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Ulysses (or Odysseus) was a mythological king of the Greek island of Ithaca, and the protagonist of the Homeric epic, the Odyssey. Renown for his cleverness, he was the one of the creators of the Trojan Horse, allowing the Greek army to win the Trojan War. He is mentioned in Dante's Inferno as a resident of Hell, and (formerly) a potential candidate for freeing Lucifer from captivity, but ultimately was deemed unable to do so.

Origin and Mythology[]

Early Life[]

Little is recorded about Odysseus's life prior to the Illiad (the epic poem of the Trojan War) and the Odyssey. He was the son of King Laertes and Queen Antiklea of Ithaca, although some myths claim that Odysseus was sired by King Sisyphus of Corinth, who had seduced or raped Antiklea in an act of vengeance against her father, the notorious thief Autolykos (son of the god Hermes). Due to Antiklea marrying Laertes soon after this, it is not certain if Sisyphus or Laertes is his biological father. Odysseus was also stated to have a younger sister, Ctimene, who left Ithaca upon her marriage to King Eurylochus of Samos. Eurylochus would accompany Odysseus on his travels, but he would unfortunately die on the Island of the Sicily, leaving Ctimene a widow.

Upon reaching adulthood, Odysseus would go on to inherit the throne of Ithaca, once his father abdicated and decided to retire to a small farm. He would ultimately marry Penelope, a Spartan princess; Penelope would prove a good match for Odysseus, as she was also very clever and strategic. With her, Odysseus had a son, Telemachus, who was an infant when Odysseus left the island kingdom.

The Trojan War[]

Prior to his marriage to Penelope, Odysseus had been one of the multiple suitors of another Spartan princess, Helen: the most beautiful woman alive and the demigod daughter of Zeus. However, when Helen decided to instead marry Menelaus, the rejected suitors (including Odysseus) made an amicable pact to avenge Menelaus and Helen if anyone should cause them assault or harm.

Years later, Helen (now Queen of Sparta), at the instigation of the goddess Aphrodite, was seduced or kidnapped by the young Trojan prince Paris, a guest of Menelaus. Menelaus and his brother Agamemnon raised an army, calling upon Helen's suitors and their allies to invade the city of Troy and get Helen back.

However, after marrying himself and having a child, Odysseus was not so keen on fulfilling this pact, especially due to a prophecy that he would not return home for a very long time if he joined the army. In order to avoid going to war, he feigned madness and allowed this rumor to spread to the Greek nations. When Agamemnon's messengers arrived to recruit Odysseus, they found him plowing his fields with salt, with the ox hitched together with a donkey. However, one of the messengers, Prince Palamedes of Euboea, was suspicious of Odysseus. To test whether the king was really mad, Palamedes deliberately put Telemachus, still an infant, right in the path of the plow. Odysseus, to save his child, swerved out of the way, exposing his ruse. He had no choice but to now join Agamemnon and Menelaus, though he bore a grudge against Palamedes for this trick (during the Trojan War, Odysseus would take revenge by causing Palamedes' death).

Ironically, in turn, Odysseus went on to recruit another ally, Prince Achilles, as it was foretold that they would never be able to defeat Troy without him. However, Achilles had been hidden by his mother, the sea nymph Thetis, among a group of princesses, in order to prevent him from dying in battle. Odysseus was quickly able to discern which one was the hidden warrior: the king of Ithaca devised a plan by giving the princesses a myriad of gifts, such as jewelry, clothes and pretty items. Among these items, however, were also weapons and armor. Achilles was discovered easily, as he was the only one who reached for the weapons and armor. Odysseus further encouraged Achilles to war by telling him of all the glory he could attain, which indeed won over the son of Thetis.

Upon reaching Troy, Odysseus recalled a foretelling that the first man to set foot on Trojan soil would be the first to die in the war. To avoid this, Odysseus threw his shield down and jumped, landing on the shield instead of directly on the ground (the man who followed after and did land on the ground indeed was the first to die). While at Troy, Odysseus's counsel was highly sought and valued, and he came under the guardianship of Athena, goddess of cunning, strategy, warfare and craft. He heavily featured in many myths and stories of the Trojan war and advised how best to win the conflict.

