Thursday , June 13 2024

‘Odyssey of a Diplomat’ – A twist in our perceptions about adventure and envoy


A twist in our perceptions about adventure and envoy


By H.E. Ambassador Dimitris Hatzopoulos, Director,
MoFA Directorate for South America and the Caribbean


‘The Odyssey’ is the tale of the homecoming of Odysseus amid hardship and adventure, in a remarkable convergence of reality and fiction. It is one of the greatest epic poems of all time, a journey home full of mishaps, which are recounted by Homer.



Over a period of ten years, on his way back to the island of Ithaca from the battlefields of Troy, seem undeserved by this man, most ill-rewarded for his cunning in wartime. Odysseus managed to get back home not as a victorious hero but as an old, ship-wrecked beggar who suffered great anguish on the high seas in his struggle to preserve his life and bring his companions home.

The beginning of the adventures experienced by Odysseus is not the result of coincidental occurrence of events, but the outcome of transgression of the divine law. As Zeus, the father of all Gods, concluded “humans bring disaster upon themselves by ignoring divine warnings”¹. The violation of the temple of the goddess Athena by one of the Greek leaders, as well as the many transgressions of a moral nature of the Greek warriors, the night they ransacked the city of Troy, displeased the gods, who made them suffer on their way home. As a consequence, many of the Greek warriors were perished either on the seas or upon their return home.

For Odysseus, the penalty was a mild one, as a storm forced him to sail first to nearby Thrace, where his greed compelled him to ransack a tribe which had been allied to the Trojans: as a result, he lost 72 of his companions. Later, the stormy winds washed up his 12 ships in the land of the Lotus-eaters, in Libya, protracting his journey. Odysseus was then driven to the fateful island of the Cyclops, where his real adventures started, bringing him to his great sufferings and spelling doom to his companions.

Odysseus was either ship-wrecked or driven off his course for ten years because of Poseidon’s personal wrath against him. Odysseus not only blinded the Cyclop Polyphemus, but he taunted him and offended his father, Poseidon, the god of the seas. This insult to Poseidon resulted in 10 years of persecution, but it seems that Poseidon “never put a final ban on Odysseus’ return, once Zeus had promised it” 2.

Besides this blasphemy, Odysseus and his companions could have changed the course of events for the next ten years. As the prophet Tiresias advised him “you will succeed if only you have the strength of will to control your men’s appetites and your own” 3.

Because of his insatiable appetite for knowledge and experience, and because of his curiosity and stubbornness, Odysseus bears responsibility for at least three of his adventures:

There was no need to explore the Cyclops’ island, the Laestrygonian land and Kirke’s isle. But as Odysseus recounts (while in the Cyclops’ cave), “my men begged me to carry off the animals and to set sail but I was curious and determined to see what sort of people lived there. But though it would have been far better to do so, I was not persuaded. I wished to see the owner of the cave and had hopes of some friendly gifts from my host.” 4

When they reached the Laestrygonian land, Odysseus recounts “I sent a party inland to find out what sort of people the inhabitants were” 5. The encounter with the man-eating Laestrygones resulted in a massacre, and Odysseus managed to save only one of his twelve ships.

Again on the island of the goddess Kirke, Odysseus recalls “after some thought, I decided the better course would be to return first to my ship on the beach, give my men a meal and send out an exploring party” 6. And again, even though Odysseus realised the vicious intentions of Kirke, he decided to go to her residence and stay there for a whole year. His companions urged him to break away from Kirke’s isle, so he told her that “his men were longing to get home” 7.

Odysseus suffered on the high seas also because of the consequences of the so called “collective complicity factor” or “shared responsibility”. It manifested itself in a combination of loose supervision by Odysseus and of his men’s poor self-discipline and deficient education.

Aeolos, the guardian of the winds, for almost a month entertained the crew of the only ship left unharmed, and he gave Odysseus a bag with all the storm winds tied in it. Despite the fact that the sailors had been warned against this, they thought the bag contained treasure and opened it, releasing the tempest.

The prophet Tiresias had warned Odysseus not to harm the sacred cattle of the Sun-god. “If you leave them untouched and fix your mind on returning home, there is some chance that all of you may yet reach Ithaca, though not without suffering. But if you hurt them…you will reach home late, in a wretched state, upon a foreign ship, having lost all your comrades” 8. The sailors killed and ate some of the cattle, and the angry gods sank the ship, drowning all the men. Odysseus survived by clinging to the mast.

