heroes and explorers: the odyssey

I would not heed them in my glorying spirit,
but let my anger flare and yelled:
if ever mortal man inquire
how you were put to shame and blinded, tell him
Odysseus, raider of cities, took your eye:
Laërtês son, whose home’s on Ithaka.
– (Book IX: lines 546-552)

Because this was where my journey “began” in high school, this is where I returned to now. I was 14 soon turning 15, puberty coming to its culmination, mating drive kicking into full swing, and the boys around me beginning to realize their own physical dominance and the expectations of their birth in the world. I don’t remember much about that first reading, except visceral qualities of the cover and paper of my mother’s old Double Day/Anchor Book, 1963 edition. Neither she nor I had marked this passage above during our earlier readings. Neither of us perhaps realized that this moment is the moment, the trigger, the catalyst for all else that befalls this hero of heroes. His anger, his hubris, his desire to proudly claim his victory over the now one-eyed son of Poseidon, is the same anger, hubris and desire that Athena orders him to “command” at the end of the story lest he anger Zeus as well.

So many of the stories we read in school were like this one, stories of complicated heroes, praised and rewarded for their virtues, presented with impossible challenges, and learning (if they were lucky) key lessons from their flaws. The women in the stories were often many and secondary, sometimes critical to the hero’s journey of discovery, but never having a story of their own that did not depend entirely on the hero. We learned how boys became men through these stories. And we learned how girls became women who served the stories of men. By the time I got to high school, the Women’s Liberation Movement had come and gone, we were supposedly well ensconced in third-wave feminism – gender roles were supposed to be a thing of the past. But there we were in our white affluence, learning that boys were heroes, captains and explorers, and girls were, well, confidantes, foils, catalysts, or the fifth business at best: the women of the Odyssey — Athena, Penélopê, Nausikaa, Kirkê, Eurykleia and even the sirens — are examples of this. In the character of Odysseus, Homer shows us what it means to be a captain, a man worthy of the gods’ favor, we also watch as Telémakhos becomes a man worthy of his father’s legacy, and fair enough – they are the main characters of the story Homer has chosen to tell. And to Homer’s credit too, although the women are secondary to these journeys, they are more often substantive, smart, powerful, and skillful examples of femininity: they have diverse virtues beyond stereotypical virginal and submissive property or distressed damsel, and they play pivotal roles in both Odysseus’ and Telémakhos’ stories.

I have come to recognize now how deeply those stories, not just from high school, but from middle school as well, have skewed and colored my understanding of self, of gender, of intimate or sexual relationships, and of broader social power, though I am just beginning to parse the ways. I was trained as an anthropologist, and it has always been “the other” that has fascinated me, but somehow the other in our midst has been as interesting to me as the fetishized other of the distant colonial gaze. We are other to our self when we really think about it, we don’t need the far-away foreign to show us this, but I can see the purpose that radical friction can serve. Perhaps this is why, I look to the cis-gendered masculine — my most intimate yet still foreign other — rather than through a lens more like my own in order to understand the world I live in? Or perhaps, it is these stories still operating through me – the way I learned to understand the world, is through stories of men, particularly white men. So, I return to the Odyssey —the captain of all captains, on the adventure of all adventures, one of our origin myths — to grapple with understanding what we were taught, to put into doubt how we were formed, and to ask how we might have ended up here today, at the ends of white masculinity.

Many scholars have written about and unpacked the Odyssey over the centuries. I have not turned to any of their wisdom, nor do I claim to offer a more accurate or informed reading of this text than any of them. I am just trying to have a conversation with my 14-year-old self, one that says — after a few decades of living in the world and studying anthropology, western ethics, contemporary art/dance/performance, and sustainable development in the Anthropocene — “Hey you, look at this. Do you see this? Do you see what this is doing to you? How this is acting on you, on your beliefs, on your habits, on your ways of being in relation with others? Do you want this to keep working on you this way? Do you see how this is creating a context in which someone like Donald Trump can be elected President of the United States? Do you see how this is creating a context in which men, particularly white men, are forgiven (sometimes even praised) for behaviors that are, today, considered by many abusive, predatory, selfish, oppressive, unsustainable, or just plain wrong? Do you see how it shapes them as well?  Do you see how it might be impossible for boys at 13, 14, 15, or 16 years old to avoid being shaped by this, to imagine for themselves a different choice set if this is the one that is repeatedly told to them in canonized text after canonized text, film after film, tv show after tv show, video game after video game?”