After ten years, with Athena's aid, Odysseus and his friend, King Diomedes of Argos, came up with a two-fold plan to finally capture Troy. First, they proceed to steal the Palladium, a wooden statue blessed by Athena that protects the city of Troy. Then, they built the wooden, hollow horse, filled it with soldiers and left it outside the city walls. The Trojans, interpreting this horse as a possible replacement for the Palladium, or some sort of gift from the Greeks, brought the wooden horse into the city, resulting in the destruction of Troy and the brutal massacre or enslavement of its citizens.

The Odyssey[]

After the sack of Troy and the return of Helen, like the other Greek warriors, Odysseus intended to return home to his kingdom and family. However, due to the atrocious war crimes inflicted upon the Trojans, the gods of Olympus all but annihilated the Greek army. The only ones able to escape this fate were Odysseus and his ten ships, Helen, Menelaus, Agamemnon and the Trojan prince Aeneas (who, with his own ships and family, was protected from the sacking of the city by his mother, Aphrodite, and the god of the sea, Poseidon, when the queen of the gods, Hera, had tried to kill any Trojans fleeing by sea).

Unfortunately, the prophecy Odysseus had tried so hard to avoid at the start would now be fulfilled. Upon leaving Troy, he would undergo several adventures and be waylaid so long he would not return to Ithaca for another ten years, for a total of twenty. Some of his more well-known adventures include:

  • Landing of the Island of the Lotus Eaters, people who consume enchanted blossoms that cause them to lose all motivation to do anything, forgetting their pasts and loved ones. Due to some consuming the lotuses, Odysseus lost a few men on this island but retained the majority of the crews. He additionally banned them from bringing any lotuses along with them.
  • Being trapped on the Island of the Cyclopses. One of these creatures, Polyphemus, captured Odysseus and his crew in a cave, eating four of the men alive. Giving the name "Outis" (No-Man, or No-One), Odysseus managed to trick Polyphemus into a drunken stupor, then blinded him with a fire-hardened stake. In the morning, when Polyphemus released his flocks of sheep out to graze, Odysseus and his men escaped by tying themselves to the undersides of the sheep to avoid detection. Once safely back on his ship, Odysseus rashly revealed his true name to the injured Cyclops, unaware that Polyphemus was the son of Poseidon. In retaliation for harming his child, Poseidon turns against Odysseus and contrives to make his journey home even worse. The god's rage would not be appeased for ten years, and only with the intervention of Hermes and Athena, hence the lengthy trip of the king of Ithaca.
  • Meeting Aeolus, King of the Winds, on the island of Aeolia, and being gifted a bag which Odysseus is instructed never to open if he wants to reach home quickly. Unfortunately, as he slept, his sailors assumed the bag contains valuables and opened it. Out of the bag came the harsh storm-winds, which blew Odysseus and his ships all the way back to Troy, forcing them to start the journey over. Upon reaching Aeolia again, the king of the winds refused to help Odysseus anymore, seeing the loss of the bag as a sign of ill omen.
  • Losing all but one ship to the Laestrygonians, a race of giant cannibals living on the island of Sicily. It is here that Odysseus lost his brother-in-law, Eurylochus.
  • Coming to the Island of Aeaea, the home of the immortal witch, Circe. Circe invited some of the men into her home, fed them and used magic to transform them into tame animals. Odysseus, with help from Hermes, went to rescue his crew. He succeeds in this, becoming Circe's lover. She then hosted the men for a year, giving Odysseus advice about reaching Ithaca safely. Unknown to Odysseus, after his departure Circe bears him a son, Telegonus.
  • Journeying to the Underworld by sailing to the world's edge, where he conversed with the ghost of the prophet Tiresias. Tiresias advised him against eating any of the cattle of Helios, as any who did so would die. He also told Odysseus that after coming to a land where they called his oar a "winnowing shovel," he must leave it as a tribute to Poseidon, which would finally allow Odysseus to return home in peace. The king of Ithaca also encountered the spirit of Antiklea, who had died of grief while he was away (Laertes, his father, lost his mind as a result).
  • Successfully encountering and surviving the Sirens, the Clashing Rocks, the sea monster Scylla and the treacherous whirlpool, Charybdis. Unfortunately, due to the proximity of the latter threats, Odysseus lost another six men to Scylla's ravenous hunger, but it was considered a small cost to escape Charybdis, the more dangerous of the two, who would have killed them all.
  • Coming to the island of Thranacia, sacred to the sun titan, Helios. It is here that Tiresias's warning comes to pass: while Odysseus rested, the men ignored the taboo of eating the cattle of Helios. Enraged, Helios utterly destroyed the entire crew and the ship in a fiery blast. However, Helios spared Odysseus's life, as he was the only one who had nothing to do with the cattle.

