Cross-posted from Putanumonit.com
Note: heavy spoilers for one epic poem, minor spoilers for several epic video games.
Very related: the Greek myths are about loneliness.
Merriam-Webster defines “odyssey” as:
n. a long wandering or voyage usually marked by many changes of fortune.
The word brings to mind an adventure, a quest, a hero’s journey that leads them to self-discovery, empowerment, and saving the village. This is the plot structure of the video game Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey. In it, the player controls a mercenary who sails from her home near Ithaca to find her parents and prove her worth to the Greek world. And of course, The Odyssey itself starts with the tale of a young man sailing from Ithaca seeking fame and news of his father.
But that man is not Odysseus. It’s his son, Telemachus, who goes on a quest. Odysseus himself shows up only in book 5 of the epic poem, old and tired. Most of his travels are behind him at that point and told only in flashback. His is not a hero’s journey of transformation and discovery. He is by and large the exact same man who sailed for Troy two decades before, a fact that is remarked upon by the other characters. It is Telemachus who transforms from a shy youth into an assertive prince when he finally fights by his father’s side against Penelope’s suitors.
And yet, the game is not called Assassin’s Creed: Telemacheia, even though the protagonist’s journey mirrors Telemachus much more than his father. The son’s story is relegated to a secondary plot, while the father’s story has proved to be memorable and compelling to audiences for three thousand years.
Why is Odysseus such a compelling hero? When I read the Odyssey as a teenager I remember admiring Odysseus’ heroics. But upon rereading Emily Wilson’s version, I noticed that Odysseus isn’t just a static character, he’s kind of a huge dick.
Odysseus is brave, formidable, and intelligent, but also a consummate liar, greedy, violent, and selfish. Some behavior that is repugnant to modern readers, like murder, pillaging, enslaving, and fornicating, was probably considered “all in the game” in Bronze Age Greece. Other sins, like the fact that the survival ratio of men under his command would make even comrade Stalin blush, are criticized by the other characters in the poem itself. And even aside from his indifference to the body count, Odysseus seems utterly lacking compassion for his fellow humans.
A darkly ironic passage concerns Odysseus’ conversation (while disguised as a beggar) with Eumaeus, his swineherd. Odysseus remarks that nothing in the world is worse than wandering far from home, then asks Eumaeus to share his life story. Eumaeus agrees, prefacing his story with “after many years / of agony and absence from one’s home / a person can begin enjoying grief".
Eumaeus is revealed to be not a local Ithacan, but the prince of the faraway island of Syra. Phoenician sailors come to Syra and seduce the young prince’s nurse since "sex sways all women’s minds / even the best of them". The woman boards the Phoenician ship with Eumaeus and when she dies the sailors sell him as a slave to the ruler of the nearest island, which happens to be Ithaca.
Here’s how much empathy Odysseus musters in response to this heartbreaking tale:
Odysseus replied: my heart is touched
to hear the story of your sufferings, Eumaeus.
In the end though, Zeus has blessed you since after
going through all that you came to live
with someone kind, a man who gives you plenty
to eat and drink. Your life is good, but as
for me I am still lost.
This is psychopathic. He assures Eumaeus that his “heart is touched”, and then immediately tells him that being Odysseus’ slave (as opposed to growing up a prince) is nothing to complain about!
A more notorious scene is the punishment of the slave girls in Odysseus’ household who “dishonored” him by disobeying his wife, Penelope, and old nurse, Euryclea. The girls also slept with Penelope’s suitors, although it is unclear if they did so willingly or were forced to by the rowdy men.
As Euryclea is gathering the girls, Odysseus instructs his son and two servants that they should take the girls outside and “hack at them with swords / eradicate all life from them”. Everyone agrees that this is fair and just. But then Odysseus notices that his great hall is covered in the blood and guts of the hundred suitors he just killed. And since a bunch of slave girls just arrived in the room, the master strategist makes the most of the situation.
Sobbing desperately the girls came
Weeping clutching at each other.
They carried out the bodies of the dead
and piled them high on one another
under the roof outside. Odysseus
instructed them and forced them to continue.
And then they cleaned his lovely chairs and tables
with wet absorbent sponges.
Immediately thereafter the girls are hanged “their heads all in a row / to make their death an agony”. The men probably realized that if they “hack at them with swords” they would afterward have to mop the floor themselves.
Bronze Age morality aside, does Homer intend Odysseus to be the exemplary hero of the story? Or is there a case to be made for a Straussian reading of the poem, one in which Odysseus is the villain? The most direct indication of the latter option is given in the story of Odysseus’ naming. The name is proposed by his maternal grandfather, “noble Autolycus who was the best / of all mankind at telling lies and stealing".
And Euryclea put the newborn child
on his grandfather’s lap and said, “Now name
your grandson, this much-wanted baby boy.”
