Homer’s Odyssey, the Heroic Ethos, and the Temptation of the Feminine

The following is an abridged version of my lecture on Homer for a survey course on the literature and philosophy of the ancient Greeks, which I have taught for many years at University of Toronto’s School of Continuing Studies.  (It gets harder and harder to do so, of course, as feminist orthodoxy becomes more and more entrenched.)

Before we leave the Odyssey, some general observations are in order on the nature of the heroic ethos that its protagonist embodies—an ethos that was incarnated by any number of Greek and Roman mythic heroes, including Theseus, Hercules, and most important of all, the Roman Virgil’s Trojan hero Aeneas, who is made to follow in Odysseus’ footsteps, or rather wake, both literally and figuratively.  All of these mythic heroes were interpreted in the allegorical commentaries written on Homer, Virgil, and Ovid throughout classical antiquity and down through the Christian centuries, as types, indeed, almost as personified abstractions, of virtue and wisdom, which invariably, in pre-modern literature and philosophy, meant reason in control of the carnal appetites and passions.

The temptation of reason by sensual passion is of course the principal moral theme throughout the travel stories, in which Odysseus is exposed to a whole chorus line of seductresses—Calypso, Nausicaa, Circe, the Sirens, and so on–, whose allurements he barely escapes.  His crew, on the other hand, is tempted by and falls victim to practically every one of what Christianity was later to call “the sins of the flesh and the world”.

We see the sin of gluttony rearing its head repeatedly amongst the crew, not only when they cannot resist the forbidden cattle of the Sun, but when they become zombified by eating the Lotus Flower, and again, when they are, appropriately enough, transformed into swine by Circe’s delicacies— beast transformation being, in ancient and medieval literature, a commonplace theme emblematic of the subjugation of the reason that distinguishes and defines man, to the passions and appetites he shares with the beasts.  Along with gluttony, the crew are subject to avarice, which disastrously overcomes them, for instance, when after departing from the Cave of Aeolus (god of the winds), they greedily and imprudently open the sack of winds which they think contains gold.

Odysseus’ crew perish almost to a man because, unlike him, they fear death mightily.  Since their physical survival is paramount to them, their first impulse upon landfall is always to satisfy their gnawing hunger.  As one ancient commentator explains, Odysseus is concerned with living temperately and wisely, whereas his crew is concerned with preserving their physical lives, a preoccupation that ironically kills them.


Odysseus’ acceptance of hardship, and his refusal of Calypso’s gift of immortality, are defining marks of the antique spirit which, comprehending and being resigned to the essential transience, frailty, and mutability of man, is able to contemplate death with equanimity and courage.  The recognition of the besetting instability of man’s earthly existence and happiness has enlisted a number of salutary responses from the various philosophical schools in antiquity, as we’ll see:  an attitude of otherworldly detachment amongst the Platonists, temperance and moderation in the philosophy of Aristotle, or passionless indifference amongst the Stoics.

In heroic terms, however, this quality is best described as “endurance”.  This is the gist, at least, of Odysseus’ address to the suitors in Book 18, ll. 131ff.:

Of mortal creatures, all that breathe and move,

earth bears none frailer than mankind.  What man

believes in woe to come, so long as valor

and tough knees are supplied him by the gods?

But when the gods in bliss bring miseries on,

then, willy-nilly, blindly, he endures.

Our lives are as the days are, alternately dark and bright…

No man should protest against this universal law,

but keep in tranquility whatever gifts the gods may dispense.

We see Odysseus’ quiet endurance throughout the travel stories.  When he sets out on his raft from Calypso’s Isle, and Poseidon blows up the perfect storm–the storm being the archetypal symbol of the sufferings and vicissitudes which the soul must endure during its pilgrimage through the earthly world–throughout it, Odysseus retains his wits and self-control, and exemplifies that endurance of life’s reversals and misfortunes which, in Greek antiquity, is the quintessential virtue of both the philosopher and the epic hero.  All of Homer’s sympathetic characters endure:  Penelope, Telemachus, Odysseus’ faithful swineherd Eumaius, whom life casts down, but who, like Odysseus, accepts and engages his misfortunes without despairing.


But it is a universal theme of Greek and also of Christian thought that acceptance, endurance, and ultimately transcendence of earthly mutability and suffering are only possible when the rational intelligence is in control. Odysseus is in this way also the quintessential Western hero:  he is a man of intelligence and self-mastery, a thinking man whose reason is always sovereign over his appetites and passions.

On Calypso’ Isle, in Nausicaa’s Scheria, and in Circe’s palace, the temptation of reason by the passions typically besets Odysseus in the form of sexual seduction, and though I’d prefer to avoid the subject entirely, the moral symbolism of the feminine in ancient literature is so much misunderstood that we might as well deal with it now.

In spite of the putatively “subservient role of women” in antiquity and in Western society in general—as it has become the hand-wringing preoccupation of Women’s and other oppression studies in today’s university–, women constitute powerful and overshadowing influences upon men, and are of course central to Homer’s poem.  Needless to say, the tutelary spirit of Odysseus, Telemachus, and the home they seek to re-establish is the goddess Athena, who is always around, motivating, if not controlling the action; and it is because women often have such godlike power that they are also so threatening to the epic hero.

