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Epic Heroes

Furthermore, we have not even to risk the adventure alone, for the heroes of all time have gone before us. The labyrinth is thoroughly known. We have only to follow the thread of the hero path, and where we had thought to find an abomination, we shall find a god. And where we had thought to slay another, we shall slay ourselves. Where we had thought to travel outward we will come to the center of our own existence. And where we had thought to be alone, we will be with all the world.

Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth Heroes have been popular throughout the existence of human beings because thats whats worth writing about (Campbell 123). Hero myths help us to evolve into better humans by learning from the trials and triumphs of the hero. In classical Greek literature, the epic hero can be defined in terms of the contrasting characters of Achilles and Odysseus, the two most important figures in Homer’s great epic poems The Iliad and The Odyssey. The two heroes represent the two different types of heroes that we have, a hero with a spiritual deed and a hero with a physical deed:

There are two types of deed. One is the physical deed in which the hero performs a courageous act in battle. The other is a kind of spiritual deed, in which the hero learns to experience the supernormal range of human spiritual life and then comes back with a message. (Campbell 123) Achilles, the greatest warrior of the Greeks in the Trojan War, is actually a demi-god rather than a human hero, having been dipped in charmed waters by his mother and given the gift of invulnerability. He represents the physical deed.

Odysseus, on the other hand, is a fully human character, and his heroism consists more in his cleverness, boldness and cunning than his martial ability. He represents the spiritual deed. The contrast between these two models of the epic hero could not be stronger, for although Achilles is godlike and almost immortal in his fighting prowess, he remains childish and petulant in his personality, even in the moment of his greatest triumph he lacks the nobility and generosity expected of a truly great hero.

The man of many ways Odysseus, however, rises above his purely human limitations to achieve a much greater destiny, triumphing over the dangers of war and wandering to come home to his wife and family. Achilles, the first tragic hero in literature, depicts both sides of human nature: Achilles personifies what is best and worst in human nature. He is at his best when heoffers compassion and consolation that reveal his profound understanding of the human condition.

However at his worst he behaves like a selfish child and acts like a brutal beast. (Rosenberg 121) We observe the more unpleasant aspects of Achilles’ character shortly after we first encounter him in The Iliad, during his quarrel with Agamemnon over the possession of a concubine. Before the assembled Greek leaders, Achilles complains that he never gets his fair share of the prizes, that the Achaeans do not give him sufficient honor, and that he has grown weary of fighting the Trojans, since to me they have done nothing (Lattimore, 1967:63).

When Agamemnon decides to teach him a lesson and take his concubine Briseis from him, Achilles demonstrates a fit of temper and warns all the Greeks that they will be sorry they refused to cater to his desires: And then you will eat out the heart within you in sorrow, that you did no honour to the best of the Achaeans (Lattimore, 1967:65). Then he leaves to sulk in his tent. Achilles unarguably is indeed the best of the Achaeans in combat, but since he is the son of a goddess and blessed with invulnerability in battle, heroism is not the quality that makes him a great warrior.

His counterpart among the Trojans, Hector, in truth, is a much nobler character– loving to his parents, wife and children, fearless in battle, and willing to sacrifice everything for his people. In comparison with Hector, Achilles resembles something of a mama’s boy; in fact, we see him crying to his mother Thetis that the gods have not done enough for him by punishing the Greeks. Sounding like a little boy, he tells her how sad she should be for the wrongs done to him:

I wish you had gone on living then with the other goddesses/ of the sea, and that Peleus had married some mortal woman. /As it is, there must be in your heart a numberless sorrow for your son’s death, since you can never again receive him/ won home again to his country. (Lattimore, 1967:377) He behaves like a selfish, immature child and also resembles a horrific beast in his actions. However, great irony exists in Achilles’ obsessive desire to kill Hector and avenge the death of his friend Patroklos, since as Thetis reminds him, It is decreed your death must come soon after Hector’s.

Being a demigod, Achilles does not possess immortality, and the fatal flaw in his makeup (his mother held him by the ankle when she dipped him in the water) means that he will die someday. Yet after killing Hector in the great fight scene that concludes his struggles, Achilles does not hesitate to defy the gods and sneer at the threatened curse of Apollo: Die: and I will take my own death at whatever time/ Zeus and the rest of the immortals choose to accomplish it (Lattimore, 1967:445).

