|Image from litmuse used under a Creative Commons license|
Identity is significant to humanity now, and has been since the ancient past. Today you can tell all your "friends" what your favorite books are, the movie you saw last night, what shoes you want to buy, and on Google+ you can pronounce your own customized "bragging rights" for the world to see. Homer's The Odyssey illustrates the assertion that identity is central to man's existence. "No man is nameless," stated a hospitable Lord to the Raider of Cities. "No man, good or bad, but gets a name in his first infancy, none being born, unless a mother bears him!" (p. 292.591). While it is true that the majority of the characters in The Odyssey have names (including the lowly servants and vile suitors), a deeper reading of the text reveals the possibility that long before Photoshop and Facebook profile manipulation, the idea of adjusting ones identity or appearance to obtain specific objectives is as ancient as literature. This idea of masks or layered identity is relevant to today's world in which the profile and definition of a person can be changed with almost the same power and speed of Grey-eyed Athena. Masks appear in at least three ways in The Odyssey: as a form of testing, a method of deception, and way to glorify the human body. I will provide evidence for these three masks from the text as well as make small connections to other works of literature and current day media trends.
The first mask - used as a form of testing - is illustrated clearly near the end of the story. Entering his own house, Odysseus used his divinely bestowed disguise as a way to determine who was loyal, and who deserved justice. One suitor was not far from the reality of the situation when he warned his comrades who were bantering with the Master Tactician, "A poor show, that - hitting this famished tramp - bad business, if he happened to be a god. You know they go in foreign guise, the gods do, looking like strangers, turning up in towns and settlements to keep an eye on manners, good or bad." p. 434.633. Though Odysseus was not a god, he was certainly blessed by one, and in many ways his disguised infiltration can be seen in literature and tradition since Homer's day. Henry V and Christ's parable found in Matthew 25:35-46 reflect this same story of royalty mixing with the common public to gauge whether the subjects were loyal or not. By taking on the mask of a poor and lowly tramp, Odysseus was able to make clear judgments to lead to success in his situation. This principal requires cunning and a noble heart, and in the case of Odysseus he is wise like a serpent but deals judgment most unlike a dove.
Disguising oneself to test the loyalty of the public seems slightly misleading, but The Odyssey is replete with examples of how the characters of the story use masks to be utterly deceptive. Such examples include Kirke the beautiful "witch" who appears harmless and then turns men into swine, Odysseus' pun and grand escape from the Cyclops who curses "no body," and Penelope's trick in making the suitors think she is in mourning and preparing for marriage when really she is merely delaying time for her Lord to return. Often disguise is associated with the gods, for "It is no hard thing for the gods of heaven to glorify a man or bring him low." p. 409.250. It is seems likely that Shakespeare drew upon this mask in his plays, blending magic and myth with disguise and confusing situations. Perhaps one of the greatest deceivers, Iago "friend" of Othello, was a master of this particular mask, never changing his actual disposition but manipulating his place in social and political circles to plant ideas into the minds and hearts of influential people. Though both Odysseus and Athena take on different appearances, to me they seem less evil than other characters in the epic that wore the misleading mask.
The final mask is one of which we may compare to today's Cover Girl or the magical powers of Photoshop. Glorifying - and in some cases - deifying the bodies of the heroes in The Odyssey is commonplace. The returning Lord experiences Athena's assistance to his physical appearance so much that he has learned to trust in the power by the end. At least twice in the story Athena "lent him beauty, head to foot. She made him taller, and massive, too, with crisping hair in curls like petals of wild hyacinth but all red-golden" (p. 511.186). Penelope also was frequently touched up by the grey-eyed goddess, "With ambrosia she (Athena) bathed her (Penelope's) cheeks and throat and smoothed her brow . . . Grandeur she gave her, too, in height and form, and made her whiter than carved ivory" (p. 444.242). Even Odysseus' father got a make over: "Oh, Father, surely one of the gods who are young forever has made you magnificent before my eyes!" (p. 527.409). The obvious admiration and awe for the human body in The Odyssey points to the probable fact that physical looks and prowess were important to Greek culture and society as a whole.
In today's digital world things haven't changed too much as people manipulate their own photos, watch glamorous actors in films, and get addicted to pornography. We live in a time similar to that of Odyessus in that we also can -and do- wear masks. The Internet offers a wide variety of ways to disguise or reveal our true selves, and like the characters in Homer's epic we must decide how to use the power of the masks made available to us. Ironically, the great story ends with Athena maintaining the mask "and voice of Mentor" p. 532.614. What does Athena's mentoring mean for you and me as we discover our own identities in our ever-increasing post-modern and deconstructing society?