The eternal question of why men suffer dominates The Odyssey from its commencement, as Zeus laments “For shame, how the mortals put the blame upon us/ gods [when] they … by their own recklessness win sorrow beyond what is given” (Odyssey, 1.32-34). Odysseus himself is the quintessential image of suffering man, enduring myriad trials while pursuing a goal which tirelessly eludes his grasp. In the depths of Hades, however, Odysseus encounters the image of Herakles, a hero whose misfortunes could have once rivaled Odysseus’ own log of troubles. Ironically, Herakles himself now dwells in Olympos, where “he himself among the immortal gods enjoys their festivals” (Odyssey, 11.602-03). Why does Homer include this startling appearance of an immortal hero’s image in the land of the dead? A close reading reveals that there are many similarities between the stories of Odysseus and Herakles. Herakles’ presence allows us to draw a parallel between his ordeals and those of Odysseus. Through this, we learn that much suffering is, as Zeus suggests, the fruit of men’s wrongdoing, but for the hero, it is not entirely lamentable. When met heroically, suffering has three main qualities: it expiates past misdeeds, it is transitory, and it leads directly to future rewards.
Although I will demonstrate a few of the abundant external similarities between the two heroes, I do not intend to focus my essay on these. Intriguing as these correlations are, they do not say much of substance about the theme of suffering. Rather, they provide the justification my comparison. After enumerating them, I will draw heavily on three slightly less obvious points of comparison. These three points, which deal with the purpose, limit, and effects of suffering, lead directly to my conclusions about its nature.
Powerful even as an image, Herakles first appears striding towards Odysseus “holding his bow bare with an arrow laid on the bowstring” (11.607). His demeanor recalls Odysseus’ skill with a bow – the same skill which will help Odysseus to annihilate the suitors, marking the beginning of his hardships’ end. Only lines later, Herakles asks, “are you too leading some wretched destiny/ such as I too pursued when I went still in the sunlight?”, drawing a direct comparison between his descent into the underworld and Odysseus’ similar journey (Odyssey, 11.618-19). The resemblance between the years of hardship each hero must endure is a particularly crucial point. In life, Herakles was burdened with Twelve Labours. Likewise, Odysseus’ wanderings feature twelve major trials. He encounters the Kikonians, the Lotus Eaters, the Cyclopes, Aiolos and the bag of winds, the Laistrygones, and Circe. He descends into Hades, defies the Sirens, as well as Skylla and Charybdis, lands on the island of Helios, and on Kalypso’s island, and finally destroys the suitors who are laying waste to his home. Moreover, just as Herakles received aid from both Hermes and Athene (cf. Odyssey, 11.626; Iliad, 8.362-65), Odysseus relies upon the benison of these two gods throughout his wanderings.
Akin in form, the toils of both Herakles and Odysseus are also similar in origin and purpose. Suffering is often necessary as a just repayment which satisfies the debt incurred by wrongdoing. In Grecian mythology, Herakles’ Labours atoned for his killing of his wife and children .The crime, though committed in a fit of madness sent by Hera, could only be blotted out through Herakles’ own suffering. Odysseus too must make restitution for a past misdeed. During the war, Odysseus and the other Achaians desecrate Troy. Troy is consistently the identified with family life throughout The Iliad, so in destroying this, the Greeks symbolically ruined their own homecomings. Many “men … were lost, and many left over” during the journeys home (Odyssey, 4.495). Odysseus’ wanderings, however, expiate this guilt.
Unlike so many Greeks for whom punishment was swift and hard, Odysseus is not permanently lost. Neither is his expiation some limitless punishment such as that which he witnesses Tantalos or Sisyphos undergoing in the depths of Hades. Herakles’ presence in Hades reiterates the transience of Odysseus’ trials. His image is “full of lamentation,” as it bemoans his earthly labours, but Herakles himself enjoys the immortality of the gods in Olympus (Odyssey, 11.616). The despondent specter which confronts Odysseus is not the real Herakles. Similarly, The Odyssey itself never goes far beyond the man we first see sitting on Kalypso’s island “breaking his heart in tears, lamentation, and sorrow” (Odyssey, 5.83). The very fact that the sorrowing Herakles is no more than an empty image is a reminder that Odysseus will not always be weeping. His sorrow and difficulties define the image of Odysseus which The Odyssey presents, but they are not ultimately the reality which defines the man himself.
The climax of each hero’s tale occurs when suffering ends and each finally achieves fulfillment of his deepest wish. For Herakles, this reward is immortality, a gift that all Greeks covet but that almost none receive. Odysseus by contrast seems to disdain immortality in comparison to a simple, temporal life with his wife and son. He has an opportunity to grasp infinite life when Kalypso invites him to “be the lord of this household/ and be an immortal” yet he rejects this (Odyssey, 5.208-09). As attractive as eternal feasting in a paradise with the gods may sound, Odysseus prizes above all others “this place distasteful to many,” craggy Ithaka , simply because it holds that which is most precious to him (Odyssey, 19.407). Life founded on love for his family is more precious and offers greater rewards to this Greek hero than all the immortality and joys of Olympos.
“Why do men suffer?” As Zeus says, mortals often bring suffering on themselves through “wild recklessness” (Odyssey, 1.34). However, juxtaposition of the troubles of Herakles and Odysseus shows that this suffering is not intrinsically evil. The colossal irony of Herakles’ at first baffling appearance refines our understanding of this overarching theme. As odd as it might seem to those who “put the blame upon [the] gods,” and resent or misunderstand hardships, sufferings renew hope by expiating guilt, by promising an end, and by leading to a reward that those who do not suffer as a hero will not receive (Odyssey, 1.32).