School reading lists and syllabi have changed some since I was a teenager, and continue to change, so hopefully, the millennials and generations after them have be learning other stories as well. But if we are going to ask white men to change, to give up their positions of supremacy and strangle hold on opportunity – and I believe that Black Lives Matter, the Me Too and the global Sustainability movements are in fact demanding this (yes, please) — then there are whole generations of older men and women in their late 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s and beyond who need to learn new stories. Who need to learn how the old stories shaped our values, shaped our understandings of what it meant to be a “man” (especially a white man), shaped our ways of relating to each other and the world around us. Perhaps this is as simple as adapting an identity to evolving definitions of “just”, “fair”, “good” and “civilized”. But more likely, it is really a question of personal and structural transformation, of wholly stepping out of our current state, our current stories, our current culture and into terrain we are only just beginning to imagine, chart or explore. And what do they say in AA, ‘the first step is admitting you have a problem’…

So, what did I learn from this “raider of cities” about what we, in the west, have been taught to hold as virtues and vices in our men? First off, being a “raider of cities” is something to be proud of; however, watch out that your hubris and uncontrolled anger don’t get the better of you — they will cause your downfall. You can still be a “great captain”, even if all your men have gotten themselves killed or you got them killed. Beauty and strength (i.e. tall and rugged, with red-golden curling locks) while valuable are not valuable by themselves, and a man can overcome their lack if he is courteous, sure of himself, and can speak well enough to command assemblies. However, speaking with art, is only good, when its intent is honest, otherwise this could be a sign of moral corruption. Similarly plots, storytelling, wisdom and deception are good when used for good ends, but should not be pushed too far, especially between friends. Other general qualities of merit include: bravery, gentleness, honor, discipline, and kindness of heart, ways & counsel, as well as right behavior. Meanwhile, being reckless, letting your prudence fail, letting temptation have its way with you, giving way to grief, acting out of greed, flouting the law, being arrogant, carousing, expressing too much glory over slain or shamed men, not showing respect to others, hardness, cruelty and folly, being rude to or abusing strangers, acting viciously, and generally abusing another’s household (i.e. slaughtering all their sheep, drinking all their wine, eating all their bread, dragging the serving women about, and humiliating your host), these can all get you into deep trouble. Or to put it another way, in general “fair dealing brings more profit in the end.” (XXII:420).

When it comes to relationships with women, The Odyssey hands down a few golden rules of behavior as well: telling a woman everything can be a fatal flaw; even the best of women are frail and can be confused by being made love to; having relations with women who are not your wife, is ok, as long as your heart is still with her and there is some tactical reason for it; a man of nobility will avoid putting a young woman into a position of being talked about scandalously; and a man as heroic as Odysseus, is also modest enough to cover his nakedness around maidens, but still “in his might at ease”(VI:141).

While it is true that Odysseus seems to possesses all those positive traits and habits, he is not perfect, if he were, if he never suffered from any of the weaknesses of man, we wouldn’t have The Odyssey, and it is this failure and struggle in him, that makes his ideal appear all the more attainable as a role model. To be a great hero, a great man, you don’t have to be born perfect, you just have to choose right behavior. The crux for me though lies here, in the fact that all these characteristics are tied to Odysseus, the incomparable raider of cities, and without his supremacy also at war, violence, raiding and killing, we would know nothing of his kindness, fairness, justness or nobility. And the Odyssey doesn’t just make these violent tendencies valued qualities of a “great captain”, but of “man” in general.