Odysseus was not driven helpless and against his will, during his travels. With the goddess Athena always beside him, Odysseus voluntarily prolonged his journey, because he wanted to learn the customs of the Cyclops and the Laestrygones, he wanted to hear the voices of the Sirens and he wanted to get to the Underworld to seek the advice of the prophet Tiresias, even though he already knew, from various seers and oracles, the outcome of his wanderings and his safe return to Ithaca. He was not doomed to perish during his adventures nor to spend the whole of his remaining life away from his home.

Odysseus always had “two routes open to him and he alone had to choose for himself” 9 as Kirke put it. The prospect of free choice, along with his appetite for knowledge and new experiences were the driving forces that can explain why he left Calypso, who offered him immortality and divine hospitality for seven years, why he left Kirke, who offered him delights in her enchanted isle for more than a year, why he left Aeolos, who offered him hospitality for more than a month, and why he left the Phaeacians, who lured him offering their princess Nafsika. In fact, “he was tormenting himself with tears and sighs and heartache, his never-failing wish had been to reach his home and see the day of his return” 10.

For the remaining two years of his ten-year adventure, Odysseus tried to satisfy his passion for knowledge and experience, “entering harbours he had not seen before, and stopping at market places to procure the goodly merchandise of every kind” 11, as he was determined to see the cities of many people, to learn their ways and to explore new countries.

After he returned home, Odysseus, fired with passion for eternal adventures, set out again, and continued to wander till death, refusing offers to change course in his life.

The widely-held Greek belief “what we are afraid of, we find it before us” is eloquently described by Constantine Cavafis in his poem Ithaca, and I quote: “The Laestrygones and the Cyclops and furious Poseidon you will never meet unless you drag them with you in your soul, unless your soul raises them up before you” 12. The beginning of any adventure is the result of our transgression or weakness. We finally experience what we really are afraid of, because our soul manages to project it in front of us, and our intimate fears materialise. We are drawn towards these circumstances, either because we disregard our own obligations or because, as humans, we constantly fall prey to our own human frailties. But it is up to individuals to somehow change the course of events, keeping up lofty thoughts and high spirit while following an acceptable degree of adventure which will add to our knowledge and our pleasure.

Who really was Odysseus? When Odysseus’ grandfather Aftolykos, a master-thief, son of the cunning god and notorious thief Hermes, was asked to find a name for the baby, he said “as the hate of so many people attended me here, he shall be called Odysseus” 13. The Greek word for “hated” is odyssόmenos and that is how the poet of the “Odyssey” explained the name of his hero, although, there, Odysseus is portrayed as by no means a hateful figure.

Years later in his life, as a newly wed husband and affectionate father to a baby boy, Odysseus did not want to join the Greek forces in their campaign against Troy. He pretended to be mad, because he had been warned that, if went to Troy, he would not return for twenty years. Odysseus was brutally forced to join, because he was under sacred oath (suggested by Odysseus himself) to stand by Helen’s husband against those who should wrong that marriage. But once he joined the campaign, with 600 men and 12 ships, he loyally served the common cause and successfully accomplished several missions.

Zeus qualified Odysseus as “the wisest man alive” 14, while Athena, the goddess of wisdom, said to him “in the world of men you have no rival in judgment and argument” 15. His looks didn’t match his mind. He could easily pretend being a plain fool. But when the words came, then no man alive could rival Odysseus.

The overall image of Odysseus, which could provoke feelings of compassion for his misery, does not always accurately reflect the worthiness of his deeds. Mythology portrayed Odysseus as a brave and crafty warrior, who suffered to the point that his name has become synonymous with long and life-risking adventures. A more detailed study would prove that the Odysseus described by Homer, as well as scholars, was an intelligent and cunning man, a patient and persistent follower of noble goals, an able negotiator gifted with the powers of persuasion, a mediator renowned for his silver tongue, a brave man, when required, ready for impossible missions.

‘The Iliad’, the other Homeric poem, covers the story of the 51 days of the last year of the siege of Troy, recounting events surrounding the wrath of Achilles. But even that small part of the legend abounds in references to the personality and the achievements of Odysseus. Homer portrayed him as a cool and shrewd tactician and an excellent advisor to the commander-in-chief of the Greek Army, Agamemnon, who was “delighted to hear his counsels” 16.

