Why Is Odysseus a Hero?

Roark Wilson, Jennifer Carnevale, Jenna Clayton
  • Author
    Roark Wilson

    Roark Wilson is an aspiring young teacher with a Bachelor of Arts from Sewanee: The University of the South and a Master of Studies in eighteenth-century literature from the University of Oxford. He has acted as an informal tutor for two years and a saber fencing coach for seven.

  • Instructor
    Jennifer Carnevale

    Jennifer taught 9th grade ELA and AP Literature for over 8 years. She has a dual master's in English Literature and Teaching Secondary Ed from Simmons University and a BS in Psychology. She is a full-time senior content writer and certified AP Test Reader.

  • Expert Contributor
    Jenna Clayton

    Jenna received her BA in English from Iowa State University in 2015, and she has taught at the secondary level for three years.

Understand Odysseus as an epic hero. Explore the Greek hero characteristics, review Odysseus’ strengths and weaknesses, and view examples of Odysseus being a hero. Updated: 12/18/2021

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Is Odysseus a Hero?

Is Odysseus a hero? The central character of Homer's epic poem, the Odyssey, is difficult to pin down. Odysseus is a fearsome warrior capable of great deeds, has many of the Olympian gods assisting him in his travels, yet has many character qualities that chafe against the normal expectations of a Homeric hero. This divide becomes all the more striking as modern expectations render Odysseus' actions increasingly less heroic. He is sneaky, cunning, and does his best to avoid fair fights—not particularly becoming of a hero, either ancient or modern. Furthermore, he fails his initial objective. Odysseus aims to return home with his men, but all of his loyal entourage die on the journey. Despite this, Odysseus' catalog of deeds and position in the Homeric epic ultimately declare him a hero.

A sculpture of Odysseus, likely crafted in the first century AD.

Despite being the central character of an epic, the heroic traits of Odysseus are often disputed.

Greek Hero Characteristics

Why is Odysseus a hero? Heroes from Greek antiquity draw from two linked sets of expectations. Heroes were expected to embody cultural ideals, and as a result, possess a series of virtues that the Greeks found noble. "Homeric heroes", oftentimes also known as "epic heroes" in Western literary traditions, refer to the archetype of the character created by Homer's Iliad and Odyssey. These two epic poems from ancient Greece laid the foundations for future Western literature, and, as a result, the archetypes and tropes within them were perpetuated far into the future. Because of those two joint influences, Greek heroes are notable for the following qualities:

  • Noble/divine birth: The vast majority of Homeric heroes have some noble or divine ancestry. These two were often linked—as an example, Achilles' mother was a nymph, while Oedipus had a very distant familial association with Zeus. That divine blood placed them into the position of rulership, and both were rulers of their respective cities.
  • Divine assistance: Greek heroes are noted for their close association with the gods. In the Iliad, this generally takes the place of gods protecting their children or descendants. For example, Aphrodite's personal involvement in the war tends to entangle her from saving her son Aeneas. Similarly, Athena supports several heroes throughout the course of the war, most notably Diomedes.
  • Superhuman capabilities: This is most commonly associated with strength-at-arms. Greek heroes were capable of tremendous feats of physical might, defeating other strong heroes or monsters.
  • Courage: This typically comes alongside superhuman capabilities. Fighting monsters or other heroic individuals takes a great deal of courage, and the Iliad, in particular, is filled with moments of courageous heroism that are halted only by the Olympians themselves.
  • Loyalty: Depending on the individual, the way in which they express loyalty can differ. Regardless, most Greek heroes hold very close friendships or family ties. Alternatively, one can look at the collection of Achaean forces that gathered to siege Troy.
  • Intelligence: A slightly more contentious trait, though some Greek heroes are notable specifically for their intelligence. Take Nestor, an elderly participant in the Trojan War who was noted for his quiet wisdom and flawless strategy.
  • Tragic flaw: While this is most closely associated with the archetype of a "tragic hero," most Greek heroes had some negative characteristics to balance out the long list of positive qualities. This negative trait served to humanize individuals that could otherwise seem somewhat inhuman.

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Why Is Odysseus a Hero?

While some of his actions seem less than heroic to the modern reader—such as his penchant for deception and initial unwillingness to unmask himself to either Penelope or his father—Odysseus possessed each common trait of an epic Greek hero.

