God and Man in Homer’s Odyssey

Posted on Feb 08 1999

Tell a man that he can do something astonishing–and he will likely disbelieve you. He will doubt himself, doubt his capacity for heroic, gallant, daring action. But tell that same man that God wills it–or that the gods or goddesses are behind him–and then suddenly, almost miraculously, he will do it; he will believe in himself and he will be able to do it. This is the ultimate appeal of the gods in Homer’s epic Odyssey.

It represents the almost complete abdication of moral responsibility–the gross and utter rejection of free will and individual volition–and substitutes in its place, the so-called heroic and Romantic ideal: the mythical notions of fate, destiny, and the supernatural will of the gods.

Heroic and celebrated Odysseus, the so-called “man of many wiles,” is, in reality, the man of many gods. Severe though his endless torments may be, profound though his many excruciating agonies may be–yet, through it all, he is perpetually aided and comforted by the gods and goddesses that be (most especially, by the goddesses).

At virtually every step of his immense journey, Odysseus encounters numerous transcendental beings, who either work to uphold or subvert his homeward quest. Poseidon, the angry god of the sea, thwarts him, and curses him for blinding his belligerent Cyclops son, Polyphemus. Even the goddess Circe at first turns his men into swine. Calypso imprisons him. The almighty Zeus, at one point, even strikes out at his fleet in the open seas.

Nevertheless, Odysseus is a man both blessed and condemned by fate, though ultimately blessings, after much travail, eventually prevail.

To be sure, Odysseus’ fate has been foreseen. Even the enraged Polyphemus admits, “I hear again an ancient prophecy. An augur once lived here . . . What he foretold is now fulfilled. He said that I would be a victim of Odysseus: he would blind me.”

Odysseus is blessed with a reserved seat in life. His fate is assured. After many trials, he is destined to finally reach Ithica and vanquish the vicious and impudent suitors of his beloved wife, Penelope. Athena, the goddess daughter of Zeus, assists Odysseus and his son Telemachus throughout this ordeal. The possibility of
Odysseus’ ultimate failure is ruled out entirely.

And here again lies that false Romance of Fate, that grand myth of epic proportions–the illusion of destiny as pure seduction, still persisting to the present day: the idea that Man is not entirely responsible for his fate; that self is not enough; that surely there must be more: heaven, hell, God, angels, another, more transcendental, spiritual world. Hence, a deeply entrenched historical, religious and traditional view of determinism is advanced in the Odyssey of Odysseus.

All fiction, to some degree or other, is inherently political, or psycho-philosophical. The poetic art of Homer is no exception.

“Art,” Ayn Rand wrote in The Romantic Manifesto, “is a selective re-creation of reality according to an artist’s metaphysical value-judgments.”

“By means of a selective re-creation,” Miss Rand continued, “an artist isolates and integrates those aspects of reality which represent his fundamental view of men and of existence.”

In the Odyssey, we see that man is ruled by gods. Through the constant sacrificial offerings to the gods, through the fascinating interplay between men and gods, through the pervasive emphasis on fate and destiny, we see the concept of free-will substantially subdued. It is essentially an indictment upon the power, the innate potential, and the free will of man.

This indictment, however, is not entirely complete. Unlike Hawaiian folk tales or other primitive oral traditions, the gods of the Odyssey are men and women taking on human forms (and experiencing human vices, the entire panorama of human emotions: passion, lust, jealousy, hate, revenge). They are not owls or other mere animals.

In this regard, one is almost imbued with a faint sense of uplifting, morally sublime, heroic humanism–the wildly intoxicating idea of man as god, and god as man, as curiously exemplified in the frequent copulation between the mortal and the immortal . . . in a feverish dalliance of life and death, of the temporary and the eternal.

This, perhaps, is Homer’s greatest contribution to the superior progress of Western Civilization.

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