Odysseus, king of Ithaka, was also the king of trickery and guile. He was renowned among his peers for his cunning mind and intelligence. In ancient literature, Odysseus was given the epithet metis, which means “wise” or “cunning.”
When the kings of Greece were called to aid Menelaus’s army in the Trojan War, Odysseus was one of those summoned. During his time in the Greek army, Odysseus proved time and time again that he was one of the cleverest thinkers of his time, however, Odysseus’ fame for intelligence preceded the Trojan War.
1. Odysseus and the Oath of Tyndareus
One of Odysseus’ earliest ingenious ideas was the legendary Oath of Tyndareus. King Tyndareus had a beautiful daughter named Helen, who later became the major catalyst for the Trojan War. Since Helen had just come of age, King Tyndareus was looking for a husband for her. If we combine the ancient sources — Hesiod, Hyginus, and Apollodorus — there were at least 45 named suitors all vying for Helen’s hand. Odysseus was one of them.
Due to Helen’s huge popularity, King Tyndareus was worried that if he picked one man from this pool of mighty heroes, it would have disastrous consequences. Namely, vitriolic anger, inflexible grudges, and vengeful bloodshed. In response to the king’s dilemma, Odysseus had an idea that would solve all these potential problems, but first, he wanted something from the King.
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While in Tyndareus’ kingdom, Odysseus had fallen in love with Helen’s cousin, Penelope. Hoping to secure a marriage to Penelope, Odysseus offered Tyndareus a proposal: in return for Penelope’s hand, he would provide a solution to Tyndareus’ problem, but he would not reveal what it was until he had secured his marriage. Tyndareus accepted, and so Odysseus recommended a particular oath be exacted from all the suitors.
The oath is recorded in the works of Apollodorus, “all the suitors [pledged] that they would defend the favoured bridegroom against any wrong that might be done him in respect of his marriage.” (Apollodorus 3.10.9).
Thus, all the suitors were bound by their word to defend and protect the chosen husband of Helen against any future endeavors that might harm the marriage. Tyndareus agreed, and so Odysseus achieved the hand of Penelope and secured peace between the Greek city-states for a time.
2. Recruiting Achilles
Despite this oath of protection, war soon came to the Greeks. Whilst on a trip to Sparta, the young Trojan Prince Paris fell deeply in love with Helen, now Queen of Sparta. Paris rashly acted on his desire, and either abducted or convinced (the myth varies) Helen to desert her husband and become his wife in Troy.
When Helen’s husband Menelaus discovered this, he invoked the Oath of Tyndareus, summoning all the aforementioned suitors to participate in the Trojan War, in order to decimate the Trojans for the insult against his house. There was one problem with his summons. The best-known fighter — Achilles — had not been present at the convention because at the time he was too young to attend. It had been prophesied that the Trojan War could not be won without Achilles, so Menelaus sent Odysseus to recruit him.
Odysseus soon discovered that the prince was not home — Achilles had been warned that he would not return home from the war alive, so his mother, the goddess Thetis, had hidden him in the court of Scyros, disguised as a woman. Once Odysseus learned of this, he devised a plan to reveal Achilles’ identity.
In one version of the story, Odysseus feigns an attack on Scyros, and in the ensuing panic, only Achilles does not flee, revealing himself in order to defend the island. In another version of the story, Odysseus disguises himself as a salesperson, selling women’s clothes and accessories. When presenting the items to the women of the court, Odysseus hides a sword among the goods. Achilles reveals himself by showing keen interest in the sword alone. Once revealed, Odysseus is able to persuade the young prince to fight in the Trojan War, tantalizing him with the promise of undying fame and glory.
3. The Palladium
The Trojans had a sacred wooden image called the Palladium, carved in the form of Athena, the goddess of wisdom, war, and craft. This wooden figure was immensely important to the Trojans as a symbol of Athena’s protection of the city and a symbol of Troy’s heritage.
When a Trojan seer named Helenus left the city walls, he was captured by Odysseus. During his interrogation, Helenus reveals to Odysseus the prophecy that Troy would not fall while the Palladium was safely behind its walls.
Next, Odysseus, dressed as a beggar, slipped into Troy through a secret passage. Once inside, he came across Helen of Troy, once Queen of Sparta, and Helen told Odysseus where to find the Palladium. According to this version of the myth, Helen was not happy about being abducted by Paris and was happy to help Odysseus break into the city. With Helen’s advice, Odysseus was able to return with his companion Diomedes to steal the Palladium.
