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  • Wordplay and Apparent Fiction in the Odyssey
  • Frederick Ahl

Inclusion of the word "fiction" in the title of a paper on Homer may seem to indicate that, to paraphrase Gregory Nagy, I am starting my discussion of Homer from Ruth Finnegan rather than Lord and Parry.1 In this paper, however, I am approaching the Odyssey as if it were the product of a seamster rather than a weaver: constructed from bits and pieces of material already in existence whose patterns do not necessarily match. This is the sort of "scholarly" model Aelian envisaged in his Varia Historia 13.14: an Iliad and Odyssey existing not as whole works but as separate narrative episodes, collected and put together under the auspices of a Lycurgus or Peisistratus. Fictive design has no place in it, other than in the arrangement of the patches.

I have deep reservations about such a model, even though it can be made to work, by and large, as an explanation of the larger "chunks" of the Iliad and Odyssey. For it runs, in my opinion, into problems when applied to some smaller segments, often only a few lines, that many would consider part of one of the pieces in the quilt. In short, I share the suspicion of my teacher, Malcolm Willcock, that there are fictional elements in these smaller passages.2 Nonetheless, I assume, for the purposes of this paper, that all mythic variants occurring within a given section of the Iliad or Odyssey suggest variant traditions rather than authorial fiction in order to see where this assumption leads. [End Page 117]

My discussion centers on Odysseus's claims, beginning in Odyssey 13, that he is a Cretan. It pays particular attention to his interchanges, in that guise, with Eumaeus and to how Eumaeus responds to Odysseus's Cretan persona and how he reports it to others. For Eumaeus is quite the master of narrative himself. The doubts he expresses about Odysseus's veracity lead him to interpret, or give the impression that he is interpreting, overt statements as disguising covert subtexts that require decoding.3 The swineherd has been doing well in Odysseus's absence, has his own agenda about what he wants from his master, and is bold enough to compete nose to nose with Odysseus with what look like fictitious narratives of his own.

Let me begin with a few observations about a very familiar pas-sage: Odysseus's self-identification to Athena in Odyssey 13 when she approaches him, disguised as a shepherd, on the beach in Ithaca.

The text introduces Odysseus's words with these remarks (13.253-55):

He spoke and addressed winged words to her; yet he didnot say what was true, but bit back the narrative, always controlling his very cunning thought in his heart.

Odysseus's words are described first as , then as not true, and finally as , which I have rendered as "narrative," thus causing them to fall into a complex no man's land where Richard Martin's always perceptive distinctions among and , and , rub shoulders uncomfortably.4 Athena reacts at the end of Odysseus's tale by calling him, with apparent approval, a scheming, treacherous scoundrel who uses what I translate as "stolen" words rather than the usual"deceitful" words: , since the root of is clearly , , "steal" (13.293-95): [End Page 118]

You rogue, complex thinker, hungry for deceit, you had no intention, even in your own land, of stopping your guiles and your stolen narratives that are dear to the roots of your being.

Athena's comments imply that one might expect Odysseus to abandon what she considers his habitual practice of deceit, treachery, and use of stolen myths now that he is home. But if it is his habitual practice, where else has he been practicing such narrative in the Odyssey if not, ironically, at the court of the Phaeacians? Whoever the Phaeacians are and wherever they may live, they belong on no genuine map of the Mediterranean world and are curiously disconnected from the other mythic characters of the epic. Yet it is clear that the Phaeacian king, Alcinous, has some doubts about Odysseus's veracity. He voices those...


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