Introduction: The Power of Stories

By Thomas Van Nortwick

Narrative form: What Kind of Poem Is It? | Two Worlds: 1) Athena’s Version |  Two Worlds: 2) The Uses of Anonymity: An Another Hero, Another World | Ithaka: The Disguised Hero | Eumaeus’s Hut: Constructed lives | Subversives in the Palace: 1) Amphinomus | Subversives in the Palace: 2) Odysseus as Trickster | The Trickster Vanishes | Conclusion

[1] The Odyssey is a poem about the power of stories. Not surprisingly, Odysseus himself is a master storyteller, but many other narrators pass before us: Phemius, Mentes, Nestor, Menelaus, Helen, Demodocus, Eumaeus, Theoclymenus, Penelope. Some tell stories about themselves, some about others. Some of the stories are presented by the poet of the Odyssey, whom we will call “Homer,” as true, some as false, but the flow of stories is constant.1 We might say that the most characteristic act in the poem is creative storytelling. At the divine assembly in Book Five, just before Odysseus appears for the first time in the poem, we hear a conversation that implies that there is yet another storyteller at work behind the scenes. Athena complains to Zeus about Odysseus being held against his will on Calypso’s island. To which, Zeus replies:

My child, what sort of word has escaped the barrier of your teeth?

Have you yourself not devised this plan,

that Odysseus would come back and punish those men?

Send Telemachus home skillfully, you can do it,

so he may return to his fatherland unscathed,

while the suitors come back in their ship with nothing accomplished.

          Odyssey 5. 21–27.2

A similar exchange appears at the very end of the poem, when Odysseus and his supporters face off against relatives of the dead suitors. The threat of more bloodshed prompts Athena to ask her father about his plan for ending the conflict. Again, Zeus is puzzled:

My child, why do you ask me about these things?

Have you yourself not devised this plan,

that Odysseus would come back and punish those men?

Do whatever you wish…       

          Odyssey 24. 477–481

[2] These two passages frame the story of Odysseus’s homecoming in the poem. In both, Zeus’s message is the same: This is your story; you’ve already worked it all out, so make it happen.  By creating these two divine conversations, Homer seems to imply that within the story he himself has received from the divine muse there is another artist at work, who is creating (or, perhaps, has created) her own story. We are invited to peek behind the curtain and see that the world that we witness unfolding in the Odyssey is a more complex, layered version of reality than it may have first appeared. Orchestrated by the goddess through her hovering and interventions, recounted in the voice of the poet, Athena’s story dramatizes a special heroic world, with clear assumptions about fundamental issues of human identity and human worth. The Odysseus we see in her story is also at least partly her creation, as the poet makes clear by twice using a telling simile to describe her artistry when the hero faces a female character he needs to win over:

Athena, born from Zeus, made him look

taller and broader, and on his head she set

hair curling like the blooms of hyacinth.

As when some skilled man, whom Hephaestus and Athena

taught every technique, pours gold over silver,

and brings to perfection his graceful art,

so she poured grace over his head and shoulders.

          Odyssey 6.229–235 = 23.156–162

Though the sculpture takes the place of storytelling, the idea of Athena as the creative force behind the return story is clearly put.

[3] If we follow the poet’s suggestion that the heroic return is a separate story within the Odyssey, then we also need to recognize that other stories in the poem portray a different world, encompassing a wider perspective and a more varied cast of characters. By listening only to Athena’s voice, we confine ourselves to the narrower view. To reach full richness of the Odyssey’s portrait of human experience, we must untangle the intricate weave of stories to reach the more spacious world they imply. We begin with some observations about the poem as a whole, then look at the implications of each of the two perspectives as they affect our understanding of the poem.

Narrative form: What kind of poem is it?

[4] The Odyssey is stylistically very close to the Iliad, in diction, sentence structure, scene construction, and meter. The poet’s use of repetition, of words, phrases, and larger narrative patterns, is virtually the same in both poems. Though most scholars would now date the composition of the Odyssey in its present form somewhat later than the Iliad, these similarities were the foundation in classical antiquity for attributing both poems to a single author. But in one crucial respect, the two poems are markedly different. The Iliad is the first example in western literature of a tragic narrative.3 I use the word “tragic” here to mark a specific set of qualities in the form of the story, not in the more general sense of “very sad.” Tragic narratives encourage in their audience above all the necessity to confront the fact of human mortality. The recognition that we will all die colors the perspective of such a story, pushing us to think about how that inalterable necessity influences what the story presents as important and meaningful in human life.

[5] The Odyssey, by contrast, contains the first example of what has come to be called a comic narrative. Again, I mean by the term “comic” not the general notion of “funny,” but something more fundamental to the story’s meaning. Comic narratives urge their audience to accept an overriding need for the restoration of right order, however the story defines that order, which has been disturbed or threatened. The need to overcome various kinds of impediments that the story puts in the path of those pursuing restoration colors the view of human life that emerges. The form later reached a glorious crescendo in Shakespearean comedy and Mozart’s Da Ponte operas and continues to flourish. In the case of the Odyssey, the comic elements in the poem appear as part of Athena’s revenge narrative, but are not prominent in the other stories that form the background for that part of the poem. Recognizing this difference in perspective is essential for understanding the full range of human experience as it appears in the Odyssey.

[6] The imperatives of comic form are clear from the very beginning of the poem. In the eleven-line prologue, we hear of Odysseus’s many trials, as he struggles to make his way home, “preserving his life and the homecoming of his companions” (1.5). But his shipmates sabotage his efforts, unable to restrain themselves from eating the cattle of the sun (1.6–9). The focus on this particular episode is telling: what both his crew and Penelope’s suitors lack and Odysseus has in abundance is self-control, the quality that ensures his survival in a world of threats, both physical and psychological, to his very existence. If he is to restore right order in Ithaka, Odysseus must first survive. Here we encounter a definitive difference between the two Homeric epics. In the Iliad, the thematic resolution for the entire poem comes after Achilles, who has conspicuously declined survival in favor of kleos, “glory,” the warrior’s hedge against the oblivion of death, confronts and accepts the fact of his mortality.

