The Reluctant Hero

Odysseus was renowned for his intellect – his Homeric epithet is ‘very cunning’ (polymetis). Thanks to his advice, King Tyndareus of Sparta made his daughter Helen’s suitors swear an oath to aid her future husband, should she ever stray – which led to the Trojan War and Odysseus’ own prolonged absence from home.

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As a reward, Tyndareus helped Odysseus marry his niece, Penelope, whose childhood was not without adventure. Some say that her father Icarius tried to drown her at birth by throwing her out to sea. But when she was rescued by a flock of ducks, Icarius relented and named her from the birds that saved her (penelopes in Greek). Others suggest that the ducks saved Penelope when she tried to drown herself, having been wrongly told by Nauplius (embittered by his son Palamedes’ death at Troy) that Odysseus was dead.

Odysseus envisaged a life of marital bliss, even building his own bed – a wondrous creation inlaid with gold and silver, strung with ropes and covered in crimson oxhide – around a vigorous young olive tree. Lopping off its upper branches he used the trunk as the bedpost. In time, the couple had a son, Telemachus (‘He Who Fights from Afar’). But soon the drums of war beat throughout Greece. Helen had run off to Troy with Paris; Agamemnon had assembled an army to retrieve her; and now he, Menelaus and Palamedes, the clever king of Nauplion near Argos, had arrived in Ithaca to recruit Odysseus. But Odysseus knew that the war would be protracted. So he pretended to be mad. Yoking an ox and ass to a plough, he carved furrows in the beach and sowed them with salt. Suspicious, Palamedes stole Telemachus from his cradle and laid him in the ploughshare’s path. Odysseus reined in his team, accepted the inevitable and – as his puppy, Argos, whined to watch him leave – set off for Troy.

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