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Throughout every generation in every culture there is an apparent connection that continues to tie the human race together. From the beginning of time story telling has been a way for humanity to explain different subject matters, metaphors, events, and even religion. Often mythology provides people with an understanding of the world around them and helps to create a connection to the experiences different characters have within stories. One of the most important types of mythological stories that are told in every culture is the hero’s journey.
A hero can come in any form and in the novel The Hero’s Journey by Joseph Campbell, an American mythological researcher states, “A hero is someone who has given his or her life to something bigger than oneself” (Campbell 2). A hero or heroine is a person who makes sacrifices within myths and this is a pattern that can be seen throughout any culture’s mythological hero’s story.
Throughout any film, literary work, or in real life, the mythological concept of a hero’s journey and sacrifice can be present. For example, Homer’s Greek mythological story, the Odyssey is a hero’s journey in which the main character endures many challenges and quests in order to complete a hero’s cycle. Although Greek mythology is widely popular and well known there are also other cultures that contain a hero’s journey in a similar way, such as the movie O Brother, Where Art Thou? by the Coen Brothers.
O Brother, Where Art Thou? is an American film that presents mythology and the specific concept of a hero’s journey. Although the Odyssey is a Greek mythological story and O Brother, Where Art Thou? is an American mythological story, both characters go through a transformative process which molds them into heroes. In both mythological stories the characters make different types of monsters, emphasize the theme of fate, and contain male heroes according to the time period.
The Odyssey and O Brother, Where Art Thou? are mythological stories that focus on the adventures and hardships the characters endure, which emphasize the sacrifices both characters make. According to the Odyssey, Odysseus was a legendary Greek king of Ithaca and the hero in Homer’s story. Throughout books one through four of the Odyssey, Odysseus leaves his wife, Penelope, and his son, Telemachus, to sail to Troy. Yet on his adventure to Troy, Odysseus is met with unforeseen circumstances that delay his return home to his family. Odysseus’s journey is similar to that of the main character Everett in O Brother, Where Art Thou, due to both Odysseus and Everett being kept from their families. Essentially, both Odysseus and Everett, continue on their hero’s journey through the sacrifices they make to be reunited with their families and with the hope of being with their loved ones again. For example, Odysseus, in one case, is stranded on the island Ogygia where the nymph, Calypso, detained him for several years. During these years, Odysseus could not leave the island and his yearning for his wife, son, and home began to amplify,
[…] the sweet lifetime was draining out of him, as he wept for a way home, since the nymph was no longer pleasing to him. By nights he would lie beside her, of necessity, in the hollow caverns, against his will, by one who was willing, but all the days he would sit upon the rocks, at the seaside, breaking his heart in tears and lamentation and sorrow as weeping tears he looked out over the barren water (Homer 5.152-158).
Odysseus spends years stranded on the island with the beautiful nymph, Calypso, and it is evident through this passage that Odysseus was forced to sleep with Calypso. Yet being away from Penelope, Telemachus, and his home causes Odysseus to grieve and desire to be with his family even more than he did before his journey. Also, it seems that the desire to be reunited with his family molds Odysseus into a better hero. In O Brother, Where Art Thou, Everett has been separated from his family because he was serving time in prison. Everett, being a witty and sharp thinker, convinces two other convicts, Delmar and Pete, to escape from prison to find a hidden treasure. Everett’s hero’s journey is similar to Odysseus’s because he also seeks to return to his family and the idea of reuniting with his family is the driving force behind the decisions and sacrifices he makes throughout the movie. In one scene of the movie, Everett gets down on his knees and begs God to spare Pete, Delmar’s, and his life and to be given another chance to be with his family. Both Odysseus and Everett experience moments of hopelessness, grief, a genuine clarity of the sacrifices they have made, and an understanding of putting others before themselves. The journey to becoming a hero requires that a person embrace selflessness and Joseph Campbell reiterates this idea in The Power of Myth: “When we quit thinking primarily about ourselves and our own self-preservation, we undergo a truly heroic transformation of consciousness” (Campbell 3). Odysseus and Everett transform into heroic figures when they are most vulnerable and begin to solely think about the people they love instead of themselves.
