Odysseus: The Man of Twists and Turns

In this series of posts, I examine the various versions of Odysseus/Ulysses that appear in the classical texts of the Greeks and Romans in an attempt to create a clear picture of who Odysseus really is. Most of the content in this series was written in February of 2013, as part of an assignment for a advanced literature course at Santa Clara University called Classical Mythology in the Western Tradition. In this class, we traced two major mythological figures, Odysseus and Helen, through the western literary tradition, from the ancient days to their modern incarnations.

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Odysseus in the Odyssey: The Man of Twists and Turns

Odysseus receives glory and honor in the bronze-age war epic that is the Iliad, but Homer’s other epic, the Odyssey, is an entirely different story. It is a post-war epic that favors the importance of culture and domestic life.

In Greek, andra, or man, is the first word of the epic, and so, it is a story of one man, Odysseus, and the challenges he must face to return from war to the domestic home life. He is a complex man, a man of “twists and turns” as translated by Fagles, so the epic also attempts to show us the full complexity of this man.

The Cyclops and Xenia

The famous Cyclops incident reveals both his strengths and his weaknesses, which he must work to overcome before he can successfully return home. When Odysseus and his men are in the Cyclops’ cave, he refuses to leave until “I saw him (the owner of the cave), saw what gifts he’d give”(Odyssey IX.258). When the Cyclops appears, Odysseus asks for a “warm welcome, even a guest-gift, / the sort that hosts give strangers. That’s the custom”(Odyssey IX.301-2).

As we saw in the Iliad, the acquisition of material goods represents the increase of one’s honor; both epics exist within this bronze-age world, so here the gifts he expects from the Cyclops are goods that Odysseus hopes would increase his honor. He might not be a bronze-age warrior in this case, but he is a bronze-age man who wants fame, perhaps as an explorer or an effective exploiter of cultural laws.

Xenia, which translates from Greek as hospitality, the guest-host relationship, or the good treatment of strangers or travelers, is a piece of cultural law that is essential for domestic life in the dangerous bronze age. It is what protects travelers and allows for commerce.

Odysseus understands xenia and hopes to take advantage of it by encountering a gracious host, who would grant him all kinds of gifts that would then increase his wealth and honor. This desire for material goods, while useful in an Iliadic quest for glory, is disastrous in the Odyssey, for Odysseus’ men end up trapped in the lair of a dangerous and uncivilized brute who eats his guests instead of feeding them.

Storytelling with the Phaeacians

Upon a closer look, though, Odysseus does everything right: he demonstrates an accurate understanding of what should be common cultural law in the Greek bronze age. It is certainly within his rights as a guest to expect an exchange of gifts. In fact, he is later successful in this same regard: he meets the Phaeacians and spends books nine through twelve telling his hosts the story of his adventures.

Afterwards, Alcinous, the Phaeacian king, is so enraptured by Odysseus’ storytelling and moved by his suffering (Odyssey XI.380-427, XIII.1-10)—again, we see our hero’s eloquence with persuasive rhetoric—that he orders his people to give Odysseus even more gifts in addition to the massive “haul of other gifts” that he has already received (Odyssey XIII.11-3) before granting him a swift departure.

Alcinous gives Odysseus more gifts then is necessary; he ends up raises taxes on his people just to recover these costs (Odyssey XIII.15-6). It is only because Odysseus is such a brilliant storyteller and navigator of social and cultural law, particularly xenia, that he can collect these gifts and return home “respected” and “well-received”(Odyssey XI.402-410).

Here, Homer shows that it is possible for one to win fame and success, represented by these material goods, through the stories one tells—just as Homer himself has been immortalized by his two epic poems. This path to fame is as successful as, or even more so, than glory in combat, for Odysseus loses all of the loot that he earned at Troy during the ten-year war, only to regain vast stores of treasure within a few days, just by telling eloquent and persuasive stories.

This is also part of the journey that Odysseus must undergo: a transition from his glory-seeking bronze-age warrior side to another side that can correctly navigate the civilized world and there find ways to earn success, away from the Iliadic world of war.

