ILLUSTRATE AND ANALYSE THE WORKINGS OF ODYSSEUS’S METIS AND PERSUASIVE SPEECH
The proem of the Iliad states clearly that Homer’s first poem is about menis, the wrath of Achilles. The Odyssey however, focuses on the heroic quality of metis, clever thinking. This shift in attention is in line with the shift in the general perception of heroic characteristics and their varying importance. The heroes of old with their brute strength became less accessible to an ordinary listenership than those with cunning and persuasive speech like Odysseus.
It is interesting that the poet would choose a secondary character of the Iliad as the focus of his second epic. Perhaps he is demonstrating the ways in which the Hellenic world was altered by the Trojan War and how a hero would have to adjust to a new world. The story of a displaced hero would be thus intriguing to a Homeric audience.
Odysseus is presented with situations that cannot be overcome by hitherto accepted heroic practices. Against super natural monsters and demi-goddesses the hero cannot employ the brute strength of the traditional Iliadic hero, and must therefore rely on his mind. An issue that plagues the Ithacan is the protection of his crew, and his greatest skill is demonstrated not by saving them all, but rescuing as many as he can. It is a skill of leadership to judge necessary sacrifices and Odysseus repeatedly does just this. What may appear as cowardice in the Laestrygonian episode, that is when Odysseus insights his own crew to leave without attempting to rescue more ships, is in fact the best the hero could achieve under the horrific circumstances (Book X). If he had done the hitherto considered heroic thing, that is to stay and fight in defense of his fleet, every man would have perished. His action betrays an intelligence that would have contrary to heroic instinct. This situation recurs with the Scylla and Charybdis episode where Odysseus decides that losing six men to the former is better than all to the latter. His decision may seem harsh, condemning six of his men to death, but it is necessary action to ensure the survival of the majority.
Odysseus once again demonstrates the necessary leadership qualities required of a character attempting to excel at metis. This episode also provides grounds for evaluating Odysseus’s powers of persuasive speech. Odysseus tells his men that he will share what Circe told him but he “stopped short of mentioning Scylla” (Book XII, 148) so as not to scare them into inaction. This discretion shows forethought; to achieve his goal Odysseus must keep his men ignorant. Then his speech of encouragement (Book XII, 147-8) expresses many persuasive elements.
Odysseus speaks of the past victory against the Cyclops in order to make his men more confident, he extols his own virtues, “my courage and wit and strategy rescued us”, to gain their trust in his leadership. Then he appeals to their piety by invoking Zeus, patron god of travellers, to protect them, again, this would bolster the crew. The evidence of the success of Odysseus persuasive speech lies in the fact that the men act according to his command at this point.
Odysseus is clearly a great hero but his skills as a leader may be questioned. In the Iliad he is relied on by Agamemnon to persuade the common Greek soldiers to continue their campaign (Iliad Book II, 185-210). Here the men clearly trust and respect him. However, in the Odyssey the audience is confronted on many occasions with the fact that Odysseus’s men do not trust him nor respect his commands. The example of the Aeolus episode demonstrates a flaw in Odysseus’s leadership skills; it is difficult to understand why he does not explain to his men what the bag contains (Book X, 113-5). His men think he is cheating them out of riches and disobey his orders. This shows a lack of foresight on Odysseus’s part and an inability to judge the characters of his “faithless comrades” (Book X, 114), two qualities required in a sound demonstration of metis.
A similar occurrence can be found in the Cattle of the Sun episode (Book XII, 149-53). Twice Odysseus makes his crew vow to spare the herds, and twice they agree. To break their oaths would contradict their heroic standing and yet they do just this. This seems to suggest that they do not value Odysseus and do not feel compelled to keep his faith. The fact is suggestive of poor leadership and an inability to address his men in a way that will influence them and so a lack of metis. It also demonstrates a weakness in Odysseus’s ability to speak persuasively.
Odysseus’s capacity for persuasive speech is established in the Iliad, as cited above, he is also sent as part of the embassy to Achilles (Iliad, Book IX) because of his verbal skill. An audience would therefore expect the same quality of speech in the Odyssey. His encounter with Arete provides an example in which this is the case (Book VII, 79). Fenik points out that “When Odysseus makes his plea to Arete the Phaeacians fall silent until Echeneos bids Alkinoos welcome the stranger and feed him”. This shows that Odysseus’s speech has the power of captivating the whole room and not just the women to whom he supplicates himself.
Another point in his favor is that, having been shrouded in mist by Athene he suddenly appears embracing the knees of the queen. One may find this a startling occurrence but Odysseus’s speech is such that it belies any fear or urge to take action against his person. Odysseus employs compliments in order to gain favour with his hosts. He begins by calling Arete’s father “great” and then speaks of the “wealth” Alkinoos and his guests will be able to bequeath their children, suggesting they are all successful men. All this will prey on their vanity and so make them more inclined to help the stranger. He also calls down divine blessing upon the assembled throng, which will further endear him to them.
