Terrible, Wonderful Odysseus: The Meanings of his Epithets, His Name(s) and How We Read Him

In the recent poll prompted by Dio Chrysostom’s anecdote of Philip asking which hero Alexander would be, Odysseus won by a bit of a landslide. I can’t say this completely surprises me, but it does trouble me just a little bit. What is it that attracts us to Odysseus?

[I ran an earlier post on the Iliad vs. the Odyssey and their complementarity]

My post and translation also drew some ire because I translated polytropos as “shifty”. It seems that we as a collective are entirely sure about what we think this word means. And, as a result, we are confident in who we think Odysseus is.

This post turns out to be longer than might be ideal, but I am just going to leave it as is. My basic belief, which I get to eventually, is that Odysseus is popular because of his essential polysemy. We think we love Odysseus because we choose an Odysseus we want to love. The important takeaway from this is that such ‘shiftiness” (when it comes to character and reception) is an essential part of his character.

First, a basic assertion: Homer’s version of Odysseus is not the only one. Even as early as the fifth century there were some, well, complaints.

Pindar, Nemean 7.20-21

“I think that the story of Odysseus’ suffering was exaggerated by sweet-worded Homer”

ἐγὼ δὲ πλέον’ ἔλπομαι
λόγον ᾿Οδυσσέος ἢ πάθαν
διὰ τὸν ἁδυεπῆ γενέσθ’ ῞Ομηρον·

In Greek tragedy, Odysseus was far from unproblematic: in Sophocles’ Philoktetes, he is responsible for bullying Neoptolemos into convincing the title character to return to Troy. In the Ajax, he is by no means innocent in the death of Telamon’s son. Euripides has Odysseus as the chief architect of the death of Astyanax. And in the Trojan myths in general, Odysseus (1) tries to avoid going to war, (2) exposes Achilles so that he has to go to war, (3) and frames Palamedes for treason to get back at him for making sure that he went to war. Oh, he is also said to have tried to betray Diomedes and even in the Iliad he takes charge of tricking the Trojan Dolon and ensuring that Diomedes kills a bunch of men in their sleep. (And don’t even try to explain that away by claiming it is not really a part of the Iliad. It is.)

Second, jumping over 2500 years, there is a cognitive link between what we name something and how we expect that element to emerge in stories. So, how we name Odysseus and what we think this name means matters (see also Peradotto 1990 among others on this).

Mark Turner. The Literary Mind: The Origins of Thought and Language. Oxford: 1996.

Turner 1996, 133: The stories minds tell (the ways in which we interpret the world) are based on roles and character, “formed by backward inference from such a role, according to the folk theory of “the Nature of Things,” otherwise known as “Being Leads to Doing.” In this folk theory, glass shatters because it is brittle and fragile. Water pours because it is liquid. Someone forgives because she is forgiving. A dog guards the house because it is watchful. A fool acts like a fool because he is foolish. In general, doing follows from being; something behaves in a certain way because its being leads it to behave in that way…

Character is a pattern of connections we expect to operate across stories about a particular individual with that character or across stories about a group of individual with that character. People of a particular character are expected to inhabit similar roles in different stories…

[134] A role in one story is not isolated but connects to the same role in other stories…Focus, viewpoint, role and character in narrative imagining give us ways of constructing our own meaning, which is to say, ways of understanding who we are, what it means to be us, to have a particular life. The inability to locate one’s own focus, viewpoint, role, and character with respect to conventional stories of leading a life is thought to be pathological and deeply distressing. It is a principal reason for recommending psychotherapy to people not obviously insane.”

So, there is significance both in how we name Odysseus and how we modify that name. Let’s take up his epithets first. I received a good deal of complaining about my translation of Odysseus’ famous epithet as “shifty”. He actually only gets called polytropos rarely in the Odyssey. But he does receive a surplus of epithets that point to a manifold nature.

Here are some other epithets.

Homer, Odyssey: Epithets of Odysseus

“Sing to me, Muse, of the man of many ways...”
1.1     ῎Ανδρα μοι ἔννεπε, Μοῦσα, πολύτροπον, ὃς μάλα πολλὰ cf. 10.330

“Send many-minded Odysseus to his own home”
1.83  νοστῆσαι ᾿Οδυσῆα πολύφρονα ὅνδε δόμονδε,

“[Odysseus] will know how to return, since he is a man of many-devices
1.205 φράσσεται ὥς κε νέηται, ἐπεὶ πολυμήχανός ἐστιν.

