The Odyssey — a literary and axiological revolution

Learn about how Homer's Odyssey redefines what it means to be a hero

Perhaps the greatest axiologicalAxiology is the study of values shift in European literature can be seen in one of its oldest epics, Homer's Odyssey. The "shift" here can be defined in comparison with the Iliad, which is mostly a typical text for the ancient world in terms of values, as it is a typical representative of the heroic epic. In this article, I will try to show how The Odyssey instead offers us a set of values that is very different from those of the previous epic.

One of the manifestations of the dominant values in Homeric texts is the "permanent epithets" used in relation to the characters in the work. Thus, in the Iliad, the main characters are given the following epithets:

  • Achilles: "swift-footed," "godlike," "warlike."
  • Agamemnon: "the great," "lord of men," "mighty."
  • Hector: "helmeted," "copper-armed," "man-killer."
  • Eanthe: "swift", "courageous".

In other words, the main values here are physical strength, belligerence, speed, and statehood. As Ames, a literary researcher, shows, a similar conclusion can be reached by analyzing which characters are called "heroes" in the Iliad.

Instead, in the Odyssey, one can see a completely different set of values, where the bridge between the "old" values of the Iliad and the "new" values of the Odyssey is Odysseus himself. One of his main epithets is "δαΐφρων", which dictionaries translate with two meanings:

  • warlike, fiery
  • wise, prudent

The first is the warlike Odysseus who mercilessly kills the "suitors" on Ithaca, and the second is the "cunning" and "intelligent" Odysseus, a meaning that is also confirmed by other epithets of the hero: "πολύτροπος" ("shifty, versatile, wily") and "πολύμητις" ("of many counsels"). Jeffrey Steadman combines these two meanings by translating "δαΐφρων" as "skilled in war, in peace". In other words, Odysseus is a hero of the transition from traditional masculine values in times of war to the values of peace, when the use of one's own reason and cunning is more important than physical strength. This is also supported by the plot: Odysseus copes with most of the situations he finds himself in with the help of some kind of deception or cunning. Take, for example, the cave of Polyphemus, where Odysseus and his companions are saved by Odysseus' playing with the language itself. He calls himself "Nothing," which helps them eventually leave the island without having to deal with the other Cyclopes.

Joseph Mallord William Turner
"Ulysses Deriding Polyphemus" by J. M. W. Turner

But if Odysseus is a hero on the verge of transition, then if we look at the other characters in the poem, we can say with certainty that the transition did take place. As Ames shows, The Odyssey completely changes the very meaning of the word "hero." A hero is no longer a warrior skilled on the battlefield, but rather a wise old man who may never have been on the battlefield. This is the case, for example, with Halitherses, who is called a "hero" despite being a mere seer. Halitherses is the man who sees the signs given by the birds, and at the end of the poem he actually prevents further bloodshed between Ithaca and the families of the murdered suitors. This is another illustration of the fact that for the Odyssey, prudence and foresight are much more important than warfare.

What is also interesting is the gender aspect of the value shift in The Odyssey. One of the most important characters in the poem is Penelope, who is the personification of loyalty, caution, and the same cunning as her husband has. Scholar Barbara Clayton has suggested that Penelope is a key character in the poem for several reasons. First of all, without her, the return of Odysseus, as well as episodes such as the one on the island of Calypso, where Odysseus renounces immortality in order to return to his wife, would not make sense. The second reason has its basis in the way Penelope "wove" and "intertwined" her father's shroud. According to the scholar, what is interesting here is the shift in focus from the object of creation and the process of creation, because for Penelope it is not so much what she creates as the fact that this creation takes time. That is, here we see a shift in focus from what is done to how something is done. At this time Fowles's phrase "[m]en see objects, women see the relationship between objects" can come to mind, in which one can see a certain similarity with Barbara Clayton's interpretation of Penelope's image. That is, Penelope is a carrier of a categorically different system of values, where it is not the objects themselves that are important, but certain connections and processes that connect these objects. Clayton calls this "Penelopean poetics," which can be considered key to the entire tradition of oral epic.

Pinturicchio, "Penelope with the Suitors"
"Penelope with the Suitors" by Pintoricchio

To summarize, I can say that Homer's Odyssey is one of the most important texts in world literature in terms of its axiological shift, which, in the case of the poem under consideration, means a transition from traditionally masculine values associated with warriorism to the values of reason, foresight, and femininity.

Further reading

  1. Clayton, B. (2004). A Penelopean Poetics. Reweaving the Feminine in Homer's Odyssey. Lexington Books.
  2. Ames, K. E. (2009). The Rebirth of Heroism from Homer’s Odyssey to Joyce’s Ulysses. In _Bloom’s Modern Critical Views: James Joyce, New Edition _(pp. 141–160). Infobase Publishing.