Odysseus’ Emotional Labours

Robin Phillips - August 2002



In this essay I’d like to explore some of the obstacles that women present to Odysseus on his voyage home and what we can learn from these about his character.

Before I begin my discussion a preliminary comment is necessary about certain assumptions which my discussion will build upon. In referring to ‘obstacles which Odysseus has to overcome on his voyage home’, I shall be working on the basis that these obstacles (particularly those narrated in books 9-12 of the Odyssey) form a series of tests. By including Charybdis and Scylla as the same test or by omitting to include Odysseus' encounter with the Phaiakians as one of the tests (since it is really the first stage of his journey out of 'no man's land' rather than a test of the same kind as the others), we arrive at twelve labours or tests.[1] In his Heroes of the City of Man Leithart suggests that this number is significant since by giving him twelve labours Homer is revealing Odysseus to be a hero of the same stature as Hercules.[2] The role of heroic exploits in Greek culture makes this a feasible interpretation even if the number of tests do not tally.

With that let us began our discussion of the tests women present to Odysseus, looking first at the situation that occurs with Circe.

When Eurylochos explains to Odysseus that the enchantresses Circe has turned twenty-two of his men into swine, Odysseus is met by Hermes who tells him exactly what to do to escape Circe's spell. If this is a test for Odysseus all he needs to do is to follow Hermes instructions correctly. I would suggest that the main part of the test comes later when Odysseus is tempted to remain with Circe. We are not told explicitly that Circe tried to keep Odysseus as Kalypso later will, and indeed, when he expresses the desire to leave, Circe helps him by giving him advice. Even so, we may reasonably infer that the temptation to stay must have been present. After all, Odysseus spent a year with Circe (9.467) “feasting on unlimited meet and sweet wine” (10.468, 12.30) and it was only when his companions approached the subject that he gave any thought to continuing his journey (9.471-475). Furthermore, to continue his journey meant leaving all the ease, luxury and sexual pleasure that Circe afforded for a journey the thought of which made Odysseus no longer want to live (10.498).

            Putting all these things together, I do not think it is unreasonable to suppose that Odysseus must have here been under a temptation similar to that encountered in the land of the Lotus eaters. The Lotus eaters, we recall, gave men honey sweet fruit which made them "unwilling...to go away…and forget the way home." (9.95-97) In the land of the Lotus eaters it was three of Odysseus' men, not Odysseus, who were in danger of settling down there for the rest of their lives with no thought of return. With Circe, on the other hand, it seems that Odysseus would have completely forgotten the homeward journey had not his companions persuaded him.

Both the Lotus eaters and Circe represent the threat of death - not physical death but death of the heroic ideal. By ‘heroic ideal’ I mean a system of values in which the notion of kleos (‘what people say of you’) is central. Kleos can be achieved in many ways, chiefly through glory in battle (Il. 12.322-28), but also though whatever other means the gods might appoint, as in the case of Telemachos who will ‘win a good reputation’ (1.95) not through fighting (that comes later when his father returns and after he has already achieved a degree of kleos) but through travelling to visit and talk to the great fighters of the Trojan War. Odysseus also achieves kleos through travels, and in this regard it is instructive that in the fifth line of the Odyssey the Greek word which Lattimore renders ‘struggling’ has connotations of struggling to attain or achieve something which relates to one’s honour. It is precisely this honour that is threatened by Circe. Circe, like the Lotus eaters, offered a long life of ease and luxury but the excellence of Odysseus' glory is gone. For Achilleus, to have returned home would have meant turning his back on the heroic ideal whereas with Odysseus, for whom kleos is only through homecoming, his temptation is for the long life of ease by not returning home.

