Throughout the Odyssey, the lead character, Odysseus, is presented as the ideal Greek leader. He demonstrates this through the treatment of his men and how he deals with problems that are presented to him. Because the Odyssey was first a spoken myth, it took on the shape of the society in which it was told. Including that society’s moral and ethical values, as well as its desires in the traits of a leader. A leader must first be defined, then set apart from other potential leaders, then the leader must be tested through his actions, only then can a definite leader be defined.
First, one must define the ideal Greek leader. An ideal Greek leader commands the respect of those being led, but also gives respect. He must be intelligent and cunning, and able to think logically with the intentions of keeping the well being of those under him. Reverence to the gods is mandatory, as they are viewed as the supreme leaders. An ideal leader must have an ability to lead a military victoriously, but also know when military action is not necessary. There are many other traits that the ideal Greek leader must possess, but none are as important as those that have been listed.
Another way of proving Odysseus as the ideal leader is by contrasting him with other leaders. Two other characters in the book that could be considered character foils are Antinoos and Alkinoos, two very different leaders. Alkinoos, King of the Phaeacians, is presented as leader who is open to outsiders, another trait that is revered in ancient Greek culture. When he provides the hospitality to Odysseus, he shows his welcoming manner by not only allowing Odysseus to stay as his guest, but also taking him back to Ithaca. “When you came here to my strong home, Odysseus, under my tall roof, headwinds were left behind you. Clear sailing shall you have now, homeward now…” (XIII, 4-7) Alkinoos can be considered a foil that shows what Homer viewed as a good leader. Antinoos, on the other hand, was almost the opposite. The suitor spent his time unsuccessfully enticing Penelope, one of many things that Homer could have considered to be a bad trait, especially when possessed by a leader, which is something that Antinoos could be considered in his relationship with the other suitors. He was also the suitor who came up with the scheme to kill Telemachus. Furthermore, Antinoos being the first to die when Odysseus returns, could be presented as Homer’s punishment of the iniquitous suitor of the hero’s wife. These two characters can be considered the two extremes in Homer’s view of a leader.
Odysseus’s actions throughout the book demonstrate the traits that make him a good leader. Through his decisions in these specific events, he proves that he is a good, but not perfect, leader. First, his decision to send men to scout out Kirke’s house was one of pleasure, not conquest. Odysseus did not need to send his men probing the unfamiliar island, but still felt it necessary. This decision is one that had to be made, but given past experiences, the reader would expect Odysseus to choose otherwise, especially when his men felt hesitant. “They were all silent, but their hearts contracted, remembering Antiphates the Laistrygon and that prodigious cannibal, the Kyklopes… But seeing our time for action lost in weeping, I mustered those Akhaians under arms, counting them off in two platoons, myself and my godlike Eurylokhos commanding.” (X, 217-224)
It wasn’t until after the first party fell prey to Kirke’s elixir that Odysseus shows his true leadership. With the aid of the gods, he is able to free his men from living as swine. Although he stays long after he has freed his men, nearly a year, he felt the obligation towards his men by undoing Kirke’s acts and freed them from her hold. Another instance when Odysseus demonstrates his leadership ability is when he is faced with the escape from Polyphemus’s cave. His quick thinking and strategic approach gave him victory over the giant, two traits Homer emphasizes in Odysseus. Odysseus is able to lead his men to blind the Kyklops, but shows how no mortal man can be perfect, no matter how heroic, by shouting back at Polyphemus and telling him who had truly blinded him.
Finally, Odysseus’s similarity to some of the known leaders of ancient Greece can be used to express how Odysseus was presented as the ideal Greek leader. The first of whom being the democratic leader of Athens, Pericles, and second being Alexander the Great. Pericles was much like Odysseus in a sense of his ability to manipulate and influence those under him, a necessary skill in any democratic society. He was able to influence the other elected officials into believing what he wanted, and stemmed his success from that ability. Although not an especially admirable trait, the ability to influence men into what is needed to be done in the eyes of the leader is most certainly necessary, especially when it involves military authority.
Alexander the Great’s decisiveness is paralleled only by Odysseus, which is another trait that all strong leaders must possess. Another element to a leader that is often present is that of arrogance, as Alexander the Great believed himself to be half immortal, and held himself in comparison with Hercules. Alexander was even known to sleep with copies of Homer’s books under his pillow, and drew heavy influence from Homer’s characters, including Odysseus.
Odysseus is considered to be one of the greatest mythological heroic leaders. Not only is he presented as the model for the ideal Greek leader, but has influenced many other leaders throughout history, including Alexander the Great. Odysseus was a model for ancient Greek leaders, and still influences our views of leadership today, although we may not even notice it.
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