4. Trojan War: The Horse
The next innovative plan from Odysseus’ mind was the Trojan Horse. Odysseus’ idea was so infamous that the term “trojan horse” is still used today to refer to a deceptive plan. This particular scheme was borne from the events of the Trojan war.
The Greeks and Trojans were at an impasse; for ten years, their armies had been battling on the plains outside Troy’s walls. Legend had it that the walls of Troy were built by the gods Poseidon and Apollo, and that they were impenetrable. As ever, Odysseus had a plan. He came up with the idea to create a giant wooden horse that could hide soldiers inside.
“[The Greeks] build a horse of mountainous size, through Pallas’s divine art,
and weave planks of fir over its ribs:
they pretend it’s a votive offering: this rumour spreads.
They secretly hide a picked body of men, chosen by lot,
there, in the dark body, filling the belly and the huge
cavernous insides with armed warriors.”
(Book 2, Aeneid)
The Greek army feigned a retreat, harboring their ships at Tenedos, a nearby island. A Greek soldier named Sinon was left behind to sell the ruse. He pretended to have been deserted by the Greeks and told the Trojans that the wooden horse was left as a sacrifice to Athena. When the Trojans saw that the Greeks had retreated, they rejoiced! Just as Odysseus anticipated, the Trojans decided to take the wooden horse back into the city, taking the godly favor for their own.
Once darkness had fallen and the city was sleeping, the soldiers emerged from the horse. From their position inside the city, they could now open the gates, allowing the Greek army to enter. And so, the great city of Troy finally fell.
5. “Nobody” and Polyphemus
While traveling home from the Trojan War, Odysseus had many adventures. His journey home, or nostos, became one of the most memorable stories in Greek myth. His adventures are recorded in the Odyssey, composed by Homer.
In one adventure, Odysseus was captured with his crew by the Cyclops Polyphemus, in a cave with an enormous boulder over the entrance. This cave stored the food and produce of the Cyclopes, including cheese, wine, and goats. Right away, Polyphemus ate two of the crew members, but he saved the rest for later.
One night, Odysseus plied the Cyclops with the wine that was stored there. Once drunk, Odysseus deceptively told the Cyclops that his name was “Outis” which means “Nobody” in ancient Greek. Later, when the Cyclops was heavily inebriated, Odysseus struck. He stabbed Polyphemus in the eye with a stake and the Cyclops was partially blinded.
Yelling for help, Polyphemus cried out to the other Cyclopes on the island. When they asked what was wrong, Polyphemus cried that Outis was hurting him. Hearing this, the other Cyclopes left, thinking that nobody was harming Polyphemus.
When Polyphemus went to leave the cave, Odysseus and his crew members hung to the hairy underbellies of the rams stored there, and so they escaped when the sheep were herded out to pasture. Unseen by the other inhabitants of the island, they fled back to their ship.
6. The Siren Song
According to legend, any sailor who heard the Sirens’ song would lose all rational thought and be lured to their death — either drowned or eaten by the Sirens. However, to hear the Sirens’ song and survive would allegedly give the listener secret knowledge, as the Sirens were ancient beasts who had gathered knowledge for eons. For a pursuer of knowledge like Odysseus, the risk was worth it.
Odysseus helped the crew to make wax molds for their ears so that they could not be harmed by the lure of the Sirens’ song. Odysseus himself wore no earplugs but instead commanded his crew to bind him to the mast of the ship. This way, when the ship sailed past the island of the Sirens, he would be able to hear the song without being tempted to jump ship. The following passage from the Odyssey captures the spell of the sirens:
“So [the sirens] spoke, sending forth their beautiful voice, and my heart was fain to listen, and I bade my comrades loose me, nodding to them with my brows; but they fell to their oars and rowed on… But when they had rowed past the Sirens, and we could no more hear their voice or their song, then straightway my trusty comrades took away the wax with which I had anointed their ears and loosed me from my bonds.”
Odysseus was able to successfully listen to the song of the Sirens, although the process required enduring temporary madness. His crew members were protected, and the ship safely sailed past the dangerous enchanted island.
7. Arrival Home: Odysseus’ Disguise
Odysseus wore a disguise when he finally set foot upon his home island, Ithaka. Odysseus had been away from home for twenty long years. Ten years for the Trojan War, and ten years traveling the perilous sea to return home.
