Hubris in The Odyssey and other Greek literature plays a vital role. In a way, Homer’s The Odyssey served as a cautionary tale to the ancient Greeks, warning them that the consequences of hubris could be devastating, even fatal.
What is hubris, and why did Homer preach so powerfully against it?
Read on to find out!
What Is Hubris in The Odyssey and Ancient Greece?
In The Odyssey and ancient Greek society, the act of hubris was one of the greatest sins imaginable. In modern English, hubris is often equated with pride, but the Greeks understood the term more deeply. In Athens, hubris was actually considered a crime.
To the Greeks, hubris was an unhealthy excess of pride, a conceit that led to boasting, selfishness, and often violence. People with hubristic personalities might try to make themselves look superior by insulting or humiliating others. These actions tended to backfire. The most dangerous act of hubris was challenging or defying the gods or failing to show them proper respect.
Originally, hubris was a term used to describe overweening pride in war. The term described a conqueror who would taunt the defeated opponent, jeering and hurling insults to inflict shame and embarrassment.
All too frequently, when a duel would end in death, the victor would mutilate the opponent’s corpse, which was a disgrace both for the victor and the victim. One prime example of this type of hubris is found in Homer’s The Iliad, when Achilles drives his chariot around the walls of Troy, dragging the corpse of Prince Hector.
Examples of Hubris in The Odyssey
There are numerous examples of hubris in The Odyssey. Though Homer used many different themes, pride was the most important. Indeed, the entire ordeal would not have occurred without Odysseus hubris.
Below are some of the instances of hubris in The Odyssey, discussed in detail later in this article:
- Penelope’s suitors brag, boast, and womanize.
- Odysseus does not honor the gods for victory over the Trojans.
- Odysseus and his men slaughter the Cicones.
- Odysseus taunts Polyphemus, the Cyclops.
- Odysseus endures the voices of the Sirens.
One may note that the characters with hubris almost always suffer in some way because of their actions. Homer’s message is as clear as that in the biblical book of Proverbs: “Pride goeth before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall.”
Penelope’s Suitors: The Embodiment of Hubris and the Ultimate Price
The Odyssey opens near the end of the tale during a scene of great hubris. Penelope and Telemachus, Odysseus’ wife and son play unwilling hosts to 108 rowdy, arrogant men. After Odysseus is gone for 15 years, these men begin to arrive at Odysseus’s house and try to persuade Penelope to marry again. Penelope and Telemachus believe strongly in the concept of xenia, or generous hospitality, so they cannot insist that the suitors leave.
Penelope’s suitors treat Odysseus’s estate as the spoils of war and Odysseus’s family and servants as conquered peoples. Not only do they exhibit bad xenia, but they spend their days boasting and arguing about which of them would be a more virile wife for Penelope.
When she continues to delay, they take advantage of the female servants. They also taunt Telemachus for his inexperience and shout him down whenever he exerts authority.
On the day Odysseus arrives in disguise, the suitors sneer at his ragged clothes and advanced age. Odysseus endures their bragging and disbelief that he could string the master’s bow, much less draw it. When he reveals himself, the suitors fearfully offer to atone for their actions, but it is far too late. Odysseus and Telemachus ensure that not one of them leaves the hall alive.
Odysseus’ Journey: The Cycle of Crime and Punishment Begins
At the end of the Trojan War, Odysseus boasts of his skill in battle and his cunning plan involving the Trojan horse, which turned the tide of the war. He doesn’t give thanks and a sacrifice to the gods. As evidenced by numerous myths, the Greek gods are easily offended by lack of praise, especially when they have done nothing praiseworthy. Odysseus’s boasting particularly disgruntled Poseidon because the god sided with the defeated Trojans during the war.
Odysseus and his men committed further hubris in the land of the Cicones, who briefly fought alongside the Trojans. When Odysseus’s fleet stops for supplies, they attack the Cicones, who flee into the mountains. Boasting about their easy victory, the crew loot the unprotected town and gorge themselves on the bountiful food and wine. The next morning, the Cicones return with reinforcements and rout the sluggish Greeks, who lost 72 men before escaping to their ships.
