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           While Odysseus is known for his clever wit, impressive oratory skills, and vast array of knowledge, is his use of deception and disguise just another game that he is playing with the women he encounters along his journey? Or is Odysseus so lost in his grossly embellished tale that deceit and camouflage are becoming somewhat unintentional?

            One does not have to read very far into The Odyssey to note that Homer has already told his first falsehood about Odysseus. In reference to the great tactician, Homer writes, “Many cities of men he saw and learned their minds,” (1.4). Unfortunately, Odysseus did not see many cities of men at all, let alone was able to take the time to study them, play mind games with them, and learn from them. Odysseus spent a great majority of his time away from Ithaca “stuck” on an island with the beautiful nymph, Calypso. Surely his brave tale of the war is awe-inspiring, but Odysseus changes his story multiple times throughout The Odyssey, thus rendering it somewhat unbelievable and counterfeit. I do not want to downplay Odysseus’ role in the blinding of the Cyclops, Polyphemus, and of course his successes in battle, however Odysseus has suddenly evolved into an arrogant, duplicitous war hero, whereas I had previously idolized him just as so many women in The Odyssey seem to do. “True enough, Calpyso the lustrous goddess tried to hold me back, deep in her arching caverns, craving me for a husband. So did Circe, holding me just as warmly in her halls […] But they never won the heart inside me, never” (9.33-37). Odysseus decides to relay enough information about the women along his journey to peak interest of the listener, but quickly shuts it down by claiming that he was not won over by any of the goddesses or nymphs. This is a perfect example of a white lie within Odysseus’ story as told by himself. Odysseus was not emotionally invested or in love with Calypso as far as I could tell. Had he felt that way, Odysseus never would have felt the need to leave Calypso’s secluded island with lush gardens and bountiful fruit trees to return home to Ithaca. However, Odysseus was definitely physically attracted to Calypso as he allowed himself to be seduced for several years before finally growing bored of the lustrous goddess. A similar fate was that of Odysseus and Circe. Odysseus was able to give himself physically to the goddess, but the timing for being with Circe could not have been worse. Had Odysseus not already begun his quest home and been badgered by his crew to leave, I surmise he might have stayed with Circe forever. “Captain, this is madness! High time you thought of your own home at last, if it really is your fate to make it back alive […]” (10.520). For being such a strong willed and determined character, Odysseus seems to crumble at the hands of beautiful women, particularly when the goddesses offer the prospect of immortality. It then becomes a somewhat ironic situation in my opinion, and not only is it ironic, but it further justifies my point that Odysseus is a great deceiver. He is duplicitous, very fickle, and not nearly as stubborn as he proclaims to be (at least when women are involved).

            But suppose Odysseus truly is both a great deceiver and superior king. While I would like to think that a great king would always uphold the highest standards of honorable conduct, if Odysseus’ deception was mostly concerning the matters of women, there is no reason that he cannot successfully rule a city. Perhaps Odysseus is only so easily influenced by women, hence why Homer never refers to him as a “mastermind of women” but a “mastermind of war” (11.458). There is no doubt that he is an excellent tactician and commander, which we see in many examples throughout The Odyssey as well as The Iliad, but Odysseus’ personal life is incredibly dramatic, surprising, and the nickname “man of twists and turns”, while only used twice, is completely accurate. Perhaps Homer only refers to Odysseus as this twice because once is referring to Odysseus’ skills in war and his dealing with men and commanding an army and his ship, and the second is a reference to his abilities, or lack thereof, as a husband, son, and father. Not even Odysseus’ mother can expect what he will tell her about his twenty years at sea, and while she is wiser than Penelope, Odysseus still manages to turn Penelope’s doubt of Odysseus’ fidelity back on to her. Only a “man of twists and turns” (10.366) could cheat on his loving wife who spent twenty years depressed in her palace, raising their only son, and make her feel somewhat confused or even guilty about his sleeping with other women. In Book 13, Odysseus disguises himself as a beggar once he returns home to Ithaca. As Athena claims, “Anyone else […] would have hurried home at once, delighted to see his children and his wife. Oh, but not you, it’s not your pleasure to probe for news of them- you must put your wife to the proof yourself!” (13.378). My gut reaction to his doing so is because he wants to spy on Penelope and see for himself if she has taken on any suitors at their palace. Odysseus is too cowardly to boldly and courageously storm through the front door of his own palace and whisk Penelope away. Because of his secret behavior and relations with other women over the last two decades, Odysseus does not trust himself and therefore does not trust Penelope. Since such a great and noble man could succumb to such temptation, surely a beautiful, lonely Penelope had met the same fate.