Never, as I am a man, did I fear Death
ahead, but went in foremost in the charge,
putting a spear through any man whose legs
were not as fast as mine. That was my element,
war and battle. Farming I never cared for,
nor life at home, nor fathering fair children.
I reveled in long ships with oars; I loved
polished lances, arrows in the skirmish,
the shapes of doom that others shake to see.
Carnage suited me; heaven put those things
in me somehow. Each to his own pleasure!
— (XIV: 258-278, emphasis mine)

Others may choose and prefer farming, home and children, but a man chooses carnage. A man must be skilled in “all ways of contending” and a mastermind of war. It is worth mentioning that Kirkê admonishes Odysseus at one point for always having battle in his heart (XII: 136-142) demonstrating that being driven always to conflict is also not necessarily a good thing in the eyes of the gods. And yet, repeated throughout the tale, Odysseus and others are noted for their abilities to use stratagems, tricks, tactics, guile, and improvisation to succeed in conquest. We are also told that a great captain must have a stout heart, cold nerve, sap, foresight, wit, prudence, steadiness, patience, detachment, measure, and self-possession. He must be clear-eyed, able to see alternatives, able to deny himself and restrain his men, and able to keep his head cool in the face of the greatest of threats. At one point, Odysseus is even praised as being truly exceptional for his ability to handle a difficult weapon “effortlessly” and “with quiet hand”, like a musician might handle his harp (XXI:460-469).

Jackie Schuman illustration published with the Fitzgerald translations.

Praise for Odysseus’ skills with weapons reminds me of U.S. actor Ethan Hawke who recently commented in an interview with Seth Meyers, one of the late-night talk show hosts, that he’s pretty sure he gets paid remarkably more (“like 92% to 8%” of his income) for the characters he has played who carried guns versus those who he has played who did not. “You realize how much of our identity, what we want, how we see people, and how hard it is to sell a movie without a gun” (The Late Show, 5/15/2018).  I am sure this has been said many, many times before, but Odysseus begs the sentiment being repeated again: perhaps gun regulation cuts so close to the quick for so many in this country because wielding a manufactured weapon in war and battle is so core to the stories we have been telling ourselves about what it means to be a “man”.

Today, aren’t we are asking men to put down their lances, spears, and other more contemporary tools of carnage, to stop raiding cities and pillaging wealth, and to instead take up the tools necessary to nurture and sustain life? Are there such things as domesticated heroes, main characters, men blessed by the gods, who choose farming, home and children (from the beginning not just as retirement strategy)?  I am sure there must be somewhere in the spaces between classical literature and science fiction, but I am having a really tough time recalling ever having read them. Heck, even Jean Luc Picard, Star Trek Next Generation captain of the Enterprise, consummate intergalactic diplomat, wise, just and equitable captain, having given up his charge of the family vineyards on Earth to lead peaceful missions of discovery “to boldy go where no one has gone before”, wielded some pretty powerful weapons in practically every episode.

Don’t get me wrong, I love these stories. LOVE these stories. And I have even loved these men, and real men shaped clearly in their molds. I don’t want these stories banned or cut from curricula. I don’t know, though, how we can equip teachers and parents to talk with their kids about these books in a way that truly diffuses their power of production or how we can reprogram the generations of men and women who were raised into a culture that offered predominantly these understandings of (white) masculinity. But, I’m sure there must be a way. So I am going to keep going, working my way through the books I remember from the syllabi of my 7th  – 10th grade English classes, through the TV shows I grew up on, and through some of the cultural shifts I see happening in the present moment to see what I can find.


Title: The Odyssey
Author / Translator:  Homer / Fitzgerald
Genre: Poetry
Category: Captains and Explorers
Publish Date/Information:
Homer: likely sometime around late 8th or early 7th century BC
Robert Fitzgerald translation: 1961
ISBN: 0-679-72813-9