[7] The necessity for restoration emerges in the poem’s opening scenes. After a brief recap brings us rapidly up to speed on how Odysseus came to be marooned on Calypso’s island, Poseidon’s anger at Odysseus blinding his son Polyphemus, Athena’s fervent request for the hero’s release, and Zeus’s acquiescence in her intervention, Athena goes to work (1.12–95). Disguised as an old friend of the royal family, the goddess arrives in Ithaka to find a dismal situation. Penelope’s suitors gobble up food, carouse drunkenly every night, and abuse the household staff in various ways. Odysseus’s son Telemachus seems powerless to prevent these outrages and Penelope has retreated to her bedroom in an apparently permanent state of numbed grief. Only the return of Odysseus to his roles as king of Ithaka, husband of Penelope, father of Telemachus, and son of Laertes will bring relief from this ruinous disorder, but that possibility seems remote to those who long for it. More likely, they believe, the king’s bones are lying on some abandoned shore, bleaching in the sun (e.g., 1.159–168). We know better: Odysseus is coming home, because that’s what the gods want, and because, as we’ve already seen, the king’s absence dooms the kingdom to chaos and degradation. From this point until Zeus throws his final thunderbolt, Athena will push Odysseus homeward, toward his triumphant restoration.

[8] Paralysis and frustration beset not only Telemachus and Penelope, but also Odysseus, who is himself stuck, marooned in the timeless world of Calypso’s island. If her story is to proceed, Athena has to get the royal family moving. She will soon arrange to free Odysseus, but first she must wake Telemachus up from his adolescent funk. The resulting journey, which takes up most of the first four books of the poem, has two goals: 1) Telemachus must find out if his father is still alive and headed home; if so, he will need to support his father’s restoration to his former glory; if not, he must become the head male of the household and deal with the suitors by himself; 2) he must grow up, tested by the challenges of the journey, so he is fit for either of these two roles.

[9] Telemachus’s adventures in this part of the poem follow a circular pattern that anticipates many of the episodes in his father’s return journey. As he travels from Ithaka to Pylos, then on to Sparta, finally returning home in time to meet Odysseus at the swineherd Eumaeus’s outpost, Telemachus often functions in the story as a surrogate for his father, rehearsing the latter’s behavior in various situations. When Menelaus reminisces about Odysseus at Troy, Telemachus covers his face with a cloak to hide his weeping, as his father does later among the Phaeacians when the bard Demodocus sings about the Trojan War (4.113–116; 8.83–86). When Menelaus offers him horses as a gift, Telemachus politely declines, citing the unfriendly nature of Ithaka’s landscape for horses (4.600–608). Odysseus too wins lavish gifts from those he visits, but puts them aside when he arrives in Ithaka, while he pursues his mission (13.361–365). When he arrives in Pylos, Telemachus announces his name immediately, but by the time he reaches Sparta, he has become more cautious, withholding his identity until Helen names him, his father’s standard procedure.

[10] On another level, Telemachus follows a distinctly linear trajectory through the poem, growing before our eyes from adolescence to early manhood, as the Greeks understood it. Penelope will later claim before the suitors that when Odysseus left for Troy, he told her that if he had not returned home by the time Telemachus had grown a beard, she should choose another husband (18.257–270). The clock has been running for twenty years and a reckoning is coming. Will Odysseus arrive in time to keep Penelope from remarrying? Will Telemachus yield to his father’s right to reassert control, or has he matured enough to assert his own claims to male authority? The poet engineers a wonderfully vivid climax to this aspect of the ongoing tension between restoration and change when Telemachus is about to string the famous bow, thus winning the hand of the queen, and Odysseus, disguised as a beggar, warns him off and the bow goes slack. The father’s leverage holds for the moment as an Oedipal crisis is averted (21.118–135). By pushing Telemachus out into the world, Athena launches a narrative rhythm that runs counter to the circular shape of the return story, creating a fruitful tension throughout the poem. These contrasting narrative rhythms are part of the larger dichotomy in the poem between two fictional worlds, one closed, one open, each of which has its own kind of protagonist and its own expectations about the nature of human existence.

Two Worlds

1) Athena’s Version

[11] Athena’s revenge story requires us to focus on the qualities in the hero and his kingdom that defy change, supporting Odysseus’s return to his rightful place as king, husband, father, and son. These roles are part of a rigid social hierarchy, the architecture of a closed world. It’s not that we are to pretend that everyone in Ithaka is not twenty years older, but that this fact must not undermine our belief that Odysseus’s power (and desire?) to reclaim his authority on various levels is unchanged by time. Ironically, in pursuit of that goal, time sometimes becomes malleable under the goddess’s direction, but everything she does is understood to be finally in the service of holding back change, restoring right order. Her stage-managing throughout the journey home includes several magical transformations, from middle-aged hero to wrinkled beggar (13.429–437), from weary, brine-encrusted swimmer or blood-soaked warrior to sleek, mysterious stranger, his hair curling like hyacinth blossoms (6.229–237; 23.156–162), from grief-worn wife to alluring potential bride (18.187–195), from care-worn old man to vigorous warrior (24.367–371). All of this elasticity in the boundaries that usually shape human experience gives the return story a fairytale quality. Night can be prolonged to give the royal couple more time in bed; the slaughter of the suitors can be erased from the memories of their families to ensure tranquility in the kingdom of Ithaka (23.241–246; 24.482–486).

