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Astute Hero and Ingenious Poet: Odysseus and Homer

Author(s): W. B. Stanford
Source: The Yearbook of English Studies, Vol. 12, Heroes and the Heroic Special Number
(1982), pp. 1-12
Published by: Modern Humanities Research Association
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PART I
HEROES AND THE HEROIC

Astute Hero and Ingenious Poet:


Odysseus and Homer
W. B. STANFORD
TrinityCollege,Dublin

Astuteness, shrewdness, artfulness, wiliness, slyness, craftiness, deceitfulness, cunning, and mendacity are not fit qualities for a hero of elevated epic.
They all lie on the shadier side of cleverness. On its brighter side stand
wisdom, prudence, sagacity, resourcefulness, and discretion, and these are
qualities that a hero may honourably possess. Cleverness itself, and its less
suspect synonym, intelligence, are ethically neutral terms, being applicable
to honest or dishonest plans and actions. But they differ slightly in ethical
tone. To be intelligent and not stupid was a normal characteristic of classical
heroes, though Ajax and Heracles were sometimes presented as being rather
deficient in intelligence, and of course even intelligent heroes like Achilles
and Agamemnon could be stupefied by their passions. But cleverness
generally carried a slightly pejorative implication. Even when applied to
honest and beneficial purposes it was not quite the thing for a pukka hero.
The Wily Lad or Maui-of-a-thousand-tricks was all very well for folktales.
Elevated literature demanded a loftier, steadier ethos for its protagonists.
Odysseus, the main subject of what follows here, is the only leading figure
in the Homeric poems to be given a number of fixed epithets implying sheer
cleverness and versatility. But three other figures in the early age of Greek
poetry and mythology share his reputation. One of them, Sisyphus,
mentioned briefly in Odysseyxi as one of the sinners being punished in Hades,
was villainously clever. Palamedes, not mentioned at all by Homer, was
respectably clever. And Autolycus, Odysseus's grandfather, according to
Homer, was knavishly clever (his portrait as an engaging rascal in
Shakespeare's Winter'sTale is true enough to his classical reputation). Before
considering where Odysseus's own character lies on this spectrum it may be
well to look at those three.

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Hero and Poet: Odysseusand Homer

Sisyphus, mythical king of Corinth, first gained fame for astuteness by


outwitting the craftiness of a notoriously clever cattle-thief by marking his
own cattle under their feet. Other crafty exploits followed. The reason why
after his death he was condemned to the perpetual task of rolling an
ever-relapsing stone up a steep hill (described in OdysseyXI. 593-600) is
variously reported. The favourite version is that he had the audacity to try to
trick the god of the underworld, Pluto himself. Sisyphus is described in
Iliad iv. 153 as 'craftiest of men for the sake of gain' (the Greek word used,
kerdistos,implies profit-seeking as well as wiliness, a rather insulting term
among reputable heroes secure in their rich possessions). To have Sisyphus
as an ancestor was considered disgraceful in the ancient world, though oddly
enough Mark Antony named one of his sons after him
Palamedes, the exemplar of virtuous cleverness, was, it seems, a
prominent figure in the Cypria, the early lost epic which described the initial
stages of the Trojan War. After the abduction of Helen Palamedes was sent
with others to recruit Odysseus for war against the Trojans. Odysseus as a
suitor of Helen had wisely persuaded all the other suitors to swear with him
to avenge any violation of her marriage to the chosen hero. Now he found
himself bound by his oath to leave his beloved wife and family and kingdom
and to fight in what he could guess would be a long and destructive war.
Odysseus hit on a typically ingenious ruse to escape conscription without
breaking his oath. He pretended to be mad, in the hope that the Greek
recruiters would decide not to take him with them. (James Joyce took comfort
from this tale when he was avoiding the war of 19 4-18, in neutral Switzerland:
discussing Ulysses with a friend he remarked: 'Don't forget that he was a
war-dodger. He might never have ... gone to Troy, but the Greek recruiting
sergeant was too clever for him'.) But Palamedes exposed the deception by a
ruse worthy of Odysseus himself. So Odysseus had to join the expedition. He
cherished a grudge against Palamedes and eventually he deceived the leaders of
the Greeks into believing that Palamedes was trying to betray them to the
Trojans for gold. The Greeks then stoned Palamedes to death.
Homer says nothing whatever about this dastardly deed and never
mentions Palamedes. Did he know the story and deliberately omit it as a slur
on his hero Odysseus? Or was it a later invention typical of the period when
Odysseus's character was generally denigrated? Certainly by the end of the
fifth century B.C. Palamedes had become a hero venerated as a prototype of
martyred innocence. Socrates when defending himself before the Athenian
jury cited him as such and implied that his accusers resembled the villainous
Odysseus, and whenever anyone in the classical or medieval periods wanted
to disparage Odysseus they mentioned this alleged crime of his against the
noble and innocent Palamedes. Palamedes recurs as an emblem of noble
wisdom murdered by villainous cunning all through the Troy Tale from
Dares Phrygius until the end of the medieval period. Later he dropped out of
literature almost entirely. Sisyphus survives mainly as a proverbial figure.

