The Odyssey

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Cunning, Disguise, and Self-Restraint Theme Analysis

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Fate, the Gods, and Free Will Theme Icon
Piety, Customs, and Justice Theme Icon
Cunning, Disguise, and Self-Restraint Theme Icon
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Cunning, Disguise, and Self-Restraint Theme Icon

The qualities of cunning, disguise, and self-restraint are closely related in The Odyssey – in some ways, they're sides of the same coin. Odysseus is cunning, or clever, in many instances throughout his journey; one needs cleverness in order to survive in this ancient world of gods and monsters. As part of his cunning, Odysseus often disguises his identity – sometimes in order to survive a dangerous trial, as when he claims to be called Nobody in the cave of the Cyclops Polyphemus, and sometimes in order to achieve a goal, as when he assumes the appearance of a beggar upon his return to Ithaca (he also disguises himself as a beggar as part of a military maneuver in Troy: both disguises ultimately bring him glory). "The man of twists and turns" is like Proteus, who escapes his captors by changing shapes.

Odysseus is also cunning in his capacity to separate his feelings from his actions. A "cunning tactician," he often chooses his actions based on previously formed plans rather than on present feelings. When Odysseus watches the Cyclops eat his companions, he does not charge at the Cyclops in blind rage and grief: he suppresses his grief and formulates a plan that allows him to escape with at least part of his crew. Just like in his encounter with the suitors in the second half of the book, he postpones the revenge he craves. Odysseus's self-restraint is symbolized in his encounter with the Sirens: he asks his men to tie him to the mast in order to survive.

Similarly, Odysseus's many disguises are emblematic of his self-restraint: disguise separates the inside from the outside, just as self-restraint separates feeling from action. Penelope and Telemachus are also cunning in their own ways, and their cunning, too, is connected to self-restraint; and Odysseus's crew often meets with disaster because of a lack of self-restraint, as when they slaughter the Cattle of the Sun, or when they eat Circe's poisoned meal. The characters of the Odyssey need cunning, disguise, and self-restraint to survive the trials of the gods and achieve glory.

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Cunning, Disguise, and Self-Restraint ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Cunning, Disguise, and Self-Restraint appears in each section of The Odyssey. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Cunning, Disguise, and Self-Restraint Quotes in The Odyssey

Below you will find the important quotes in The Odyssey related to the theme of Cunning, Disguise, and Self-Restraint.
Book 8 Quotes

The gods don't hand out all their gifts at once,
not build and brains and flowing speech to all.
One man may fail to impress us with his looks
but a god can crown his words with beauty, charm,
and men look on with delight when he speaks out.
Never faltering, filled with winning self-control,
he shines forth at assembly grounds and people gaze
at him like a god when he walks through the streets.
Another man may look like a deathless one on high
but there's not a bit of grace to crown his words.

Related Characters: Odysseus (speaker)
Page Number: 8.193-202
Explanation and Analysis:

Odysseus is here goaded into competing with the talented athletes of Nausicaa's kingdom. Odysseus is initially reluctant to compete in athletic events of any kind, because he wants to conceal his excellence--he's afraid that the others will deduce that he's a king. Odysseus modestly claims that he's not good at everything: after all, people who are good at talking aren't necessarily good at sports.

Odysseus's words are highly ironic, since he's a hero: an all-around "good man." Odysseus is a clever speaker, a talented warrior, a great leader, a fantastic athlete, and a handsome man, too. Indeed, James Joyce commented that Odysseus was the most "complete man" in all of Western literature: a father, a son, a husband, a warrior, a poet. In short, Odysseus embodies more human virtues than just about anyone else--but here he feels he must restrain those virtues, and cover them with a vague speech about how "no one's perfect."


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A bad day for adultery! Slow outstrips the Swift.

Related Characters: Ares, Aphrodite, Hephaestus
Page Number: 8.372
Explanation and Analysis:

In this scene, an unnamed bard (a self-portrait, it's been suggested, of Homer himself) tells a comic story for a large banquet audience. In the story, the crippled god Hephaestus learns that his wife, the beautiful Aphrodite, is having an affair with Ares, the strong, handsome god of war. Hephaestus tricks Aphrodite and Ares into making love in a booby-trapped bed: when they're finished having sex, Hephaestus traps his victims in a strong chain.Hephaestus gloats over his victory: even though he's incapable of walking fast, he's managed to trap the swift, powerfulAres.