[12] When we accept the overriding necessity for Odysseus to return home alive and restore proper order in the kingdom, the moral landscape of the story takes on a rigid, black-and-white cast, always in the service of the order that restoration will preserve. Anything that impedes the hero’s mission must be overcome, no matter what the cost to others. In this perspective, good guys and bad guys are easy to identify. As we have noted, Odysseus’s crew and Penelope’s suitors, though they would seem to be markedly different in their moral character, are quite similar in one respect: poor impulse control. We are prompted by the imperatives of return narrative to see the deaths of everyone in both groups as acceptable—if sometimes regrettable—losses, as long as the hero completes his mission. The Iliad again provides a useful contrast. Men battle there, as in the Odyssey, over control of a hero’s wife and the city she lives in. But the moral universe of that poem is anything but black-and-white. The poet invites our sympathies for heroes on both sides and moral judgments are not easy to make. We are drawn to Hector, the principal Trojan hero, precisely because of his characteristic human failures of judgment, while Achilles’s invincible power and beauty are often frightening and repellent. These responses in us are prompted by the tragic nature of the Iliad’s story. There are more and less admirable characters in the poem, but the story does not insist that we condemn one side as bad and celebrate the other as good. Every warrior is under a death sentence and each must do what he can to live and die as well as he can.

[13] Because Odysseus, in Athena’s story, must above all else return and restore order in Ithaka, we are not encouraged to think much about the changes, almost always for the worse, that Odysseus brings to the other places he visits. If we step back from the goddess’s vision, what we see is that outside of Ithaka, Odysseus is—true to his name, cognate with ὀδύνη (“pain, trouble”)—the agent of pain. Calypso, an immortal nymph, is reduced to bitter recriminations at the prospect of losing her captive lover. Odysseus plays on the adolescent vulnerability of Nausicaa to get an introduction to her parents, then promptly abandons her. Because the Phaeacians give the hero a ride back to Ithaka, their ship is turned to stone when they arrive home, blocking the harbor of their island. Polyphemus ends up blind and, presumably, helpless in the atomistic society of the Cyclopes. When the ghosts in the underworld drink sheep’s blood offered by Odysseus, they are animated just enough to feel pain and regret. Even if the suitors must die—and the poem’s complex narrative form allows some ambivalence about this outcome, as we will see—do the slave women who slept with them deserve to hang? When the families of the dead suitors come to Ithaka to get justice for their loved ones, we are not encouraged to sympathize with them, perhaps to have second thoughts about the slaughter. (Though they may, we suppose, have had little or nothing to do with their children’s decision to besiege Odysseus’s household.) Instead, the focus is on how to get Odysseus and his supporters ready for the impending battle. Nowhere in this trail of destruction do we see Odysseus or Athena having second thoughts about the rightness of their priorities. Making her case to Zeus for freeing Odysseus, Athena portrays her favorite as a “gentle” and “sweet,” ruler (5.8). What we see instead for nearly the entire poem is one of the most unyielding and emotionally inaccessible versions of the epic hero in all of ancient literature.

[14] In Athena’s world, knowledge is power, usually used to manipulate others in the service of the hero’s mission. The prologue cites Odysseus’s quest for knowledge as one of his distinguishing characteristics:

He saw the cities of many people and learned of their minds

          Odyssey 1. 3

Finding things out is what allows Odysseus to survive in a potentially hostile place. He hoards knowledge about himself, while learning as much as he can about those he encounters, and this imbalance gives him leverage over others. In pursuit of these goals, disguise and self-concealment are essential. We might suppose that being known as Odysseus would always be a good thing for the hero, but that would only be true if he could be certain of others’ loyalty and willingness to serve his agenda. As it is, he and his divine protector believe that they can trust no one, even those who love Odysseus, until he or she has been tested. Such an attitude toward others necessarily isolates the hero, who must remain detached from others in order to achieve his ends. By contrast, the tragic nature of the Iliad does not accommodate such a figure. Achilles is passionate and expressive, often excessively and destructively so. He hides nothing. His openness to Priam is the key to the Iliad’s thematic resolution.

 2) The Uses of Anonymity: An Another Hero, Another World

[15] While Odysseus’s triumphant march toward vengeance aims to restore a stratified world, with identities, social roles, and outcomes firmly fixed, the world through which he moves is remarkably fluid, full of possibility, with fantastic monsters, alluring feminine forces, and exotic societies far removed from the heroic hierarchies in Ithaka. Athena’s story presupposes a centripetal hero, always pushing with tunnel vision toward the center of home and family. The character we see in the poem is more complex, sacrificing shipmates by insisting on exploring the Cyclopes’ island and Circe’s lair, yearning to hear the Sirens’ voices. His desire to know the world can pull him off course, into the boundless unknown, symbolized by the restless sea. This latter version of Odysseus is the key to the poem’s complex representation of human experience. The question that dominates the Odyssey’s opening scenes is, “Where is Odysseus?” As the story unfolds, we realize that the more important question is, “Who is Odysseus?”

[16] The creation of characters in the Odyssey exemplifies the use of repeated forms that pervades Homeric poetry. The poet builds character by accretion, adding new layers of meaning through repetition and variation. We are invited to judge Telemachus’s credentials as a good son against the background of Orestes’s vengeance for the killing of his father, Agamemnon. Penelope’s character is built on the portraits of Clytemnestra, Calypso, Nausicaa, Arete, and Circe. Odysseus’s character, the most complex in the poem, is also created through repeated paradigms. Menelaus’s story in Book Four, of the storm that blew his ships to Egypt and his subsequent encounter with Proteus the shape-changer, prefigures in various ways Odysseus’s captivity on Calypso’s island. Telemachus, as we have noted, often anticipates his father’s behavior. And Agamemnon, the returning hero slaughtered by his faithless wife, always hovers in the background.

[17] Odysseus’s identity as the hero who must again control of the royal palace in Ithaka is predetermined, a set of roles and relationships that await his return. He is not “himself” until he restores his kingdom. But the identity of the man who makes his way across the seas is in fact created and recreated before our eyes as the poem progresses, emerging through various surrogates, some of them far distant from the supposed paragon Athena guides homeward. Once we allow ourselves to acknowledge the making and remaking of Odysseus, the world around him opens up.

