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The Odyssey: The Deceiver-In-Chief

This lesson is a part of an audio course Why Read Homer's "Odyssey" by Robert Garland

I'll be honest, however. I don't know whether a more appropriate title would be "The Liar-in-Chief" or "The Schemer-in-Chief" or even "The Smarty-Pants-in-Chief" because Odysseus is all those things. If you were an ancient Greek, you would see that there is something very odd going on in the Odyssey. The Odyssey is an epic poem, as we've seen, and epic poetry is about brave warriors demonstrating their prowess. It's a world where aristocratic values prevail. Foremost of those aristocratic values is the concept of timê, which I would render as "a sense of one's personal worth as reflected in society as a whole." Its opposite is aidôs, which means "shame." The true hero abhors shame. But that is not the case in the Odyssey. Odysseus doesn't think twice about undergoing shame. At the end of Book 13, Athena touches Odysseus with her magic wand and transforms him into a feeble old man clothed in a tatty rag, a soot-blackened tunic, and the worn-out hide of a deer. His flesh becomes withered, his brown hair grey, and his eyes dimmed. He's not your typical hero any more. He's become an object of ridicule within the terms of Greek society. He's embraced shame, so to speak. And why? Because he's committed to survival at all costs, even at the cost of becoming a foul-looking beggar. To be a survivor, you have to get rid of those aristocratic values like timê because they're a liability. What Odysseus actually needs to do is to grovel.

Odysseus is a complicated figure. He's admirable in some ways, but deplorable in others. He's admirable in his tenacious grasp on life and perhaps, to a limited extent, as a family man, but there's not a lot else he has going for him. He has an appetite for life, that's for sure. He's determined to hear the song of the Sirens, which he does by getting his companions to tie him to the mast of his ship, while filling their own ears with wax so that the Sirens' song won't cause them to drive their ship onto the shoals. But that same curiosity takes the lives of some of his companions, when he is consumed with the desire to know whether the owner of Polyphemus' cave will provide him with gifts. He has a fatal tendency to fall asleep at the wrong moment, as he does, for instance, on the island of Helios Hyperion, when, while he is napping, his companions devour the god's cattle, which both the seer Teiresias and the witch Circe explicitly warned him not to allow. He may be Calypso's unwilling sex slave, but in Book 10, he dallies for a whole year with Circe of his own volition, and it takes his companions to urge him to leave. He has a constitutional love of lying, as Athena notes, when he has just lied to her after waking up on Ithaca. We must forgive him, I suppose, for not showing any sign of recognition to his old dog Argos in Book 17, when Argos wags his tail and lays back his ears in recognition. He would, after all, have blown his cover. Argos now dies, either because he's devastated by his master's refusal or failure to recognise him in turn or because he suffers a heart attack. He is, we might say, collateral damage. For me, Odysseus' worst action is the lie that he tells to his father Laertes in Book 24 after he has just killed all the suitors. There's absolutely no need for this lie, and it almost brings on a fatal heart attack in Laertes.

We can't, of course, know how Homer's audience responded to the character of Odysseus. My own view, however, is that Homer did indeed intend that we should have serious reservations about his character. Homer is not only critiquing the conventional notion of the epic, he's also critiquing the conventional notion of the epic hero. He does so not only by presenting his hero as a man who rejects the quintessential aristocratic virtue of honour but who also little to recommend himself form a moral point of view. And here's another thought. We learn about his adventures from his own report of them to the Phaeacians in Books 9 through 12. The Lotus Eaters, the Cyclops Polyphemus, the witch Circe, the visit to Hades, the Sirens, and so on – was that actually true? Or did he make it up? We only have Odysseus' word to go on – and would you really trust Odysseus?

In the next lesson, we're going to continue talking about Odysseus in his role of both father and son.

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Written by

Robert Garland