So by day she’d weave at her great and growing web—
by night, by the light of torches set beside her,
she would unravel all she’d done. Three whole years
she deceived us blind, seduced us with this scheme.
Odysseus, unlike the great martial heroes of the Iliad, prevails by cunning rather than physical prowess. The same is true of his wife, Penelope, though within a more restricted frame. She tricks the suitors and thus delays her remarriage through the traditionally female activity of weaving. Penelope promises to remarry once she has completed a funeral shroud for her aging father-in-law, Laertes. By day, she publicly works on the garment, but by night she undoes whatever she had accomplished. This shows how both husband and wife strive to maintain their union against all odds through a common trait.
Nobody—that’s my name. Nobody—
so my mother and father call me, all my friends.
Cunning is Odysseus’s greatest trait and it serves him well throughout the poem, perhaps nowhere more famously than in his triumph over the Cyclops, Polyphemus. Having introduced himself as “Nobody,” Odysseus subdues the giant with wine and blinds him by piercing his one large eye with a pointed stake. Polyphemus then calls out to his kin for help, saying that “Nobody, friends…Nobody’s killing me now by fraud and not by force!” The other Cyclopes thus assume that he is fine and ignore his pleas for help, allowing Odysseus and his men ultimately to escape.
Come, enough of this now. We’re both old hands
at the arts of intrigue. Here among mortal men
you’re far the best at tactics, spinning yarns,
and I am famous among the gods for wisdom,
cunning wiles, too.
In Book 13, Odysseus finally returns home. The Phaeacians convey him to Ithaca in what is the easiest leg of his journey, since Athena puts him into a deep sleep. He wakes up in a cave so disoriented that he does not recognize his own country. Athena, in disguise, confronts and questions him. True to his character, he disguises his identity and spins a tale about how he came to the island. Athena appreciates his cunning, recognizing her own craftiness in her favorite mortal.
I noticed his glossy tunic too, clinging to his skin
like the thin glistening skin of a dried onion,
silky, soft, the glint of the sun itself.
In Book 19, Odysseus, still disguised as a beggar, convenes with Penelope and tells her a false tale to assure her that her husband is alive and will soon return. Penelope, suspecting that the stranger is telling her a story simply to win her favor, demands proof that he actually saw Odysseus. Odysseus complies by describing the fine tunic Odysseus wore, a tunic made by Penelope herself. Thus at one stroke he validates his story and also praises the womanly excellence of Penelope by commending her handiwork.
Woman—your words, they cut me to the core!
Who could move my bed?
Even after Odysseus sheds his disguise and slays the suitors, Penelope still hesitates in recognizing Odysseus as her long-lost husband. To test him one final time, she orders the maids to bring the bed out of their chamber into the hall. She knows this is impossible, however, since the bedframe was made of a living olive tree still rooted in the ground and hence could not be moved. Thus in the climactic reunion scene, Homer reveals Odysseus identity as literally rooted in his home and family, while also displaying the high degree of cunning possessed by Penelope.