[18] Of the many personae Odysseus inhabits, the most telling is that of the anonymous stranger, arriving in strange lands and winning his way into the confidence of the locals. Odysseus insinuates himself into each new place until the triumphant moment when he or someone else names him, establishing a pattern that builds by repetition toward the climactic moment in Book Twenty-Three when Penelope acknowledges his identity as her husband, restoring him to his rightful authority. Namelessness sometimes works for Athena’s hero, as we have seen. But because renown is the vehicle for achieving heroic status in Athena’s world, anonymity is finally a kind of symbolic death. It is no accident that virtually all the threats to Odysseus on his return journey entail either psychic or physical oblivion, languishing anonymously in the clutches of some female force, or eaten by monsters.

[19] But if kleos and the leverage it offers within Athena’s world are not seen as the ultimate goals in life, a different picture emerges. Namelessness allows Odysseus to move more freely through places he visits, unburdened by the expectations that fame generates, able to form bonds with others that a king could not. The character of Amphinomus, “the good suitor,” seems to have been created expressly to remind us of the world of possibilities that opens up to the person without heroic status, as we will see. The double-edged nature of namelessness becomes especially clear when Odysseus finally arrives back in Ithaka. Almost everything that happens there can be viewed through both lenses, as the inevitable and apparently pre-arranged triumph of the hero or the struggles of a powerless man to make his way in the world. Both perspectives are central to Homer’s representation of human life. As Odysseus and Athena move ever closer to restoring the fixed social order of the palace and securing its carefully guarded borders, the poet also keeps a path open to the world beyond the gates, full of ordinary, unheroic people, doing the best they can with the joys and challenges of life. The view of human experience that this layered perspective affords is rich and subtle, but also creates, as we will see, some problems for the poet as he tries to hold his vision together at the end of the poem. We may begin with implications of the heroic return story once the hero reaches Ithaka, then look at the ways that Homer hints at a wider world.

Ithaka: The Disguised Hero

[20] The Phaeacians deliver Odysseus to Ithaka still deep in a slumber “like death” (13.80) and we sense another rebirth coming. Athena, who has been absent from the narrative while Odysseus tells the Phaeacians about his journey, reappears to guide the hero, a signal that her vision is to dominate what follows. She begins with disguise and deception, masking Ithaka in mist so Odysseus cannot recognize his own home, then appearing as a young boy, to question the hero. Odysseus replies in kind, identifying himself as a Cretan, just back from Troy and on the run because he murdered a fellow countryman. He is in Ithaka by accident, he says, having set out for Pylos or Elis as a passenger on a Phoenician ship that a storm blew off course. Athena is delighted by the hero’s glib lying and reveals herself, declaring that she and he are alike in their creative sneakiness. This is the first of several “false tales” that Odysseus will tell, to the goddess, Eumaeus, Telemachus, and finally Penelope, as he makes his way back to the palace. The stories share several features: a traveler from Crete, the Phoenicians providing transport, a fugitive murderer. Through the heroic lens, these stories are purely instrumental, part of whatever disguise Odysseus adopts in order to manipulate others. Everything is in the service of his impending triumph and we are not to imagine that the protagonists of these stories reflect anything significant about the “real” Odysseus lurking underneath the disguises.

[21] Before sending him off to meet Eumaeus, Athena transforms Odysseus into a wrinkled beggar, as far from the powerful, glistening hero as he can get. The beggar’s visit to the swineherd reflects a common folktale, about the disguised god who visits the humble home of a poor family. The family’s warm hospitality to an apparently powerless person earns them special regard from the deity. The warm bond that the beggar and Eumaeus form in Books Fourteen through Sixteen is possible precisely because the swineherd does not know that the beggar is his master in disguise. Yet from the perspective of the Athena’s revenge plot the friendship that develops before us is not real, because the beggar is a fabrication, hiding the real Odysseus. And Eumaeus is finally just a loyal retainer, another pawn in the hero’s game, to be used for the greater good.

[22] The portrait of Penelope’s gradual awakening in the last third of the poem is justly celebrated for its subtle artistry. From her tantalizing appearance before the suitors through her intimate exchanges with the beggar to her staging of the contest of the bow, we see the queen emerging from her self-imposed isolation to become an agent—knowing or unknowing—in her husband’s return. Disputes over when she knows the beggar is Odysseus have a long history with no final agreement. Is she using coded language when she tells the beggar her dream about her pet geese and the powerful eagle, letting Odysseus know that she is on to him and ready to assist? Or does she move toward a decision to remarry motivated by despair at ever seeing her husband again? Whatever we decide, from Athena’s perspective Penelope is to be kept in the dark as long as possible and used as an unwitting agent for her husband’s return. The goddess prompts the decision to appear before the suitors by “putting it into <her> mind” (18. 158). When the old nurse recognizes Odysseus’s scar and drops his foot on the footbath, Athena turns Penelope’s attention away so she will not find out the beggar’s identity. Just before Telemachus gives the bow to the beggar, he sends Penelope upstairs, where Athena puts her to sleep. She does not wake up until after the slaughter, when Eurykleia comes to fetch her. The goddess seems to control everything about Odysseus’s return to power, moving people around like chess pieces until she and Odysseus feel confident enough in Penelope’s loyalty to reveal the beggar’s true identity.

Eumaeus’s Hut: Constructed lives

[23] The interlude in at Eumaeus’s outpost affords us an extended opportunity to experience a different world, beyond the confines of Athena’s revenge narrative, relaxed and untroubled by heroic imperatives. Rather than simply an instrument for manipulating others, disguise becomes the vehicle for exploring different lives, roads not taken. One of the enduring qualities of comic narrative form is the opportunity for imaginative escape from the bonds of one’s regular existence, using alternate personae to reflect back on the one’s everyday life from a detached perspective. Such a view requires us to loosen our grip on what we understand as “reality,” to entertain the possibilities that other lives and other selves seem to offer. Athena’s story has no place for this kind of fluidity, but as the poet himself has insisted, hers is not the only story being told in the poem. Listening to other storytellers opens up the poem’s horizons and allows us to reflect on the closed world of the revenge narrative in a wider context.

