The Theme of the Hero’s Journey in Ancient Poems and Tragedies


Myths and works of ancient literature based on these myths represent archetypal heroes who have to cope with obstacles and challenges on their life paths that are viewed as universally common. The most vivid example of an archetypal hero is Odysseus presented by Homer in his epic poem The Odyssey as the main character who faces many issues on his way back home. In the tragedy by Sophocles, Oedipus the King, the main character is an archetypal hero even though the author does not accentuate his journey. The major focus is still on the life cycle of Oedipus and his overcoming barriers and tragedies on his path.

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These works created by famous Greek authors are different in their messages and forms, but they are similar in the socio-historical context, in which they were written. They are also similar in their focus on the theme of a hero’s journey. Although it is problematic to find similar topics discussed in The Odyssey and Oedipus the King, these examples of Greek literature represent two approaches to describing a hero’s journey and depicting an archetypal hero.

The Journey of Odysseus

Even though the concepts of a hero’s journey and archetypal characters are comparably new in the field of analyzing the literature, in the classical literary analysis, researchers focused much attention on studying “heroes.” Thus, actions of heroes in myths and Greek literary pieces were analyzed concerning identifying recurring patterns in their decision-making and behaviors. Later, the term “archetype” became used in literary analysis to investigate and explain unique heroes’ characters and activities (Garry and El-Shamy 160).

In this context, the character of Odysseus seems to be the most remarkable one. It is important to note that the journey of any hero consists of such three phases as the separation, the trial, and the return to society. Odysseus, a young king of Ithaca, joins the Trojan War, and this initial stage of his journey is not represented in Homer’s epic poem The Odyssey. Still, Odysseus faces a lot of trials and challenges on his way from the war to Ithaca that is depicted by Homer in the poem in detail.

Trials experienced by Odysseus are described in Books 9-12 of the poem, and Homer accentuates Odysseus’ victories and personal development on his path to home. For example, when Odysseus comes to the land of the Cicones, his crew experiences success that is immediately followed by failure because of warriors’ greed. In this trial, Odysseus does not win, but he learns several important lessons. Leaving the Cicones’ land, Odysseus states, “We prepared to sail away with heavy hearts, relieved to be alive, but grieving for our friends” (Puchner et al. 416).

The next important trial is prepared for Odysseus at the land of the Cyclops where he motivates his warriors to demonstrate their courage and will. Thus, he claims, “… I drove the spear into the embers to heat it, and told my men, ‘Be brave!’ I wanted none of them to shrink in fear” (Puchner et al. 423). Then he notes, “My crew stood firm: some god was breathing courage in us” (Puchner et al. 423). Supporting his warriors, in this trial, Odysseus has to escape the cave by Polyphemus without relying on his strength, but learning humility.

Odysseus’s journey as a hero is full of trials, and one more challenge for him is associated with his meeting the Sirens. Thus, Odysseus followed Sirens’ singing that he could not ignore, “… I alone should hear their singing. Bind me, to keep me upright at the mast, wound round with rope” (Puchner et al. 435). Still, he could resist Sirens’ power only with the help of his crew members, and by the end of this trial, the hero realized the importance of keeping his way to his goal despite all possible obstacles. Thus, one should note after reading the poem that Homer described multiple challenges for Odysseus that can be considered as trials for a hero on his journey.

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The final part of such a path to Odysseus’ spiritual growth and maturity is associated with returning to Ithaca. After twenty years spent abroad, Odysseus becomes mature, wise, powerful, and his experience made him be a better king for his people (Garry and El-Shamy 196-197). As a result, the reader can notice the change in Odysseus’ behavior that is caused by his overcoming a range of trials as well as by his personal development. Following the tradition for a hero, after the journey, Odysseus is expected to use all his experience and gained knowledge and skills to serve his people as a fair king.

The Journey of Oedipus

A specific socio-historical context is also influential in understanding the heroin Oedipus the King. In this tragedy, the focus is on discussing what it means to be a king, as well as to be rich or powerful and poor or helpless in the context of Ancient Greek society. In comparison to The Odyssey, the journey of Oedipus is more complex in terms of focusing on addressing different psychological trials for the hero rather than material ones.

