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Compare and contrast the characters of Odysseus and Aeneas. How do the aspects of their heroism differ? What does this say about their respective societies?
Odysseus is the prototypical Greek hero; Aeneas is the prototypical Roman hero. Both are brave and unwaveringly committed to triumph over adversity, completion of goals, and obedience to the gods. In their differences, however, they demonstrate the values of their respective societies. The crafty Odysseus’s greatest exploits—devising the Trojan Horse, defeating Polyphemus, destroying Penelope’s suitors—involve cunning and plotting. He seems more human in his concern for his men, his susceptibility to temptation, his recognition of his limited mortal strength, and his reliance on his wits. He represents the Greek ideal of the intellectual warrior who possesses a delicate, almost artistic appreciation of love and friendship.
Aeneas, on the other hand, is first and foremost a warrior, the model soldier. He rejects the love of Dido in the service of duty: the accomplishment of his destiny is to found a great empire. By the end, he becomes superhuman in strength and wisdom—far from the crafty deception that enables Odysseus to survive. Aeneas is indeed much more in line with the Roman virtues of military strength and forcefulness of character.
Compare and contrast the visions of heroism in the Iliad and the Odyssey. How do these visions reflect different ideas about human life and its place in the world?
The Iliad has no primary antagonist: there are warriors on both sides who are heroic, most notably the Trojan Hector and the Greek Achilles. The Iliad thus portrays a world in which all human participants are locked in a struggle against a vague and inevitable evil. The focus is on the web of circumstances in which humans are caught and the challenges set forth by the virtues—honor, bravery, and loyalty—that should govern relations in a social community. It is like a manual for an ideal, ethical Greek society, yet also rather foreign to us, with superhuman heroes who follow strange rules of honor and custom.
The Odyssey, on the other hand, depicts a heroism and a challenge to which we can relate. Rather than a single-minded, iron warrior, Odysseus relies on his shrewdness and wit to get out of trouble. He humanly falls prey to temptations, staying too long in his revels with Circe. The greatest danger—the one that permeates the whole epic—is one that we all face: the danger of forgetting, in a restless search for beauty and experience, our mundane responsibilities and those to whom we owe. We are not concerned with Odysseus’s battle against the enemy in war but rather his battle against the forces that keep him away from his family and home in Ithaca.
Discuss the ways in which these myths functioned as literature, science, and religion.
As literature, the myths offer complex, engaging, and often amusing entertainment. Even the brutal stories of Oedipus and Orestes became famous plays designed to engage a viewing audience. The scientific aspect of the myths is most visible in those that attempt to explain certain phenomena—the stories of Pyramus and Thisbe (why mulberries are red), Procne and Philomela (why the swallow has no song), and Hercules at Gibraltar (how the Rock of Gibraltar appeared) are classic examples. In a broader sense, the world of the Olympians offered general explanations for the mysteries of the universe. The ground is barren in winter because Demeter is mourning. Lightning occurs when Zeus is angry. More generally, strange, sad and undeservedly bad things happen because it is merely the nature of the gods or the decree of the Fate.
The myths also try to answer a question that straddles the line between religion and science. The religious aspect of the myths is obvious: most myths illustrate concepts of morality, showing what pleases the gods and what upsets them. In this world, morality is cast in religious terms. Finally, most of the best known myths—like those of Theseus, Hercules, Jason and the Golden Fleece, the Trojan War, Oedipus, and Orestes—deal with the cruelty and pain that even the greatest heroes face. Such stories make sense of the world’s senseless cruelty, demonstrating that, for whatever reason, the gods necessarily maintain a place for suffering in the world.
Ace your assignments with our guide to Mythology!