[24] In the long nights at the swineherd’s hovel, the beggar and his host, initially strangers to one another, develop a warm and trusting relationship. The basis for that bond is stories and in the world that unfolds through those stories heroic glory is far away. Because no one there is famous, the hierarchical separation fostered by kleos (“fame”) gives way to relationships easily formed. In a world of impermanence, human connection, however fleeting, can take on great importance. Neither man, at least as far as the swineherd knows, has anything much to give to his new friend except attention:

Resourceful Odysseus said to him in answer:

“Well then, I’ll tell you the whole story truthfully.

If the two of us only had the time and enough food

and sweet wine here inside your hut to dine undisturbed

while others busied themselves with work; easily then

I could talk for a whole year and not be done telling

of the pains in my heart, all the many things I’ve suffered

by the gods’ will…

         Odyssey 14. 192–198

Then the swineherd, leader of men, said in answer:

Stranger, since you asked me about these things,

sit there quietly and enjoy drinking your wine.

The nights are endless, good for sleeping, good

for enjoying a long story; no need to go to bed

early—too much sleep can be boring. But if

anyone else’s heart urges him, let him go to sleep.

And when the dawn comes, he can make a meal from the master’s pigs.

The two of us can eat and drink, taking pleasure

In the memory of each other’s sufferings.

Even in the midst of pain a man can enjoy himself,

one who has wandered and suffered much.

          Odyssey 15.389–401

The exchanges in the Ithakan countryside are hampered by none of the anxieties that wealth and status bring. Strangers with apparently little leverage in the world can form friendships without worrying whether their property will be safe. A rough cloak can be shared without ceremony, meals without calculation of profit and loss. The principal medium of exchange between the two men is the very experience of pain and trouble: a good story repays the host who feeds the storyteller.

[25] What kind of protagonists do we find in the stories told in Eumaeus’s hut and what kind of world do they live in? First of all, these wanderers show little of the relentless centripetal drive to return home that usually characterizes Odysseus in Athena’s official version. In the tale he tells to Athena, he is in Ithaka by accident, having been blown off course by a storm while heading for Pylos or Elis. In his elaborate after-dinner story in Eumaeus’s hut, he becomes the bastard son of a rich Cretan. Denied his full inheritance by hostile half-siblings, he has roamed the sea, enriching himself through raids on other men’s estates, Troy being only one of ten such expeditions. He loves battles of all kinds, ambushes and face-to-face conflict. After Troy, he returns to Crete but only lasts there a month before launching another expedition to Egypt. By his own account, he is not one for staying home:

This is how I was in war. But working the land was never dear to me,

nor household chores, the husbandry that makes shining children.

No, I loved always long-oared ships, and wars, sharp spears

and well-polished arrows, dreadful things that other men

found horrible; I loved them all—some god I suppose planted this in me.

Different men delight in different things.

          Odyssey 14.222–228

In the view of the revenge story, the men we see in the hero’s various autobiographies may not be real, and yet they resemble the hero we see making his way home from Troy in many ways. We might ask ourselves if the official version of Odysseus, a (relatively) faithful husband, doting father, loyal son, and upright king is more like the man we actually see on the homeward journey than the restless, wandering warrior, plundering his way across the sea, living by his wits.

Subversives in the Palace

1) Amphinomus

[26] As Athena and Odysseus close in on the usurpers in the palace, Homer keeps the spirit of Eumaeus’s hut alive in a small but significant exchange between the beggar and one of the suitors. Amphinomus stands somewhat apart from the general run of the suitors. He stays around, to be sure, eating the food and perhaps sleeping with the maids, but he also urges the suitors not to murder Telemachus (16.406) and protects the beggar and the servants in the palace from the suitors’ abuse (18.412). Responding to Amphinomus’s kind treatment of him, the beggar offers wisdom won through suffering and then a warning:

The earth nourishes nothing more frail,

of all that creep and breathe in this world,

than humans. A man never believes he’ll suffer,

as long as the gods give him power, and his knees

hold their spring. But when the immortals bring pains,

then he must bear them, though unwilling, in his enduring heart.

For such is the mind of mortal creatures

that the father of gods and humans brings, day-by-day.

I was once destined to be fortunate among men,

and made much wickedness, relying on my strength,

trusting in my brothers and my father.

And now look. Let no man trample on the laws,

But receive in silence what the gods give.

          Odyssey 18. 130–142

The beggar goes on to say that the king is close by and will return soon, so Amphinomus should leave while he can. But Amphinomus, Homer tells us, “would not escape his fate.” Athena has already “bound him” to die at Telemachus’s hands (18.155–156).

The character of Amphinomus seems to exist in the poem only to shine a light on Athena’s unrelenting thirst for vengeance. Here is an apparent anomaly among the selfish, greedy suitors, someone who can recognize suffering in others and empathize with them. Surely he could be spared? But no, the goddess allows no exceptions, all must die. The beggar’s speech, by contrast, is entirely in the spirit of the stories told at Eumaeus’s outpost. The gods’ favor is fickle, impermanent, veiled in mystery. Human suffering belies the dream of unending prosperity. In the face of it, the appropriate response is compassion, not self-righteous condemnation.

[27] A small moment in the poem but filled with moral and ethical significance. As the heroic avenger, Odysseus could not have said these words. He is required to keep his plans secret, to manipulate others—especially the suitors—so they play their part in the impending restoration of a world that looks permanent, its contours guaranteed by the gods. But in his persona as powerless beggar, Odysseus can reach out to Amphinomus, speak to him not as an enemy but as a fellow human being, flawed but willing to learn from past mistakes. The beggar can try to save one person from the hero, but Athena, whose divine perspective brooks no opposition, yanks the story back on course. The goddess and the beggar in this vignette seem to represent two poles of the continuum of Odysseus’s character, colliding here in a definitive moment for our understanding of both the confining imperatives of Athena’s story and the wider world beyond it. The increasing momentum of the revenge story can make us forget that many of these young men are locals whose families Odysseus would have known his whole life. As is the case all along the journey home, anonymity fosters openness and connection while kleos, the measure of heroic stature, isolates.

