Stories in Disguise: On Odysseus' Ithacan Lies and Their Relevance to the Device of the
After arriving at Ithaca in the thirteenth book of the Odyssey, the returning protagonist has good
reason not to reveal his true identity. This is realized by Athena as well as by Odysseus himself.
Hence the theme of deception will play an important role in the whole of the Nostos part of the
Odyssey, i.e. the songs of homecoming, XIII-XXIV. With the help of Athena the hero uses
clothing and physical appearance to disguise himself. But throughout the story he often uses
words for this purpose. Accordingly, he sometimes lies to people about his identity; this is done
on five separate occasions as he produces untruthful answers about who he is. These "Ithacan
lies" are told to Athena (who is also in disguise), to Eumaios, to the leader of the suitors,
Antinoös, to his wife, Penelope, and, lastly, to his own father, Laërtes. On four occasions the liar
pretends to be from Crete, and for that reason they have also been referred to as "Odysseus'
Cretan lying stories."
An interpretation of the meaning of these stories in the overall design presupposes, as an
understanding of narrative texts generally does, the operation of "reconstruction" (cf "Five Kinds
of Literary and Artistic Interpretation" by Anders Petterson in this volume). Pertinent questions
put to the actual text segments may then be for example "What is represented here?" "What are
we supposed to perceive in our mind's eye?" very much in the same way as we would ask them of
a traditional painting. A typical elementary answer to such questions may take the form of
mentioning of a fictional agent and name his or her act, e.g. "Odysseus is lying to X telling him
or her that p." But some of the lying stories in the Odyssey are too complex to be satisfactorily
elucidated in this fashion. As Sheila Murnaghan, among others, has noticed, the whole Nostos
part is dominated by the device of dramatic irony owing to the all-pervading motif of disguise. 1
But to this we must add that two of the five episodes are rendered using a special technique
which in itself implies irony.
My contention is as follows: although the theme of deception constitutes a common
denominator in these episodes they nevertheless display a subtle artistic variety of presentation
techniques. The first two episodes I find particularly interesting since we have here, as I will
suggest, two early examples of the "unreliable narrator" device, as this concept was once
analyzed by Wayne C. Booth. 2 In all five situations the protagonist pretends to be someone else.
In the latter three, however, his disguise is merely physical, or external so to speak, that is, he is
careful not to be recognized as the returning king, but he is not disguised as a veritable pseudo-
Odysseus, i.e. as a person with a moral character quite opposite to that of the protagonist. This, on
the other hand, is exactly what happens in the first two episodes. The result of Odysseus' verbal
disguise here is a parody of the hero, and, since this parody is displayed in a kind of life-story,
the best means of presenting it will be a parody of an act of narrating, not least of Odyssues' own
narrating at the court of the Phaiakians. Several homerologists have considered the five lying
stories 3 but as far as I know, no one has suggested this narratological approach. My interpretation
aims to demonstrate why the device of "unreliable narration" is pertinent in the places where it
occurs. This procedure will testify to the fact that the kind of literary interpretation referred to as
"reconstruction" in this volume often has to consider another interpretational type from Anders
Pettersson's list, namely "structural analysis". Since there is no complete consensus among
narrative theorists about how the device of the "unreliable narrator" or "unreliable narration"
should be described, a complementary purpose in my essay will be to suggest a way of dealing
with this phenomenon, my recommendation being that these terms should be restricted to a rather
narrow field of narrative issues.
I What Is Unreliable Narration?
Competent readers of fiction seem to have a rather good idea of what to make of the device of the
"unreliable narrator" and "unreliable narration". 4 This may sound strange, since a narrator's
reliability is often conceived of as a constitutive feature of narrative structure on the whole. The
characters within the plot can often err – this essential faultiness being in fact a constitutive
feature of their nature – but never their narrator, without whom neither character nor plot would
ever be brought into existence. 5 This property of infallibility obviously belongs to the so-called
heterodiegetic narrator, i.e. to that of third person narratives. But, as Shlomith Rimmon-Kenan
has observed, 6 without going further into the subject, even a homodiegetic narrator, i.e. a narrator
of a first person narrative, will display a kind of privileged position much like that of the
heterodiegetic one. I will come back to why this is so. Nevertheless, we can make sense of an
"unreliable narrator's" account. The reason might be that this device has in practice a much more
limited scope than the term would suggest. Perhaps one might even propose that an agent such as
the "unreliable narrator" does not, strictly speaking, "narrate" the story at all, provided that
"narrating" implies some kind of privileged position vis-à-vis the narrated content. This, at least,
will be my working hypothesis.
Fallibility being one regrettable attribute of the human predicament, we notoriously run the
risk of giving false information as soon as we want to assert something. We usually describe such
unsuccessful information as not corresponding to the facts, to how things really are. Reality itself
is expected to correct the mistaken belief. This should of course not be understood literally:
reality is not an agent constantly keeping watch on ignorant speakers. Instead one speaker is
corrected by another who, in doing so, has to take responsibility for his utterance, again running
the risk of being mistaken. But this does not imply that the idea of correspondence should be
abandoned. A report about something can be revealed as mistaken much later when better
information is gained. We also have to assume that many mistakes are never discovered.
However, if sceptical about a certain account, we could still assume that there is a correct one to
be made, if only someone were in the position to discover the truth.
When criticizing an assumed erroneous belief from the point of view of assumed better
knowledge, the former position is relativized and characterized with the latter as norm. In that
respect it takes a privileged stance vis-à-vis the object of assessment. Not that wisdom cannot
make us suspect that even this evaluative norm will at some later time turn out to have been
faulty, but this attitude is not part of the judgmental act. Suppose now that we regard the mistaken
agent with some empathy, which should at least be the case if it happens to be myself who has
been in error. It is not unlikely then that we will contemplate the clash between the privileged
state of knowledge and the underprivileged one with a sense of situational irony.
Such a sense of irony can also be brought to the fore on occasions when we become aware
of mistaken beliefs and faulty judgment already as confronting the inaccurate statements
revealing them. Suppose we are listening to a correspondent giving a report on the TV, and
because we happen to be in a privileged position with regard to the topic we are able to catch him
with some serious mistakes. He has put on the role of an informer, but his information does not
come off well because it encounters a superior knowledge which makes his statements false.
Besides correcting his mistakes we might also reflect with empathy upon his situation and
perhaps pity him because he has made a fool of himself.
It is evident that there is an affinity between the structure of the situations of assessment
described so far and the structure of an intrigue, i.e. a narrative with a plot distinguished by its
teleological direction. Such a structure is likewise informed by the presence of two orders: the
underprivileged order of the narrated characters, blindly and ignorantly progressing towards the
fulfilment of their destiny, and the privileged order of the story itself as a significant whole
containing all the norms required for the assessment of the characters' order. Moreover, there is
also an affinity between this structure and the concept of the "unreliable narrator," an agent who
in several respects seems to share the predicament of narrated characters. But if such a narrator is
located in the characters' order, we have to ask which agent should be identified as narrating the
"whole story?" I would opt for the storyteller, either we associate him with an oral singer, the
aoidos for instance of the Homeric songs, or with the author of written narrative fiction. The
narrative act of the storyteller is an act of representation, constituting a represented "world", a
diegesis. The relation between the position of the string-pulling storyteller extra his diegesis and
the entities (characters, events etc.) intra, or of, this diegesis is homologous to the relation
between the position of our well-informed critic and the blundering informer. In other words, a
narrative is a whole with norms as a supreme instance and what is named by these norms, in the
same complex structure.
The storyteller appears to have three main techniques at his disposal in constructing his
diegesis, as Plato had already observed. He can fashion it directly with his own words (diegetic
technique, or "telling"), or indirectly by the dramatization in which the represented "world"
"speaks for itself" (mimetic technique, or "showing"), or it can be done with a mixture of these
two. Let us look at an example of the mixed kind taken from the Odyssey:
There was a man among the suitors versed in villainy;
Ktesippos was his name, and he had his home in Same.
