The worlds of Homer’s The Iliad and The Odyssey are often harsh, with mankind being essentially at the will of the gods and prone to failure. To that end, even the best among men in these works have their own flaws – Achilles and Odysseus respectively provide that sense of romantic antiheroism inherent to Homeric works. Whereas modern heroism values moral and ethical virtue as part of being a hero, the Homeric ideal of heroism is actually quite anti-heroic. Greek heroes do not have to be the most ethical or civilized; they just have to possess supreme bravery, strength, military prowess, pride and honor, all the qualities the ancient Greeks looked for in the prototypical hero. Achilles, a fierce supernatural warrior, and Odysseus, the most cunning and resourceful of Greek leaders, both struggle with their excessive pride and hubris, suffering harsh consequences as a result. Odysseus values trickery and deception over brute force, and receives help from the gods, including a close friendship with Athena. Achilles’ weakness is his short temper and stubbornness, which leads to heroic tragedy.Comparing and contrasting these two heroes, Achilles and Odysseus demonstrate two different paths to Greek heroism which is analogous to modern anti-heroism.
The anti-heroic nature of Achilles and Odysseus ironically matches the traditional Homeric idea of virtue, or arête. Arete is thought to heavily involve strength and prowess in battle, to which Achilles is uniquely qualified. This manner of virtue lies chiefly in reputation as well – people who have arête are known far and wide for their accomplishments and feats, which is why Achilles himself was so concerned with maintaining that reputation. It is difficult for someone to be inwardly virtuous in the Homeric sense, as it relies chiefly on what others think of you (Hawhee 187). Achilles’ destiny at the start of The Iliad to die in glorious battle essentially guarantees arête. Odysseus could also be said to possess incredible arête, his virtues being primarily the aforementioned trickery and the favor of the gods he earns with his cunning. This is most evident in his many victories against the Phaeacians’ court, the blinding of Polyphenus, the survival of the Sirens, his trickery as the beggar, his testing of Penelope’s virtue, and his eventual slaughter of Penelope’s suitors. In engaging with these trials and winning out, Odysseus also shows his arête. To that end, both Achilles and Odysseus possess tremendous Homeric virtue, which is what determines this sense of traditional heroism, while eschewing the normal senses of compassion and moral behavior that constitutes modern heroism. Odysseus and Achilles value their property, lives and accomplishments over doing what is truly right, solidifying their nature as anti-heroes in the modern sense.
Achilles, the warrior of The Iliad, underlines most concretely one of the defining nature of anti-heroism – excessive pride, or hubris. Achilles has superhuman strength, is a fierce warrior, and has tremendous honor and pride in both of these attributes. Essentially, he has a substantial ego, which is also very fragile, his rage and stubbornness shaping his conduct with others. For example, Agamemnon insults Achilles by taking away his prize/love Briseis in front of the other Achaeans. This leads Achilles to withdraw from battle and call upon his mother, the goddess Thetis, to ask Zeus for a favor - to help the Trojans in the war and allow him to earn his honor back by slaughtering his own people:
“if perhaps he might be willing to help the Trojans, and pin the Achaians back against the ships and the water, dying, so that thus they may all have profit of their own king, that Atreus’ son wide-ruling Agamemnon may recognize his madness, that he did no honor to the best of the Achaians” (Iliad, Book I, lines 409-413).
Not only does Achilles want the honor and glory of this win, and to punish Agamemnon for his transgression against him, but he wishes to secure his immortality by becoming the greatest hero of the Achaians, replacing Agamemnon in this respect.
The pride of Achilles leads him to many different priorities throughout the course of The Iliad. After the death of Patroclus, Achilles chooses to reconcile with Agamemnon, seemingly sobering his perspective and anger in the face of the loss of a loved one. However, his rage does not truly become muted, but is just redirected toward Hector. Hate and rage are the primary tools by which Achilles tries to prove how fierce of a warrior he is, using it to search for glory in a constant loop of battle. Even in this passage towards Agamemnon, his bile is significant and directly tied to his ability to be victorious in battle:
“You wine sack, with a dog's eyes, with a deer's heart. Never once have you taken courage in your heart to arm with your people for battle, or go into ambuscade with the best of the Achaians. No, for in such things you see death. Far better to your mind is it, all along the widespread host of the Achaians to take away the gifts of any man who speaks up against you. King who feed on your people, since you rule nonentities; otherwise, son of Atreus, this were your last outrage.” (Iliad, Book 1, 225-232).