“Divine-raced, son of Laertes, many-deviced Odysseus
5.203 “διογενὲς Λαερτιάδη, πολυμήχαν’ ᾿Οδυσσεῦ,

“If very-clever Odysseus were in these rooms again…”
4.763 εἴ ποτέ τοι πολύμητις ἐνὶ μεγάροισιν ᾿Οδυσσεὺς

“So she spoke, and much-enduring, shining Odysseus shivered”
5.171     ὣς φάτο, ῥίγησεν δὲ πολύτλας δῖος ᾿Οδυσσεύς [see 13.250]

“And you, many-pained old man, since a god brought you my way…”
14.386 καὶ σύ, γέρον πολυπενθές, ἐπεί σέ μοι ἤγαγε δαίμων,

“They would not conquer me. I am truly much-enduring
18.319 οὔ τί με νικήσουσι· πολυτλήμων δὲ μάλ’ εἰμί.”

“…I am a man of many-sorrows…”
19.118 μνησαμένῳ· μάλα δ’ εἰμὶ πολύστονος· οὐδέ τί με χρὴ

“…he is much-prayed for…”
19.404 παιδὸς παιδὶ φίλῳ· πολυάρητος δέ τοί ἐστι.”

Odysseus is only sometimes called “many-wayed”. He is also marked out for his suffering.  Odysseus’ is not just about his own suffering–as Erwin Cook shows, part of the point of being a ‘hero’ in ancient Greek myth and poetry is that you have a capacity to suffer and to mete out suffering.

But what might polytropos even mean? Many on twitter think they know, but the ancients were not unanimous.

Schol. ad Demosthenes. Orat. 20

“For a man of many ways changes himself in accordance with the nature of the matters at hand.”

πολύτροπος γὰρ ὁ ἀνὴρ καὶ πρὸς τὴν τῶν πραγμά-των φύσιν συμμεταβάλλεται.

Schol. ad Odysseam 1.1; .50 ex

“The problem: Polytropos [“many-wayed”] Antisthenes claims that Homer doesn’t praise Odysseus as much as he criticizes him when he calls him polytropos. He didn’t make Achilles and Ajax polytropoi, but they were direct [‘simple’] and noble. Nor did he make Nestor the wise tricky, by Zeus, and devious in character—he simply advised Agamemnon and the rest and if he had anything good to counsel, he would not stand apart keeping it hidden; in the manner Achilles showed that he believed the man the same as death “who says one thing but hides another in his thoughts.”

᾿Απορία. πολύτροπον] οὐκ ἐπαινεῖν φησιν ᾿Αντισθένης ῞Ομηρον τὸν ᾿Οδυσσέα μᾶλλον ἢ ψέγειν, λέγοντα αὐτὸν πολύτροπον. οὐκ οὖν τὸν ᾿Αχιλλέα καὶ τὸν Αἴαντα πολυτρόπους πεποιηκέναι, ἀλλ’ ἁπλοῦς καὶ γεννάδας· οὐδὲ τὸν Νέστορα τὸν σοφὸν οὐ μὰ Δία δόλιον καὶ παλίμβολον τὸ ἦθος, ἀλλ’ ἁπλῶς τε ᾿Αγαμέμνονι συνόντα καὶ τοῖς ἄλλοις ἅπασι, καὶ εἰς τὸ στρατόπεδον εἴ τι ἀγαθὸν εἶχε συμβουλεύοντα καὶ οὐκ ἀποκρυπτόμενον τοσοῦτον ἀπεῖχε τοιοῦτον τρόπον ἀποδέχεσθαι ὁ ᾿Αχιλλεὺς ὡς ἐχθρὸν ἡγεῖσθαι ὁμοίως τῷ θανάτῳ ἐκεῖνον “ὅς χ’ ἕτερον μὲν κεύθει ἐνὶ φρεσὶν, ἄλλο δὲ εἴπῃ” (Il. ι, 313.).

“Antisthenes in interpreting this asks “why, then, is wretched Odysseus called polytropos? Really, this is the way to mark him out as wise. Isn’t it true that his manner never indicates his character, but that instead it signals his use of speech? The man who has a character difficult to penetrate is well-turned. These sorts of inventions of words are tropes/ways/manners

λύων οὖν ὁ ᾿Αντισθένης φησὶ, Τί οὖν; ἆρά γε πονηρὸς ὁ ᾿Οδυσσεὺς ὅτι πολύτροπος ἐκλήθη; καὶ μὴν διότι σοφὸς οὕτως αὐτὸν προσείρηκε. μήποτε οὖν ὁ τρόπος τὸ μέν τι σημαίνει τὸ ἦθος, τὸ δέ τι σημαίνει τὴν τοῦ λόγου χρῆσιν; εὔτροπος γὰρ ἀνὴρ ὁ τὸ ἦθος ἔχων εἰς τὸ εὖ τετραμμένον· τρόποι δὲ λόγων αἱ ποιαὶ πλάσεις.

Plato, Hippias Minor 366a

Soc. “People who are many-wayed are deceptive because of their foolishness and thoughtlessness, or because of wickedness and some thought?