He, in the confidence of his amazing possessions,
courted the wife of Odysseus, who had been so long absent.
This man now spoke forth among the insolent suitors:
'Hear me now, you haughty suitors, while I say something.
The stranger has had his share long since, and, as is proper,
an equal one; for it is not well nor just to make light of
the guests of Telemachos, who come to him in his palace.
Come, let me too give him a guest gift, so he can give it
as prize to the woman who washes his feet, or to some other
one of the servants in the house of godlike Odysseus.'
He spoke, and with his heavy hand he caught up an ox hoof
that lay by in the basket, and threw it. XX.287-302. 7
The storyteller, the aoidos, opens by presenting in his own words a motif: a character, Ktesippos,
"versed in villainy." Then he tells the psychological motives that push this man to dare courting
Odysseus' wife in her husband's absence. This is done in rather a summarizing style and could be
understood as directions as to the kind of situation he is going to represent. After that he leaves
the scene to the man himself, dramatizing his words, and then ends by mentioning an action.
These two represented actions are rendered in a scenic mode.
Let us suppose that the diegesis (or part of a more complex one), communicated here by a
mixture of diegetic and mimetic techniques, should be understood as an "act of villainy," then it
is evident that the storyteller has adopted three means to convey this: direct outlining of the
situation or characterization, speech, and action, the two latter contributing indirectly to the same
portrayal. So, the storyteller's choosing to communicate the representation of such an act directly
by "telling" or his indirectly doing so by using a dramatic mode seem to be equivalent actions
from his side, separated only in style. The significance of the represented will come to the same
end. If the aoidos prefers to render the whole episode directly in his own words, then the diegetic
content, i.e. the representation of the "villainous act," will have to be implied from his speech. If,
on the other hand, he chooses to dramatize the whole episode, then the directions as to what kind
of scene is represented (an "act of villainy") will have to be implied. For the receiver is in need of
both direction and drama.
Sometimes the storyteller presents as a motif a person telling of events in a world where he
himself is an actor, a so-called homodiegetic narrator. It is not easy to say what significance this
device has for the story presented. Sometimes at least it strikes one as being of little consequence.
Compare this episode from the homodiegetic story of Odysseus' encounter with the Cyclops in
So I spoke, but he answered me in pitiless spirit:
"Stranger, you are a simple fool, or come from far off,
when you tell me to avoid the wrath of the gods or fear them.
The Cyclops do not concern themselves over Zeus of the aegis,
nor any of the rest of the blessed gods, since we are far better
than they, and for fear of the hate of Zeus I would not spare
you or your companions either, if the fancy took me
So I spoke, but the pitiless spirit answered
nothing, but sprang up and reached for my companions,
caught up two together and slapped them, like killing puppies,
against the ground, and the brains ran all over the floor, soaking
Suppose that we are ready to regard even this gift from the aoidos as a representation of an "act
of villainy," very much resembling the example above. What is new is the pronoun "I" which
mixes with third person pronouns. This indicates the device of the "homodiegetic narrator." But
as to the rest, the episode seems to be rendered by the same three means used in the Ktesippos
scene: direct outlining of the situation or characterization, dramatized speech in accord with the
characterization, and action illustrating both. So there is evidently no considerable difference in
narrative effect whether a diegesis (or part thereof) is assumed to be presented by a homodiegetic
narrator or by the storyteller in person. The idea of the narrator device here is that the character
Odysseus lets the Phaiakians know that he and his men have been the victims of an act of villainy
on the part of the Cyclops, but this is not really our concern, because this is not what is
represented by the aoidos at this very moment. What is represented is simply an "act of villainy",
presented to us for the sake of its narrative qualities, its narrativity. Homodiegetic narratives
often seem to function in this way. If the difference between the diegetic and mimetic mode as
regards the significance of what is represented seems to be non-existent, the same may be the
case for the difference between homodiegetic and heterodiegetic narratives. When no functional
difference between the primary storyteller and the inserted narrator is manifested, narrative
theory has referred to the latter as a "reliable narrator" and his assumed act as "reliable narration."
So how should we analyze the opposite of this phenomenon, an "unreliable narrator" and
"unreliable narration?" An "unreliable narrator" will be a kind of dramatized narrator. In that
sense he is akin to a dramatized speaker such as Ktesippos or the Cyclops, or even our
uninformed informer, characters who in speaking about things in their world simultaneously
indirectly and unwittingly characterizes themselves. What he has in common with the "reliable"
homodiegetic narrator is that he is the pretended source of a discourse which we take to be a real
narrative, not just dramatized speech. What makes him the "opposite" of such a narrator is that
his narrative seems to harbour a lack of fit between the direct diegetic outlining or characterizing
of situation on the one hand, and the mimetic rendering of the characterized on the other. He goes
on telling what is on his mind in very much the same way as Odysseus in the Cyclops episode,
but somehow a "false tone" clings to the relation. A typical feature of the homodiegetic "reliable"
narration is the quick fading away of the original enunciation situation with the narrator as an
erzählendes Ich only for it to appear as erlebendes Ich in the story. With a term borrowed from
film theory I will term this phenomenon "dissolving." This complete dissolving of the narrating
character does not appear to the same degree in "unreliable narrating," since the moral,
intellectual or emotional qualities of the narrator are usually an important, or even the main,
theme of the storyteller's narrative. These qualities give rise to the "false tone" which adheres to
the continuing telling.
Wayne Booth stipulated as a criterion of "unreliable narration" a clash between a normative
and a mimetic level. The source of meaning of the consistent text, so his argument goes, is not the
narrator but the "implied author." The tacit presence of an authority beyond the narrator has also
seemed a necessary assumption to most of the critics who have discussed the subject after
Booth. 8 The inner tension of such a narrative has been described as a lack of congruence between
story and discourse, what is said by the narrator as contrasted with the "facts" of the fictional
world, or as a lack of fit between what is reported and the narrator's validation of it. 9 In Story and
Discourse Chatman offers a scheme of the narrative communication that reads like this:
implied author narrator narratee implied reader
The solid line is said to indicate direct and the broken lines, indirect or inferential
communication. If the narrator is reliable the narrative act is achieved through the main axis, if he
is not, the communication is performed through the broken line above. Hence, according to its
ironic nature "unreliable narration" offers two messages, one credible the other not.
My own analysis has not taken recourse to the notion of an implied author but has instead
set the "storyteller" in that position. But this does not really matter for the structural analysis
which is content with distinguishing two complementary levels, one of norms and one of drama.
