‘What could be finer than listening to a singer of tales?’
Book 9 opens with what might be termed an apologia on the part of the poet: ‘what could be finer / Than listening to a singer of tales’ (9.2-3)1. Odysseus eulogises Demodocus, the blind bard, and at the same time Homer eulogises his own art of storytelling an art that I will examine in the course of this essay, through two books that hold particular thematic prominence in the Odyssey. The first of these, Book 9, involves Odysseus’ encounter with Polyphemus, the man-eating Cyclops, while in the second, Book 19, the hero, now in the guise of an old beggar, meets with his wife, Penelope. Both challenge and stretch the protagonist, be it emotionally, physically or mentally, and in the process of doing so the episodes emphasise and augment many of the pervasive thematic and narrative features of the epic.
As the protagonist of course, Odysseus is himself a galvanising force within the poem. Even when he is not occupying the foreground of the narrative, as in the Telemachy, Odysseus provides a centre for the actions and words of those on whom Homer does choose to focus. Penelope’s enduring grief, Telemachus’ voyage, and the presence of the Suitors all stem from the troubles of this single figure. It is therefore not surprising that, at times, there is only an oblique distinction between ‘characteristic’ and ‘theme’, as is the case with metis (intelligence / cunning). Physical prowess alone is not enough to warrant the label of ‘hero’. Strength must be balanced with mental dexterity and ingenuity, faculties that Odysseus applies to great effect in his escape from Polyphemus’ cave:
‘Noman is my name. They call me Noman My mother, my father, and all my friends, too!’ (9.364-365)
Odysseus engineers a plan that simultaneously punishes the Cyclops and ensures that he and his men are freed from the dwelling, and although physical force is involved, the hero could not have made his escape without this quality of mind. Sheila Murnaghan further notes that one of the several forms of ‘no-man’ in Greek is in fact metis, an irony unfortunately lost in translation.2 Importantly, Odysseus is defining himself, both immediately and through action, as a trickster. Nor are his words hollow, and time and again in the Odyssey he proves himself to be a warrior of the sharpest intelligence, as the meticulously prepared death of the Suitors demonstrates (Bk.22).
Yet, Odysseus’ self-label here also reflects the functional use of epithets within the narrative. The poet frequently applies the term polumetis to the hero, meaning ‘metis in abundance’, and Books 9 and 19 illustrate the repeated application of a variety of epithets, including ‘cunning’ (9.22, 19.640), ‘Son of Laertes’ (9.21, 503, 524 & 19.179, 268, 371), ‘god-like’ (19.234, 293), and ‘flawless’ (19.355, 499). Almost like layers of paint on a canvas, a portrait of the multifarious Odysseus is built up, and the same technique is used to portray other characters; Athene, for instance, is continually referred to as ‘grey-eyed’. Homer also employs the repetition of certain syntactic units. ‘Rosy-fingered dawn’ is perhaps the most obvious of these, while in Book 19 alone, the phrase Odysseus’ ‘teeming mind’ occurs no less than eleven times.3 What can be seen then, is that epithets and repeated lines act as narrative bricks that both punctuate the story and allow it a fluid progression. This formulaic quality serves to highlight the oral tradition from which the Odyssey descends, and improvisational singer’s like Demodocus would have used repetition to structure their pieces, as well as to give themselves much needed opportunities to think ahead.
Interestingly, Odysseus is not the only individual to whom the word metis is associated. Antinous cites Penelope as one ‘Who knows more tricks than any woman alive’ (2.96). Certainly her weaving and unweaving of Laertes death shroud, a trick that keeps the Suitors at bay for almost four years, is a deception of which the hero himself would have been proud. Penelope relates these ‘wiles’ to her disguised husband in Book 19 (lines 154-177), and it is of significance that this is the second account of the episode in the Odyssey. Penelope’s description of events matches that told in Book 2 (lines 101-120), by Antinous, word-for-word, but for the necessary move from third to first person. However, this shift in perspective is important. On the one hand, Antinous addresses Telemachus as follows:
It’s not the suitors
Who are at fault, but your own mother, (2.94-95)
But, on the other hand, Penelope’s response to the situation is markedly different:
The men barged in and caught me at it,
And a howl went up. So I was forced to finish the shroud.