Hippias: Most of all, because of wickedness and intelligence.

Soc. So, it seems, they are really intelligent.

Hip. Yes, by Zeus, wicked smart.

Soc. And men who are smart—are they ignorant of what they do or do they understand it?

Hip. They really understand what they are doing. For this reason, they also do evil.

Soc. So, is it the ignorant or the wise who know these things which they understand?

Hip. The wise know these very things, how to deceive.

—ΣΩ. Πολύτροποι δ’ εἰσὶ καὶ ἀπατεῶνες ὑπὸ ἠλιθιότητος καὶ ἀφροσύνης, ἢ ὑπὸ πανουργίας καὶ φρονήσεώς τινος;

—ΙΠ. ῾Υπὸ πανουργίας πάντων μάλιστα καὶ φρονήσεως.

—ΣΩ. Φρόνιμοι μὲν ἄρα εἰσίν, ὡς ἔοικεν.

—ΙΠ. Ναὶ μὰ Δία, λίαν γε.

—ΣΩ. Φρόνιμοι δὲ ὄντες οὐκ ἐπίστανται ὅτι ποιοῦσιν, ἢ ἐπίστανται; —

—ΙΠ. Καὶ μάλα σφόδρα ἐπίστανται· διὰ ταῦτα καὶ κακουργοῦσιν.

—ΣΩ. ᾿Επιστάμενοι δὲ ταῦτα ἃ ἐπίστανται πότερον ἀμαθεῖς εἰσιν ἢ σοφοί;

—ΙΠ. Σοφοὶ μὲν οὖν αὐτά γε ταῦτα, ἐξαπατᾶν.

Pseudo-Phocylides, Sententiae

“Don’t trust the people;  the mob is many-wayed. For the people, water, and fire are all uncontrollable things.”

Λαῶι μὴ πίστευε, πολύτροπός ἐστιν ὅμιλος· λαὸς <γὰρ> καὶ ὕδωρ καὶ πῦρ ἀκατάσχετα πάντα.


Polytropos: One who [is turned] toward many things; or, someone who changes his understanding at each opportune moment.”

πολύτροπος· ὁ ἐπὶ πολλὰ τρεπόμενος, ἢ τρέπων τὴν ἑαυτοῦ διάνοιαν ὑφ’ ἕνα καιρόν

Image result for ancient Greek Odysseus

The point, I think, is that Odysseus is not someone who can be pinned down. He shifts for the situation but he also shifts for the reader/audience. (This is why I like “shifty”–it has the connotation of ‘dodgy’ in English, but it also evokes the movement of the character.) Odysseus is so popular, according to this argument, because he is a reflection of who we want him to be. Porphyry might have sensed this:

Schol HM 1.1 ex 62-74 (Attributed to Porphyry)

“If wise men are clever at speaking to others, then they also know how to speak the same thought in different ways; and, because they know the many different ways of words about the same matter. And if wise men are also good, then this is reason Homer says that Odysseus who is wise is many-wayed: he knew how to engage with people in many ways.

Thus Pythagoras is said to have known the right way to address speeches to children, to make those addresses appropriate for women to women, those fit for leaders to leaders, and those appropriate for youths to youths. It is a mark of wisdom to find the manner best for each group of people; and it is a mark of ignorance to use a single type of address toward people who are unaccustomed to it. It is the same for medicine in the successful use of its art, which fits the many-wayed nature of therapy through the varied application to those who need assistance. This manner of character is unstable, much-changing.

Many-wayedness of speech is also a finely crafted use of language for different audiences and it becomes single-wayed. For, one approach is appropriate to each. Therefore, fitting the varied power of speech to each, shaping what is proper to each for the single iteration, makes the many-wayed in turns single in form and actually ill-fit to different types of audiences, rejected by many because it is offensive to them.

