Models of Masculinity: Achilles vs Odysseus

The hero of the war and the hero of the peace. What can these two icons of Greek Heroism tell us about Modern Masculinity?

The Past in the Present
11 min readAug 6, 2021
Achilles Slays Penthesilea, Vase / Catalogue of Vases in the British Museum (B210)

AA weary and homeless king has entered the Underworld. Odysseus, the King of Ithaca, sacker of Troy, and genius behind the Trojan horse is now a desperate, lost sailor. He has been told that the only way back to his wife, child and kingdom is to descend into the Underworld and speak to the spirit of the hermaphroditic prophet Teiresias. Whilst down there, he meets the tortured spirit of Greece’s greatest hero. A man who lived fast, died young, loved deeply, and killed mercilessly — Achilles.

He is the warrior prince whose fate was foretold as a young demi-god. Achilles could live a long and peaceful life of obscurity, or die young and violently at the most famous war of all time. At Troy, he fulfilled his fate, the eternal epitome of martial heroism and heroic death. Odysseus greets him and reassures him of his fame. He hails him as the, “Most blessed man of all time.” In life, he was the most honoured man in Greece and now he rules as the greatest of the dead. What more could a fighting man, in a warrior society, ask for? Immediately, Achilles rebukes him and in one sentence, rejects the entire ideal that his whole life, and entire culture, embodied.

‘If I might live on earth, I would choose to be the servant of another, of some humble man whose livelihood was but small, rather than to be lord over all the souls that have perished.’

We are told often that modern man is in crisis. In attempting to find a place in a quickly changing modern world, old archetypes are being questioned and rejected. How can there be a place for the boastful, proud, and quick-tempered patriarch in our more progressive and egalitarian modern world? Perhaps answers can be sought in two of the foundational texts of world literature. The Iliad, set before the walls of Troy, is a book of War. The Odyssey, telling the tale of Odysseus, attempting to return home after the conflict, tells the tale of soldiers attempting to find their place in a new world of peace.

It is a tale of two halves, told over two books, ostensibly written by one man. In it, we see the sunset of the Age of Old ‘Heroes’ and, perhaps the dawning of the Age of a New Humanity.

The Virtue of a Violent Death

‘Meriones pursued, and when he had come up with him, smote him in the right buttock and the spear-point passed clean through even to the bladder beneath the bone; he fell to his knees with a groan, and death enfolded him.’ — Iliad 5.65–69

Achilles and Penthesilea, Vase / Catalogue of Vases in the British Museum

It is not common in epic poetry, that you read about someone being stabbed through the arse to death. Even less when the victim, Phereclus, was described just a few lines beforehand as being loved, “Above all men,” by the goddess Athena. Tough love.

The details of death in Homer’s Iliad, the great epic tale of the Trojan War, were not kept tactfully vague. Within the same few verses, the painful minutiae of dozens of deaths are described. Spears are thrust through shoulders, snap spines and shatter teeth. Swords split collarbones, shear off shoulders, and even stab through nipples. It is a far cry from the modern approach to heroic death. World War 2 memorials do not go into the details of each soldier’s fate.

Yet in the very same book, death in battle is presented as the highest honour, something that the audience should aspire to. How can we resolve these two contradictory points of view? For a true Greek hero, it seems, the violence was the point. If the pain and gore of death in battle were not acknowledged, there was nothing heroic about confronting it. For the Greeks sitting in the audience when these poems were recited, the heroes become models of excellence by facing this grisly death early.

It also prevents the inevitable decline they will face in old age. Meriones, by literally tearing Phereclus a new hole, was strangely to modern eyes, preserving him at his peak. The pursuit of heroic death becomes the ideal form of life. Indeed, old age is often mocked and seen as an affliction. Priam, the old and, to us, noble King of Troy, directly compares the beauty of dead young men to the ugliness and wretchedness of the old, labelling the death of an old man the “most pitiful thing that comes upon wretched mortals.” The grand old man of the Greeks meanwhile, Nestor of Gerenia, is presented telling long-winded stories of his youth and wishing he could be young once more. By dying young, at the height of their powers, the hero’s youthful virility is never lost to the ravages of old age. Their golden skin never sags, their glossy hair never thins — they are forever young.

