Odysseus and You
How you can use the hero’s journey to help you in everyday life
“Grey-eyed Athene sent them a favourable gale, a fresh West Wind, singing over the wine-dark sea.”
— from Book II of The Odyssey
You reach an island after many gruelling days at sea. Tired and hungry, you lead your men on and stumble upon a cave filled with mountains of food. And since no one’s around, you and your men take the most natural course of action: to begin eating it. After all, this may be your last stop on your way home to Ithaca.
Or, it may be your last stop, ever.
Suddenly a gigantic shadow appears in the cave mouth. It’s a one-eyed giant, a cyclops; and preceding it are dozens and dozens of gigantic sheep. The cyclops closes the entrance with a large boulder so that his sheep don’t escape. Then he notices a few snacks scurrying around, and pops two of them in his mouth.
You hear the crunching of their bones as you shudder silently in the dark and try to get some sleep.
This is actually one of the many adventures of Odysseus, legendary king of Ithaca.
Odysseus is a great warrior as well as a master of deception. It is his intelligence which helps him time and time again. His mastery of deception is legendary, though not always seen in a good light. The poet Dante, in his Inferno (14th century) put Odysseus in the eighth circle of hell for fraud. While Dante chose to include this literary hero in his hell, it was for those very attributes, among others, that Odysseus became the legendary hero in the Homeric epic. An epic hero, in other words, is someone who is not merely a superficial ‘good guy’ but a complex mosaic — a man who must sometimes break the rules and use deception for the greater good.
The most well-known version of Odysseus’ journey is Homer’s book Odyssey (c.8th century BCE), the epic poem of his journey home. The story begins when Odysseus has just finished fighting in the ten-year-long Trojan War. All he wants is to return to Ithaca, back to his wife Penelope and son Telemachus. And then, he runs into all sorts of trouble along the way.
At one level, the Odyssey is just a fantasy “adventure story”: the characters sail through the ocean, fighting monsters and weird creatures on the way. So why have so many people been quoting it again and again, and reading it for hundreds and hundreds of years?
Well, as a poem, the Odyssey is a literary masterpiece. It’s filled with stories highlighting the importance of the hero archetype. If you read it right, it could offer insights into how to live a fulfilling life yourself. Embodying the archetypal hero — the exploratory adventurer who embraces responsibility and overcomes the toughest situations life throws at you — will give your life great meaning.
Hero you may be, but you can still make mistakes. And entering the cave turns out to be a costly one, because this is no ordinary cyclops. This is Polyphemus, son of Poseidon, god of the sea.
Morning arrives, and the situation is looking grim. Polyphemus is at it again: two more humans sacrificed for breakfast. Your challenge is now to escape with as many men as possible, and exit the cave of this giant son of a god. And this is where your powers of deception come through. The first step is to introduce yourself.
“My name”, you say, “is Nobody”
Then you lie in wait for the right moment, and thrust a wooden stake into the cyclops’ eye. Blind with rage, but also physically blind, the cyclops lashes out everywhere — but cannot get at the men cowering in corners. The commotion brings other cyclopes running to the scene. “What is wrong?” they ask. “What happened? Are you hurt?” Then they go away, for the cyclops roars back in pain: “Nobody is hurting me!”
Now you have to get out of the cave — but the cave-covering boulder is only removed when it’s time to let the sheep out for their morning graze. And while Polyphemus can’t see who’s coming out, he feels each one with his hands to make sure it’s a wooly sheep coming out and not a cloth-covered human.
So you use your second trick: get every man to hang on to the underside of a sheep. Since the cyclops is only feeling the tops of the sheep, he doesn’t realise there are stowaways underneath.
The stories of Odysseus concern all sorts of monsters and gods. But do they have to be literally monsters and gods? If you want to apply the Odyssey to practical life, you could think of the monsters as menacing challenges.
A monster, symbolically speaking, is that which must be overcome. A monster is something which guards a treasure — it could be gold, a damsel, or some valuable experience to be relied upon in the future. Yes, we don’t have cyclopes or dragons in the real world: those are legendary creatures which capture our imagination and keep our attention in stories.
But maybe your cyclops or dragon is a terrible problem at work, or pressing issues in your personal life.
By seeing “monsters” in stories, you can more easily engage with them as well figure out how to overcome them. Perhaps one of Odysseus’ tricks will come in handy for your real-life “monsters” too. Monsters are ultimately just a mix of terrifying attributes — and they challenge the hero to demonstrate his skills; to take the monster apart and make something useful from his pieces.
