Odysseus’s Concept of Cunning

One distinct characteristic of the epic The Odyssey is that it is a showcase of sharp intellectual skills of the main hero Odysseus, rather than a showcase of strength and power that is apparent in The Iliad (through Achilles character).  The Odyssey is written in high style, full of landscape grandeur and an incredible journey– it is about Odysseus’ wanderings and adventures into foreign places and lands and meeting fantastic characters like one-eyed monsters, tempting sirens and uncivilized giants.  Odysseus undeniably has the necessary strength to go through with these adventures but most of the time it is through his cunning and strategy that leaves him unscathed.

In The Iliad, Odysseus is famous for his brilliant concept of the Trojan horse – a disguise gift to attack the Trojans, which gave them victory.  But in Inferno this in turn gave the poet Dante to place Odysseus in the 8th circle of Hell because of this treachery.  The kind of cunning that Odysseus possesses is always associated with disguise and dishonesty which gives a negative implication on his character no matter how amazing or heroic he is.

In relation to this I find Odysseus’ character harsh sometimes.  Everytime they went from city to city he and his men always raid the lands for food (“I stormed that place and killed the men who fought / Plunder we took, and we enslaved the women /”, Book IX) or by the time when his secret was revealed by his old nurse Eurycleia, in which Odysseus threatened to kill her if she won’t keep it to herself (“Be quiet; keep it from the others, else / I warn you, and I mean it too / if by my hand god brings the suitors down / I kill you, nurse or not, when the time comes – when the time comes to kill the other women / .” Book XIX).  The latter really shocked me – it is too un-heroic that Odysseus has the drive to threaten his already-old nurse as if without respect.   But in the end it’s as if the epic always calls for a need of trickery to prevail in order for Odysseus to present to the readers his cunning.  Other example of this contention would include his disguise as a beggar when he arrives at his own palace in Ithaca and when the right chance of time comes, Odysseus brutally kills all the suitors and the unfaithful women servants.

But what really moved me in the epic is the unforgettable chapter of Odysseus meeting the Cyclops Polyphemus.  There Odysseus presents his amazing tactics and cunning when he tricks the Cyclops Polyphemus in a clever and humorous way.  But after this lighthearted scene where Polyphemus shouts “Nobody is killing me!” I felt a jolt of sympathy to Polyphemus afterwards because he is just this tragic character who is ignorant of Odysseus’ cunning (and trickery).   And Odysseus seems like he is too full of himself that time (“And I was filled with laughter / to see how like a charm the name deceived them. /).  Even though Polyphemus is brutally violent (as he devours two of Odysseus’ men on the spot), I find him tenderhearted when it comes to animals – “the master stroke each ram, then let it pass…” “Sweet cousin ram, why lag behind the rest / … / Why, now so far behind? Can you be grieving / over your Master’s eye?”

Moreover, Odysseus taunts the giant as if he is such an arrogant brat.  Although Odysseus only wants to revenge the death of his friends, I still don’t know why I find Polyphemus sympathetic.  He lives there alone in his place, contented and peaceful with a company of rams, and here comes Odysseus in the picture who disturbs him (and probably unleashed his brutishness) and blinded him all of a sudden, poke fun on the stupid Cyclops because he has the necessary tricks and tactics to do so.  Because Odysseus is too preoccupied to achieve his own glory or kleos (he tells Polyphemus his real name so that the Cyclops will never forget) – I feel a certain kind of redemption that is due to Polyphemus when he prays to his father Poseidon because I know his father will do the vengeance for him.

Michael Silk’s New Things about the Iliad


Reading Michael Silk’s interpretation and critical analysis about Homer’s epic Iliad, I find that some points he actually emphasizes deserve to be given a considerable time to ponder on.  He starts his discussion about the epic by giving us the feel of the milieu of the ancient times, from which he first raises a significant observation that Homer is not made of a singular entity, but Homer is presented as a ‘multiple author’ with ‘different voices’.  One of the characteristics of an epic includes the fact that it came from oral tradition, and so Silk emphasizes in his analysis that because of this the oral transmission must have changed overtime, and when it was finally written down there might have been some changes. The oral-improvisory technique is possible for these alterations.

Another relevant remark that Silk lays out is the fact that Iliad is not a tight, organic structure in Aristotelian terms, or organically whole like Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex.  The actions do not follow a causal logic, but the epic is organized into a circular structure referred as ‘ringform’ – “it begins with a ransom and argument and ends with a comparable sequence in reverse” (the A-B-A shape).  It’s a full circle, sort of.  Also, there are sections in the narrative where there’s a tendency towards autonomy, that defiled the Aristotelian concept of ‘organic whole.’

The epic poem also embraces the structural technique which the critic calls as ‘illusionist’, where readers are given a kind of illusion of the length of time.  With regards to style, the poem employs extended simile, but the use of metaphor, according to Silk, is largely absent in the Iliad.

In terms of themes and heroic ideology, the character Achilles is presented as the embodiment of the ‘poet’s theme’, the warrior who fights for glory.  In a section that discusses about the character Achilles, Silk highlights that Achilles is the only character that can be considered as a ‘round’ character (with depth) in a modern sense.  Other characters are only defined through stock epithets and were differentiated in their own capabilities, but generally not considered as ‘men with multiplicity of traits and interest’, and therefore considered as static.  These characters show no capacity for development and are not affected by any subsequent experience. They are contrasted with the character of Achilles, which becomes the focus of interest in the poem mainly because even though there have been times when divine interventions affect him, there are also times when he had the chance to reveal himself – his true qualities without the external pressures (like war and divine intervention).

Silk observes that for all the battle scenes, heroic deaths and defeat, the epic poem’s emotional flavors are restrained due to the author’s style.  Homer wrote objectively, and so in terms of emotions, the readers may feel distant.  Homer’s characters does not expressed their feelings explicitly but conveys them either through the observations of other people or through detailed descriptions in things.  The latter can be associated with Eliot’s objective-correlative technique, which is a modern day concept.

Lastly, the critic states that the epic is primarily celebratory, not exploratory.  It presents to us the experience of certain types of people, and lacks the in-depth emotional exploration (with exception to Achilles) of some characters.  Silk likens reading the Iliad as watching sports, him (and the readers) as an spectator.

To further explore more about the Iliad, read Michael Silk, on The Iliad.