According to Marie Laure Ryan there are three possible means for the implied author to
correct the false assertions of an "unreliable narrator":
(1) the narrator could himself reveal the faulty information after it has been given;
(2) another narrator could give the straight information that will correct the false one;
(3) the implied discourse of the narrator could reveal how the message is actually to be
Ryan exemplifies the first possibility with Borges' "The Shape of the Sword". In this short story a
narrator relates how he met with a villain and how it all turned out. After telling this the narrator
reveals that the villain, up to now referred to as "he", is in fact the narrator himself, while the
hero of the story, hitherto referred to as "I", should instead be understood as "he". The second
method is manifested by "polyvocal" narratives like Laclos' epistolary novel Les Liaisons
danguereuses where one reliable correspondent may correct another less reliable. She also
mentions Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury where four voices are heard in turn, three personal,
Benjy's, Quentin's and Jason's, and one anonymous and impersonal. This impersonal voice,
which should be understood as the most trustworthy, reveals for instance that Jason is an
unreliable narrator. The third possibility, revelation by the implied discourse of the author, is
exemplified by Ring Lardner's You Know Me Al and Albert Camus' La Chute. However,
according to Ryan this method "leads to much more problematic diagnoses" than the two
The narrator's declarations should thus contain both an accurate representation of the narrated
state of affairs, and hints of their own deficiency, such as uncorrected internal contradictions, or
blatant lack of fit between the reported events and their evaluation. These types of clues can be
used to raise doubts in the reader's mind as to the soundness of the narrator's judgment [...] but
they are too ambiguous to demonstrate deliberate insincerity or faulty information. When a
narrator is lying outright (a very rare case), or clearly mistaken as to how things are in the world
he descibes, he can only be caught by the explicit discourse of the first two method. 11
But in my opinion, only the last and most "problematic" method complies with the Boothian
concept of an "unreliable narrator" violating implicit superior norms of the narrative. Speaking of
the "unreliable narrator" as a literary device, or technique, with its own anticipated aesthetic
effects, should imply that we are offered continual textual signals that expose this narrator as
faulty (as self-deceptive, naïve etc.), i.e. not entrusted with the "whole" story. Methods one and
two never use any formal or technical means to let us understand that the narrator is dramatized
in this way. It is hard to understand then why such a narrator's account should be taken as
"unreliable" at all by us who have nothing to do with information internal to a fictional world but
only with the significance of a representation of such a "world." From a formalistic point of view
it would be just as correct to say that we are presented with two different stories within an
inconsistent work. Certainly the latter refers to the former but that does not imply that it could
provide it with the specific device which will make us identify it as "unreliable narration". The
reader should not be hoodwinked by a literary device; rather we think of techniques and devices
as instrumental in the communication of literary meaning. The "unreliable narrator" shouldn't
fool anybody but himself. Postmodern stories, like Borges' "The Shape of the Sword", tend to
achieve part of their effects by provoking the conventions of traditional storytelling technique and
the rules for the communication of stories. Such effects should accordingly not be analyzed using
formalistic or narratological instruments. And when it comes to the examples Ryan refers to as
"polyvocal" narratives, where one narrator corrects the other, I think her analysis is not quite
correct. Truly both Laclos and Faulkner give signals that will lead the reader to suspect
"unreliable narration" even at the moment it is before his eyes, the statements of a later narrator
only affirm what is already assumed.
The reason Ryan counts all three types as instances of the "unreliable narrator" and sees the
third case as the most problematic is her overall theory of narratives and narrators. According to
Ryan all narratives are to be regarded as reports of factual events, reports that could turn out to be
either right or wrong. Fictional narratives are mimetic representations of factual reporting.
Consequently, a narrator is "the speaking 'voice' which takes responsibility for the act of
narration, telling the story as 'true fact.'" 12 But, of course, it is not necessary to regard narration as
a series of affirmations that certain events have taken place. A more fruitful approach would be to
regard it as the communication of stories, which is something more than the sum of a series of
descriptions of events. An 'unreliable' narrator is, according to Ryan, a reporter who fails to tell
the truth. On the other hand, she is compelled to admit that an "unreliable narrator" very seldom
seems to lie outright. 13 This fact might suggest that the device of the "unreliable narrator" could
be analysed more fruitfully as something other than a mistaken or lying relater of facts.
It appears then that a storyteller can employ the device of an "unreliable narrator" in two
main ways. He may, on the one hand, let the focus rest on this narrator himself, dramatizing his
attempts to delude his narratee and or himself. A story like that will probably be described as
"psychological," in essence portraying the unreliable protagonist as a certain psychological type.
Examples of narratives with such self-deceivers are Henry James' "The Liar" and "The Aspern
Papers" or Albert Camus' La Chute. On the other hand, he may focus on what an "unreliable
narrator" unconsciously tells; such a teller will certainly also be characterized as a kind of selfdeceiver,
very often as naïve, but will not be the protagonist of a psychological story of selfdeception.
He is trying to give an account of things he has witnessed, but since his capacity as a
true observer is limited he will now and then misrepresent things. The barber, Whitey, in Ring
Lardner's "Haircut" is unaware of the real significance of the commemorative speech he gives on
the character Jim Kendall whom he has admired and whose death he regrets. Yet, from his
monologue the reader can get all the material needed to recognize a story about a really
disgusting brute who in the end suffers his well deserved punishment. Another example is Ernest
Hemingway's "My Old Man", where the young boy out of affection for his father and his own
naivity, is unable to see that what he tells us about his "old man" in order to motivate his
affection for him can just as well be taken to indicate his father's shortcomings.
The artistic point of such narratives is evident. Narrated in an anonymous, objective mode
these stories would have looked rather trite, but presenting the events from this extraordinary
perspective makes them interesting as a manifestation of artistic tour de force. It is very like the
technique of certain mannerist paintings such as "The Conversion of Saul" by Carravaggio,
where the sacred and well-known motif is presented from a quite conspicuous point of view,
formally rendering the horse the protagonist rather than the man.
II Odysseus' Ithacan Lies
The Stories Told to Athena and Eumaios
Brought to Ithaka put in a magic sleep, Odysseus together with his rich gifts is safely placed on
the shore by the Phaiakian sailors. When he wakes up he does not recognize that he has finally
reached his home island. Worried, he wishes to inform himself of where he is. He asks a person
whom he assumes is a young shepherd, but actually is the goddess Athena in disguise, the name
of the place and gets the answer that he is on the island of Ithaka. But then in turn he is asked by
the shepherd to reveal his name and his antecedents. Odysseus is, as always, on his guard against
being recognized, so he puts on a disguise. His answer therefore takes the form of a narrative
about a non-existent person's life – Odysseus is lying:
'I heard the name of Ithaka when I was in wide Crete,
far away, across the sea; now I myself have come here
with these goods that you see, but leaving as much again to my children.
I have fled, an exile, because I killed the son of Idomeneus,
Orsilochos, a man swift of foot, who in wide Crete surpassed
all other mortal men for speed of his feet. I killed him
because he tried to deprive me of all my share of the plunder
from Troy, and for the sake of it my heart suffered many
pains: the wars of men; hard crossing of the big waters;
for I would not do his father favor, and serve as his henchman
in the land of Troy, but I led others, of my own following.
I lay in wait for him with a friend by the road, and struck him
with the bronze-headed spear as he came back from the fields. There was
a very dark night spread over all the sky, nor did anyone
see me, nor did anyone know of it when I stripped the life
from him. But then, when I had cut him down with the sharp bronze,
I went at once to a ship [---]. 13.256–272.
After this episode there follows an account of how the stranger was put ashore on Ithaca by
The text above, I would state, manifests the device of an "unreliable narrator". The reason
is not that Odysseus is lying here. For my first claim will be that a character's lying about events
is not sufficient condition for us to recognize the text as an instance of "unreliable narration." I
will soon try to demonstrate this assumption with the help of Odysseus last three "Ithacan lies"
which will be contrasted with this as well as with the lie to Eumaios in song XIV.
The Athena and the Eumaios lying episodes have a rather complex structure. They take the
form of embedded homodiegetic narratives and remind us so far of earlier first-person relations in
the Odyssey, for instance of Odysseus' Apologoi or Menelaos' Proteus episode. Later Eumaios
will give the disguised Odysseus an account of how he, only a child, was sold as a slave to
Laërtes on Ithaca. But in these narratives the "I" of the experiencing character projects back an
"I" which could easily be associated with the fictive speaker, with Odysseus, Menelaos or
Eumaios, each of whom have come to wisdom through suffering. In normal cases of "unreliable
narration" the "unreliable narrator" will also be associated with the character who speaks, as it is,
for instance, in La Chute, in "Haircut" or in the Jason part of The Sound and the Fury. But when
Odysseus pretends to be a Cretan fugitive in the Athena episode, he as a speaker is plainly lying
to his interlocutors, but the "unreliable narrator" is the persona of the Cretan projected by the
narrative. So the "I" of Odysseus' words does not bounce back straight to the speaker but, given a
jaunty angle, to a projected character rather dissimilar from him, even his opposite in some
important respects. His story will be a story in disguise. And this is constitutive of the notion of
an "unreliable narrator" in the sense Booth gave it. It is a dramatizing technique and relies as a
consequence on indirect characterization. As readers we are led by implication via the
representation of speech and action to the significance of the whole episode, we are not led to it
by the storyteller's or "reliable narrator's" explicit direction as in the Ktesippos example given
above. Odysseus' speech to Eumaios, where he once again pretends to be a Cretan, this time the
illegitimate son of Kastor, displays the same structure as the Athena episode. Odysseus is
certainly lying to Eumaios, but the "unreliable narrator" is "Kastor's son," projected by words of
If the speech of a character within a narrative is to be understood as an embedded narrative,
the criterion will be that it can display a certain amount of autonomy; in fact an embedded
narrative should constitute a digression from as well as a "dissolving" of the story representing
the narrator's speech situation as a motif. But then, an embedded narrative will not, logically or
"grammatically", be secondary to the primary, embedding narrative. No narrative or formal
qualities will, for instance, place the homodiegetic narratives of the Odyssey under the framing
heterodiegetic narrative. Rather the work presents a paratactical joining of equivalent elements.