With these remarks and more, Achilles cements his ability to win the day through brute strength and anger, whilst remaining fairly unsympathetic in the process. In the stories of Homer, a hero does not have to be a good person - he simply has to be victorious. This fits into the modern conception of the anti-heroic nature of Achilles, who is not a selfless person, but fits into the Greek ideal of heroism by way of his strength and skill.
Like Achilles, Odysseus of The Odyssey shares a certain pride in his accomplishments and cunning, which can often be his undoing. Frequently throughout the course of his journey to return to his wife Penelope and regain his kingdom, Odysseus is shown to be a courageous individual who is also great at fighting. That being said, he can often sacrifice the ability to come up with a cogent strategy in the name of pride and ego. To be fair, Odysseus has a lot of reasons to be full of pride, given his accomplishments and status as a great warrior and leader of men during the Trojan War – his strategy was the chief method by which the Greeks won the Trojan War. However, this can also result in him being supremely overconfident, which lands him in a greater degree of trouble than he would have if he focused more on strategy.
On his way home after the Trojan War, Odysseus is often tempted to stay wherever he is, delaying his trips or lingering too long to stop himself from getting in trouble. This is most acutely seen in the cave of Polyphemus - Odysseus lingers for too long to enjoy the cheese and milk discovered in the cave, allowing him to get captured by the Cyclops. Of course, he uses his cunning to escape, but his biggest mistake is one borne of pride – he tells the Cyclops his name on his way out, noting that no one can beat the “Great Odysseus” (Odyssey, Book 8, 199). This lands him in trouble with Poseidon, who then assembles the gods in order to stop Odysseus’ plans to return home. This decision gets all of Odysseus’ men killed, all for the sake of arrogance and overconfidence – an ironic twist of fate, given all the hard work he puts into selflessly trying to save his men in addition to himself.
Both Achilles and Odysseus carry the attributes of epic Greek heroism, which is much more inherently selfish and battle-oriented than the more moral, compassionate values of the modern hero. Achilles’ Heroic nature comes not from any true sense of kindness, as would be expected of a true modern hero, but from his aforementioned skill as a warrior. That being said, Achilles does learn a modicum of humility in the face of his battle with Hector. After defeating Hector, he is approached by King Priam to ask for the return of Hector’s desecrated body. Remembering Patroclus, the pain of this loss, and understanding Priam as a figure not unlike his father, Achilles relents, showing a rare moment of humility and respect. It is in this moment that Achilles truly grows into a more modern, well-rounded hero, if only slightly. However, it is uncertain whether or not Achilles will return to his more violent, aggressive nature, but for a moment, his bloodlust softens.
Whereas Achilles is a great warrior and fighter, Odysseus is immensely resourceful and cunning, choosing to trick his enemies rather than slay them. This type of deception cements his manipulative and underhanded methods of heroism, making him both an ideal Greek hero and modern anti-hero. His virtue lies in the honorable goal of returning to his love Penelope and reclaiming his rightful throne. Having to deal with all manner of worldly and otherworldly obstacles in his way along his journey home gives his tale that heroically epic scope indicative of Homeric literature. He defeats the Cyclops by getting him drunk on wine and blinding him while asleep. When he encounters the witch goddess Circe, he survives the trip with the help of the drug moly which resists her magic and makes her fall in love with him. In their encounter with the Sirens, Odysseus tells his men to tie him to the mast of his ship and leave him there no matter how he complains, and for his men to plug their ears with beeswax to block out their alluring song. With these obstacles and more, Odysseus proves his mettle in a different way than Achillles - by outsmarting his enemies rather than slaughtering them.
