Study Guide

The Odyssey Lies and Deceit

By Homer

Lies and Deceit

Book 1
Telemachos

(Telemachos:) ‘Eurymachos, there is no more hope of my father’s homecoming. I believe no messages any more, even should there be one, nor pay attention to any prophecy, those times my mother calls some diviner into the house and asks him questions.’ (1.413-416)

Athene has just told Telemachos that his father is still alive, but the Prince chooses to deceive the suitors to keep him and his mother safe; it seems he fears a riot or coup if the men all knew the truth.

Athene

[Athene] caught up a powerful spear, edged with sharp bronze, heavy, huge, thick, wherewith she beats down the battalions of fighting men, against whom she of the mighty father is angered, and descended in a flash of speed from the peaks of Olympos, and lighted in the land of Ithaka, at the doors of Odysseus at the threshold of the court, and in her hand was the bronze spear. She was disguised as a friend, leader of the Taphians, Mentes. (1.99-105)

We get why Odysseus needs to disguise himself, but Athene is a goddess—and a powerful one. Why does she have to show up at court in disguise, when she could easily kick out all the suitors single-handedly?

Book 2
Telemachos

(Telemachos:) ‘Do not fear, nurse. This plan was not made without a god’s will. But swear to tell my beloved mother nothing about this until the eleventh day has come or the twelfth hereafter, or until she misses me herself or hears I am absent, so that she may not ruin her lovely skin with weeping.’ (2.372-376)

Telemachos’s deception extends even to his own mother.

Athene

So he spoke in prayer, and from nearby Athene came to him likening herself to Mentor in voice and appearance. Now she spoke aloud to him and addressed him in winged words: ‘Telemachos, you are to be no thoughtless man, no coward, if truly the strong force of your father is instilled in you; such a man he was for accomplishing word and action.’ (2.267-272)

Athene uses deception, but for the purpose of speaking the truth.

(Antinoös:) And here is another stratagem of her heart's devising. She set up a great loom in her palace, and set to weaving a web of threads long and fine. Then she said to us: "Young men, my suitors now that the great Odysseus has perished, wait, though you are eager to marry me, until I finish this web, so that my weaving will not be useless and wasted. This is a shroud for the hero Laertes, for when the destructive doom of death which lays men low shall take him, lest any Achaian woman in this neighborhood hold it against me that a man of many conquests lies with no sheet to wind him." So she spoke, and the proud heart in us was persuaded. Thereafter in the daytime she would weave at her great loom, but in the night she would have torches set by, and undo it. So for three years she was secret in her design, convincing the Achaians […]. (2.93-106)

Odysseus totally deserves a wife like Penelope. Her position as a married (and possibly) widowed woman may not give her much straightforward agency—she can't exactly pick up a sword and start lopping off heads—she does have her own sort of power: the power of lies.

Book 4
Helen

(Helen:) ‘He flagellated himself with degrading strokes, then threw on a worthless sheet about his shoulders. He looked like a servant. So he crept into the wide-wayed city of the men he was fighting, disguising himself in the likeness of somebody else, a beggar, one who was unlike himself beside the ships of the Achaians, but in his likeness crept into the Trojan’s city, and they all were taken in.’ (4.244-250)

Odysseus has built his reputation as a national hero from his ability to deceive.

Menelaos

(Menelaos:) 'Meanwhile she had dived down into the sea's great cavern and brought back the skins of four seals out of the water. All were newly skinned. She was planning a trick on her father. And hollowing out four beds in the sand of the sea, she sat there waiting for us, and we came close up to her. Thereupon she bedded us down in order, and spread a skin over each man. That was a most awful ambush, for the pernicious smell of those seals, bred in the salt water, oppressed us terribly.' (4.435-442)

Here, the daughter of Proteus (named Eidothea) is getting ready to play a trick on her dad. Notice how the women seem to be the one playing all the nasty tricks?