Cunning and Pride

So, back to the Cyclops’ cave: Odysseus displays awareness and knowledge of xenia when he seeks a gift from the Cyclops. Do we not feel satisfaction when the Cyclops, the terrible host who perverts all civilized norms that Odysseus is trying to follow, is blinded? Are we not impressed by Odysseus’ clever trick of introducing himself as “Nobody”, so that the other Cyclopes will not come to the aid of Polyphemus?

In the original Greek, there are two ways to say “nobody”: ou tis and me tis. Both are used in this scene, but metis also means “cunning” or “cleverness”, so when Polyphemus says, “Nobody’s killing me!” he is also being killed by the “cunning schemes” of Odysseus. His metis, his cunning and deceitful nature, is what allows him to escape from the cave and from an awful, ungracious host.

After escaping, he taunts the Cyclops, saying “you shameless cannibal, daring to eat your guests in your own house—/ so Zeus and the other gods have paid you back!” He then reveals his name, which allows Polyphemus to curse him by calling upon Poseidon (the entirety of the famous Cyclops incident is found in book nine of the Odyssey, between lines 421 and 630 of the Fagles translation).

Odysseus goes too far in this attempt to spread his fame and brings destruction upon himself. Here, he is too much of a prideful bronze-age warrior; he must learn, as he continues on his journey, that this fame-seeking warmongering lifestyle does not always work, especially as he transitions back into domestic life. Perhaps, being a regular person, a “nobody”, is safer than being a famous bronze-age warrior.

Destructive Greed

It is a related desire for material goods that causes him to stay in the Cyclopes’ cave; this too proves harmful to him and his men, though Odysseus in the end cannot be fully blamed for this, as the disastrous part of this encounter occurs because of mistreatment by the host. He is absolutely correct in saying that Polyphemus is a cannibal, who eats guests and should be punished.

Still, the point remains that seeking fame and material goods sometimes works well, as with the Phaeacians, but often, it can be taken over an acceptable limit that results in destructive consequences: in this case, Poseidon’s wrath.

Manipulating Hospitality

As for xenia, it is not meant to be taken advantage of. It is there to prevent bad treatment, not necessarily to ensure excessively good treatment like Odysseus hopes for. He manipulates the xenia of the Phaeacians to receive their treasures, perhaps more than necessary. He hopes to meet the Cyclops in order to earn a guest-gift and increase his honor.

Perhaps Odysseus must learn the proper use of these cultural laws—they are not meant to be his path to glory—before re-entering society. It is only the appropriate usage of xenia from both sides—host and guest—that allows him access to a speedy Phaeacian ship that brings him straight home.

Suspicious Minds

When Odysseus at last lands on the shores of Ithaca, he has been enveloped in a cloud of mist by Athena and does not know where he is. He assumes that the Phaeacians have betrayed him and says, “Not entirely honest or upright, were they?” In fact, they had been perfect hosts, giving Odysseus excessive gifts and now facing destruction by Poseidon for providing their help (Odyssey XIII.192-243). The accusation is entirely baseless, displaying the tendency of Odysseus to be wary of others’ intentions.

Moreover, when Athena disguises herself and tells Odysseus that he has returned home, he “choked [the truth] back, / always invoking the cunning in his heart”. He pretends to be a man from Crete and tells Athena about his incredibly exciting and utterly false journeys (Odyssey XIII.285-325).

After Athena reveals her true identity, Odysseus is still suspicious of her—he wonders where she has been for the past ten years and whether she is mocking him by saying that he has arrived home. He demands that she tell him the truth, and in response, the goddess praises Odysseus for his “wary turn of mind” or, in Greek, his anchinoos (Odyssey XIII.354-74).

He is always suspicious of others and tries to hide his own identity from them to protect against potential threats, even going so far as to create false identities. We have seen, then, that Odysseus does not trust others, thinking them to be dishonest or possible threats, like with the Phaeacians or Athena in her disguise.

