The Odyssey

by: Homer

What makes Odysseus “the man of twists and turns”?

In the proem of Book 1, Homer describes Odysseus as “the man of twists and turns,” an epithet that sets our expectations of the protagonist for the rest of the poem. As “the man of twists and turns,” Odysseus’s shape-shifting allows him to escape death multiple times, but it also defines his identity as a cunning trickster and a storyteller. Most literally, we can understand “twists and turns” as a description of Odysseus’s physical movement across the sea. His miserable experiences at sea are both a punishment devised by Poseidon and a trial that he willingly endures to return home. When we first meet Odysseus in Book 5, we find him at his furthest remove from Ithaca and his former life as a husband, father, warrior. In a literal “twist of fate,” he can no longer be any of these things, and must play the passive role of Calypso’s consort, separated from his true wife and his son. He longs to correct the turns of fate that landed him in this situation, so he willingly braves the open sea and the anger of Poseidon on a makeshift raft for the chance of rejoining society and regaining his identity as head of his household.

Odysseus can also be called “the man of twists and turns” because of the twists and turns of his mind, a trait that frequently gets him out of dangerous situations. For example, in Book 9 Odysseus tells of his encounter with the Cyclops, a one-eyed monster who transgresses all Greek social norms by murdering nearly all of Odysseus’s men. To get out of this situation, Odysseus craftily lies to the Cyclops about his identity, saying his name is “Nobody,” and only revealing his true identity once he’s escaped the Cyclops’s cave. He also lies about who he is to Athena, the swineherd Eumaeus, Telemachus, and Penelope, claiming to be a shipwrecked man from Crete who fought in the Trojan War and spent years in Egypt. These deceitful stories allow Odysseus to work his way back into his household and test the suitors and servants’ hospitality. Disguises also let Odysseus test his friends’ and family’s loyalty. As the man from Crete he claims to have met Odysseus in his travels abroad, and by bringing Odysseus up with Eumaeus and Penelope he learns what these characters truly think about him.

Odysseus’s “twists and turns” reflect the motif of storytelling that reappears multiple times in the poem, most notably during Odysseus’s own retelling of his experiences at sea. In Books 9–12 Odysseus himself narrates his adventures to his hosts and audience, the Phaeacians, giving him the epithet “the great teller of tales.” Like the poem itself, the shape of Odysseus’s narrative is not straightforward, but has many twists and turns, starting in the middle and doubling back on itself. This reinforces the idea that a “twisty” story is more interesting and entertaining than one told straight through, and also enables Odysseus to reference important events more than once. When he finishes his story, he says, “It goes against my grain to repeat a tale told once, and told so clearly.” As well as being a narrative device for Homer to fill in earlier details of the story, the act of storytelling is important for Odysseus to process his experiences before returning home. For this reason, Scheria acts as a midway point between the fabulous world of the hero’s travels and the real world of his country with all its political and familial conflicts. Through storytelling, Odysseus both confirms and constructs his own identity as father and husband and as tactician and survivor.