As an able negotiator, Odysseus was the exclusive envoy of the Supreme Council of the Greeks. On separate missions, he was sent as envoy or ambassador to persuade and fetch from various regions of Greece, persons crucial to the progress of the campaign (among them, Philoktitis and Neoptolemos), by using all his cunning, persuasion and, if required, force. He was even sent to persuade Agamemnon’s wife to yield up their daughter Iphigenia as a sacrificial victim in order to calm the wrath of the goddess Artemis and thus buy a fair wind for the ships of the Greek Army to sail. Earlier, he was sent by the Council to track down Achilles, hidden by his mother on the island of Skyros, and to bring him to the army, using one of his finest subterfuges.

During the very first stages of the 10-year siege against Troy, Odysseus was sent (with Menelaus) as envoy or ambassador of the Supreme Council of the Greeks to that city to persuade the Trojans to hand over Helen and her treasure. Odysseus argued the case brilliantly, but was unable to persuade the Trojans, who consequently tried to abuse them. The Greeks, furious at the treatment of their ambassadors, decided to launch an all-out attack on the city.

Acting as mediator and ambassador, Odysseus was sent to Achilles to persuade him to return to the battlefield. This cool tactician tried very hard to calm Achilles, both flattering him and attempting to rationalise with him. In a separate incident, when Achilles decided to return to the battlefield, Odysseus managed to convince him to avoid a quick and reckless military engagement with the Trojans and thus escape the catastrophic consequences of a premature skirmish.

On at least three occasions, when morale was very low and the army was wailing to journey back, Odysseus alone played an important role in rallying the Greek ranks with words and force. Furthermore, Odysseus, both in private and in front of the army, had the courage to counsel, to counter and to reprimand Agamemnon, his commander-in-chief, when that supreme leader of the Greeks suggested that the war be abandoned. Odysseus shaped the terms of the reconciliation between Agamemnon and Achilles, and made Agamemnon to publicly swear that he would compensate Achilles before the army. Odysseus publicly advised Agamemnon “to be more just to others, from now on” 17.

An expert at sealing and binding oaths, Odysseus prepared (with the Trojan leader Hector) the non-conclusive duel between Menelaus and Paris, the winner taking Helen and her treasure. He also escorted Chrysies, one of the two girls behind the fateful split between Agamemnon and Achilles, to her father’s arms, and led Menelaus to Helen’s quarters, during the crucial final hours of the fall of Troy.

Furthermore, on at least two occasions, Odysseus was sent to get valuable information from behind the enemy lines, performing dangerous intelligence missions. In one of them, together with Diomedes, he managed to intercept and interrogate a spy called Dolos. On the basis of the collected information, Odysseus and Diomedes volunteered to foray behind the Trojan units into the camp of the Thracians, who had just arrived to help the Trojans, and to kill many of them.

Together with Diomedes, Odysseus undertook to steal “Palladion”, a representation of Pallas Athena, which was secretly stored within the palace of Troy. “If Palladion fell into the hands of the enemy, Troy fell” 18 said an old prophecy. First, Odysseus, disguised as a beggar and painfully disfigured, walked alone into the city of Troy to collect information and, in the night, he returned with Diomedes. They climbed over the city walls, got into the palace by the drain, killed the guards and returned with the Palladion to the Greek camp.

Troy finally fell, thanks to a hoax engineered by Odysseus. The building of the huge wooden “Trojan Horse” was one of the ruses of Odysseus, who, with a chosen band of warriors, climbed into the belly of the horse and managed to bring the 10 year long siege of Troy to an end.

We are now able to make modern analogies with this figure from the ancient Greek mythology, within the context of today’s diplomacy. The activities of Odysseus are clearly reflected on the provisions of the article 3 of ‘The Vienna Convention of 1961 on Diplomatic Relations’, which was signed by all Nations of the World. This document describes the main functions of a modern day diplomat with the following words: “The diplomat represents his State, protects the State’s interests and nationals, negotiates with the receiving State, ascertains conditions and developments in the receiving State (in other words, he gets information by all lawful means) and reports thereon to the authorities of the sending state and, inter alia, promotes friendly bilateral relations”.



