Disguises of Ambush vs. Disguises of Survival

In the Odyssey, it has been made clear that disguises and deception are important components of the Greeks’ way of living. Deception was used at Troy with the Trojan horse, allowing Odysseus and the Greeks to prevail. It is used by the gods and other divine characters, such as Athena who uses disguises to help Odysseus and his family. Even Penelope used deception to keep the suitors at bay by spinning her loom during the day and unraveling it at night. Most importantly, clever Odysseus is constantly coming up with disguises in order to protect himself and to overcome the obstacles he faces.

Thus far, most of these disguises could only be seen through once the character in disguise shed tears or showed powerful emotions. For example, Odysseus reveals his true self to Alkinoos and the Phaikians by crying during the minstrel’s song about Troy. The only big exception to this rule is when Odysseus called out to the Kyklops and told him his true identity only with words. However, this method of revealing disguise only brought trouble to himself and his crewmates. Even this exception, one could argue, is not so different since Odysseus’ joy and sense of pride overcame his senses, causing him to make this mistake.

Throughout Books XIX to XXI, Odysseus behaves in an uncharacteristic manner in the way he reveals his true identity to Telemakhos, Eurykleia (the old, loyal nurse), and the swineherd and cowherd. Unlike in the previous books, Odysseus is willing to reveal himself to certain characters, even if the revelation happens by mistake.

First off, he willingly revealed himself to his son; this reunion was followed by tears so it still contained the emotional aspect of the previous revelations. From that point on, Odysseus’ methods are completely different from his normal calculating actions. The first uncharacteristic aspect is when Eurykleia sees Odysseus’ scar and instantly recognizes him. The passage, “The scar: he had forgotten that. She [Eurykleia] must not handle his scarred thigh, or the game was up. But when she bared her lord’s leg, bending near, she knew the groove at once” (XIX, 456-459), clearly shows that the great tactician Odysseus did not think of all of his choices, nor weigh them as he normally had before. He normally would not have forgotten about such a trivial thing that could give himself away. This trivial mistake is exactly what he needed though. Once being discovered by a loyal servant and seeing that she wouldn’t give him away, Odysseus suddenly took greater control of how his disguise would be shed.

He continued to slowly shed his disguise by showing his power and ability to the suitors by overcoming the challenge Penelope had set forth. As if that weren’t risky enough, Odysseus proceeded to reveal himself to his cowherd and swineherd by showing them his scar. Considering that the last time he so blatantly revealed himself, Kyklops and Poseidon almost killed him, why is it that Odysseus suddenly feels powerful enough to reveal himself so willingly? Why is it that he isn’t behaving like he did with the Phaikians, to whom he only revealed himself through tears? That slow method of revelation had proved to be successful before, so why not utilize it again?

I, myself, am not sure why Odysseus suddenly feels the urge or power to willingly drop his act. The only theory I can propose is that Odysseus feels powerful enough to do this since he is at his home, the one place in the world where he is a true master. Being at home with the gods on his side, he finally feels control of his fate after years and years of having his fate played with by the gods. At home, I believe that his disguise serves as a weapon of ambush; away from home, his disguises helped him avoid others’ traps. Depending on the situation, we can see that disguises were used for multiple purposes. Overall, what is the significance of the different reasons in which disguises were used and shed in the Odyssey?   Are the disguises only significant in showing the audience when Odysseus is in control of his fate, or do they hold a deeper meaning about homecoming and power in general?

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8 Responses to Disguises of Ambush vs. Disguises of Survival

  1. Kevin Fox says:

    I personally found the scene with Eurykleia to be quite moving. As far as I can remember, this would be the first time that Odysseus’s cover was blown by accident. Yet, lines 403-408 add a different dimension to this:

    “No: and I have no longing for a footbath
    either: none of these maids will touch my feet,
    unless there is an old one, old and wise,
    one who has lived through suffering as I have:
    I would not mind letting my feet be touched
    by that old servant”

    Odysseus is definitely pining for Eurykleia to wash his feet. I can’t imagine Odysseus purposely wanting to reveal himself to her, and I doubt that was his intention. I bet he just wanted to experience some of the old comforts of home again. Thus, we have one of the first major instances of something other than tears breaking a disguise. Maybe this means that the comforts of home are as emotionally powerful as tears. Odysseus has been gone for 20 years, and his desire to get a footbath from a maid he knows can do one quite well, rather than from some young girl who never knew him, got the best of his rationality. I think everyone can agree that the Odyssey is about homecoming, and it must be significant that the comforts of home can break the disguise of our favorite tactician.

  2. Lindsey says:

    Although it might be somewhat of a stretch, I could think of another level of interpretation for Odysseus’ request in lines 403-408. I definitely agree with Kevin that Odysseus wanted some of the comforts of home, especially since he was so familiar with Eurykleia. Perhaps, subconsciously, Odysseus feels safe enough to reveal himself to his maid because she would never give him away- without even realizing what he was about to do. Again, it’s a bit of a stretch, but it’s something to think about.