Odysseus still have two similar tests awaiting him still, both of which involve women. The first of these is the incident with the Sirens. This is one of the most moving passages in the entire Odyssey. It is here more than with Circe that we catch a glimpse of the emotional side of Odysseus’ character. Circe tells Odysseus what he needs to do if he is to successfully pass this test. The sirens will enchant any who happen to hear their song and the beach is strewn with the bones of sailors who have listened to the irresistible music. Circe’s instructions are simple: melt down wax to stop the ears of the men. Then Circe - who must know Odysseus well by this time - adds that if he wants to hear the music he must have his men bind him against the mast with ropes. The men must be given strict instructions that when he implores them to loosen the ropes they must tie them fast with even more lashings. (12.39-54)

What do the Sirens thing about? Their song promises knowledge of "everything that the Argives and Trojans did and suffered in wide Troy" (12.189-190). It is not insignificant that the Trojan War is the subject matter of their enchantment. Their song, which begins with the words "come this way, honoured Odysseus," (12.184) is clearly tailor-made to be most effective in luring Odysseus, so we may well ask why a song about the Trojan War would be effective to this end. In addressing this question we must bear in mind that earlier in the narrative (though not earlier in Odysseus' life), when Odysseus was at the land of the Phaiakians, it was the songs about his exploits in the Trojan War, not the story about Ares and Aphrodite's adultery, that moved Odysseus to tears. Why is this?

To say that Odysseus is susceptible to experience nostalgia at the remembrance of his past experience is perhaps too crude a way of stating the matter. He seems to be going through what many people find at the remembrance of past experiences, namely that it assumes in retrospect a quality that evokes a yearning sensation. This is not a yearning to return to those experiences anymore than the intense longing one may be flooded with at the sight of a far off hill can be satisfied by actually going to the hill. Rather, the remoteness and inaccessibility of past experience conveys to it an other-worldly quality since subconsciously it becomes paradigmatic of the innate longing we all have for something that no earthly experience can provide but which is tantalizingly suggested during times of intense emotion, beauty or joy. C. S. Lewis wrote about this peculiar type of ‘joy’ as an experience in which


…the sense of want is acute and even painful, yet than mere wanting is felt to be somehow a delight... These things - the beauty, the memory of our own past - are good images of what we really desire... For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never visited."[3]


Lewis goes on to conclude (there is not space to present his argument) that the object of this intense desire is not to be located in any of the things that actually awake it. Now this is particularly relevant to Odysseus' desire for the Sirens. Had his desire been granted when he asked his men to untie him from the mast, he would have spent the rest of his days listening to their music on the beach but always longing and never actually possessing that peculiar 'something' that the beauty of their song suggested but could not provide.

Circe says that the provision given to enable Odysseus to hear the enchanting music was so that he "can have joy in hearing a song of the Sirens" (12.52) As she refers to this unsatisfied longing as 'joy' rather than frustration, this would seem to refer to the kind of joy that Lewis described as both delight and pain to the one who experiences it. This understanding of the paradoxical conjunction of joy and melancholy, longing and satisfaction explains what is found elsewhere in the Odyssey. In the very moving scene when the men who had been turned into swine are restored to their former humanity, Odysseus explains how "the lovely longing for lamentation came over us" (10.397-98 See also Il. 3.139). Longing is seen as something lovely even when that longing has as its object something lugubrious. This melancholic longing, the very pain of which is joy to Odysseus, is something he seeks out. For example, Odysseus says to Eumaios the swineherd that


But we two, sitting here in the shelter, eating and drinking,

Shall entertain each other remembering and retelling

Our sad sorrows. For afterwards a man who has suffered

Much and wandered much has pleasure out of his sorrows.

(Od. 15.398-401)


A similar situation occurs when Odysseus is at the Phaiakians court being entertained by Demodokos. He is reduced to uncontrollable weeping when Demodokos tells of the quarrel between him and Achilleus (7.75-92). This experience of weeping and lamentation is so precious to Odysseus that on the next available opportunity he praises Demodokos and requests that he and take up "another part of the story" (8.485-498). Odysseus has sought another opportunity to weep and does so again in full force.

Only by viewing Odysseus’s encounter with the Sirens in terms of this complex psychological tapestry are we able to fully understand its significance. It is significant not so much because it tests Odysseus (though it does do that, even though the ‘test’ part of it was passed before he even reached the sirens as a result of taking the necessary precautions) but because it reveals his deep emotional intensity.

After passing the temptation to bed down (both metaphorically and literally!) with Circe for a life of ease but no glory, and after successfully navigating his way through the emotional labyrinth presented by the Sirens, Odysseus still has another woman awaiting him, a woman who represents the greatest threat to his homecoming yet. I refer, of course, to Kalypso.

