The Hero and the Notion of Personal Honor in the Homeric Culture
Heroes are depicted in literature in various ways. Homer, the author of epic poems “Iliad” and “The Odyssey” has portrayed his characters as heroes in his works. In Homeric culture, heroes strive to uphold their personal honor, for them honor was more important than their lives. The protagonists in his works are presented as heroes who fight for the sake of their nations and their personal honors. The epic poem “Iliad” by Homer is a narration of the story about Achilles and the consequences of his fury in the Trojan War. The war is being fought between the Greeks and the Trojans. The heroic deeds of Achilles and the significance given to personal honor by him are depicted in the poem “Iliad”. The poem “The Odyssey” focuses on the story of another Greek hero, Odysseus. Odysseus fails to return to his kingdom even though ten years have gone by after the defeat of Trojans. In his absence, his wife is harassed by suitors who desired to marry her. Upon returning, Odysseus kills all the suitors and thereby succeeds in maintaining his personal honor. In this paper we will analyze the heroes and the notion of personal honor in the Homeric culture.
The notion of heroism is depicted in the Homeric culture through the deeds of Achilles and Odysseus. In the poem “Iliad”, Achilles is portrayed as a hero whose strength and courage is admired and respected by the people. It is his rage that is presented by Homer in his poem. “Rage—Goddess, sing the rage of Peleus’ son Achilles, murderous, doomed, that cost the Achaeans countless losses, hurling down to the House of Death so many sturdy …… Begin, Muse, when the two first broke and clashed, Agamemnon lord of men and brilliant Achilles.”
( Homer 77). The reason behind the rage of Achilles was the demand made by Agamemnon. Agamnenion was forced to give up his reward, which was Chryseis, a beautiful Trojan maid. When held by Agamemnon, Chryseis prays to Apollo to rescue her. In reply to her prayer, Apollo causes the death of many Greek soldiers by inflicting them with plague. Upon knowing the reason for the plague, Agamemnon agrees to hand over Chryseis to the Trojans but he also insists on handing over of Briseis, who is claimed by Achilles. Achilles is angered by Agamemnon’s command and is ready to battle with him. He so enraged at this insult to his pride that he is all set to kill Agamemnon. At this point Hera, the queen of Gods sends goddess Athena to prevent Achilles from fighting with Agamemnon. Achilles is calmed down by Athena with the help of Nestor, the astute advisor. But after quarrelling with Agamemnon, Achilles refuses to fight in the war from Agamemnon’s side.
Achilles feels that his personal honor is at stake when Agamemnon orders him to return his reward, Briseis. His reply to Agamemnon brings forth his thought that he deserved the reward and the demand of Agamemnon was an insult to his personal honor. He points that it was him who fought bravely in the war but as far as his share of rewards was concerned it was very less compared to his efforts in war. “Compared with thine, my share is always small…the greater part of war’s laborious tasks these hands perform; but when the spoil is shared, thine are the richest prizes.” (Iliad Homer 245). Achilles was aware of the fact that his fighting abilities had aided the Agamemnon’s men in causing damage to the Trojans. When Achilles feels that he is not honored as a great fighter by Agamemnon, he refuses to fight in the war. It is the same honor which compels him to agree to fight again in the war. Patroclus convinces Achilles to fight in the war by reminding him about his honor.
Through the actions and thinking of Achilles, Homer depicts the notion of hero and personal honor. Achilles is a hero who defends his personal honor at any cost. “Homer’s Achilles embodies the Homeric ideal of personal honor and martial prowess at its most fierce, proud and uncompromising.” (Brown 26). In the Homeric culture, the hero fights for his personal honor. Being a great warrior, Achilles expects Agamemnon to honor his heroic deeds. But when Agamemnon fails to treat Achilles honorably, he shows his discontent and anger by not fighting in the war.
