Self-Identification in The Odyssey
Homer’s Odyssey is a testament to how Homer believes people should conduct themselves in society. His characters are rewarded when they conduct themselves ideally and they are punished when they fail to abide by certain behavioral codes. One of the social gestures that Homer addresses is that of self-identification, the act of naming oneself. When Odysseus names himself to Polyphemus, he does so arrogantly, contemptuously, cruelly and without regard for the Gods. Poseidon, infuriated by Odysseus’ poor judgment, destroys his ship and kills his crew. However, when Odysseus names himself to King Alcinous, he does so with modesty, patience, kindness and divine respect. King Alcinous sympathizes with Odysseus and provides him with a new ship to sail home on. When Athena names herself to Odysseus, she does so boastfully and yet with impunity. Homer’s message is simple: there is a right way and a wrong for self-identification among mortals. When Odysseus names himself with respect to virtue—as is the case with King Alcinous—he is rewarded. When he ignores virtue—as with Polyphemus—he is punished. Athena, on the other hand, who violates this social code, can do so because she is a Goddess. Her case reveals that Gods are not subject to the same standards as mortals and therefore do not have to be modest.
Chronologically, the first example of self-identification in Odysseus’ journey takes place with Odysseus naming himself to Polyphemus, the giant Cyclops. By having already stabbed Polyphemus in his one eye and taken off on his ship, Odysseus has achieved his purpose of getting to safety. Still, he yells back to shore: “If any man on the face of the earth should ask you / who blinded you, shamed you so—say Odysseus, / raider of cities, he gouged out your eye” (9.559-561). In this incident, Odysseus names himself in order to taunt the Cyclops and shed light on his own triumph. This is the wrong way to name oneself according to Homer. Odysseus’ behavior is illogical because by revealing his name, he is actually taking the first step in helping his enemy seek revenge. Now that Polyphemus knows the name of his assailant, he is able to tell his father, who just so happens to be Poseidon, the God of the sea, to punish Odysseus; Poseidon complies. When Odysseus washes up on the Phaeacian shore, he is alone, his men are dead, and he has no ship. Later, when he is recounting his story to King Alcinous, he laments over his mistake: “So headstrong—why? Why rile the beast again?” (9.550)2E Here, Homer is showing that self-identification should not be done for boastful self-glorification. In this display of hubris, Odysseus pays no heed to modesty and suffers tragic consequences.
As if humbled by his tragic voyage, Odysseus displays the right form of self-identification when he washes up on the Phaeacian shore. The King, Alcinous, welcomes the depressed Odysseus into his home and implores him to tell his story. Although Odysseus’ greatest desire is to return to Ithaca and his family, where he has been away from for over ten years, he agrees to explain his situation. He begins,
“If I can escape the fatal day, will be your host / your sworn friend, though my home is far from here. / I am Odysseus, son of Laertes, known to the world / for every kind of craft—my fame has reached the skies” (9.19-22).
Although Odysseus connects his name to his world-renowned achievements, this is not a case of boastful self-glorification. What he is really saying is that despite all of the fame and humbled glory he has supposedly achieved, he is nevertheless miserable. This is the right form of identification because first of all, Odysseus is displaying the virtue of patience by delaying his immeasurable desire to return home. Secondly, he is demonstrating modesty by stating his reputation as a meaningless fact rather than a reason to be envied. Lastly, he is displaying kindness by swearing his loyalty and offering to return Alcinous’ hospitality, even though he is not sure if he will ever make it home. Homer shows that by identifying himself with respect to these virtues, he is rewarded. Once Odysseus completes his story, Alcinous is tremendously sympathetic and provides him with a Phaeacian ship so that he can sail home.
A third example of self-identification deals with the goddess Athena. Odysseus has reached Ithaca and comes across a shepherd who is really Athena in disguise. She reveals her identity as, “Pallas Athena, daughter of Zeus” (13.341). By providing the unnecessary fact that her father is Zeus, she is bragging. Then she tells Odysseus, “Thanks to me the Phaecians all embraced you warmly” (13.343), as if to pat herself on the back for her benevolence. Furthermore, she informs Odysseus that her meeting with him is to inform him of “the trials you must suffer in your palace,”(13.348) and then formulate a plan to deal with them. Now she is even taking credit for his future success. If Athena were mortal, her self-identification would be seen as arrogant and she would likely suffer for it in the end. However, as a Goddess, she is immune. Homer’s message here is two-fold: The gods are our protectors and cause everything to occur; and also the gods are absolutely superior to humans. This becomes a modification to what he considers the right form of self-identification: Give respect to virtue above all else2E..unless you are a god because then you are not subject to mortal social codes. Since Athena’s self-identification clearly violates the virtue of modesty, it shows that Gods do not have to be modest. This example elevates the virtue of divine respect as it shows that Gods dictate mortal activity. Perhaps this example indicates how Homeric society lived in fear of the gods.
As the Odyssey is supposed to be instructive as it contains insight into how society should perform, Athena’s boastful statement is problematic to Homer’s message on the act of naming oneself. By using her name to give credit to herself for everything that happens to Odysseus, she invites the question then, why does Odysseus identify himself the right way in one incident but the wrong way in another? Homer’s message—that self-identification should be done with respect to virtue above all else—is strengthened by examples. He shows the rewards that come from being virtuous with the example of Odysseus being provided with a Phaeacian ship. He shows the punishment that comes from not being virtuous with the example of Poseidon making Odysseus’ voyage miserable after boastfully glorifying his name to Polyphemus. It seems apparent that Homer was trying to stress above all else the power and superiority of the gods. However, by portraying Athena as omnipotent and in control of everything he has given her perhaps too much power. If she and the other gods can be accredited with everything that occurs, the Odyssey seems to discourage the will for mortal achievement.
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