Quora answer: Who is the greater hero, Achilles or Odysseus?

Jul 23 2011



Hector is the true hero of the Iliad, which is part of its irony. It is not a matter of two people writing these two epics assigned to Homer, but that they were part of an Epic tradition of which we only have two original epics out of the set:

  • Titanomachy — does not exist
  • Jason and the Argonauts — later version exists
  • Gathering of the Heros — Inviting the Achaeans to the venture against Troy — no longer exists
  • Iliad — original
  • After the Iliad — the rest of the Trojan war, late version exists
  • Odyssey — original
  • Odysseus’ land journey — does not exist

So you can see we are lucky to have the parts we do have, and the late versions that were reconstructed of two of them. We only have 4% of the Greek corpus.

Now in my opinion the only way to get a handle on what is going on in these Epics we do have is to read as many commentaries as possible which I have tried to pursue. And when you do that you see that these are really extraordinary books about the nature of the Western worldview. And they are about the key feature of the Western worldview pointed out by Nietzsche and Heidegger which is the production of nihilism in our worldview. And these epics address this question of nihilism in very interesting ways.

It is not a matter of liking Achilles, Odysseus, Hector, Paris, or Ajax, etc but a matter of appreciating what they represent as the range of human responses to living in a world where sieges were the norm. Greeks were continually fighting and taking each other’s cities and enslaving the inhabitants of other cities, or being enslaved themselves. It was a Greek city devour Greek city world. And the Iliad shows an example of this primal struggle between city states. Within that context men who were in battle sought Glory. And the various characters in the Iliad show us the various approaches to Glory, or Infamy that could be taken.

Achilles is the focus of the epic because he is the one who realizes the nihilism of the situation of continual war. One has to remember that Helen was really almost a goddess and thus a prize that was worth fighting over. Helen it is said had five lovers. And this is because she is the same person as Draupadi in the Mahabharata. Once we realize that the story of the Iliad and Odyssey is the same as the story of the Mahabharata then we begin to see that it is an echo of an ancient Indo-European tale. What is interesting is that it appears that the Iliad and Odyssey are more archaic than the Mahabharata. It was one of Dumazil’s students that realized that the Mahabharata was the projection on the human plane of the war between the Devas and Asuras, i.e. the missing myth behind the songs of praise in the Vedas. And this is equivalent to the Titomachia which unfortunately we lost in Greek world as well. The war between Troy and the Achaeans is an echo of that first war of the gods on the Human plane as is the Mahabharata. Once we realize this, then we can appeal to both Epics to reinforce each of them. Interestingly the Pandavas are the those we are meant to identify with in the Mahabharata, and they are fighting the 100 brothers born from a stone. When we look into it we see that these men of earth who are evil in the Mahabharata are the Achaeans of the Iliad. And so fortunately the two Epics are from two different points of view, and this really helps us in our trying to understand the more primordial epic which is the source of both of them. I have written about this in my book Fragmentation of Being and the Path Beyond the Void (http://works.bepress.com/kent_palmer).

Another key point is that the War at the end of the Mahabharata is equivalent to the killing of the Suitors in the Odyssey, and thus the wars are different. The Iliad war was told in India as the Ramayana their other major epic which basically has the same story as the Iliad but is much more idealized, so much so that it does not give us much of a hint what the original story was about as much as the Iliad does. Basically there are two wars, one at the beginning of time and one at the end of time. The one at the end of time is preserved in the Norse mythology, and the one at the beginning of time was the one between the Gods, these two wars get ramified and echoed in human conflict as we see in the Ramayana/Mahabharata and Iliad/Odyssey. Another landmark is the Trojan horse is the same as the dice game which is lost and in which Draupadi was disrobed, but that become impossible. Once you know these markers you can figure out the parallels between the epics pretty much on your own. In both cases the heroes are the sons of the Gods. It is interesting that the Achaeans are not the Pandavas because they had all these myths of being born from the earth just as the cousins of the Pandavas were born from a stone. Basically these are what Plato called men of Earth. This also shows why the Achaeans are portrayed in such a bad light, even though they are the group from whose point of view the war is told, and it also indicates why Hector is the real hero of the epic.

Both Achilles and Odysseus in their respective Epics confront nihilism. Achilles shows us the problem of nihilism and Odysseus offers us a solution even though he is such a tricky and unsavory character driven by his stomach as the story says over and over. Odysseus is descended from Prometheus who was also a trickster. So there is good reason for his being portrayed in this less than perfect light. But for all his shortcomings he is a hero and one favored by the gods and he is the one who goes deepest into the core of the Western worldview on his sea journey attempting to solve the problem of Nihilism discovered so poignantly by Achilles. Achilles represents the one who is ensnared by Nihilism as was Odysseus where Hector is the Glorious Hero who defends his city to the death as all the Greeks were suppose to do. If even foreigners act like Hector then the Greeks should act even more glorious and noble a manner in battle. Also since Troy was on Asia Minor the Trojans were seen as non-Greek, and so the epic in a way can also be read in terms of the struggles between the Greeks and Persians that came later even though that is anachronistic, because the Greeks did show themselves as glorious in their wars against the Persians when they were invaded instead of being the invaders.

We should not so much go on how we feel about the characters as seeing them as part of the spectrum of human experience in the face of War and Nihilism which were both endemic to the Western worldview, and still are.


No responses yet

Comments are closed at this time.

Shelfari: Book reviews on your book blog