As Western culture becomes more and more post-Christian, it will unsurprisingly bear more and more resemblance to its pre-Christian roots. One of the dominant cultural forces shaping the classical Greek worldview was Homer’s epics poems. Homer envisions a cosmos conceived from chaos where order is an aberration rather than the norm.[1] Anthropomorphic and capricious Greek gods are amoral and the prospects of the afterlife are dismal.[2] In such a chaotic world—not far from the world envisioned by many a modern philosopher – the ideal man is one who is strong enough and smart enough to survive and get what he wants. This ideal is manifested throughout Homer’s epic poem, The Odyssey, in the character Odysseus who uses his strength and cunning to survive his tumultuous journey home and enact vengeance upon the suitors who have been wooing his wife and plaguing his household in his absence. This Homeric ideal of man as self-serving survivor stands in stark contrast to the Christian ideal of man, the God-man Jesus Christ, who forgoes worldly comfort and lays down his life for others.

Homer was the poet of pagan antiquity whose narrative depictions of the Trojan War and the return of the Achaian warriors, particularly Odysseus, most shaped the education and worldview of the ancient Greeks. It is primarily Homer whom Plato attacks in the Republic in his diatribe against the corruptions of poetry.[3] Mythology’s influence was ubiquitous in the art, architecture, and ceremony of Greek life and provided the underlying narrative shaping the philosophical and moral imaginations of the Greek people who grew up on these stories. In the absence of systematic philosophy and ethics, Homer’s myths provided the Greeks an imaginative conception of the way the world works and a model for human behavior. Plato was not wrong to think the influence of myths of grave importance for society.

Of the myriad heroes Homer eulogizes, Odysseus receives the most attention, featuring prominently in both The Iliad and The Odyssey. In the former, the cunning Odysseus is preferred over the brave and powerful Ajax to be the recipient of Achilles’s armor, an incident which Thomas Bulfinch interprets as the Greeks “placing wisdom before valour.”[4] As the narrative heir of Achilles, Odysseus is a more relatable hero than the nearly invulnerable demigod he succeeds. Odysseus outlasts the stronger Achilles and Ajax through his cunning and determination, and it is ultimately Odysseus’s plan of the Trojan Horse that leads to the capture of Troy and his epithet, “sacker of cities.” Odysseus is one of only a handful of Achaian heroes to make it home during the perilous Nostoi, or return from Troy, and this tale makes up the bulk of the narrative of Homer’s Odyssey.[5]

Odysseus’s homeward journey through monster-infested seas under the wrath of vengeful gods reveals the chaotic nature of the mythological cosmos. Sea voyages are not just unpredictable due to weather, but also due to islands inhabited by cyclopes, enchantresses, and six-headed monsters. Some of these trials are unavoidable, as in the case of Scylla and Charybdis which must be passed through for Odysseus to return home. But in many cases, “there is no good reason for his torment,” observes John Mark Reynolds. “It is simply the will of the gods and the bad fortune of Odysseus.”[6] Homer’s Odyssey thus suggests a pessimistic view of the world. Holly Ordway observes that “fundamentally, the world as the pagan Greeks saw it was chaotic, unpredictable, and dangerous.”[7] From this we are able to infer a broader cosmological structure for Greek society in which chaos is the essential feature of the universe and against which nomos, or conventional society, is the fragile effort of men just trying to get by.[8] The idea of a logos, or non-contingent order and reason, was still centuries away for the ancient Greeks.

The opening of the Odyssey presents a tale of death and discord, commensurate with the chaotic cosmos. After a brief invocation to the muses noting Odysseus’s troubled homecoming, the scene shifts to a council of the Olympian gods. The gods lament the death of Agamemnon, whose murder by his wife’s lover upon his return from Troy the gods had failed to prevent. The absence of Poseidon from the council allows Athena to make a petition on behalf of Odysseus, whom Poseidon hates for having killed his son Polyphemus. Zeus favors Athena’s plea and dispatches Hermes to direct the nymph Calypso to release Odysseus, whom she has been keeping prisoner. This opening scene reveals that gods cannot provide a stable foundation for the Greek cosmos since they are not all powerful and their wills are not united. As Ordway succinctly observes, “None of them are the creator of the cosmos; none of them are all powerful or all wise, certainly none of them are all good.”[9]

