The Homeric Hero

Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey are undoubtedly some of the cornerstones of the world literature. Accomplishments and adventures of Homer’s characters have become a part of the intellectual wealth of every well-read individual. Such expressions as the ‘Achilles’ heel’ and the ‘siren’s song’ have entered all European languages pretty much in the same fashion as verses and expressions from the Bible.

At the school and college level, however, there exists a widespread interpretation of Homer’s characters as static and devoid of psychologism. Odysseus is mainly associated with the love for homeland, Achilles with true friendship, Penelope with faithfulness, and so on. Although these characteristics may be accurate to a degree, this is not the end of the story. In fact, a closer look reveals that Homer’s characters are about as complex from the psychological point of view as those of Dostoievski! Of course, the intellectual and emotional complexity is rendered by Homer using a different array of literary tools, specific for his time and environment. 

The main characters of the Iliad and the Odyssey are often called heroes. Indeed, the very first lines of the Iliad contain a reference to heroes as the principal actors of the epic:

Sing, O goddess, the anger of Achilles son of Peleus, that brought countless ills upon the Achaeans.

Many a brave soul did it send hurrying down to Hades, and many a hero did it yield a prey to dogs and vultures…

In order to understand Homer it is necessary to define a hero as understood by ancient Greeks. According to an academic definition, “the term 'hero' had a technical sense in Greek religion: a hero was a figure less powerful than a god, to whom cult was paid.” Usually heroes of the ancient Greek religion were born out of the love of gods (or immortal beings) and humans. However, heroes in the religious sense of the word “were not identical with the heroes (this is Homer's word) of epic poetry, Achilles, Odysseus, and the rest, but the classes were not altogether distinct. Many of the poetic heroes did receive cult, and one reason for worshipping heroes must surely have been the feeling that they had been beings such as Homer described, stronger and altogether more splendid than the men of today” (Parker n.d.).

Heroes are an integral part not only of the ancient Greek religion, but also of the emerging science of history. The Trojan war, even if described in a mythological or semi-mythological fashion, provided a true basis for the Greek history of later centuries: “Right at the very source of this way of thinking in historical terms stood the noble idea that heroes from all over Greece should have come together to do battle against Troy” (Schefold et al. 79).

Let us see some of the attributes of an epic hero in Homer’s Iliad. Achilles, the main character of the poem, was the strongest and the bravest of all Achaean (Greek) warriors who besieged the city of Troy. Like other heroes, Achilles had a partially divine origin: his father was King Peleus, while his mother was a nymph called Thetis. Nymphs in the Greek mythology were immortal powerful female beings living in the forests, oceans, rivers, mountains, or on the stars.

The psychological portrait of Achilles as we can restore it from the Iliad, is very contradictory. However, this is precisely what makes it realistic, even by contemporary literary standards. On one hand Achilles is a born soldier - fierce, fearless, even cruel:

You know no pity; knight Peleus was not your father nor Thetis your mother, but the grey sea bore you and the sheer cliffs begot you, so cruel and remorseless are you. (Iliad, Book XVI)

On the other hand he is a man of deep emotions who is able to weep desperately over the body of his dead friend:

A dark cloud of grief fell upon Achilles as he listened. He filled both hands with dust from off the ground, and poured it over his head, disfiguring his comely face, and letting the refuse settle over his shirt so fair and new. He flung himself down all huge and hugely at full length, and tore his hair with his hands. (Iliad, Book XVIII)

Achilles is not a simple and straightforward character symbolizing a particular feature or a set of features as it often happens in folk tales and poems. It would not be an exaggeration to say that the main particular trait of Achilles is his irrationality. He is anything but logical. He did not want to go to (the) war knowing that he would be killed there. Yet, he throws himself heart and soul into the battle. Achilles does not spare anyone’s life when he is in anger, yet he cries like a baby when he is moved by emotions:

The two wept bitterly—Priam, as he lay at Achilles' feet, weeping for Hector, and Achilles now for his father and now for Patroclus, till the house was filled with their lamentation. (Iliad, Book XXIV)

He is often bitterly critical of Olympic gods who doom the humans to death, suffering and pain, yet he prays to and invokes the gods all the time showing exemplary piety. As a person, Achilles is literally made of contradictions and impulses. He is what he is, full of life, filled with emotions, unpredictable and erratic. Homer’s poems, with their mighty impact on the classical Greek and Roman and, subsequently, Western literature as a whole, provided a literary model for a psychological portrait for centuries to come. Achilles, and the Homeric hero in general, are in this sense very modern literary characters. Breaking with the ancient tradition to depict epic heroes as solid ideal individuals largely devoid of contradictions and weaknesses was definitely one of the most crucial contributions by Homer.

 

Homer. Iliad. n.p. n.d. Project Gutenberg. Web. 05 July 2016.

Parker, R. “Greek Religion” in Boardman J. et al. (1991) The Oxford History of Greece and the Hellenistic World. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Web. 05 July 2016.

Schefold, K., & Giuliani, L. (1992). Gods and heroes in late archaic Greek art. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

 

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