Odysseus was the hero’s hero. King of Ithaca, he sailed to Troy with an army of men to liberate the princess Helen from the Trojans. Odysseus’ leadership and prowess at Troy made him a legend among his fellow Greeks. Yet, Odysseus had a fatal flaw, and this would be his undoing. Odysseus could master a chariot and a phalanx of soldiers, but he wasn’t always the master of himself. Every now and then, his pride would get the better of him and he would become wild and unchecked, a primal force of passion and fury.
In these moments, Odysseus would forget the limits of his powers. He would believe that he was god-like and untouchable, the master of fate and destiny. He would lose his grip on reason. He would overreach himself and get himself into all kinds of scrapes.
Finally he messed up big time. The epic misfortunes of Odysseus’ life, dramatized by Homer in The Odyssey, hinged upon a single lapse in self-control. Odysseus’ error presents valuable insights into the kind of self-control that we need to deal successfully with change. Most importantly, it indicates how pride, or hubris, constantly undercuts our attempts at self-mastery. We believe that we are masters of the world. We overreach ourselves and wind up victims of the world instead.
Homer describes Odysseus as a master strategist – a ‘man of twists and turns’. It was Odysseus, at the siege of Troy, who devised the plan for getting the Archaean army into the city. Disguising himself as a beggar, ‘searing his body with mortifying strokes and throwing filthy rags on his back like a slave’, Odysseus stole into Troy and read its defences. When Helen recognized him she insisted that he tell her his plan. Odysseus gave it up reluctantly. The Archaeans would build a giant horse and put soldiers in its belly, giving it to the Trojans as a gift. It was a crazy scheme but it just might work! Under the cover of darkness, the soldiers would creep from the horse and throw wide the city gates and the Archaean army would come pouring in. This is how Odysseus, ‘master of any craft’, facilitated the conquest of Troy and liberated the beautiful princess Helen.
Odysseus’ journey back to Ithaca was less successful. In fact it was a disaster. First, Odysseus failed to mobilize his men back to the fleet after they’d sacked Ismarus, city of the Cicones. The Cicones attacked the Ithacans as they sat feasting on the beach and the tide ran red with blood. Next stop was the land of the lotus eaters, where Odysseus’ soldiers sampled the ‘honey sweet fruit’ and lost all desire to return home. Odysseus had to forcibly reconscript his crew, driving them back to their posts and lashing them to the oars to make their escape.
It was at the island of the Cyclops that things really came unstuck. Exploring this island, hunting for goats, Odysseus and his men became trapped in the cave of Polyphemus, a one-eyed giant who happened to be the son of Poseidon, Lord of the Sea. Through the resourcefulness and nerve of their captain, the soldiers blinded the Cyclops and escaped his lair clinging to the bellies of sheep. But as they rowed back to the ship, ducking the boulders that the Cyclops hurled at them from the shore, Odysseus lost his self-control for just one moment. He roared at Polyphemus on the beach:
‘Cyclops – if any man on the face of the earth should ask who blinded you, shamed you so – say Odysseus, raider of cities, he gouged out your eye…’
It was a fatal lapse. Polyphemus called on Poseidon to avenge him and Odysseus, as a result, knew nothing but bad luck from that day. Gods, monsters and stormy weather conspired to drive his ship far from its intended destination. It would be ten long years before Odysseus made it home to Ithaca and his wife and son. [Read more...]