Term Paper: Moral Perfidy in the Odyssey

Pages: 10 (3432 words)  ·  Bibliography Sources: 1+  ·  Level: College Senior  ·  Topic: Family and Marriage  ·  Buy This Paper

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[. . .] There would seem to be a third category, that of Odysseus. Odysseus, once he has at long last made his way home to his family, still feels the need to lie. The restraint he shows upon seeing his dear wife and faithful servant for the first time in twenty years is truly remarkable. How can he prevent himself from running into their arms, declaring his continued existence? It is difficult to understand, but Odysseus is a complex hero.

When Odysseus returns to Ithaca, he is disguised as an old man, a beggar of sorts. Odysseus encounters his best manservant, Eumaeus, as he is tending Odysseus' pigs. Eumaeus does not recognize Odysseus in his disguise, and Odysseus does not correct Eumaeus' error. From Eumaeus, Odysseus learns that Eumaeus has "lost the best of masters, and am in continual grief on his [Odysseus'] account" because Eumaeus has to "attend swine for other people to eat, while he [Odysseus], if he yet lives to see the light of day, is starving in some distant land" (14.7-8). Eumaeus treats Odysseus, even though he is dressed as an old beggar, as an honored guest, once again upholding the honored Greek virtue of hospitality to strangers, which pleases Odysseus in a proprietary sort of way. Odysseus sees that his swineherd is still very faithful to him, misses his presence, and despises the way in which Odysseus' fortune is being squandered. Eumaeus, ever pious and appropriate, feeds Odysseus well (with his own property), and tells him the story of Penelope's suitors and the manner in which Odysseus' home and family are being abused. Eumaeus is particularly angry that the suitors are wasteful and continually demand that the best of the pigs and other foods and wines be sent to them for their consumption, while Penelope has no power to stop them. As Odysseus eats and drinks what Eumaeus gives him, he is silent, "brooding his revenge" (14.51). Odysseus does not tell Eumaeus the truth. In fact, he tells Eumaeus a series of outright lies. Although Odysseus knows to whom Eumaeus is referring, he pretends to know Odysseus not. Instead, he pries more information out of Eumaeus, including that fact that Eumaeus himself seems to think that Odysseus is dead. To this, Odysseus, in the guise of the beggar, tells Eumaeus that he "will not merely say, but will swear, that he [Odysseus] is coming" (14.72), but still Odysseus does not reveal the truth. Eumaeus is in obvious distress over the loss of his master, but Odysseus does not bother to ease Eumaeus' suffering, although he could have. Why does Odysseus behave with such cruelty?

Eumaeus reveals more about the situation in Ithaca, including the fact that the suitors are lying in wait for Telemachus to return, so they can murder him and take possession of Penelope and Odysseus' property. After this last revelation, Eumaeus presses the beggar/Odysseus to share his own story, and Odysseus proceeds to spin a large collection of nonsense about his personal history, including the fact that he is "by birth a Cretan," "the son of a slave [whom he had] purchased for a concubine," son to "Castor son of Hylax," and the possessor of the smallest inheritance of all of his brothers (14.97-99). Odysseus also presents himself as a bit of a mercenary (which is a bit closer to the truth). The exchange is humorous. Odysseus, who is notoriously wily and clever, claims to be a simple warrior fallen upon hard times. Outrageously, he claims to have fought with Odysseus at one point. It should also be noted that Odysseus seems to enjoy telling his fabricated autobiography to Eumaeus, and he embellishes it with many details designed to give the tale veracity with the old man. It is quite an adventure story, filled with the nobility of an honorable king who protects him from those who wish to kill him. The "Egyptians" with whom the "beggar" supposed stayed for many years make the beggar wealthy, but alas, the beggar is bamboozled by a Phoenician, who takes advantage of the beggar for all he is worth. There is also a shipwreck, many dangers, and kind people along the way. Fortunes are won, and fortunes are lost, all by this miraculous beggar. All said, the tale Odysseus tells Eumaeus is an utter lie, but it echoes the truth of the variety of what Odysseus has himself been through while trying to come home again. There may be enough evidence in the text to suggest that Odysseus is amused by his own cleverness in devising this tall tale and in skirting, but never touching, upon the truth. Odysseus even compliments himself, calling Eumaeus' master " a good man" (14.185). Eumaeus, being a swineherd, finds the beggar's/Odysseus' story to be quite interesting, but he contests what the beggar claims about Odysseus' return to Ithaca. Eumaeus says that "the gods one and all of them detest him [Odysseus], or they would have taken him before Troy, or let him die with friends around him when the days of his fighting were done" (14.189-190). Still, Odysseus does not speak the truth or attempt to ease Eumaeus' suffering, although he does consistently reassure Eumaeus that Odysseus will return and have his revenge one day.