Odysseus and Polyphemus: the Ten-Year Curse
The Odyssey’s most egregious offenses of hubris occurred in the land of the Cyclopes, where both Odysseus and Polyphemus take turns humiliating each other, depending on which of them has the upper hand. Interestingly, Odysseus serves as the vehicle for Polyphemus’ punishment for hubris and vice-versa.
Odysseus’s crew misbehave by entering Polyphemus’s cave and eating his cheese and meat, but this action reflects disobedience of the rules of hospitality rather than hubris. Therefore, technically Polyphemus reacts somewhat appropriately by catching the intruders and protecting his property. The hubris in this scene begins when Polyphemus kills members of the crew and eats them, thus mutilating their bodies. He also taunts the defeated Greeks and loudly defies the gods, though he is the son of Poseidon.
Odysseus sees his opportunity to make Polyphemus look foolish. Giving his name as “Nobody, Odysseus tricks the Cyclops into drinking too much wine, and then he and his crew stab the giant’s eye with large timber. Polyphemus cries out to the other Cyclopes, “Nobody is hurting me!” Thinking that it’s a joke, the other Cyclopes laugh and do not come to his aid.
To his later regret, Odysseus commits one last act of hubris. As their ship departs, Odysseus yells back to the enraged Polyphemus:
“Cyclops, if ever mortal man inquire
how you were put to shame and blinded,
tell him Odysseus, raider of cities, took your sight:
Laertes son, whose home’s on Ithaca!”
Homer, The Odyssey, 9. 548-552
This gloating act enables Polyphemus to pray to his father, Poseidon, and ask for vengeance. Poseidon readily agrees and dooms Odysseus to wander aimlessly, delaying his arrival home for another decade.
The Sirens’ Song: Odysseus Still Wants To Boast
Though Odysseus’ acts of hubris are the cause of his exile, he doesn’t yet understand the full consequences of his actions. He continues to think of himself as better than the average man. One particular ordeal during his travels helped to abuse him of that notion: enduring the Sirens’ song.
Before Odysseus and his dwindling crew left the island of Circe, she warned them about passing the Sirens’ island. The Sirens were half-bird, half-woman creatures, and they sang so beautifully that sailors would lose all sense and crash their ships upon the rocks to reach the women. Circe advises Odysseus to plug the sailors’ ears with beeswax so they could pass the island safely.
Odysseus heeded her advice; however, he wanted to boast about being the only man to survive hearing the Siren’s song. He had his men lash him to the mast and forbade them to release him until they were well clear of the island.
Sure enough, the intoxicating song of the sirens drove Odysseus insane with the desire to reach them; he screamed and struggled until the ropes cut into his flesh. Though he survived the incident, one can infer that after such suffering, he didn’t feel much like bragging.
Does Odysseus Ever Learn His Lesson?
Though it took ten years and the loss of his entire crew, eventually Odysseus did achieve some spiritual growth. He returned to Ithaca older, more cautious, and with a more realistic view of his actions.
Still, Odysseus does exhibit one final act of hubris in The Odyssey, the classical kind of hubris shown in warfare. After he and Telemachus slaughter the suitors, he forces the maids who had unwillingly shared their beds to dispose of the bodies and clean the blood from the hall; then, Odysseus kills all of the maids.
The infamy of this cruel and likely unnecessary act ensures the safety of his household from any other threats. One would hope that after this, Odysseus would “sin no more” for the rest of his days.
The concept of hubris was well-known in ancient Greece, making it a powerful storytelling tool for Homer and other Greek poets.
Here are some essential points to remember:
- Hubris is excessive and unhealthy pride, often leading to petty acts, violence, and punishment or disgrace.
- To the ancient Greeks, Hubris was a grievous sin. To Athenians, it was a crime.
- Homer wrote the Odyssey as a cautionary tale against hubris.
- Characters who exhibit hubris include Odysseus, his crew, Polyphemus, and Penelope’s suitors.
By including hubris as one of the central themes in The Odyssey, Homer created an engaging, relatable story with a powerful lesson.