Kleos vs. Nostos (Achilles vs. Odysseus)
04 December 2020
Achilles gives a speech in the Iliad, book nine, about how he chose to remain fighting and die with honor, rather than go home and his “name will die”. This sentiment goes along with what many of the Greeks believed to be a great honor or kleos. Kleos was the way great warriors would be remembered after their life ended. This was especially important for the Greeks because they did not have an afterlife in their culture. If stories were told about a warrior’s great trials, successes, and bravery, their name would live on forever. Achilles and many other Greek heroes accomplished this.
Achilles’ story has been told for many eons, most famously, in the Iliad. Achilles will always be known for his bravery in battle during the Trojan War and his heroic death by a poison arrow in his heel. Other examples of kleos in the Iliad are after Hector killed Patroclus, Achilles swears that he will kill Hector, but he says that “till then I will win fame”. In other words, Achilles is determined to kill Hector but until then he will battle well and honor is departed, friend. Thus his kleos extends to the dead Patroclus because Achilles will use his own fame to bring kleos to his friend.
Comparing the Odyssey and the Iliad, Achilles dies in battle, giving him kleos. Odysseus, however, lives long enough to die of old age. He is the reason the Greeks won the Trojan War and he is not killed in the Odyssey, despite the many challenges he faces. Odysseus starts his journey striving for both kleos and nostos (to return home). His need for kleos is very prevalent when he encounters Polyphemus and he gets away, but before he can leave he announces who he is to Polyphemus. Odysseus wants the glory of being known as the man who defeated the great Polyphemus. However, because he does this, Poseidon now knows that it was Odysseus who blinded his son.
By the end of his journey, he achieves both kleos and nostos and he did not have to die for either. This could be due to the thematic differences between the Odyssey and the Iliad. Achilles’ kleos stems from his premature death during battle, which he chooses over a safe return home. Odysseus avoids death because of how important nostos is to him, but he still gains kleos from surviving his journey home.
When Odysseus meets Achilles’ shade in the underworld, Achilles tells him that he would rather be a slave on earth than a ruler among the dead. The Odyssey flips the theme of a warrior’s glorious death by having Achilles sorrow at the act that brought him his kleos. Kleos is not as important to Odysseus as it was to Achilles, which is the biggest difference between Odysseus and Achilles. Odysseus lives for nostos. By focusing on his family and returning home, he receives kleos when he is not looking for it.