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Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in Literature: An Analysis of The Odyssey

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The Odyssey is one of the most well known stories about war and its effects on the survivors. Homer goes out of his way to share the names and families of fallen soldiers for many reasons. The deaths in The Odyssey are exceptionally bloody and gore-filled, which allows the reader to vividly see the scenes depicted and understand the true horror that violence holds. The war scenes are particularly gruesome and filled with death. The only part of The Odyssey that Homer has left to the reader to venture in to is what Odysseus has going on inside his head. How did the Trojan War affect Odysseus mentally? Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a mental health condition that is triggered by a terrifying event. Symptoms may include flashbacks, nightmares severe anxiety, and uncontrollable thoughts about the event. PTSD affects most war veterans and has for as long as wars have raged on. Until 1980, when PTSD was first recognized as a mental disorder, people suffering from PTSD were deemed psychologically insane if they were deeply affected. When the Odyssey was written, there was no possible way to diagnose Odysseus with PTSD, though many signs in The Odyssey point to the fact that he would have. Odysseus struggled through many hard times and witnessed many terrifying things during his strife.

He witnessed the gory death of at least six of his crew, seeing their skulls bashed open on rocks and their brains and blood smeared all over the cave of Polyphemus. A sight like this repeated over again multiple times would terrify any man. The deaths of his men would have added on to any stress that he would have received from being at war for ten years. Odysseus’ isolation on Calypso’s island was another major contributor to his PTSD. He was forced by the gods to live on an island with a woman that he could never love. He would sit on the shore, thinking about all that he had lost. Whenever Odysseus would set sail, his plans were contested by Poseidon who would attempt to kill Odysseus or prevent him from returning to Ithaca. This is shown when Poseidon destroys the raft Odysseus has built after his time on Ogygia. Poseidon then progresses to blow Odysseus’ ship to the island of the Cyclopes. Odysseus encountered much stress when he was facing Scylla and later Charybdis. Many of his men were torn from the ship by the heads of Scylla and some of those that survived were swallowed by Charybdis.

A large part of PTSD is the unwillingness to talk about what happened during the time that traumatized the individual. After the games and feast from Alcinous, the king asked Odysseus to tell his tale. To refuse would come across as a bad guest. Though Odysseus does not refuse, he expresses his discomfort to Alcinous.8 Another form that the results of PTSD take is violent outbursts and uncontrolled anger. When Odysseus returns to Ithaca and slaughters the suitors, he then turns on his own house. Odysseus ordered the deaths of the maids who had turned on his house and the death of Melanthius. While these traitors to the house of Odysseus deserved death, Melanthius also was mutilated and left to die from blood loss.

The Odyssey shows a great deal of what a returning veteran goes through when Odysseus returns to Ithaca. When he reaches Ithaca, he does not recognize it for the suitors had overrun his home. Many war veterans go through this same problem when returning home. The place they had left is not the same place that they are returning to. The U.S. Military has perfected a way to train their soldiers in Basic Training. The recruits are rewired to act and behave a certain way in situations. This has an amazing success rate but the only downside to it is that the person who first came to Basic Training is no longer themselves. Training Officers describe the process as, ‘breaking the person that is standing in front of you and making them a machine of war’. The psychological effects of the training method have been documented by the Naval Health Research Center (Naval Health Research Center) and have shown no complete personality changes.

The best way that is has been described is taking a person who is normally carefree and forcing them to strategically analyze every waking moment for threats. This does not normally cause a large change in personality until the subject finds something that they deem as a threat. This is where the training kicks in and forces them to move and act in the way that they were trained. During Basic Training, the U.S. Military trains you that you are already dead to prevent any hesitations during combat. This is different from The Odyssey and ancient warfare because the knowledge of who you are fighting for makes you want to survive instead of doing whatever it takes to complete the mission.

The Odyssey is a tale of the hardships of Odysseus and his desire to return home. Though he is plagued with the many symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, his desire to return to Ithaca allowed him to hold on to reality. After his many trials at sea and alone, he was dragged through many traumatic events. There are many notable differences between the tactics for training soldiers in the present and the past. Psychologists would need to interview Odysseus to completely diagnose his PTSD but the events in The Odyssey strongly suggest that Odysseus would have PTSD.

Works Cited
Lombardo, Stanley. The Odyssey. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 1943. Naval Health Research Center. Personality Change During Military Basic Training. United States Navy. San Diego: United States Navy, Blacklined.

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