from Hero to Villain
One of the more famous characters of the ancient Greeks,
Odysseus, has been written about for millennia.
Homer composed an epic poem entirely about him. Dante wrote about Odysseus while describing
his journey through the afterlife in Inferno. These two writers, though describing the same
man, portray him in different lights – Homer lauding him as a valiant hero and
Dante condemning him to burn for eternity.
Each portrayal is a product of the different times in which the two
authors lived. Through how the two
authors abbreviate, augment, and tell the story of Odysseus, their personal
values on acts such as lying, sacrifice, and the capabilities of mankind against
the gods shine through.
Homer’s Odysseus, in the epic named after him, wastes no
time in reclaiming his role as the aner he made himself to be in the
Iliad. The Greeks after the Trojan War
faced all sorts of challenges coming home, with some failing to return, but the
journey of Odysseus was not only successful but triumphantly so. Following his release from Calypso’s island,
he receives a hero’s welcome at the table of the king Alcinous, at a seat
beside the king that “displaced his own son” (Homer, 7.202). Veterans of the Trojan War were revered by
Alcinous’s people, the Phaeacians, because in the time of Homer the greatest
warriors were some of the most legendary men around. Odysseus is exalted on this island, much
unlike how Dante meets him in Hell.
we first encounter Dante’s Odysseus we find him in a humiliated state. Rather than burning with rage cutting down
Trojans or Penelope’s suitors, he is trapped in a flame burning alongside fellow
Greek soldier Diomedes. Dante humbles
Odysseus because of his Christianity – he deems Odysseus’ actions to be morally
reprehensible. He acknowledges the
stature of Odysseus as one of the most famous Greeks, but hardly cares for
it. In Hell, Dante does not even give
Odysseus his own flame to burn him for eternity but instead requires him to
share. The only nod Dante pays to his
reputation is to note that Odysseus represented “the greater horn” of the flame
which engulfed both the hero and Diomedes (Alighieri, 26.85). Whereas Homer’s Odysseus receives a seat of
honor at the table of a foreign king, Dante’s spends eternity burning in
each portrayal of Odysseus, the two differ not only in how he is viewed, but
what the reader gets to view about him. Curiously absent from the Odyssey is the
account of how the Trojan War really ends.
Homer had already dedicated one epic to the War, and then tells the
return from it in this epic, but does not give the reader the closure of
explaining how it ended. An obvious
reason is how the deed of capturing the city with the Trojan Horse was less
than heroic. Homer valued the in-your-face
toughness of the andres of the ancient world, and in his epics spares no detail
in describing many Greeks and Trojans to paint them as he-men. His failure to include the fall of Troy in
the Odyssey is no accident, and stems from the fact that the strategy by which
it occurred runs counter to the values of classical heroism. In Homer’s Greece, a real man would not have
to trick his enemies to defeat them. The
omission is a concession by Homer to admit that Odysseus was not nearly heroic
as Achilles and that there is no virtue in dishonesty.
Homer brushes the fall of Troy under the rug, Dante harps on it to the extent
that the Horse becomes the reason Odysseus burns in one of the deepest parts of
Hell. The deed labels Odysseus a
fraudster, a class of people whose punishment exceeds even those condemned to
hell for violence. In Dante’s Christian
tradition, dishonest people cannot be heroes and no matter how violent the
nature of someone, those who betray the trust of others will burn in a deeper
circle of hell than violent people. The
“great Achilles”, whose hand cut down so many Trojans, resides only in the
second circle of Dante’s Hell, condemned among the lustful and not even the
violent (Alighieri, 5.65). Sinon, who as
an individual killed far less Trojans by his hand than Odysseus or Achilles,
burns deeper than either of them. Dante
refers to him as “lying Sinon,” a title which when contrasted with how he refers
to Achilles, plainly shows that Dante can see no virtue in a liar (Alighieri,
30.98). Both writers – Homer covertly
with his omission of the story of the horse, and Dante overtly through placing
Odysseus among the fraudsters – remind readers that lying has not been virtuous
in any age.
pagan Homer and the Christian Dante allowed their religions to help shape their
narratives of the life of Odysseus.