Lies, Lies, Lies

Ironically, this distrust causes Odysseus himself to become a dishonest, untrustworthy liar. For instance, in the episode of the Aeolian winds (Odyssey X.1-61), he has no reason not to tell his men the truth, yet he withholds information from his men: why?

No reason is provided here, but given his suspicious and untrusting nature, it is probably that he does not trust his men. It could be that he wants to have more information than everyone else, so that he might always have an advantage over them.

The men, though, do not trust him either: they suspect him of hiding the best treasures for himself. “The old story!” they exclaim (OdysseyX.42), as if Odysseus has hidden secret knowledge from them before. Our hero’s dishonest nature has gotten him into trouble: he hides information, and because of that, others do not trust him, leading to a terrible failure of leadership as his men open the bag of winds and blow the ship off course.

As part of the epic’s themes, Odysseus must learn that being too anchinoos, or tight-minded, in how he shares information is potentially a problem, especially as he adjusts back to domestic life, where close-relationships depend on honesty.

Odysseus’ cunning, or metis, enables him to create brilliant lies, which help him to hide information and protect himself as part of his tight-minded wariness or anchinoos. Not only does he hold back information, but also emotion: when he is in disguise, he first lies to his wife Penelope and then says that Odysseus is alive. Hearing this, she begins to cry like melting snow or a flowing river, but Odysseus’ eyes remain as solid as “horn or iron—/ his guile fought back his tears”(Odyssey IXX.235-45).

Here, he demonstrates both his anchinoos and his emotional endurance, similar to a term that describes him in Greek: polutlas or “many-enduring”. He causes Penelope emotional distress by this withholding of information and emotion, yet we know that he has a practical end-goal in mind: he must hide his identity until he can reveal himself and strike back against the suitors.

We see no problem with his treatment of Penelope because the success of Odysseus’ goal depends on hiding himself. His use of metis to disguise himself as beggar is essential as he tests the suitors, Penelope, and other members of his household like Eumaeus the swineherd for loyalty and proper xenia: his distrust here is justified because he is in a dangerous situation and does not know his friends from his enemies.

The suitors treat the disguised Odysseus terribly, calling him a “pest to plague our feast” and a “brazen, shameless beggar”(Odyssey XVII.491-5) and tossing various items at him (Odyssey XVII.509-14, XVIII.443-49), while Eumaeus kindly welcomes him (Odyssey XIV.53-590). The suitors are bad hosts, in a sense, but are also bad guests, depleting the wealth of Odysseus’ household.

Odysseus uses his metis, anchinoos, and polutlas to hide himself before springing a trap on the suitors, killing all of them. They are breakers of xenia and enemies of Odysseus, which gives him the right to slay all of them in battle as a bronze-age warrior. He is upholding the basic moral code of the Odyssey and indeed of the Greek bronze age: one’s enemies must be harmed and one’s loyal friends and family should be rewarded. Justice, often in the form of death, comes to the suitors, the disruptors of xenia, who are invariably the punishable “bad guys” of the epic.

When he goes to meet his father, Laertes, Odysseus has already defeated all his foes, but he still decides to test Laertes by creating a false story of how Odysseus was on his way home… five years ago (Odyssey XXIV.338-52). This causes extraordinary grief and pain for Laertes, for no practical purpose at least in regards to maintaining a disguise.

Rather, Odysseus is once again displaying his tendencies towards distrust, which have only been exacerbated by the constant dangers he has faced—war, Trojans, Cyclopes, and suitors. Odysseus has become accustomed to being suspicious of others—part of his tight-minded anchinoos—that he cannot trust his father: he must be sure that Laertes is loyal to him, even if there are no enemies around.

He breaks out of the lie as soon as he realizes the pain he is causing (Odyssey XXIV.352-64): now that his enemies are gone and he has re-entered domestic life as a father, a husband, and a son, he must learn that being distrusting, dishonest, and restrained emotionally can only cause problems for his family. He must now be open and trusting to return himself to the ordinary emotional connections of the domestic world.

