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Inherent Nature vs. Godly Nurture

A Discussion of the Construction of Identity in the Odyssey and Genesis

Jacob serves savory meat to a dim-eyed Patriarch. Odysseus proffers numbing wine to a dim-witted giant. So two tales of treachery open, each beckoning the reader to follow its protagonist down a narrative path full of twist and turns, concealment and intrigue. The sweet meat is laced with a bitter lie. In the wine’s dulling afterglow, a sharpened pike is hoisted. Besides making for interesting reading, the device of trickery employed by Odysseus and Jacob alike teaches us something about the distinctive aims and methods of Homeric and Biblical narrative. In both stories we learn about the trickster from his tricks, but the human image arising from the Odyssey’s verses could not be more different from the one put forth by the Genesis text. We discover, by way of each man’s deception, that while both Greek and Hebrew authors may have begun with a common subject, they radically part ways in how they bring that subject to life.

Specifically, this discussion seeks to answer the question of how the protagonist’s use of deception contributes to his identity in the narrative. In order to sensitively compare the respective ways that deception builds the man in the Greek and Hebrew texts, we will focus on two specific incidents as “case studies”, namely, Odysseus’ encounter with the Kyklops in Book IX of the Odyssey and Jacob’s usurpation of his elder brother’s blessing in Genesis chapter 28. In these selections we hope to uncover the origin of each man’s trickery, learn the unique “mechanisms” or inner workings of the protagonist’s trick, then determine how the trick ultimately serves the trickster (i.e. the trick’s purpose or “end”).

Finally, we must address the matter of divine participation/intervention in the outcome of the protagonist’s deception. We must step back and consider the Odyssey and the Jacob-cycle in their entirety to see if either text ascribes the construction of human identity to a
divine hand. Without careful attention to the opening dialogue between Odysseus and Polyphemus in Book IX (1.274 ff.), the origins of the Akhaian’s crafty escape are easily missed. Odysseus’ eventual overthrow of the Kyklops begins not with deceitful words but with the artful evasion of a direct question. Glimpsing the newly-arrived sailors by firelight, Polyphemus utters his first words of the poem: “Strangers, who are you? And where from? What brings you here by sea ways—fair traffic?/ Or are you wandering rouges, who cast your lives/like dice, and ravage other folk by sea?” (IX.274-247)

Odysseus’ initial response to the giant’s gruff inquiry is truthful if not complete. He answers every question but the first, explaining that he and his men are veterans of the Trojan war in need of his hospitality on their journey home. It is only when pressed further about the exact location of his ship does Odysseus cast forth his first lie: Poseidon wrecked the craft. Unmoved by this false tale of woe, Polyphemus promptly eats two of Odysseus’ men.1

After two more of his men are cannibalized the next morning, Odysseus learns from his mistakes and shifts from defensive to offensive maneuvers. Avoiding the question of his identity altogether has not offered sufficient protection from harm. Likewise, the fabricated report of calamity at sea has triggered violence, not hospitality. Odysseus now serves the giant a new deception. When Polyphemus, drunk on ambrosial wine, ask Odysseus who he is a second time, the Akhaian tactician this time answers directly: “My Name is Nohbdy: mother, father, and friends/ everyone calls me Nohbdy” (IX.397-98) Shortly after the giant has “downed” the lie with smooth wine, Odysseus and his men Drive a stake into his single eye, blinding him. Injured, the Kyklops lets Odysseus’s false name fly from his lips, effectively driving away any chance of help from his neighbors (see IX.437-449). Odysseus’ weapons of word and wood together work like magic.

Close examination of this two-fold weaponry yields important clues to how Odysseus’ identity is tied to his deception. Essentially, the two instruments of word and wood work the same way. Odysseus plants the stake in the Kyklop’s eye to place the Akhaian company beyond the giant’s view (and reach!) Likewise, Odysseus plants a false name within Polyphemus’ mind which removes the giant’s friends from his presence.

Twice the giant is isolated, from his victims and from his own kind. Running with the assumption that the trick bears identifying marks of the trickster, we must ask ourselves what Odysseus’ isolative technique says about him as a man. What does Homer want us to know about his hero through this particular tale of deceit?

George Dimock’s article, “The Name of Odysseus” comes to our assistance in answering this last question by likening Odysseus’ preparation of the mast-like pike to his earlier shipbuilding activity on Kalypso’s island (Bk. V).2 Odysseus, referred to as a “great seaman” (V.279) in this episode and as a “master mariner” by Kirke in Book X (L.447) builds himself a raft to leave the goddess’s island. To return to the world of men he must craft his own means of escape. Though she provides him tools and provisions, Kirke does not provide him passage. As his seaworthy epithets assure us, that he can do for himself. He is a seaman; he will find a way to manage the sea.