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W.

B. STANFORD

Homer mentions Autolycus in Iliad x as having committed an act of


housebreaking and theft, and refers to him occasionally in the Odysseyas
Odysseus's maternal grandfather and one who 'surpassed all men in
thievery and perjury' (xix. 395-96). Earlier (xi. 85), however, he is
described as 'great-hearted', which seems to imply that his heroic status was
accepted despite his thievishness (unless one believes that Homer's stock
epithets are sometimes grossly misapplied). There is a hint, too, in
OdysseyXIXthat Autolycus had magical powers, or at any rate that his sons
had, like Manannan Mac Lir the wily divinity of the Irish heroic narratives.
Obviously for Odysseus to have had a thievish grandfather was ignoble by
high heroic standards. A non-Homeric tradition made matters even worse.
It told that Autolycus was once so much impressed by a crafty ruse of
Sisyphus that he allowed him to have sexual intercourse with Odysseus's
mother-to-be before she was legitimately married to King Laertes of Ithaca.
According to this report Odysseus would have had a double dose of
deceitfulness in his heredity. But Homer always calls Odysseus the son of
Laertes and never hints at any relationship with Sisyphus.
This intrusion of Sisyphus into Odysseus's parentage is typical of the
constant villainization of Odysseus in the post-Homeric tradition from the
fifth century B.C. to Joyce and Kazantzakis, as has been described
elsewhere.* How low his reputation sank in common usage can be seen by
the first specific definition of'Ulyssean' in OED ('resembling [him] in craft
or deceit') in contrast with, say, Horace's eulogy of him in Epistles as 'choice
pattern of the manly and the wise'. The main reason for such a divergence of
opinion (contrast again Tennyson's noble figure with the despicable
rapscallion of The Winter's Tale) is that cleverness and versatility are like
blank cheques in terms of morality. You can fill them in with sums of good or
evil, honesty or dishonesty, kindness or cruelty, praise or blame.
Odysseus never acts with dishonourable cleverness in the Iliad, though
like all intelligent fighters he uses deceptive language to an enemy when
necessary (Iliad x. 382-83). He tells none of the flat lies that he tells in the
Odyssey.On the other hand he clearly had a reputation for craftiness and
wile. He is addressed by a Trojan hero as 'much-praised Odysseus,
indefatigable (or insatiable) in wiles and toils' (XI. 430), quite courteously it
seems. Similarly Helen, who likes him personally, describes him as
'knowledgeable in all kinds of wiles and shrewd plans' (III. 202). Agamemnon in contrast is being arrogant and insolent when he shouts at him 'You
* For
previous studies on Odysseus's intelligence and deceitfulness see: R. Z. Burrows, 'Deception as a
Comic Device in the Odyssey', ClassicalWeekly,59 (I965-66), 33-36; M. Detienne and J.-P. Vernant,
in GreekCultureandSociety,translated byJanet Lloyd. (Hassocks, Sussex, 1978); M. E.
CunningIntelligence
Heatherington, 'Chaos, Order and Cunning in the Odyssey',Studiesin Philology,73 (I976), 225-38; D. N.
Levin, 'Odysseus' Truthful Untruths', ClassicalBulletin,37 (196), 76; W. B. Stanford, 'Studies in the
Characterization of Ulysses III: The Lies of Odysseus', Hermathena,
75 (1950), 35-48, and The Ulysses
Theme.A Studyin the Adaptabilityof a TraditionalHero, second edition, revised (Oxford, 1968); C. R.
Trahman, 'Odysseus' Lies (Odyssey Books XIII-xix)',