It may seem odd for me to suggest that Kalypso represented a temptation for Odysseus rather than just an obstacle. This is because our first impression of Odysseus’s reaction to Kalypso is characterized by Odysseus emotions after seven years there. But he did not spend all seven years down at the seashore "breaking his heart in tears, lamentation, and sorrow" (5.83 & 157) for lack of a means to escape. Homer tells us that


…the sweet lifetime was draining out of him,

as he wept for way home, since the nymph was no longer pleasing to him."



The implication is that there was once a time before Odysseus had grown tired of Kalypso when he did not merely "lie beside her, of necessity " (5.154) but out of desire. At one time at least Kalypso seems to have proved a temptation to threaten his homecoming in a way similar to Circe. With Kalypso, however, it is more overt than Circe – Kalypso holds him captive (though presumably this did not come into play until after Odysseus ceased to find her pleasing and wanted to leave). It is surely more than coincidence that there is a link between Circe and Kalypso in so far as our first introduction to both women is to find them singing sweetly and weaving on a loom. (5.61-61, 10.221-222).

Though it is speculation, perhaps the reason Odysseus ceased to find Kalypso pleasing was because he eventually remembered his purpose and knew that he must try to find a way home. Whatever the basis for his decision not to remain with Kalypso might have been, the fact that he remained steadfast in that decision for so many years as Kalypso’s hostage must itself have been a difficult task. When his homecoming seemed totally hopeless, and when his desire for it was literately killing him (5.152), it must have been a great temptation to capitulate and accept the life of ease and luxury that Kalypso offered in this setting that was so idyllic that it rivalled mount Olympus for beauty (5.73-74, 5.75-76). When we remember the powerful way in which Odysseus is affected by things of beauty, and also the temptation that women and a life of ease has on him, it becomes most reasonable to view this as having been a temptation to Odysseus.

The psychological pressure that Kalypso exerted on Odysseus must also have formed a difficult obstacle to overcome. Kalypso has convinced herself that her conduct has Odysseus' best interests in mind, that if he knew all the hardships he were to undergo before getting back to his country then he would choose to stay with her and be her husband. (5.206-209) In this Kalypso shows that, unlike Circe, she does not really know Odysseus very well, or that at least she has wilfully cut herself off from such knowledge through her possessiveness. The explicit physical possessiveness she exercises in containing him on the island and causing him to have to sleep with her (a point around which Homer leaves room for speculation) parallels an implicit psychological possessiveness in her relationship to him. Kalypso seems to feel that she owns Odysseus because she rescued him (5.129-130), that she has a right to weave out his future (5.135) like the thread on her loom and that she is in a better position than Odysseus to judge what his true needs and desires really are. (5.206-210) She says to Hermes that she loves and cherishes Odysseus (5.135), but it is not really love for Odysseus as an individual in his own right, it is only love for Odysseus insofar as he fulfils her own dependency needs. Beneath it all lurks a brooding jealousy of Penelope whom Kalypso knows shared something with Odysseus that she never could. Kalypso would rather keep Odysseus on her island until the day of his death than to set him free to return to Penelope, which is the implication of her bitter response to Hermes' assertion that Odysseus is not appointed to die here. (5.111-120)

