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The Odyssey

by Homer

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Why doesn't Odysseus reveal his identity in Books 6, 7, and 8 of The Odyssey?

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In Books VI, VII, and VIII occur chronologically after the next several books because Books IX, X, XI, and XI consist of Odysseus recounting his adventures since the Trojan War (up until he arrived on the shores of Phaeacia and met Nausicaa there). When he went to the Underworld, as he describes in Book XI, he met with the blind prophet Teiresias who told him about the suitors who have encamped at his home and who are attempting to get his wife, Penelope, to accept that Odysseus is dead and marry one of them. Right now, the suitors do believe that he is dead, as the war was over so long ago and he has not returned to Ithaca. Thus, he will have the element of surprise, giving him an advantage over them, when he does return. If he tells who he is when he first arrives in Phaeacia, then word might get back to the suitors that he is alive and on his way home. In the Underworld, Agamemnon had also told him to beware of placing too much trust in his wife, Penelope, as he had trusted his wife, Clytemnestra (who plotted with her lover and murdered Agamemnon when he returned from the war). By keeping his identity a secret for as long as possible, Odysseus gets a chance to test her continued loyalty to him as well.

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Odysseus conceals his true identity at various points in The Odyssey. One reason for doing so is to find out important information from other people. For example, when he returns to Ithaca, he doesn't initially reveal himself to Eumaeus, the goat-herd, as he wants to test his loyalty. Odysseus has been away for so long it's perfectly understandable that he'd want to see whether or not his loyal servant had fallen under the sway of Penelope's suitors.

Odysseus has a well-deserved reputation for being crafty; he's always planning and thinking ahead; and he needs to think how revealing his identity will fit into his plans. So when reading The Odyssey we should always bear in mind that Odysseus is on a divine mission, so it's not surprising that he doesn't want to reveal anything about himself unless it's absolutely necessary. Even then, such information will only be divulged on a strictly need-to-know basis.

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Throughout Homer's Odyssey, Odysseus is very careful about guarding his identity. One reason Odysseus does not reveal his identity when he is in the land of Phaeacia is because the people of this country are good hosts. Part of proper hospitality in the Odyssey involves not asking a guest his or her name until the guest has been fed and offered other hospitality. One reason Odysseus does not reveal his name to the Phaeacians is because they do not ask him his name until 8.521-585:

"Tell us the name you go by at home, the name your mother and father, and the rest, in the town and countryside, give you."

A second reason that Odysseus does not reveal his name to the Phaeacians until asked is because prior to his arrival on Phaeacia, Odysseus has suffered much because of the revelation of his name. In Odyssey 9, which chronologically occurs before his arrival in Phaeacia, Odysseus' revelation of his true identity to the Cyclops allowed the Cyclops to put a curse on Odysseus, a curse that led Poseidon to attack Odysseus on the open sea, wreck his raft, and wash him up on the shores of Phaeacia.

Elsewhere in the epic, Odysseus is reluctant to reveal his identity until the time is right. As Odysseus learned from his encounter with the Cyclops, revealing one's identity at the wrong time can be extremely dangerous.

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