As classical Christian educators, we know why our students should read Homer. But that doesn’t tell us what exactly they should take away from these profound myths, these stories both classical and pagan. What caveats, frameworks, and hermeneutical habits should we model for them? In particular, how should they be guided in assessing the character of pagan heroes? Odysseus as Christ-figure offers a useful context for pondering these questions.
Right away the phrase “Odysseus as Christ-figure” probably brings to mind similarities between Christ’s career and Odysseus’s. Odysseus toils, braves dangers, and suffers humiliation in order to return home from the Trojan War and rescue his bride from would-be usurpers. Along the way he turns down shortcuts to glory in the form of more glamorous marriages; at last he arrives home disguised, “despised, and rejected by many.” Strikingly, Odysseus was a carpenter (6.243-57; 23.188-98), and a close look will show parallels to various characters and scenes from the life of Christ.
Deserted by bumbling companions (apostles), Odysseus arrives alone on the shores of his island kingdom Ithaca and undertakes a second kenosis—a descent-from-glory like Christ’s in Philippians 2. (His first kenosis was to vanish from Homer’s quasi-historical map, with its recognizable place-names, into the fantasy realms of Ogygia (Calypso), Aiolia, Circe’s Island, Phaiakia, and the underworld.) Made up as a beggar, he first visits and sides with the underclasses, from whom his faithful band are called to fight the suitors. His old dog Argo recognizes him immediately, rejoices, and dies, much like Simeon (Lk. 2:25-35). Others among the faithful have doubts. Indeed only a forceful declaration, echoing the “I am” statements of John’s Gospel, persuades his son Telemachos: “No other Odysseus than I will ever come back to you. But here I am, and I am as you see me” (16.203-5).
Put all this together, and the adventures of Christ and Odysseus are profoundly similar kenotic romances.
Why then does Peter Leithart, in the otherwise perceptive Heroes of the City of Man, refuse to call Odysseus a Christ-figure? He writes, “even as a suffering hero, Odysseus is not Jesus. He does not crush the serpent’s head by his suffering unto death; he suffers until he has the opportunity to crush heads” (157). Leithart’s position amounts to this: no cross, no Christ-figure.
If we instill in our students a hermeneutics of suspicion rather than one of delight, we will discourage them from digging deeper into the congruities between the true Myth and what C. S. Lewis called the “good dreams” that echo it.
‘This is a cup-half-empty evaluation. Though correct, if we emphasize it as Leithart does we risk forming in our students an overall negative attitude toward Odysseus, Homer, and pagan literature more broadly. We will block our students from noticing subtler Christo-typological details such as I describe in what follows.
Typology can draw on similarities of character, plot, and scene; but it can also draw on similar protagonists. If Odysseus has his betrayers and skeptical believers, he also has his Pharisees—the suitors. Like their biblical counterparts, they are oppressors. Their leaders refuse handouts to Odysseus-qua-beggar, even handouts from his own table. To support their incessant feasting, twelve of Odysseus’s maids must grind wheat for hours on end, day after day. (As in the Bible, numbers are significant: here “twelve” indicates the fullness of the travesty wrought by the suitors’ hubris.) They and their minions mock faithful servants and lead the less-faithful astray. They abuse their status, using superior numbers to shut down opposition in the Ithacan assembly.
Like the Pharisees, the suitors roil in selfish hypocrisy. They pose as guardians of good order and ritual piety but carouse late into the night on Odysseus’s dime, even sleeping with his maidservants. The carry out sacrifices and follow feasting protocols. However, like Polyphemous the Cyclops, they violate the xenia (hospitality) required for guests, all of whom are under the patronage of Zeus. In the end their false piety recoils: they carefully observe the rites of Apollo god of archery and succumb on the same day to Odysseus’s arrows.
Odysseus and Christ have similar ruling-class protagonists. Keepers of public liturgy and ritual order. They oppress the weak, plunder the estate of the son (Telemachos), and impose themselves on the bride, trying to become a necessary fixture in her life without fulfilling the heroic role of a true husband. When first the son and then the father appear to reclaim the kingdom, the imposters attempt to rebuff them through violence and duplicity.
Among the suitors we even find a sort of Nicodemas figure, or perhaps the “rich young ruler” fits better (Mt. 19:16-22; Mk. 10:17-27). Amphinomos, who name means something like “on the fence,” is sensible enough to “please Penelope more than the others in talk” (16.397-8) and moral enough to dissuade them from murdering Telemachos (16.400-6). He alone shows respect and hospitality toward the disguised Odysseus, so the latter takes him aside to offer a warning (18.138-47). Using a fictional autobiography as a sort of parable, he describes himself as a man of good birth and morals who wound up breaking laws and customs thanks to the influence of bad company. Instead of heeding the warning, Amphinomos “went back across the room, heart saddened within him . . . and sat down on the chair from which he had risen” (153-5, 7). Like the rich young ruler seeking the way to eternal life, Amphinomos goes “back” the way he came, resuming his seat and (symbolically) his errant ways.
This has been a sketch of Odysseus not as Christ figure but as robust Christ figure. The sketch shows what we are likely to miss by taking a cup-half-empty approach to Odysseus, Homer, and maybe other pagan classics. We have the challenge of modeling for our students both delight in the great texts and criticism of their flaws. If we instill in our students a hermeneutics of suspicion rather than one of delight, we will discourage them from digging deeper into the congruities between the true Myth and what C. S. Lewis called the “good dreams” that echo it. When criticism gets the last and heaviest word, negative attitudes will take hold in our students: “If the main thing to see in Homer and Hesiod and Sophocles is Christlessness—violence, darkness, and futility, why should I revisit them after high school?” We are citizens of Jerusalem; we can visit Athens for a while.