Adrift with no ship or crew, Odysseus found himself stranded on the island of Ogygia, ruled over by the sea nymph Calypso, daughter of the titan Atlas. Upon finding him, Calypso forced Odysseus into becoming her unwilling sex-slave for the next seven years. Distraught over his captivity, Odysseus longed for his home. Calypso intended to keep Odysseus with her permanently, even going so far as to attempt making him immortal, but his despair was seen by Athena, who interceded for the king of Ithaca. Hearing Athena's plea for Odysseus, Zeus himself sent Hermes to instruct Calypso to let him go, and for Poseidon to finally allow Odysseus to return home. Although angry, Calypso had no choice, and she provided Odysseus with tools to build a boat, food supplies and a fair wind to sail away.

Return to Ithaca[]

Odysseus's makeshift boat eventually reached the land of Phaeacia, a country blessed by the gods in that their people do not have to work for food, and live peaceful lives. Upon becoming shipwrecked on this island, he was found by the Phaeacian princess, Nausikaä, who provided him with clothes and advised him to speak with her parents, King Alcinous and Queen Arete. The royal couple graciously accepted Odysseus as a guest, and he told them the story of his adventures after the Trojan War. This is also where the prophecy of Tiresias concludes, as the people of Phaecia described Odysseus's oar as a "winnowing shovel." Recalling the spectre's words, Odysseus quickly used his oar as the predestined tribute to Poseidon, which finally calmed the sea god's fury. Alcinous provided Odysseus with new ships and supplies, sending him at last towards Ithaca.

Finally reaching home, Odysseus had the foresight to go in disguise to the royal palace, in order to assess the political atmosphere of Ithaca since his twenty-year voyage. He learned that, in his absence, 108 men had taken up residence in his home, as they had given up Odysseus for dead and intended to pressure Penelope to marry one of them instead. They were also consistently abusive to his now-adult son Telemachus, seeing him as both a threat and a nuisance to their plans due to him being Odysseus's son and heir. The king revealed himself only to his former nurse, who knew him by a childhood scar, and to Telemachus, who had at first mistaken Odysseus for another suitor and intended to slay him. Odysseus was also informed that Penelope had remained faithful, never giving up hope, and continued to use tricks and tactics to delay the suitors for as long as possible.

The day of Odysseus's return, Penelope could not hold off the suitors any longer, and arranged a contest to decide who she will marry. She deemed that she would only wed the man who could string Odysseus's enormous bow and fire an arrow through a set of rings. All suitors failed, save Odysseus, who successfully strung the bow and fired the arrow. He then turned that bow on the 108 other men, and with Telemachus's aid proceeded to slay all of them. Odysseus finally announced his presence and identity to all, reclaiming his throne. However, Penelope remained wary. To test him, she ordered that their marriage bed, which Odysseus had personally carved from a still-living olive tree, be moved to another chamber. However, Odysseus protested, knowing that with the bed being part of a tree, it could never be moved. As only he and Penelope knew this, Penelope was convinced beyond a doubt that her real husband had come back. The two would later have another son, Poliporthes.