(Menelaos:) ‘Three times you walked around the hollow ambush, feeling it, and you called out, naming them by name, to the best of the Danaans, and made your voice sound like the voice of the wife of each of the Argives. Now I myself and the son of Tydeus and great Odysseus were sitting there in the middle of them and we heard you crying aloud, and Diomedes and I started up, both minded to go outside, or else to answer your voice from inside, but Odysseus pulled us back and held us, for all our eagerness.’ (4.277-284)

It’s interesting that Menelaos is able to laugh at this story; remember, it was all for the sake of getting Helen back that the Achaians went to war with the Trojans in the first place. But that’s not all that’s weird—notice how Helen tricks the Achaians (whom she somehow knows are in the horse) by pretending to sound like their wives. Menelaos himself is fooled; does that mean Helen was pretending to be… herself? Weird. Anyway, with master tricksters, it apparently takes one to know one—notice that it’s Odysseus who prevents the other Achaians from letting the cat out of the bag, so to speak.

So he [Noëmon] spoke, and they were amazed at heart; they had not thought he had gone to Pylos, the city of Neleus, but that he was somewhere near, on his lands, among the flocks, or else with the swineherd. (4.638-640)

Telemachos: 1 The suitors: 0

Now Helen, who was descended of Zeus, thought of the next thing. Into the wine of which they were drinking she cast a medicine of heartsease, free of gall, to make one forget all sorrows, and whoever had drunk it down once it had been mixed in the wine bowl, for the day that he drank it would have no tear roll down his face, not if his mother died and his father died, not if men murdered a brother or a beloved son in his presence. (4.219-225)

Okay, usually when you give people drugs of forgetfulness, you're starting down a really bad path. Here, though, it seems to be okay—because Helen's acting out of kindness. Still, we really want to warn you against this.

Penelope

(Penelope:) ‘Hear me, dear friends. The Olympian has given me sorrows beyond all others who were born and brought up together with me for first I lost a husband with the heart of a lion and who among the Danaans surpassed in all virtues, and great, whose fame goes wide through Hellas and midmost Argos; and now again the stormwinds have caught away my beloved son, without trace, from the halls, and I never heard when he left me. Hard-hearted, not one out of all of you then remembered to wake me out of my bed, though your minds knew all clearly, when he went out and away to board the hollow black ship. For if I had heard that he was considering this journey, then he would have had to stay, though hastening to his voyage, or he would have had to leave me dead in the halls.’ (4.722-735)

Penelope essentially says she would have let her son sail only over her dead body. She is angered not only by his absence, but by the deception that hid his departure from her. Moms will be moms.

Book 6
Athene

[Athene] drifted in like a breath of wind to where the girl slept, and came and stood above her head and spoke a word to her, likening herself to the daughter of Dymas, famed for seafaring, a girl of the same age, in whom her fancy delighted. (6.20-23)

One good reason for the gods to disguise themselves is that suddenly appearing in the middle of a human's bedroom could really freak that human out. Sure, Athene's probably not bad. But if Zeus appears in your bedroom? That is seriously bad news. Especially if you're a young, nubile woman. (And, let's face it: if Zeus is appearing in your bedroom, you're almost certainly a young, nubile woman.)

Book 7

Then Odysseus rose to go to the city. Athene with kind thought for Odysseus drifted a deep mist about him, for fear some one of the great-hearted Phaiakians, meeting him, might speak to him in a sneering way and ask where he came from. But when he was about to enter the lovely city, there the gray-eyed goddess Athene met him, in the likeness of a young girl, a little maid, carrying a pitcher […]. (7.14-20)

Oh, no, that man-shaped cloud of mist isn't suspicious at all. Totally normal.

Book 8
Odysseus

(Odysseus, to Demodokos): ‘Come to another part of the story, sing us the wooden horse, which Epeios made with Athene helping, the stratagem great Odysseus filled once with men and brought it to the upper city, and it was these men who sacked Ilion.’ (8.492-495)

Odysseus uses his "disguise" to relive old memories and emotions. Notice, too, that he wants Demodokos to hurry up and get to the part of the story involving trickery!

Pallas Athene went through the city, likening herself to the herald of wise Alkinoös, as she was devising the return of great-hearted Odysseus. (8.7-9)

Athene takes on the guise of Alkinoös’s herald. Her objective is not necessarily to trick the townspeople about anything but only to spread the news, which she could not possibly do in her true form without causing a stir.

