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Question and Answer: Truth, Lies, and Narrative Innovation in the Odyssey

Justin Arft

     “τίς πόθεν εἰς ἀνδρῶν . . . ;” (“What man are you and whence?”). This seemingly innocuous question (recurring seven times in the Odyssey) may initially appear unremarkable because of its natural position in the guest-host type-scene, a context discussed extensively in scholarship (Goldhill 1991, Reece 1993, de Jong 2001, Louden 1999, Fenik 1974). However, an unexplored perspective on this formulaic question is revealed in light of 1) its metonymic value as a marker of compositional strategy in the Odyssey and 2) the force of the question (and answer) when asked by women, particularly Arete (Odyssey 7.238). I argue that this formulaic question is integral to the overall arc of Odysseus’ nostos and in each instance the interrogator and interrogated are marked as performer and audience, thereby signaling a narrative-defining moment upon resolution to the question. In this light, Arete’s reception of Odysseus’ answer becomes instrumental to his nostos, similar to Penelope’s own interrogation and reception of the xeinos on Ithaca. As a performance cue, the formulaic question positions Odysseus to tell a tale that must be appropriate to his audience, and if well received, his journey continues.
     Previous scholarship on the formula “τίς πόθεν εἰς ἀνδρῶν . . . ;” views it as mundane or subordinates it within the recognition motif or the guest-host type-scene (Reece 1993, de Jong 2001). However, recent work on traditional poetics (Foley 1999, 2002; Montanari et al. 2012) establishes why such a construction merits consideration as an encoded cue, thereby providing the unit an aesthetic and semantic force beyond its mere structural function or literal meaning.
    Further, four of the seven recurrences of this question point us to the Odyssey’s lying tales. These tales must be reconsidered not in light of their relative truthfulness or falsehood (Emlyn-Jones 1986, Murnaghan 1987, Richardson 2006) but in relation to Odysseus’ command as narrator and poet (Pucci 1998, Goldhill 1990). As such, the lying tales are more than confirmations of Odysseus’ guile but moments of performance and reception that determine the outcome of the narrative. Further, the Cretan lying tales reference Cyclic or other extra-textual mythic episodes upon which the Homeric tradition is built (Reece 1994, Marks 2003, Tsagalis 2008, Burgess 2001, Danek 1998); therefore, the proximity of the formulaic question to these variants suggests its ability to highlight moments wherein Odysseus and the Odyssey’s poet are reinventing tradition by means of constructing a unique pathway for the return tale.
    Attention to this formulaic question also leads us to Arete. Although it is announced that Arete will play a significant role in Odysseus’ journey (Od. 6.305-15, 7.66-77), commentators largely have been disappointed by her apparent inaction (Heubeck et al. 1991, Katz 1991, Richardson 2006; cf. Fenik 1974). However, Irene de Jong (2006) notes that Arete serves as audience to Odysseus, and Lillian Doherty has revealed her centrality to the Odyssey. Bruce Louden (1999) has made the explicit connection between Arete the formulaic question as well. Most importantly, Arete’s formulaic interrogation of Odysseus (7.238) invokes his first “truthful” admissions: his name and the Apologue of the Odyssey. Arete’s reception of Odysseus’ answer (i.e., the first half of the Apologue) is a determining event for his transition to Ithaca, not at all unlike Penelope’s own role in determining the success of Odysseus’ nostos (Katz 1991, Foley 1999).
    Odysseus’ truthful admission on Scheria and subsequent lies on Ithaca all signal the poet’s narrative strategy for navigating a sea of possible variant outcomes to Odysseus’ tale, and quite appropriately, Odysseus navigates these moments by means of (re)telling stories.  This reading of the formulaic question that circumscribes these events not only reinforces Arete’s centrality to the Odyssey but also highlights the powerful aesthetic function of traditional poetics and its ability to be innovative within tradition. This type of variation within limits is at the heart of Homeric poetics, and the formulaic question signals heightened instances of this strategy.

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Metageneric Excursions in Early Greek Epic

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