Homer’s depiction of Hades, the realm of the dead, offers no more accountability or consolation than do the gods for the troubled soul. It is a realm of shades. Reynolds describes Odysseus’s visit to the underworld as revealing the “hopeless fate of the human dead,” in which “all the fame won in the Trojan War means nothing in the face of death.”[10] The shade of Achilles describes the land of the dead as a place “where the senseless dead men dwell, mere imitations of perished mortals.” [11] When Odysseus tries to encourage Achilles, saying, “and now in this place you have great authority over the dead,” Achilles replies, “O shining Odysseus, never try to console me for dying. I would rather follow the plow as a thrall to another man, one with no land allotted him and not much to live on, than be a king over all the perished dead.”[12] If even the greatest among the dead lament their plight, and the most celebrated of worldly accomplishments make no difference to one’s eternal fate, then the afterlife can serve little purpose for directing men’s lives beyond driving them to avoid death as long as possible. Plato will later condemn Achilles’s statement for making men craven, valuing life more than honor or duty.[13]

Within this pessimistic worldview, with no hope or direction from above or below, Homer sets forth an ideal of man that puts a premium on survival skills – particularly strength, cunning, and determination – to the exclusion of objective moral principles. Richard Martin observes, “Most striking to modern sensibilities is the idea that [Homer’s] heroes are not necessarily morally upright.… Odysseus can bring about the deaths of many, intentionally, without remorse, and still be considered a model of toughness, skill, or endurance.”[14] These laudable qualities are highlighted in the many epithets given to Odysseus throughout Homer’s poems. He is described as strong: godlike, great, foreman of men, hardy, famous spearman, great seasoned old campaigner, sacker of cities. He is cunning, of many designs, crafty, a man for all occasions, a man skilled in all ways of contending, a man like Zeus himself for council, man of many resources, nimble-witted, wise, and resourceful. He is determined, much-enduring, stalwart, man of many sorrows, man of many ways, the wanderer. The epithets that come closest to having moral content are noble, gallant, and “great glory of the Achaians,” but these are primarily applied with reference to Odysseus’s strength, courage, and cunning during the Trojan War.

While most of his epithets focus on his cunning, Odysseus’s cunning would be insufficient without the strength to survive in the rough and tumble Homeric world. Shipwrecked by Poseidon’s wrath, Odysseus is tempest-tossed for days before he is able to swim to the shore of the Phaiakians’ land. Back in Ithaka, it is Odysseus’s strength as well as his stratagem that enables him to best the suitors in the shooting contest and the battle that follows. Homer makes a point of highlighting how Odysseus is the only one able to string the bow and complete the shooting contest, clearly establishing his hero’s physical superiority over his rivals.

While physical strength is a prerequisite, it is not sufficient on its own for survival and ingenuity must step in where strength and courage fail.[15] This is particularly shown in the incident with the cyclops, Polyphemus. It is Odysseus’s hubris that gets him and many of his men caught in the cave of the giant in the first place, but it is Odysseus’s cunning that gets any of them out alive. Odysseus restrains the men from attacking the cyclops in his sleep, recognizing that without him they have no way of moving the boulder from the entrance of the cave. They determine instead to blind the cyclops and escape on the underbellies of his sheep as they go out to pasture. Odysseus adds the extra ploy of telling Polyphemus that his name is “Nobody,” so that when Polyphemus calls for help, he will not receive any.

Determination is the final quality required to survive in the world of Greek myths. Several times Odysseus might have yielded to death – from despair at having been blown back from sight of home when his men opened the bag of winds, from the despair of floating on flotsam after his raft is wrecked by Poseidon, or from capitulating to the desires of Calypso or Circe and staying with the goddesses rather than to return home.[16] His iron will is on proud display throughout the story and would not have been missed by attentive audiences.

While survival is of great importance for the Homeric hero, the next greatest thing is to be able to accomplish one’s desires for fame and fortune. Homer makes it a point to emphasize that after leaving Troy, Odysseus and his men raid an innocent village on their way home. Homer also highlights that the gifts of the Phaiakians are more valuable than what Odysseus might have brought back from Troy. Telemachus is sent on his own journey in order to win fame and bring home gifts. Odysseus is not satisfied to remain in obscurity on an island with a goddess as her plaything. He wants to return to his land and kingship, living in comparative fame and fortune to those around him.

It should not be surprising that such amoral acquisitiveness is part of the Greek ideal when their gods display the same characteristics. To quote Ordway, “As depicted in the stories, the gods were not moral beings; they were not fundamentally interested in your good; and the myths are full of stories of mortal women being raped by Zeus or transformed or killed in horrible ways by other gods and goddesses for no good reason.”[17] If neither the gods nor the afterlife offer any kind of accountability, men’s actions should be to maximize their personal gains while they can. Any piety involved is usually just as self-serving.

