The Fatal Pride of Odysseus
Odysseus is known as a great war hero and leader who encounters and conquers unimaginable obstacles in his quest to return to Ithaca. This is understandable, given that Homer often uses Odysseus’ point of view in recounting his tortuous ten-year journey. However, beneath the surface is another perspective that is often overlooked, namely, that of Odysseus’ men who accompany him on this journey. Odysseus often glosses over his shortcomings as a leader and accentuates or even exaggerates his successes. If his men had been given more of a voice, it is likely that a different account of Odysseus’ leadership qualities would have been presented. For instance, Odysseus takes great pains to portray himself as an innocent victim and Homer’s readers generally accept this perspective. Odysseus’ hubris makes him careless when it comes to the safety of his men and therefore, an unreliable leader. Careful analysis of the scenes featuring Cicones, Aeolus and the Winds, and Scylla and Charybdis reveals that Odysseus often fails to transcend his own self-interest and ultimately he is the one responsible for the deaths of his men.
The events that take place on the island of Cicones reveal Odysseus’ flaws in two ways. First, in his vanity, he wishes to make an impression that will last long in the minds of men, and he therefore leads his men in a rampage against innocent people in order to plunder their wealth. The treasure could have been taken without wholesale murder and enslavement but Odysseus is accustomed to thinking of himself as a great hero and indiscriminately applies his wartime practices of kill or be killed. To be so unnecessarily violent says a lot about Odysseus and his wrong assumption that because of who he is, it is perfectly acceptable to kill innocent people as he pleases. Second, Odysseus’ own unscrupulous practices sends signals to his men that such behavior is acceptable. Accordingly, they indulge in premature celebrating on “stores of wine,” which impairs their good judgment (Homer 146, 52). Allowed to over-drink as they please, the men lose their sense of moderation and feast on the sheep and cattle, giving “fugitives” an opportunity to call in the island’s army (146, 54). However, rather than take responsibility for his lax leadership, Odysseus blames his men, calling them “mutinous, fools” for butchering “sheep after sheep” and cattle (146, 51-52). In truth, the men only acted on his command but got carried away, resulting in the deaths of many of them. Odysseus weaves a different image for readers about this incident in order to hide his own error and protect his reputation. If he were to admit that he had a major role in the many tragic deaths of his men, he would be admitting that he is not necessarily the reliable and admirable leader he and many others believe him to be.
After leaving Aeolus, Odysseus fails to inform his men that he has the east, south and north winds in the ox skin...