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.
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.
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.
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.
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?