Now I can’t escape the marriage. I’m at my wit’s end. (19.168-170)
Here, the language is that of coercion, incarceration, even violence. The retelling of the story in Book 19 is more than simply narrative repetition. We are being offered an opposing testimony to that in Book 2, one that places the ‘fault’ at the feet of the Suitors rather than Penelope. And this antithesis is indicative of the transitory nature of viewpoint in the Odyssey as a whole, a trait that foreshadows the ‘stream of consciousness’ used by Modernist novelists such as Joyce and Woolf. The murder of Agamemnon, presented by Zeus in Book 1, Menelaus in Book 4, and finally the shade of Agamemnon himself in Book 11, is a particularly strong example of this narrative technique. Homer offers the perspective of firstly, the divine; secondly, the human; and thirdly, the dead.
The Odyssey is a poem of perspectival shifts, but equally temporal shifts. Throughout the Odyssey the past interpolates the present, as is the case in Book 9, where, in the comfort of the Phaecian palace, Odysseus tells of his misfortunes following the Greeks’ triumph at Troy. Much comment has been made on the complex, perhaps even convoluted, structure of the poem, but it allows for the juxtaposition of characters and situations that in turn augment some of the pervasive themes of the story. For instance, Book 9 explores the conventions of hospitality and civility through a contrast between the Phaeacians and the Cyclopes. The book opens with Odysseus extolling the feasting, drinking and singing of Alcinous’ court as ‘the finest thing in the world’ (9.12). The narrative then jumps back an entire decade as he proceeds to tell of his encounters with the Cicones, the Lotus-Eaters, and Polyphemus. As Steve Reece notes, the final of these is less than welcoming:
Instead of offering them a meal, he makes a meal of them […] This is surely the darkest form of parody. (Steve Reece, A Stranger’s Welcome, University of Michigan Press 1993, p. 134)
The inversion of guest-friendship by the Cyclops is certainly startling. Reece argues that the scene follows the pattern of hospitality shown earlier by the Phaeacians (as well as Nestor and Menelaus), but that the conventions are continually reversed.4 Thus, the revelation of the guest’s real name occurs on departure rather than arrival; the guest is interrogated before, rather than after the meal, as was tradition; the gifts exchanged (Odysseus’ wine and Polyphemus’ sardonic promise) are intent on destruction; and the host issues a curse rather than a blessing as his guest leaves. This is not to say that Odysseus and his men are free of blame they enter the cave uninvited, quite happily feast on his stocks, then blind their host and make off with his flock.
Importantly, Polyphemus’ bastardisation of guest-friendship resonates with the later transgressions of the Suitors, who devour the wealth of their host’s household and react with aggression towards anyone they consider to be a beggar. And this tension between the civilised and the savage, the hospitable and the inhospitable can be seen again in Book 19, as the tenderness of Eurycleia is set against the roughness of Melantho, who threatens to strike the disguised Odysseus with a torch (19.72-75). Reece points to a further inversion here, as the torch has associations with fire, warmth and shelter.
Yet, there is a second key contrast in Book 19, between Odysseus the boy and Odysseus the man, and as in Book 9, it is achieved by means of a temporal shift in the narrative. Odysseus’ recollection of the wound he received from the tusk of a boar while visiting his grandfather, Autolycus, on Parnassus, briefly transports the reader back to the hero’s childhood:
Odysseus rushed him,
Holding his spear high, eager to thrust.
