In the Odyssey, Homer recounts the many hurdles and challenges Odysseus endures on his quest home after his Trojan War victory. From the moment he set sail from Troy, to the moment he finally arrives home to Ithaka and reclaims his throne, he encountered countless types of conflicts that prolonged his trip home. It was his own inner conflict between the love for his return home and his weakness for lust and desire that is responsible for delaying his return.
His inability to resist the temptations of such characters as the enchanting Kirke and exquisite nymph Kalypso, not only jeopardized his safe return home, but also his flawless heroic image that is so often portrayed throughout the story. Initially, Odysseus’s reasons for going to bed with Kirke were noble enough, for the cause to return his men back to their human form after she had turned them into swine.
Due to a gift by Hermes, Odysseus was unaffected by any ‘magics’ of Kirke, so the choice was his to succumb to her request, “ Remain with me, and share my meat and wine;/restore behind your ribs those gallant hearts/that served you in the old days, when you sailed/from stony Ithaka” (10. 509-512). In response to this request Odysseus says, “As we were men we could not help consenting. /so day by day we lingered, feasting long/ on roasts and wine, until a year grew fat” (10. 15-517). In fact, it was only because of the diligence of his men that he didn’t remain with her longer. A year after their arrival to the Island of Kirke, his men pleaded with him in an effort to help him regain focus and to remember their cause, “captain, shake off this trance, and think of home-“ (10. 522). The distraction only added a year to his excursion thanks to his crew, but he wasn’t so lucky when left to his own vices on an island enticed by a captivating nymph.
Adding another eight years to his return home was his encounter with the exotic nymph Kalypso on Kalypso Island of Ogygia. Her beauty, sweet voice and hospitality was hard to resist and resist he did not. In fact, he continues to make love to her even after he claims to have grown tired of her and yearn for home, “ for long ago the nymph had ceased to please. /Though he fought shy of her and her desire/, he lay with her each night, for she compelled him”(5. 161-164).
In a far reach to justify his actions, one could argue here that he was stranded on an island with a beautiful nymph, with no indication of ever being able to leave, so why not make the best of it. The problem for me is that he went as far as to admit that he was tired of her and yet still chose to sleep with her night after night despite the fact that, “when day came he sat on the rocky shore/and broke his own heart groaning. With eyes wet/scanning the bare horizon of the sea” (5. 163-166).
His complete awareness contradicts his actions and shows a weakness in the integrity of his character that cannot be seen in any other instance. For example, he is able to sustain from revealing himself to his wife’s suitors even after a chair is thrown at him, he is able to refrain from opening Aieoles bag of wind, and he was even able to restrain himself from the desire of eating Helios cattle in spite of his absolute hunger, but yet somehow he remained compelled by a woman he claimed to have grown tired of.
The question is, does Odysseus’s vulnerability to lust and desire disqualify him as a hero? As defined by Merriam-Webster’s dictionary, a hero is “a figure often of divine descent endowed with great strength or ability b : an illustrious warrior c : a man admired for his achievements and noble qualities d : one that shows great courage”. We define a hero by what they are, and nothing he has done, in my opinion, makes him not a hero, it just makes him a human and flawed like the rest of us.
We have no reason to believe Odysseus was ever unfaithful before his hiatus or that he will be after reuniting with his wife. So to me, his compulsion to indulge in the sultry distractions were just another obstacle Odysseus had to overcome in order to return to home and eventaully, he did. If we can still see Odysseus as a hero after performing barbaric acts such as the unnecessary blinding of the Cyclops, or the merciless slaughter of all the suitors and the maids, then it would be quite hypocritical not to do so after performing his non-murderous acts of circumstantial infidelity.