  • Noble/divine birth: Odysseus' nobility is unquestionable—he has inherited the throne of Ithaca from his father, Laertes. Furthermore, if traced far enough, Odysseus has the blood of Zeus in his family.
  • Divine assistance: Both Hermes and Athena directly intervene on Odysseus' behalf, and despite the potent enmity of Poseidon, most of Olympus seems to be tacitly backing him.
  • Superhuman capabilities: Odysseus is certainly capable of tremendous feats of strength. Even if one discounts his slaughtering of the suitors due to the assistance of Athena, he possesses a bow that none of the suitors can so much as a draw.
  • Courage: Odysseus conducts himself admirably throughout many of the harrowing moments on his journey, proving his courage many times over.
  • Loyalty: Odysseus' loyalty to Penelope and to his people are both admirable, if not as admirable as Penelope's to him. Furthermore, throughout most of his journey, Odysseus' main goal was to get himself and his men safely home. His dedication to his men is demonstrated in multiple episodes, one of the most prominent being the crew's stop on the island of the Lotus Eaters—a place filled with memory-altering and trance-inducing foodstuffs. Odysseus was forced to drag the entranced men back to the ship so that they might recover.
  • Intelligence: This is one of Odysseus' most potent qualities, to such an extent that it nearly falls under "superhuman capabilities." Odysseus' heroic reputation is marked by a series of clever and deceitful stratagems, both inside the Odyssey itself and in other Greek works of myth.
  • Tragic Flaw: Odysseus's pride often gets him into trouble throughout his journey. This causes a major delay in his return home—instead of simply sailing away after besting the cyclops Polyphemus, Odysseus stops to taunt the monster with his name. This allows Polyphemus to invoke the wrath of his father Poseidon, whose influence drives Odysseus to disaster after disaster.

In addition to having all the traits of a classic Greek hero, Odysseus also carries the same meta-narrative implications as other Homeric heroes. Homeric heroes are peerless in many respects, standing out from the swathes of humanity around them for their brilliance and near-inhuman capacities. Odysseus achieves a great many things that a normal human would find impossible—the deaths of his crew demonstrate this very vividly, as no others were able to escape and survive the many trials as he did. Odysseus' heroism is ultimately confirmed by his achievements.

Odysseus' Strengths

Most of Odysseus' strengths match the list of heroic traits above. He is the king of Ithaca—blatantly noble, and of high status. His superhuman strength becomes increasingly clear throughout the epic, reaching a peak during the contests among the suitors. While none of the suitors are capable of firing Odysseus' old bow, he manages to do so with ease. His courage is beyond reproach—though he is known for clever stratagems to avoid or minimize danger, consider his willingness to endure the siren song when none of his crew would.

Each of these characteristics is a relatively common strength possessed by Greek heroes. The element that most distinguishes Odysseus from other Achaean heroes is his cleverness and intelligence. Odysseus is infamous for the various stratagems he employs to solve his problems. These stretch into the past—the Trojan Horse that ended the war was an invention of Odysseus. Even within the Odyssey, Odysseus' ingenuity is on display. He comfortably disguises on multiple occasions and, most notably, when he schemes to escape the now-blinded Polyphemus by having his men hide under the cyclops sheep so that when he pats the sheep to ensure that no men are escaping the cave, he cannot feel them. Odysseus' intelligence is such that Athena herself acknowledges him as the cleverest mortal alive, saying the following in book XIII:

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Odysseus Writing Activity

Essay Activity

In this lesson, you learned about all of the characteristics of an epic hero. You then were given information about Odysseus' strengths and weaknesses. Based on this information, Odysseus has been determined to be a hero. For this activity, you are going to respond to the following essay prompt:

Do you agree that Odysseus deserves to be called an epic hero? Why or why not? Use text evidence to support your answer.

First, review all of the information from this lesson and draw your own conclusion. Next, you will need to create a thesis statement. This thesis statement should clearly and concisely express your opinion. Here is an example of a thesis statement that could be used for this writing activity: Although Odysseus possesses many characteristics of an epic hero, he shouldn't be called an epic hero because it cannot be proven that he is of mixed or divine birth. After your thesis statement is written, it is time to organize your ideas by using the outline below. Once your outline is completed, start writing your essay. Make sure to revise, edit, and proofread your work before publishing or turning-in.

I. Introduction

  • Hook/Attention-Getter
  • Briefly introduce Odysseus and the main characteristics of an epic hero.
  • Thesis Statement

II. Body Paragraphs

  • Reason #1
  1. Explain your point thoroughly.
  2. Include specific details and logical thinking to support your idea.
  • Reason #2
  1. Explain your point thoroughly.
  2. Include specific details and logical thinking to support your idea.
  • Reason #3
  1. Explain your point thoroughly.
  2. Include specific details and logical thinking to support your idea.

III. Conclusion

  • Summarize your main points.
  • Re-state your thesis statement.
  • Provide a closing statement.

What qualities make Odysseus a hero?

Odysseus is an individual who achieves a variety of great deeds through sheer strength of arms and cleverness. Because heroes of Greek antiquity embody the cultural ideals of the time, Odysseus' loyalty, strength, intelligence, and courage all render him heroic.

Why is Odysseus not considered a hero?

Odysseus' conniving nature and cautious willingness to hurt those most loyal to him—in this case, remaining disguised when speaking to his wife and father, both of whom think he is likely dead and miss him dearly—make him seem less than heroic. In addition to this, his flaws spark a series of events that end with his men's death during the journey home.

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