The story is interesting because it emphasizes the power of thought and ingenuity over physical force. Throughout the poem, we'll see how Odysseus relies more heavily on his mind than on his body: Athena, not Ares, is his god of choice, and Odysseus's epithets (the brief phrases used to describe him when he's mentioned in the poem) almost always refer to his cunning, not his physical exploits.

Book 9 Quotes

Calypso the lustrous goddess tried to hold me back,
deep in her arching caverns, craving me for a husband.
So did Circe, holding me just as warmly in her halls,
the bewitching queen of Aeaea keen to have me too.
But they never won the heart inside me, never.
So nothing is as sweet as a man's own country.

Related Characters: Odysseus (speaker), Calypso, Circe
Page Number: 9.33-38
Explanation and Analysis:

At the beginning of this book, Odysseus introduces himself as a lover of his own country, and his own wife (Penelope). Odysseus reinforces his loyalty to his homeland by claiming that beautiful women like Circe and Calypso have tried to seduce him away from his family, but he always proved too strong for them. Odysseus's lust for women is nothing compared to his affection for his home: his family, his house, and his entire kingdom.

The passage is an important statement of the key theme of the poem: the importance of a home, and the memory of home. Odysseus is given many opportunities along the way back to Ithaca to live a good life: he could have stayed on Calypso's island, for example. Instead, Odysseus remembers his duty to his wife and child, and his duty to his subjects. In short, Odysseus proves himself to be a noble king by refusing to stop short of Ithaca. At the same time, Odysseus is further glorified as a hero by the fact that these goddesses, witches, and queens all fall hopelessly in love with him.

Since we've chanced on you, we're at your knees
in hopes of a warm welcome, even a guest-gift,
the sort that hosts give strangers. That's the custom.
Respect the gods, my friend. We're suppliants – at your mercy!
Zeus of the Strangers guards all guests and suppliants:
strangers are sacred – Zeus will avenge their rights!

Related Characters: Odysseus (speaker), Zeus, Polyphemus
Page Number: 9.300-305
Explanation and Analysis:

In this flashback scene, Odysseus and his crew of sailors land on the island of Polyphemus, a wicked cyclops. Odysseus asks Polyphemus to give his crew food and shelter--he even cites the unwritten laws of Zeus, which compel any host to take good care of his visitors and guests.

The passage spells out the "laws of the home" that dominate life in the ancient world. All people are religiously required to take care of their guests--doing so is a sacred duty among the Greeks, backed up by the power of almighty Zeus. Polyphemus, as we'll see, refuses to abide by Zeus's laws--and in the process, he confirms that he's not just a bad host but an evil person as well.

Book 11 Quotes

Even so, you and your crew may still reach home,
suffering all the way, if you only have the power
to curb their wild desire and curb your own.

Related Characters: Tiresias (speaker), Odysseus
Related Symbols: Food
Page Number: 11.117-119
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Tiresias urges Odysseus to obey the laws of the gods so that he and his crew can return to Ithaca alive and well. Tiresias instructs Odysseus to refrain from killing and eating the famous Oxen of the Sun, the sacred cattle of the god Helios. Tiresias warns Odysseus that if his men kill the oxen, the gods will punish them all very harshly and make their journey back to Ithaca all but impossible.

It's interesting that Tiresias frames Odysseus's challenge as a test of "wild desire." Throughout the poem, Homer will portray gluttony, lust, and other bodily sins as crimes of desiremore than anything else. A true leader, it's implied, can control his desires, and those of his followers, completely: instead of giving in to hunger, thirst, lust, etc., he uses his mind and his willpower to stay strong.

I tell you this – bear it in mind, you must –
when you reach your homeland steer your ship
into port in secret, never out in the open…
the time for trusting women's gone forever!

Related Characters: Agamemnon (speaker), Odysseus, Clytemnestra
Page Number: 11.515-518
Explanation and Analysis:

In this famous passage, Odysseus visits the ghost of Agamemnon in the Underworld. Agamemnon, who has been murdered by his own wife, Clytemnestra, warns Odysseus against trusting his own wife, Penelope, too much. Agamemnon claims that married women often have affairs with other men--Penelope may have taken a lover while Odysseus was away. Thus, Agamemnon urges Odysseus to arrive on Ithaca in secret--just in case Penelope is planning to kill him.