The illusion of a hierachy is the result of a trick, it is a motivation, in the sense of the Russian
formalists, for the primary storyteller, Homer, to conceal his art and real business, which is to
entertain his audience by storytelling. In introducing a fictional motif, a person willing to tell a
story, the aoidos thus tricks us into yielding the floor to him for more narration. An embedded
"unreliable narration" should also display such an authonomy to be counted as a genuine
narrative and not just a piece of unreliable talk from a character. However the similarity cannot
be total. If that were the case, there would not be any reason for us to suspect "unreliable
narration" as something different from "reliable narration."
In the Athena episode the Cretan stranger seems to give a frank characterization of himself.
If he is to be taken as an "unreliable narrator" his self-description should turn against himself, in
contrast to what ought to be his intention: to impress favourably. So the question is whether he
compromises himself telling about his deeds and who he is.
He starts by saying that he is a fugitive and mentions the reason for this: he has killed a son
of Idomeneus. Being in exile because of manslaughter is not usually anything very remarkable,
either in the Iliad or the Odyssey. Several good men share such a fate. Think for instance of
Theoklymenos, the fugitive with the gift of prophecy whom Telemachos comes across at Pylos
whom he offers a safe escape on his ship (XV.220-286). This Theoklymenos is later to play an
important role as a truthsayer once he has landed on Ithaca (XV.529-34, XIX.350-370), so
evidently he is to be regarded as a man of quality. The pseudo-Cretan goes on to state the reasons
for his deed: Orsilochos threatened to deprive him of his plunder from Troy where he has fought.
That he should feel indignation at such a prospect could not surprise any reader of the Iliad where
a man's honour is so often measured by the share he gets of the common booty. So, is this
homicide not a justified action to save his honour and property? Then the stranger goes on to state
his relations to the father of the slayed, Idomeneus. He has not been willing to serve under him
but, as he says: "I led others, of my own following". And then comes the rather detailed account
of the killing.
Here we can note how the narrative really becomes autonomous from the speech situation
where it started: it is getting "narrativity". We are presented with a lively account of what it was
like to be there; the scene with the speaking Cretan and his interlocutor is "dissolved" and
replaced by a new, genuinely narrative scene with the Cretan as "experiencing I".
But still there is something wrong here. The account of how the homicide was arranged is
so compromising for the speaker that it deprives him of the possibility of being ranked as a true
embedded narrator like Odysseus, Menelaos or Eumaios, that is, "narrators" who do not in fact
narrate but leave the word to the aoidos himself, their narratives being "consumed" by his. But,
we might protest, an ambush is not necessarily regarded as something evil. Think of the Iliad
again, of how Achilles practically abuses Agamemnon for not being willing to risk his life and
health by lying in ambush! That is true, but it is of no consequence for this scene. It relates the act
of the killing in such a way that it must stand out as unjustified and shameful, we must think the
whole scene is ironic. This intuition is evidently based on the contrast with what we usually
expect from the Odyssey or epic poetry generally. The speaker says that two men killed from
behind an unarmed man going from his work all by himself. That the killing took place at night
with no witnesses and that the killer succeeded in escaping without anybody knowing that he was
the perpetrator of the deed, all this should be taken as indication of the villainous nature of such
an act. As a contrast we are later to be informed that Odysseus kills the suitors face to face in
broad daylight, with witnesses, and that he takes full responsibility for his actions, all in
accordance with the spirit of high epic. The unconscious irony of the Cretan's relation of his deed
is brought out by the expectations of the audience; following the story of the Odyssey has
prepared them for an heroic ethos in contrast to the ethos of the picaresque or sagas of ruthless
raiders. In other words, Homer has put a rogue story in the mouth of the Cretan fugitive in a
context that he has set to be determined by the spirit of high epics.
With this in mind we are now prepared to go back to some details concerning the stranger's
record of his background. He was not willing to serve as the henchman of Idomeneus, he
declares. Should this admission not already be sufficient to arouse our suspicions that he is no
man of honour? For Idomeneus is one of the greatest heroes of the Iliad. In comparison we may
look to a later lie of Odysseus, where in the most noble and chivalrous way he comforts Penelope
with the story of how he, a brother of Idomeneus, once met her husband and treated him well
(XIX.164-203). We may notice here, that being Idomeneus' brother is evidently a motivation for
the nobleness that characterizes this speech. On the other hand, the man who refuses to fight
under Idomeneus and prefers raiding on his own with his own men is in fact rejecting the heroic
ethos that dominates the homeric works. With that rejection the stranger intends to win approval,
in his story he pleads for understanding and sympathy. But he cannot reject the norms of the
work in which he is a character, so in the whole story, that of the aoidos, he unwittingly reveals
himself as a rascal.
Of course, it might be objected that the irony traced in this episode is only in the eye of the
modern reader, not in the text. Only those who, from some idiosyncratic ethics, are unable to
sympathize with a hero slaying a person in an ambush at night will find an irony here. Actually
quite a few homerologists have interpreted this text as being on the same level as, for instance,
Odysseus tale to the Phaiakians. A citation from P. Walcot's "Odysseus and the Art of Lying"
will suffice as a demonstration of this view:
All this strikes us as a squalid saga of retaliation, with one insult provoking another, until events
culminate in a far from chivalrous encounter between the offended and offending parties. Yet the
story must be designed to win approval of Odysseus' audience, and in this story the pseudo-
Cretan exemplifies what was always a golden rule for the Greeks, harm your enemies. And
typically again, the means employed to achieve results are much less important than the actual
achievements of results. 14
But such argument is beside the point. As readers we do not ponder over "means" as against
"achievements". We do not react as moral agents but as skilled readers, who have recognized a
flaw in the narrating itself. Suppose you can accept as a valid rule in this tale "harm your
enemies". Nevertheless, if a certain action is to be justified it must be described in words that will
put it in the best possible light. But in this narrative we sense a possible contradiction between a
stated justification of an agent's action and the description of it. There are details in the Cretan's
relation of his deeds that certainly seem to contradict its purpose of a justifying plea. Such flaws
let us sense the presence of an implied author behind the text, it is said. Perhaps, but is it not just
another way of saying that the story of the Orsilochos' slayer is not the "whole" story. The
primary narration is setting a scene where a self-deceiver is indirectly characterized by means of
a secondary and parodied narration. This latter account is secondary in a logical sense, as it is
subordinated to, and gets its narrative significance from, the primary level. Narration with a flaw
is not genuinely narration.
The second Cretan lie of Odysseus – told to Eumaios – shares with the first one this
parodying quality. His disguise is now a Cretan veteran from the Trojan war, a hero in decline, a
wretched self-deceiver who, with a mixture of bragging and lament, is trying to arouse the
sympathy of his interlocutor as well as boosting his own weakened self-confidence. The narrative
is compositionally motivated by the necessity for Odysseus to seek the assistance of his servant
without revealing his identity, but it also gives the aoidos an opportunity to demonstrate his
artistic excellency in psychological portraiture and complex narrative techniques. This episode is
too long to be discussed in its entirety, and for that reason I will confine myself to only parts of it.
