Cycladic, Minoan, Mycenaean, and Archaic Greek Mythology
How and why are the Odyssey and the Iliad so different from each other?
The most obvious answer to the “why” part of this question would be that the two epics were written by different people, as suggested in our discussion of the Homeric question. Robert Graves, a somewhat controversial poet and mythologist, and other scholars have argued that the Odyssey might have been written by a woman. Their argument is supported, for instance, by the notable presence of strong women in the later epic. In the Telemachia segment we are introduced to a wise and noble Helen, who is nothing like the somewhat flighty Helen of Troy we meet in the Iliad. In Phaiakia, Queen Arete and her daughter Nausikaa are impressively independent, and in Ithaca, the faithful and clever Penelope, who has the power at the end of the epic to challenge even her long-lost husband, is a true heroine in an adamantly patriarchal society. Even among the gods, it is Athene who dominates in the Odyssey.
In any case, the differences between the Iliad and the Odyssey are striking. The Iliad is a male-dominated epic of war. It glorifies the pride and prowess of warriors, even when they act in morally questionable ways. The main characters—Achilles, Agamemnon, Paris, Helen, and even Hector—often behave in immature ways, risking the lives of thousands to protect their own sexual or material interests and their prideful self-esteem. The argument between Achilles and Agamemnon, on which much of the epic is built, is particularly childish and is detrimental to the common war effort, the war itself having been triggered by an impulsive violation of strict hospitality mores and marriage traditions by Paris.
Even the gods in the Iliad are fickle and childish in their squabbling and their ruthless treatment of humans. Homer would have had little knowledge of Mycenaean religion, so it is likely that this depiction of the gods—an almost comic treatment, certainly not a respectful one—reflects attitudes of Homer’s time at the end of the Dark Ages rather than those of the Mycenaeans.
Although elements of all these characteristic exist to some extent in the Odyssey, the story of Odysseus is more somber. The first time we see the hero, he is not breaking through the walls of Troy in glory; he is weeping, the prisoner of a nymph on a deserted island. This is an epic of the post-war period, of post-war disillusionment and alienation. Odysseus just wants to get home to a domestic life—to his wife and son. He has no more interest in representing a larger Greek cause. The gods remain in place, but they, too, are somehow more serious, involved in a protracted struggle over the fate of an individual who is both worthy and guilty of transgressions.
The attitude toward heroism has evolved in this post-war age as well. Achilles lived by his abilities as a warrior; Odysseus must depend on his wits.