The boar was too quick. (19.488-490)
Odysseus’ rashness as an adolescent is juxtaposed by the patience and restraint he demonstrates during his conversation with Penelope, where his ‘eyes where as steady […] as if they were made of horn or iron’ (19.27-28). What we have here is Odysseus in microcosm: a man who learns from his experiences in order to prevent the repetition of previous mistakes. The blood smeared hero’s refusal to ‘gloat over the slain’ in Book 22 (l.436) is indicative of him having learnt the lessons taught by his encounter with Polyphemus, where his departing gibes and boasts arouse Poseidon’s wrath. Throughout the poem the reader sees the protagonist grow the Odyssey is a journey towards self-discovery, as much as it is a journey home. Interestingly, the young Odysseus also acts as a foil for Telemachus, who’s coming-of-age is another important theme in the epic, and in Book 19, he is twice referred to as a ‘man’; firstly by his father (19.96) and then by his mother (19.174).
The interpolation of the present by the past, then, acts as a crucial narrative device, in that it highlights many of the Odyssey’s central themes and ideas. Time past and time present collide throughout the story, and the result is a vivid picture of an irreparably changed post-war world. Retrospection is continually accompanied by exhibitions of grief, as Odysseus acknowledges at the start of Book 9:
But you have a mind to draw out of me
My pains and sorrow, and make me feel it again. (9.13-14)
These are the words of a war veteran and they encapsulate the struggle to contain and understand the painful nature of the past in the poem. In Book 4, the characters of Menelaus, Helen and Telemachus are united by their need to weep, and both Books 9 and 19 end with ‘grieving’; Odysseus’ men mourn for their lost comrades (9.556-557) and Penelope sobs herself to sleep (19.664). Yet perhaps the most striking image of sorrow in Book 19 is brought out by means of a simile:
Snow deposited high in the mountains by the wild West Wind
Slowly melts under the East Wind’s breath,
And as it melts the rivers rise in their channels. (19.221-223)
Penelope’s tears are likened to the melting of snow on the mountain tops, in what is a supremely positive image. The cold and wild is dispelled by the warm and gentle, just as Odysseus’ homecoming will drive out the wildness of the Suitors and the frozen, sorrowful state of his wife. Thus, the simile transforms the grief of Penelope into an act that portends the triumph of the hero. Coupled with her auspicious dream, in which the eagle breaks the necks of the geese, the poet prepares us for the climax of the story. As Agatha Thornton notes, in previous omens, the raptor has caught its prey (15.174-176), and plucked it (.15.573-576), but, until now, has not actually killed it.5 Homer uses similes throughout the Odyssey to focus the reader’s attention on particular aspects, or nuances, of the story. In Book 9, where Polyphemus is ‘like a mountain lion’ (9.285) and Odysseus’ men ‘like puppies’ (9.282), similes are employed in order to enhance the contrast between savage and gentle, might and weakness. On occasions, the poet uses this narrative technique in collusion with another irony. The most notable instance of this is the astonishing simile of Odysseus as the wailing woman in Book 8 (l.565), in which images of warrior and widow are simultaneously juxtaposed and unified.
Irony, or more specifically dramatic irony, also plays an important role in the meeting between the disguised Odysseus and Penelope in Book 19. We, as the audience or reader, are aware of what Penelope is not that the man she is questioning is, in fact, her own husband.6 And this in turn leads on to another major theme in the Odyssey, that of deception and identity. Self-preservation through self-suppression is one of the poem’s pervasive ironies. Odysseus becomes a withered beggar only to defeat the Suitor’s, just as by becoming ‘Noman’ he is able to trick and escape the Cyclops. Like his guardian god, Athene, Odysseus has a chameleon nature, that he uses adeptly, both to survive, and, crucially, to test. It is for this reason that, as a king, he is prepared to suffer a pauper’s existence, and, as a hero, to accept anonymity. He wishes to test Penelope’s love and loyalty, and to see ‘if he [the Cyclops] would give him a gift of hospitality’ (9.220). Thornton points out that ‘testing a person is well established compositional theme in the Odyssey’.7 Odysseus tests Laertes in Book 24 and Eumaeus in Book 15, while in return, he himself is tested by his father (24.336-338) and twice by his wife (19.232, 23.179-186). The scar left by a boar’s tusk is a constant reminder to Odysseus of the dangers of rash behaviour. He is as precise in preparation as he is forceful in action.