I announce that my origin is from Crete, a spacious
land; I am son of a rich man, and there were many other
sons who were born to him and reared in his palace. These were
lawful sons by his wife, but a bought woman, a concubine,
was my mother, yet I was favored with the legitimate
sons by Kastor, Hylakos' son, whom I claim as father,
honored among the Cretans in the countryside as a god is,
in those days, for wealth and power and glorious children.
But then, you see, the death spirits caught and carried him from us
to the house of Hades, and his overbearing sons divided
the livelihood among them and cast lots for it. Little
enough, however, was what they gave me in goods and houses.
But I took myself a wife from people with many possessions,
because of my courage, for I was no contemptible man, not
one who fled from the fighting; but now all that has gone from me,
but still, I think, if you look at the stubble you see what the corn was
like when it grew, but since then hardship enough has had me.
Ares and Athena endowed me with courage, that power
that breaks men in battle. Whenever I detailed the best fighters
to go into ambush, planning evil things for the enemy,
the proud heart in me had no image of death before it,
but far the first I would leap out and with my spear bring down
that enemy and whose speed of foot failed against me.
Such was I in fighting; but labor was never dear to me,
nor care for my house, though that is what raises glorious children;
but ships that are driven on by oars were dear to me always,
and the wars, and throwing spears with polished hafts, and the arrows,
gloomy things, which to other men are terrible, and yet
those things were dear to me which surely some god had put there
in my heart, for different men take joy in different actions. (The Odyssey, 14.199-228)
The parodic quality of this narrative will appear when contrasted to the true ethos of epic poetry.
Just like the slayer of Orsilochos, this veteran does not fight the war of a true hero, meeting his
enemy eye to eye, but prefers attacking from ambush. However bellicose in appearance he will
not be put on a par with the aristocrats of the Iliad. He also implies that his way of life –
contemptuous of civil work, drifting about, raiding, away from home and family – is justified and
equal in moral value to that of a steady person's, the life of one who cares for his house and raises
children. He espouses a kind of relativism as regards human activity: "different men take joy in
The veteran is also full of boasting about earlier manliness, alternating with lamenting over
his present state. But what do the details he mentions about his war experiences and the treatment
he receives from others actually reveal about him?
On the fifth day we reached the abundant stream Aigyptos,
and I stayed my oarswept ships inside the Aigyptos River.
Then I urged my eager companions to stay where they were, there
close to the fleet, and to guard the ships, and was urgent with them
to send look-outs to the watching places; but they, following
their own impulse, and giving way to marauding violence,
suddenly began plundering the Egyptian's beautiful
fields, and carried off the women and innocent children,
and killed the men, and soon the outcry came to the city.
They heard the shouting, and at the time when dawn shows, they came
on us, and all the plain was filled with horses and infantry
and the glare of bronze, and Zeus who delights in thunder flung down
a foul panic among my companions, and none was so hardy
as to stand and fight, for the evils stood in a circle around them.
There they killed many of us with the sharp bronze, and others
they led away alive, to work for them in forced labor;
but Zeus himself put this thought into my mind, as I will
tell you, but how I wish I had died and met my destiny
there in Egypt, for there was still more sorrow awaiting me.
At once I put the well-wrought helm from my head, the great shield
off my shoulders, and from my hand I let the spear drop,
and went out into the way of the king and up to his chariot,
and kissed his knees and clasped them; he rescued me and took pity
and seated me in his chariot and took me, weeping, homeward
with him; and indeed many swept in on me with ash spears
straining to kill me, for they were all too angered, but the king
held them off from me, and honored the anger of Zeus Protector
of Strangers, who beyond others is outraged at evil dealings.
There for seven years I stayed and gathered together
much substance from the men of Egypt, for all gave to me;
but when in the turning of time the eighth year had befallen me,
then there came a Phoenician man, well skilled in beguilements,
a gnawer at other's goods, and many were the hurts he inflicted
on men, and by his wits talked me over, so I went with him
to Phoenicia, where lay this man's house and possessions.
There for the fulfillment of a year I stayed with him,
but when the months and when the days had come to completion,
with the circling back of the year again, and the seasons came on,
then he took me on his seafaring ship to Libya,
with lying advices, that with him we could win a cargo, but in fact
so he could sell me there and take the immense price for me.
There is clearly a discrepancy between the veteran's boasting about his war merits and his
dishonourable behaviour in the fight against the Egyptians. This record of a battle echoes the
Kikonian episode in the Odyssey IX.39–66. But the differences are revealing: Odysseus is forced
to give up his combat with the Kikonians, but he manages to retreat with his men in good order
and he is never tempted to throw away his weapons and beg for mercy. Another significant detail
in the Cretan's narrative is how he is treated by other men. We can see how he acts a poor figure
against the bullying Phoenician. And he cannot help being the victim of the unscrupulous sailors
who are supposed to take him home from the Thesprotians:
[H]e sent me off, for a ship of Thesprotian
men happened then to be sailing for Doulichion, rich in wheatfields;
so he urged them to convey me there to the king Akastos,
in a proper way, but their hearts were taken with a bad counsel
concerning me, so I still should have the pain of affliction.
So when the seafaring ship had gone far out from the mainlaid,
they presently devised the day of slavery for me.
They took off me the mantle and tunic I wore as clothing,
and then they put another vile rag on me, and a tunic,
tattered, the one you yourself see with your eyes.
In sum, the details show that this person has often been treated with contempt by others and that
he has constantly been outsmarted by other, more cunning men. This should of course also be
seen in contrast to Odysseus, who is always treated with respect and always is the master of
cunning. On the whole, these details add to the sense of parodic heroic poetry.
This parodic technique constantly uses the idea of devaluating, decreasing, lowering the
parodied persons or actions and thus contrasting them with the standard which is Odysseus and
the ethos of heroic aristocratic poetry. From what the first Cretan narrator unconsciously tells he
is clearly not treated as Idomeneus' equal: he is asked to fight under him not together with him.
He is obviously on a lower social level than Idomeneus and not ranked among the aristocrats. The
second Cretan narrator himself admits his lower birth, being an illegitimate child. This contrast
etween higher and lower, aristocratic and plebeian, could be seen as an icon of the relation
between the two kinds of narration used here: the secondary mock narration is subordinate to the
primary genuine narration.
It is at the point where the Cretan veteran is trying to relativize different ways of life that he
really becomes a pseudo-Odysseus. The picture he paints of himself is indeed a contrast to
everything Odysseus stands for in this epic. The disguise of the hero here is not just one of mere
physical identity but to an even greater extent also of moral character. For in contrast to the
Cretan, Odysseus is eager to get home from his wanderings urged by his sense of responsibility,
by his desire is to take care of house and family. His wanderings are inflicted on him and are
described as his long "sufferings," as is the war he has fought. 15 In fact the two Cretan characters
should be associated with those roving and lying rascals Alkinoös refers to as the contrast to
Odysseus, after having listened to his long narrative:
Odysseus, we as we look upon you do not imagine
that you are a deceptive or thievish man, the sort that the black earth
breeds in great numbers, poeple who wander widely, making up
lying stories, from which no one could learn anything. You have
a grace upon your words, and there is sound sense within them,
and expertly, as a singer would do, you have told the story. (XI.363–368.)
Odysseus is not one of the contemptible men described here; Alkinoös has been convinced of his
true qualities by the manner in which he tells of his own sufferings. Significantly enough it is also
the way they tell of their antecedents that brings forth the true moral characters of the Cretans.
There is a constant difficulty in demonstrating that a text is to be understood as ironic. In ordinary
conversation we can rely on intonation, facial expression, some commonsensical understanding
of the situation etc. to get to the actual meaning of an utterance. In literature we have to look for
other kinds of signals, most of which are based on implication. The text has displayed some such
clues that make us unwilling to understand the tales of the Cretan narrators discussed above as
genuine narratives. But we could also add another explanation in support of the actual
interpretation, an argument not based on formal criteria but on something that might be termed
'vicarious reaction' from within the fiction itself. We can ask: How are the tales of the first and
the second Cretan narrators received by their narratees, and could we learn something from their
The answer is yes. The behaviour of both Athena and Eumaios confirms the idea that these
Cretan stories are parodies. Neither of them listens to the teller in real earnest. Of course no one
can fool Athena, not even Odysseus:
So he spoke. The goddess, gray-eyed Athena, smiled on him,
and stroke him with her hand, and took the shape of a woman
both beautiful and tall, and well versed in glorious handiworks,
and spoke aloud to him and addressed him in winged words, saying:
'It would be a sharp one, and a stealthy one, who would ever get past you
in any contriving; even if it were a god against you.