The passage is important because it adds another layer of suspense to the story: Odysseus is trying to return to Penelope, but does Penelopewant him back? By returning to Ithaca, Odysseus is hoping to return to his old life--a life of peace, love, and prosperity. But Agamemnon raises the grim possibility that Odysseus will never be able to return to his old life: his wife and child may have changed beyond all recognition.

Book 12 Quotes

So stubborn! …
Hell-bent again yet again on battle and feats of arms?
Can't you bow to the deathless gods themselves?
Scylla's no mortal, she's an immortal devastation.

Related Characters: Circe (speaker), Odysseus, Scylla
Page Number: 12.125-128
Explanation and Analysis:

Odysseus has captured the witch Circe, who gives Odysseus advice for how to survive the coming dangers. Circe explains that Odysseus will have to sail past two dangers: the whirlpool known as Charybdis, and the monster known as Scylla. Odysseus believes that he'll be able to fight off Scylla without losing any of his men, but Circe angrily corrects him: Scylla is immortal, and can't be defeated by mere mortals. Odysseus will have to sacrifice six of his own men to feed Scylla if he hopes to get back to Ithaca.

Circe's point of view is interesting: she encourages Odysseus to accept the inevitable; i.e., accept the fact that he's going to have to lose some men in order to get home. She further accuses Odysseus of being overly eager to fight, and suggests that he's hopelessly violent and desirous of glory. In short, Circe is urging Odysseus to accept his limitations, and sometimes take the easier way out. Odysseus is a hero, but he's also mortal, meaning that he'll never be able to beat Scylla. Odysseus's boundless confidence in his own abilities is part of what makes him such a compelling character, but as we'll see, it also makes him reckless and careless at times.

Book 13 Quotes

Any man – any god who met you – would have to be
some champion lying cheat to get past you
for all-round craft and guile! You terrible man,
foxy, ingenious, never tired of twists and tricks –
so, not even here, on native soil, would you give up
those wily tales that warm the cockles of your heart!

Related Characters: Athena (speaker), Odysseus
Page Number: 13.329-334
Explanation and Analysis:

Odysseus has finally returned to Ithaca, and Athena appears before him in the guise of a poor shepherd. When the shepherd asks Odysseus who he is, Odysseus tells a lie, thinking on the spot. At this point, Athena reveals that she's really a goddess. Moreover, she affectionately praises Odysseus for being such a quick-witted hero: even when he's back in Ithaca, Odysseus loves to tell lies.

Athena knows her man (Odysseus has always been her favored hero) well, and she recognizes that Odysseus's greatest asset is his brain. Odysseus has used his wit to lie his way to safety again and again: with Polyphemus, with Nausicaa, etc. As the goddess of wisdom, Athena is understandably impressed with her hero's abilities: by using his mind so skillfully, Odysseus does honor to Athena, and Athena rewards him in turn.

Book 16 Quotes

Would I were young as you, to match my spirit now,
or I were the son of great Odysseus, or the king himself
returned from all his roving – there's still room for hope!
Then let some foreigner lop my head off if I failed
to march right into Odysseus's royal halls
and kill them all. And what if I went down,
crushed by their numbers – I, fighting alone?
I'd rather die, cut down in my own house
than have to look on at their outrage day by day.

Related Characters: Odysseus (speaker), Telemachus, Antinous, Eurymachus
Page Number: 16.111-119
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage Telemachus has made contact with Odysseus, but doesn't yet realize that he's reunited with his own father (Athena has disguised Odysseus as an old beggar). Instead of revealing himself to Telemachus, Odysseus gives a long speech in which he talks about how he'd avenge Penelope's honor if he were young and noble. In another minute, Athena will urge Odysseus to reveal his true identity to his son--but for now, Odysseus keeps himself hidden.