εἰ δὲ οἱ σοφοὶ δεινοί εἰσι διαλέγεσθαι, καὶ ἐπίστανται τὸ αὐτὸ νόημα κατὰ πολλοὺς τρόπους λέγειν· ἐπιστάμενοι δὲ πολλοὺς τρόπους λόγων περὶ τοῦ αὐτοῦ πολύτροποι ἂν εἶεν. εἰ δὲ οἱ σοφοὶ καὶ ἀγαθοί εἰσι, διὰ τοῦτό φησι τὸν ᾿Οδυσσέα ῞Ομηρος σοφὸν ὄντα πολύτροπον εἶναι, ὅτι δὴ τοῖς ἀνθρώποις ἠπίστατο πολλοῖς τρόποις συνεῖναι. οὕτω καὶ Πυθαγόρας λέγεται, πρὸς παῖδας ἀξιωθεὶς ποιήσασθαι λόγους, διαθεῖναι πρὸς αὐτοὺς λόγους παιδικούς, καὶ πρὸς γυναῖκας γυναιξὶν ἁρμοδίους, καὶ πρὸς ἄρχοντας ἀρχοντικούς, καὶ πρὸς ἐφήβους ἐφηβικούς. τὸ γὰρ ἑκάστοις πρόσφορον τρόπον ἐξευρίσκειν σοφίας εἶναι, ἀμαθίας δὲ τὸ πρὸς τοὺς ἀνομοίως ἔχοντας τῷ τοῦ λόγου χρῆσθαι μονοτρόπῳ. ἔχειν δὲ τοῦτο καὶ τὴν ἰατρικὴν ἐν τῇ τῆς τέχνης κατορθώσει, ἠσκηκυῖαν τῆς θεραπείας τὸ πολύτροπον, διὰ τὴν τῶν θεραπευομένων ποικίλην σύστασιν. τρόπος μὲν οὖν τὸ παλίμβολον τοῦτο τοῦ ἤθους, τὸ πολυμετάβολον. λόγου δὲ πολυτροπία καὶ χρῆσις ποικίλη λόγου εἰς ποικίλας ἀκοὰς μονοτροπία γίνεται. ἓν γὰρ τὸ ἑκάστῳ οἰκεῖον· διὸ καὶ τὸ ἁρμόδιον ἑκάστῳ τὴν ποικιλίαν τοῦ λόγου εἰς ἓν συναγείρει τὸ ἑκάστῳ πρόσφορον, τὸ δ’ αὖ μονοειδές, ἀνάρμοστον ὂν πρὸς ἀκοὰς διαφόρους, πολύτροπον ποιεῖ τὸν ὑπὸ πολλῶν ἀπόβλητον ὡς αὐτοῖς ἀπότροπον λόγον. H M1 Q R

Odysseus’ name itself has problems of interpretation–it is willfully interpreted in different ways by ancient audiences and is an object of play in the epic itself. Keep reading if you want even more of this.

Kallierges, Etymologicum Magnum 615

“The name Odysseus has been explained through the following story. For they claim that when Antikleia, Odysseus’ mother, was pregnant she was travelling [hodeuousan] on Mt. Neritos in Ithaka, and it began to rain [husantos] terribly Because of her labor and fear she collapsed and gave birth to Odysseus there. So, he obtained is name in this way, since Zeus, on the road [hodon] rained [hûsen].”

᾿Οδυσσεύς: Εἴρηται ἀπὸ ἱστορίας. ᾿Αντίκλειαν γάρ φασι τὴν ᾿Οδυσσέως μητέρα ἐγκύμονα ὁδεύουσαν τὸ Νήριτον τῆς ᾿Ιθάκης ὄρος, ὕσαντος πολὺ τοῦ Διὸς, ὑπὸ ἀγωνίας τε καὶ φόβου καταπεσοῦσαν ἀποτεκεῖν τὸν ᾿Οδυσσέα. Οὕτω ταύτης τῆς ὀνομασίας ἔτυχεν, ἐπειδὴ κατὰ τὴν ὁδὸν ὗσεν ὁ Ζεύς.

It is more typical to derive Odysseus’ name from the verb odussomai, which means something like “being hateful, being hated”.  Autolykos, Odysseus’ maternal grandfather, is reported to have named him in the Odyssey (19.407–409).

“I have come to this point hated [odussamenos] by many—
Both men and women over the man-nourishing earth.
So let his name be Ody[s]seus…”

πολλοῖσιν γὰρ ἐγώ γε ὀδυσσάμενος τόδ’ ἱκάνω,
ἀνδράσιν ἠδὲ γυναιξὶν ἀνὰ χθόνα βωτιάνειραν·
τῷ δ’ ᾿Οδυσεὺς ὄνομ’ ἔστω ἐπώνυμον…

Even in antiquity there was debate about how to interpret odussamenos. A scholion offers three explanations: “[someone] who is hated. Or who has rage. Or has harmed [someone]” (ὀδυσσάμενος] μισηθείς· ἢ ὀργὴν ἀγαγών· ἢ βλάψας.)

And many have seen playing with this name-verb accord earlier in the epic when Athena asks Zeus (1.60-62)

“…Didn’t Odysseus please you
By making sacrifices along the ships of the Argives
In broad Troy? Why are you so hateful [ôdusao] to him, Zeus?”

… οὔ νύ τ’ ᾿Οδυσσεὺς
᾿Αργείων παρὰ νηυσὶ χαρίζετο ἱερὰ ῥέζων
Τροίῃ ἐν εὐρείῃ; τί νύ οἱ τόσον ὠδύσαο, Ζεῦ;”

Sophocles gets in on this (Fr. 965):

“I am called Odysseus for evil deeds correctly:
For many who have been my enemy hate [ôdusanto] me.”