You wretch, so devious, never weary of tricks, then you would not
even in your own country give over your ways of deceiving
and your thievish tales. They are near to you in your very nature. (XIII. 286-295)
And the reaction of Eumaios has a lot in common with Athena's:
Then, O swineherd Eumaios, you said to him in answer:
'O sorrowful stranger, truly you troubled the spirit in me,
by telling me all these details, how you suffered and wandered;
yet I think some parts is in no true order, and you will not persuade me
in your talk about Odysseus. Why should such a man as you are
lie recklessly to me? But I myself know the whole truth
of what my lord's homecoming is, how all the gods hated him
so much that they did not make him go down in the land of the Trojans,
nor in the arms of his friends, after he had wound up the fighting.
How should this be interpreted? Firstly, it confirms that both episodes are cast in the comic mode.
Secondly, the laughter of Athena and the goodhumoured scepticism of Eumaios could be
regarded as vicarious expressions of the attitude of the reader or listener. Their laughter is the
fictional equivalent of ours, which renders the text in some sense meta-fictional here. That does
not mean, of course, that they are amused by exactly the same things as we are – they are in an
actual (fictive) situation before a real (fictive) person – only that there is some similarity between
our and their reaction to the fun of the situation type.
It is true that a scene like that where Odysseus first learns that he has arrived at Ithaca could
in principle be conceived in many different ways by the storyteller, serious as well as comic. But
it is hard to imagine a solution better than the one Homer is offering here. We are presented with
the two protagonists who will now meet for the first time and together attempt the difficult task:
Odysseus and his guardian goddess. The nature of the task demands the utmost cunning and
caution, which Athena has already foreseen. The audience knows that its hero has thus far amply
demonstrated that he is in possession of these qualities. Whether the joy of realizing that he has at
last reached his home island will lessen his vigilance it is appropriate to question. The narrative
reveals that Odysseus still comes up to expectations. But how smart is the hero? The intertextual
level of this text answers: He is as cunning and cautious as Diomedes of the Iliad is brave and
eager to fight. Diomedes was not afraid of attacking and wounding even the gods; and Odysseus
is trying to outsmart even Athena, the goddess of smartness and cunning. However, having
interpreted the episode in this way, it is hard to think of a more adequte form for it than as a
"story in disguise," i.e. using the device of the "unreliable narrator". For Homer could not let his
hero lie outright to a goddess, who is bound to expose him. Such a scene would have made him
appear ridiculous in the eyes of an audience and contradicted his reputation for cleverness. But by
casting his tale in the form of a parody of serious narration and thereby distancing the teller from
the telling, Homer succeeds somehow in making Odysseus the equal of the goddess of disguise.
Also it is the perfect solution to the delicacy of this situation. No one has reason to feel offended
here. Athena has not, since this is (irrespective of the actual intentions of the liar) a performance
of mere clownishness, that is, not a serious action but a mere representation of one. Nor has
Odysseus, since he will have to take responsibility only for the amusing impersonation of a
rascal; he has not ventured his reputation as a successful liar and failed. All these effects are
brought about by a single device: that of the "unrelible narrator", which separates a primary teller
from a told teller. Accordingly, we may even in this case speak about a vicarious, meta-narrative
pattern. The distance between the play-acting Odysseus and the the role of the infamous Cretan
fugitive is (in agrement with our remark above regarding the laughter of Athena) an icon of the
distance between the primary storyteller, Homer, and his dramatized speaker.
The tale to Eumaios is to be understood in similar terms. Of course, one could object here
that his sceptical remark is due to his mistaken belief that his master is dead, and that the
expression "I think some parts is in no true order" refers only to the stranger's having heard that
Odysseus is still alive. But even so, this will be of no consequence to an audience. For Eumaios
has suggested that something is in "no true order" in the story – an unspecified remark tallying
with our intuition that there is a flaw in it. When Eumaios expresses his conviction that his master
is dead the comedy goes on, now with two objects: on the one hand, the wretched supplicant in
his rags, bragging and trying to persuade the swineherd what a man he once was but at the same
time unconsciously revealing how often he has had to endure humiliation, on the other hand,
Eumaios before his longed for master, whom he is unable to recognize because of his true, not
just imagined, smartness.
Choosing the device of the "unreliable narrator" is also a more than adequate means of
presenting the story to Eumaios as a narratee, because even here the primary storyteller must
handle some ticklish problems, dealing with the relation between the disguised master and his
servant. He could not, for instance, let his hero seriously be the supplicant of his own servant, that
is why the account the disguised Odysseus gives of his antecedents must easily be a story in
disguise. It must be tailored for such a man as Eumaios can see with his eyes before him, a man
of no better position than himself, his inferior even as he is forced to ask for protection of him.
The problem is the way in which Odysseus should be allowed to speak to Eumaios without
actually taking the position which is given to him by his beggar's outfit. The solution to that
problem is speaking in disguise, i.e. by impersonation, which will create the necessary distance.
Not until he has revealed his identity can Odysseus be allowed to speak quite seriously to
Eumaios, no longer as an equal but as his master.
This delicate relation also appears in the stories that Odysseus and Eumaios exchange
which are no lying tales. Eumaios tells the stranger how he, once the child of a king, was stolen
by a treacherous servant and sold as a slave. This story is told from a pure and simple heart,
asking the narratee to sympathise with the miserable protagonist. Telling such a story of one's
own hard sufferings is to treat the narratee as an equal; in fact, this story resembles those that
Odysseus tells the Phaiakians at Skeria. Homer's motivation for it is clear enough. Being the son
of a king, Eumaios could be presented as Odysseus' assistant without disregarding the feelings of
an aristocratic audience. Having been stolen and sold as a child, he has never reached the status
of an aristocratic warrior and is consequently not Odysseus' peer. The story of the Odyssey can go
on with its true protagonist as undisputably dominating the scene.
On the other hand, after having gone to bed, Odysseus, still in disguise, tells Eumaios a
story of how once at Troy he tricked a soldier into lending him his warm cloak. Eumaios gets the
point and fetches a warm cover for the teller. Though not obviously false, this story is still not
quite as serious as Odysseus' stories at Skeria. It is a rogue story and consequently, regarded as a
genre of a lower status than the heroic epic which is the genre of the Odyssey as such. Telling a
story like this Odysseus can proceed in his disguise while still playing the equal of Eumaios.
The lies to Antinoös, Penelope, and Laërtes
Though Odysseus tells rather detailed lies about his identity to Antinoös, Penelope and Laërtes,
these accounts should not be considered as instances of of "unreliable narration." First of all,
these three episodes do not resemble genuine embedded narratives to the same degree as do those
discussed above; in other words, they are more firmly attached to the fictive speech situation.
From the details of what is told we could refer directly to the situation of its telling. The sense of
fictive speech rather than of narrative is probably due to the fact that we can see the reason the
speaker chooses to tell what he does and nothing else: he is evidently addressing his words to
someone in particular. Storytelling has a structure that makes it less bound to an individual
narratee. Secondly, these speeches do characterize their speaker, that is true, but in contrast to the
earlier ones, they characterize Odysseus himself, not an impersonation he is creating. We will find
here a disguised, lying Odysseus but not stories in disguise.
