The Voyage and Psychological Development in Homer's Odyssey
Homer's Odyssey arguably stands out head and shoulders above any other piece of epic literature produced by Western civilization for nearly three millennia. Most remarkable is the extent to which the Western hero archetype is to this day still a result of the molding that occurred upon the character of Odysseus so long ago. In imagining a police lineup of the most profoundly influencing protagonists of Western epic poetry, surely Odysseus would impress in stature and roguish airs far beyond the others for is not the gray-eyed Athena, daughter of rain-bringing Zeus himself, bound in devotion to this mortal hero? It is she who repeatedly enhances Odysseus' appearance so as to impress upon others his god-like qualities:
And Athene, she who was born from Zeus, made him
Bigger to look at and stouter, and on his head
Made his hair flow in curls, like the hyacinth flower . . .
So she poured grace upon his head and shoulders. (6.229-35)
In anointing Odysseus in similar fashion throughout the tale of his arduous journey homeward, the ancient as well as modern reader cannot help but look to Odysseus as a role model. Implicit in this behavioral model is one of Homer's many subtexts, namely that having one or more of the gods on one's side is not enough to guarantee even a partial success in one's endeavors. The god Poseidon stands in direct opposition to Odysseus' goal of reaching Ithaca, yet his attacks upon the hero always fall just short of actually killing him. Instead, with each calamity that befalls Odysseus at Poseidon's hand, the hero is faced with a parallel inward struggle. Surviving the physical realm at first seems to be the test when actually it is Odysseus' mental fortitude and perseverance which prevent him from going insane in the face of his physical predicaments; his true victory lies in not giving up his sanity, that part of him which he identifies as himself, his ego. The sea goddess, Leucothea gives voice to Odysseus' singular ability to survive on both land and sea, in the physical and in the psychological realms:
Ill-fated man, why is the earth-shaker Poseidon
So strikingly angry that he spawns you these many ills?
He will not wear you down, however he may desire it. (5.339-41)
The tempering and strengthening of ego by the forces which the gods unleash upon Odysseus function to cement his inward journey along with the external evolution he undergoes from sacker of cities to a man of deep feeling. The end product of such an evolution comprise what was in Homer's time, and remains in ours, the new hero. Odysseus' challenge is not only to think on his feet in battle but to reach a depth of soul engendered from the threats and creatures which defy the ordinary imagination. The Odyssey is the story of one man's encounter with the unconscious and his subsequent survival.
The myth of the new hero, as embodied by Odysseus, stands in sharp relief...