Liar liar! Odysseus, the unreliable narrator

Like a Russian matryoshka doll, or like the Arabian nights, the story of The Odyssey contains within it stories narrated by its characters.

Menelaos tells Telemachus the tale of his own return from Troy and that Odysseus is being held captive by Calypso. In Phaeacia, the blind singer Demodocus recounts the ruse of the horse that ended the Trojan war.

With regards to the adventures of Odysseus, Homer reports directly on the time with Calypso, the arrival to the island of the Phaeacians, the return to Ithaca, and the events with the suitors.

Odysseus himself is the sole source for ten adventures. He spins them as yarns at the court of Phaeacian King Alcinous, and he summarizes them to Penelope in Ithaca.

Funerary Amphora showing Odysseus and his men blinding the cyclops Polyphemus. Detail of the neck. Around 660 BCE, Archaeological Museum of Eleusis. Via Wikimedia Commons.
Funerary Amphora showing Odysseus and his men blinding the cyclops Polyphemus. Did it really happen or is it a fib of Odysseus? Around 660 BCE. Archaeological Museum of Eleusis. Via Wikimedia Commons.

The lotus eaters, the cyclops Polyphemus, Circe, visiting the dead, Scylla and Charybdis, the winds, the cattle of Helios.

All are stories recounted by Odysseus within the story.

Why do we believe them?

After all, Odysseus lies constantly. When he first arrives to Phaeacia, he claims to be a merchant from Crete. He tells this to Penelope, to his son, to his father, and even to Athena.

These are not just casual attempts at misdirection.

He tells detailed and involved adventures that are all lies.

We know Odysseus was from Ithaca and was never a merchant.

Odysseus tells them he hails from Crete 

Which is a bit of a joke, because the Cretans had a reputation in antiquity for lying.

Epimenides, a 6th C BCE Cretan philosopher, famously said:

Cretans always tell lies.

This statement is known as the paradox of Epimenides, as it appears to be a contradiction.

It isn’t really a paradox because there is no contradiction if it isn’t true.

Since Epimenides is Cretan, the statement is likely a lie. If it is a lie that Cretans always lie, then it follows that at least one Cretan has spoken truly at some point.

Not Epimenides in this statement, but someone.

A closely related statement is a paradox

This is a lie.

If the statement is true, then what is stated is untrue. If the statement is false, then what is stated is not an untruth.

I told you it was a paradox

The above statement and ones like it are called the liar paradox. (Though sometimes confused with the paradox of Epimenides, they are distinct.)  

The liar paradox refers to binary elements (such as truth/falseness) and is self-referential. It has been subject of discussion by philosophers and mathematicians for over 2000 years.

http://www.wikipaintings.org/en/rene-magritte/the-treachery-of-images-this-is-not-a-pipe-1948
The Treachery of Images (1948) by Rene Magritte plays with an image-referential statement, challenging the viewer to question “reality.” Source WikiPaintings under fair use principles.

Mathematician Raymond Smullyan has written several delightful books of logical puzzles that play with the liar paradox. They’re quite fun if you like that sort of thing. (I do.)

Odysseus lies repeatedly, is characterized as a liar and says he comes from a land of liars

He has great potential to be an unreliable narrator.

The epithets of Odysseus refer to his deviousness and cunning. He is tricky. When things went wrong on their voyage home, quite frequently he was taking a nap.

Convenient.

Odysseus may be one of the first unreliable narrators, but he certainly isn’t the only one. It is a common device in literature and film.

What makes a narrator unreliable?

We need to acknowledge that narrative reality is distinct from “truth” to discuss unreliable narrators. All fiction aims to suspend disbelief.

A narrator that lives in a world with two suns is not unreliable because there is only one sun on Earth.

An unreliable narrator is one who reports events that are inconsistent within the created reality.

Narrators can be unreliable because they want to hide something or because their perception of “reality” is hindered due to illness or a drug.

Some unreliable narrators include those in Poe’s The Tell-tale Heart or Nabokov’s Lolita. Recent examples are Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl and Kristopher Jansma’s The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards.

In other instances an event is seen from multiple points of view, like Rashomon, or The Fact of a Fingerpost. Stories where the narrator wakes after a dream also cast doubt on prior events.

And back to Odysseus

In Zachary Mason’s book The Lost Books of the Odyssey,  we learn of some newly discovered papyri. These reveal alternative stories to those reported by Homer.

Mason’s Odysseus is the ultimate unreliable narrator.

But in fact, he always was.

What can we believe, even within the canonical version of The Odyssey?

5 thoughts on “Liar liar! Odysseus, the unreliable narrator

  1. Hm, this is interesting. I read both The Iliad and The Odyssey in college, but the prof didn’t go nearly as in-depth with us as I would have liked, so I feel I missed a lot and absorbed little. I don’t remember much about Odysseus at all, but I’ve always found unreliable narrators fascinating! One of my favorites is the narrator of Rebecca, because it’s so subtly done.

    1. Unreliable narrators, when done with subtlety, are indeed fascinating and I also enjoyed Rebecca. I find it annoying when the narrator wakes up from a dream because it feels like a gimmick.

  2. >When he first arrives to Phaeacia, he claims to be a merchant from Crete.

    Ugh, IIRC he didn’t, he claimed to be a Cretan when he arrived to Ithaca, told it to Athene, disguised as a shepherd, and then to Eumaeus, his trustful swineherd. As for the Pheacians, he didn’t tell them anything about his origin at first, and then named himself.

    Also the story about Polyphemus isn’t only the words of Odysseus, it is twice confirmed by Zeus and Athene who mentioned it as the reason why his return was delayed.
    The story of the cattle of Helios is confirmed with the words of the main narrator i.e. the poet himself at the very beginning of ‘Odyssey’.
    The story of Circe is partially confirmed with the words of the poet too, it’s mentioned that Odysseus tied a knot which he was taught how to tie by Circe.
    Other stories (sirens, visiting the dead, Scylla and Charybdis, details of what happened on the island of Circe) didn’t have a confirmation IIRC.

    1. P.S. Also visiting the dead is partially confirmed too because Odysseus already knew that his mother was dead, his wife, son and father were alive and that his wife was besieged by suitors, he told it to Pheacians and it was later confirmed when he actually arrived to Ithaca.
      So, we have a solid ground to believe what he told to Pheacians, he didn’t have a real reason to lie too.

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