full bloom ready to fall and release its petals at any second. When Odysseus finally became free from the harness of War which had held him for ten years, something else was released with him. The wise and kind King who had gone to fight in the fabled Trojan War did not leave who he had initially gone as. Intense pride in his abilities follows suit. Thusly, leaving the Trojan War onto his journey home was the unfurling of the petals on the rose of hubris (Homer Iliad). It is this pride which made him feel untouchable and invulnerable to any outside terrors that could possibly harm his men. It is blindness due to hubris which dooms him and his men to fail at Ismarus, and the Land of the Lotus-eaters. These failures are the beginning onslaught of mistakes Odysseus brings to his men, but they serve as an example. Where an Odysseus which was unwearied by years of battle may have saved his men from such distasteful demises; the Odysseus which now leads his crew is unable to protect them from his own egotism. Surprisingly Odysseus is the one who withers the petals of the rose, and readies them to fall on his unprotected crew. Odysseus sets the domino effect from the Iliad to the Odyssey in motion.

The tying link to the Iliad and the Odyssey is the accumulation and evolution of pride in Odysseus between both works. Odysseus is referred to as the wise and just king or great tactician in many parts of the Odyssey before he went off to the Trojan War. Odysseus had a multitude of feats in the Iliad from receiving Achilles armor to devising the Trojan horse (Homer Iliad). Upon returning and having his encounter with the Cyclops it is obvious Odysseus has changed and gained much pride. This pride controls Odysseus’s actions to the point of forgoing his wit and causes rash actions. Clearly, this shows the Trojan War like all wars in history has changed the individual, Odysseus, who fought in it. This change is what brought him to shout his name at the Cyclops Polyphemus, and forever changed what could have potentially been a quick journey home.

Homer tactfully realized that war, which changes the individual, can also affect what once were great heroes. Just as Greeks humanize their Gods’, they also humanize their heroes, which is a rarity among cultures (Nietzsche 171-72). Odysseus at this point can no longer call himself a hero above others. The humanization of his character has placed Odysseus on equal ground with other mortals. This equal standing is what makes Odysseus a true hero. He is still able to affect great change while being a mortal man; albeit with a wit often unseen for his time. It will be the Wanderings over the next ten years which have Odysseus evolve back, or devolve as it were, into the man he always was, and the man he is destined to be.

The wanderings of the Odyssey are essentially an extremely symbolized domino effect. In the beginning Odysseus is the Warrior, fresh from war, believing he is invincible to any sort of pain. Odysseus however is not just the giver of pain, but the receiver from his namesake. This is quickly realized once Odysseus and his men arrive on the Cyclops’s isle. After many of his men are consumed some of the pride leaves Odysseus. Time and time again more of Odysseus’s men are killed and usually by their own misguided decisions. The one true time it is Odysseus fault for their deaths is the encounter with Scylla. He chooses to go past the beast, sacrificing a few men, rather than possibly all of his crew (Homer Odyssey XII.201-259). It is a terrible realization, yet it is the deaths of Odysseus’s men which serve as a cloth wiping away Odysseus’s hubris. It is only at the end of his journey, once all of his men have perished, when he is finally himself. Finally, he is once again the great tactician.  It is only as the great tactician he possesses the rhetoric to conquer and escape the situations he finds himself in. He conquers these situations not only with mite but with wit. This wit shows in his interactions with others when he knows exactly what to say, in order to derive the best possible xenia.

Greeks are the ultimate civilization when it comes to hospitality in their journeys and everyday life. Coming directly from their seafaring ways, this xenia or hospitality is greatly attributed to the fact that most journeys over sea took a considerable amount of time. Time seemingly creates a buffer of kindness. Seeing someone new, whether it is friend or foe, is a great and joyous occasion for the Greeks. The Greeks are a people with a love of new stories about faraway places, and exchanging goods from their distant lands. This is shown in Odysseus’s case when he ends up on the island of the Phaecians who show him the best possible xenia. Not only do they take him in, but it is they who return him to his home of Ithaca (Homer Odyssey). Greeks understand how positive xenia affects their relationships with the gods, and vice versa with negative xenia.