That is, after all, why we use the term “de-monstrate.”
One of the most famous scenes in The Odyssey has Odysseus sailing between the monsters Scylla and Charybdis — an early example of being between a rock and a hard place. Scylla is a six-headed monster and Charybdis a whirlpool capable of consuming the greatest of ships. The passage between these two is incredibly narrow.
Odysseus knows that he will have to sail his ship closer to one or the other. both beasts are menacing, but Charybdis would kill everyone, Scylla would kill only as many men as it could eat with each head. A core element of this story is that, as a leader, Odysseus has to make a terrible decision — one in which a sacrifice must be made either way.
Sometimes, when facing serious circumstances, there is no easy answer. The meaning of being stuck between a rock and a hard place means making terrible but necessary sacrifices for the greater good.
The “cyclops island” is only one of many adventures on the long way home from the Trojan War.
After outwitting Polyphemus the cyclops, you and your men have boarded the ship, sighing with relief to be sailing once again. If the winds carry on as they have been this far, it won’t be long before you land on the homely shores of Ithaca.
But something’s wrong. The wind seems still. Too still. And then, out of nowhere comes a mighty gust, nearly toppling your ship sideways. The sea responds with mountainous waves. And then your ship is out of control, hurtling, carried on by the raging wind and sea, off course and onto a journey that will take many decades to complete.
Poseidon, father of Polyphemus and lord of the sea, has heard of his son’s plight. And this is his heavenly act of revenge.
And so starts the great story which, along with The Iliad, constitutes the bedrock of Western literature. This is the foundation on which all that is to come is predicated.
The Odyssey doesn’t just have monsters; it’s also filled with gods and goddesses. You can think of the role of the worst demons and greatest gods as hell and heaven made manifest in this literary work. They are “archetypical representations” — in other words, the worst of what to avoid or overcome, and the best toward which to strive. The gods and goddesses represent the highest ideals, though are not without their flaws — projections of human shortcoming.
This is the genius of Greek mythology. The gods are not seen as perfect in every way; they express the best and worst elements of human nature while also intervening in the human world to help or hinder people in their pursuits. Odysseus was blocked from returning to Ithaca by Poseidon.
And while it took Odysseus ten years to return home, it was with the help of another goddess, Athena, that he finally did reach.
For many years, there was one mystery that kept coming up in Telemachus’ mind. Why didn’t his father return from the Trojan War? What was it that suddenly caused him to disappear?
Telemachus was born just before his father left for the war. He had not spent time with his father for even one year, and his one preoccupation was whether he’d ever get to meet him again. It was through heavenly intervention that Telemachus finally got his wish. The goddess Athena convinced the Council of the Gods that Odysseus had been imprisoned for long enough, and, what’s more, she did it when Poseidon was travelling and didn’t have a chance to protest.
It was a long operation, but the father and son finally did get reunited. It was a happy occasion, though sorrowful too: Telemachus was now twenty years old, and Odysseus had missed seeing any of his childhood.
Even gods and goddesses have their blind spots. Athena could not understand Odysseus’s tears of sorrow, mixed with joy, upon seeing his son. Athena just didn’t get it: they’re together now, so why be sad?
Gods and goddesses are beyond the realm of time: it does not impact them. The same cannot be said for humans.
We live in the world of time. Opportunities go, and cannot be regained. Odysseus has missed out on his son’s childhood. He knew his son as a newborn and now must cope with the fact that there is this gap of time which cannot be replaced.
This is one of the most important lessons for everyone to understand. We must take advantage of the endless opportunities which constantly present themselves to us — we will never get another moment exactly like the one now.
The story of the hero is one which precedes writing itself. The Odyssey started out as an oral epic, and was written down only centuries later.
The hero is the force which turns chaos into order, the force which allies with the good in order to make the world a better place, the son of culture and nature with the power to transform the world. All individuals have the potential to be a great hero, by embodying the traits found in great heroes, from Odysseus in The Odyssey to Simba in the Lion King. These include taking responsibility, being assertive, and transforming the potential of various situations into habitable order. Most importantly, the exploratory hero is one who aligns himself with, and expands upon, the values of his culture.
There is a reason such stories and story arcs survive the ravages of time. Their ideals, like the gods, are beyond the realm of time. And this timelessness is the closest thing we have to transcendental truth; something which is true way beyond the mere moment or even lifetime.
Embody the traits of the creative and exploratory hero as best you can, to live a richer and more fulfilling life. You owe this to yourself.
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