Homer’s Odysseus rivals the gods in his wit, having numerous run-ins
with superhuman beings and consistently coming out on top. He escaped Polyphemus, and even managed to
escape from Calypso, who was in love with him.
In Homer, humans were so celebrated and capable that they were able to outsmart
and even attract gods. It’s part and
parcel of being a classical Greek hero to have confrontation directly with the
gods. And even more necessary to being a
Homeric hero is to be able to put up a fight against them.
the Christian tradition, there is no hope of man ever posing substantial
challenges to divine authority. Dante’s
God spares no human from his reach, and Odysseus can no longer outwit divine
beings but instead is totally at their mercy.
Humans in Dante are humbled, eternally so. The aner of Homer is a farce in Dante. Odysseus is nothing before God but one of the
countless flames burning in Hell. Christianity
by its nature exalts the humble man while humbling the man who exalts himself. The Christian Dante disdains the flashy
nature of Odysseus, and Dante’s God of course tolerates none of it.
Homer’s Odysseus lived a life of classical heroism because the values of the
age not recommended it, but required it.
The men of Homeric Greece faced no prospect of an afterlife of eternal
bliss. Their gods hardly cared for them
once they passed on into the next world.
As such, to live forever meant to be one whom stories would be told
about by the living. Eternal life is an
enticing prospect for anyone, and in Homer’s Greece there was only one way to
receive it –to commit deeds so heroic that one would be legendary.
the other hand, in the Christian tradition only those who have believed in God
and lived a righteous life on Earth have any chance at eternal life in
heaven. One’s life on Earth should not
be one full of violence, deceit, or much of any combination of sins. Odysseus, guilty of a number of these, cements
his spot in hell with all this mischief.
The key difference in the two belief systems lies in how the Christian
must be careful of their behavior to avoid burning in Hell, while in Homer’s
world one only had to live and die famously to be said to have lived life well.
did no more than live how his time period told him to. Homer, through his portrayal of him
demonstrates this. Dante does not disagree
but instead argues that these values were grossly outdated, and that living by
the values of classical heroism puts one on the fast track to eternal fire. The beginning of the Italian Renaissance in
which Dante wrote saw a revival of appreciation for ancient Greece and Rome, and
Dante’s portrayal of Odysseus reminds that reader in Renaissance Italy that
while the classics can be appreciated, they should not be emulated.
alters a portion of Odysseus’s saga in order to further steep him in a negative
light. In Hell Odysseus speaks of how
his motivation for his travels around the Mediterranean lied not in a desire to
return home, but instead to “gain experience of the world” (Alighieri, 26.98). The claim that Odysseus would have risked his
life on so many occasions as part of a quest of self-discovery is a bit
outlandish. Greek heroes valued a noble
death, and that would hardly have come from Odysseus’s encounters with
dangerous foes like Polyphemus. For Odysseus
to claim a desire to see the world as his biggest motivator during the Odyssey
contradicts the picture of the classical hero that Homer paints of him. Dante makes this change to the story of
Odysseus to devoid him of any Christian virtue.
Risking one’s life for the sake of others is among one of the most
virtuous things a Christian can do.
After all, Christ put himself at so much risk to save the souls of men
that he lost his life for it. Conceding
that Odysseus could have been capable of such a virtuous act undermines the
criticism at the heart of Dante’s portrayal of him. For Dante to succeed in claiming Odysseus
would be worthy of the eighth circle of Hell, he cannot allow him to share
anything close to the goodwill found in Christ.
all the additions, omissions, and changes to the story of Odysseus, Dante and
Homer let their voices shine a light on the values that shaped them – the
values held by two very different civilizations at far apart points in human
history. Homer’s admiration of Odysseus
the aner pervasively harkens to the values that Greeks used to define a
man. Similarly, Dante’s disdain for
Odysseus gives the reader a glimpse into the values held by Christians in the
1300s. Together they remind the reader
that values always change, and that men of past ages can be seen as barbaric
for simply living how their belief prescribed.
Someday authors may call those who lived in our century brutish,
dishonest, and mischievous just like Dante did – and we, like the Ancient
Greeks, would be none the wiser to how our actions could come across that way.
Odyssey. Translated by Robert
Fagles, Penguin Classics, 1996.
Alighieri, Dante. Inferno. Translated by Allen Mandelbaum, Bantam