Odysseus and Achilles: What is the Difference?

Odysseus and Achilles are two of the most famous Greek heroes and fought beside each other at Troy.

One is often called the foil of the other, but how did these two heroes compare?

Odysseus and Achilles were both similar and opposites. In some ways they could be considered two sides of a heroic coin. Both were Greek warriors beloved and helped by the gods, and both carried divinity in their veins though they were human. Both are the central characters of epics (The Odyssey and The Iliad, respectively), and both are usually mentioned in the same breath as their life partners. Their differences are in their approach: Odysseus was a man of cunning and trickery, while Achilles preferred direct strength and bravery. This combination made them a formidable pair when they fought together.

What’s the difference between Odysseus and Achilles?

Family

Odysseus

Odysseus was the son of the Argonaut Laertes and Anticlea, whose grandfather was Hermes. According to some, his true father was actually Sisyphus. His younger sister was named Ctimene.

Penelope, Odysseus’s wife, Telemachus and Poliporthes’s mother. Odysseus had children with various others as well. His children by the enchantress Circe were Telegonus, Ardeas, Latinus, Ausonus, Casiphone. The nymph Calypso was the mother of Nausithous and Nausinous.
Odysseus also had a son with another wife, Callidice, who was named Polypoetes. The princess Evippe bore him Euryales. His son Leontophonus was born from the unnamed daughter of the Trojan War hero Thoas.

Achilles

Achilles’s mother was Thetis, a Nereid daughter of the Old Man of the Sea who was loved by both Zeus and Poseidon before marrying King Peleus of Phthia. Peleus was Achilles’s father. Achilles was also raised and taught by the centaur Chiron.

Through Thetis, Achilles had fifty aunts (the other Nereids) and one uncle, Nerites. His grandfather Nereus was the son of Gaia and Pontus, and his grandmother Doris was the daughter of Oceanus and Tethys.

Achilles’s friend and lover was Patroclus, who fought alongside him. Achilles had one or two sons by Princess Deidamia of Scyros; Neoptolemus and Oneiros.

Major Myths and Roles

Odysseus

Prior to the Trojan War, Odysseus tried to get out of the attack on Troy by faking lunacy. This was because he had been told by a prophet that, should he join the attack, he would not return home for many years. To test him, Palamedes placed Odysseus’s son Telemachus before a farm plow, saying that if Odysseus was mad, he would allow the child to be run over. Odysseus couldn’t do that, so he was taken away to war. When the army went to recruit Achilles, it was Odysseus who was able to tell which of the “women” presented to them was actually the young hero in disguise.

During the events of the war, Odysseus served as a foil to Achilles. While the other hero was hot-tempered and acted on emotion, Odysseus was mild-manner and cunning. This granted him the favor of the goddess Athena, who gave him strength and speed to win games and would be very important to his later survival.

It took a total of twenty years for him to return home. One of the most significant and famous trials on his long journey was his conflict with the giant cyclops, Polyphemus. Polyphemus killed many of Odysseus’s men, but through trickery and wile, Odysseus was able to blind him. The giant was Poseidon’s son, and Poseidon took revenge for his death.

Odysseus was captured by the enchantress Circe who turned many of his men into pigs. His great-grandfather Hermes gave him moly which helped protect him from the magic. Circe fell in love with him and she and Odysseus stayed together on her island for a year.
When they finally returned home, he tested Penelope’s love and loyalty by winning an archery contest. In return, he passed her test of identity and they were duly reunited.

Achilles

Achilles’s mother attempted to make him immortal as a child either by dipping him into the river Styx or by burning away his mortality. In either case, his heel was left untouched, rendering it his only vulnerability.

Peleus gave his son to be raised by the wisest of the centaurs, Chiron. Thetis prophesized that Achilles would either live gloriously and die young, or live plainly and die old. Achilles chose the former and decided to go to war alongside his companion Patroclus.
Thetis wished to keep Achilles out of the war and disguised him in a court of young women, where he met and impregnated Deidamia. Odysseus discovered Achilles and took him to the battlefront.

At Troy, Achilles led 2500 Myrmidons in the battle against the Trojan forces. He was hot headed and enjoyed the thrill of battle and slaughtered the enemy where they stood. He also fell madly in love with brother and sister Troilus and his sister Polyxena, though accidentally slayed the former.

King Agamemnon betrayed Achilles by stealing from him and Achilles retaliated with petty anger. He refused to fight and prayed that Troy would gain footing in the war. Odysseus and several others pleaded with him to return, but he would not. Patroclus tried to lead in Achilles’ stead, but was killed by Hector while holding off an attack.

Patroclus’s death sent Achilles into a fury, and he stormed the land slaughtering men and challenging gods until he found Hector. Hector knew he would lose and begged for respect after death, but Achilles instead dragged the corpse by its heels behind his chariot. Achilles eventually relented, however, and returned the body to Hector’s father, Priam.

He fought on and was eventually killed by Paris’s arrow in his heel or arm. His bones were buried with Patroclus’s.

Final Thoughts

Odysseus and Achilles serve as a literary foil to one another. While Odysseus relied on his wits and cunning, Achilles was a man of war and violence. However, they were not entirely different; both fought for their people with great passion. Both were also motivated strongly by love; while they took other lovers, their hearts and stories were irrevocably entwined with their soulmates – Penelope for Odysseus, and Patroclus for Achilles.

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