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.
Cunning, Disguise, and Self-Restraint ThemeTracker
Cunning, Disguise, and Self-Restraint Quotes in The Odyssey
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.
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.
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!
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.
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!
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.