Most people would be content if they were granted immortality, lived on an island paradise, with a beautiful goddess, drinking wine and listening to soothing music. However, as a hero, Odysseus finds this idyllic and complacent life impossible and abysmal. Odysseus plays a central role in Homer’s epic cycle, appearing in the Iliad and as the main protagonist in the Odyssey. After successfully waging the war on Troy, Odysseus struggles to find his way home, overcomes various obstacles, resists temptations, and eventually returns home. The ways in which his character and personality changes as he encounters and handles unknown challenges highlights the qualities that were seen as heroic by Greek society. To Odysseus, the abyss is the frustration of not having completed his quest by triumphantly returning home. It is represented by a vast ocean full of seeming insurmountable obstacles. He experiences this abyss through a journey of both physical obstacles, like the ocean, and mental anguish, including loneliness, restlessness, grief, temptation and doubt. Odysseus experiences the abyss through both physical and psychological tribulations, which enable him to complete his hero's journey and return to Ithaca a more mature and wise ruler.
This psychological transformation that Odysseus experiences during the poem is part of what philosopher Joseph Campbell calls the “hero journey,” which is the foundation of many epic hero cycles. According to Campbell, a hero journey completes his quest in three distinct stages, departure and separation; initiation trials involving triumphant victories; and the heroes successful return and reintegration with society (Campbell 11). The Odyssey features all three element. Odysseus leaves for Troy, and is separated from his family and society. He experiences and overcomes physical and mental obstacles. Finally, he returns home, and reclaims his wife and household, successfully reintegrating into society. Campbell’s paradigm can be applied to many epic poems and hero narratives, from Beowulf to Star Wars:
A hero ventures from the world of common day into a region of
supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and
a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious
adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.”
The hero comes back a wiser more mature person, even more capable of contributing to his society. He is also a normative forming identity, that can be used to teach morals or establish shared ideology. Societies and cultures need myths, legends and heroes a variety of sociological reasons. A hero must represent a person who has suffered and matured, and therefore can offer both heroic action and the wisdom that comes from experiencing great challenges, triumphs and suffering.
The Odyssey examines the emotions involved in the unknown and being lost. Odysseus is lost, but never loses confidence in his ability or determination to reach home. He may lament his situation, but is always thinking and plotting his next move. He is man of physical action. However, he is a conflicted character, who wants glory and adventure, but also wants the comforts and stability of home. He wants a sanctuary, but spends a decade of his life overcoming various obstacles to get there, rejecting a number of comfortable alternative living arrangements. As a man who looks for adventure, getting out of trouble is his job, and Odysseus is very talented at negotiating difficult and dangerous situations.
For glory and adventure, Odysseus wages war and leads his men in battle. This same quality makes him restless and insecure, so he sits and dreams of home while sitting on the beach of Ogygia. He loves his wife and son, and is the powerful and respected king of Ithaca. Home is more than place to live, or his wife, it represents a goal. After Troy, his quest is not complete. To complete his heroic quest, he must return home, across the unknown abyss, represented by ocean, angry gods, seductively intoxicating lotus plants, sirens, whirlpools, and six headed monsters. These are all difficult physical obstacles, but Odysseus also has to contend with his own psychological abyss – feelings of loneliness, emptiness, isolation, complacently and nihilism.
However, in his quest to conquer the abyss and return home, Odysseus has a number of tools at his disposal. He is intelligent and a great warrior. He is also charismatic, and can give a eloquent speech when necessary. He is also just plain attractive and impressive. The goddess Calypso is so infatuated with him she is unwilling to let him leave Ogygia. However, Odysseus is not content with the secure, the comfortable and the advantageous. He has a goal, which is returning home, and getting there represents the unknown, or the abyss. Between Ogygia and home, he experiences inevitable challenges, hardships and mortal danger. This is part of the attraction Odysseus has for conquering the unknown. The challenges and adventures he experiences along the way only add to his determination and adding necessary words to his immortal biography.
