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Odysseus/Ulysses in Greek and Roman Art, Research Paper Example

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Words: 2702

Research Paper

Introduction

Heroes of Greek and Roman myth are notoriously conflicted, or less than “heroic.”  Herakles is often an enraged brute, merely reacting to the pressures of contests and divine manipulation.  Achilles, certainly as interpreted by Shakespeare, is alternately spiteful and inclined to enjoy the love of Patroclus in favor of battle (Sinfield  90).  Few classic heroes, however, can rival the duality consistently represented by Odysseus.  As Homer reveals him, this is a hero who is both courageous and weak, as he is both clever and irrational.  He ingeniously defies the Sirens and devises an escape from the Cyclops, relentlessly holding to his goal of returning home to Ithaca and Penelope.  At the same time, if he does not surrender to the seductions of Calypso, he nonetheless spends seven years on her island, behavior oddly contradicting a burning desire to return home.  Then, upon his return, he exacts a strangely monstrous revenge on all those who have sought to replace him.  What all of this then represents, and as is powerfully reinforced in Greek and Roman art, is an Odysseus who is not so much a hero, but both a flawed human, and a victim of fate and the inclinations of the gods.  As the following will demonstrate, the duration of Odysseus’s journey, as well as his innate character and behaviors, are employed in Greek and Roman art to emphasize how even highly capable men are simultaneously less than noble and essentially the pawns of divine power.

Literary Foundation

Before any understanding of how Greek and Roman Art represents Odysseus as victimized – as well as possessed of many mortal flaws – it is necessary to examine his actual presence in Homer.  The Odyssey is the template from which centuries of legends have arisen, and certainly the mainspring of the artistic efforts in both Grecian and Roman interpretations.  From the start of the epic poem, Homer presents Odysseus as victimized beyond reason.  The opening lines make it clear that all the warriors of the Trojan battles are safely home save for him, and that Poseidon is the only god not pitying Odysseus.  Even here, however, there is also a note sounded conveying the mortal weakness of the hero, in that Calypso still clings to him 1  The debate between Athena and Zeus notwithstanding, it is made clear by Homer that this is a hero with more than one dimension.

Then, the cunning and courage of Odysseus in saving his men from disaster are usually necessitated by his placing them in danger himself, as when his curiosity and desire for personal glory trigger the rage of Polyphemus.2  The weak inclinations of the man consistently underscore and defy the heroic intentions, and duality of character marks virtually every episode of the Odyssey.  Just as the hero is both pained and joyful in leading his remaining men from the clutches of Polyphemus, so too is his encounter with Scylla reflective of ambiguity; the monster, in essence, is presented as the triumphant warrior against the intrusive presence of Odysseus.3  In no uncertain terms, Homer’s Odysseus is a hero who exhibits behaviors strikingly at variance with his own agenda: “Odysseus not only voluntarily adds ten years to his wanderings, he seems almost relieved to hear Teiresias’ prophecy that he will have to leave home once again and continue wandering until death.”4  The mortal, it seems, is as responsible for his own tragedies and disappointments as any divine agent.

At the same time, and as Greek and Roman art reflects, there appears as well to be in Homer an urgency to emphasize the ultimate impotence of man, hero or otherwise, in conducting his own existence.  This is powerfully presented late in the tale, when the full meaning of the hero.”5  The narrative subtly implies that Odysseus’s perception of his misfortunes as the malice of the gods is valid, if only partially so.  More exactly, he creates his own victimization by defying the desires of the gods in behaving as they feel he must.6  Gods and men are in Homer inextricably bound, their destinies dramatically influencing one another.  This relationship notwithstanding, however, the inescapable reality remains that the gods, literally dictating events, more forcefully direct fate.  It is divine destiny that gave Odysseus his legacy of pain and the need to endure, even as he abets the obstacles and harms through his own hubris.  Consequently, Homer’s Odysseus, the platform for artistic representation, is something of an “everyman,” victimized by a fate he himself encourages.

Artistic Reflections of the Character

Odysseus and the Sirens is the name given to a red-figured stamnos from the 5th century B.C.E., displayed at the British Museum and the work of an unknown potter or painter.7  It is a striking statement regarding a perception of Odysseus likely prevalent in the Greek culture of the era.  The image on the vessel, to begin with, is purely out of the myth as related by Homer.  The ship is besieged by the Sirens, flying and circling, and Odysseus is centered, tied to the mast.  Around him, the men presumably have their ears stuffed with wax, as they are not tied to the ship and would be lured to their deaths by the singing.  As the image is so straightforward, the presentation of Odysseus here may be seen as ultimately heroic.  Beyond occupying the center of the scene, he is tall, strong, bearded, and muscular.  Moreover, the incline of his head and what may be discerned of expression indicates great endurance, or suffering.  On one level, then, this is a hero literally held captive, yet resolute and unyielding, which implies nobility of character.  Consequently, the perception fueling the image supports a cultural idea of Odysseus as a victim, particularly as the size and power of the Sirens is so impressive.  He is, his other adventures aside, a mortal man facing divine power, and the imbalance of power is clearly unjust.