Death[]

Two versions of the death of Odysseus have been recorded, but both of the original works, the poem Telegony by Eugamon of Cyrene and the play Odysseus Acanthoplex by Sophocles, have been lost.

In the Telegony, the son of Circe and Odysseus, Telegonus, had grown to manhood and was advised by Circe to seek out his birthfather. To aid him, his mother provided him with a special spear, the tip of which was in fact the venomous barb of a stingray. Telegonus eventually made it to Ithaca, yet was unaware of it. Out of hunger and desperation, he began looting the island, drawing the attention of Odysseus and Telemachus. Not recognizing one another, Odysseus and Telegonus engaged each other in combat, but due to his spear, Telegonus killed his father. The two only realized their relation to each other as Odysseus died. Horrified, Telegonus returned to Circe with the body of Odysseus. After Odysseus's funeral on Aeaea, Telegonus married his father's widow, Penelope, while Circe herself married Telemachus.

According to Odysseus Acanthoplex, Odysseus is told of a prophecy that stated that he would die at the hands of his son. Unaware of Telegonus's existence, Odysseus automatically thought this was meant to be Telemachus, and he banished his son from Ithaca. However, soon after, Telegonus arrived to find Odysseus. The guards prevented him from seeing the king, which led to a commotion. Odysseus, once again presuming it was Telemachus, rushed out to confront the intruder, but was then accidentally slain in the scuffle by Telegonus, the son he never knew of.

The Divine Comedy[]

Odysseus, under his counterpart Roman name, Ulysses, is condemned to Hell in Dante Alighieri's work, trapped in the eighth circle, Fraud. He is specifically designated to the Malebolge, the bolgia of Evil Advisors, due to his advice leading to murder, enslavement, rape and other war crimes of Troy (along with Ulysses in this bolgia is his fellow Greek hero and fighting companion, Diomedes). However, when questioned by Dante, Ulysses relates a tale of his death that is very different from the mythological account. Odysseus tells Dante about his final voyage, when he leaves Circe's island. On this trek home, he spotted Mount Purgatory, but his ship was overturned, drowning the former king of Ithaca, due to his presumption to intrude upon an area of the Afterlife without God's explicit permission.

Dante's Inferno[]

Unlike the original comedy, while the Malebolge are presented, none of their listed denizens from The Divine Comedy are seen in the game, including Ulysses. However, he is briefly mentioned by Lucifer in the final boss fight of the game, in which the ruler of Hell states that among others, Ulysses was seen as a potential candidate to free Lucifer from his bondage in Cocytus. However, it turned out that Ulysses was not wicked enough to achieve this.

Trivia[]

  • His damnation by Dante may have also been due to the Roman view of Ulysses as a villain, as opposed to the Greek Odysseus being lauded as a hero. The Romans, who claimed descent from the Trojan refugees (including Emperor Augustus, who claimed descent from Prince Aeneas of Troy himself), would not have looked kindly on the man who helped destroy their "ancestral" homeland. The real-world Virgil, one of Dante's literary heroes, even condemned Ulysses as "cruel" and a liar in his writings; he especially cites Ulysses's attempts to avoid the war as being neglectful of his duty to Helen and Menelaus; to the Romans, duty was one of the highest virtues. Another Greek hero who was vilified by the Romans was Achilles, who is also placed in Hell by Dante (though he is punished in a higher circle).
    • Unlike Ulysses, his wife Queen Penelope is given great respect and praise by the Romans due to her loyalty. She served as a model of a faithful and dutiful wife and mother.
  • The reason why Dante's version of Odysseus's death and the original version from Greek myth differ is due to the simple fact that the historic Dante had no access to the completed works of the Odyssey or the Telegony, a now-lost poem about Odysseus's final adventures and death. As such, Dante took liberties with the tale in order to fit it within the narrative of his works as well as to reflect the general notion of Ulysses' cunning resulting in wickedness and damnation.
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