Odysseus does not know the details, but his home is also abysmal. To complete his quest and become a hero, Odysseus must return and make things right. The life of a hero is a dangerous one. Despite his prowess, everyone in Ithaca just assumes he is dead. His son Telemarchus is in a bad situation. Penolope is unwilling to settle down with any of the ineffectual suitors. Odysseus does not know that his household is in chaos, he only knows that as a hero he must return to his home, because it is his home. In this case, the abyss is the chaos of the unknown situation in Ithaca, a household without its leader, a son and wife without their hero. Odysseus left because he was hero, looking for adventure, glory, honor and heroic immortality. Therefore, to complete the cycle, he must return for the same reasons. Telemarchus, however, is clearly his son, and wants to eject the suitors and standing his own ground as head of household. He also has his fathers power of elocution and persuasion, shown by his speech to the assembly about Penelope’s suitors.
Odysseus does not know the situation in Ithaca, but he knows one thing, the unknown abyss is going to be bad. Calypso begs Odysseus to stay, warning him of the challenges he will face trying to return home:
But if you only knew, down deep, what pains are fated to fill
in our house with me and be immortal. Much as you long to see your wife, the one you pine for all your days . . .(211-215).
Odysseus experiences many trial and obstacles in his quest to return home. When he is almost tempted to his death by the Sirens, Odysseus relies on his men to restrain him. Later, when his men are killed by the forces of temptation, Odysseus experiences the psychological torture of seeing his closest allies die. Odysseus adventures in a world of immortals, but he is mortal, and can die, making his actions heroic, and the landscape even more treacherous. .He gets some support from the gods but Poseidon attempts to kill him; the goddess Ino saves him Along with this divine intervention, Odysseus relies on his intelligence to guide him. He may be shipwrecked on an island, but he is already planning his next move. He does not stare into the abyss very long, he is a man of action, and this seems to propel him out of difficult situations.. In the poem, the abyss is symbolized in a number of ways. The ocean is a scary force of nature, capable of propelling you safely home, or violently smashing you to death against rocks. At best, Odysseus is relaxing with Calypso in paradise, at worst he at least survived and did not drown during a shipwreck. Islands represent both isolation, and comfort. It is hard to be a hero stuck on an island.
In The Odyssey, the abyss can also be something relatively benign, like apathy or a lack of ambition, which results in non-heroic behavior. The lotus-eaters represent everything that Odysseus is not; they are lazy, content, and satisfied with their lot in life. A true hero wants to uncover everything there is to discover and discover unknown knowledge and spoils. He plunges into the unknown, becoming immortal through tales of his exploits. The lotus eaters are the anti-thesis of this ideal, although Odysseus was willing to experiment with the narcotic flowers, and “wept bitterly” when he had to force his men back on the shop to continue their quest. Odysseus experiences temptation, and overcomes it because he must complete his journey to be a hero.
Finally, after all the trial and tribulation, the most dangerous abyss that Odysseus experiences is psychological. Odysseus displays feelings of loneliness, despair, restlessness and nihilism throughout the play, which are distinctly non-heroic. He feels the temptation of idleness and the Lotus flows, and experiences the tragedy of his crews deaths. These experiences represent the abyss of Odysseus’s own mind. However, he is able to overcome these feelings with his heroic nature, intelligence, bravery and nobility. His emotions mislead him, and can be negative; his actions are always positive and heroic. Unlike most heroes, Odysseus is a dynamic character who changes over the course of the narrative. Staring into the abyss and overcoming it makes him a more fully realized human character, instead of a caricature. At the beginning of the Odyssey, he is full of bravado and pride. He is boastful after Troy, and compelled to reveal his name to the Cyclops, which angers Poseidon. At the end, he is willing to disguise and subjugate himself as a beggar and endure abuse from the suitors. This is a sign that his quest is bigger and more important than his pride and ego. He returns to Ithaca an enlightened hero, to his immovable bed and resolute relationship with Penelope. Without the distress of the abyss there would be no heroism. Odysseus could have stayed with Calypso, married a Kings daughter, or munched on lotus leaves for the rest of his life. Instead, he was transformed by his experiences, and returned to Ithaca a wiser and more “powerful and fair king” (393- 399). By conquering the abyss, and completing the three elements of the hero’s journey, Odysseus is no longer a brash and imperious ruler, but a true hero, capable of more than slaying beast or conquering cities. He has shown through his experiences that he is capable of resisting temptation, has endured grief, and hardships, understands the importance of allies, and is psychologically more mature and prepared to rule his people.
Campbell’s, Joseph. "The hero’s journey." (1987).
Homer. The Odyssey. Penguin, 1997.