This is very clear in the appeal to Antinoös, the leader of the suitors. Odysseus in his
beggar's outfit asks him for some food:
Give, dear friend. You seem to me, of all the Achaians,
not the worst, but the best. You look like a king. Therefore,
you ought to give me a better present of food than the others
have done, and I will sing your fame all over the endless
earth, for I too once lived in my own house among people,
prospering i wealth, and often I gave to a wanderer
according to what he was and wanted when he came to me;
and I had serving men by thousands, and many another
good thing, by which men live well and are called prosperous. Only
Zeus, son of Kronos, spoiled it all – somehow he wished to –
when he put it into my head to go with the roving pirates
to Egypt, a long voyage, so that I must be ruined.
I stayed my oarswept ships inside the Aigyptos River.
Then I urged my eager companions to stay where they were, there
close to the fleet, and to guard the ships, and was urgent with them
to send lookouts to the watching places, but they following
their own impulse, and giving way to marauding violence,
suddenly began plundering the Egyptians' beautiful
fields, and carried off the women and innocent children,
and killed the men, and soon the outcry came to the city.
They heard the shouting, and at the time when dawn shows, they came
on us, and all the plain was filled with horses and infantry
and the glare of bronze; and Zeus who delights in the thunder flung down
a foul panic among my companions, and none was so hardy
as to stand and fight, for the evils stood in a circle around them.
There they killed many of us with the sharp bronze, and others
they led away alive, to work for them in forced labor;
but they gave me away, into Cyprus, to a stranger arriving,
Dmetor, Iasos' son, who was the strong king in Cyprus.
From there I came here, where I am now, suffering hardships. (XVII. 411-44)
The scene is set with one man testing another by telling a moral paradigm. Odysseus uses again
parts of the story he once told Eumaios (a variant of the Kikonian episode) with some very
important changes. Gone are those details which shed an ironic light on the narrator, revealing his
ignominious failings. Here is a hero who has learnt from his mistakes and become wiser and
humbler. Such is the example set for the presumptuous Antinoös, who, of course, in an obvious
manner will show his inability to accept its lesson.
This speech seems to meet rather well the critera we have stipulated for genuine narrative:
we can recognize the typical "dissolving" which turns the initial scene, where the begger starts to
narrate, to a narrated situation rendered, as it were, from the perspective of an experiencing self.
Further, there is harmony between the directive (diegetic) parts and the mimetic parts of narrated
action, speech and thought (the visible narrator is "reliable"). But in spite of that, it will not take
on the function of a genuine narrative in the same way as do, for instance, the tales of Odysseus
in the Phaiakian court. The reason is that neither Homer nor the fictive narrator is presenting this
story for the sake of storytelling alone. Like Nathan in the Books of Samuel, who tells David the
story of the rich man and the poor man with the intention of stirring his conscience, so Odysseus
is telling a tale with a practical purpose. Consequently the "whole" of the story (or episode) may
not be identified with this exemplum but with the overall scene: Odysseus testing Antinoös.
(Later, in XIX.70-19, Penelope's arrogant maidservant, Melantho, is exposed to a similar moral
lesson with the exception of its narrative part.) The complex organization of the third "Ithacan
lie," enclosing a secondary structure within a main one, is similar to the former two narratives as
it tells a story which also characterizes its teller. However, those narratives displayed a narrator
unconsciously revealing himself as a self-deceiver, while in this one he comes into view as a wise
man chastened by his sufferings. This makes a considerable difference compared to the other
two. There is no ironic clash between the attitude of the teller and the moral significance of the
told in the story to Antinoös. The ethos of this narrative and that of the narrator are entirely in
harmony. The reason we take the speaker for a wise man is because we can see that this story can
teach human wisdom, it is not because he has been provided with some external attribute of a
sage. Consequently, there is the same mode of indirect characterization as in the "unreliable
narrator's" accounts. However, the difference is considerable. This teller knows that his telling
expresses the quality of wisdom, in fact, that is why he tells it as a moral example. But the
impersonated bragging Cretans are unconscious of the ethos of their own life stories. Hence their
The lies to Penelope and Laërtes, in turn, have another character than the three already
discussed. They are not so much narratives as (false) reports of isolated facts. The episodes where
Odysseus lies to Penelope and Laërtes display a dramatized speaker in a speech situation which is
the object of our main interest.
O respected wife of Odysseus, son of Laërtes,
you will not stop asking me about my origin?
Then I will tell you; but you will give me over to sorrows
even more than I have; but such is the way of it, when one
strays away from his own country as long as I have,
wandering many cities of men and suffering hardships.
Even so, I will tell you what you ask me and seek for.
There is a land called Crete in the middle of the wine-blue water,
a handsome country and fertile, seagirt, and there are many
peoples in it, innumerable; there are ninety cities.
Language with language mix there together. There are Achaians,
there are great-hearted Eteokretans, there are Kydonians,
and Dorians in three divisions, and noble Pelasgians;
and there is Knossos, the great city, the place where Minos
was king for nine-year periods, and conversed with great Zeus.
He was the father of my father, great-hearted Deukalion.
Deukalion had two sons, myself and the lord Idomeneus,
but Idomeneus had gone with the curved ships to Ilion
along with the sons of Atreus. My glorious name was Aithon,
and I was the younger born, but he was elder and better.
It was there that I knew Odysseus and entertained him,
for the force of the wind had caught him, as he was making for Ilion,
and brought him to Crete, driving him off course past Maleia.
He stopped at Amnisos, where there is a cave of Eileithyia,
in difficult harbors, and barely he had escaped from the stormwind.
He went up to the town at once, and asked for Idomeneus,
for he said he was his hereditary friend, and respected;
but it was now the tenth or eleventh day since Idomeneus
had gone away along with his curved ships for Ilion.
But I took him back to my own house, and well entertained him
with proper hospitality, since there was abundance
in the house, and for his other companions, who were his followers,
I collected from the public and gave them barley, and shining
wine, and cattle to dedicate, to content their spirits. (XIX.164-198)
Here no "dissolving" will let the scene in the hall with Penelope and her disguised husband
disappear and be replaced by a scene in Crete instead. The whole action – that is, what would
make the core of a résumé – is this situation with Odysseus talking to his beloved wife under the
constraint of not revealing his true identity. An attempt at summary would not mention the
incidents in Crete as a separate episode, they are justified only as the contents of what Odysseus
says in comforting his wife. And in his conversation with Laërtes, Odysseus, still in disguise, is
not telling a story in which a protagonist of a certain kind meets the son of Laërtes, he is actually
saying that he met that man himself, although his words are not true.
But since what is narrated here by the primary storyteller is a scene where Odysseus speaks
to people, he is characterized by his act whether his words are literally true or not. In talking to
his wife Odysseus pretends to be a younger brother of Idomeneus. It is informative to compare
his words here with those of the Cretan bragger who tells Athena that he would not serve under
that man in Troy. This man, in contrast, speaks nobly and modestly and does not make his own
person the centre of interest. Of course this behaviour characterizes the speaker, but it is not a
characterization that applies only to the man impersonated, it really says a lot about the man
impersonating too. You could also say that Odysseus is the one who speaks nobly and
comfortingly to Penelope. But you could not say that Odysseus is the one who speaks like a
rascal to Athena, as he is impersonating the slayer of Orsilochos. Accordingly, there is some truth
in his speech to Penelope. This observation would be one way of understanding the line with
which Homer summarizes this scene in the hall: "He knew how to say many false things that
were like true sayings" (pseudea ... etumoisin homoia) (XIX.203).
The purpose of my discussion of the five "Ithacan lies" of Odysseus has been to argue for the
thesis that these episodes do not reveal just one but a variety of narrative devices. Although all
five texts have been defined as "stories", their fictive speakers as "narrators", and their contents
as "untruth", I would propose that only the first two are instances of the device of "unreliable
narration." This does not mean that their fictive narrators are lying. Rather, to recognize it as
"unreliable narration" is to say that it is a story the perspective of which is awry and therefore
indirectly characterizes the fictive teller. The storytelling in these episodes is parodic. The third
text has a complexity of its own. It should not be characterized as "unreliable narration", because
there is no flaw in the representation of the intention of the fictive narrator and the representation
of his telling. The story of the beggar could be described as the instrument of a fictional speech
act (in this case a warning) that has nothing to do with narrating for the sake of narration. So even
if the paradigm he is offering the suitor is a full-blown narrative, it is totally integrated with a
dramatized speech act, which prevents it from emerging as a narrative of its own. The last two
lies lack the narrative characteristics that apply to the former ones. They never lose contact with
the dramatized scene of enunciation, and although Odysseus is here speaking in disguise their
ethos is in harmony with the ethos of Odysseus' own serious actions. Here, there is no sense of
irony or parody.