ὀρθῶς δ’ ᾿Οδυσσεύς εἰμ’ ἐπώνυμος κακῶν•
πολλοὶ γὰρ ὠδύσαντο δυσμενεῖς ἐμοί

Modern scholars get in on the game too: Marót in Acta Antiqua 8 (1960) 1-6 suggests that the name is developed from the scar (οὐλή=oulê) by which Odysseus is recognized, thus explaining in part the Latin (and Etruscan) variant Ulysses.

For a succinct discussion, see Norman Austin 2009, 92-93 from his essay “Name Magic in the Odyssey” in L.Doherty’s Oxford Readings in Classical Studies: Homer’s Odyssey (originally printed in California Studies in Classical Antiquity 5 (1972) 1-19, available through JSTOR). See also W. B. Stanford’s “The Homeric Etymology of the Name Odysseus.” Classical Philology 47 (1952) 209-213.

But you know what? There’s more!

Alternatives to Odysseus’ name

Eust. Comm. Ad Homeri Il 1.446: ὁ ᾿Οδυσσεύς δέ που ᾿Ολυσσεύς καὶ ἡ ᾿Οδύσσεια ᾿Ολύσσεια

Herodian, de prosodia cath. 3.1.14: Οὐλιξεύς Ulixes, in quo Doris sequimur

From Brill’s New Pauly s.v Odysseus: Attic inscriptions: Ὀλυττεύς/Olytteús; Corinthian: Ὀλισ(σ)εύς/Olis(s)eús;

Eustathius records: ὁ ᾿Οδυσσεύς δέ που ᾿Ολυσσεύς καὶ ἡ ᾿Οδύσσεια ᾿Ολύσσεια. In a Boiotian inscription his name is Ὀλυσ(σ)εύς (Olusseus) and a few Corinthian inscriptions have Ὀλισ(σ)εύς (Olisseus). Rudolf Wachter (Non-Attic Greek Vase Inscriptions 2001, 267) argues that the Attic Olutteus and the Corinthian form just cited likely display a form that predates the epic spelling (and that it was the epic tradition itself that influenced the regularization).

While it seems these names may be non-Greek, this does not mean that Greek audiences did not hear echoes of the roots they knew for “woolly” (oulos), “scar” (oulê) or “destructive, ruinous” (oulos) in his name. At the same time, it does not matter whether or not one form predated the other–what matters is that Panhellenic audiences may have been familiar with multiple forms.

When Odysseus meets Penelope in disguise, he first describes what ‘Odysseus’ was wearing when he went to war, and then when she weeps, he comforts her by telling her that he has heard that Odysseus is nearby. Throughout his speech there are echoes of both his epic name Odysseus and what Wachter calls his “epichoric” (i.e. ‘local’) name.

Odyssey  19.254–271

“Revered wife of Odysseus, son of Laertes
Don’t harm your fair skin or wear out your heart
At all any longer, mourning your husband. I would not find fault at all.
For someone mourns [ODUretai] when she has lost [OLESasa] a different man,
A husband, one she has slept with and borne children to,
Different from Odysseus, a man they claim is like the gods.
But cease from mourning, take my speech to heart:
For I will speak truly and I will hide nothing.
Since I have already heard about the homecoming of Odysseus
Nearby, in the rich land of the Thesprotian men,
Alive. He took many fine possession there,
Seeking help throughout the country. But his faithful companions,
He lost [Olese] them along with his gray ship on the wine-faced sea
As he traveled from the island of Thrinakia. They were hateful [odusanto] to him,
Zeus and Helios. For his companions Helios’ cattle.
They all perished on the much-sounding sea.
But the waves through him on the keep of the ship to land,
The land of the Phaeacians, who are a race close to the gods.”

ὦ γύναι αἰδοίη Λαερτιάδεω ᾿Οδυσῆος,
μηκέτι νῦν χρόα καλὸν ἐναίρεο μηδέ τι θυμὸν  (255)
τῆκε πόσιν γοόωσα. νεμεσσῶμαί γε μὲν οὐδέν·
καὶ γάρ τίς τ’ ἀλλοῖον ὀδύρεται ἄνδρ’ ὀλέσασα
κουρίδιον, τῷ τέκνα τέκῃ φιλότητι μιγεῖσα,
ἢ ᾿Οδυσῆ’, ὅν φασι θεοῖσ’ ἐναλίγκιον εἶναι.
ἀλλὰ γόου μὲν παῦσαι, ἐμεῖο δὲ σύνθεο μῦθον· (260)
νημερτέως γάρ τοι μυθήσομαι οὐδ’ ἐπικεύσω,
ὡς ἤδη ᾿Οδυσῆος ἐγὼ περὶ νόστου ἄκουσα
ἀγχοῦ, Θεσπρωτῶν ἀνδρῶν ἐν πίονι δήμῳ,
ζωοῦ· αὐτὰρ ἄγει κειμήλια πολλὰ καὶ ἐσθλά,
αἰτίζων ἀνὰ δῆμον. ἀτὰρ ἐρίηρας ἑταίρους (265)
ὤλεσε καὶ νῆα γλαφυρὴν ἐνὶ οἴνοπι πόντῳ,
Θρινακίης ἄπο νήσου ἰών· ὀδύσαντο γὰρ αὐτῷ
Ζεύς τε καὶ ᾿Ηέλιος· τοῦ γὰρ βόας ἔκταν ἑταῖροι.
οἱ μὲν πάντες ὄλοντο πολυκλύστῳ ἐνὶ πόντῳ· 
τὸν δ’ ἄρ’ ἐπὶ τρόπιος νηὸς βάλε κῦμ’ ἐπὶ χέρσου, (270)
Φαιήκων ἐς γαῖαν, οἳ ἀγχίθεοι γεγάασιν·

