Odysseus as a Tragic Hero

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Nearly every story in Greek mythology revolves around a character with a certain outstanding attribute, be it strength, intellect, or even musical talent. Heroes such as this might spend their lives questing for kleos, or the myth might simply be a tale in which the hero was trying to accomplish a certain task, such as returning home or rescuing a lover from Hades. In every case, these heroic tales would always end with tragedy; the hero would be killed by a jealous lover, go mad, or have a loved one taken away from him. However, one Greek hero existed whose story did not end with tragedy: Odysseus. Homer's The Odyssey is unique among all other Greek myths in that it is the only story in which the hero does not meet a tragic end; why is this so? From his words to his actions and from his companions to the way he handles certain situations, Odysseus is vastly different from all other mythical Greek heroes, a uniquity which leads to his story's eventual cheerful ending.

To accurately show just how disparate Odysseus is from the other heroes of Greek mythology, the common characteristics of the Greek hero must first be discussed in order to show that Odysseus is part of this extraordinary group. Heroes such as Heracles, Achilles, and even Odysseus all shared various attributes which, with the exception of Odysseus himself, seemed to lead to each hero's tragic fall from grace. Each of the aforementioned mythical men was extraordinary in some way or another; Heracles, of course, was half-god and possessed incredible strength; Achilles was dipped by his mother Thetis in the waters of Styx and was made nigh-invincible, and Odysseus was incredibly intelligent and clever. In addition to each hero's extraordinary attribute, each one's story was full of interactions with the gods, either as adversaries, friends, mentors, or even family. Mortals whose lives have such ‘spiritual intensity' in fact assume an almost ‘divine status', as Morford and Lenardon say (Lenardon 129). In other words, in Greek culture, to have a life intertwined with the gods essentially made the person an instant legend; normal men were not graced with such interactions. In addition to both of these positive aspects of being a hero, there was also a characteristic of Greek heroes which was negative. Every Greek hero, even Odysseus, shared one distinct negative attribute: a tragic flaw. From Achilles's pride to Heracles's sudden madness to Odysseus's hubris, every hero possessed one of these flaws which hounded them. Whether the flaw eventually disgraced the hero as in Achilles's case, or caused the hero to lose favor with one of the gods, as in the story of Odysseus, in every case, the inherent fault of every hero was both tragic and a large setback to each one's quest. This intrinsic flaw often led to the hero meeting his nemesis and falling from grace; in fact, this happened in every story but that of Odysseus. As can be seen by these similarities, Odysseus is rightfully thought of as one of the great heroes of Greek mythology. He, like the other three heroes mentioned, has an extraordinary attribute, a life full of interaction with the gods, and a tragic flaw which sets his quest back, though it does not lead to his downfall, like the others. However, there are differences between Odysseus's character and the other heroes which perhaps save him from the tragic fate which the rest meet in the end. There is one heroic characteristic that was common among Greek myths that Odysseus did not possess: a male counterpart with whom the hero had a very close and emotional relationship. For example, in Homer's epic The Iliad, Achilles is shown to be a strong, proud, and masculine warrior. Yet, he is closer to, and spends more time with, his companion Patroclus than any woman mentioned throughout the course of the book. Their closeness can be seen in the following quote, where Achilles has resigned from battle and is found simply sitting in his tent,...
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