Odysseus was unsure what home would be like. Would his family still be loyal to him? Would they have moved on? Presumed he was dead? With such uncertainty, Odysseus disguised himself as an old beggar with the aid of the goddess Athena’s magic. Odysseus’ story to the islanders was that he was an old man who had fallen from the gods’ graces. In disguise, he wanted to gauge the state of home life.
What Odysseus found on his return was an overrun house. In his absence, his wife Penelope had been swamped with suitors who had taken up residence in and around Odysseus’ home. Before revealing himself, Odysseus happens to meet his now-grown son, Telemachus, in a swineherd’s hut at the edge of the island. In a happy reunion, Odysseus revealed himself to his son, and then together they plotted the overthrow of the suitors.
8. Warnings and Revenge
Odysseus resumed his disguise and they traveled separately to the palace so as not to arouse suspicion. The suitors were also plotting Telemachus’ death, so it was vital that they evade their attention. Telemachus snuck into the palace to retrieve his weapons and then hid them from the suitors.
When meeting the suitors, Odysseus was treated insultingly — they reluctantly shared food with the “beggar” and pushed and kicked him around. Odysseus was immensely angered at the rudeness of the suitors, but he maintained his concealment until the time was right. One of the suitors behaved more cordially to Odysseus and in response, Odysseus gave him a warning to leave, but the suitor did not listen. Odysseus’ foreboding words were, in part, a warning of the suitors’ impending doom, and a humble recognition of his own past mistakes:
“Of all that breathes and crawls across the earth,
our mother earth breeds nothing feebler than a man.
So long as the gods grant him power, spring in his knees,
he thinks he will never suffer affliction down the years.
But then, when the happy gods bring on the long hard times,
bear them he must, against his will, and steel his heart.
Our lives, our mood and mind as we pass across the earth,
turn as the days turn . . .”
Blessed by the Goddess Athena, Odysseus and Telemachus were close to ridding themselves of the proud and brutish suitors. The final step required Penelope, Odysseus’ wife, to set the elimination of the suitors in motion.
Bonus: Penelope’s Cleverness
Just like her husband, Penelope was blessed with discerning cleverness and great intelligence. Prior to Odysseus’ return, Penelope had been hounded with offers of marriage from a great host of suitors. However, Penelope was uninterested in their offers, as she was hopeful that Odysseus would return.
Facing increasing harassment from the men, she offered them a deal: she would choose a new husband when she had finished her weaving — as she was making a burial shroud for the eventual death of her father-in-law. However, Penelope cleverly delayed the suitors:
“So by day she’d weave at her great and growing web—
by night, by the light of torches set beside her,
she would unravel all she’d done. Three whole years
she deceived [the suitors] blind, seduced us with this scheme.”
Eventually, Odysseus arrived on the island, disguised as a beggar. At this time, Penelope had another clever idea. She demanded that any decent suitor would give her lots of gifts as a wedding present. In this way, she managed to replenish the depleted stock of the palace, which the suitors had been exploiting for the past twenty years.
In the Odyssey, Odysseus appears to be very impressed by Penelope’s ruse, and Homer implies that their shared intelligence made them a perfect match for each other. Her delaying ploys also proved to Odysseus her loyalty, and so Odysseus was more confident in his planned surprise.
Penelope and Odysseus: A Clever Match
Another of Penelope’s methods for delaying her remarriage was to challenge the suitors to a competition: whoever could shoot an arrow through twelve ax heads would win her hand. This feat had previously only ever been managed by Odysseus. When the suitors tried, each one of them failed the task. Finally, Odysseus, still in beggar form, stepped up and pulled off the task perfectly, shocking all.
He then proceeded to kill all the suitors with the help of the Goddess Athena, and his son Telemachus. Penelope immediately became suspicious of Odysseus’ true identity, but before getting her hopes up, she had one last test.
When building the palace many years ago, Odysseus had carved their marriage bed out of the olive tree that was central to the house. The bed was, therefore, immovable. This was only known to Odysseus, Penelope, and one servant. Penelope tested Odysseus by commanding her old nurse to move the bed:
move the sturdy bedstead out of our bridal chamber —
that room the master built with his own hands,
Take it out now, sturdy bed that it is.”
Overhearing this, Odysseus became angry and demanded to know why Penelope had replaced his wonderfully carved bed with a movable one. With the truth and his identity revealed, the house of Odysseus was happily reunited after many, many years.