Phoenix, 6 (1952), 31-43.

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Hero and Poet: Odysseusand Homer

there, expert in evil wiles, with a mind set on crafty gain' (III. 339), and he
goes on to accuse him of cowardice in the face of the foe. Odysseus boldly
rebukes him for the charge of cowardice, but ignores the reference to evil
wiles. Agamemnon them smiles at him and calls him 'God-descended,
much-praised Odysseus' and says that they both in fact think alike: 'And if
anything bad has been said, let the gods nullify it all.' This is the tone of
someone who thinks: 'Well, he's an astute fellow, but his heart is in the right
place, and I like him'. Achilles in the embassy scene in Book ix seems to have
much the same attitude towards him: Odysseus may be astute, but he uses
his astuteness for good purposes. Shakespeare portrays Ulysses in a similar
light (as I see it, but many take a different view) in Troilusand Cressidaand so,
too, Giraudoux in La guerrede Troien'aurapas lieu.
It was in the interval of time between the end of the Iliad and the beginning
of the Odysseythat Odysseus devised his most famous stratagem, the Wooden
Horse, as described in OdysseyIV. 271-89. Through it Troy at last fell, and for
it Odysseus won perpetual admiration in the Greek tradition and perpetual
execration among the Romans, who regarded Troy as the proto-Rome.
Subsequently, according to a story which is poignantly recalled in Odysseus's
visit to Hades (Odyssey XI. 543-67), Odysseus was awarded the supreme
prize for heroic excellence in competition with the mighty Ajax. Accounts of
this famous 'Judgement of the Arms' vary. But its ultimate significance is
clear: intelligence is a more valuable quality for a hero than sheer strength,
as Ovid makes Odysseus so ably argue in Metamorphoses13.
In contrast with Odysseus's respectable sagacity in the Iliad his uses of his
intelligence in the Odysseyseem at first sight to verge on the disreputable. He
tells many adroit lies or half-lies: to King Alcinoos, to the Cyclops, to
Athena, to the swineherd Eumaios, and to Penelope. But a distinction is
necessary here. There are lies and lies. The medieval schoolmen distinguished three kinds, the officious lie, the jocose lie, and the malicious lie.
The officious lie (from officium,in the sense of a kindness rendered to someone
who deserves it, or a duty) is a lie told for good purpose. If, for instance, an
obviously insane man carrying a hatchet breaks into your house and asks if
your brother is at home you are clearly entitled to deny it whether your
brother is there or not. (To avoid a flat lie in such circumstances the
schoolmen recommended using an equivocation: for example, if you and the
lunatic happened to be able to converse in Latin, you might say non hic est,
pronouncing the e long so as to make it mean 'he is not eating (from edo)
here', so that he might think you said nonhic est meaning 'He is not here'.) As
will appear later, Odysseus brilliantly exploited this kind of equivocation in
a famous incident.
The jocose lie was also regarded as venial. It was so called from its use in
anecdotes told to amuse people, as in the riddle 'As I was going to Saint
Ives I met a man with seven wives' etc. Everyone accepts these as harmless
on the principle se non e vero, e ben trovato.All literary and artistic fiction is

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W.

