Odysseus/Ulysses – How Much Truth Does He Tell?
Odysseus/Ulysses is the titular character of Homer’s Odyssey and well-known figure from ancient myths. On some occasions, he is even connected to the founding Rome.
The Odyssey, alongside the Iliad, was hugely popular in the Greco-Roman world. Everyone knew them and they provided role models for multiple generations of readers. The Iliad was the favourite book of Alexander the Great. Oddysey became the first known from Greek to Latin translation of a literary text (by Livius Andronicus in the 3rd century BCE). The work is also popular in modern times with multiple adaptations and retellings of the story.
The story of the Odyssey is so well known that almost everyone can recognize several elements from it – the wooden horse, the 10 year long voyage home after 10 years of war, the blinding of the Cyclops, the Sirens, the witch Circe, the difficult maneuvering between Scylla and Charybdis, the fateful wife Penelope or shooting arrows through axes and the subsequent bloody massacre of the suitors.
Yet there are some common misconceptions about what the Odyssey is really about, and to what extent can we really trust the narrator. The fact is that many of the stories (and mostly the best-known ones) are only described by the character of Odysseus and not the trusted distanced 3rd person narrator of the poem. Moreover, on many occasions, we can see that Odysseus is a frequent and skillful liar.
Why are there doubts?
First of all, Homer does not start the story of the Oddysey in Troy. The poem is not structured strictly chronologically. The beginning of the poem focuses on the events happening 9 years after Troy’s fall and continues thereafter, up until the moment of peace between Odysseus and his company and the mob trying to revenge the massacred suitors.
Several important parts of the story are only mentioned in flashbacks described by one of the characters acting as a witness. Odysseus himself is the most notable in this role as he tells much about his voyage first to the Phaeacians and then to others.
While it is obviously pointless to argue about the historicity of the events described in the poem, as it is clearly a work of fiction, we should be interested to evaluate the “truth” in the limits of the story itself. In other words, of course, the world of Odyssey is fictional, but within that world, did the described events happened or do the narrators lie about them?
What if Odysseus didn’t go through all the adventures he claimed to survive? What if he just deceives his audience in the story (and the modern reader as well)?
Modern scholars have debated this issue and presented arguments that I will mention below, but apparently, the opinion was also divided in antiquity. Lucian of Samosata (2nd century CE), the author a nice little ancient sci-fi story called “A True Story”, lists Odysseus among the most famous liars:
“…Homer's Odysseus, who tells Alcinous and his court about winds in bondage, one-eyed men, cannibals and savages; also about animals with many heads, and transformations of his comrades wrought with drugs. This stuff, and much more like it, is what our friend humbugged the illiterate Phaeacians with!”
Is Odysseus trustworthy as a narrator?
The answer to this question must be a resounding “NO!”. Odysseus is a chronic liar. Homer repeatedly calls him resourceful, but in fact, there are many occasions where he just presents a most fabricated lie and gets everyone to believe him. In some of the cases, the lie could be justified. He successfully tricked the blinded cyclops by introducing himself as “Nobody”; after his return to Ithaca, he lied to the friendly swineherd because he didn’t want his true identity to be revealed. On other cases, however, he just seems to enjoy the lie – e.g. when he introduced himself to his own father as Eperitus, son of Apheidas (when they first met after 20 years of not seeing each other!).
Why would he lie? Well, apart from the sheer joy from lying, he might have an urge to make his suffering on the voyage seem a bit more painful. In the “official story” (the one with the assumption that everything he tells is that is not a confirmed lie must be true) he travels for 10 years. But out of those 10 years, he spends 8 as a sex slave of supernaturally beautiful divine women (1 year with Circe and 7 with Calypso). All this with his wife patiently waiting at home, rejecting any advances from her suitors. This puts his adventure to a slightly unfavourable light and we would definitely understand an inclination towards a little fabrication to make things look better.
How much of the story is at stake?
In many cases, we know whether Odysseus is telling the truth or not because the 3rd person narrator provides that information. There is however one huge part of the story where we only get the information from the narration of Odysseus. It is covered in books 9-12 of the poem (the so-called Apologue) when Odysseus tells the Phaeacians about his adventures between the sack of Troy and his arrival to their island. The main points of his tale are:
- Raid on the Cicones
- Land of the Lotus Eaters
- Cyclops blinding
- The Bag of winds
- Laestrygonians - the cannibals
- Circe's island
- The underworld
- Scylla and Charybdis
- The cattle of Helios
- Calypso's island
It is an interesting selection because some of those stories are the most popular in our days.
How can we separate the truth and the lie?
Well, strictly speaking, we cannot. We can look at the possible motives and see that in this case, Odysseus doesn’t really have any good reason to lie. The king of the Phaeacians has already displayed his willingness to send him home (even before knowing his true identity). But the weakness of his possible motives may not be enough to prove his truthfulness.
Fortunately, we have one powerful tool – the existence of other narrators or other witnesses. If the 3rd person narrator tells us that something happened, we can be pretty sure it is true (in terms of the poem). If some of the events are confirmed by other, more trustworthy characters, I would consider them true as well.
If we now look at the list of Odysseus’ stories, for some of them we are able to find another confirmation in the poem:
- Calypso is mentioned in the introduction in Book 1 and also several times later by the narrator or the gods.
- The unfortunate eating of the cattle of Helios by Odysseus’ crew in the very beginning of the poem
- The blinded Cyclops is mentioned in the 1st book of the poem by Zeus himself. The cyclops is mentioned again by the narrator in Book 2 and so on.
- In book 8 we can find a reference to a knot tied by Odysseus “that Lady Circe had taught him”
- Odysseus’ visit in the underworld is not clearly confirmed, but it is obvious that he learned about the death of his mother and of Agamemnon.
To sum things up, it seems that more or less half of Odysseus’ story can be confirmed independently by the narrator. This, alongside with the lack of motive to lie in this particular situation makes me convinced that Odysseus did in fact not lie to the Phaeacians and his story (or a large part of it) truthfully described his adventures.
Homer – Odyssey
Lucian – A True Story
Hugh Parry - The Apologos of Odysseus: Lies, All Lies?; Phoenix Vol. 48, No. 1 (Spring, 1994)
Scott Richardson - Truth in the Tales of the "Odyssey"; Mnemosyne, Fourth Series, Vol. 49, Fasc. 4 (Sep., 1996)
Lubomir Doležel - Truth and Authenticity in Narrative; Poetics Today 1:3