The pursuit of fame, praise, and admiration was also a key driving force behind heroic manhood. The traditional heroic warrior would proudly boast of his name, exploits, and background, before duelling one on one with a fellow ‘Great Man.’ Not only did this clearly identify him to onlookers, but the concept of the duel itself meant that, instead of facing an anonymous, unseen death in the swirl of a mass brawl, all eyes were on him. By fighting in full view of their armies, they know that win or lose, their tale will be told after their death. More important than dying bravely, is being seen dying bravely.

It is in this context that Achilles, the greatest of the Greeks, chooses early death over a long life as the only route to, “Imperishable glory.”

Violence, Eternal Youth, Fame, and Death — it is no wonder the Iliad’s dark glamour has lived on through almost three millennia. Does it seem so different from the modern era? The pursuit of fame at all costs, the veneration of youth, and fixation on violence seems as present now as they ever did. From Kurt Cobain to XXXTentacion, though to toxic, far-right terrorists — on and on the list goes. Untimely deaths no doubt still play a key part in the creation of modern icons, whether the motivations behind their martyrdom are tragic or toxic.

What then, can we make of the original doomed youth’s radical denial of the heroic death?

Odysseus — In the Pursuit of Happiness

Homer, who did more than anyone to create this mythos, seems to tear it down in his next epic, the sequel to the Iliad — the Odyssey. It has been said that whilst the Iliad is an epic drenched in heroic death, the Odyssey is focussed on life, in all its variety. Achilles’ actions in the Iliad are driven by honour, the pursuit of glory, and a desire for immortality through death. Odysseus’ actions, however, could not more directly contrast against this. The Odyssey is the story of an epic hero, desperately trying to stay alive in order to live a long and quiet life at home. He is simply trying to return home after the Trojan War, but his ships are lost to storms, monsters, and vengeful gods. For ten years he roams the Mediterranean, attempting to return home to his beloved wife Penelope and the son whose childhood he has missed, Telemachus.

Put simply, if given the choice that was given to Achilles, between early, glorious death and long, prosperous life, Odysseus would give the exact opposite answer.

Indeed, throughout the Odyssey, the author seems to be delighting in ironically undercutting every ideal of the Iliad. Take martial combat. When Odysseus is faced but the great, serpentine monster, Scylla, he straps on his ‘glorious armour’ and grabs two spears. To the audience, this is the equivalent to Superman dashing into a phone box. Raised on tales of heroes and monsters, they will prepare for another tale of a great strong man, destroying a hellish beast. Instead what follows is a detailed description of Odysseus’ horror as his men are torn to shreds, whilst he watches on helplessly. It is a 3000-year-old precursor to Loki being tossed about like a rag-doll by the Hulk in The Avengers. In the Odyssey, the old ways do not seem to the best.

As we have seen, a great hero boasts of his name to his enemies, hoping to spread his name far and wide. Now think of the most famous episode of the Odyssey — the Cyclops. Everyone knows how this story goes. Trapped in a cave by a one-eyed giant, Odysseus’ men are eaten one by one. Odysseus, yet again, cannot challenge the enemy to a duel. The only way Odysseus can save the day is by denying his name. After blinding the monster and escaping, he tricks the Cyclops by literally calling himself “No-body.” The Cyclops, Polyphemus, calls out to compatriots for help, and when they ask him who has done this deed he replies, “Nobody!” They laugh at him and fail to give chase to the fleeing Greeks.

Old habits, however, die hard. Unable to restrain himself, Odysseus boasts of his name as he flees, even using an epithet that directly references Troy, calling himself, “Odysseus, the sacker of cities.” It is only at this point when Odysseus acts like he is still in the Iliad, that Polyphemus can use his name to curse him and bring Poseidon’s wrath upon him. Poseidon, the Cyclops’ father, spends the rest of the story sending storms his way to bring him to ruin. Indeed, one could argue that all of Odysseus’ woes — his ten years of exile from home, witnessing every single one of his dependents die, the loss of all of the spoils of war, and even his fame as the Greek world forgets his very existence, his reduction to a ruined, penniless vagrant — comes from this one boast. From this point on, Odysseus takes great pains to hide his identity as much as possible. The message could not be starker. Heroic braggadocio will no longer be rewarded. Pride now comes with a fall.