My worry with Odysseus is that he is a teller of tales and has changed his story so many times depending on his audience that perhaps even Odysseus cannot differentiate between right and wrong, fact and fiction, and especially love and lust. There is no question that Odysseus changed very much after being away from his homeland for twenty years, but just how much alteration did his morality and ethical views undergo? I think that Odysseus is a much more noble character than I feel he is at this stage of the book, and though I am concerned by his changing of stories and intentional omission of important information to his wife and mother, I am intrigued to see if the next several books might shed more light on Odysseus’ extremely complex and duplicitous thought process, or if he really has forgotten his true identity and is struggling to find himself back home in Ithaca.

21 Responses to “The Disguise and Deception of Odysseus Towards Women in Books 1-15 of Homer’s The Odyssey”

  1. kane15 says:

    I really like your take on Odysseus’s character as a guy who might not be able to differentiate love and lust. He does seem to attract many beautiful women, and he’s obviously taken advantage of the situation. I really think you have a great point that since Odysseus wasn’t faithful that Penelope might not have been faithful to him either. I also think there’s more to it than that. He could be spying on Penelope because her own cousin Clymtemnestra killed Agamemnon. Odysseus could be wary of Penelope for fear that she has set a trap.

  2. khoneycutt says:

    Alex,

    I think this is a solid attempt to work through the duplicitous character of Odysseus’ tales.

    I like your point about the possibility of Homer himself telling a false tale as early as the very beginning. It is worth thinking through the various alternatives. Is it actually a falsehood? Might the Muse instead begin us at a point in the journey where such things might not be recounted? Is there a secondary meaning to what Homer says? At any rate, you are right to point out that what is said does not square in an immediately obvious way with what happens in the text.

    Re: your point that Odysseus is not in love with Calypso, as you note, he is at least initially pleased with her. Perhaps he grows bored; perhaps he eventually succumbs to despair. We should not forget a crucial difference between Ogygia (Calypso’s island) and Aeaea (Circe’s island): Odysseus has no way to get off Ogygia. Furthermore, all of his friends are dead (and there is no one on Ogygia besides Calypso). And he at this point knows about the possibility (certainty? since the Cattle of the Sun have been killed) of the suitors. He knows there is danger at home and he has no way to get there. He is not offered immortality on Aeaea but he is on Ogygia; and yet he rejects even this to go home once he has the opportunity. I completely agree that Odysseus at times is a less than sympathetic character. But the context on Ogygia should at least give us pause. Athena goes so far as to say that Odysseus “longs to die…” (1.71).

    I think you are right to point to the fact that Athena remarks that he must test Penelope. Part of this may simply be Odysseus’ reluctance to step forward without knowing what has happened in the past twenty years. Part of it may indeed be that he is worried that his wife has married someone else. He gave her permission to do so, of course, once Telemachus is of age. And it is noteworthy that when he asks of her in Hades (10.200ff), he frames the alternative to marrying someone else as standing by Telemachus and guarding the great estates. He only implies, but does not make explicit, that not marrying someone else means remaining faithful to him. This is a pretty pragmatic way to view the situation. He seems to hope that Penelope has waited, but I think he recognizes that it is in fact unreasonable to expect her to have done so. Twenty years is a long time. She even wonders whether Odysseus was all a dream (19.363).

    What is striking, by the way, is that she claims to the beggar Odysseus (but does she recognize him?) that Telemachus is in fact, now that he is grown, pressuring her to marry or at any rate to “go home” (19.600). Do we get a sense that Telemachus is actually doing this? Or is this part of Penelope’s own duplicity?

    We also shouldn’t forget the House of Atreus backdrop. Odysseus learns from Agamemnon in Hades that wives are perhaps not to be trusted. And Penelope is made out to be at least the match of Clytemnestra, to say the least, in terms of guile or cunning. What web might Penelope have woven for him, and not just for the suitors?

    KH

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