Ethical Dilemma in Homer’s “The Odyssey”


Heroes depicted in ancient literature often face the necessity of making challenging life-and-death choices. As one example, Homer’s Odysseus faced such an ethical dilemma when he and his crew approached the area between Charybdis and Scylla as they were sailing. In the story, Circe had predicted that encountering Charybdis, a most terrifying and destructive whirlpool, could result in Odysseus losing the entire ship and all his companions.

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However, the alternative, which involved sailing closer to Scylla, a six-headed monster, offered the risk of losing six men from Odysseus’s crew. As a leader, Odysseus faced an ethical dilemma in that he could not easily decide which alternative to choose as he realized that both routes could lead to his people’s deaths. Furthermore, Odysseus also had to decide whether to inform his sailors about Circe’s prediction. On the one hand, Odysseus as the leader was responsible for making decisions. On the other hand, any decision he made in this instance could potentially result in the deaths of his men. Although Odysseus might have chosen the other option, any individual faced with a similar situation might well agree with his decision to sail closer to Scylla so that he would not lose all his sailors.

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The situation that Odysseus faced in The Odyssey by Homer can be viewed as a typical ethical dilemma because it offers no single right action; indeed, either available choice will negatively affect the people involved. In the case of this part of The Odyssey, Odysseus needed to choose between losing part or all of his crew. However, neither of the options open to him made it possible to avoid the deaths of Odysseus’s companions.

Knowing the destiny predicted for his sailors, Odysseus chose not to inform them about the threat involved in meeting Scylla because it was important for him to guarantee that his sailors would not panic. Such a course of action would enable their ship to pass Scylla as rapidly as possible, saving the lives of the other members of the crew (Puchner et al. 460). Still, the decision also presents an opportunity for further consideration because Odysseus fully relied on the prediction and did not provide his sailors with the chance to fight against Scylla or to risk Charybdis.

While supporting Odysseus’s decision to intentionally send six sailors to their deaths, the author of this essay refers to a personal understanding of the problem and a specific cultural background as a representative of Asian culture. It is possible to agree with Odysseus’s decision when taking into account that Circe had informed him about all the risks facing him and he had no reason to hesitate regarding Circe’s words and their truthfulness.

In other words, Odysseus chose to rely on his fate, an approach that Chinese culture shares. In the context of The Odyssey, Circe as a goddess had knowledge that was not accessible to Odysseus and his crew, and the hero had the choice of believing or rejecting her words. According to Chinese traditional views, it is advisable to refer to the wisdom of authorities when facing the necessity of making a complicated choice. From this perspective, the author of this essay perceives Odysseus’s reliance on Circe’s words as reasonable and effective in the context of the situation under consideration.

It is possible to analyze the ethical dilemma in The Odyssey beyond the perspective of Odysseus’s right to make decisions as a leader, focusing on his choice of whether to believe in Circe’s words. A representative of Chinese culture might thus find it possible to explain Odysseus’s logical choice to save the majority of his crew and their ship, realizing the impossibility of avoiding the deaths of six people. From this viewpoint, the core culture-related beliefs that influence this understanding of The Odyssey are wisdom, benevolence, and loyalty.

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In focusing on ethical dilemmas, it is also necessary to analyze opposing views as it is not always easy to choose which side to support. The limitations of the selected position regarding Odysseus’s action are in the fact that he did not provide his sailors with an opportunity to make a decision directly related to their survival (Puchner et al. 460-461). Furthermore, they might have sought alternative options in order to save their lives when encountering Charybdis or Scylla.

Agreeing with Odysseus’s complete reliance on Circe’s words and his intention to save his people by sacrificing six sailors implies accepting one person’s right to decide the fate of other individuals. However, modern society would not necessarily view this approach as ethical or appropriate.

Nevertheless, it is also important to understand that ethical principles of modern society cannot be applied in the historical context wherein The Odyssey was created. Odysseus acted according to the principles of ancient society’s social hierarchy: he was the king of Ithaca and the leader of his fellow companions. He planned their route himself, without informing the sailors, according to the standards adopted in his society.

Therefore, it is possible to state that he was limited in a way by the necessity to act as a decisive leader. In spite of the fact that the author of this essay would have more options because of the absence of certain social and cultural limits, Odysseus’s decision seems reasonable, and his arguments are relevant in the context of the situation that the epic poem describes.

The consequences of following Circe’s words and supporting Odysseus’s decision are evident: dooming six people from the crew after sailing closer to Scylla. Situations will inevitably arise that require people to choose between those whose lives must be sacrificed and those whose lives should be saved. The consequences of having to make such an important decision will be dramatic for both leaders and followers.

Having the understanding that risk includes the chance to save some sailors’ lives, a leader should seize upon this opportunity if no other options are available. Thus, in choosing between the deaths of all his sailors and the deaths of six individuals, Odysseus selected a logical variant after analyzing the possible consequences. That said, when discussing this situation in a modern context, it is almost impossible to avoid feeling guilt and condemnation on the part of society for making such a choice.


The ethical dilemma described in The Odyssey by Homer helps to show Odysseus, from the perspective of his leadership, as a hero who acts in his particular historical context. In addition, focusing on the ethical dilemma of choosing between Charybdis and Scylla also has implications for assessing this issue from a personal perspective. As a result, it becomes possible to realize how specific moral values and cultural beliefs can influence an individual’s choices and views when discussing the most complex cases.

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Work Cited

Puchner, Martin, et al., editors. The Norton Anthology of World Literature. Vol. 1, 4th ed., W. W. Norton, 2018.

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