However, one might question the moral certitude of the test in Book 19. In spite of Agamemnon’s warning to ‘not go easy on your own wife’ (11.458), Odysseus’ refusal to reveal his true identity to Penelope does seem rather cruel. Even when she breaks down in front of him, her grief a sure sign of her love, he still maintains his disguise. This is the woman whom he holds above Calypso, the woman he has not seen for twenty years, and yet he is as unmoving as ‘iron’. Equally questionable is his blinding of Polyphemus and the particularly gruesome manner in which it is achieved. After all, Odysseus, as I earlier asserted, is hardly a model guest himself. Perhaps even more disturbing, though, is the hero’s conduct earlier in Book 9, at Ismaros:
‘I pillaged the town and killed the men.
The women and treasure that we took out
I divided as fairly as I could […]’ (9.42-44)
The actions of Odysseus here seem all the more ruthless because firstly, the attack was unprovoked (unlike the blinding of Polyphemus or the death of the Suitors), and secondly, because he shows no remorse. M. I. Finley argues that such acts are justifiable when seen within the context of a warrior culture, and to a certain extent I believe this to be true.8 Nevertheless, Odysseus is a complex character, and perhaps his chameleon nature extends to morality. He thinks the Cyclops ‘a savage with no sense of right and wrong’ (9.206), but the paradox here is that right and wrong are themselves equivocal. The world of the Odyssey is a world of antitheses such as justice and injustice, and, like the weeping woman of Book 8, the divide between two contraries is sometimes only oblique.
The Odyssey is a complex poem, thematically and structurally: it makes no black-and-white distinctions. Characters, ideas, and situations are constantly juxtaposed, and the result is that time, place, and action are forever shifting. Narrative techniques such as irony, viewpoints, epithets and similes serve to augment a whole spectrum of issues from hospitality and identity, to morality and loyalty. Ultimately, Odysseus’ journey is epic, not only in genre, but also in the way that it embraces such a multitude of perspectives and themes. Homer creates a rich tapestry of human thought and emotion; one that asks many more questions than it solves.
Line numbers refer to the verse translation of Homer Odyssey by Stanley Lombardo (introduced by Sheila Murnaghan, Hackett 2000) and not to the original Greek text.
M. I. Finley, The World of Odysseus, Chatto & Windus 1977, Ch. 5
Helene P. Foley, ‘Penelope as Moral Agent’; Christine Mitchell Havelock, ‘The Intimate Act of Footwashing: Odyssey 19’ in The Distaff Side, ed. Beth Cohen, Oxford University Press 1995
Peter Jones, Homer’s Odyssey: A Companion to the English Translation of Richard Lattimore, Bristol Classical Press 1988, pp. 77-89, 172-185
Steve Reece, The Stranger’s Welcome: Oral Theory and the Aesthetics of the Homeric Hospitality Scene, University of Michegan Press 1993, Ch. 6 & 8
Agathe Thornton, People and Themes in Homer’s Odyssey, Methuen 1970, pp. 47-57, 79-108
1 Homer, Odyssey, trans. Stanley Lombardo, Hackett 2000 (see bibliography)
2 Introduction to Lombardo, pp xviii
3 References to Odysseus’ ‘teeming mind’ in Bk. 19: line 43, 76, 115, 178, 237, 285, 368, 416, 546
4 Steve Reece, A Stranger’s Welcome: Oral Theory and the Aesthetics of the Homeric Hospitality Scene, University of Michigan Press 1993, pp.126-143
5 Agathe Thornton, People and Themes in Homer’s Odyssey, Methuen 1970, p.56
6 This is, of course, fiercely debated. Even if Penelope does recognise Odysseus, this actually increases rather than decreases the irony of the scene. An succinct discussion of the debate can be found in: Peter Jones, Homer’s Odyssey: A Companion to the English Translation of Richard Lattimore, Bristol Classical Press 1988, pp. 172-174
7 Agathe Thornton, People and Themes in Homer’s Odyssey, Methuen 1970, p.50
8 M. I. Finley, The World of Odysseus, Chatto & Windus 1977, p.113