Moral values are not compelling in the Odyssey. Compassion is casually dismissed with the passing description of Odysseus raiding the Kikonians on his return from Troy: “I sacked their city and killed their people, and out of their city taking their wives and many possessions we shared them out.”[18] The only remorse from this occasion is that they did not leave swiftly enough to escape reprisal. Additionally, there is the praise lavished on Autolykos, Odysseus’s “noble” grandfather-in-law, who “surpassed all men in thievery and the art of the oath [perjury]” and who was favored by the god Hermes for all his sacrifices.[19] Faithfulness is admired but more as a praise of iron will than from moral purpose. Odysseus is praised for being enduring and steadfast on his quest to return home, but he happily sleeps with the goddesses he meets along the way, including after he his release from Calypso has been announced. Even Odysseus’s tragic flaw of hubris, which gets him into trouble with the cyclops when Odysseus waits in the cave in against his men’s urging and when he shouts back his name as they are making their escape, is condemned more for its adverse survival value than for anything inherently wrong with pride. In this case, cunning is partly able to compensate for hubris as Odysseus is able to trick the cyclops and make his escape on the underbellies of the monster’s sheep. Physical or intellectual strength can, at least in part, make up for moral failings.

The Christian ideal of man is shaped by a very different foundational story, that of creation, fall, and redemption and the saving work of Jesus Christ. Christianity holds that an all-powerful God created the universe and that the original design for world and man was good. God gave man free will so that His creatures could be more like Him. When his creatures fell into sin, God did not turn his back on them but rather sent his Son, Jesus, to be born amongst men, live a perfect life, and die as a sacrifice to atone for the sins of all mankind. Because of Christ’s redeeming work, man can live forever in glory with God after they die. In the Christian worldview, Jesus is the ideal man. Christians are called to be like Christ and to take up their cross and follow Him in humility and service of others.

Jesus displays many of the same qualities as Odysseus but directs them toward radically different ends. While Jesus is strong – capable of raising the dead and calming the sea, besides chasing out merchants from the temple with a whip – he is meek, letting little children sit on his lap. While Jesus is crafty enough to best the Pharisees and even Satan himself in arguments, he uses his discernment to ask the questions and give the answers that his thirsty audience needs to hear. Jesus’s determined will takes him to death, not away from it. And while Jesus “thought it not robbery to be equal with God,” he condescended to take the role of a servant in the likeness of men, humbling himself and becoming “obedient unto death, even the death of the Cross.”[20] It is true that God subsequently exalts Jesus and He receives praise from the people of the world, but the process involved the most humiliating and painful suffering that could be imagined: the fellowship of the godhead broken while Jesus descended into Hell before his resurrection on the third day.

It should be no surprise that Homeric mythology and Christianity share similar ideal qualities for only good qualities can make someone capable of accomplishing anything. Who can imagine a world in which weakness, foolishness, and spinelessness are exalted? But it should equally be no surprise that the differences in the cosmology, theology, and teleology of the two worldviews leads to radically different founding narratives. One believes in grabbing what one can in an ultimately futile fight against chaos, while the other holds confidently to an inevitable victory of the logos over the chaos and all that yielded themselves to it.

Citation Information

Josiah Peterson. “The Homeric Versus the Christian Ideal of Man.” An Unexpected Journal 1, no. 3. (Fall): 123-136.

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[1] Holly Ordway, “Plato and Aristotle,” (lecture, APOL 5330: Houston Baptist University, 2018).

[2] Holly Ordway, “Greek Myth,” (lecture, APOL 5330: Houston Baptist University, 2018).

[3] Plato, Republic, translated by Robin Waterfield (New York: Oxford World’s Classics, 2008), 72-93.

[4] Thomas Bulfinch, Mythology (New York: Random House, 1934), 184.

[5] Homer, The Odyssey, translated by Richard Lattimore (New York: Harper, 2007), 4.

[6] John Mark Reynolds, When Athens Met Jerusalem (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2009), 26.

[7] Holly Ordway, “Greek Myth,” (lecture, APOL 5330: Houston Baptist University, 2018).

[8] Holly Ordway, “Plato and Aristotle,” (lecture, APOL 5330: Houston Baptist University, 2018).

[9] Holly Ordway, “Greek Myth,” (lecture, APOL 5330: Houston Baptist University, 2018).

[10] Reynolds, 26-27.

[11] Homer, 180.

[12] Homer, 180.

[13] Plato, 80.

[14] Richard Martin, “Introduction,” The Iliad of Homer, translated by Richard Lattimore, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011), 26.

[15] Richard Lattimore, “Introduction,” Homer, The Odyssey, translated by Richard Lattimore (New York: Harper, 2007), 8-9.

[16] It is true that in leaving the goddesses’ islands Odysseus forgoes a kind of  immortality. This could be read as Odysseus’s hubris getting in the way of his survival or simply that Odysseus sees living in obscurity as a slave to a goddess as little different from the afterlife he is trying to avoid.

[17] Holly Ordway, “Greek Myth,” (lecture, APOL 5330: Houston Baptist University, 2018).

[18] Homer, 138.

[19] Ibid., 292.

[20] Philippians 2: 6-9 (KJV)