[28] In these fleeting moments, the beggar opens up a window in the divinely fashioned edifice of the king’s palace. Peeking through it, we see the possibility of sparing the suitors, of understanding them not as vile usurpers, stealing what belongs to the royal house, but as wayward young men, whose appetites have led them astray, owing recompense to the king but not, perhaps, their lives. Athena slams the window shut, but as we will see, Homer keeps the double vision that grew in the swineherd’s hut alive in his complex hero.

2) Odysseus as Trickster

[29] The story of Odysseus’s naming in Book Nineteen reveals a telling connection on his mother’s side of the family. While washing the beggar’s feet, the old nurse Eurykleia comes across a scar:

Right away she recognized

the scar, a wound made long ago by a boar’s white tusk

when he went up Parnassos with Autolychus and his sons,

Autolychus, his mother’s worthy father, famed among men

for thievery and false oaths. Hermes, the god himself, gave

him these skills, delighted by the thigh meats of lambs and kids

the man burned for him. And the god was his ready partner.

Autolycus came once to the rich country of Ithaka

and found there his daughter’s newborn son.

And when he finished his meal, Eurykleia laid the child

across his knees and spoke to him and called his name.

“Autolycus, find a name you will give to

your own child’s dear child, for you have long prayed for him.”

And Autolycus then spoke in answer to her:

“My son-in-law and daughter, give him this name that I tell you;

since I have come to this place bringing pain for many,

men and women all cross the fertile earth,

give him the name “Odysseus, man of pain.” And when

he grows up and comes into the house of his mother’s family,

and Parnassus, where there are many possessions of mine,

I will give him of these to make him happy and send him home.”

          Odyssey 19. 392–412

 As the disguised hero makes his way into the stronghold of the unsuspecting suitors, Homer links him directly to Hermes, the premier trickster in Greek myth. Odysseus has already lived up to the name his grandfather gave him, bringing pain and trouble to himself and others. But the trickster is more than simply a troublemaker. By crossing boundaries and thereby blurring them, he penetrates the precincts of the mighty, disturbing the established order of things, making room for creative change.

[30] The figure of the trickster appears in folktales across many cultures, Amerindian, Mediterranean, European, Asian, African. As with any such archetype, variations between any two examples can be significant. Still, the figure does seem to retain some common characteristics across cultures and across time, overlapping in some ways with Odysseus’s behavior as he makes his way toward Ithaka. Seeing the hero from this perspective sheds light on the implications of his subversive persona, penetrating the walls of the royal stronghold as stranger while simultaneously working to shore them up as avenging hero.

[31] The trickster is a fundamentally transgressive figure, wielding his powers through motion. By crossing boundaries, he can blur the categories by which the world is understood, sometimes creating a fruitful chaos out of which new meaning is generated. Anytime a border is drawn, something must be excluded. If the exclusion is absolute, the material bounded out is lost, and the result can be stasis and sterility. Here we encounter a dark potential product of exclusion: violence. Once the shape of the world has been settled, those who benefit most from it become intent on preservation. Once the lines are drawn, guards appear to enforce them. By crossing boundaries, the trickster keeps them open. Since putting limits around experience, “defining” it, is one way we create meaning in human life—infinity is essentially meaningless—the trickster can participate in creating new meaning through change. In this sense, the trickster can raise fundamental ontological questions about “what is.”

[32] Athena’s closed heroic world would be a likely target for the transgressive trickster. Static and hierarchical, it must be preserved through violence. We have seen how Odysseus, in his persona as anonymous stranger, brings painful changes to many of the places he visits on the way home. The changes are often ontological, raising the question of “what is.” Calypso’s divinely impervious nature is breached by Odysseus, her love for him making her vulnerable to human feelings of anger and grief. The physical remoteness of the Phaeacians’s home reflects their transitional existence, between the wholly magical world of Calypso and the grittier reality of Ithaka. The life they lead, devoid of war, full of warm baths and dancing, looks blissfully serene to the battered hero who washes up on their shores. But after he leaves, when the mountain appears in their harbor, carefree distance looks like permanent isolation, static and unreachable from the outside. After his encounter with “Nobody,” Polyphemus goes from being a proudly independent shepherd to a blind and helpless creature, alone in the atomistic society of the Cyclopes.

[33] Once the beggar has entered the palace, Odysseus’s twin personae, as avenging hero and subversive trickster, come into focus most tellingly in his interview with Penelope. Their remarkable exchange is filled with the ironies generated by the difference between what the queen knows and what we know. Arranged earlier by Penelope through Eumaeus, the encounter takes place in a private, intimate setting. The queen has chased off the nosy maids and sits alone by the hearth with the mysterious stranger. After deflecting the question of who exactly he is, the beggar reveals that he met Odysseus in Crete just before the latter set off for Troy. Penelope’s emotions overflow, prompting a striking simile:

He spoke, telling many lies that were like truth.

And as she listened, tears began to flow, softening her complexion.

As when snow melts on the peaks of the mountains,

snow that the West Wind piles up and the East Wind thaws,

and the rivers overflow with its melting.

So her lovely cheeks were softened with the running tears,

as she wept for her husband, who was sitting beside her.

          Odyssey 19.203–209

The simile marks the beginning of a thaw. To fully appreciate its significance, we need to see it in the context of Penelope’s surprise visit to the suitors earlier in the day, which follows directly on the beggar’s warning to Amphinomus.