He told the parents, “Name him this. I am
disliked by many all across the world
and I dislike them back. So name the child
The name comes from the Greek odyssomai which means either “hatred” or “anger”; it is likely the root of the modern word “odious”. Whatever Homer thought of pillage, murder, and making people do chores, he surely considered “telling lies and stealing” to be loathsome. Odysseus inherited both talents from his “noble” grandfather.
On the other hand, the common interpretation of the poem is that Homer admires Odysseus because he sees him as a colleague: a bard and storyteller. The moral principle which drives much of the story is xenia, the duty of a host to feed and shelter his guests. But the guest has a duty as well: to entertain his host with beautiful stories.
Does the guest have a duty to tell a true story or just a beautiful one? I think this is the most fascinating subject in the poem.
The famous part of the Odyssey, the hero’s travel across the seas since his departure from Troy, is recounted by Odysseus to Alcinous, king of the Phaeacians. He tells the king and his court about god-summoned storms, an island of wireheading Lotus-eaters, the cave of the Cyclops and his daring escape tied to the belly of a ram, a gift from the god of winds, a surprise attack by cannibals, the witch Circe turning the crew to pigs, and a visit to the Underworld to converse with the souls of the dead.
The reaction of wise king Alcinous to this fantastic tale displays an interesting epistemology:
Alcinous replied, “Odysseus,
the Earth sustains all kinds of people.
Many are cheats and thieves who fashion lies
out of thin air. But when I look at you,
I know you are not in that category.
Your story has both grace and wisdom in it.
You sounded like a skillful poet telling
the sufferings of all the Greeks, including
what you endured yourself.”
Different translations make this passage even clearer: Odysseus story is touching and beautifully told, and so the king knows that it must be true.
This sentiment is echoed in Western poetry through the ages. The Romantic poet John Keats was devoted to the study of ancient Greek art; his Ode on a Grecian Urn concludes:
Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.
Emily Dickinson agrees: truth and beauty are the same.
Although this statement is mostly associated with poets, there are two possible interpretations of it: the poet’s and the quant’s. To a quant (i.e., rationalist), beauty is ephemeral while the pursuit of truth is tangible. Once the truth is ascertained through rigorous epistemology, one should train their aesthetic sense to find it beautiful. Rationalist types are fond of compiling lists of “the most beautiful and poetic” equations.
To a poet, the above approach is too constraining of beauty by limiting it to what can be deduced scientifically. Epistemology seems quite hopeless, while good taste can be fruitfully cultivated. It is better to seek beauty and take what is beautiful to be true. To a rationalist, this is much too loose a criterion for truth, and the two keep arguing about what truth is for all eternity.
One would expect Homer to side fully with the poet’s take, but an interesting reversal takes place in the hut of Eumaeus (who is da real MVP of the story). Disguised Odysseus tells the swineherd another beautiful and wholly made up Odyssey, one that’s a lot more grounded and believable than what he told Alcinous. He tell Eumaeus of growing up in Crete, an unsuccessful raid in Egypt, kidnap and shipwreck, and finally being rescued by a kind king who tells him news of Odysseus.
Eumaeus, you replied, “Poor guest, your tale
of woe is very moving, but pointless.
I would not believe a word about Odysseus
Why did you stoop to tell those silly lies?”
Swineherds, it seems, have need of a more rigorous epistemology than do kings.
So, is Odysseus a liar or a poet? His common epithets include “wise”, “resourceful”, and “great teller of tales”. Wilson uses another one: “lord of lies”, a title that our culture often reserves for the Devil. Wilson ultimately concludes that Odysseus’ key epithet is the first one to appear in the poem: polytropos. It can mean “many-sided”, “much traveled”, or, as she finally settles on: “complicated”.
I think Odysseus is both a liar and poet, but its the latter that makes him the hero. He is the one who spins the tale, and its his point of view that the audience is inevitably drawn to. We hear him describe his rage at the slave girls; they don’t get to make their case. Once the reader or listener find themselves in Odysseus shoes, his best qualities are magnified and his vices are downplayed. Nobody is the villain in their own story, and the Odyssey is Odysseus’ story.
State of the Art
When The Odyssey was written in the 8th century BC, the premier entertainment art form of the time was the telling of oral tales. I decided to buy the modern translation of Homer’s epic on audiobook (read masterfully by Claire Danes) to enjoy it in a form as close to the original as possible.
Since Homer’s time, people kept telling stories and perfecting the media through which they do so. When I was young, the best stories were told in books and movies, and throughout my teenage years, I consumed one of each per week. Then the golden age of TV dawned, and I binged on Buffy, The Wire, and Throneplay.
But today it seems beyond a doubt that video games are the preeminent entertainment and narrative art form of our era. The best video games have budgets and revenues that far exceed Hollywood blockbusters. They employ actors to rival the best movies and teams of writers to rival the best TV series. And beyond those, video games have the advantage of interactivity. This alone sets them far apart from any passive medium.