A couple of examples should explain what I mean.  Shortly after Athena’s departure in the first book of the Odyssey, Penelope appears to complain about the minstrel’s singing of a baleful song of Troy, which reminds her of the cause of her protracted grief.  Telemachus answers her rather brusquely, and in terms that are sure to offend our modern feminized sensibilities.  Poets, he says, sing of adventures and sorrows, masculine hardships which Penelope must steel herself to listen to without complaint.  Odysseus, Telemachus goes on to say, is not the only soldier of the Trojan War whose fate was to endure great pain and suffering only to perish before he could enjoy his homecoming.

At this, comments Homer, “the lady gazed in wonder and withdrew,/her son’s clear wisdom echoing in her mind”.  Telemachus, it seems, has rather heartlessly chastised his disconsolate mother, telling her, in effect, to control her feminine emotions.  But in doing so he has asserted his masculine authority; he has begun to step into the role that the absence of his father has thrust upon him.

When he reveals his plans to sail in search of his lost father to his old nurse Eurycleia, she addresses him somewhat patronizingly, or rather matronizingly, as “dear child” and “our little darling”, and tries to dissuade him from embarking on a voyage that is sure to expose him to the same dangers and sufferings endured by Odysseus.  This, of course, is the stereotypically feminine response to the hero’s determination to undertake the hardships and dangers of the quest, which he must confront if he is to fulfill his high destiny.

That is one reason why, in Homer as in the Western literary tradition thereafter, women are so often depicted as seducers and temptresses:  they offer either maternal comfort or sexual distraction from the hero’s arduous labours, both of which threaten to deflect him from his ultimate destination, both literally and figuratively speaking, and thus to emasculate him.  Thus Telemachus must not only resist the appeals of his loving and protective nurse, but make her swear to keep his plan a secret from his mother.


Like Telemachus’ overprotective nurse and Odysseus’ voluptuous temptresses, women can smother the hero’s questing spirit before it has a chance to emerge from the womb, so to speak.  Indeed, Western psychology understands that the achievement of human consciousness and individuality depends upon the individual’s successful emancipation from the power and influence of women.

This seems paradoxical in the context of official feminist grievances, but it remains fundamentally true. An infant can only grow into full adulthood by weaning itself away from the maternal breast, insofar as it symbolizes the child’s complete physical and emotional dependency upon his mother.  It is for this reason that almost every primitive culture possesses an initiatory ritual designed to separate the young male tribesman from his mother—up until which he is considered a “woman-thing”—and hand him over for instruction to the elders of the tribe.  In Homer’s Iliad, as we remember, there is no better image of a “woman-thing” than Achilles, when, at the urging of his mother Thetis, he is dressed in girls’ clothing so as to escape conscription into the Greek army.

But separation from the mother is never quite complete, since in adulthood the male is once again beset by the all-powerful and omnipresent female breast, which hangs before him threatening to make him no less dependent upon his wife or mistress than he was upon his mother, albeit for gratification of a different need.

Today, when almost everyone subscribes to the Playboy Philosophy, the hero is more often than not a sexual athlete.  But antiquity would have laughed at such a concept of heroism.

In antiquity, too much indulgence in the pleasures of the flesh made a man soft and flabby, that is to say, “effeminate”, to use a word that until recently referred less to a man’s physical mannerisms than his moral tendencies; too much sex, paradoxically, emasculated him.

This is so common a theme in Western literature that in his sexual temptation by Calypso, Nausicca, or Circe, Odysseus finds himself playing the same role as the biblical Samson, for example, whose heroic strength was sapped by Delilah, or, to cite a modern example, Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky character, who refuses to sleep with his wife before a fight because he knows that sex, as his trainer (Burgess Meredith) warns him, “weakens the legs”.


In the Odyssey, then, Calypso, Nausicaa, and Circe are archetypal female temptresses; they all inflect that archetype which the great Swiss psychologist Jung has called the Terrible or Great-Devouring Mother:  the mother who feeds only to devour her young.

Certainly in turning men who eat her food into swine, Circe splendidly exemplifies the archetypal temptation of the Mother as nutrix:  the Latin meaning both nurse and giver of nourishment, in the dumb enjoyment of which man debases himself into an animal, losing his reason, his self-consciousness, his freedom, and all those other spiritual and intellectual capacities that distinguish him from the beasts.

A woman’s sexual attractions can effect the same sort of ontological degradation, of course.  Circe is, in this regard too, the archetypal female temptress.  Hermes (the ancient mythological symbol reason) advises Odysseus to rush at her with his sword drawn, which you can interpret as a phallic symbol, if you wish, or as a symbol of the male power of rational discrimination:  logos, that is, as the Greeks called it.

Both interpretations seem apt in this case, since Hermes also advises Odysseus that he sleep with Circe in order to obtain his ends, so that he goes to her bed as seducer rather than seduced.  Odysseus, therefore, even in the act of coital self-abandonment, is still exercising his intellect, as it were, still master of himself and his passions.

The ancient hero is, like Odysseus, often a man of considerable sexual charms, and is certainly no stranger to sex, including extra-marital sex; but he realizes at the same time that at almost every turn he must make a choice between the plush enchantments of the female breast and the stony couch of war or adventure, on which the heroic quest is pursued and consummated.