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The Master of Disguise?

Once Odysseus finally returns home to Ithaca, the goddess Athena disguises him as a lowly beggar so that nobody will recognize him and so he can safely plot the murder of the suitors in his home. The first person he meets in Ithaca while he is disguised is Eumaeus, followed by Telemachus, then his nurse Eurycleia, and finally his wife, Penelope. He reveals himself officially to all of these people, but to some extent they may have expected or even known that his “beggar” was really the great King Odysseus.
People who are not particularly intimate with Odysseus follow his name with a saying while they are speaking to him or about him. Homer calls him “Odysseus, master of many exploits” (8.545). After revealing his true identity to the Cyclops, he is then called “Odysseus, raider of cities” (9.588). Achilles refers to Odysseus as the “man of tactics” (11.536). These are all people that are not particularly intimate with Odysseus and they refer to him in a manner as to bring praise to his name.
When Circe realizes that it is Odysseus that had come to visit her, she called him the “man of twists and turns” (10.366). It is only after Odysseus has stayed with Circe for a year that she simply refers to him as Odysseus (12.91). The same circumstances are evident when Odysseus sees his mother in Hades. She calls out to him saying “Oh my son-what brings you down to the world of death and darkness?” (11.177). Anticleia doesn’t follow the calling of her son with any sort of praise. This may be because she is familiar with him.
Odysseus did not want to be discovered on Ithaca until he was ready to unveil his identity himself. For someone that was so keen to do this, he did a terrible job. Before Eumaeus got the chance to introduce himself and share his name, Odysseus calls him by his name (14.499). This may have been where Odysseus gave himself away to Eumaeus if Eumaeus hadn’t already had his own suspicions.
There are at least two instances in Ithaca in which Odysseus’ identity is compromised. The first is the case of which his dog Argos, who he had trained as a puppy, recognized him. Twenty years later, and the dog was on its deathbed. Homer alerts the audience to the perception by the dog by stating that “the moment [Argos] sensed Odysseus standing by, he thumped his tail, nuzzling low, and his ears dropped, though he had no strength to drag himself an inch toward his master (17.328).” At the instant the dog sensed the presence of Odysseus, “the dark shadow of death closed down on Argo’s eyes (17. 359).” The dog hadn’t alerted anyone else because he didn’t have the energy and he didn’t pose a threat to Odysseus’ motives.
The second situation in which Odysseus’ identity is compromised is during the bathing that the nurse Eurycleia gives him. He is a bit wary to have her bath him because this is the nurse that he grew up with and she is a woman that knows him better than most. Before she begins bathing him, she suspects that he is her master stating that the beggar is “like Odysseus … to the life! (19.432).” After she bathes him and recognizes the scar that he received from a boar, she shares her knowledge with Odysseus (19.536). He threatens her life, but she reassures him that she isn’t a threat to any plans that he may have (19.551). She had already had her suspicions, but the scar simply confirmed that her master had returned home at last.
At first encounter, Eumaeus greets Odysseus with the name “old man” (14.40), but once Odysseus thanks his host for his “royal welcome” (14.62), Eumaeus describes Odysseus as “my friend” (14.64). This sensation is common once Odysseus gives away hints as to his real identity. It is evident again in the first encounter between Odysseus and Telemachus. When Telemachus meets Odysseus, he calls him a “stranger (16.49),” but as he converses with Eumaeus, of which he has some intimate history, he calls Eumaeus “old friend (16.64).” Once Odysseus praises Telemachus calling him a “fine young prince (16.105),” as well as giving Telemachus empathy in the case of the suitors in the halls, it is only then that Telemachus calls him his “friend (16.125).”
It is displayed yet again when the beggar Odysseus meets Penelope. She begins by calling him “stranger (19.114).” It is only after Odysseus, disguised as a beggar, tells Penelope that he met the king and that the king is not sure whether to return to “his own beloved Ithaca, openly or in secret? (19.344).” By saying this, he may have revealed himself to Penelope because she goes on to call him her “friend (19.354).”
The actions committed by Penelope are suspicious considering what she had learned in this conversation. In this conversation, the beggar told Penelope that her husband would be back “this very month-just as the old moon dies and the new moon rises into life-Odysseus will return (19.352).” Penelope then makes the decision to test the suitors by having them string the bow that only Odysseus had ever proven to be able to string. She decided that she would hold this contest the next day (19.642), and Odysseus doesn’t object to this contest, but rather encourages it (19.658), perhaps because he knows that he is the only man that is able to string the bow. It is strange that Odysseus told Penelope that he husband would be home by the end of the month, and she casually announces that she will hold a contest to find her next husband the next day. Penelope goes on to say that her and Odysseus “have secret signs, known to us both but hidden from the world (23.124).” Did Penelope and Odysseus exchange and acknowledge these “secret signs” as to rid themselves of the suitors?
Upon his return to Ithaca, Odysseus had two main goals: to rid his home of the suitors and to be reunited with his family. On the road to achieving this goal, Odysseus interacted with many different people, many of whom he had known for a long time and built an intimate relationship with. All of the people that he had shared an intimate relationship with in the past, even the dog Argos who was a puppy when Odysseus left just as Telemachus was a baby when Odysseus left, figured Odysseus out for the person that he really was: the king of Ithaca.

21 Responses to “The Master of Disguise?”

  1. khoneycutt says:

    Destiny,

    This is a thoughtful essay. The comparison of epithets is instructive; when exactly the epithet, “raider of cities” ceases to appear in the poem is worth investigation, I think. Must Odysseus raid Ithaca, in a sense? Or has he already ceased to be the raider of cities? I like your points about when people begin to call each “friend,” too; I think you are right to suggest this is some kind of signal that knowledge has been gained re: Odysseus’ identity. (However, recall that Nestor, explicitly unlike Polyphemus, greets guests as not only strangers but friends [3.79].)

    As I mentioned in class, your point about Odysseus slipping up and calling Eumaeus by name is excellent and something that I have never noticed before. Anna’s paper deals with the confrontation between Odysseus and Penelope; on this point, it might be instructive to read her essay. I think your work complements hers, and vice versa.

    Good eye regarding Circe calling him the “man of twists and turns.” I can’t remember if I mentioned this in class, but that is the only time other than the first line of the Odyssey in which Odysseus is given that particular epithet (polytropos). Given that fact–and the fact that Odysseus learns about natures there,too–Circe’s island is in some sense supposed to be the high mark, or at any rate a watershed moment, in the Odyssey. I think that is the case, anyway, given that it is also seems to differentiate his previous encounters (largely, if not exclusively, bestial) with his later ones (largely, if not exclusively, divine).

    Nice work overall.

    KH

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