Likewise, Odysseus’ escape from the Kyklops is a craft of his own making. Although he reports praying to Athena for assistance (IX.344), we are not privy to his oration; nor are we given any indication that she intervenes on his behalf in this instance.

And although his men help carry out the plan to blind Polyphemus with a stake, the credit for the idea and success of its execution must go to Odysseus. In view of these accomplishments, such epithets as “strategist,” “the great tactician,” “canniest of men,” and “that resourceful man,” which we find sprinkled throughout the poem appear not only justified, but for our purposes, prophetic. The strategist will surely strategize, just as the seaman will set sail. We will, in essence, come to know the tree by the fruit it alone produces.

This revelatory dynamic is dramatically played out in the imprisoned crew’s final escape from the Kyklop’s cave. Polyphemus has positioned himself at the mouth of the cave, blocking the sailors’ exit. Odysseus describes the crew’s dilemma to the Phaiakians as a problem he must solve himself: “I drew on all my wits, and ran through tactics,/reasoning as a man will for dear life,/until a trick came—and it pleased me well.” (IX.460-62). Having cloaked themselves in darkness by blinding their adversary, Odysseus and his men then take cover under the fleece of the Kyklop’s rams. As the woolly beasts exit the cave, the Akhaian sailors hide themselves further in silence. They utter not a word while in earshot of their enemy. For the Kyklop’s faculties of sight, touch, and hearing to be fooled, Odysseus must effectively lead his men into a state of oblivion. It is an oblivion, however, created and controlled by Odysseus himself. And if his escape from Kalypso’s remote island offers any indication,3 we know Odysseus’ true self will emerge once again. The constraints of forced anonymity cannot hold the renowned trickster.

As soon as he is able, the proud warrior throws off all means of his concealment and reveals his true name: “Kyklops, / if ever mortal man inquire/ how you were put to shame and blinded, tell him/ Odysseus, raider of cities, took your eye:/Laertes’ son, whose home’s on Ithaka!” (IX.548-52) When Kyklops hears his offender’s name, he immediately recalls Telemos’ foretelling of the events which have just occurred. Homer’s inclusion of a prophecy at the exact moment of Odysseus’ self-revelation sends an important message to the audience: that Odysseus will successfully play the deceiver against his adversaries is a foregone conclusion. This poem is not about whether he wins, it is about how he wins.

Thus the end of Odysseus’ deception in the Homeric narrative is to display, reinforce, and even celebrate in manifold ways his inherent nature. The same assertions cannot be made of Jacob’s deception of his father in Genesis 27. At the very opening, we discover that although Jacob’s “trick” also involves the concealment of his true identity, he is not its original author. He neither constructs the ruse nor prepares the elements necessary for it to work. It is Rebekah his mother who thinks of usurping the blessings. It is Rebekah who prepares the ritual meal and secures the components of Jacob’s disguise. Finally, it is Rebekah who attempts to assume the consequences of the entire treacherous venture. When Jacob voices the risk of discovery by pointing out that his father may curse instead of bless him, Rebekah quickly replies with a stunning oath: “Your curse be upon me.” (see Gen. 27:12–13) The strength of her reply works; Jacob brings her the kids for his father’s meal and allows her to dress him in their skins and his brother’s clothing. (v. 15-16)

Thus far in the story, this plan of deception speaks more of Rebekah’s cunning than Jacob’s, who by comparison appears as a passive figure. No “raider of cities,” Jacob rather seems a shrewd opportunist who knows precisely when to take a gamble. He has already laid claim to Esau’s birthright by exploiting his brother’s momentary, physical (and some might say mental) weakness. In a moment of extreme hunger, Esau sells his birthright to Jacob for a ready meal (see Gen. 25:29-34). Unlike Odysseus, Jacob need not use violent coercion to get what he wants. Rather, he lets his brother’s appetite do the work. Now, crouched before his aged and blind father, Jacob plays upon another appetite: his father’s hunger to confer a covenantal blessing upon his favorite son before he dies.

When Isaac’s suspicions are raised by the sound of the younger brother’s voice, Jacob allows the wooly skins and pungent clothes to make up the elder’s mind, much as he let the tempting stew make up Esau’s.

On the surface, Jacob’s deceptive “technique” resembles that of Odysseus’ in its use of a false name and its engagement of the senses (taste, touch, smell). However, if we probe further, we find that Jacob’s deception serves a very different purpose or “end” in the Hebrew text. In the Homeric text, Odysseus’ trickery promotes an idealized personality whose name has been roughly translated as “Trouble.”4 Homer devotes his poem to telling how and upon whom “Trouble” confers his essence. As already established, Jacob has acted upon Rebekah’s initiative, and must rely on her cunning to execute a plan worthy of severe punishment. Jacob is not an idealized hero. He is not even an autonomous villain. Furthermore, the Hebrew text contains no “gloating” scene, no splendid unveiling of the victor after the trap is sprung. Odysseus risks his life and the lives of his men while proclaiming his true identity to the Kyklops. In contrast, Jacob remains under cover, fleeing from his brother under the pretense of searching for a proper wife.5 Clearly, it is not Jacob’s glory that the Hebrew text is after.

