Written by Justin D. Lyons, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom

The most well-known episodes in Homers Odyssey are the adventures described in Books 9-12. Full of one-eyed giants, amorous goddesses and narrow escapes, they are considered the most memorable and thus most likely to be included in collections of excerpts. They have received so much attention that it is often forgotten that they make up only a small part of the epic—an epic that is far more concerned with the homecoming of Odysseus than with his wanderings.

These stories are told in the first person by Odysseus himself. Given what we know of his character from both the Iliad and the Odyssey, Odysseus does not hesitate to deceive when circumstances allow. Thus, we should carefully consider the veracity of his tales. After all, Homer calls Odysseus a man of twists and turns,” and we expect him to live up to the description.

Odysseus’ reputation thus begs the question: Is it possible that the tales are not meant to be taken as relating real” events? In other words, could it be that Odysseus did not actually have these adventures, or at least did not have them as he relates them?

Ulysses and the Sirens, by J. W. Waterhouse, 1891

The stories Odysseus tells have a fairy-tale, magical quality about them that is different from the rest of the Odyssey. The unreal, dream-like world of monsters and enchantresses is distinct from the more realistic, historical world of Ithaca and the Greek mainland. Further, Odysseusstories interrupt the forward-moving time scheme of the poem; they have the character of flashbacks, contributing to the feeling of unreality.”

It should be noted that Odysseus is speaking to an audience, the Phaeacians, from whom he is in desperate need of aid. Certainly, Odysseus is not above using his stories to sway them according to his desire.

Odysseus before Alcinous King of the Phaeacians, by August Malmstrom

Indeed, Odysseus may have been catering to King Alcinous, who expressly asks to hear of his guest’s exciting travels:
But come, my friend, tell us your own story now, and tell it truly. Where have your rovings forced you? What lands of men have you seen, what sturdy towns, what men themselves? Who were wild, savage, lawless? Who were friendly to strangers, god-fearing men? Tell me, why do you weep and grieve so sorely when you hear the fate of the Argives, hear the fall of Troy? That is the god’s work, spinning threads of death through the lives of mortal men, and all to make a song for those to come… (Odyssey, VIII.640-650)
Odysseus’ tales conveniently sound these same themes: the savage, the hospitable, the pious, the lawless, and death. Odysseus is on next after the great bard, Demodocus, has regaled the assembly with his songs, one of which was suggested by Odysseus himself and glorified his exploits at Troy.
Odysseus has a big act to follow and, as he is about to announce his identity as the Odysseus about whom the Phaeacians have just heard so much, it would obviously not do to disappoint. Homer here refer to Odysseus as “the great teller of tales.”
Both the reader and the Phaeacians are expecting something big, and Odysseus delivers. The Phaeacians respond well to the stories, hanging on Odysseus’ every word and showering him with even more gifts. Would not someone of Odysseus’ resourcefulness be expected to knowhow they would respond and be able to tailor his adventures to the tastes of his audience?
The Phaeacians appear to be a relatively innocent people. They are no match for devious Odysseus. King Alcinous goes so far as to praise Odysseus for his honesty:
‘Ah Odysseus,’ Alcinous replied, ‘one look at you and we know that you are no one who would cheat us—no fraud, such as the dark soil breeds and spreads across the face of the earth these days. Crowds of vagabonds frame their lies so tightly that none can test them. But you, what grace you give your words, and what good sense within!’ (Odyssey,XI. 410-415)
The King’s words must come off as ironic to any reader or listener aware that wiliness is the epitome of the Odyssean character. Homer, being well-acquainted with the Odyssean character, already knows what we will think about Alcinous’ remark.
Later in the poem, when Odysseus reached Ithaca, it is amply demonstrated that he is a consummate liar. Upon arriving, he spins a series of bold-faced deceptions, commonly referred to as the “Cretan lies.”
At first, he tries to deceive a shepherd boy, who turns out to be Athena in disguise.

Athena, attributed to Rembrandt, 17th century

She, of course, sees through him:
“Any man—any god who met you–would have to be some champion lying cheat to get past you for all-round craft and guile! You terrible man, foxy, ingenious, never tired of twists and tricks—so not even here, on native soil, would you give up those wily tales that warm the cockles of your heart!”
What better candidate could there be for these “wily tales” than the stories Odysseus so recently told to the Phaeacians?
Homer has left us many textual clues which suggest that the stories Odysseus tells the Phaeacians are not meant to be taken as having “really” happened. Such a view of these stories should encourage us always to be careful readers. We may encounter unexpected “twists and turns” that reveal more and deeper levels of art and meaning, inspiring us to read old books with fresh eyes.