Ancient Greek and Roman Mythology Assignment 1 {Coursera / Penn University}

Prompt 2.     Professor Struck has analyzed parts of the Odyssey using the theory of Functionalism. In this theory, a myth serves to legitimize social values and norms (such as the practice of xenia). Choose one episode from the Odyssey that was not given a Functionalist reading in lecture, and analyze this episode through a Functionalist lens. It is up to you to decide how long or short an episode is. What social norm does this episode legitimize? Be sure to spell out your reasoning very carefully. The best answers to this question will move from the evidence to your conclusion with careful attention to detail. Avoid generalities.

Functionalism in Homeric epic: The Odyssey

Reading myth from a functionalist perspective has become a popular trend among anthropologists and philosophers so as to deduce social norms of a certain era based on hidden symbolism within mythical context. Thus from a tiny episode in Odyssey we are to understand further connotations that relate to social rules and way of thinking during Homer’s time.

In his epic journeys we are told that Odysseus has to face two sea nymphs, one more terrifying than the other; Scylla a six-headed monster eager to devour anything in its path and Charybdis a life consuming water whirlpool. Both preside over the Strait of Messina on the way to prized Ithaca and – unfortunately – there is no way to draw a different course, regardless Odysseus’ dexterity (Butler 2009: XII, line 31). The episode of Odysseus facing Scylla and Charybdis is of functionalist note here. Butler recounts of how Circe advises the Greek hero to approach those two monsters:

“…you must hug the Scylla side and drive ship by as fast as you can, for you had better lose six men than your whole crew.” (Butler 2009: XII, lines 26-27)

Circe tries at first to let Odysseus decide upon the outcome of the morbid dilemma (Butler: XII, line 14) and yet she offers the “best” seeming choice; six men over the entire ship reflects cold logic. Fundamentalists would argue that during Homeric times logic was considered not only a virtue but a priority over other emotions. “Polytropos” Odysseus himself portrays a man of multiple twists and turns, a man of logic. Scylla is insofar as functionalism goes not only the lesser evil of the two but the ultimate triumph of a hard decision based on the greater good.

In retrospect, we can echo Bentham’s utilitarianism in Homeric society; the choice over the greater good versus the individual good is legitimized, in this case logic over emotion. In A Fragment on Government, Bentham says, “it is the greatest happiness of the greatest number that is the measure of right and wrong” (Bentham 1776: Preface, line 5). Perhaps these words reflect what Odysseus had in mind when he chooses to follow the witch’s advice and also not warn his men over what was awaiting. Cold logic ensued; still the sight was unbearable to witness. [Butler 2009: XII, lines 55-63]

Emotionally draining, this experience was not meant for the weak; logic harshly overrides feelings for loved ones among other things.  The cultural value of a sacrifice for the common welfare– a repeated motif in Ancient Greek tragedies and epic– represents that a scapegoat is painfully necessary for a greater benefit to arise.

The functional meaning of the episode still applies in society nowadays. At the end of the day, having to choose between two evils, between Scylla and Charybdis, what will your criteria be?


Works cited:

Bentham, Jeremy. “A fragment of Government”. 1776. Web. Retrieved 19th May 2013 from

Butler, Samuel. Translation of the “Odyssey” by Homer. 2009. Web. Retrieved 19th May 2013 from


8 comments on “Ancient Greek and Roman Mythology Assignment 1 {Coursera / Penn University}

  1. A very difficult subject well tackled. You certainly move the essay form premise to conclusion with well argued and detailed points in the middle. The evidence is there and well used and referenced. I would question using the limited word allowance to site a source that is not course material.

  2. Pingback: Ancient Greek and Roman Mythology Assignment 1 {Coursera … | College Events

  3. Thanks Louise – word limit puzzled me but I have always sided with the comparative approach when it come to analyzing epic, hence the extra material. Your feedback was most welcome!

  4. I’m taking the mythology class, too, and I wish I had peer-reviewed your essay! It is interesting that Odysseus did not take Circe’s advice entirely. He armed himself and the result was disastrous for all his crew. Perhaps cold-bloodedly limiting his losses without a fight conflicted with his hero persona.

    By the way, I wouldn’t count the Works Cited section in your word count. You wouldn’t in a traditional course (I’m an academic librarian and I help people with formatting assignments and citations all the time). You might get feedback about it, though, since it isn’t clear in the instructions.

  5. Hi Tracy, thanks for the feedback!!!! It is true that Odysseus did deviate from Circe’s recommendations but I was more inclined to show what was considered “proper” altogether, not what he wanted to do,as functionalism tries to legitimize the social norm of the time – however, I agree with your chain of thought; the heroic Odysseus wouldn’t go down without a fight it seems (another norm this time for heroes). 500 words was a pain – I am not sure about what I am gonna get as feedback to be honest, but what I received so far was great!

    ps. it’s the first time I have had comments under a MOOC assignment – I am thrilled!!!!!

  6. Guess what?! I was a linguistics major at Univ of PA and a Classics minor. =) Hullo, there!~ Thanks for the support and follow. I love the nerdiness of your site. I do my best to stay in touch with my supporters but it’s getting hard with the other blog I’m juggling. Feel free to rap on my window with any posts you’d like to share with me down the line if you happen not to hear back. Warmly, Diana

    • Hi Diana – omg so happy to find someone originating from Prof. Struck’ class – he’s the man! I embrace my geekness and I am extremely happy to find friendly people dropping by and appreciate – will check up more on your work, I promise. 🙂

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