The Odyssey is traditionally considered the founding pillar of Western Literature. We are taught that Odysseus’ heroic deeds are to be emulated, his hubris to be shunned. However, perhaps Odysseus is not the hero he is presented to be. Harold Bloom notes that Odysseus is a “universal figure,” and that “no Western literary character is as incessant as Odysseus,” noting the retelling of his story from Homer to Goethe to Pound. Yet Bloom still points out that Virgil’s characters “identify the hero of The Odyssey with guile and deceit” (80), as well they should. Odysseus is not a hero, but a pawn of the gods and a poster child for Fate.
Odysseus’ opposite, a set of heroes who exemplify Free Will, can be found in Abolqasem Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh: The Persian Book of Kings. While Homer allowed the gods to accomplish, or at least mightily assist, the heroic deeds of the “wily” Odysseus—“the great tactician”—Ferdowsi wrote believing that, according to translator Dick Davis, “the soul of man is a microcosm of the universal battlefield and each man must choose contending forces” (Davis 3). The telling difference between these two works is the question of choice.
Odysseus allows events to happen to him. He does not choose to leave the goddess Kalypso, Zeus and Athena convince her to let him go. Zeus says to Athena, when she asks him to persuade Kalypso, “Have you not, you yourself, arranged this matter?” (Homer 82). Athena even helps Odysseus defeat the suitors who have moved in on—and with—his wife. Although at the beginning of the battle, “for all her fighting words she gave no overpowering aid—not yet” (416) she eventually “turned their shots” away from the avenging “hero” (Homer 418). Odysseus’ heroic deeds are only accomplished with help from the gods.
Rather than being acted upon by the gods, as Odysseus is, Ferdowsi’s heroes are in constant struggle, often with themselves, to make the right decision. Davis elaborates that, “Erich Auerbach’s famous remarks about ‘clearly outlined, brightly and uniformly illuminated men and things [that] stand out in a realm where everything is visible’ characterizing Homeric epic are quite beside the point for Ferdowsi’s poem. In the poem’s greatest episodes we feel that Ferdowsi is interested primarily in moral, inward, and often hidden, rather than physical heroism […] the overwhelming duty of the poem’s heroes is to do what is right, and this rightness is not necessarily consonant with the victory of one’s side in battle or the survival of one’s own people, as is the case in a more straightforward heroic poem” (Davis 3). Ferdowsi’s heroes must choose their own courses—they do not have the luxury of the gods making decisions for them.
While Ferdowsi’s heroes seem wholly different from Odysseus, they often face a dilemma similar to that of another Greek, Antigone. As Davis explains, “What the king demands and what God or the conscience (or even simple common sense) demand should theoretically be one and the same thing, but they are frequently at variance, and this dilemma of loyalty is faced at one time or another by most of the poem’s heroes” (4). Odysseus, on the other hand, is subject to the whims of the gods, and accepts their actions without question. For example, when Odysseus washes ashore after Poseidon wrecks his raft, the hero says, “Never had I thought to see this land, but Zeus has let me see it” (Homer 93). Neither Odysseus nor his author ever pause to wonder about the reasoning behind the gods’ actions. Ferdowsi, on the other hand, not only has his historically-based characters question God, but he himself does as well. Seyavash, for example, spends his life as a model of virtue and goodness. He rejects the sexual advances of his step-mother and chooses to exile himself to Turan, where he is betrayed and killed. There is no intervention by God, as there might be in Homer’s epic; just a man’s noble choice and the realistically clichéd ending that “nice guys finish last.” Davis notes that “one of the most striking of these [Ferdowsi’s] comments occurs after Seyavash is killed, when the poet says in effect that he can’t imagine what God can be thinking by arranging matters thus” (4).
Critic Jerome Clinton notes the same situation in the story of Rostam and Esfandiyar, in which Esfandiyar’s father, Goshtasp, refuses to relinquish the throne to him unless he can bring the hero Rostam to court as a captive. In choosing to succumb to his father’s wishes, Esfandiyar falls to both Rostam’s might and Goshtasp’s arrogant demands. Goshtasp’s hubris, like Odysseus’, brings pain to those loyal to him. And, like Odysseus, God seems to condone his excessive pride. This, according to Clinton, is the point Ferdowsi is asking the audience to consider. Clinton explains the philosophical importance of the story, saying, “I believe that questioning God’s wisdom in choosing and supporting Goshtasp as shah is precisely what Ferdowsi wishes us to do. He is no revolutionary. He accepts monarchy as the system that God has chosen to order human society. But in this magnificent and painful tale he has chosen to reveal to us the dark and shadowy side of that system” (8).