B. STANFORD

morally admissible on that ground: if the intention is to entertain and not to


harm, no culpability is incurred. If people do no not recognize that fiction is
fiction it is their own fault. When scholars try to locate the Island of Circe or
the sea coast of Bohemia on a modern map they have only themselves to
blame if they fail to find either of them.
The third kind of lie, the malicious one, is universally condemned. But the
commandment forbidding it in the decalogue has a firm limitation: 'Thou
shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour.' In pre-Christian times
among Greeks and Jews alike one's neighbour was generally regarded as
consisting only of one's own kinsfolk, friends, and allies. To tell a malicious
lie, that is, one intended to do harm to an enemy, was considered
permissible, and even moral until the revolutionary Christian doctrine of
loving one's enemies emerged, though Socrates ineffectually anticipated it.
In fact even in avowedly Christian countries today the practice of telling lies
and using deceptions to harm one's enemies, rivals, and competitors is
obviously not extinct. In times of war it becomes rampant.
Let us consider Odysseus's many lies in the Odysseyin the light of these
distinctions. When questioned by King Alcinoos in Phaeacia about the
conduct of the Princess Nausicaa, Odysseus said that he personally had
made the decision to enter the palace alone and not escorted by her (as a
suppliant normally should be treated). This is an officious lie and as such
venial and even commendable. Nobody except a very strict Augustinian is
likely to find it reprehensible. In fact judged by ancient standards it was
quite a generous act. Odysseus had nothing to lose by saying that Nausicaa
herself had told him not to accompany her through the city for fear of causing
malicious gossip. But apparently Odysseus had astutely perceived that
Alcinoos was punctilious about observing the niceties of courtly etiquette, so
he lied to save the likeable young princess from her father's wrath.
This is a simple example of officious lying. The tissue of lies and
deceptions that Odysseus used to escape from the Cyclops's cave is much
more elaborate. The full complexities of the problem that faced him there
have not always been recognized. First, the Cyclops must be rendered
harmless. Secondly, he must not be deprived of his strength because he alone
can remove the huge stone that blocks the exit from his cave. Thirdly, since
he is sure, if injured, to call for help from his neighbours, some means must
be devised for preventing them from coming to his aid and discovering the
Greeks inside. And finally, when those three difficulties had been surmounted, there was the problem of how to get past the Cyclops if he guarded
the exit after the stone had been removed. Four problems in all: Odysseus
solved all of them with admirable ingenuity and resourcefulness.
First he sees that Polyphemos must not be killed, even if that were feasible
in the case of such a gigantic hulk. The giant must retain his strength so as to
be able to remove the crag that seals the door. So Odysseus and his
companions blind his single eye, a feature that is essential to the whole plot.

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Hero and Poet: Odysseusand Homer

But now the trickiest problem arises. How can Odysseus prevent the ogre
from successfully shouting to his neighbours for help? If they remove the crag
and enter the cave, the Greeks are doomed. The solution is the famous 'My
name is Noman' ruse, a lie, indeed, but what a complex lie!
To demonstrate the extraordinary ( and, so far as I know, unparalleled)
ambivalences of this masterstroke of Odysseus's cleverness reference must
be made to the words used in Greek text. The paronomasia exploits two pairs
of related words in Greek which differ only by their tonic accent: Outis
(invented, probably, by Homer for this scene) meaning 'Noman', and outis
meaning 'no one'; metis the form of outis which must be used in hypothetical
and conditional clauses in Greek, and metis (sometimes personified as a
divinity Metis) meaning intelligence and planning, as in the epithet
(frequently and uniquely applied to Odysseus) among the Homeric heroes,
polymetis,'devising many plans'. Odysseus tells Polyphemos that his name is
Outis (OdysseyIX. 366).When the blinded giant shouts for help the Cyclopes
assemble at the closed mouth of the cave and ask him, rather petulantly, why
he is disturbing their sleep with his yells: 'Can it be that metis [which has the
meaning 'someone' in a question expecting a negative answer, as here] is
trying to kill you by craftiness or force?' Polyphemos shouts back: 'My
friends, Outis (Noman) is trying to kill me by craftiness and not by force'. The
Cylopes hear the name Ou^tis(with a rising-falling tone) as ou'tis(with a rising
tone), which was not surprising considering the agony of Polyphemos, the
bulk of the stone, and the sleepy time of night. So they replied rather
unsympathetically that if ouztis,'no one', is attacking him then he'd better
pray to Zeus or his father Poseidon for relief from his pains (IX. 403-I2).
In English one can reproduce the equivocation effectively enough in terms
of stress rather than of pitch-variation by the difference between 'Noman'
pronounced as a proper name like Newman, with a single stress on the first
syllable and syllablic juncture, and 'no man' with equal stress on both
syllables and syllabic separation. But Odysseus as he tells the story of the
Phaeacians develops the paronomasia much further. As soon as the other
Cyclops had gone away, he says 'my heart laughed at how my name and
blameless intelligence-and-planning (metis) had deceived them' (ix. 413-I5).
Then he started 'weaving all kinds of wiliness and metis'in order to solve the
problem of how to get out of the cave (xI. 422). As every schoolboy used to
know, this was successfully done by tying his companions under the sheep
(not the goats for an obvious reason) which Polyphemos had to let out to
pasture. Odysseus himself held on under the belly of the big ram, so
eventually they all escaped.
But here Homer could not refrain from giving the outis paronomasia a
further twist. When Polyphemos in his lonely anguish addressed the ram as
his only loyal companion before it left the cave (unaware, of course, that
Odysseus was anxiously holding on underneath) he ended his speech with
the phrase 'the evils which no-good Noman (outzdanos... Outis) brought me',