In achieving his revenge for the death of his friend, Achilles shows us that he truly does feel compassion for humans and reveals one of his more endearing qualities; loyalty. Like Achilles, Odysseus has weaknesses of character, but behind them lie a keen intelligence, wit, and steadfastness of purpose. In the Trojan War, Odysseus had been a secondary character, notable mainly for his role in the episode of the Trojan horse.

In The Odyssey, however, Odysseus assumes the dimension of a true epic hero, surviving a long string of adventures and calamities before finally making his great homecoming to Ithaca and his wife Penelope. Odysseus has been referred to many nicknames, such as Odysseus of the many designs, showing us that he is to be admired as much for his native cunning as for his strength and bravery. In nearly every way, Odysseus is a more complete and likeable figure than Achilles, and we cannot help admiring him even when he misbehaves.

As the goddess Calypso, with whom he encounters on one of the many stops during his voyage home, says to him affectionately, You are so naughty… you will have your own way in all things (Lattimore, 1968:93). Yet Odysseus tells his next hosts, Arte and Alkinoos, that neither Calypso nor any other woman could ever win over his heart, which has always remained with Penelope and the home he has not seen in almost twenty years. As an epic hero, Odysseus can best be described as a brave and cunning figure that conquers with his brain when he cannot win with his brawn.

Odysseus managed to make himself beloved not only to women, but also to men; Alkinoos’ response to him is characteristic; the king and father of Nausikaa tells him shortly after they have met, … how I wish that, being the man you are and thinking the way that I do, you could have my daughter and be called my son-in-law, staying here with me (Lattimore, 1968:119). This could never be of course, but it has been suggested more than once that not only the various women he encounters in his long jury seriously tempt Odysseus, but also by the prospect of new wealth and nobility.

Odysseus has his tender side also, and we often see him in a sentimental and homesick mood in spite of the many pleasurable incidents of his travels. In parting from Alkinoos, he reminds us of his fondest wish: May I return to my house and find there a blameless wife, and all who are dear to me unharmed (Lattimore, 1968:199). When Odysseus does finally reach his homeland, he encounters not only Penelope, Telemakos and Laertes awaiting him, but a crowd of suitors as well; all of whom wish to marry Penelope so that they may replace Odysseus as ruler of Ithaca.

At this point, we finally see the warrior inside him emerge. Odysseus demonstrates his wit in ridding his house of the suitors and reclaiming territory on his wife. The struggles of his journey had merely involved beating men in trials of sport, outwitting demons and temptresses, and battling the elements; now Odysseus shows that in the business of killing his enemies and reclaiming his authority, he is at least as proficient as Achilles.

The sharp contrast between Odysseus and Achilles as epic heroes suggests that for the ancient Greeks, the true greatness of a man lay mainly in the ability to overcome injuries and insults, so as to triumph over enemies and redeem one’s honor. For Achilles, this meant forgetting his wounded pride and jealousy, and returning to the battlefield to avenge his slain companion Patroklos. Although he never doubts for moment that he can vanquish Hector, the real demonstration of courage lies in his decision to go through with it, since he knows that his own death will follow shortly after that of the man he kills.

Though admiration of Achilles personality after witnessing his tendency to pout and sulk at his misfortune and to snarl at his companions can be difficult, every reader must respect the loyalty and devotion he shows his friend Patroklos who has been killed, and the bravery of his final decision to come out of seclusion and avenge his friends wrongful death. In contrast, Odysseus has many-sides to his personality and his characters commitment and devotion to his family represent all that is best in a man.

His sufferings are more serious and deeply felt than those of Achilles, whose only fully human attachment is with his friend Patroklos. The main difference between these two epic heroes, ultimately, is that Achilles’ story involves the death of many better men than he, and ends unhappily in spite of his victory. The story of Odysseus ends most happily with the hero telling Penelope: Dear wife, we both have had our full share of numerous trials now, yours have been here as you cried over my much longed-for homecoming, while as for me, Zeus and the other gods held me back from my own country, as I was striving to reach it.

The Greek epic hero, epitomized in the personalities of Achilles and Odysseus, must always be a brave and powerful warrior and a loyal friend to those he loves. Achilles, who remains far more limited in his range of feeling than Odysseus, but stays within that narrow range and finally manages to acquit himself honorably. Odysseus, the great everyman hero of classical literature, seeks the widest range of experience and adventure possible, but finally triumphs over life by returning to the comforts of home and family.

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