Word choice also provides an important clue to which heroes are acting, and which is being acted upon. Odysseus says “Zeus has let me see it” [emphasis added]. Ferdowsi’s heroes are more in control of their own destiny. Davis writes, “In the Seyavash story the hero chooses [emphasis added] to side with his country’s enemy and his conscience rather than with his own country and what he sees as evil; his notion of the right is supranational, and while he does figure in the work of the historians it is only in Ferdowsi’s poem, among extant texts, that the ethical, tragic, and quasi-mystical implications of his decisions are explored with such earnestness and such depth” (7). The words Odysseus is given imply that he considers himself to be an object, while Ferdowsi’s heroes are clearly subjects. Ferdowsi elicits an intellectual response in his readers, while Homer’s audience has a more emotional response.
Critic C.M. Bowra calls Homer’s works “the Poetry of Action,” but his focus is not on the characters’ deeds, but more how Homer extracts an emotional response from his audience. He writes that “what counts most in the Homeric poems is action. It awakens the responses through which we judge the poetry […] There is almost no human reaction which Homer did not translate into a concrete poetical form” (7). Perhaps, then, what Bowra truly means is that Homer’s works are the poetry of reaction. He later quotes a translation in which Alcinous says of Troy, “the gods fashioned it, and they wove destruction for men that they might be a song for those in the future.” Bowra explains that, “this is a clear and emphatic view, and not what we should expect to find in Homer or what in fact we find in other heroic poetry. It asserts the supremacy of art over human fortunes and justifies them because of the pleasure which songs about them will give” (13). However, once again, it is not art which is given supremacy, but the gods. Once again the gods are in control of the action in the epic, and the characters are merely reacting to the way they are acted upon by the gods.
None of this is to say that God is any less of an important figure in Ferdowsi’s work. His heroes merely refuse to blindly follow Him. Davis explains that during his self-imposed exile Seyavash’s “search for an adequate father who will both protect him and support him ethically is reflected in the overriding claims of his anguished superego, which demands absolute ethical integrity from him and finally leads him to trust the most potent but also most absent father of all, God—who, like his earthly fathers, proves unwilling or unable to prevent his death” (8). Seyavash does not fear God, as he trusts in his own goodness. Preparing to endure a trial by fire he tells his earthly father, “The heavens willed all this, and rest assured / The fire will have no strength to injure me; / My innocence insures my victory” (Ferdowsi 226). God, in the story, is only given credit for assuring that justice is done, he does not actively participate as Homer’s gods would.
Seyavash also respects God in a way that Odysseus does not. Seyavash consciously chooses his actions, hoping his decisions will please God, but not counting on His aid. Odysseus, on the other hand, is aided by the gods at every turn, his only conscious act is that which brings about his downfall, the blinding of Polyphemos and Odysseus’ subsequent boasting in the face of Poseidon, taunting him, “if I am thine indeed, and thou art father [of Polyphemos]; grant that Odysseus, raider of cities, never see his home” (Homer 161). His only chosen act is his least heroic.
The main difference between The Odyssey and Shahnameh is clearly the age old struggle of Fate versus Free Will. While Odysseus relies on the gods to help him through his exploits, Ferdowsi’s heroes forge ahead with their chosen actions, justifying in hindsight that their success (or in many cases, failure) proves that their decision was merely an expression of God’s will. Ferdowsi’s heroes are actors, while Odysseus is constantly being acted upon. It is questionable, then, that Odysseus is considered to be the greatest epic hero, and schoolchildren are taught that his exploits reign supreme in literature and culture. Perhaps the greater lesson for all readers would be to learn from Ferdowsi’s heroes, that trust in yourself and your own judgment, your own free will, should truly reign supreme.
Bloom, Harold. The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages. New York: Riverhead Books, 1994.
Bowra, C.M. “The Poetry of Action.” Homer. London: Duckworth Publishers, 1972. 141-64. 26 May 2007. Gale Literary Database. 1-13.
Clinton, Jerome. In the Dragon’s Claws: The Story of Rostam and Esfandiyar from the Persian ‘Book of Kings’ by Abolqasem Ferdowsi. Washington, D.C.: Mage Publishers, 1999. 9-23. 26 May 2007. Gale Literary Database. 1-9.
Davis, Dick. “An Introduction to the Legend of Seyavash.” Introduction. The Legend of Seyavash. By Abolqasem Ferdowsi. New York: Penguin Books, 1992. 26 May 2007 Gale Literary Database. 1-12.
Ferdowsi, Abolqasem. Shahnameh: The Persian Book of Kings. Trans. Dick Davis. New York: Penguin Books, 2006.
Homer. The Odyssey. Trans. Robert Fitzgerald. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1998.
Antares Alleman is a Ph.D. candidate in English literature at the University of Texas at Arlington. She currently teaches Freshman and Senior English, Science Fiction, and Gothic Literature at Keller High School in Keller, Texas. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Arash Manzori is an Iranian-American Cardiologist in private practice with an interest in Persian and Greek mythology. He can be reached at email@example.com.