Odysseus was assigned by the Supreme Council of the Greeks to accomplish several important missions, always representing the Council, defending the common interests of the Greeks and acting as an efficient mediator, negotiator, intelligence and counter-intelligence agent, who entered the enemy terrain and reported back. Odysseus traveled to various places to persuade and fetch to the battlefield key persons to bring an end to the protracted war against Troy. He was handling delicate negotiations with the belligerent Trojans on their own hostile terrain and, finally, he set up the winning plan to beat the enemy.

Odysseus accomplished more than anyone could expect or envisage of a diplomat in today’s world, as his actions had a decisive effect on his country’s interests.

Let us consider the modern diplomat or special envoy, who, just before a massive military campaign, was faced with dealing with the following predicaments and had to weigh up the following options:

– Persuade more allies to join the campaign.
– Help to disentangle the problems which occurred prior to the launch of that campaign.
– Negotiate with the enemy the terms of a possible solution to the problem.
– Perform many dangerous missions as an intelligence and counter-intelligence officer, during war-time period.
– Accomplish missions behind the enemy lines, even if this meant having to infiltrate the palace of the enemy leader.
– Collect valuable information and intercept foreign spies.
– Fight valiantly in the battlefield and play an important role in organising the ranks of the army.
– Formulate a strategy to win the war.
– And finally, lead the attack which was decisive in conquering enemy positions.

That all of these feats could be achieved by one in the same person, in today’s world is unfathomable. A package comprising a top and efficient diplomat and an operative agent would be the dream of many countries today. A perfect soldier, a capable intelligence agent and a top non-career diplomat.

The establishment of permanent embassies in other countries and the creation of the diplomatic service, as we know them today, are developments of the last two or three centuries, especially when the Congress of Vienna in 1815 finalised  the framework of the diplomatic relations among States and set up the order of the diplomatic rank.

Further along, it is the possession of certain skills and qualifications, as well as the ability to conduct certain acts of representation, negotiation and mediation that count and characterise the diplomat, irrespective of the duration of his mission, his actual professional background or indeed the historical period within which he operated. Usually, a diplomat is a career dignitary, a permanent civil servant, within the ranks of the established national diplomatic service.

Modern envoys are mostly career diplomats. In addition to this, there also exists a group of roving ambassadors or special envoys, persons entrusted with specific missions of utmost importance and secrecy. These intelligent and gifted negotiators, many of them non-career diplomats, play an historic role in world affairs, somehow repeating the achievements of Odysseus, an equally successful non-career diplomat. The names of Henry Kissinger and Warren Christopher, before they assumed the role of the Foreign Minister (US Secretary of State), and most recently the name of Richard Holbrook have become inextricable parts of the US foreign policy, for the last 50 years. As special presidential envoys or roving ambassadors, they have had to handle, on the spot, the US overtures to China and the USSR, as well as to perform politically delicate missions in the Middle East, and, more recently, in the Balkans.

At face value, the adventurous and often erratic life of Odysseus naturally seems at odds with the prestigious life of a modern day diplomat. Yet the qualities of this charismatic ancient wanderer and of a modern day “national” envoy abroad display striking similarities. These qualities encompass a passion for knowledge and experience, yet we must also remember that they are always accompanied by a compulsion to try to reach a predestined goal, perhaps ones’ own Ithaca, and that the successful accomplishment of any 35 year-long mission will always involve hardship, mishaps, adventure, risk, extraordinary experiences, unexpected changes of course on troubled high seas, and, if one is blessed, sometimes pleasure.

People watching the protocol tasks and the social activities of a diplomat often tend to ignore the efforts deployed by him (or her)  to accomplish his  specific mission, as well as the impact his activities might have on his family and personal life. When abroad, usually work comes before the family and, at times, keeping in touch with far away members of the family, friends and relatives is something that brings “sighs and heartache”. The partner’s incompatible profession, the children’s educational needs, the family’s overall environment and their social life are subject to a delicate balance within which their parameters are constantly compelled to change.

Like Odysseus, a modern day diplomat accepts invitations to attend official functions, to be entertained in palaces and prestigious residencies, and to frequent influential circles. A diplomat will have many opportunities to counsel, to mediate, to negotiate, to represent, to satisfy his curiosity by traveling to exotic places, collecting experiences and strange customs, in short “to learn and again to learn from the sages” 19. Finally he may well suffer, as a result of some of his initiatives, his working conditions, his postings in non-friendly regions and the incompatibilities within his immediate working environment. Modern Sirens (who bewitch everybody who approaches them, you name them today) will try to tempt the diplomat, seeking to deviate him from his mission. There’s no homecoming for the person who draws near them unawares and, after hearing the Sirens’ voice, changes his moral course, his integrity and his allegiance.