It is important to pay attention to the fact that the separation of Oedipus and his initiation are associated with his decision to leave Corinth. After learning the prophecy about murdering his father and marrying the queen, Oedipus decides to leave his lands “never to see home again, that no such horror should ever come to pass” (Puchner et al. 724). This decision can be discussed as related to the start of Oedipus’ journey to understanding his fate.

At Thebes, Oedipus faces the critical challenges on his path that are associated with killing his father and meeting Jocasta to marry her. Oedipus overcomes several trials at this stage, including finding the solution to the riddle by Sphinx, and he also protects the land of Thebes to become the king after Laius’ death (Garry and El-Shamy 337). Although the life of Oedipus and Jocasta seems to be good, the king cannot cope with his thoughts about the secret of Laius’ death that leads Oedipus to experience more psychological challenges.

Thus, Oedipus claims to attract the attention of the public, “now I proclaim to all the men of Thebes: who so among you knows the murderer by whose hand Liaus, son of Labdacus, died – I command him to tell everything to me” (Puchner et al. 693). Thus, Oedipus does not stop his pursuing the truth, and his other trials seem to be connected with the struggles of realizing his destiny and his role in the development and progress of Thebes.

The final stage of a hero’s journey is associated with Oedipus’ return to Thebes to accept Jocasta’s suicide and his nature as her son and his role as the king. All these challenges attack Oedipus in the context of accepting his role in murdering his father to obtain his place. It is possible to state that, blinding himself and focusing on mourning, Oedipus realizes his maturity as a hero who needs to demonstrate transformation and wisdom to act for the benefit of his people.

Thus, Oedipus chooses to blind himself because the truth is “too terrible for eyes to see” (Puchner et al. 720). This step by the king is important to demonstrate how he reacts to his fate from the perspective of an archetypal hero.

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However, while analyzing Oedipus in the context of archetypal heroes, it is important to note that he has many similarities with the archetype of a scapegoat in society who needs to sacrifice his life for addressing the needs of other people. While facing the risk of damage to the land of Thebes and his people, Oedipus chooses to live his life in a specific way to prevent the destruction of his community. Therefore, it is possible to state that Oedipus acts as a tragic hero in this situation, and obstacles and trials on his path are correlated with Ancient Greeks’ ideas about people’s destiny and gods’ will. In this context, Oedipus is represented as a hero who tries to avoid his fate, but this escape is impossible, and this aspect is reflected in the tradition of Greek myths and literary works.


Even though it is a challenging task to compare The Odyssey and Oedipus the King and find similar topics in them, these works have many common features associated with their characters. Thus, the theme of a hero’s journey and his development as an archetype in the context of Ancient Greek literature can be found in both literary pieces. In The Odyssey, the depicted hero is viewed today as classical and archetypal because he overcame all the stages of a hero’s journey.

Furthermore, he developed a personality because of the lessons he learned. In Oedipus the King, the focus is more on the life cycle of Oedipus rather than on his linear journey to someplace. Still, Oedipus also grows and becomes mature as a result of experiencing many difficulties and facing trials in his life. In this context, his specific role of a hero develops in the archetype of a scapegoat depending on destiny and willingness to serve other people.

As a result of their journeys, both characters received some important knowledge and experience to realize their potential as kings. However, the circumstances related to Odysseus’ and Oedipus’ return and transformation as the final stages of their journeys are different. While referring to the framework of archetypal literary analysis, it is possible to understand in what ways The Odyssey and Oedipus the King can be compared and interpreted. This approach to determining themes and patterns in these two works is important to contribute to the overall analysis of the epic poem and tragedy as great examples of Ancient Greek literature.

Works Cited

Garry, Jane, and Hasan El-Shamy, editors. Archetypes and Motifs in Folklore and Literature: A Handbook. Routledge, 2017.

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

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