But hate and destruction may not be the only themes running beneath the surface of his name. The variation which becomes Ulysses might also have to do with scars or his woolly hair.

Odyssey 19.225–227

“Glorious Odysseus had a purple wool [oúlên] cloak with a double fold
And the brooch on it was made of gold with double clasps
On the surface it had an intricate design.”

χλαῖναν πορφυρέην ‖ οὔλην ἔχε δῖος ᾿Οδυσσεύς,
διπλῆν· ἐν δ’ ἄρα οἱ περόνη χρυσοῖο τέτυκτο
αὐλοῖσιν διδύμοισι· πάροιθε δὲ δαίδαλον ἦεν·


“Immediately he pondered in his heart how she might not take him
And recognize his scar [oulén] and bring everything out in the open.
But she came near and took him up for bathing. Immediately
She recognized the scar [oulén] which long ago a boar gave him with its white fang
When he went to Parnassus to see Autolykos and his sons.”

αὐτίκα γὰρ κατὰ θυμὸν ὀΐσατο, μή ἑ λαβοῦσα
οὐλὴν ἀμφράσσαιτο καὶ ἀμφαδὰ ἔργα γένοιτο.
νίζε δ’ ἄρ’ ἄσσον ἰοῦσα ἄναχθ’ ἑόν· αὐτίκα δ’ ἔγνω
οὐλήν, τήν ποτέ μιν σῦς ἤλασε λευκῷ ὀδόντι
Παρνησόνδ’ ἐλθόντα μετ’ Αὐτόλυκόν τε καὶ υἷας,

Od. 24.402 (Dolios to Odysseus)

“Be well [oule] and be of great cheer. May the gods give you blessings”

οὖλέ τε καὶ μέγα χαῖρε, θεοὶ δέ τοι ὄλβια δοῖεν.

How might audiences tell the difference between these two words in addition to accent? Usage in the hexameter line indicates some separation. “Scar” tends to come at the beginning of the line:

19.464 οὐλὴν ὅττι πάθοι· ὁ δ’ ἄρα σφίσιν εὖ κατέλεξεν,
19.507 θερσόμενος, οὐλὴν δὲ κατὰ ῥακέεσσι κάλυψε.
21.221      ὣς εἰπὼν ῥάκεα μεγάλης ἀποέργαθεν οὐλῆς.
23.74 οὐλήν, τήν ποτέ μιν σῦς ἤλασε λευκῷ ὀδόντι·
24.331 “οὐλὴν μὲν πρῶτον τήνδε φράσαι ὀφθαλμοῖσι,

“Woolly” tends to come before a caesura:

4.450 ἀμφὶ δ’ ἄρα χλαίνας ‖ οὔλας βάλον ἠδὲ χιτῶνας (=10.451, 17.89)
4.299 χλαίνας τ’ ἐνθέμεναι ‖ οὔλας καθύπερθεν ἕσασθαι. (=7.338)

The one exception to this separation in the Odyssey seems to be when Odysseus is transformed into a better looking version of himself in books 6 and 23. Here, the “woolly hair” begins the line, placing the same sounds in the same position as his defining scar.

“She made the woolly hair come from his head like a hyacinth flower.”

6.230-231 …οὔλας ἧκε κὄμας, ὑακινθίνῳ ἄνθει ὁμοίας. (=23.158).

In this, Dolios’ hapax legomenon greeting to Odysseus seems potentially playful and interesting: οὖλέ τε καὶ μέγα χαῖρε, θεοὶ δέ τοι ὄλβια δοῖεν. Here the imperative could sound like a vocative for “wool”. But, it might also recall another word that sounds the same, οὖλος “destructive”, which appears in the Iliad but not in the Odyssey.

