Those “Who Know Not the Sea”

4 Sept 2021

When Odysseus tells his wife Penelope that his work has hardly ended, he refers to the work he will do for his country’s people, those “who know not the sea, nor eat meat savored with salt.”  It will be a work which will extend to the end of his days. And while Tennyson reinvents the Greek hero as an aging warrior, restless and anxious–”How dull it is to pause, to make an end, / To rust unburnish’d”–it is the classical heroism of Odysseus that the Romantic poet may have overlooked.
What makes a hero a hero? We tend to think of characters who perform great acts, those who act with bravery, or those who sacrifice themselves for a noble cause. For the ancient Greeks, however, the definition may be uncovered through an examination of the language of Homer’s literature. In her introductory essay on The Odyssey, “Odysseus and the Genus ‘Hero,” Margalit Finkleberg reveals that the term significantly applied to Greek heroic qualities is athlos, which means “labor,” and the related athlios, meaning “wretched” or “miserable.” In other words, the greatest of heroes work painfully hard.
The Return of Odysseus
This makes sense when we remember the labors of Hercules, the strange and sometimes meaningless tasks given to that hero to serve as punishment. In fact, when Odysseus journeys to the Underworld as an essential task to finding his way home, he meets the dead Hercules who recognizes him as a fellow laborer:

Son of Laertes, the Seed of Zeus, Odysseus of many devices: ah! wretched one, dost thou too lead such a life of evil doom, as I endured beneath the rays of the sun?” (emphasis mine)

Hercules recognizes Odysseus as one of his own kind, and for Homer, the identification seems anything but glorious.

No, if we are to be heroes, says Homer, the accomplishment or sacrifice are insufficient as criteria. We must, perhaps above all, have a task that challenges us beyond our seeming limits. What good the accomplishment if we do not work for it? What value is our win if we do not first suffer to achieve it? Heroes are not built from those who fall into glory nor those whose talents are seemingly unstoppable, regardless of the nobility of cause.

Odysseus’ odyssey (yes, they are etymologically synonyms) lasts 10 years (and add another 10 for the Trojan War which preceded it!), and even then, he tells his family that the labors have only begun.

“We must, perhaps above all, have a task that challenges us beyond our seeming limits. What good the accomplishment if we do not work for it? What value is our win if we do not first suffer to achieve it?”
Philosopher Giambatista Vico (my favorite 18th century Italian rhetorician and teacher) argued that those who will assume a life of public service must work hard to master logic, reason, and truth. Vico seemed to understand too, in his Scienza Nuevo, that such service and work was wisdom that began with the Greek Muses who knew “the good of life and evil,” a quote from the Odyssey. Vico’s underscoring of a Platonic idea is that wisdom is an epic quest, one that mirrors the journey of Odysseus “into the unmapped regions of the imagination” (Mazzotta 99).

Journeys are never merely physical, quests not cobbled paths. The laborious struggles we take are equally found through our internal conflicts, our struggles–not always noble–to find wisdom and make meaningful lives. Were we to have all the answers–or have them given to us–our causes and conquests would lose their value and us our heroism. Thus The Odyssey–like perhaps all epic quests–must be read as allegory.


Odysseus in the Underworld
We see this again fairly clearly in the scene where Odysseus travels to the Underworld to meet his hero-mate Hercules. Such journeys to speak to the dead are fairly rare in mythology, but not so much that the Greeks did not have a name for it: katabasis (the “descent”). Taken as allegory, we must see the katabasis as a laborious and challenging examination of our own selves, a consultation with the truths we have lost. For psychoanalyst Carl Jung, the journey was “no aimless or destructive fall into the abyss, but a meaningful katabasis … its object the restoration of the whole man.” In literature, such a journey is almost always made upon the sea.

I began this wandering through the labyrinth of rhetoricians, mythology, and linguistics with the question of heroism and the Odyssey. But there are still a few connections yet to make.

David Brooks of the New York Times writes that the ages of human life are now six: childhood, adolescence, odyssey, adulthood, active retirement, and old age. What many say of the 20-somethings who seem to aimlessly wander from relationship to relationship, job to job, address to address, But Brooks reminds us that

The odyssey years are not about slacking off. There are intense competitive pressures as a result of the vast numbers of people chasing relatively few opportunities. (Brooks)

The old traditional paths are worn away, and young people must find or create their own directions.Perhaps they are lost for years, but we must not confuse this as anything but a laborious journey for most, and we might better understand it if we also understood the meaning of Odysseus’ version of hero.

I mentioned, too, that the linguistic root of labor for the Greeks is athlos, and that it shares an affinity with misery. It also, though, shares a connection to aethlos, which means “contest.” Moreover, it is from these words that we derive the modern term “athlete.”  There are few athletes who do not understand the long, hard, and sometimes miserable labors of preparing for competition.

Are all athletes heroes? Not in our modern sense of the term, but I think it better to consider that our desire for story, for myth, is our own katabasis: when we consult the ancient wisdoms, we may better understand the meaningfulness of our own endless labors. The work we find in service to society, in a Vico-like, moral search for truth, is our Odyssey. And the heroic labors of which Odysseus speaks to Penelope are not about the sea-journey behind him, but the one yet before them both. And labors towards which, if we return to Tennyson, we are “To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”

Works Cited

Brooks, David. “The Odyssey Years.” The New York Times, 8 Oct. 2007,

Finkleberg, Margalit. “Odysseus and the Genus ‘Hero.’” Homer’s The Odyssey. New York: Infobase Publishing, 2007.

Mazzotta, Giuseppe. The New Map of the World: The Poetic Philosophy of Giambattista Vico. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999.


“Carry On Wayward Son”
And if I claim to be a wise man,
Well, it surely means that I don’t know

On a stormy sea of moving emotion
Tossed about, I’m like a ship on the ocean
I set a course for winds of fortune,
But I hear the voices say

Carry on my wayward son
There’ll be peace when you are done
Lay your weary head to rest
Don’t you cry no more no!

Carry on,
You will always remember
Carry on,
Nothing equals the splendor
Now your life’s no longer empty
Surely heaven waits for you
Carry on my wayward son
There’ll be peace when you are done

— Kansas


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