The anti-heroic nature of these characters when dealing with their enemies is ironically contrasted with the respectful way they treat their allies. While Achilles does not have a true romantic relationship with any of the female characters in the book, his relationship with Patroclus is the closest personal connection Achilles has to another human being. After giving up on battle out of spite, it is the death of Patroclus that spurs Achilles to return to the battlefield. Achilles’ grief in the wake of Patroclus’ death is immense, as he fasts, smears ash all over his body, and becomes completely unlike the strong, brash character we see otherwise throughout the book. His decision to return to war for the sake of avenging Patroclus’ death explicitly links his loving companionship with Patroclus to his need to fight. This male bond is the closest thing Achilles gets to a romantic partner. His thoughts of Patroclus are also what leads him to return the body of Hector to Priam, speaking to him to give himself permission to perform this kindness:
“Be not angry with me, Patroklos, if you discover, though you be in the house of Hades, that I gave back great Hektor to his loved father, for the ransom he gave me was not unworthy. I will give you your share of the spoils, as much as is fitting” (Iliad, Book 24, 591-595).
His reversal of attitude towards Priam, due to his love for Patroclus, gives him a momentary rush of sympathetic modern heroism.
While Achilles finds companionship through the love and companionship of Patroclus, Odysseus forges an unconventional relationship with Athena, the daughter of Zeus. She is chiefly responsible for sending Odysseus on this journey to begin with, but still intervenes regularly on his behalf to help him get out of particularly difficult situations. Athena’s choice to help Odysseus contrasts heavily with Poseidon’s (and occasionally Zeus’) malice towards him; this may be due to their mutual respect for disguises and deception. Athena herself says to Odysseus: “It would be a sharp one, and a stealthy one, who would ever get past you in any contriving; even if it were a god against you. You wretch, so devious, never weary of tricks, then you would not even in your own country give over your ways of deceiving and your thievish tales” (Odyssey, Book 13, 291-295). Athena keeps Odysseus on track to resume his family and fight for the virtues of love and kingdom, finding common ground in their penchant for trickery and cunning.
Use of disguises is part of Athena’s modus operandi for helping Odysseus. Athena comes to Princess Nausikaa in a dream in order to inspire her to go to the beach and help him. She also masks him in a disguise to make him look more attractive to her. This helps Odysseus impress Nausikaa’s parents, Arete and Alkinous, and she places a fog around him to protect him in the city. After disguising him as a little girl to gain him entry into the palace, she turns into a shepherd boy and reveals herself as a friend who is willing to help him in battle. They both share a love of metis, or wit, and this is what draws Odysseus’ favor to Athena. To that end, while Athena helps Odysseus get back to his proper life and home, he caters to his most modernly anti-heroic instincts by facilitating treachery and deceit as his primary weapon.
Looking at these traditional, selfish Greek heroes from a modern heroic perspective, Odysseus could be said to have the more fulfilling journey. Achilles in The Iliad is a great warrior with tremendous physical prowess and skill, but his pride leads him to have strained relationships with Agamemnon and to seek a fairly selfish attitude towards war and conflict. While his victory ensures he will enter the annals of epic oral poetry will memorialize his deeds for generations, his loss of Patroclus lends his story an element of heroic tragedy. While he manages to mute his pride long enough to show kindness toward King Priam, this is merely out of a sense of honor and respect for the dead. Conversely, Odysseus receives a much more fulfilling end to his journey, as his efforts allow him to return to Ithaca and reclaim his wife Penelope, giving him a peaceful family life by the end of the story.
Odysseus and Achilles in Homer’s The Odyssey and The Iliad are fairly similar anti-heroic figures, following along with the Homeric idea of heroism that favors accomplishments and status over moral goodness and sensitivity. While Achilles is mostly known for brute force warfare, Odysseus shows his mettle through trickery and deception. To an extent, they both have command of the gods - Achilles through prayer and Odysseys through the help of Athena. They are both pure Homeric heroes in their exercising of the tenets of arête, being virtuous and heroic through their abilities and skills. Despite this, they still carry a number of unsympathetic and brutish attributes that make them fall short of the contemporary definition of a hero. To that end, Odysseus and Achilles both demonstrate slightly different ways to be the kind of ultimate Homeric hero the Greeks admired, even if their behavior would not completely coincide with a modern conception.
Hawhee, Debra. Agonism and Arete. in Philosophy and Rhetoric 35(3) (2002): 185-207.
Homer. The Iliad. Trans. Richmond Lattimore. University of Chicago Press, 2011.
Homer. The Odyssey. Trans. Richmond Lattimore. Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2007.