Summer Reading: Homer’s Odyssey Books 17-20

Last time, I wrote about Books 13-16 of the Odyssey. Now we move onto Books 17-20, and as usual, I will begin with a summary of plot events:

Book 17: Telemachus returns to his house, and his nurse, Eurykleia, and his mother Penelope are overjoyed to see him. He does not reveal that Odysseus is already on Ithaca, but instead reports to Penelope what he has learned from Menelaus, that Odysseus is being held captive by Kalypso. The seer Theoklymenos, however, prophesizes that Odysseus is near and even now is plotting his revenge.

Eumaios guides the disguised Odysseus into town, where they are accosted by Melanthios the goatherd, who serves the suitors willingly. He insults and assaults Odysseus. At the front gates of the palace, Odysseus’ faithful hound Argos recognizes him, but Odysseus must hide his emotions. The old dog dies, having laid eyes on his master for the last time.

The “beggar” Odysseus enters the palace as Telemachus’ guest. He begs among the suitors and receives some food, but Antinous (leader of the suitors) gives him nothing and strikes him with a footstool. Penelope invites the beggar to share his news of Odysseus, but he wants to speak to her alone, after the suitors have left for the evening.

Book 18: Odysseus is challenged by another beggar, Iros. The suitors make them fight each other, with food as the prize. Odysseus wins, but makes sure not to kill Iros. Afterwards, Odysseus speaks to Amphinomos, one of the better suitors, and he warns him to leave before the king returns and seeks his revenge.

Penelope appears before the suitors and says that if they want to properly court her, they should give her gifts instead of consuming another man’s resources. The suitors give her lavish gifts, and Odysseus rejoices at how his wife is “extorting” presents from them.

As they feast, the suitors continue to mistreat Odysseus. He is also insulted by the traitorous maidservants who are sleeping with the suitors. Finally, night arrives and the suitors all go home.

Book 19: Odysseus and Telemachus secretly remove all the weapons from the dining hall and hide them, in preparation for their vengeance.

Penelope speaks to the beggar and asks him who he is and where he is from, but he refuses to say because he does not want to speak of his sufferings. Penelope insists, and Odysseus invents a false tale: he is a Cretan prince, who long ago saw Odysseus as he was on his way to Troy. He describes Odysseus’ clothes accurately when tested by Penelope. She weeps as she remembers her husband, but Odysseus shows no emotion.

Penelope questions Odysseus (although strangely he does not seem to be adequately disguised here). 1802 painting by Johann Heinrich Wilhelm Tischbein.

She gives the beggar a place to sleep. Eurykleia bathes Odysseus, but the nurse recognizes her master due to a scar on his foot, received during a hunt with his grandfather in his youth. Odysseus threatens her and she promises not to reveal his identity.

Penelope now says that she will hold a contest to decide whom to marry: whichever of the suitors can string Odysseus’ bow and shoot an arrow through twelve axes (the logistics are unclear) will be her husband.

Book 20: That night, as Odysseus ponders how he might take his revenge, Athena appears to him and says she will protect him. The next day, the servants of the household prepare for a special feast. Eumaios brings the best of his pigs for the festival. Melanthios brings his goats and continues to berate the “beggar.” Philotios the cowherd brings his animals too, but he greets Odysseus with kindness.

At the festival, the suitors reluctantly give Odysseus an equal portion of the feast, as insisted upon by Telemachus. But they still do not treat him well: one of them, Ktesippos, tosses an ox-hoof at the beggar.

The book ends strangely: Athena causes the suitors to laugh wildly and uncontrollably, as they eat food dripping with blood. The seer Theoklymenos witnesses this and then has a vision of the bloodied halls being filled with ghosts and the sun vanishing from the sky.

What did I notice that was of importance in these scenes?

1) The suitors completely outnumber Odysseus, but already their imminent destruction of is heavily foreshadowed. They have been bound by divine forces onto a path of death from which there is no escape.

The strange ending of Book 20 demonstrates this. Athena emphasizes the arrogance of the suitors by causing them to laugh uncontrollably. So too are their appetites unbounded as they criminally consume Odysseus’ resources. The blood dripping from their food points forward to their destruction.

Then, the visions of the prophet Theoklymenos push home this point. He foresees the devastating slaughter brought by Odysseus against the suitors in the halls. The suitors are so doomed that Theoklymenos can already their lifeless spirits floating in the palace, as they slip away from the light of the sun into the dark underworld.

The suitors are to be punished for their criminal actions, and there is no escape for them, not even by ceasing from their arrogance. The suitor Amphinomos does not seem to be a bad man. Out of kindness, Odysseus even suggests that he escape before he is killed. However, despite recognizing his coming punishment (he “foresees evil, Homer says), Amphinomos does not heed the warning, for Athena has already guaranteed his death.

2) Penelope’s actions cause us to wonder whether or not she knows the beggar’s true identity. Does she recognize her husband?

Consider: Odysseus requires the bow contest as a moment to reveal his identity and spring his trap on the suitors. Is Penelope setting up the contest now because she is trying to help her husband? Perhaps she really believes that now is the time to get married, but that seems somewhat difficult for us to accept, since she has so far refused marriage… only to set up this contest after speaking to the mysterious guest.

When Penelope speaks to the disguised Odysseus, she insists on “testing” him, by asking him to describe in detail her husband’s clothes. But is she merely testing the truth of the beggar’s tale? Or is she, suspecting this man to be Odysseus, testing her own husband’s ability to maintain his disguise?

The scene in which she asks for gifts from the suitors might be explained in a similar way. Is she testing Odysseus’ resolve by acting like she wants to marry a new husband? Or is she merely manipulating and leading the suitors on as a delaying tactic?

3) Throughout all of these books, Odysseus must demonstrate his self-control and hide his emotions in order to maintain his disguise.

When Odysseus sees his dog Argos lying in the manure in front of the palace, he begins to weep, but immediately hide his tears so that Eumaios does not discover his identity. Similarly, Odysseus cannot reveal himself to Penelope. His report to her causes her to weep, but he must hold himself back with his “eyes immovable like horn or iron.”

Unlike in the Phaeacian palace, where Odysseus cried upon hearing the tales of suffering at Troy, here in Ithaca he does not have the luxury of revealing his true feelings, for to do so would ruin his disguise and destroy his plans for revenge.

In a slightly different but related sense, Odysseus must endure the terrible treatment of the suitors without erupting into anger. He needs to wait for the right moment to strike back. To act prematurely against the arrogant suitors would be dangerous.

Finally, it is interesting to note that Odysseus holds back from killing Iros, not out of pity, but out of concern that showing his total, true strength as a powerful hero might expose him as someone more than just a mere beggar. Again, his true self must remain hidden until the exact time arrives for his vengeance to be accomplished.

Thanks for reading! The next post will deal with Books 21-24.


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