It is, however, also arguable that the artist is presenting a more dimensional idea of Odysseus .  It is highly probable that the Greeks of the era held to a multifaceted view of Odysseus, one very much enabled by Homer’s subtle style of presenting his character.  For example, Odysseus is alone among mythic heroes in having a goddess/protector who persistently flirts with him, seemingly attracted to him while assisting him on his journey home to his wife.  It is strongly conveyed that Athena admires his cunning and devious nature.8  This, combined with Odysseus’s apparent ease in his relationship with Athena, reinforces an aspect of him less than heroic.  That is to say, even as the image on the vessel blatantly reveals victimization, it is as well presenting a man who chooses to be so victimized.  Odysseus may of course block his own ears, but he is more intent on hearing the song of the Sirens.  That he understands the danger is irrefutable, as his orders are that he not be released no matter how he pleads.  What is important here, then, and what goes to the human arrogance of the hero, is his dangerous determination to satisfy his desire.  The ambition of Odysseus to return to Penelope and Ithaca aside, it must be remembered, as Homer and as all Greeks knew, that he is responsible for the welfare of his men.  Given the danger of the Sirens as made abundantly clear by Circe, it would then seem that a true hero would abandon his curiosity to enhance the chances for safe passage.  Odysseus does not.  When this is considered, then, the image takes on multiple properties, and the straightforward representation of a staunch hero has further shades of meaning.  He is, here and in Homer, manipulated by divine power, yet his own human flaws exacerbate his own circumstances.

Other art of the period reflects similar aspects of Odysseus’s character, with perhaps more of an emphasis on his victimization.  A votive relief from ca. 400 B.C.E. presents the nurse recognizing Odysseus beneath his beggar guise.While the relief’s detail is greatly damaged by time, there appears to be here a scene strongly conveying the intensely emotional, human and personal, homecoming of the hero.  It is Eurycleia, the nurse, who comprehends that Odysseus is back, and the nurse’s role in the family reinforces the domesticity and intimacy of the occasion.  Homer makes it clear that, despite her slave status, Eurycleia is an important household figure, and she parallels Anticleia, the hero’s mother, in position and familial affection.10  This then adds greater power to the long-awaited return, in terms of attaching a further quality of “myth” to it; as Odysseus has been gone so long, recognition of him by a beloved family servant creates a sense of disbelief and awe.  This in turn emphasizes the victimization, if not martyrdom, endured by the hero, an emphasis enhanced by the need to disguise himself as a beggar.  The relief suggests a sensibility of the time as exalting Odysseus as having survived multiple trials presented by the gods.  His humanity here is triumphant, if nonetheless wretched.

It is possible that, again, the society of the era, fully aware of the character’s true and varied history, perceived the deception beneath the scene; after all, Odysseus is on a mission to exact a bloody revenge against those who have abused his household.  Such a view, also possibly within the mind of the relief’s creator, carries with it the implication that, as with the strategy with the Sirens and the impulse to investigate the lair of Polyphemus, more than mere victimization is at play.  Even the modern reader of Homer is entitled to ask: why not merely return and assert the rights of the king and father, and mete justice accordingly?  Odysseus never actually succumbs to the role of victim, chiefly because he so consistently instigates, or at least actively influences, his own course.  It is then reasonable to infer that this reality infuses the early Greek art depicting him.  In the case of the relief, however, and as must be acknowledged, it is a reality dependent upon conjecture.  What is clearly presented is a tragic, beaten man’s return home, and the touching moment of a servant’s awareness of his identity.

This perception of Odysseus as ultimately regaining his place in life, and which focuses on his humanity and victimization, is even more evident in another relief from the 3th century B.C.E., Odysseus Returning to Penelope.11  On the right, a thin and seemingly weak Odysseus reaches out a hand to a seated Penelope, while Laertes, Telemachos, and Eumaios look on from the left.  She is distraught, head down, perhaps unable or unwilling to comprehend her husband’s identity.  On one level, then, this is as emotionally potent and blatant a scene of reconciliation as that of Odysseus and the nurse.  When it is recalled, however, that the hero’s schemes were known to the Greeks, different interpretation is permitted.  In plain terms, and as has been debated by scholars for centuries, his disguising himself from her is unclear.  Homer establishes that he knows, through both Athena and his encounter with his mother in Hades, that Penelope has been faithful to him.12  It is argued that Homer intends to deepen Penelope’s own humanity by revealing her sympathy for the “beggar,” and that the ongoing deception underscores the depth of the relationship between her and Odysseus.13  Nonetheless, there remains the rather large element of a man supposedly tortured by long years of absence from his wife deceiving her, and delaying their reunion.  It is then easy to view this relief as yet further evidence of Odysseus’s setting of his own interests beyond those of anyone else.  If, as with the other relief, this is an interpretation which must remain speculative, the stiff attitudes of the figures, along with the actual context of the scene, certainly allows for it.