I mentioned that Kalypso had certain dependency needs that she wanted Odysseus to fulfil. It is interesting that there is a reciprocal dependency since Odysseus' only means of escape rests with Kalypso. When Hermes is sent to liberate Odysseus he has to first go and command Kalypso to allow it, showing again the extent to which Odysseus is completely dependent on her. This is a very different kind of dependence than the psychological dependency-needs that Kalypso has towards Odysseus (i.e., her need for him to love her, her need for him to need her), yet the fact that they both need something that only the other can provide, and that their respective needs are mutually exclusive, makes their relationship what may be reasonably viewed as a psychological drama. The particular quality of this co-dependent relationship is not dissimilar to the relationship between Helen and Aphrodite in the Iliad. As the survival of Odysseus' homecoming hinges entirely on the goddess Kalypso's fiat, similarly Helen's survival in the land of the Trojans hinges entirely on the goddess Aphrodite's fiat. (Il. 3.414-17) Helen longs to be with her original spouse and not to be in Troy (Il. 3.139, 3.428-29 – though there are alternative ways of interpreting these passages) but is controlled by Aphrodite (Il. 3.399-401, 3.414-17) even as Odysseus longs to escape from Kalypso’s island but is restrained by Kalypso. Helen had not felt discontent in the early days when Paris had pleased her yet now sleeps with him out of necessity (Il. 3.410-447) just as Odysseus had not always felt discontent in the early days when Kalypso had pleased him but now sleeps with her out of necessity. (Od. 5.154) Aphrodite claims to love Helen (Il. 3.388 ) just as Kalypso claims to love Odysseus, yet in both these cases it is a 'love' that is not self-giving but entirely self-seeking, possessive and contingent on what the goddess can receive from the mortal. As Kalypso tries to deny Odysseus his homecoming because of psychological and sexual needs that only he can fulfil, Aphrodite's denial of Helen's request to leave her alone (Il. 3.399-401) stems from Aphrodite's psychological and sexual needs that only Helen can fulfil. The entire section at the end of Iliad book 3, described by Willcock as "a strangely disturbing scene", shows the extent of Aphrodite's sexual dependency on Helen. This dependency is complex since it is indirect and seems to be fulfilled only through Helen's sexual relationship with Paris. Hence, Aphrodite goes to such lengths as to teleportate Paris from battle to bedroom (Il. 3.382), then approaches Helen in disguise to try and persuade her to join Paris in bed (Il. 3.383-394), then blackmails the resistant Helen until she "was frightened and went" (Il. 3.418-19) all in order to orchestrate a situation in the day for Helen and Paris to have sex. Aphrodite's vicarious interest in this sexual relationship is no doubt the context of Helen's suggestion that Aphrodite go to bed with Paris herself (Il. 3.406). But it is not Paris as such that Aphrodite is interested in nor is it Helen as such, but rather the relationship between the two. The apparent explanation for this rests in the promise Aphrodite made to Paris to give him the most beautiful women in the world for wife, though there seems to be a deeper psychological complexity to Aphrodite's motives than merely keeping a promise, but there is not space to explore this question in any detail. It is sufficient for our present purpose merely to note the parallels between Aphrodite and Kalypso.

Returning to our discussion of Odysseus I would like to suggest that in the long interval between the time when Kalypso ceased to please him and when Hermes was sent to liberate him, it must have been a great temptation to Odysseus to stop struggling against what seemed the inevitable and to accept Kalypso's offer. It is here that Odysseus’ greatest strength as well as his greatest weakness emerge. We see his strength exhibited in the marvellous words he delivers in response to Kalypso's final pressure to stay.


Then resourceful Odysseus spoke in turn and answered her:

'Goddess and queen, do not be angry with me. I myself know

that all you say is true and that circumspect Penelope

can never match the impression you make for beauty and stature.

She is mortal after all, and you are immortal and ageless.

But even so, what I want and all my days I pine for

is to go back to my house and see my day of homecoming.

And if some god batters me far out on the wine-blue water,

I will endure it, keeping a stubborn spirit inside me,

for already I have suffered much and done much hard work

on the waves and in the fighting. So let this adventure follow.'



 These words reveal a stubborn, focused determination without which he surely would not have got passed his first ‘female test’. He has shown himself capable of not becoming "entangled in a perverse sweetness"[4] that would alienate him from his true country. This struggle not to become entangled in the things of the journey and to remain focused on his true country has proved as much a task for Odysseus as any one-eyed beast or six headed sea monster. Even when Odysseus is most set on homecoming he can get easily distracted. That this also reveals Odysseus’ greatest weakness is confirmed by the fact that most of his temptations are addressed to this level. Along this line consider how when Odysseus is at the Phaiakians he declines to compete in the games on the grounds that he is longing to go home. (8.152-157) Indeed, for a while during his visit with the Phaiakians it seems that Odysseus can think of little else but his homecoming. Nevertheless, given sufficient provoking (being taunted into competing), stimulation (Demodokos' storytelling) and prompting (the request to identify himself which leads to his long story about his travels) he seems to lose some of the urgency that had characterized his thoughts prior to the games. Up until his departure he continues to make the most of this ‘stopover’ not dissimilar to the way he has sex with Kalypso the night before finally leaving her (5.226-227) or the way in which he prepared to listen to the music of the Sirens even though he knew he had to pass by.

