How does Homer portray the human propensity to succumb to temptations as an obstacle?
‘So headstrong —why? Why rile the beast again?’
‘That rock he flung in the sea just now, hurling our ship
to shore once more —we thought we’d die on the spot!’
‘If he’d caught a sound from one of us, just a moan,
he would have crushed our heads and ship timbers
with one heave of another flashing, jagged rock!’
‘Good god, the brute can throw!’
So they begged
but they could not bring my fighting spirit round.
I called back with another burst of anger, ‘Cyclops —
if any man on the face of the earth should ask you
who blinded you, shamed you so —say Odysseus,
raider of cities, he gouged out your eye,
Laertes’ son who makes his home in Ithaca!’
(Odyssey[footnoteRef:1] 9.550-562) [1: All citations henceforth refer to The Odyssey. trans. Fagles, R. (2006). London: Penguin.]
In The Odyssey, the many physical challenges faced by the protagonist, Odysseus, are often thought to be the main obstacle in achieving his nostos (homecoming). However, it is the psychological challenge of overcoming temptations that plays the key role in complicating Odysseus’ journey back to Ithica. These temptations, be it Odysseus’ own or his men’s, distract them from their goals, and lead them to make rash decisions which are critical in delaying and complicating their journey. Given Odysseus’ position as a leader for his crew, his rash decisions and selfish hunger for kleos (glory) also make readers question his leadership skills and wonder if he really is worthy of being labelled a ‘hero’. This essay discusses the human inclination to succumb to temptation as exhibited mainly by Odysseus, and how it proves to be his greatest obstacle in achieving his nostos.
In Odysseus’ journey, there is no doubt that he faced great physical challenges, being out at sea for a long period of time. Even so, Odysseus was always portrayed as cunning, thinking of witty solutions to resolve the problems he faced. In his encounter with the cyclopes Polyphemus, Odysseus faced a great physical challenge as he and his men were imprisoned by Polyphemus in a cave. Odysseus, being a sly “man of twists and turns” (1.1), devised a plan to outsmart Polyphemus by stabbing his eye under the guise of ‘Nobody’, to conceal his identity. However, upon escaping the cave, Odysseus was unable to resist revealing his true identity to his victim, shouting that he is “Odysseus, raider of cities… Laertes’ son who makes his home in Ithica!” (9.560-562), ultimately foiling his own plan. The structure in which he reveals his identity is typical of Homeric Greece, speaking to the cultural values of that time period. By labelling himself the ‘raider of cities’, Odysseus is characterised as brave, yet egotistical, as he speaks highly of himself. The war-like epithet “raider of cities” portrays Odysseus as a powerful man who is able to...