Book 9
Polyphemos

(Polyphemos, in Odysseus' tale:) '"But tell me, so I may know: where did you put your well-made ship when you came? Nearby or far off?" 'So he spoke, trying me out, but I knew too much and was not deceived, but answered him in turn, and my words were crafty: "Poseidon, Shaker of the Earth, has shattered my vessel. He drove it against the rocks on the outer coast of your country, cracked on a cliff, it is gone, the wind on the sea took it […]." (9.279-285)

Polyphemos is trying to trick Odysseus, but the man of lies is one (or two, or three) steps ahead of him. You can't play a player, especially when that player is world-renowned for his game.

Odysseus

(Odysseus, in his tale:) ‘“Nobody is my name. My father and mother call me Nobody, as do all the others who are my companions.”’ (9.366-367)

Odysseus’s trick is the original "Who’s on First?"

(Odysseus:) "[…] but I was planning so that things would come out the best way, and trying to find some release from death, for my companions and myself too, combining all my resource and treacheries, as with life at stake, for the great evil was very close to us." (9.420-432)

Odysseus and his men are in a bad place in Polyphemos' cave, but he's still going to get them (or most of them) out of it, with the classic "hiding-under-the-ram's-belly" trick. Man, that's a good one.

Book 10
Odysseus

(Odysseus:) "So she spoke to them, and the rest gave voice, and called her and at once she opened the shining doors, and came out, and invited them in, and all in their innocence entered; only Eurylochos waited outside, for he suspected treachery. She brought them inside and seated them on chairs and benches, and mixed them a potion, with barley and cheese and pale honey added to Pramneian wine, but put into the mixture malignant drugs, to make them forgetful of their own country. When she had given them this and they had drunk it down, next thing she struck them with her wand and drove them into her pig pens, and they took on the look of pigs, with the heads and voices and bristles of pigs, but the minds within them stayed as they had been before.' (10.229-241)

Here, Odysseus is telling the Phaiakians about Circe's trick. We don't like to blame the victim, but we have to say: given the way that strange women usually behave in this tale, eating her food is kind of a boneheaded move.

Book 13
Athene

(Athene:) ‘But come now, let me make you so that no mortal can recognize you. For I will wither the handsome flesh that is on your flexible limbs, and ruin the brown hair on your head, and about you put on such a clout of cloth any man will loathe when he sees you wearing it; I will dim those eyes, that have been so handsome, so you will be unprepossessing to all the suitors and your wife and child, those whom you left behind in your palace.’ (13.396-403)

Odysseus’s disguise as a beggar is much like Athene’s former disguise as a mortal; by dressing below their stations, these two are able to test the integrity of those they deceive.

So speaking the goddess scattered the mist, and the land was visible. Long-suffering great Odysseus was gladdened then, rejoicing in the sight of his country, and kissed the grain-giving ground […]. (13.352-354)

Athene was actually hindering Odysseus’s ability to see clearly – by disguising him in the cloud of mist, she blocks his ability to perceive accurately.

Book 16
Telemachos

(Telemachos:) ‘Suddenly you have changed, my friend, from what you were formerly; your skin is no longer as it was, you have other clothing. Surely you are one of those gods who hold the high heaven. Be gracious, then: so we shall give you favored offerings and golden gifts that have been well wrought. Only be merciful.’ (16.181-185)

Interestingly, Telemachos finds it more believable that Odysseus is a god than that his father has finally returned home.

Book 17

Around him the haughty suitors clustered. They all were speaking him fair, but in the depth of their hearts were devising evils. (17.65-66)

Here's the difference between Odysseus' deception and the suitors': he devises ways to save himself; they devise ways to kill their host. Big difference.

Book 23
Odysseus

(Odysseus:) ‘So I will tell you the way of it, how it seems best to me. First, all go and wash, and put your tunics upon you, and tell the women in the palace to choose out their clothing. Then let the inspired singer take his clear-sounding lyre, and give us the lead for festive dance, so that anyone who is outside, some one of the neighbors, or a person going along the street, who hears us, will think we are having a wedding. Let no rumor go abroad in the town that the suitors have been murdered, until such time as we can make our way out to our estate with its many trees, and once there see what profitable plan the Olympian shows us.’ (23.130-140)

Odysseus wants to trick all the Ithakans into thinking all the noise of the slaughter was the racket from a wedding celebration. How ironic, considering that was the very thing they wanted to avoid earlier.