In the poem “The Odyssey”, the character of Odysseus comes across as a hero but his heroism is displayed in a different manner. His heroism is not concerned with his valiant efforts on the battlefield but with his attempts to survive and protect his family. Odysseus is unable to return to his kingdom, as he is being held as a prisoner by Calypso on an island. But later Calypso allows Odysseus to build a ship and leave the island upon the persuasion of Hermes. After encountering numerous problems, Odysseus reaches his kingdom, Ithaca but under the guise of a beggar. But even when he reaches Ithaca, he never reveals his true identity. Instead he speaks and acts like a beggar before Amphinomus, one of Penelope’s suitors. “Of all that breathes and crawls across the earth, our mother earth breeds nothing feebler than a man. So long as the gods grant him power…. and steel his heart. Our lives, our mood and mind as we pass across the earth, turn as the days turn.” (Homer & Fagles 434). Although Odysseus is able to hide his identity from the suitors, Penelope, his wife suspects him and to verify her doubt she arranges for a competition of archery for her suitors. She knew that only Odysseus can pass the test that she had arranged for in the competition. Odysseus not only succeeds in passing the test but also kills all the suitors with the aid of Telemachus and some of his loyal servants.
Odysseus is a hero but from a different perspective, he is a survivor who acts in a judicious manner and kills his enemies. “The hero of the Odyssey is outstanding neither for his straightforward, gallant conduct, in line with the yardstick imposed by the honor of his…. had been by fate but rather for his astute adroitness in all kinds of unexpected situations, his agility and his inexhaustible resourcefulness.” (Dilhe 19). He bears insult but continues to present himself as a beggar before all the suitors. He waits for a suitable time so that he can avenge the suitors who have harassed his wife during his absence. By killing the suitors and his enemies, he upholds his personal honor. The way he deals with his circumstances brings forth his fortitude to survive amidst unfavorable conditions. Like a hero, he overcomes the obstacles in his life and returns to protect his family. He resists the temptation to stay with Calypso and become immortal. Even when Calypso lures him, he decides to return to his family and face his enemies. “So then, royal son of Laertes, Odysseus, man of exploits, still eager to leave at once and hurry back to your own home……reach that shore, you’d stay right here, preside in our house with me and be immortal. Much as you long to see your wife, the one you pine for all your days.” (Homer & Fagles 208). Instead of succumbing to his adversities, he strives to surmount them and achieve his aim. His personal honor resides in protecting his wife from the suitors. Although Odysseus differs from Achilles in his attitude regarding personal honor and heroic deeds, he defeats his enemies as Achilles succeeds in overcoming the Trojans in the war. The other side of a hero in the Homeric culture is presented through the insightful thinking of Odysseus. His heroism is not dependent on his physical strength or fighting abilities. It is his ability to think incisively that aids him in coming back to his family.
The heroes depicted in the Homeric culture display different qualities but they succeed in preserving their personal honor. The notion of personal honor is related to heroism in the literary works by Homer. Among the various qualities of hero, the significance given to personal honor is prominent in Homer’s heroes. In the poem “Iliad”, Achilles is a hero, for he refuses to compromise his personal honor. He confronts Agamemnon for the sake of his honor. Although he stops fighting in the war after his altercation with Agamemnon, it is for the same honor that he agrees to fight again from Agamemnon’s side. Achilles is a hero whose bravery and fighting abilities aid his side in emerging victorious in the war. Odysseus, the hero in the epic poem “The Odyssey” survives even in adverse conditions and arrives in his kingdom to protect his family. His heroism is displayed through his judicious behavior and perceptive thinking. He preserves his personal honor by killing the suitors who cause trouble to his wife. In the Homeric culture, a hero is expected to stand up and fight when his personal honor is at stake. Both Achilles and Odysseus fight for defending their personal honor. But Achilles’ personal honor is related to his reward whereas Odysseus regards protecting his family as his personal honor. As heroes, they possess skills and talents that differentiate them from the common people. Homer’s heroes are more concerned about preserving their personal honor than their safety and wellbeing.
Brown, Andrew. A new companion to Greek tragedy. Taylor & Francis. 1983.
Dilhe, Albrecht. Greek and Latin Literature of the Roman Empire: From Augustus to Justinian.
Homer & Fagles, Robert. The Odyssey. Penguin Classics.1997.
Homer. Iliad. Deluxe Edition. Penguin Classics. 1998.