Why doesn't Odysseus just reveal himself to his beloved son right away? Homer suggests a couple of answers. First, Odysseus is unsure if he can trust Telemachus: Agamemnon has inspired him to distrust everyone, even his own family. (Immediately after this passage, Athena appears, assuring Odysseus that he can trust Telemachus.) Second, Odysseus doesn't want to reveal his whereabouts too early: if he tells Telemachus who he is, there's a chance the news could get back to Antinous and the other suitors, and he could be killed. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Odysseus genuinely loves to lie, and wants to draw out the suspense of his secret return. He gets a thrill from pretending to be someone he's not--here, for example, he's definitely enjoying himself as he goes on about what he'd do "if" he were Odysseus. One could even argue that Odysseus is a trickster/poet/artist first and a father/warrior/king second.

Book 17 Quotes

Odysseus was torn…
Should he wheel with his staff and beat the scoundrel senseless? –
or hoist him by the midriff, split his skull on the rocks?
He steeled himself instead, his mind in full control.

Related Characters: Odysseus, Melanthius
Page Number: 17.257-260
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Odysseus, disguised as an old beggar, ventures toward his palace. While he's walking there a goatherd named Melanthius gives him a kick and insults him. Odysseus is tempted to reveal himself to Melanthius and punish him for his disobedience. But instead, Odysseus keeps his self-control and walks on. If he were to get in a fight with the goatherd, he'd ruin his plan by revealing his strength and youth.

The passage shows that Odysseus is a very different kind of hero than the ones we met during the Trojan War (including younger-Odysseus himself, at times). Odysseus is a talented warrior, but by now his mind is even more powerful than his body: he has the discipline and caution needed to pull off a complicated plan, and is even willing to take a humiliating beating if it means the plan will succeed. The passage thus suggests that Odysseus has become more disciplined during his journey home. The old Odysseus had ruined his own plan by bragging to the cyclops--the new Odysseus, however, isn't so reckless or so arrogant.

Book 21 Quotes

Like an expert singer skilled at lyre and song –
who strains a string to a new peg with ease,
making the pliant sheep-gut fast at either end –
so with his virtuoso ease Odysseus strung his mighty bow.

Related Characters: Odysseus
Page Number: 21.453-456
Explanation and Analysis:

In this satisfying, climactic passage Odysseus--still disguised as a beggar--succeeds in a seemingly impossible task. He's able to string a heavy bow, which only the former "King Odysseus" was able to handle, and which all the suitors have failed to string. Homer compares the skill with which Odysseus strings the bow to the way a talented bard strings a lyre. The scene represents the first sign for the suitors that Odysseus the beggar isn't really a beggar at all: Odysseus is confirming his status as the rightful king of Ithaca, and also beginning to reveal his skill and power (both as a warrior and as a cunning, creative man--like a singer or musician) to those who have usurped his position.

Critics have noted that this passage is one of the only times in the poem when Homer alludes to his own profession: Homer was a professional bard, meaning that he had to play the lyre and perform for large audiences. Moreover, by comparing himself to Odysseus, Homer might be implying his own status as a great man, skillful and powerful even if in humble ways. Like Odysseus, Homer is clearly an intelligent person and a quick thinker, and enjoys showing off his abilities.

Book 24 Quotes

What good sense resided in your Penelope –
how well Icarius's daughter remembered you,
Odysseus, the man she married once!
The fame of her great virtue will never die.
The immortal gods will lift a song for all mankind,
a glorious song in praise of self-possessed Penelope.

Related Characters: Agamemnon (speaker), Odysseus, Penelope
Page Number: 24.213-218
Explanation and Analysis:

In this scene, the ghost of Agamemnon, confined to the Underworld, crosses paths with the ghosts of the various suitors Odysseus has just slaughtered. Agamemnon is glad to hear that Odysseus has reclaimed his place in Ithaca, because it proves that Penelope was a good and faithful wife to him. Agamemnon was murdered by his own wife, but he's pleased to hear that Penelope really is a loyal, moral woman.

Even if Agamemnon is trapped in the Underworld forever, he's gets some relief with the knowledge that not all marriages are treacherous, and Odysseus has come to a happy ending. Furthermore, Agamemnon's speech reminds us that, in a way, Penelope is another true hero of the poem: her intelligence and faithfulness will be remembered for just as long as Odysseus's wiliness and strength. Furthermore, both king and queen are ultimately most praised for their self-restraint--Odysseus when he allowed himself to be disguised as a humble beggar, or chose to give up glory in pursuit of his ultimate goal, and Penelope when she chose to remain loyal to Odysseus, despite all indications that he would never return from Troy.