James Joyce described Odysseus as the complete man. His characterisation is certainly a masterpiece, but how does he fit into the mould of 'Homeric hero'? The Iliad offers a more comprehensive appraisal of heroism, and its characters often behave in a more 'heroic' way, but this is still an important issue in the Odyssey. The Homeric hero, to stereotype him, is supremely self-confident, a rampant egoist, brave, handsome, an orator, a consummate warrior, proud, intransigent, etc. Odysseus at times, especially in his own tales of his wanderings, displays all of these characteristics in abundance. And yet, he is quite prepared to indulge in what would seem to be the very unheroic behaviour of lying to others. This aspect has often been criticised by commentators, who have seen Odysseus as being not heroic enough.

The role of falsehood in the heroic code is a complex issue. Homer had a different conception of lies from a modern Christian, as one would expect. Lies are not intrinsically bad for him, and can even be the right course of action. He has a sliding scale of falsehood, rather than a dogmatic view that they are always wrong. Agamemnon's heroic status is not undermined at all in Iliad by his disingenuous comments to the army at the Achaean assembly. The only ramifications of his deeds here are the fact that he bungles what he intends to achieve that chaos ensues. It is only the assistance of the other heroes, notably Odysseus, that prevents a riot and mass mutiny. At the other end of the scale of lies is deliberate falsehood designed to harm another party. Odysseus only ever lies explicitly to protect himself, (except in the problematic case of his false tale to Laertes, which is certainly not intended to be taken seriously). It is in this light that his Cretan tales and other untruths must be considered. He is never definitely shown to lie for any other purpose in the Odyssey. As such, all his mendacity is little more than further than an extension of his general circumspection and prudence. Athena even praises this facet of his character after he lies to her on his arrival on Ithaca. Thus, Odysseus does not lose any of his stature as a hero by lying so frequently. Rather he is a hero in a different mould from, say, an Ajax or an Achilles, but no less valid a hero.

The Book of the Dead (XI) is the most important for any exposition of Homeric heroism in the whole Odyssey. Odysseus goes to Hades and talks to a number of his comrades from the Trojan War, each of whom sees his own nature as a hero in a very different light. Agamemnon is filled with indignation that his glory was so basely curtailed by a mere woman and a devious plot. Ajax proves that he is the by-word in heroic obstinacy by refusing to speak to Odysseus, still nursing his grudge against him over the arms of Achilles. Achilles, by far the greatest of the Achaean heroes who went to Troy, has the most startling opinions on the nature of heroism. Readers of the Iliad will be aware that he deliberately chose a dazzling but brief life over a long but obscure existence. Here he regrets that decision bitterly, and wishes he could have been the feeblest peasant rather than king of all the dead (XI.488-491). By contrast with these heroes and their differing views of heroism, Odysseus is shown to be a superior hero. He is free from Ajax's self- destructive intransigence. He does not share Agamemnon's bitterness or have a faithless wife. Like Achilles, he had the option to entirely change his whole life, in this case being offered immortality by Calypso. He rejected her gift, and, to judge by his happiness after his reunion with Penelope at Book XXIII, he made the right decision, unlike Achilles, who was too obsessed with his own glory, something he realises now he is dead.

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