In Homer’s Odyssee, both Odysseus and Athena are shown to be not only cunning but also witty in their characters. They are shown to lie in many instances and for different reasons. They outdo themselves with their lies, and this is illustrated in the discussion.
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In the first book, Athena disguises herself as Odysseus’ old friend, Mentes, and seeks out Telemachus, Odysseus’ son. This is in a bid to convince him that his father is still alive. She also advises him that he should banish the suitors from his father’s estate. This is the first of many lies to come. In that instance, Athena lies so that she can rebuild hope in Telemachus, who has resolved that his father is not coming back as he believes that he is dead. She also convinces him to set out for Pylos and Sparta to seek information about his father. In this instance also, Athena lies because she is fond of Odysseus, and she wants to safeguard his estates from the suitors (Ameis, Hentze, and Cauer 99-105).
Secondly, she visits Telemachus disguised as Mentor and predicts that his quest would be fruitful. He also encourages him to take heart, ‘Telemachus, 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.’ (Ameis, Hentze, and Cauer, 267-272). Athena subsequently disguises herself as Telemachus and scouts the streets to recruit sailors who are to set out with Telemachus. Athena uses dishonesty to speak the truth and to guide Telemachus.
In both these instances, Athena lies with disguises, but she does this in the belief that it is for the greater good.
Odysseus, on the other hand, is shown to be more cunning than Athena in his deceptions. When he encounters Polyphemos, he lies about his identity and what happened to his vessel. He tells him that his name is Nobody. ‘Nobody is my name. My father and mother call me Nobody, as do all the others who are my companions’ (Ameis, Hentze, and Cauer 366-367).
This turns out to be valuable when he blinds Polyphemos with a hot stick because Polyphemos shouts that Nobody is attacking him, therefore, his servants do not rush in to help him. Odysseus also tells him that his ship was wrecked by Poseidon, Polyphemos’ father, who is the god of the sea. ‘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’ (Ameis, Hentze, and Cauer 279-285). By doing so, he protects his ship as Polyphemos would otherwise destroy it. In a nutshell, he does it for the sake of survival. This is an explicit example of how sly Odysseus can be.
When Athena meets with Odysseus after his ship has turned to stone and sank to the bottom of the sea, she disguises herself from him; he then does the same until she reveals who she really is to Odysseus. Athena is disguised as a shepherd, and she directs him to hide in Eumaeus’ hut, in the same stride, she informs him that his son went out to look for him. She is disguised as a mortal, and when she asks him who he is, he lies to her. He even deceives her about his origin. She then reveals who she is and praises him for his treachery.
Odysseus heeds to Athena’s advice and heads for Eumaeus’ home disguised as an old vagabond. He claims that he is from Crete and that he fought alongside Odysseus, he even assures Eumaeus that he may see his former master. Eumaeus does not believe him because he thinks that his master is dead. Odysseus then tricks Eumaeus to sleep with the pigs while he takes his place in the cot. Athena finds Telemachus to inform him that his father is back, and she directs him to Eumaeus’ house, where he finds the vagabond.
Odysseus does not reveal himself to his son, he only does that after Eumaeus leaves to inform Penelope of the return of his son. This further shows deception on the part of Odysseus. Athena is also shown to be crafty in this instance because she prepares a meeting between father and son outside the palace. This is due to the fact that if they met in the estates, they would be regarded as suspicious since beggars do not convene with princes. They then plan how to enter the estates without arousing suspicion.
In another subsequent incident, Odysseus shows up in his estates dressed as a beggar. Athena is the one who provides him with this disguise. ‘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’ (Ameis, Hentze, and Cauer 396-403).
He is scorned and shunned by the people of the estates; nevertheless, he does not declare who he is. One of the suitors even kicks him, the others show reluctance in sharing their food with him. When he meets his wife, Penelope, he still does not reveal who he is, but he assures her that her husband would be back in approximately one month. He bids his time, waiting for the best time to pounce.
Only when he is bathing does she notice a scar on his foot, which she recognizes. However, Athena then distracts her. Penelope decides to remarry the man who would shoot an arrow through twelve holes set in an axis. She is aware that only her husband can do that. In this case, she matches her husband’s craftiness because she aims to draw him out with the challenge, and she succeeds.
In all the instances that Athena speaks to Odysseus, she is subtle, she shows fondness. This is contrary to the harshness with which she speaks with Telemachus when she convinces him that he needs to take up the responsibility of running the household. In no instance does she speak to Odysseus without revealing who she is. This shows that she is loyal to Odysseus and that she has a soft spot for him.
In the book, deception is a salient feature. Athena uses it so that she can secure the palace on behalf of Odysseus in preparation for his return. On the other hand, Odysseus uses it mainly for security. He does not want to reveal his true identity because he has many enemies.
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Ameis, Karl Friedrich, Karl Hentze, and Paul Cauer. Homers Odyssee. Amsterdam: A.M. Hakkert, 1964.