You are here

Being Human, Being Alone: Isolation and Heroic Exceptionality in the Odyssey

Joel Christensen

Brandeis University

Modern studies in cognitive science and trauma have documented that human beings exhibit chemical and neurological responses to isolation and that prolonged periods of separation from human contact attentuate higher order functions of language and thought (see Gilmore and Willians 2014). Being separated from other human beings is dehumanizing in a way that is biologically verifiable and which can permanently reshape the way individuals engage with the world. Quantitative measures like this echo qualitative themes from early Greek myth which emphasize the importance of human beings living in groups, governing together, and having ritual and language in common. Such an ethnographic exploration, however, runs against a basic feature of heroic myth: a hero’s solitary, even antisocial nature.

This paper looks at isolation as a dehumanizing experience from the perspective of the Odyssey, arguing that the epic stands at the end of a cultural re-evaluation of the meaning of isolation which marks it as harmful both to individuals and communities. The Odyssey explores how individual identity is socially constituted—that it comes from others—and by doing so re-frames the significance of a single hero.

I start by applying some modern cognitive and psychological frameworks to the presentations of Telemachus and Odysseus in the Odyssey and their echoes with Philoktetes in the Iliad’s “Catalogue of Ships.” In summarizing some recent modern research, I sketch out how traditional Greek myth’s presentation of the dangers of isolation echo modern evidence for the deleterious effects of solitary confinement on emotion and cognitive function (Andersen et al. 2000, 19; Kaba et al. 2014; Ravindran 2014). From this perspective, the nature of each figure’s isolation contributes differently to the Odyssey’s own interests: Telemachus is alone and without agency even while among other people; Odysseus is separated from human contact with divine Kalypso far into the sea (cf. Thiher 1999, 13–14; cf. Shay 2002, 247–248). Each figure’s depiction resonates with ancient themes of madness whereby social deprivation slows the development of identity in the son and displacement initiates the breakdown of identity in the father (cf. Underwood 2019). The formulaic language surrounding each character, furthermore, connects them to Philoktetes (esp. Il. 2.721–723) as an example of the negative effects of isolation.

After arguing that the theme of isolation at the beginning of the Odyssey creates certain expectations that to be fully human one must be engaged with a community, I turn to the Homeric reception of the theme of the solitary hero, following recent work (e.g. Barker and Christensen 2019) which sees both the Iliad and the Odyssey as critically examining the role of the solitary hero. I will close by arguing that the Odyssey explores the themes of isolation and social deprivation through Odysseus and non-human figures like Polyphemos to prepare its audiences for a critical reappraisal of the destructive nature of the hero’s return to his community in Books 22-24.

Session/Panel Title

The Powers and Perils of Solitude in Greek Literature

Session/Paper Number


© 2020, Society for Classical Studies Privacy Policy