Instead, the Genesis account of Jacob’s deception points to the existence of a higher plan into which the shortcomings of the main characters have already been factored. While the unborn twins struggle in her womb, Yahweh tells Rebekah that two nations reside within her, and that he older of her two offspring shall serve the younger (Gen.25:23). When the younger son is born grasping his older brother’s heel6, we catch our first glimpse of the opportunistic behavior which will facilitate the prophecy’s fulfillment. However, unlike Telemos’ prophecy concerning Odysseus, the Genesis prophecy does not represent a foregone conclusion based on the inherent nature of the protagonist. Rather, it highlights the struggle through which its predictions become true.

Odysseus fulfills prophecy and blinds Polyphemus because of who he is, the great tactician. Jacob fulfills prophecy and becomes a nation despite who he is, the slick usurper. In the end, he must “get his hands dirty” and wrestle with his kinsmen and his God in order to finally receive the name “Israel”.

At the river Jabbok, the time of allowing the strengths and weakness of others to work to his gain is over. On the eve of confronting the brother he has wronged, he must actively fight for his blessing. He must answer honestly when asked his name. (28:27) He must assume all risk of injury. And although he gains his prize, he does not escape unscathed: “And when he [the angel] saw that he had not prevailed against him, he touched the socket of his thigh; so the socket of Jacob’s thigh was dislocated while he wrestled with him.” (Gen. 32:25). Quite literally, Jacob will never run away again. The blessing of Abraham, already manifest in the people and property he can claim as his own, has overtaken him.7

Standing before the Phaiakian rulers, Odysseus claims not a God-given but a self-made inheritance as the basis of his identity: “I am Laertes’ son, Odysseus./ Men hold me/ formidable for guile in peace and war:/ this fame has gone abroad to the sky’s rim.” (IX.20-23) Even Athena, an immortal goddess, pays tribute to Odysseus because of his innate cunning:

Whoever gets around you must be sharp
and guileful as a snake; even a god
might bow to you in ways of dissimulation.
You! You chameleon!
Bottomless bag of tricks! Here in your own country
would you not give your stratagems a rest
or stop spellbinding for an instant?

In her acclamations, Athena comes very close to extending worship (“even a god might bow to you”) to Odysseus for his thoroughly guileful nature, evidenced by his perpetual maneuvering. In his narrative, Homer spares not even the gods the task of unveiling wily Odysseus as a man above other men.

In contrast, Jacob has little to say for himself when brought before Pharaoh. “My years have been rotten and few,” he quips, adding, “My fathers got better mileage.”8 If the man called Israel has anything impressive to bring the ruler of Egypt it is a blessing from God, which he duly gives. (Gen. 47:28) In his last days, as he is blessing his sons, Jacob refers to Yahweh as “the God who has been my shepherd all my life to this day, the angel who has redeemed me from all evil.” (Gen. 48:15,16) At the end of the Jacob-cycle, the Genesis text presents us with a man whose identity has been transformed. He is guided, nay, redeemed, from his former nature by One to whom alone worship is due. The face of the man Israel soon recedes into the ongoing history of the nation named after him. The covenant blessing passes on. At the end of the Hebrew narrative of deception, it is above all other faces the face of God—Peni-El—that is finally revealed.9

1 We can only wonder whether the Kyklop’s sudden act of savagery stems in part from an identification with his father’s alleged desire to destroy these men.  Ironically, it is Odysseus’ subsequent wounding of Polyphemus that makes his first lie come true. Poseidon does eventually punish Odysseus by destroying his seacraft. 

2 “The Name of Odysseus,” Homer, A Collection of Critical Essays, eds., G. Steiner and R. Fagles, Englewood Cliffs: NJ: Prentice Hall, 1962, p. 109.

3 Dimock makes clear in his article that Odysseus’ escape from Kalypso is indeed an escape from oblivion. Kalypso’s world of concealed immortality equals nonentity, a state intolerable to our hero. (See “The Scar of Odysseus, p. 111).

4 Dimock’s rendtition of “Odysseus” as found in “The Name of Odysseus,” p. 106.

5 Again, his mother’s idea. (Gen. 27:43–46).

6 An act for which he is named “Heel.” In its verb form, the Hebrew root of Jacob’s name connotes the action of assailing, circumventing, or overreaching. (Brown-Driver-Briggs Dictionary).

7 Concept of being overtaken by the blessing gleaned from The Son of Laughter, Frederick Buechner, Harper San Franciso, 1993, p. 86.

8 Genesis 47:9, heavily paraphrased.

9 “So Jacob named the place Peniel, for he said, ‘I have seen God face to face, yet my life has been preserved.’” Genesis 32:30.