1 Sheila Murnaghan, Disguise and Recognition in the Odyssey. Prineton: Princeton Univ. Press,
2 Wayne C. Booth, The Rhetoric of Fiction, , 2 ed. Chicago & London: The Univ. of
Chicago Pr., 1983, in particular Chapter 12.
3 For example Adele Haft, "Odysseus, Idomeneus and Meriones: The Cretan Lies of Odyssey 13–
19." The Classical Journal 79 (1984): 289-306; Hugh Parry, "The Apologos of Odysseus: Lies,
All Lies?" Phoenix 48 (1994): 1–20; W.B. Stanford, "Studies in the Characterization of Ulysses –
III: The Lies of Odysseus." In Hermathena/ A Series of Papers by Members of Trinity College 75
(1950): 35–48; Werner Suerbaum, "Die Ich-Erzählungen des Odysseus." Poetica 2 (1968): 150–
177; C.R. Trahman, "Odysseus' Lies (Odyssey, Books 13–19)." Phoenix/ The Journal of the
Classical Association of Canada 6, no. 2 (1952): 31–43 and P. Walcot, "Odysseus and the Art of
Lying." Ancient Society 8 (1977): 1–19.
4 See, for instance, Seymour Chatman, Story and Discourse. Narrative Structure in Fiction and
Film. Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Pr., 1978 and. Coming to Terms: The Rhetoric of Narrative in Fiction
and Film. Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Pr., 1990; Gregory Currie, "Unreliability Refigured: Narrative in
Literature and Film." The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism. 53:1 (1995): 19-29; Marcia M.
Eaton, "Liars, Ranters, and Dramatic Speakers." In Language and Aesthetics: Contributions to
the Philosophy of Art. Edited by Benjamin R. Tilghman. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas,
1973; Marie-Laure Ryan, "The Pragmatics of Personal and Impersonal Fiction", Poetics
10(1981): 517–539; Tamar Yakobi, "Fictional Reliability as a Communicative Problem." Poetics
Today 2, no. 2 (Winter 1981): 113–126; Francis Sparshott, "The Case of the Unreliable
Narrator." Philosophy and Literature 10, no. 2 (1986): 145–167; Jenny de Reuck, "Stereoscopic
Perspective: Transmission and Reception in Unreliable Homodiegetic Narration." AUMLA 74
5 See for instance Tamar Yacobi, 1981, p. 113.
6 Shlomith Rimmon-Kenan, Narrative Fiction: Contemporary Poetics. London: Methuen, 1983,
7 The Odyssey of Homer, translated by Richmond Lattimore. New York: HarperCollins
8 See for instance Chatman 1978 and 1990; Ryan 1981; Rimmon-Kenan 1983; de Reuck 1990;
Currie 1995; for a critique of the assumption of an implied author, see Wall 1994.
9 Chatman 1978, Ryan 1981, and de Reuch 1990.
10 Marie-Laure Ryan, 1981, p. 530-531.
11 Ryan 1981, p. 531.
12 "Narrator", in Irene R. Makaryk (ed.), Encyclopedia of Contemporary Literary Theory.
Toronto: Univ. of Toronto Pr., 1993.
13 Ryan 1981, p. 531.
14 P. Walcot, "Odysseus and the Art of Lying". Ancient Society 8 (1977): 1-19, p. 11. C.
R.Trahman stresses the intimidating function of this narrative: Odysseus warns the shepherd not
to touch his goods. "Odysseus' Lies." Phoenix 6 (1952), No 2: 31–43. But this psychological
analysis will not conflict with the one I propose. Marilyn A. Katz, in Penelope's Renown:
Meaning and Indeterminacy in the Odyssey. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press,
1991 argues that Odysseus's fictional self-representation represents a "true" characterization of
who he is. Hugh Parry, in "The Apologos of Odysseus: Lies, All Lies?". Phoenix 48(1994): 1-20
has presented convincing arguments for why Odysseus' narrative at the Phaiakian court should
not be taken as unreliable.
15 Kevin Crotty has stressed the importance of the kedea (suffering) theme as constitutive of the
epical ethos of the Odyssey. See his The Poetics of Supplication: Homer's Iliad and Odyssey.
Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1994, especially Chapter 8: "Supplication and
Booth, Wayne, C. The Rhetoric of Fiction. Chicago: The Univ. of Chicago Pr.
 2:nd ed. 1987.
Burrows, Reynold Z. "Deception As a Comic Device in the Odyssey." The
Classical World 59 (1965), No 2: 33–36.
Chatman, Seymour. Story and Discourse. Narrative Structure in Fiction and
Film. Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Pr., 1978.
– Coming to Terms: The Rhetoric of Narrative in Fiction and Film. Ithaca:
Cornell Univ. Pr., 1990.
Currie, Gregory. "Unreliability Refigured: Narrative in Literature and Film."
The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism. 53:1 (1995): 19-29.
Eaton, Marcia M. "Liars, Ranters, and Dramatic Speakers." In Language and Aesthetics:
Contributions to the Philosophy of Art. Edited by Benjamin R. Tilghman. Lawrence: University
Press of Kansas, 1973
Haft, Adele, J. "Odysseus, Idomeneus and Meriones: The Cretan Lies of
Odyssey 13–19. The Classical Journal 79 (1984): 289–306.
de Jong, Irene. "The Subjective Style in Odysseus' Wanderings." The Classical
Quarterly 42 (1992), no. 1: 1–11.
Katz, Marilyn A. Penelope's Renown: Meaning and Indeterminacy in the Odyssey.
Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1991
Murnaghan, Sheila. Disguise and Recognition in the Odyssey. Princeton:
Princeton University Press, 1987.
Parry, Hugh. "The Apologos of Odysseus: Lies, All Lies?" Phoenix 48 (1994):
Rademacher, Ludwig. "Die Erzählungen der Odyssee." In Sitzungsberichte der
Kais. Akademie der Wissenschaften in Wien. Philosphisch-Historische
Klasse 178 (1915): 1–59.
de Reuck, Jenny. "Stereoscopic Perspectives: Transmission and Reception in
Unreliable Homodiegetic Narration." AUMLA: Journal of the Australasian
Universities Language and Literature Association. 74 (1990):
Rimmon-Kenan, Shlomith. Narrative Fiction: Contemporary Poetics. London:
Ryan, Marie-Laure. "The Pragmatics of Personal and Impersonal Fiction."
Poetics 10 (1981: 517-539.
– "Narrator", in Irene R. Makaryk (ed.), Encyclopedia of Contemporary
Literary Theory Toronto: Univ. of Toronto Pr., 1993.
Sparshott, Francis. "The Case of the Unreliable Narrator." Philosophy and Literature
10, no. 2 (1986): 145–167
Stanford, W.B. "Studies in the Characterization of Ulysses – III: The Lies of
Odysseus." In Hermathena/ A Series of Papers by Members of Trinity
College 75 (1950): 35–48.
Suerbaum, Werner "Die Ich-Erzählungen des Odysseus." Poetica 2 (1968):
Trahman, C.R. "Odysseus' Lies." Phoenix 6 (1952), No 2: 31–43.
Walcot, P. "Odysseus and the Art of Lying". Ancient Society 8 (1977): 1-19.
Wall, Kathleen. "The Remains of the Day And Its Challenges to Theories
of Unreliable Narration," Journal of Narrative Technique 24 (1994):
Yakobi, Tamar. "Fictional Reliability as a Communicative Problem." Poetics Today 2,
no. 2 (Winter 1981): 113–126.