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W.

B. STANFORD

and he repeated the word outidanosin his final shout at Odysseus on his ship
(xI. 460, 515). Here, with a touch of irony perhaps, Homer has contrived that
the word which saved Odysseus earlier in the incident should now be
incorporated into a derogatory term for the astute hero whom he so often
called polymetis. Thus can puns be turned against the punster.
There is further evidence that Odysseus/Homer (for who can distinguish
them when Homer makes Odysseus tell the tale?) revelled in this elaborate
paronomasia. Long after the escape from Polyphemos, Odysseus, when
lying disguised as a beggar in his own palace, had to listen to his disloyal and
adulterous maidservants laughing gaily as they went to consort with the evil
suitors of Penelope (xx. 6-2 I ). He could barely restrain himself from getting
up and killing them, for disloyalty of that kind was a paramount crime in the
heroic world. But though his heart 'yelped inside him like a bitch with her
cubs when a stranger approaches', he held back, reminding himself how he
endured in the Cyclops's cave until his metis saved him.
Another aspect of this prodigious pun perhaps deserves a moment's
attention. By causing Odysseus, the man of much metis, to effect his escape
by means of variants on the word metisHomer has, as it were, made the word
become flesh for a moment. What was a descriptive term becomes an
operative term, the key that safely unlocks the door of the monster's cave. It
is as if the word for Aladdin's 'open sesame' were also a description of
Aladdin's own chief characteristic.
Brilliantly conceived and successful as Odysseus's deceptions of the
Cyclops were, yet he deserves to be censured for his own foolhardiness at the
beginning of the episode. When he and his companions first entered the cave
and had helped themselves to food from it, the others begged him to leave at
once and return to their ship. But Odysseus was not persuaded, though, as
he recognized afterwards, it would have been much more sensible and
profitable (kerdion, IX. 228) to have done so. He gave two reasons for this
foolish decision: 'I wished to see the owner himself and to find out whether he
would give me guest gifts'. Soon the Cyclops arrived and devoured six of the
companions before Odysseus could operate his plan to save them. Such was
the disastrous result of Odysseus's self-confessed inquisitiveness and
acquisitiveness.
The second of these motives would seem rather unbecoming in a modern
hero. But among the Homeric heroes it was the rule rather than the
exception: witness the fatal quarrel between Achilles and Agamemnon
about their possessions at the beginning of the Iliad. On the other hand
inquisitiveness is not a salient quality among the Iliadic princes, rich and
self-centred as they mostly were. But it often accompanies high intelligence,
and that presumably was what Homer intended to show in the personality of
Odysseus.
Curiosity comes out again in Homer's account of the encounter with the
Sirens. The Sirens do not try to tempt Odysseus with sensual delights, apart
2