 Another reason the Greeks are the pinnacle of kindness is because of their religious beliefs; when a god can be disguised as anyone, who could take the chance of being rude to a guest? If one were to indirectly offend a god by showing terrible hospitality, the consequences would be dire (“Value of Hospitality”). Offending a god was so terrible because the resulting curse might affect more than just one, but others as well. In Odysseus’s case, his curse from Poseidon ending in the deaths of all of his crew members is tragic in more cases than one. Odysseus’s pride costs his men their return home, and their lives. The true tragedy of this event isn’t fully realized until Odysseus travels to the underworld and talks to men of his crew. “Lives are irreplaceable and offending the Gods will hurt more than just the individual” (Snell).

The ultimate compare and contrast of xenia in the Odyssey is on the separate islands of Circe and Calypso. These islands juxtapose each other as similar islands with slightly similar circumstances, but the slight differences are integral to the Odyssey. On Circe’s island Odysseus is first threatened to be turned into a pig, then upon his failure to turn into what Nietzsche calls “a man’s true form” they sleep together Circe while initially a frightening witch turns into perhaps the greatest woman supporter of Odysseus while he is on his journey. Providing not only food, shelter, and comfort for a year, she helps Odysseus in every way possible when he decides it is time to leave (Homer Odyssey X.302-347). This is in part due to Odysseus’s rhetoric; however, this places Circe as one of the best cases of xenia in the Odyssey. Without Circe, Odysseus would never have returned home to Ithaca. Circe initially seems a terrible witch then later becomes one of Odysseus’s biggest supporters. Calypso on the other hand uses her beauty to keep Odysseus from returning homeward.

The direct contrast to Circe is Calypso. She is the daughter of Atlas, and eternal puppet of the gods. Calypso, at first, seems like a second coming of the positive xenia bearing Circe; however, this quickly becomes false. Odysseus spends seven years on her island. Seven years compared to the one year on Circes. This paints Odysseus as an unfaithful husband seemingly unwilling to return home. The reality states Calypso is denying Odysseus his homecoming by keeping him on the island. Denying one of the rights Greeks hold dear to their hearts, and the true goal of Odysseus these past 17 years isn’t showing positive xenia. Calypso is the second worst case of xenia with regards to Odysseus compared to only the Cyclops Polyphemus. She essentially kept Odysseus in a cave for 7 years with only his thoughts, and the will to return home. In classic Homeric fashion she does slightly redeem herself when the god Hermes tells her to let Odysseus leave. This coupled with the awesome power of Odysseus’s rhetoric ensured him passage off of the island (Homer Odyssey V). It is not just Odysseus who has to overcome the perils of negative xenia.

While Odysseus is on his journey, Telemachus deals with the Suitors'. They are after his mother’s hand in marriage and have shown their terrible xenia for years. It doesn’t take a Greek historian to understand that destroying Odysseus’s household and slaughtering his animals is showing terribly negative xenia. The bluntness of their transgressions is what makes their grievances so severe. The Suitors did not know what they were doing was against the gods commonly held will, however. After Odysseus’s departure, these young men lost any aspect of a role model they once held. Eventually, having no one to give them direction produces crude and maniacal men from their unguided childhoods. Odysseus is, in the end, the sower of his own enemies in this regard. The Suitors’ lose their innocence and ability to say they didn’t know any better when they are plotting to kill Telemachus. Attempting to rid the rightful heir to the kingdom of Ithaca doom them further than they had already stepped out of bounds. The Suitors deserve the hand they are dealt by the gods upon Odysseus’s return, for they were destined to die upon Odysseus’s departure for the Trojan War (Fitzgerald).

Homecoming is continuously hindered by Odysseus’s crew and Odysseus’s own pride throughout his wanderings. The ability to come home, also called nostos, is seen as a Greek right and is culturally accepted as deserving to all travelers of the sea (Eliot). Odysseus’s main fault in denying himself his own homecoming is when he mocks the Cyclops Polyphemus. Insulting Polyphemus, then having the nerve to utter his own name doomed Odysseus to a terrible fate and his crew to die. Odysseus is not the only figure to blame in the stalling of his homecoming to Ithaca. The true blame lies entirely on another’s shoulders indirectly symbolizing Odysseus’s pride.

