Pandora’s stories: The legacy of Odysseus

Tell me, O muse, of that ingenious hero who travelled far and wide after he had sacked the famous town of Troy. Many cities did he visit, and many were the nations with whose manners and customs he was acquainted; moreover he suffered much by sea while trying to save his own life and bring his men safely home

Although we often consider Heracles our greatest hero, the one most talked about will be Odysseus. The Romans and others will call him Ulysses.

As Ulysses, he will be mentioned regularly in Virgil’s Aeneid; the poem’s hero, Aeneas, rescues one of Ulysses’s crew members who was left behind on the island of the Cyclops. He in turn offers a first-hand account of some of the same events Homer relates, in which Ulysses appears directly. Virgil’s Ulysses will typify his view of the Greeks: cunning but impious, and ultimately malicious and pleasure-loving.

Dante, in Canto 26 of the Inferno of his Divine Comedy, will encounter Odysseus (Ulisse in the original Italian) near the very bottom of Hell: with Diomedes, he walks wrapped in flame in the eighth ring (Counsellors of Fraud) of the Eighth Circle (Sins of Malice), as punishment for his schemes and conspiracies that won the Trojan War. In a famous passage, Dante’s Odysseus will relate a different version of his final voyage and death from the one foreshadowed by Homer. He will tell how he set out with his men for one final journey of exploration to sail beyond the Pillars of Hercules and into the Western sea to find what adventures awaited them. Men, says Ulisse, are not made to live like brutes, but to follow virtue and knowledge.

Dante’s vision will evidently influence Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s poem Ulysses, which presents an ageing king who has seen too much of the world to be happy sitting on a throne idling away his days. Leaving the task of civilising his people to his son, he gathers together a band of old comrades “to sail beyond the sunset”:
To follow knowledge like a sinking star,
Beyond the utmost bound of human thought

Too many works to count will be enhanced by Homeric echoes, including James Joyce’s Ulysses, Margaret Atwood’s Penelopiad (in which we hear Odysseus’ wife Penelope’s story) and Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson series.

Furthest of all into the future, a Japanese-French anime series Ulysses 31 will update the Greek and Roman mythologies of Ulysses (or Odysseus) to the 31st century. In the series, the gods are angered when Ulysses, commander of the spaceship Odyssey, kills the giant Cyclops to rescue a group of enslaved children including Telemachus. Zeus sentences Ulysses to travel the universe with his crew frozen until he finds the Kingdom of Hades, at which point his crew will be revived and he will be able to return to Earth. In one episode, he will travel back in time and meet the Odysseus of the Greek myth.

What will be our ultimate odyssey?

Coin of Ithaca showing Odysseus

Coin of Ithaca showing Odysseus


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