Ancient authors associate this imperative with “wholeness, and healthiness”:

Schol. H ad. Hom. Od. 24.402

“Oule: “be healthy, from “wholeness”. This is only said once.
οὖλε] ὑγίαινε· παρὰ τὸ ὅλην. τῶν ἅπαξ εἰρημένων. H.

Strabo 14.1.6

“The Milesians and Delians call Apollo Oulios, as if he his a bringer of health and healing. For, to oulein is to “to be healthy” [hugiainein], from which we get the word “scar” [oulê] and the [greeting] “be well and be very happy”.

Οὔλιον δ’ ᾿Απόλλωνα καλοῦσί τινα καὶ Μιλήσιοι καὶ Δήλιοι, οἷον ὑγιαστικὸν καὶ παιωνικόν· τὸ γὰρ οὔλειν ὑγιαίνειν, ἀφ’ οὗ καὶ τὸ οὐλὴ καὶ τό „οὖλέ τε „καὶ μέγα χαῖρε.”

The aural similarity between these four terms (“scar”, “wool”, “ruinous”, “whole”) and their potentially intentional juxtapositions and interplay in the Odyssey help to map out different variations on Odysseus’ character and his development in this particular epic. In folk etymology, the name  (whence Roman Ulysses through Doric Olisseus?. cf. Oulikseus) may mark him as the “scarred man”, evoking the tale of his naming and thus an essential aspect of his character.

The “wool” may recall both his physical trait of curly hair (emphasized in his rejuvenations in the Odyssey) and his legendary tale of sneaking out under a ram after the blinding of Polyphemos (depicted in many vase images at an early period and perhaps echoed when Priam describes him as a “ram among the sheep” in the Iliad  3.197–198). But the “wool garment” has intra-textual relevance within our epic (since Odysseus in disguise keeps asking for a cloak) and as the garment that confirms his past identity to Penelope.

Both “scar” and “wool”, then, are intimately connected with the characterization of an Odysseus from a broader mythical perspective and are introduced as positive identification for the hero in this epic.  The echo of a “destructive” hero is mostly up to speculation. The meaning of the final imperative “be whole”, however, might be intentionally jarring and telling: at this moment, Odysseus has finally confirmed his identities with everyone and has become whole, combining and transcending his identities as “woolly haired” and “scarred”.

Some Additional Etymologies

Etymologicum Gudianum

“Scar” (oulê): This is a healed wound which is still apparent. Others call it a “persistent/painful wound” [epiponaion]”

Οὐλὴ, τὸ ὑγιασθὲν τραῦμα καὶ φαινόμενον· ἄλλοι δὲ ἐπιπόναιον ἕλκος.

“Scar and wound [ôteilê] are different. For a ‘scar’ is a strike healed from an earlier wound; whereas a ôteilê is what the wound [trauma] is called. But Homer has obscured the difference when he said “the same mark [oulê] poured out black blood from the wound [ôteilês].”

Οὐλὴ καὶ ὠτειλὴ διαφέρει· οὐλὴ μὲν γάρ ἐστιν, ἡ ἐκ παλαιοῦ τραύματος ὑγιασμένη πλήγη· ὠτειλὴ δὲ τὸ πρόσφατον τραῦμα· καὶ ῞Ομηρος δὲ τετήρηκε τὴν διαφορὰν εἴπων· οὐλὴν δ’ αὐτὴν ἔρεεν αἷμα κελαινεφὲς ἐξ ὠτειλῆς.

οὐλή, ἡ: “scar”

Chantraine s.v. οὐλή, “cicatrice, blessure, cicatrisée. From *ϝολ-. Cf. lat volnus, eris?

Beekes s.v οὐλή, “scarred wound, scar”,< IE *uel- ‘draw, tear’. But “As a common basis for these nouns, the root *uelh3- ‘to strike’ must be assumed…”

οὖλος, “wool”

Chaintraine, s.v. οὖλος 2 “Le sense ancient de οὖλος “bouclé, crépu” [“curled, frizzy”] se tire aisément de 2 εἰλέω “tourner, rouler”…Le sens secondaire de “dense” etc. n’impose pas un rapport avec 1 εἰλέω “serrer, presser”.

Beeks s.v. οὖλος, “frizzy, shaggy, woolly, crinkly’ “can be connected with εἰλέω 2 “to roll, rutnr, wind’…” We may reconstruct *uol(H)-no ‘wool’, either from *uel“to twist’ or *uelH- ‘to pluck’ (Lat. Vello).

Note for 19.225 from Merry, Riddell and Montro 1886: οὔλην ‘thick,’ ‘woolly,’ from the same root as Lat. vellus, also lāna (for vlā-na). Whether it is akin to “εἶρος, ἔρια” (Lat. vervēx) is more than doubtful.”

