Odysseus’ Names

What is in a name? 

Start it like this, Muse. Sing it like it is. Or I will sing it for you, if you are not in the mood for it. You have sung me long enough. I am old, now. My oar is ready to become a spade. 

What is in a name? The first time it started, it started with: πολύτροπον. Breaks the tongue like a promise of trickery. Crafty. Slick, like oil. Many-wiled. Complicated. They have called me that. I only ever called myself Nobody. And perhaps suffering. Many-suffering, a man of constant sorrow. Πολύστονος. And they almost sound the same.  

Perhaps I was a husband once and then a father before all the business with the war. But I was also wise and therefore deceiver, Plato tells me. I never met Plato. He was born long after any trace of me could have walked rocky Ithaca. If I ever even existed. If I was ever even real. 

Muse, you never sung that part. You stopped after the suitors were dead and the Ithaka lords pacified. You never told me about Plato’s thoughts of me.   

Once, I blinded a god’s son. I am old now and barely remember it, though I know he ate my men and that was enough to demand blood-price. He was an unkind host and devoured them whole. I was an unkind guest and took his eye. He gifted nothing. I took instead. We inverted the guest-friendship. My men drowned for it and I did not return home. 

When I had nothing, I had the tongue in my teeth and that was the world. It was enough to blind the sea’s child and make the Pheocians trust me enough to welcome me. I told them of my great terrible deeds, and I told them of all of my killings, and I told them of all my men who were dead, and they trusted me, and their princess wanted me. I have that way with words. I tell things and the world obeys regardless of it wanting it. It is how it is. 

You know what it is like, Muse. Your kind do it all the time. It is a terrible power, is it not? It is a terrible loneliness. 

I am old, now. Now I am old, and I am not done with my story. I am a wicked thing with trickster’s eyes and the traitorous serving-girls of my household hung from the rafters like partridges after hunt.  

I killed all the suitors. Even Amphinomus, even if he was gentle. I killed all the serving-girls, as if they had a choice in this great game of kings and princes. But I did. They hung from the rafters like doves.  

Or was it partridges? I forget, Muse. I remember so little and it all tastes the same.  

I was not a gentle king (but I still knew the name of Eumaeus when I returned). I was not a present father (but I told Telemachus of my plan).  

I was not a gentle father (but I stopped the plow when they put Telemachus before it). I was not a present king (but I remembered how our marriage bed had been built in the tree). I was too many things. It is the end and I barely remember my name, real name, father-given name.  

Perhaps it was something that had to do with suffering. 

I was complicated. I was crafty. I failed to keep them safe. I have an oar in my hand and it is not a spade. Muse, you promised it would be a spade. I was not made to live like beasts. Muse. Muse.  

There is no point in making me pay for my sins. I have no regret for them. I have no anger towards them and they are not a shameful thing because I did them all to survive. Even if I was king and general. I did it all to survive. The gods’ make no distinction between kings and paupers. Ask Kreon. Ask Oedipus. Ask Pentheus, whose name means pain.  

They have all got names. I want my name back. I want the name I was promised when born and then I want my spade that is not an oar – my oar that is actually a spade. I am sick of the sea. 

Take me back to it.  

Written by Justin Biggi.

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