Lastly, a Roman work from the 1st century C.E. more definitively establishes Odysseus as a tortured hero.14  It is the head of a lost statue, and it is in no uncertain terms a heroic head.  This is an older Ulysses, with deep recesses beneath vacant eyes and a furrowed brow beneath wild hair.  The lips are parted, as if in defiance or wonder, but the strongest impression is that of survival in the face of a lengthy and harsh history.  If any kind of triumph may be detected in the face, it is hard-won, and this is a hero who has clearly endured much.  Given the dominant mythology of the Romans as adopted from the Greek, the trajectory is reasonably identified; a mortal man has been driven to extremes by the gods, yet emerges strong and heroic by virtue of enduring.  If there is no evidence here of the cunning or flaws of Ulysses, there is clearly a presentation of his having been victimized.

Conclusion

Symbolism of a kind is innately within virtually all mythological heroes, whether they exist in oral traditions or in the epic poetry of Homer.  Few, however, present the degrees of ambiguity of Odysseus, quite likely due to that hero’s having been so extensively drawn by the poet.  He is capable of great courage and heroism, as he does not flinch from dangers and exhibits little fear of the gods shaping the events around him.  At the same time, he is supremely mortal, and his extensive journey home is made far more difficult by choices he makes due to hubris, desire, and arrogance.  Consequently, he is simultaneously a victim of the gods and of himself, and this duality may be perceived in the Greek and Roman representations of him in art.  Some do so in subtle ways, as the Roman head discussed reveals only the heroic martyr.  Nonetheless, the nature of Odysseus was as known, through Homer, to the Greeks and Romans as it is to today’s world, and he stands forever in art as an icon of both man’s failings and his strengths.  The length and dangers of Odysseus’s journey, as well as his inherent character and behaviors, are employed in Greek and Roman art to illustrate how even highly capable men may be both less than noble and the pawns of divine power.

Endnotes

  1. Homer. The Odyssey. Trans. by Stanley Lombardo.  Indianapolis: Hackett :Publishing, 2000.       Book I.
  2. Howell, E. N. “Odysseus Deconstructed: Crossing the Threshold into Critical Thinking.” English Journal  102.1 (2012).  p. 64.
  3. Hopman, M. “Narrative and Rhetoric in Odysseus’ Tales to the Phaeacians.” American Journal of Philology 133.1 (2012).  p. 16.
  4. Ruderman, R. S. “Odysseus and the Possibility of Enlightenment.” American Journal of Political Science  (1999).  p. 143.
  5. Homer. Book 19.
  6. Myrsiades, K. Approaches to Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. New York: Peter Lang, 2010.  Print.             p. 222.
  7. 7. Odysseus and the Sirens. ca. 480-470 B.C.E. Red-figured Stamnos.  British Museum, London.
  8. Beye, C, R, “Defining Defending Odysseus.” Arion: A Journal of Humanities and the   Classics 19.3 (2012).  p. 121.
  9. Odysseus on His Return to Ithaca. Unknown. ca. 400 B.C. National Archaeological Museum    of Athens, Greece.
  10. Murnaghan, S. Disguise and Recognition in the Odyssey. Lanham: Lexington Books, 2011.     Print. p. 28.
  11. Odysseus Returning to Penelope. Unknown. ca. 460-450 B.C.E.  Greek, Melian, Terracotta. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
  12. Homer. Book, 11, 13.
  13. Murnaghan, S. Disguise and Recognition in the Odyssey. p. 88.
  14. Head of Ulysses. Unknown. ca. 100 C.E  Fragment, Marble Statue,.  Museo Archeologico       Nazionale, Sperlonga, Italy.

Works Cited

Beye, C, R,  “Defining Defending Odysseus.”  Arion: A Journal of Humanities and the Classics 19.3 (2012): 109-130.

Head of Ulysses.  Unknown.  ca. 100 C.E  Fragment, Marble Statue,.  Museo Archeologico Nazionale, Sperlonga, Italy.

Homer.  The Odyssey.  Trans. by Stanley Lombardo.  Indianapolis: Hackett :Publishing, 2000. Print.

Hopman, M. “Narrative and Rhetoric in Odysseus’ Tales to the Phaeacians.”  American Journal of Philology 133.1 (2012): 1-30.

Howell, E. N.  “Odysseus Deconstructed: Crossing the Threshold into Critical Thinking.” English Journal 102.1 (2012): 61-66.

Murnaghan, S.  Disguise and Recognition in the Odyssey.  Lanham: Lexington Books, 2011. Print.

Myrsiades, K.  Approaches to Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey.  New York: Peter Lang, 2010. Print.

Odysseus and the Sirens. Unknown. ca. 480-470 B.C.E.  Red-figured Stamnos.  British Museum, London. Odysseus Returning to Penelope.  Unknown. ca. 460–450 B.C. E.  Greek, Melian, Terracotta. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Odysseus on His Return to Ithaca.  Unknown.  ca. 400 B.C. National Archaeological Museum of Athens, Greece.

Ruderman, R. S.  “Odysseus and the Possibility of Enlightenment.” American Journal of Political Science  (1999): 138-161.

Sinfield, A.  Shakespeare, Authority, Sexuality: Unfinished Business in Cultural Materialism. New York: Routledge, 2006.  Print.

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