οὖλος, “ruinous”

Chantraine, s.v. οὖλος 3 “perniceaux, funeste, destructeur”. Epithet of Ares, Achilles and in the hellinist period, Eros… Ety. Famille ὄλλυμι, *ὄλϝος à côte de *ὀλεϝός >ὀλοός…

Beekes, s.v. οὖλος 3 “baneful”…from IE *H3lh3-u– “destructive”

οὖλος, Chantraine s.v. οὖλος 1 “tout entier”, voir ὅλος.

Schol. B ad Od. 19.393

“Scar”: Attic speakers call a wound that has been healed  ôteilê. In Homer, ôteilê is unhealed, and an oulê is healed.”

οὐλὴν] ᾿Αττικοὶ τὸ θεραπευθὲν τραῦμα ὠτειλήν φασι· παρὰ δὲ ῾Ομήρῳ ὠτειλὴ μὲν τὸ ἀθεράπευτον, οὐλὴ δὲ τὸ θεραπευθέν. B.

For “whole” elsewhere in the Odyssey see: 17.342-3

“Têlemakhos called the swineherd over to him and addressed him,
Once he took the whole [oûlon] loaf from the fancy basket”

Τηλέμαχος δ’ ἐπὶ οἷ καλέσας προσέειπε συβώτην,
ἄρτον τ’ οὖλον ἑλὼν περικαλλέος ἐκ κανέοιο


For anyone who has actually made it through this evidence to the end and is expecting some sort of summary, well, I don’t know if I have one. What I think it comes down to is that Odysseus is attractive because he survives and, at one level, even if we have some desire to be noble and die a beautiful death, we also want to live and believe that our story continues ever on. Odysseus provides this.

In addition, Odysseus has power that is not contingent upon his body. We all know whether or not we are blessed with great speed and strength and beauty; but we also know that these things can never last. The Odyssey gives us hope that we may be distinguished and capable of excellence thanks to something we cannot see and which we believe (erroneously) does not fade or fail with time.

But, most importantly, Odysseus appeals because he shifts–he is many things to many people and we choose to believe in and identify with the Odysseus we need. Even though this ‘hero’ does terrible things to most of the people he encounters, we ‘rewrite’ his story to accord with versions of ourselves and our world which are more palatable.

But we should not forget that Odysseus is in part responsible for the deaths of all of his sailors, 108 of the suitors, Palamedes, perhaps Hecuba, the city of Troy, the mutilation of Melanthios and the hanging of the slave women. We could even argue that Odysseus represents the savage violence just under the surface of ‘civilization’ and that his narrative provides a justification for its very ‘necessity’. This, I think, is not a reading many of us would enjoy. By ‘loving’ Odysseus–or at least by refusing to see that his complexity embraces hard truths about human society to this day–we become complicit in his ‘crimes’.

And this is all the greater testament to the power of the Homeric Odyssey–it challenges us, misleads us, delights us, and wins us over to the side of a scoundrel. By the end of this process, if we are honest, we must admit that we side with Odysseus because he reflects not just what we fear but because he channels something true about the people we fear we are.

More to read:

Benjamin Haller. “Dolios in Odyssey 4 and 24: Penelope’s Plotting and Alternative Versions of Odysseus’ nostos.” TAPA 143 (2013) 263-292.

Nikoletta Kanavou. The Names of Homeric Heroes : Problems and Interpretations, De Gruyter, Inc., 2015

John Peradotto. Man in the Middle Voice: Name and Narration in the Odyssey. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990

3 responses

  1. Man, what a great post.

    As a rank amateur, I wonder, on the “polytropos” front, whether a contemporary English rendering (and maybe, to a lesser extent, our understanding of Odysseus) might profit from the expression “moves.”

    On top of the literal spatial/positional meaning (which of course fits Odysseus), I think of the related, semi-figurative sense of a “move” in a game (e.g. chess), since it keeps the spatial/positional meaning but adds layers of deliberation, strategy, quick tactical thinking, etc. And then there’s the closely-related athletic sense of “moves”–think of the evasive jukes and dodges of a running back, or a crossover dribble in basketball, or showing skill/style on the dance floor. And then the even more general/abstract sense of “making moves” for any goal-directed, prudent actions, especially ones that show some cunning or cleverness.

    Maybe there are good reasons to avoid that expression in O’s case–but I was sort of surprised not to see it among the options above. The notion of a man of many “ways” or “turns” or “devices” is obviously and intentionally vague/multiform, but “moves” fits well and sounds natural, I think. O’s arsenal included devices, shifts, dodges, twists, turns [of mind, of phrase], and lots more; in other words, he was a guy who could really make some moves.

    Thanks again for a wonderful read!

    • Thanks for this! I wish there were a handy English compound that used “moves” because I think you are right about the range of semantic meaning. Greek “tropos” and its reflexes are really similar.

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