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Hero and Poet: Odysseusand Homer

from the music of their song. Instead they offer him information about
'everything that happens on the richly fertile earth', in other words a kind of
global news-service. Odysseus found this irresistible. Fortunately, however,
he had taken the precautions suggested to him by Circe (the wax in his
companions' ears, himself bound to the mast) so that he heard the famous
song but escaped death on the ghastly heap of men rotting on their bones
which lay beside the sweet singers. Homer makes it clear that if Odysseus
had been free to follow his inclinations he would have gone to his doom out of
curiosity. Only his prudence in following Circe's advice saved him (Dante in
Inferno 26 and Kazantzakis in his Odyssey preferred, unhomerically, to
portray him as eventually following his curiositasto his death at the limits of
the known world. Tennyson in his Ulysses emphasized his curiosity but left
his ultimate fate unknown).
Inquisitiveness and acquisitiveness, then, may explain Odysseus's
uncharacteristic imprudence in staying on to see the Cyclops, though they
hardly excuse it. But Odysseus's rashness did not stop there. It flared up
again towards the end of the incident when the Greeks were sailing away
from the island of the Cyclops. Then Odysseus saw fit to shout his scorn and
defiance not just once, but twice, at the blinded monster. His second shout
was after the great crag hurled by Polyphemos had almost smashed their
ship, and after his companions had begged him not to be so rash: 'You
obstinate fellow, why do you want to provoke this savage?' (Ix. 494).
Why indeed, many commentators have asked. Why should the prudent
hero have been so imprudent, when no element of curiosity or cupidity was
involved? Perhaps the best explanation is that in a moment of triumph after a
frightful ordeal even the most intelligent person may become rashly boastful.
Odysseus is human, not a robot. It would give him enormous pleasure to tell
the Cyclops, 'If anyone asks you about the hideous blinding of your eye tell
him Odysseus, the city-destroyer, the son of Laertes, who dwells in Ithaca
blinded you', though he cannot have been quite so pleased when Polyphemos in return derided him contemptuously as a 'no-good-man'. How
typically humane it was of Homer.to let the ogre have the last word so
effectively!
Other commentators, dissatisfied with psychological interpretations,
prefer to explain Odysseus's foolhardiness here and at the beginning of the
encounter in terms of analytical criticism. They suggest that Homer took
over a folk tale of how a Wily Lad outwitted a one-eyed giant. Variations of
such a story have been collected from a vast number of Indo-European
sources ranging from Iceland to India. The details vary, but the central
features of the blinding and the escape remain remarkably consistent.
If Homer was using a folk tale, then Odysseus's ethical faults in coping
with Polyphemos could be remnants of a brash but cunning folk hero like
Jack the Giant-killer. Such characteristics are not expected to preserve a
consistent level of astuteness. Indeed the story is often most acceptable when

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W.