A wanderer’s journey and a diplomat’s career of long duration can offer more opportunites for experience, adventure and knowledge. Few remember the speedy return of Nestor or Diomedes, who sailed immediately after the fall of Troy, reached their homes in a few days and resumed their previous royal activities. Reaching our destination or the peak of our career quickly has an ominous ring to it, a warning like the one we can discern  by paraphrasing Cavafis “and now, what’s to become of us without Ithaca? The arrival there was some sort of a solution for our lives” 20. There is no Odyssey without the ten-year adventure, there is no diplomatic career without the element of time necessary for engulfing many postings and gradual promotions and for harbouring ever growing ambitions and furthering an appetite for new challenges of any kind. Surely, time itself is the crucial factor in this respect.

Adventure comes with struggling for what we really want in life, with what we are prepared to experience or to forgo in life in return for this, and how far we are determined to go, under the relentless influence of the reasoning, the instinct, the passion, the weakness and the transgression of the divine or human law. Obstacles in our chosen path are directly related to our unfounded or immoral ambitions, or our well-hidden passions and fears, all of which we will inevitably encounter as they are projected onto our pathway.

Odysseus and a modern diplomat, leading parallel lives, experiencing similar personal difficulties (to some extent) and facing similar professional challenges, are destined “to enter harbours they had not seen before, to see the cities of many people and to learn their ways” 21. Their itinerary and destination (Ithaca, journey, career or a specific mission) are somehow secured either by divine will or by international guarantees. Modern day diplomats feel additionally secure because of their long-term contracts. It is up to them to achieve their goals, constantly bearing in mind that there are always two routes open to them and that they alone have to choose for themselves. So, they will succeed if only they have the strength of will to control their own appetites and those of their closest people, and if they leave untouched several sacred things they might encounter in their path and only if they always maintain respect for certain principles. Finally, both must fix their minds on reaching their goals, and accept that this cannot always be achieved without suffering.

The imposing personality and the achievements of Odysseus produced a charismatic diplomat and a legendary wanderer. His skills in judgement, argument and persuasion helped him to excel in diplomacy during his lifetime, while his sufferings, prompted by his passion for knowledge and experience, has for all eternity made his name synonymous with arduous adventures of long duration. In these respects, Odysseus has become the model character of a loyal and efficient ambassador, as well as the symbol of adventure and endurance.

A modern day diplomat aspires to emulate some of the diplomatic skills of Odysseus, to achieve some of his deeds and to taste at least some of his experiences if not adventures.

That underlying ambition or hidden desire could perhaps explain why a modern diplomat so willingly endures the prospect of a long and adventurous life around the globe amid innumerable professional challenges, even though he fully understands that these challenges, by their nature, will claim and consume much of his energy and life.

And yet he remains reasonably optimistic about his chances that he may yet reach his own Ithaca (whatever Ithaca might mean to him) and when he arrives, he will find it the way he wants it to be.


Basic Documents and references

  1. Homer, The Iliad (translated by Robert Fagles), Penguin Classics (References 16, 17, 18)
  2. Homer, The Odyssey (translated by E.V. Rieu), Penguin Classics (References 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 13, 14, 15)
  3. Modern Greek Poetry, Efstathiadis Group, S.A., Athens, 2002, (poems translated by Kimon Friar), C. Cavafis, Ithaca (References 11, 12, 19, 21) and C. Cavafis, Waiting for the barbarians (Reference 20)

Further Reading

  1. C. Kerenyi, The heroes of the Greeks, Thames and Hudson
  2. Geddes & Grosset, Classical Mythology, David Dale House
  3. Greek Mythology, Ekdotike Athinon S.A. (in Greek)
  4. Sophia Sphyroera, The Mythology of the Greeks, Ellinika Grammata (in Greek)
  5. Peter Connoly, The legend of Odysseus, Oxford University Press
  6. Cheryl Evans and Anne Millard, Greek Myths and Legends, Usborne Publishing Ltd, 1985.

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