In response to my earlier point that Odysseus is moving in an irrevocably altered post-Trojan War world, one may consider the different societies in which the hero finds himself. The custom of xenia was well established in the Iliad, particularly in Book IX where the envoy to Achilles feast twice within hours in order to avoid offending their hosts. In the Odyssey the protagonist expects this practice of xenia to be respected across the known world, but is time and again confronted with cultures that do not function as he does. Neither the Cyclopes nor the Laestrygonians exchange gifts but rather eat their guests (Books IX and Book X respectively), Circe attempts to turn her guests into pigs (Book X), then the Phaeacians, though ultimately accommodating, were not accustomed to entertaining strangers (Book VII). It is in light of this that Odysseus is forced to demonstrate quick wittedness and therefore best exemplify his capacity for metis and persuasive speech.
An important recurring device that demonstrates Odysseus’s cunning is his use of disguise. Jones describes the protagonists repeated use of concealment as “a calculated response to a difficult situation”. Examples of this include his deceptions of Nausiccaa and Polyphemus (Book VI and Book IX respectively). This may seem a simple and effective ruse but the implications for a Homeric hero are manifold. Concealing one’s identity is in direct odds to the achievement of kleos, which is tantamount in all heroes. Glory leads to reputation that leads to immortality through renown. To avoid this as often as Odysseus chooses to shows great skill on his part to resist an almost instinctive need to be recognized for heroic deeds by one’s peers. To endure self-imposed inconsequentiality demonstrates a dedication to metis as an overriding necessity in order to achieve his goal, which is to return to Ithaca.
It is important to note that when Odysseus’s dedication to the intelligent course of action wavers he brings much trouble upon himself and his crew. Initially, Odysseus is the cause of his own strife by insisting he and his men remain in the cave of the Cyclops in order to observe the rights of xenia to which he is accustomed (Book IX, 104). But Polyphemus does not hold with the Greek customs and eats his would be quests. It could be argued that Odysseus can be made accountable for those of the crew that die at the monster’s hands because they could have escaped before their unwilling host’s return. Then Odysseus excels himself with the intelligent handling of the ruse of the name, which counters his quest for kleos, the blinding, and the escape from the cave. All this is exemplary proof of his great skill of metis and persuasive speech.
Focusing on Odysseus’s handling of his identity in this episode, one can see that it involves the hero delaying his answer to the giant’s question until the latter is inebriated. This means that Polyphemus will therefore not suspect “Noman” to be an odd designation. Fenik highlights that “The sequence of question – interval – reply is the same as the Hermes-Kalypso exchange, and when Odysseus begins to answer he refers back to the question…the same way as Hermes”. This point is interesting because it shows that Odysseus possesses the same capacity for intelligent speaking as the gods, particularly the messenger god whom, by definition, is required to speak persuasively.
However, it is clear that Odysseus cannot resist his quest for kleos when he reveals his name, “if anyone among mortal men should ask who put out your eye in this ugly fashion, say that the one who blinded you was Odysseus the city-sacker” (Book IX, 111). This quotation demonstrates the importance that Odysseus places on his mortal peers, even strangers he will never meet, knowing of his achievement. However, this arrogance leads to the mythical driving force of the adventure plot of the Odyssey being established.
Polyphemus calls upon Poseidon to exact revenge upon the Ithacan and it is this that leads to the hero’s extended period of wandering before returning home. It is this extended wandering that arguably leads to the death of his whole fleet and so Odysseus can be answerable for the inadvertent murder of all his men. This episode proves that Odysseus is not as cunning as he might be and that a hero’s addiction to the pursuit of kleos could be his downfall despite his intelligence.
One may consider the way in which Odysseus must often rely on women in order to further his homeward journey. In the patriarchal society of the Iliad the female characters were subservient wives or concubines. This is the only situation the audience has witnessed Odysseus within and so one might assume he would be accustomed to this attitude towards women. In the Odyssey he is confronted with powerful demi-goddesses, monsters (Scylla) and Sirens, and possibly more disturbing for the hero, a mortal queen revered more than her husband (Arete). He is repeatedly thrown into situations where he is under the influence of women; he must supplicate Nausiccaa when he is “befouled with brine” and naked (Book VI), a humiliating situation for anyone especially a man of Odysseus’s repute. Yet he perseveres and does not hesitate in taking the advice of the women who counsel him. He does exactly as Io commands (Book V), which shows a strong domination of his male pride. It could be said that this control of his pride, that would defy submission to female will, is a triumph of metis, because the advice they give is sound and helps him to gain Ithaca.
