The Importance of the Cloak in Homer’s Odyssey

The Importance of the Cloak in Homer’s Odyssey

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The Importance of the Cloak in Homer’s Odyssey

 
   Near the end of the fourteenth chapter of Homer's Odyssey, the main character, Odysseus, announces that he is about to tell a story to his swineherd, Eumaeus, and several other workers inside the swineherd's hut. Odysseus warns the men that his story is the result of his drinking with them, but the story is actually a test of his swineherd's character. Disguised as Castor's son, a rag-wearing beggar with no possessions, he tells the men a story about fighting alongside the man who, secretly, he really is. Homer emphasizes Odysseus' great mind when he acts the part to its entirety even when his own story is twisted to today's reader. In the tale, his fellow soldier at Troy, Odysseus, is able to manipulate another soldier into taking a request for reinforcements so that Castor's son can sleep under the departing messenger's cloak.

 

Both in his story and within the hut, Odysseus is the manipulative character, and the ultimate outcome of both is the temporary use of a cloak for Castor's son to sleep under. Knowing the limited resources of the swineherd and his own abundance of cloaks at home, Odysseus frames his story so that the swineherd would consider lending his guest the use of a cloak rather than telling a tale with a moral of being generous and gift giving. The swineherd is able to show his guest hospitality yet face no loss by the lending of a cloak. This insight shows the maturity and development that Odysseus has experienced along his journey home; a younger and less experienced Odysseus may not have considered the importance of the difference between lending and giving when the host is a man he employs.

 

For twenty years Odysseus was away from his home of Ithaca, and in this time he faced several events that would change the way he would see the world. Witnessing such events as the breaking open of six of his innocent soldiers' skulls by a Cyclops (Homer 132) and the feeding of another six of his men to a six-headed beast (Homer 186) played a large part of the changed man that returned. Though a changed Odysseus awoke on the beach of Ithaca, he would have to force all the lessons of two decades out of his personality and into the efforts to regain his life; he would need to use the strength he gained from his experiences to conceal his identity behind a mask of weakness.

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With the aid of Athene, a being that only he can see and plays no direct role in the novel, his physical appearance is changed into a less attractive man that no one could recognize as Odysseus (Homer 206). Irony shows itself when Odysseus leaves for war--an act notorious for making any man into a hero--only to come home to disguise himself.

 

The story Castor's son tells Eumaeus is remarkably similar to the situation Odysseus is in that very night. According to Castor's son, "when I started out I had foolishly left my cloak with my men, thinking I wouldn't be cold" (Homer 221). A difference between the two situations is that Castor's son did not forget his cloak when he came to the swineherd's hut; Odysseus was dressed by Athene with consideration of the cold temperatures he would face once the Sun set. Before coming to the island, Odysseus was well dressed in a "fine tunic and cloak" by the maids of King Alcinous (Homer 119) and his life had never been closer to being restored. Castor's son abandons his much-needed cloak before heading for Troy as Odysseus abandons his experienced life when heading for his home.

 

Both Castor's son's story and Odysseus' character, Castor's son, were fabricated; in fact, one is fiction within the other. Assuming though that Castor's son was a real person, the story of Troy would have shown Odysseus lying (to the messenger) for the best of Castor's son's interests. Similar to the story at Troy, Odysseus falsifies the part of a beggar so that he may enter the island and carry about his matters without being discovered; again, in his own interest he must lie to achieve what he wants. The types of lies he orchestrates in both these examples are not harmful to anyone, only beneficial to Odysseus and his cause. Long before Odysseus reaches his homeland he sailed to an island inhabited by Cyclops. When trapped by a Cyclops by the name of Polyphemus, Odysseus again lies about his identity, telling the giant that he was born with the name "Nobody" (Homer 135). His strategy plays in his favor when the Cyclops is blinded by his guests and unsuccessfully requests the help of neighboring Cyclops by saying "O my friends, it's Nobody's treachery" (Homer 136). Though the Cyclops is permanently blinded, it still holds true that fabricating a lie is beneficial to Odysseus' cause.

 

After hearing Castor's son tell the story of Odysseus and the cloak at Troy, Eumaeus lets Odysseus, who is still playing the part of Castor's Son, sleep under the warmest of his cloaks after an agreement that Castor's son must give back the cloak in the morning. This agreement falls parallel to the use of the messenger's cloak at Troy; the messenger would surely come back to take possession of his cloak. This temporary use of the cloak is very much similar to Odysseus' use of Eumaeus' hut; a crutch to help himself achieve what he seeks. Eumaeus' hut is the perfect place for Odysseus to use as a gateway between the outside world and the house that he once found familiar. Eumaeus was an honest man and could be trusted to his master's property (Homer 207), though Odysseus did not reveal his identity to him until much later (Homer 321). Odysseus hides his identity from Eumaeus so that he may be proven the loyalty that Eumaeus has when his master was not present.

 

In ancient Greece, a cloak was worn as a part of the clothing that keeps a person warm; similarly, Odysseus sleeps under a cloak in the swineherd's hut. Though Eumaeus did not know that his guest was royalty, he gave Castor's son the warmest cloak he had after the story that was told. This giving of the best cloak to the royal guest was no accident; however, there is not a direct connection between royalty and the choice gift. Odysseus' fellow soldiers knew that of all the men on board, he would be given the greatest opportunity when a city was either sacked or visited. Ultimately, his leadership was the cause of his journey to be lengthened several fold (Homer 143). This experience allowed him to become a much stronger leader and speaker. With these skills Odysseus can both tell a story and speak to his allies better than any normal man. This experience gave him the ability to gain such respect from the swineherd that he was able to receive the same gifts as royalty.

 

Homer's invent of the cloak is not for Odysseus' necessity, but rather symbolic for reaching home. Odysseus leaves the familiar outdoors and enters Eumaeus' hut coincidentally missing a rainstorm by hours (Homer 20). The storm could be symbolic for the life of hardships that Odysseus had been living, and the hut could be symbolic for his home island. Assuming these symbols to be true, the rainstorm was a glimpse into the past, the cloak is a glimpse into the future, and the hut--both as a his home island and as a gateway--is his present life. This would imply that his host, Eumaeus, is everyone on the island that wanted Odysseus to arrive; moreover, everyone who did not want to see him find his way home did not yet know of his presence. The fact that none of his enemies are present to know of his arrival strengthens the argument that the hut is the present, and the gateway between the outside world and his life at home.

 

Works Cited

Homer. The Odyssey. Penguin Books: London, 1991.

 
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