The Odyssey and O Brother, Where Art Thou? are stories filled with different types of monsters the characters must face, which help them to solidify their loyalty. Odysseus’s adventures are different than Everett’s due to the fact that Odysseus faces more creatures than human enemies, such as a pirate raid, Lotus eaters, Polyphemos the Cyclops, giants who eat people, a witch who turns people into pigs, sirens, the Land of the Dead, Skylla and Charybdis, and the nymph, Calypso. On these adventures, which turned into survival, Odysseus was responsible for the lives of his crewmembers and himself. Although ultimately, Odysseus’s whole crew perishes, it is evident that Odysseus was a strong leader figure and was loyal to his crew members till the end, “There, shedding tears, he went unnoticed by all the others, but Alcinous alone understood what he did and noticed, since he was sitting next to him and heard him groaning heavily” (Homer 8.93-95). King Alcinous understands and recognizes that Odysseus was devoted and loyal to his crewmembers. The encounters with the creatures cost Odysseus his crew, yet the human enemies he faced in the end were the suitors, which he killed himself. In Everett’s case, he is not as loyal to his friends, Delmar and Pete. Everett tricks Delmar and Pete to escape from prison in search of a hidden treasure that Everett made up and gets himself and Delmar and Pete into situations by not thinking things through or letting his arrogance get in the way. However, Everett transforms throughout his hero’s journey in a sense that he does not put himself before Pete and Delmar but begins to shift his views and embrace a newfound loyalty to his friends and family. There is a significant difference in Everett’s loyalty to Delmar and Pete when they help to rescue Pete from jail and save Tommy, the guitar player who sold his soul, from the lynch mob. In a sense, both Odysseus and Everett learned to expand upon their loyalty due to the enlightenment they received from their adventures.
The adventures Odysseus and Everett embark on contribute to idea of fate and the role of a supreme being. Throughout the Odyssey the blind prophet, Tiresias is present and shares information about Odysseus’s fate: “Glorious Odysseus, what you are after is sweet homecoming, but the god will make it hard for you. I think you will not escape Shaker of the Earth, who holds a grudge against you in his heart, and because you blinded his dear son, hates you. But even so and still you might come back, after much suffering, if you can contain your own desire, and contain your companions” (Homer 11.100-105). Tiresias warns Odysseus that he will face many challenges on his journey, but that there is a chance that Odysseus will prevail. The warning Tiresias gives to Odysseus exemplifies the idea of fate throughout mythology and that those who are blind are often more in touch with spirituality. Tiresias’s warning is definitely similar to the warning Everett, Delmar, and Pete receive from the elderly blind man on the railway. The elderly man on the railway foretells that Everett, Pete, and Delmar will face many obstacles, not obtain the treasure they seek, and see a cow on a rooftop. Ultimately, the prophecies that Tiresias and the elderly man on the railway come true and both Odysseus and Everett face many challenges on their heroes’ journey. Fate plays a significant role in the both the American and Greek mythological concept of a hero’s journey.
There are often more similarities than differences within different culture’s hero stories because of how similar human behavior is regardless of the culture. Although there may be slight differences or a stronger use of metaphors, a hero’s journey follows a similar path. Due to both characters, Odysseus and Everett, being male and being placed in time periods where men were seen as superior to women, there is a significant similarity in the relationship of these two characters to their wives. Though Odysseus must persist through many perilous adventures to make it home to Penelope, he prevails and survives the journey home. Yet when Odysseus arrives home, he finds his home flooded with disrespectful suitors and his faithful wife Penelope attempting to deal with their snobbish behavior. Odysseus devises a plan with his son, Telemachus, and ends up killing all of the suitors and hanging the maids who slept with the suitors. Although this is a violent scene, Odysseus, being a man of his time, fights for Penelope and reclaims his possessions. A hero during Odysseus’s time is ‘rightfully’ pardoned for murdering the suitors, received back graciously by his faithful wife after years of being gone, and reclaimed all his property. In other words, Odysseus is seen as a hero because he is a strong and powerful male who overcomes many nearly impossible challenges. Similarly, Everett, must fight off his wife’s suitor and is pardoned for his crimes by the governor. During these time periods, a hero was a man who faced obstacles to achieve a higher understanding and better version of oneself. In spite of that fact, mythology along with the role of women in a hero’s journey has changed from past time periods.
A transformation takes place only when a person is willing to allow change to take place within their life and within themselves. A hero’s journey is a transformation that occurs due to the obstacles a person is faced with while at the same time forcing that person to evolve their morals, traits, relationships, and overcome the faults that are holding them back. In a way, a hero’s journey is both an inward and outward battle that happens to obtain nirvana and evolution of the self. The characters Odysseus from the Odyssey and Everett from O Brother, Where Art Thou? encompass the overall processes of a hero’s journey because both characters must endure, survive, and learn from each and every encounter they have with danger. In a way, both Odysseus and Everett are characters of myth because they begin to understand that there is more to life and there are things that make the experience of being alive worth the sacrifice. It is not so much that these characters or any character on a hero’s journey is seeking meaning, but to fulfill the self with people and the experience of life. According to Joseph Campbell’s The Power of Myth, people embark on a journey for events that lead us to ourselves: “People say that what we’re all seeking is a meaning for life. I don’t think that’s what we’re really seeking. I think that what we’re seeking is an experience of being alive, so that our life experiences on the purely physical plane will have resonances with our own innermost being and reality, so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive” (Campbell 5). Each individual person’s journey is a hero’s journey where people find themselves and fulfill themselves through experiences regardless of their culture. Our experiences are the metaphors we create in order to come closer to the essence of our innermost selves. While on our individual hero’s journey we fulfill ourselves by diving deep into our metaphors and becoming not only the hero of our story, but of the world.
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