Throughout The Odyssey, Odysseus is characterized as wily, intelligent, and endlessly creative. Odysseus is the MacGyver of the ancient world. A strong argument can be made that Odysseus' lies, although they are to his faithful servant, are self-protective. Odysseus needs to have reliable information about the current state of his home, his wife, and his people. Eumaeus proves, although ignorantly, that he is a faithful and pious servant, making the proper sacrifices to the gods and upholding the Greek value of hospitality to strangers. It would have gone against character for Odysseus to reveal himself blindly to Eumaeus. Odysseus needed to ascertain for himself whether the old man could be trusted.

That said, in this episode, Odysseus does seem to be enjoying himself at the expense of Eumaeus. He enjoys his own cleverness in telling the tale, weaving in elements of the real and the unreal, even claiming to have met himself and granting himself praise. These actions portray Odysseus and more than a little arrogant and insensitive to the feelings of others. It is this sort of arrogance that may have caused Odysseus' difficulties in the first place. The gods do not appreciate hubris, which is Odysseus' greatest flaw.

The lies Odysseus tells Eumaeus may have been necessary, and it may have been wise to perpetrate them, but what of the lies Odysseus tells Penelope? As The Odyssey ends, Odysseus seems to be both at his sharpest and his most cruel. As Odysseus and Telemachus prepare to route the suitors, he must deal with Penelope, a woman who has been faithful and true (when he himself has not been). Does Odysseus feel that Penelope has earned his trust and the right to know the truth? Does he immediately end her suffering? Hardly. Odysseus even seems to complain to Telemachus that his mother will "ask me all sorts of questions" (19.22). When the suitors and a disrespectful maid attempt to eject Odysseus, in his guise as a beggar, from the home, Penelope intercedes on his behalf and begins to ask him questions about her "missing" husband. Odysseus, in the presence of the suitors, does not reveal himself. Instead, Odysseus begins to perform the same sort of act he had given Eumaeus, although he refuses to elaborate on some fictitious heritage for himself. Odysseus asks Penelope to refrain from making him tell his story, as it will cause the old beggar to be sad. However, Odysseus does prompt Penelope into telling her own sad story, perhaps to better determine whether Penelope is as righteous as she appears. Penelope recounts the loss of Odysseus and her many struggles to wait for him as the suitors harass her toward marriage. She even tells the beggar/Odysseus about the funeral shroud and her own lies. Even after hearing this tragic story from Penelope, Odysseus cannot resist telling a wild story about his "travels." The tender Penelope cries as she listens to the beggar's story, "for her heart was melted" (19.122-123). Penelope's tears make Odysseus seem despicable, as he seems to be adding to her already very substantial grief. Odysseus, seeing Penelope cry, "felt for her and was for her, but he kept his eyes as hard as or iron without letting them so much as quiver, so cunningly did he restrain his tears" (19.126-127). Odysseus then gives Penelope verbal proof of his knowledge of Odysseus, which Penelope is grateful to hear. In his arrogance, Odysseus mentions that Odysseus was thought of by others "like a god" (19.160). He also reveals to Penelope some of the true… [END OF PREVIEW]

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Moral Perfidy in the Odyssey.  (2004, April 20).  Retrieved March 26, 2019, from https://www.essaytown.com/subjects/paper/moral-perfidy-odyssey/7041258

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"Moral Perfidy in the Odyssey."  Essaytown.com.  April 20, 2004.  Accessed March 26, 2019.
https://www.essaytown.com/subjects/paper/moral-perfidy-odyssey/7041258.