Screenshot from The Last of Us on PlayStation 4.
In the game, you spend a good amount of time hiding behind cover and thinking. You’ve just seen two zombies at the end of a corridor you must traverse. You have three bullets and one arrow to your name, but no guarantee that either will result in a quick kill or that you will be able to replenish your ammo before you face the next deadly challenge. You can try to sneak past, but a misstep may leave you surrounded by enemies with no opportunity to retreat. You may just be able to climb around the two zombies, but the ledge would leave you exposed to view and fire on both sides.
A movie can choose to have a shootout scene, or a suspenseful crawl, or a daring run with the enemy nipping at the heroes’ heels. But a movie can’t have the character thinking and sweating behind a crate. And it’s that part that immerses you in the character, not the shooting or sneaking or running but having to make hard choices and living with the outcomes – often, a gruesome death . A good passive story makes you identify with a character and their choices, but a game lets you inhabit the protagonist.
Games can have any sort of protagonist, from soldier to god to yellow circle. But an interesting pattern emerges if we look at some of the most successful games that emphasize storytelling.
The protagonist of The Last of Us is Joel. Joel is a bearded man on the cusp of middle age. Joel is a survivor with a dark past, brave, violent, and cunning. Joel is on a quest, but what he ultimately wants is to go back home with his (adopted) daughter, Ellie. He will shoot, stab, and explode anyone standing in the way of that.
The Last of Us is the third highest user-rated PlayStation 4 game of all time. The second rated game is God of War, the protagonist of which is Kratos. Kratos is a bearded man on the cusp of middle age, a warrior with a dark past, brave, cunning, and very violent. Kratos is on a quest, but what he ultimately wants is to go back home with his son, Atreus. His axe will dismember anyone standing in the way of that.
The highest rated game is The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. The protagonist is Geralt. He has a beard, he has a past, he has a daughter, and he has two swords that need very frequent cleaning.
Joel, Kratos, Geralt, Arthur Morgan, Booker DeWitt: the most popular video games are actual Odysseys. Not a hero’s journey  into chaos to save his home, but a father’s journey home leaving chaos in its wake. These are not the best men, but they make for the best stories.
I’m not the first person to notice that bad guys are quite popular. In classical Athens, Plato (speaking for Socrates) criticized poets for corrupting the morality of the public. He accused poets like Homer of speaking through un-virtuous (what we would call “problematic”) characters thereby making listeners identify with these characters and see them as role models. Plato blamed the unfair advantage of storytelling (over pure philosophy) in affecting people’s souls. Like curmudgeons across the ages, Plato was especially worried about the impressionable youth who will hear the Odyssey and be inspired to match Odysseus rampage. Sounds familiar?
I think that Plato and the pearl clutchers at APA are completely wrong. Most of us don’t want to become desperate, violent men, and those that do won’t be satisfied with the simulacrum of a poem or video game. But we want to know what it would feel like to be those men, to outwit and survive and kill, and to deal with the consequences too. Odysseus gets a classical happy ending (although I’d personally take Calypso+immortality over grumpy Penelope), but most PlayStation Odysseuses don’t. Modern storytellers know that their audience will reject a tale in which violent rampages conclude in marital bliss and domestic peace.
We identify with Odysseus for the duration of his story, but then we can reflect on it. This is how people learn virtue. We don’t want hectoring morality tales, as evidenced by The Odyssey’s exceeding popularity compared to Plato’s Republic.
We want stories that let us be other characters: strong and cunning, defiant or afraid, good or bad or somewhere in between. We want a taste of the lives unlived.
We all want to be polytropos.
In fact I haven’t read the book but listened to it on Audible. All the quotes in this post are transcribed from audio, and so the poem line breaks and punctuation are my own wild guesses (with sincere apologies to Dr. Wilson if I mangled anything). ↩︎
In video games, the easiest difficulty setting is often called “story mode” and is described as “for those who want to enjoy the story without the challenge of combat”. This is completely backward. I always play on the hardest difficulty I can handle, even if it takes me a few hours to learn the game skills and stop constantly dying. I do this in order to experience the story fully.
Games always involve the hero facing overwhelming odds and desperate choices; playing without fear of the character failing or dying ruins that core aspect of the experience. If an invulnerable Joel waltzes through The Last of Us mowing down all enemies in a hail of purely aimed fire, it is no longer a zombie survival story but a waste of time. ↩︎
All these games are among my all-time favorites, but the PlayStation story I enjoyed the most is Horizon Zero Dawn. Horizon is a classic hero’s journey: a young woman leaving home to find her mother, slay some monsters, and save the world.
Interestingly, there are many games where the main character is in the role of a daughter like Horizon, AC: Odyssey, and Tomb Raider in its many incarnations. But I couldn’t think of a single major console game in which the protagonist is a mother, with the exception of Fallout 4 letting you choose to be a female parent. Come on, devs, this childless dude wants to play badass moms! ↩︎