Therefore Odysseus once again demonstrates the pre-eminence of his metis in the face of circumstances that contradict his established codes of behavior. However, one cannot overlook Odysseus’s rejection of Circe’s command that he not arm himself before Scylla. The hero’s compulsion towards achieving kleos dictates that he be ready for battle. His attempt was futile however and he was forced to watch his companions suffer. It was also his six “strongest of arm and sturdiest” comrades who were taken from him (Book XII, 148), suggestive of a deliberate punishment for not heeding the demi-goddesses advice. This also provides another instance of Odysseus’s persuasive speech. He employs a simile to illustrate the sight of his companions being eaten to his audience. He uses the paradigm of a fisherman in an extended comparison between his catching a fish and Scylla’s treatment of his men.
This function in two ways, firstly it proves Odysseus’s capacity for appealing to a particular audience as the Phaeacians are seafaring people and so closely connected with fishing. Secondly, Homer often employs similes to enhance his audience’s understanding of his scene. Odysseus is therefore connected with the skill of the poet himself, which is well respected, and so is leant a greater repute for persuasive speech. Each of Odysseus’s adventures pits him against a physical manifestation of a psychological shortcoming that might distract him from returning to Ithaca; the Lotus-Eaters represent forgetfulness, the Cyclops is impiety, Scylla vanity, and Charybdis greed.
The Sirens can be said to represent temptation, a common folktale found even in the Bible with Eve tempting Adam to eat the fruit of knowledge. The Sirens offer knowledge, only to lead men to their death. Odysseus is able to do what others cannot, that is to experience temptation without the punishment that accompanies such a transgression. The reason for this is because of his intelligence.
It is interesting to note the simplicity of his device to hear the singers, rope to bind him and wax for his crew’s ears, but it is effective nonetheless. It is likewise relevant to consider that Odysseus’s natural gift for intelligence is respected by the gods and not punished. Other mythical characters that suffered for their gifts include Daedalus and Orpheus who, like Odysseus, used their natural abilities to achieve their ends but were often ultimately thwarted. Odysseus suffers initially but is ultimately rewarded. The divine sanction of Odysseus’s actions always excluding Poseidon, shows a shift in acceptable heroic courses of action, which is towards the employment of metis. But Daedalus employed metis with his various inventions so perhaps it is not only a shift in heroic values but also one in the role the gods play in the mortal sphere, more encouraging than vengeful, always excluding Poseidon.
One may wonder as to the relevance of discussing Odysseus’s cunning when the Homeric world believed in overriding fate. It is not just a common ancient belief that hinders the audience crediting the protagonist with the outcome of the various episodes in the Odyssey, but indicators within the text also point to the events being out of the control of the Ithacan.
In the assembly of the gods Zeus talks about how it has been decreed that Odysseus will return home (Book I, 3), then Tiresias tells Odysseus that he shall arrive home and live to old age (Book XI, 131). With this in mind perhaps the audience is less impressed by Odysseus’s feats of cunning as the outcome is preordained. There is a fine line between divine predestination and mortal overrunning of their allotted portion (note the Aegisthus story quoted by Zeus in Book I) but this notion clearly undermines Odysseus’s capacity for metis.
One ought to consider that while Odysseus employs metis to secure an opportunity to exact his revenge on the Suitors, it is brute strength he requires to string the bow and physical violence he utilizes in order to achieve their deaths. This is marked return to the old heroic values that he has rejected throughout the poem. It therefore undermines the forbearance of metis that the audience has been instructed in prior to the climax. Homer’s meticulously constructed post-Trojan world in which to use a cliché ‘brains triumph over brawn’ is shattered by Odysseus’s lack of mercy and treatment of the bodies and disloyal servants following the initial slaughter.
It seems to suggest that there is still a place for old values in this “new” world, considering that Odysseus’s final actions are divinely sanctioned with the gods diverting the revenge of the Suitors’ families. The Odyssey presents its audience with a world in which an Iliadic hero attempts to function in an unrecognizably altered world. The customs and behaviors of the societies Odysseus encounters are irreconcilable to the world he left when he went to Troy. Homer “creates” a hero who must find different ways to confront obstacles than those he would formally have employed.
Old customs of xenia and kleos must be rejected in order to survive and Odysseus epitomizes the struggle to adjust. His powers of metis and persuasive speech are formidable, and essential to his survival. However, Odysseus is intermittently undone by his reluctance to wholly reject his old conduct. I can conclude that, while Odysseus demonstrates great power in metis and persuasive speech, his actions will ultimately be defined by his adherence to xenia and his instinctive obsession with his own kleos.
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I am a Shakespeare fanatic with six years` classroom experience. I enjoy reading a wide range of fiction and non-fiction and became a teacher to share my passion for language. Now that I have a young family, I have decided to indulge my love of teaching outside the classroom to fit arou.... Read More