Odysseus in the Odyssey: Conclusions

Who is the Odysseus of the Odyssey? He is polymechanos and polytropos—he is the man of many devices and the man of “twists and turns”. The epic sets out to build a complete picture of this man and seeks to show us the full extent of his complexity. It also attempts to map the struggle he faces as he readjusts from war abroad to peace at home.

Odysseus has multiple aspects to him and he, the adaptable hero of many devices, switches between these to confront different situations, but since he is so used to survival and war, he must relearn the appropriate usage of his many aspects for the civilized, domestic world that he is trying to rejoin.

For instance, he creates danger for himself as a fame-seeking bronze-age warrior, but is successful in terms of being a moral bronze-age hero who properly upholds the morality of the era: destroy your enemies, protect your friends, and honor the guest-host relationship.

He is a dishonest, distrusting liar who uses his cunning to keep information and emotion locked up: we see no problem with this when he needs to achieve the practical goal of protecting himself from the suitors, but he cannot continue acting like this when he is safely among friends and family.

We see the strength of his eloquent, persuasive storytelling and his manipulation of xenia, which allow him to return home and achieve success in a domestic environment. At the same time, Odysseus often takes this a step too far and takes more from his guests than necessary. His pursuit of xenia for selfish goals endangers his men in the Cyclops’ lair.

The various portrayals of Odysseus’ many aspects serve to reveal his complexity and to examine the adjustments that he must make before he can reintegrate into society.

Recommendations

If you would like to read Homer’s Odyssey for yourself and follow along with what I have written above, I would highly recommend that you read the translation by Robert Fagles. In the first line of the Odyssey, Homer calls Odysseus “polutropos“, a Greek word that literally means “the many-roaded” or “many-turning”. Fagles takes what would be a highly awkward adjective and brilliantly recreates Odysseus for a modern English audience as “the man of twists and turns”.

This is likely the most readable version of the epic created for the English language in recent years. You can definitely tell that this is my personal favorite translation of the Odyssey, just by taking a look at the About page on this blog. There are, of course, many other excellent translations, so please choose whatever version you find most enjoyable. Go here for a list of English translations of Homer.

Just a quick note regarding Fagles’ translation style: though his version of the Odyssey is the most readable, he is not completely accurate when compared to the original Greek. If you were to compare the number of lines in the original Odyssey of Homer with Fagles’ English version, you’d realize that he requires more words and more verses than Homer to describe what is happening. This isn’t too much of a big deal for the average reader, but if you are trying to follow along with what I’ve written above, just be aware that the line numbers I cite only match the Fagles translation. If you use another translation, the line numbers will be incorrect.

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3 thoughts on “Odysseus: The Man of Twists and Turns

  1. Hi! My mom had lunch with your mom the other day, and afterward my mom told me of your blog. I minored in Classical Studies while in college, so I was excited to look at what you had written. I was particularly interested in this post because I took a course on Homer and wrote my final paper on xenia in The Odyssey, focusing on the formulaic rules of xenia and the consequences when those rules are not followed. I liked how you wrote about how Odysseus was exploiting the custom of xenia. Many people tend to focus solely on how Polyphemus and the suitors violated xenia, but few discuss how Odysseus used this custom to his advantage in order to gain more guest-gifts. I also felt that in the episode with Polyphemus, Odysseus and his men violated the rules of xenia. Though they were uninvited, they go into the cave and eat food that was not offered, “There we built a fire, set our hands on the cheeses, / offered some to the gods and ate the bulk ourselves” (The Odyssey IX.260-1). By entering and eating the food without permission, Odysseus and his men showed disrespect towards their “host” Polyphemus, thus breaking one of the fundamental rules of xenia.

    1. Hi Jessica, I’m sorry it took me a few days to reply to your comment. I really appreciate you taking the time to read what I wrote. I think the reason people focus on how Polyphemus violates xenia is that he’s a Cyclopes, an uncivilized brute who is easy to identify as a villain. Odysseus, though, is supposed to be the heroic protagonist, so his flaws or mistakes are a bit more difficult to spot (it’s more exciting to look at his clever escape), but in fact, this whole process of learning from his mistakes is really the main idea (or at least one of them) of the Odyssey.

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