[34] We are told that Athena “puts it into the mind” of the queen to show herself to the suitors, so—according to the dominant revenge story—she might open their hearts and appear more valuable before her husband (18.158–159). But such psychic interventions as this in the poem are usually understood not as the insertion of some idea or emotion that is entirely foreign to the mortal involved. Rather, when a deity puts something into the mind of some man or woman, the result is to stir up emotions or ideas already present in the person. Such an interpretation in this case would complicate the notion that Penelope is Athena’s puppet, to be employed as part of the revenge plot, and prompt questions: What, exactly, is thawing out? And why? If the emotions that prompt Penelope’s desire to show herself to the suitors originate partly from inside her, what do they tell us about the queen?

[35] Homer provides us with some hints from what might seem an unlikely source, the meeting in Book Six of Odysseus and Nausicaa, the royal princess of the Phaeacians. In fact, if we compare the portrayals of the two women, strong parallels appear. In both cases, the poet uses gestures and symbols that alternate between signifying awakening interest in men with those that mark a wariness about the new emotions and a reluctance to acknowledge them. Though the two characters are seemingly far apart in their age and circumstances, they share some telling qualities. Both are regal women, potentially available but presently closed off from male companionship. Each encounters a mysterious, anonymous stranger, who stirs uncomfortable feelings in them that they respond to with ambivalence. Nausicaa gives in to the new emotions, only to be disappointed. But what about Penelope? Can we extend the parallels to include her yielding in some way to the emotions she feels welling up? If so, what does this mean for our understanding of the queen’s motives in arranging for the contest of the bow?

[36] Until fairly recently, it has been almost universally assumed that Penelope’s loyalty to her absent husband is absolute, that she would never be interested in any other man. This interpretation fits the logic of the heroic revenge narrative. Nothing can be allowed to change in Ithaka; the hero must be restored to his proper position and his wife to hers, by his side. The feelings of a wife who has been alone for twenty years and does not believe her husband is still alive would nevertheless not change. Remarriage would always be hateful to her. But if the world of the beggar, within which the exchanges in Eumaeus’s hut occur, is still alive in the later stages of the poem, then we might see Penelope’s actions and motives in a different way. Emotions bubble up in her, prompting a visit to the suitors. She remembers what Odysseus said to her about remarrying if he has not returned by the time Telemachus reaches maturity. She is ambivalent about these new promptings when she meets with the beggar, to whom she is strangely drawn, perhaps because underneath all those wrinkles is a man she would gladly be married to. His story about meeting Odysseus stirs more powerful feelings that embolden her to share her disturbing dream about the pet geese—which seems to reflect some affection for her “pet” suitors—with the beggar. She then takes the further step of revealing her plan to set up a contest for her hand in marriage.

[37] As he did with Nausicaa and Eumaeus, so here the beggar wins the trust of the queen, who shares intimate secrets with him. In his persona as trickster, Odysseus has breached, as he did in the land of the Phaeacians, not only the walls of the royal palace, but the heart of a potential royal bride. Up until the arrival of the beggar Penelope has been stuck in kind of frozen grief, unable to decide, unable to act. Her trick of weaving and unweaving the shroud mimics the holding pattern her emotions have been in for twenty years. By melting the snowbound emotions of the queen, the beggar has, in a way typical of the trickster, brought fresh air into the static, closed world of the heroic revenge story.

[38] The version of Penelope that emerges from this perspective will not fit comfortably into the plans of Athena. Fully awake now and in possession of her considerable intelligence, she makes her own choices about how to respond to the pressures that have been mounting in the palace. The marvelously intricate path that leads to a reunion of Odysseus and Penelope in Book Twenty-Three is now charged with yet more suspense and urgency. Penelope decides she must choose a new husband and Odysseus, the master of good timing, is there at the right moment to be chosen. The imagery of marriage from the Nausicaa episode resurfaces here, as the interview with the beggar becomes on one level a courtship. Odysseus must woo and win his wife back after being so long away.

[39] Once the bow is in the beggar’s hands, things move quickly, suitors slaughtered, maids hung, traitors mutilated. It is no surprise that the queen is put back to sleep for the crescendo of Athena’s plan—too much independent thinking might hinder the swift execution of vengeance. But the Penelope we have seen emerging in Books Eighteen and Nineteen is not quite finished with her own work. Her second interview with the stranger, after the hall has been treated with sulfur to remove the gore, does not go well at first for the triumphant hero, even after Athena buffs him up to a golden sheen (23.156–162). Like her husband, Penelope is suspicious and insists on testing the man who claims to be Odysseus. Telemachus is angry with his mother. Why does she not fall into line?

But the testing that began with the contest of the bow continues, as Penelope, with her ruse about their bed, becomes the first woman since Helen at Troy to make the hero lose his self-control (4.250–264). Finally she relents and now, we think, the obedient wife of Athena’s story will finally be here to stay, but she holds out one more time, making Odysseus tell her of Tiresias’s prophecy before she will go to bed with him. Fittingly, they drift toward sleep by telling each other stories.

The Trickster Vanishes

[40] The end of the Odyssey has always seemed problematic to some readers, beginning with ancient Greek commentators on the poem who wanted to excise everything in the poem after Book Twenty-Three, line 343, seeing the rest as the work of a later, inferior poet. Such judgments will always be at least partly a matter of taste, but there is no question that after the royal couple go to bed, much of the energy goes out of the poem. There is nothing startling about this kind of diminuendo. Many works of Greek literature feature a dramatic climax somewhat before the end of the narrative, followed by a quieter conclusion that explores the implications of the climax. The death of Hector occurs in the Twenty-Second book of the Iliad, followed by the funeral games of Patroclus, the ransoming of Hector’s body, and the notoriously serene burial scene at Troy. In Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannus, Oedipus discovers the truth of his lineage, rushes off stage and blinds himself, then reappears to deal with the consequences.