B. STANFORD

the hero first gets himself into a fix by acting quite foolishly and then wins
success by a stroke of supreme cunning. This may be the right explanation.
But it implies incompetence on Homer's part in his handling of pre-existing
material. Analytical scholars are generally pleased to allege faults of that
kind. It enables them to dissect the Homeric poems more plausibly. But why
assume that we know Homer's job better than he himself did?
There is, however, another reason for seeing traces of a folk hero in
Odysseus: the curious fact that in the early Greek tradition apart from the
Homeric poems he had the second name, Oulixes (with variant spellings),
which is also attested in the Latin Ulixes, the English Ulysses, and the Irish
Uilix (the Etruscans called him Utuse, which some connect with Outis).
Perhaps this variation indicates that originally there were two Greek
exemplars of intelligence, a Mycenaean warrior-hero named Odysseus,
described or invented by an early composer (one must not say 'writer' now)
of aristocratic epic, and a Wily Lad named Oulixes. Then a poet of genius,
perhaps named Homer, combined the two into one complex hero, who at
times did not conform to normal heroic standards.
This is all conjectural. To return to further wiles and ruses by the
Odyssean Odysseus: in the rest of the poem he freely and readily tells lies to
protect himself and his associates. When a simple lie will serve he tells one, as
when he informed the Cyclops that his ship had been wrecked though in fact
it was quite safe. If elaborate fictions are needed to protect his disguise he
concocts brilliant mixture of fact and fancy, as in his long tales told to
Eumaios and Penelope. Even when he has been fully re-established in his
kingdom, he conceals his identity from his aged father for a while. Finding
him pathetically alone at work in his rural garden digging with bowed head
round a stubborn stump, Odysseus first pretends to be a stranger who had
once entertained Odysseus: 'and no mortal was dearer to me among all the
guests who came to my home from far away' (xxiv. 267). At this Lairtes,
beginning to weep, sadly describes the sorrows of Ithaca and his fears for his
son's fate and asks the stranger who he is. In reply Odysseus tells him that he
is Eperitos the son Apheidas, the son of Polypemon from Alubas (which
could imply 'Strife-man, son of Spare-nothing, son of Much-woe, from
Wandertown'), and that it was over four years since Odysseus had met him.
Then, we are told, 'a dark cloud of grief overcomes Laertes. As a sign of utter
desolation he takes dust from the ground with both hands and he heaps it
over his grey head, moaning continuously (215-16). At last Odysseus is
moved with compassion. He embraces his father, kisses him, and tells him
who he is. Laertes demands some proof of his identity. Odysseus gives two,
an ancient scar and a memory from his childhood. Laertes, with no
expression ofjoy, puts his arms round his long-lost son, almost fainting.
Many readers have found this callous deceit by Odysseus hard to accept.
It has been explained, or explained away, on formalistic, analytical,
psychological, and physiological grounds. Even if, as some think, Odysseus

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Hero and Poet: Odysseusand Homer

0o

wanted to avoid the effect on a frail old man of a sudden shock, he hardly
needed to concoct another of his elaborate aliases and alibis. Yet whatever
way one tries to explain Odysseus's conduct here, the scene is wonderfully
effective, and Homer is at his best describing it. Once again we have his
poetic dexterity and Odysseus's pragmatic dexterity merging into each
other.
The fact is that Homer, at any rate as I read him, revelled in the ingenuity
of his ingenious hero. While he feels sympathy and pity for the Iliadic heroes,
Achilles, Hector, Priam, and others, for Odysseus his feeling is more like
empathy than sympathy. Not, of course, that Odysseus is merely Homer
himself incarnated in a different age and style, like the autobiographical
heroes of modern times. Instead one can make a much subtler equation: the
supreme intelligence of Odysseus in the Odysseyis equal to the supreme
intelligence of Homer in composing the Odyssey.This equation operates with
special effect when Homer makes Odysseus tell his own fabulous adventures
in Books Ix-xII. Is there a literary stratagem here? Is Homer hinting, 'Well if
some of my hearers are disinclined to believe these tales of ogres and witches
and enchantresses and wind-kings, just remember that it isn't I, Homer,
who is telling them, but the Odysseus of the many deceptions'?
Aristotle in his Poetics gives support to this view, though without
formulating it so explicitly. He observes that the poetic illusion often
depends for its effect on a special kind of fallacy called paralogismos,which is
used by orators as well as by poets. This paralogismdsrelies on the common
tendency to confuse cause with consequence (logicians call it the fallacy of
affirming the consequence, as when one argues that since the ground is wet
after it has rained therefore when the ground is wet it must have rained,
though in fact there may have been a flood or a spill). Aristotle illustrates the
effect of this fallacy from Odysseus's false tale to Penelope in Odyssey
XIX. 215-50. When Penelope asks for proof that the stranger (Odysseus in
disguise) has told the truth about seeing Odysseus in Crete, he describes an
unusual brooch which he wore (ingeniously, 'he' here can mean both the
true and the fictitious Odysseus). Penelope accepts his accurate description
as proof of his lie, reasoning that because the stranger has described the
brooch accurately he must be telling the truth. In terms of paralogismdsshe
has inverted the true proposition, 'A truthful man must describe things
accurately', into 'A man who describes things accurately must be truthful'.
This, Aristotle asserts, is exactly how Homer creates verisimilitude. He
lards his fictions with verifiable facts so that his audience, deceived by
paralogismos, believe him fully. In that way, as Aristotle says in a phrase to
delight all who wish to defend the autonomy of poetic fiction against
factualists and historicists, Homer taught poets 'to tell lies in the proper way'
(Poetics 24. I46oa

8-I9).

