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Ella Tournes

Ella Tournes


Total Article : 45

About Me:Sixth form student currently studying English Literature, Drama and Theatre Studies, Classical Civilisation and History.

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How far is Odysseus responsible for the sufferings of his men?

How far is Odysseus responsible for the sufferings of his men?

In trying to decide how responsible Odysseus is for the sufferings of his men, one has to bring into question the quality of Odysseus’ leadership. Odysseus is looked to as the authoritative figure in the group of men; ultimately, his decisions and actions decide to what degree his men suffer. However, this doesn’t mean that other factors aren’t responsible for the sufferings of Odysseus’ men; the men themselves, and their recalcitrant attitude towards Odysseus, along with the Gods, and fate, all contribute towards the men’s sufferings, and ultimate demises.  

In Ismarus, the land of the Cicones, six men from each of Odysseus’ ships die. Odysseus blames this on his men; he explains to the Phaecians that his ‘fools of men refused to leave’. This is true – Odysseus’ men plunder the land, and seem to want to do nothing but eat and drink (from the Cicones’ provisions), which ultimately leads to the Cicones turning on them. However, it can be argued that the men shouldn’t be blamed, or viewed as ‘greedy’ for their desire to stay in Ismarus; they have just fought ten years of war, and would understandably be reluctant to leave a place where they are happy. Although definitively heroic as a character trait, Odysseus’ overt stoicism could understandably irritate his companions, and cause them to disobey, or ignore him – this seems to be the case in a lot of points throughout Homer’s epic. Often, Odysseus’ wishes, and relentless focus on the main aim of the journey (i.e, actually making it home) oppose the wishes of his men, who are far more easily distracted by short-term pleasure. As a leader, Odysseus should have the strength to exert the necessary amount of authority to make his men leave Ismarus, but he doesn’t. How, if, and to what degree Odysseus exerts his authority when leading his men seems inconsistent throughout the story; sometimes he is very strict with his men (like in the episode where he physically removes them from the land of the Lotus-eaters), which is effective when trying to limit his men’s suffering (but also means that if anything goes wrong the blame rests solely on him). Other times, like, in the land of the Cicones, he seems weak-willed – this makes it harder to blame him for the men’s sufferings, when he is not the one that orchestrated them, but makes him seem indecisive and weak, which makes him a bad leader, which, in itself, would make him responsible for his men’s sufferings. Odysseus as a leader doesn’t seem to know how to allow his men freedom, whilst also exerting the necessary amount of authority – this can clearly be seen in the episode of the Cicones 

In some cases, responsibility of his men’s suffering doesn’t rest in Odysseus’ hands; such is the inevitability of fate, and Zeus’ (who ‘marshals the clouds’) implementation of it. No one provoked the ‘nine-day chas(ing) of accursed winds’ that brought them to the land of the Lotus-eater; it was just what was meant to happen. Episodes like this suggest that responsibility of the men’s suffering lies more with fate, and the Gods, than the actions of Odysseus.  

The episode of Polyphemus’ cave, and the consequent suffering and demises of his men can be argued as mostly Odysseus’ fault. Odysseus’ men advised him to ‘let them take away some of the cheeses, then come back, drive the kids and lambs quickly out of the pens down to the good ship, and so set sail across the salt water’, but Odysseus ‘was not to be persuaded…though it would have been far better so’. Odysseus lingers about the cave, and is indecisive, then makes the wrong decision to stay in Polyphemus’ cave, with hope that Polyphemus will display good xenia and bestow upon the men ‘some friendly gifts’. This shows a catastrophic lack of judgement on Odysseus’ part, which eventually ends in Polyphemus devouring two of his men on the spot, and imprisoning the rest. However, Odysseus shows himself to be a good leader, as he plans and executes the blinding of Polyphemus and the men’s escape, which exhibits his intelligence, but he then ruins it by stealing Polyphemus’ sheep and shouting out ‘derisive words’ to him, boasting about his triumph. In his pride and conceit, Odysseus reveals his true identity to Polyphemus, which angers him further and causes him to tell his father, Poseidon, that Odysseus had blinded him, which engenders Poseidon’s rage, which cause suffering for Odysseus’ men. No one but Odysseus can be blamed for this – his men try to ‘restrain and pacify’ him, to no avail. Odysseus’ hamartia (his arrogance) directly causes his men suffering; he is the one responsible. 

Odysseus’ men, at many points throughout the story, display an attitude of recalcitrance towards him. For example, when Aeolus, ruler of the winds, gives Odysseus a bag of winds to aid him, Odysseus specifically tell them not to open them, but they disobey, believing that Aeolus has given Odysseus a bag of treasure. They open the bag, which causes storms and consequent suffering, and leads them to Aeolia. The men’s disobedience is clearly not Odysseus’ fault – he specifically told them what to do, and they didn’t do it, so therefore are arguably responsible for their own suffering in this instance. However, there was no need for Odysseus to be quite so cryptic about the contents of the bag – he could’ve just told his men what its contents was. However, it could be argued that, again, Odysseus’ pride has caused his men suffering; he didn’t tell his men what Aeolus had given him because he wanted to perpetuate the idea of him being more ‘special’ than they were, being given a gift from Aeolus. The men also only had the chance to open the bag of winds was Odysseus was in such a deep sleep, due to his ‘utter exhaustion’, which had been brought about by handling the sheet of the ship without a break for nine days. Odysseus’ supercilious attitude towards his own capabilities versus his men’s makes him seem arrogant, and proud; if he trusted his men more, they might do the same, and therefore wouldn’t have opened the bag of winds out of suspicion.  

The most overt disobedience of Odysseus’ orders probably manifests itself in the men’s consumption of the sun-god’s cattle. Odysseus is admittedly too easily persuaded to stay on the island of Sun (Thrinacia) by Eurylochus, despite avoiding it completely being the most obvious way to avoid eating the sun-god’s cattle, which he’d been warned against by both Circe and Tiresius. However, Odysseus told his men multiple times, very clearly, not to eat the cattle, and they did, which indirectly lead to their ultimate demises. However, Odysseus left the men on their own, knowing that they were hungry – he should’ve had the foresight and intelligence, as a leader, not to do that, and to make them come with him to pray and make sacrifices to the gods.  

In conclusion, it is obvious that Odysseus cannot take sole responsibility for the sufferings of his men, nor can he be completely exempted from blame. Odysseus’s lack of leadership at various points of the story, as well as his arrogance, lead the men to a lot of suffering, but the men’s outright stupidity and unwillingness to listen to Odysseus does the same. In my opinion, Odysseus can blamed, either directly or indirectly for a lot of his men’s suffering – his actions often appear selfish, arrogant, and thoughtless to me – his attitude often doesn’t seem conducive to getting himself, and his men home safely and happily.

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