  3. Clare Welch says:

    I agree with Ivana, Kevin and Lindsey in that Odysseus wanted to share in the comforts of his home in some small way. I mean, after twenty years away form home and not being able to enjoy any part of it would destroy any man. I think that he was so caught up in seeing his long sought after wife and protecting his disguise from her that he forgot about the servants. This would be considered normal, though, because as we have discussed before in class, servants in Odysseus’ time were much more akin to slaves. They had distinct roles and the fact that Odysseus overlooked the slaves would not be the first time in history that a master underestimated his staff.
    However, I also think that he may still have been setting his plan to upstage teh suitors in motion. For one, revealing himself to Eurykleia allowed him to find out the loyal maids and other loyal household staff. The same can be said of the cowherd and the swineherd. Odysseus knows that the swineherd can be trusted- he tested Eumaios’ loyalty countless times in the hut- and the fact that the cowherd comes over to Odysseus while he was dressed as a beggar tells him of how often he longed for Odysseus to come home proves his loyalty. I found Philoitios’ claim that ” I’d have gone long since, gone, taken service with another king; this shame is no more to be borne, but I keep thinking my own lord, poor devil, still might come and make a rout of suitors in his hall” (Book XX, lines 244-8) moving. This shows that Odysseus’ servants could have all left and moved on to better things, but the ones who stayed loyal remained even through the horrors of the suitors. Odysseus needs these loyal men, and he knows it, because Telemakhos and Odysseus alone cannot hope to defeat all of the suitors even with the gods on their side. (Because how reliable are the gods really?) I think that is why Odysseus reveals himself so bluntly: to build up a reliable, but small, force with which he can take on the suitors.

  4. Megan says:

    I definitely agree with what Ivana, Kevin, Lindsey, and Clare have said so far. It makes sense that Odysseus would choose to reveal himself to Eurykleia and Eumaus in order to build up a force of loyalty behind him before he goes in to fight the suitors. At the same time, I can also understand how Odysseus would simply be longing for the comforts of familiar people and activities at home, and that is why he so badly wants Eurykleia to wash his feet. Possibly, the reasoning behind his actions could be a combination of both of these. Going back to what Ivana said about Odysseus revealing himself by crying, I agree that these actions could have been a result of his overwhelming emotions, but I also think that Odysseus, being a shrewd tactician, may have sometimes chosen to cry when it happened to be a convenient time to reveal himself, using his tears as another means of deception. He may have even used his crying as a plea of pity to the Phaiakians so that they would assist him on his journey home. I feel like Odysseus is presented as so crafty and tactful that if he can come up with such elaborate backstories and make even his own wife believe that he was a different person, he probably could have shed a few fake tears if it meant getting home faster. Just something else to think about.

  5. Cristina says:

    Personally, I am amazed at Odysseus’s self control to keep himself concealed for so long in the first place. I agree with previous statements about it being extremely out of character for Odysseus to forget a simple thing like the scar on his leg. However, I do think that his mind was probably preoccupied and he was thinking about the upcoming events. Also, I think it could have been slightly subconscious that he wanted his loyal maid to stumble upon his scar and gain more recognition in his own home. This slip also conveniently provided him a way to gain more inside information about loyalties.

    And in reply to Clare, I have questions the reliability of the gods. They often become enamored with things that are traditionally considered mortal weaknesses and although they usually pull through in the end, I think that their motives and potential actions are things that should not be heavily relied on.

  6. Charlie says:

    I think that Odysseus actually displays great poise when he casts off his disguise as a beggar. Taking on this role is a tremendous testament to his patience and will power in the first place. After committing two decades of his life to war and travel against his will, one would expect him to immediately embrace his home soil in his true form after so many deceptive appearances and falsified identities. Yet somehow Odysseus manages to hold off the celebration, withholding his identity from his son for several days after his return and only revealing himself to his beloved wife after all the suitors lie dead. He must have been itching to burst into his homestead and gloriously announce his arrival back from the perils of adventure, but in a way that very much suits his nature, Odysseus patiently waits until the situation was in his favor. Just as with the episode with Skylla and Kharybdis, the hero’s patience in times of trouble, his equanimity, is what elevates him above the realm of the average mortal.

  7. Allie Klein says:

    Continuing with what Cristina and Charlie said, I have come to view Odysseus’ time as a beggar a test of his willpower from Athena. From containing his temper despite his mistreatment by the suitors to keeping his diguise as a beggar with those close to his heart, Odysseus is being tested on his ability to persevere and as Cristina put it, his self-control. In not immediately killing the rude suitors and not immediately revealing himself when he FINALLY makes it to his beloved Ithaca, it is a testament (again) to Odysseus’ strength of character and resolve.

  8. Ivana Surjancev says:

    Christina, Charlie, and Allie, I think it’s really interesting how you all view Odysseus’ disguises. I had seen the first removal of his disguise to his old nurse as a slip up rather than a plan. It makes me think that in revealing one disguise, he puts on another disguise, one of a man who made a mistake. If this is the case, he fooled me with this disguise because I truly believed that he had completely forgotten about his scar. Just how there are different layers of stories within the Odyssey, it is interesting to find layers of disguises being stripped away at different points.

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