It is in this ability to enjoy the journey and to make the most of every step along that lies Odysseus’s greatest danger. Among the obstacles Odysseus encounters more of them actually test his vulnerability and emotions than his cleverness. It is interesting further that when a test is addressed to this level it always involves a woman, and never an ordinary mortal woman.[5] It would seem that Odysseus’ emotional constitution makes him susceptible to particular vulnerabilities which are drawn out and exploited by females characters. As we have seen, this involves his vulnerability to the temptation of a life of ease, his vulnerability to temptations involving beauty, including the beauty of attractive women.[6]

This does not imply that Odysseus’ emotions should be viewed as a weakness. Odysseus’ first appearance in the Odyssey is when he is weeping. (5.151-153) This first scene is significant since it establishes Odysseus’ character. One feels that this aspect of Odysseus’ character could only be omitted at the expense of his strength. In Homeric culture the strength of one's emotions seem to be inseparably linked to the passion of one's emotions. We see this in the fact that it is the archetypes of masculinity, namely Achilleus and Odysseus, who are the most emotionally sensitive and passionate if judged on the basis of their tendency to weep, wail and shed tears. This not only increases our appreciation for Odysseus as a complex, multi-layered and extremely interesting individual, but challenges contemporary assumptions of gender stereotypes.







[1]  In Od. 1.343 Homer refers to Odysseus as “labouring through many hardships” which seems to confirm this way of looking at things.


[2] See also, Thalmann, William G. The Odyssey: An Epic of Return.


[3] C.S. Lewis, The Pilgrim’s Regress, p. 12 & The Weight of Glory, p. 7.


[4] The words come from St. Augustine's comments about the Odyssey in his 'On Christian Doctrine.' Cited in Invitation to The Classics, p. 32.


[5]    One feels as if "godlike Odysseus" is a man of such stature that it requires women who are either magical or divine to present him with any obstacle, to say nothing of the opposition of the god Poseidon. Just as it was considered glorious to the man whom the gods chose to help, perhaps there was also glory to the man selected to struggle against a god or goddess and overcome. The fact that Odysseus required external help in each of these struggles does not apparently diminished his kleos. Whether this is because the necessity for such help emphasizes the difficulty of these obstacles, or because the fact that Odysseus is usually (though not exclusively) assisted by a divine or semi-divine being is a mark of honour, remains a matter of conjecture.


[6]      By understanding the role that women play in presenting such ‘dangers’ we can perhaps understand better why he is slow to reveal his identity to Penelope upon his return home. (19.107-22, 165-7, 336-48, 209-12) When Odysseus saw Agamemnon in the land of the dead, Agamemnon had given him some stern warnings about "the schemes of women". (10.438) Agamemnon's words drew on his own experience of being murdered by his wife Klytaimestra upon his return home, but he also takes opportunity to mention Helen for whom "many of us died" (10.438). By the time Odysseus reaches home he has his own experience to add to that of Agamemnon. No wonder he is circumspect with Penelope and delays revealing his identity!







Thalmann, William G. The Odyssey: An Epic of Return (New York: Twayne, 1992).


Peter J. Leithart, Heroes of the City of Man: a Christian Guide to Select Ancient Literature (Moscow, ID: Canon Press) 1999.


Invitation to The Classics: A Guide To Books You’ve Always Wanted to Read, edited by Louise Cowan and Os Guiness (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books), 1998.


C .S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory and other Addresses (New York: MacMillan Publishing Company), 1962.


Peter Jones, Homer's Odyssey: A Commentary Based on the English Translation of Richmond Lattimore (Bristol Classical Press, 1988).


The Odyssey of Homer, translated and with an introduction by Richmond Lattimore (Harper & Row, 1967).


The Iliad of Homer, translated and with an introduction by Richmond Lattimore (The University of Chicago Press, 1951).


Malcolm M. Willcock, A Companion to The Iliad Based on the Translation by Richmond Lattimore (The University of Chicago Press, 1976)




Return to Robin Phillips HOMEPAGE




    You are invited to join my mailing list!



As a member of my mailing list, you will receive automatic notification about additional material and features on this site, as well as occasional newsletters. To join, send a blank email to


largerhope  @  tiscali.co.uk


with “Join” in the subject heading. To unjoin, send a blank email with “Unjoin” in the subject heading.


(Note: for anti-spam purposes, the above email address has had spaced inserted before and after the @ sign. The address will only work after deleting these spaces.)