Also, key to the Odyssey, is a prominent, heroic, and active role for a mortal woman. Penelope, besieged by the unwanted advances of arrogant princelings, comes up with ruse after ruse to keep her suitors at bay. Several books are devoted to her. She tricks the suitors into waiting for her to finish mourning her lost husband by constantly sewing and unpicking his funeral shroud. She sends Telemachus off on diplomatic missions to foil an assassination plot. She sets the suitors a challenge only her husband could win. She is seen as a fully-formed, three-dimensional character, who is not her husband’s property, but his equal. No wonder Odysseus rejects the advances of nymphs and goddesses and spends a decade attempting to get back home to her.

Achilles, meanwhile, throws the most historic hissy-fit in literature when the slave-girl whose family he has butchered is taken from him, by the Greek leader Agamemnon not because of his love for her, but because of the insult done to his honour. She is a trophy to him. In Book 9, he states he loves her, but only to keep her in his possession. Later in the poem, he wishes her dead, since she caused an argument between him and his king, one which, presumably, dented his honour.

A cursory reading of the Odyssey, however, could cause some to argue that the ending reaffirms the heroic message. When Odysseus finally comes home, he must fight off the hundreds of men who are attempting to marry his wife and claim his throne. He must once again, become the old-school hero to reclaim his position. The Heroic Age reasserts its dominance over the newer, lesser men of the Odyssey. This, however, makes no sense.

Odysseus and the Suitors

First of all, Odysseus does not burst in, as Achilles would do, armed to the teeth, announcing who he is, boasting of his many deeds, ready to stab some men up the arse. He is instead given a disguise, transformed into an old man by the goddess Athena, and sneaks his way onto his island home of Ithaca. He is forced to embrace the indignity of old age that the Iliad was so disgusted by. He does not challenge these men publicly to a duel. Instead, hides all of his enemy’s weapons, locks the doors, and shuts out the prying eyes of the rest of the world. There are no witnesses to this deed. Finally, he does not strap on his armour and fight hand to hand in the tradition of the great heroes. He picks up a bow and arrow and picks them off from afar. He is not attempting to assert his manliness. He is not fighting for fame. This is not heroic combat — it is ruthless execution.

It is clear. Achilles is the hero of war, Odysseus is the hero of peace. Achilles is a hero, committed to his own death. Odysseus is the hero committed to staying alive.

In the end…

When comparing Achilles and Odysseus, we are forced to think about what is most valuable to us. Is it fame, beauty, strength? Or is it home, hearth, and happiness? Odysseus does not seek fame and when he does he is cursed. He is forced to lose his beauty and is transformed into a wrinkled old beggar. He acts not to add to his honour, but to regain his home.

We are told constantly that we are in a crisis of masculinity, that the toxic manliness of braggadocio, pride, and aggression must come to an end and be replaced with something new. I would never say that Odysseus is an ideal role model. His story is set in the context of a deeply violent, misogynistic, slave-holding society with no concept of universal human rights. What we can see in Homer’s two tales, however, is the same conversation being played out, and the conclusion could not be clearer.

Who would you rather be — Achilles, alone and bemoaning his fate in Hades? Or Odysseus, in bed with his beloved, when “sweet sleep, that loosens the limbs of men, leapt upon him, loosening the cares of his heart.” Should we prioritise our Honour, or our Happiness? Do we constantly live in competition and comparison with others? Or humbly ourselves to fates we cannot control? Do we want to be more heroic, or more human?

Further Reading

Clarke, M., ‘Manhood and Heroism’ in (ed.) Fowler, R., The Cambridge Companion to Homer (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2004)

Jaeger, W., ‘The Greek ideas of Immortality: the Ingersoll Lecture for 1958’, The Harvard Theological Review, (Jlu., 1959)

Schein, S.L.,Reading the Odyssey: Selected Interpretive Essays (Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1996

Van Wees, H., Status Warriors, War Violence and Society in Homer an History, (Gieben, Amsterdam, 1992)

Whitman, C.H., ‘The Odyssey and Change’ in (ed.) Clarke, H. W., Twentieth Century Interpretations of the Odyssey, (Prentice-Hall, Inc., Englewood Cliffs, 1983)



The Past in the Present

Using the past to illuminate the present. Written by a UK based educator with a Masters in Ancient History and History and too little spare time.