[41] Still, much of Book Twenty-Four can seem curiously flat, compared to what has come before. Our last glimpse of the suitors, trudging behind Hermes to the Underworld, is uniformly dismal, as the poet circles back to tidy up his loose ends. The emotion that animated the dead when they drank the blood in Book Eleven is muted here. Odysseus’s testing of his father is at best puzzling, at worst grotesque. The hero has nothing to fear from his own father at this point, so making him grovel in the dirt seems sadistic. Finally, the showdown with the relatives of the suitors, which ends when Zeus throws a thunderbolt and Athena turns out the lights, is almost entirely devoid of the energy that coursed through Book Twenty-Two. What is missing is the world beyond Athena’s story. The goddess and Odysseus, in his role as triumphant king, have finally locked down the royal kingdom. The gates are closed and the energy that the trickster snuck into the palace is gone, taking with it the lively version of Penelope and the wily, subversive beggar, the play of character and chance, timing and luck. Now everyone’s role is determined by its function in the sanitized kingdom.

[42] From the perspective we have been pursuing here, we can see that the poet is to some extent the victim of his own success in weaving together seamlessly two quite different kinds of stories, with different kinds of heroes. The urgency to restore right order belongs to the comic revenge story, but the hero who drives relentlessly toward home cannot finally be contained within the magical world he restores. Homer has borrowed the energy and restless curiosity of a centrifugal wanderer to power a story about seeking the center. The end of the story, with the gods simply bringing the curtain down, feels abrupt, because finally, no matter how satisfying the reunion of husband and wife might be, we prefer the version of Odysseus who cannot stay home.


[43] It is characteristic of those works of Greek literature that continue to hold our imagination that they contain within themselves a telling critique of the dominant heroic narrative with its attendant values. To be sure, the Odyssey’s appeal as an adventure story is undeniable. Rooting for Odysseus as he struggles toward home, thrilling to his crafty triumphs over monsters and distracting women, savoring the delicious ironies generated by his passage in Ithaka from homeless beggar to victorious king, all these are pleasures not to be discounted lightly. On another level, the various personae the hero assumes as instruments for manipulating others can afford us the vicarious pleasure of imagining other lives for ourselves, a staple of comic stories that begins in western literature with the Odyssey. But the heroic return story in itself, alluring and satisfying as it is in some ways, seems to me at least to lack the requisite complexity and richness to account for the poem’s enduring power. The Iliad is, on one level, a war story, filled with battle scenes and heroic vaunting of victors over their enemies. We do not, however, keep coming back to the poem only to witness Achilles’s terrifying, otherworldly power. Rather, it is the portrait the poem offers to us of the cost of that power, to Achilles and to others, and the rich understanding of human life as a reckoning with the ultimate fact of mortality. Likewise, the revelation of the horrifying truth of Oedipus’s true identity in Oedipus Tyrannus throws into relief his futile, but entirely human, desire to escape the facts of his mortal nature. But the depth of Sophocles’ portrait of human experience only emerges when we recognize Oedipus’s self-blinding as a turning toward the wisdom of the prophet Tiresias, who represents an entirely different way of being in the world from the dominant heroic vision.

[44] In both of these works, the alternate perspective to the hero’s vision is carried by another character, Patroclus (and to a lesser degree Hector) in the Iliad, Teiresias in Oedipus Tyrannus. In each case, the second character can be seen as complementary to the hero, a second self, with which the hero interacts in such a way as to highlight the shortcomings of his own perspective. The compassion that characterizes Patroclus all through the Iliad is precisely what Achilles’s anger prevents him from touching in himself. Teiresias is blind, but possesses an inner, prophetic wisdom, something Oedipus can only acknowledge after his heroic willfulness brings ruin to him and his city. Twenty years later, in his last play, Oedipus at Colonus, Sophocles explores Teiresias’s alternate vision of life through another blind old man, Oedipus himself.

[45] The Odyssey, as we have argued here, contains the same kind of complex understanding of the varieties of human experience, but with a significant difference: The hero here is portrayed as carrying both perspectives, the dominant heroic vision and its critique, simultaneously. We may go further. Both Patroclus and Teiresias embody an alternative to the heroic view of the world while living within it. But such is the power in the Odyssey of storytelling to create new worlds and new personae that Odysseus and the stranger—in all his manifestations—coexist in the poem, but in different worlds. The poet points insistently to this multilayered vision of reality, in Zeus’s admonitions to Athena in Books Five and Twenty-Four, in the exchanges between the beggar and Eumaeus and Amphinomus, in the trickster’s subversive animating power.

[46] The Odyssey’s power to enchant rests on its offer of alternative ways of living in the world. If our lives disappoint or frighten us, we can, the poet suggests, tell ourselves a different story, try out a new world. This malleable sense of self fits well with our present cultural penchant, fueled by the allure of social media, for reinventing ourselves. At the same time, the poem issues a warning: the hunger for power and acclaim that the heroic return story portrays can lead us to a Faustian bargain, trading our connections to others for the splendid isolation of renown. Our obsession with celebrity, for any reason and at any cost, comes with a cost to our humanity.

1. The issues surrounding the authorship of the Homeric poems are myriad, knotty, and unresolved. For the purposes of this essay, I will refer to the poet of the Odyssey as “Homer.”

2. All translations of Greek are mine.

3. The Epic of Gilgamesh has a tragic structure similar to the Iliad’s. Sumerian stories about Gilgamesh can be dated as early as 2100 BCE. The most complete narrative called The Epic of Gilgamesh, to which I refer here, is known as the “Standard Babylonian” version. It was composed in Akkadian sometime between 1600 and 1100 BCE. An excellent annotated English translation, by Maureen Gallery Kovacs, was published by Stanford University Press in 1989. This story predates Homer’s epic by at least 400 years, but its language, religious belief system, and geography lead scholars to categorize it as Near Eastern, as opposed to Western literature.

Suggested Citation

Thomas Van Nortwick, "Introduction: The Power of Stories," in Thomas Van Nortwick and Rob Hardy, Homer: Odyssey 9-12. Carlisle, Pennsylvania: Dickinson College Commentaries, 20122. ISBN: 978-1-947822-17-7.