“Tell me, Muse, of the man of many ways…”
So opens The Odyssey (Richard Lattimore Translation).
“The man of many ways” is Odysseus.
In all Greek myth, only Athena and (perhaps) Theseus are more known for wisdom.
His wisdom resume is impressive: he made peace among all the Greek rulers competing for the hand of Helen, was the Greeks' most valued tactician and orator in the Trojan War, lured Achilles (in drag) into revealing himself at Scyros. Even the wooden horse was his brainchild.
And he almost managed to pull all of this off without irritating the gods.
Athena herself referred to Odysseus as “far the best of all mortal men for counsel.”
But no man is perfect.
And it takes a “man of many ways” to display genius at times and at other times to make some head-scratching decisions like…
Falling Asleep at the Worst Moment… Repeatedly
One of Odysseus’s strangest and most detrimental habits is his propensity to fall asleep at precisely the wrong time. It happens so often that The Odyssey could be read as a reverse bedtime story where you instead tell your children the horrible things that might happen to them if they fall asleep.
After he acquired a magic windbag from the wind god, Aiolos, that steered him and his fleet so close to Ithaca that they could smell cooking fires, he fell asleep at the helm of his ship. His crew, believing that the bag was full of treasure (Odysseus lied all the time), stole the bag, opened it, and were blown back to Ailos’s island. Ailos refused to give him another one. That was the last time any of his fleet, besides himself, would ever see Ithaca.
Then, there was the island of Thrinacia, where Odysseus had been warned not to eat the cows, who belonged to Helios. Instead of staying with his stranded starving crew, he went into the forest and fell asleep. His crew, having long lost trust in Odysseus, had themselves a barbecue. One problem, the cows were immortal and continued to moo even after they were slaughtered, burned, and eaten. Helios had his revenge on all the cow eaters by killing them all in a shipwreck (no word and what happened to the cows from there).
And then, when the kind Phaeacians brought Odysseus home to Ithaca, he fell into such a heavy sleep that they just picked him up and left him on the beach, and he woke up in a panic thinking that they had deserted him in yet another foreign land.
Once he was back in Ithaca, Odysseus again proved himself the man of “many ways” by successfully overcoming 108 young men in battle, but also…
Almost Blowing his Disguise for no Reason
Odysseus knew that his survival depended on convincing his enemies that he was a harmless beggar.
So committed was he to this disguise, he allowed the young men to abuse him, ignored his dog that lay dying, and lied to his wife whom he had not seen for twenty years.
So when an actual homeless man picked a fight with him, this was hardly the biggest obstacle to Odysseus maintaining his disguise. Surely Odysseus, with his superior martial ability, could find a subtle and easy way to deal with this opponent without raising suspicions.
What does he do?
Standing in a ring of his enemies Odysseus girds his loins revealing himself to be CUT LIKE HIS STATUE AND HE BREAKS THE HOMELESS MAN’S JAW WITH A SINGLE PUNCH!
He was fortunate his enemies did not find it suspicious that a homeless man apparently had both a boxing gym and a regular gym membership.
He also almost blew his disguise for the important task of calling one of his maidservants a “bitch.”
But this is hardly the best example of Odysseus’s imprudence. That award goes to…
Getting Cursed and Almost Eaten by a Cyclops
At this point in the article, you may be agreeing that Odysseus sometimes makes bad decisions, but he seems awfully unlucky.
This is accurate. But you must remember that according to the Ancient Greeks, luck coincided with favor from the gods. So, if Odysseus was unlucky, that must mean he found disfavor with some god.
How did this happen?
Odysseus and his crew found themselves on an island with a cave containing sheep, cheese, and a chair clearly meant for some sort of giant.
Odysseus’s men, knowing his curiosity, beg Odysseus to just steal some cheese and leave.
Odysseus ignored his men’s advice and they waited (inside the cave!) to find out what sort of creature could sit in such a chair.
When the owner of the cave, a cyclops named Polyphemus, showed up and wondered who stole his cheese, Odysseus stepped forward and demanded Polyphemus give him a gift.
Polyphemus, instead, ate two of his men and trapped them in the cave. The next day, Polyphemus ate two more. Then, two more.
Then, Odysseus’s brain came alive. He got Polyphemus drunk, blinded him, and engineered a brilliant escape back to his ship.
Polyphemus stumbled after them to the shoreline of the island, but he was too late. Odysseus and his men were already sailing away. So long as they made no noise, the cyclops had no way of knowing where the ships were.
That’s when Odysseus, a man who in all other stories was the smoothest of talkers, decided this was the time to talk smack.
The cyclops started throwing boulders in the direction of Odysseus’s voice, and even after a particularly narrow miss that would have doomed him and his men, Odysseus did not shut up.
He then revealed his name to the cyclops, which allowed Polyphemus to cry to his daddy and tell him what mean old Odysseus did to him.
Polyphemus’s father was Poseidon, the god of the sea: you know, that thing you have to travel on to make it back home if you live on an island.
Polyphemus prayed that Odysseus be delayed on his journey home, that he lose all of his men, and that he find his house in turmoil when he gets back.
Poseidon, being a loving father even to the grossest of his children, complied.