 A quite interesting part about Odysseus’s curse is that it is not often Odysseus, but his crew that sets the effects of pride in motion. Odysseus’s crew causes all of the terrible events which occur in the Wanderings. This is obviously illustrated by their fulfilled deaths. When all of the suitors have died the wanderings come to an end, while one man of the Odysseus’s crew lives the Wanderings continue. In the end Odysseus’s pride is portrayed throughout the actions of his men, and their eventual demise which brings about the demise of Odysseus’s hubris. When Odysseus finally lands on Calypso’s island he has devolved back into the wise and kind king he was before he entered the Trojan War. Upon this moment hubris no longer affects Odysseus’s homecoming, and he is finally able to make the journey home. Nostos cannot be achieved through an act alone, but through many acts on a continual journey until ones homecoming is finally achieved in Homer’s Greek poems (Eliot).

The hospitality given and received has a direct and sometimes indirect effect on Odysseus’s journey homeward. It is not one plight which halts Odysseus’s journey home, but a multitude. Both the excessive pride initially expressed by Odysseus and the varied xenia projected onto him and his men affected his journey home. Since nostos is such a wide and expansive topic it should not be viewed in a hind sighted or microscopic view. It is instead better to think of nostos as a synonym for the Odyssey. Literally odyssey means an epic journey, and symbolically an odyssey is a long journey taken by an individual either physically or mentally. Nostos is the underlying theme and meaning of the Odyssey because it is what Odysseus desires and is continuing on this journey to receive. Without nostos there would be no Odyssey, no Odysseus, and no epic classic to be talked about (Snell).

The accumulation of pride for Odysseus in the Trojan War directly affected his actions in the Odyssey. It was only through the decimation of his crew and the multitude of challenges presented, this pride was able to falter. This reveals once again the wise and kind king. The xenia given by Odysseus originally hindered his homecoming, yet after the encounter with Polyphemus, Odysseus began to adapt to his encounters more readily. Throughout his evolution of pride and adaptation of Odysseus’s xenia he is finally able to return home to Ithaca. The eventual return home is not the return of Odysseus, but the second coming of the great tactician.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Works Cited

Eliot, T.S. Nostos and the impossibility of ‘a return to the same’. N.p.: ©Marigo Alexopoulou, Open University of Greece, n.d. DOC.

Fitzgerald, Robert. "Postscript." Afterword. Postscript. 3rd ed. Newyork: Doubleday &, 1961. 467+. Print.

Homer. The Illiad. Trans. Robert Fitzgerald. London: Collins Harvill, 1985. Print.

Homer. The Odyssey. Trans. Robert Fitzgerald. Garden City, NY: Anchor/Doubleday, 1961. Print.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. "Homer's Contest". The Portable Nietzsche. Ed. and trans. Walter Kaufmann. New York City: Penguin Books, 1954. 32- 39. Web. 12 December 2012.

Snell, Bruno. The Discovery of the Mind; the Greek Origins of European Thought. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1953. Print.

"The Value of Hospitality." The Value of Hospitality. Union.edu, n.d. Web. 25 November. 2012.

 


© 2013 John Kellogg



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John Kellogg
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I watched the movie "Troy" last night. Myth had been my favorite subject for 45 years. As a kid the hero's of ancient Greece and Rome allowed me to travel to a better world. I like your thoughts. The journey of Odysseus story I had read many times in my life. Today I have the book on tape. Allow me to listen and write at the same time. You did a amazing job on a difficult topic. Hard to put into words the journey of Odysseus and the logic of old Greece. Thank you for sharing the outstanding story. I enjoyed it.
Coyote

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Added on January 3, 2013
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Tags: The Odyssey, Odyssey, greek, essay, Homer, epic poem, odysseus, telemachus, cyclops, epic poems, roman, toga, analysis

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John Kellogg
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