Homer himself made it as plain as he could within his principle of almost


complete self-effacement that he greatly admired the Odyssean quality of

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W.

metis. In Iliad XXIII. 3I3-25

B. STANFORD

Nestor,

the emblem

II

of mature

wisdom

and

sagacity in the Homeric poems, when advising his son how to win a chariot
race eulogizes metis, employing the same word four times in six lines and
three times in emphatic position at the beginning of a line. He tells his son:
'Put metis of all kinds in your heart' (in other words 'be poljmetis' like
Odysseus) 'for by metis a wood-cutter does much better than by physical
force; by metis again a pilot keeps his swift ship straight on the winedark sea
when the winds are buffeting it; by metis charioteer outstrips charioteer.'
Further, in the OdysseyHomer gives Odyssean metisits highest testimonial
by portraying Odysseus as the special favourite of Athene (who in this poem
is a kind and helpful goddess unlike the Valkyrie of the Iliad). After Odysseus
has safely reached Ithaca in Book xIII Athene plays a genial trick on him.
First she covers the land with a mist so that he fails to recognize it. Then,
disguised as a young shepherd, she approaches him. He asks her for
protection and for information about where he is. She tells him, 'You're a
fool, stranger, or else you have come from far away if you ask what country
this is, because it's certainly not nameless'. Then to tantalize him she gives a
prolonged description of the island before naming it. After a moment ofjoy
Odysseus, 'always exercising his much-wily-for-gain (polykerdea)mind', tells
an elaborate lie about being a refugee from Crete. When he has finished his
highly convincing, pathetic, and untrue story Athene smiles and strokes his
hand affectionately. Changing into her own divine form, she tells him:
A man would have to be wily-for-gain and trickyin every sort of deceit - and even a
God, too - to out-do you. What stubbornness, what a variety of metis,what an
insatiable appetite for wiles, you have, that even in your own country you won't stop
your inborn subterfuges and tricky stories! But come on, don't let's talk like that any
longer. We're both experts in wiliness-for-gain,you being best by far of all mortals in
counsel and speech and I famous among all the gods for metisand wiliness-for-gain.
Yet you didn't recognise me as Pallas Athene, daughter of Zeus, though I have been
your helpmeet and protector in all your toils ... Well, anyway, I've come here now
so as to weave metiswith you.
PolymetisOdysseus is annoyed at being outwitted. He replies: 'It would be
hard even for a very knowledgeable man to recognize you when he meets you
since you keep changing yourself to look like all sorts of people'. Perhaps, he
thinks, she is tricking him further in saying he's in Ithaca: 'I think you're
mocking me by saying that, just to cheat my wits'. Athene replies, 'To be
sure you always have this kind of mind in you. All the same I can't abandon
you in your trouble, because you are so considerate [epetes,a disputed term],
so shrewd-hearted and so self-possessed'. She goes on to advise him and to
promise him her constant help in the future. Then she perpetrates a further
deception by disguising him as an old beggar, so that for the next few days he
must live a life of total deceit among his own people.
This is a charming scene. It has been justly compared with some of the
affectionately-bantering dialogues that Shakespeare gives to his heroes and
heroines in his livelier comedies, where, indeed, we find an equally ingenious

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12

Hero and Poet: Odysseusand Homer

sort of double deception when female characters who are male actors play
the part of women disguised as men. It could be (but it is only a guess) that
Athene's attitude to Odysseus here, almost 'Shake hands, brother: You're a
rogue and I'm another', embodies Homer's own personal attitude to his
versatile, plausible, ingenious, fiction-spinning hero. For what else was
Homer himself in his poems but a superb illusionist?

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