Summer Reading: Homer’s Odyssey Books 21-24

This summer, I decided to re-read the entire Odyssey in preparation for my senior thesis project, and I have written several posts containing some thoughts on what I read. As the summer comes to an end, please enjoy the last post in this series, with comments on Books 21-24, the final sections of the Odyssey. Let’s begin with a summary of plot events.

Book 21: Penelope takes Odysseus’ bow out from storage and sets up a contest for the suitors. Whoever can string the bow and fire an arrow through a series of iron axes will be her husband, she tells them. Telemachus tests himself and nearly strings the bow himself, but Odysseus signals to him to stop. All the suitors, however, are unable to use the bow.

Meanwhile, Odysseus reveals himself to his loyal servants, the swineherd Eumaios and the cowherd Philotios. He commands them to lock up the doors so the suitors cannot escape. Then, as the beggar, he asks for a chance to try the bow, and Penelope agrees, despite the suitors’ protests. Telemachus tells his mother to return upstairs. Odysseus then strings the bow and shoots an arrow through the axes. The suitors are astonished.

Book 22: Odysseus shoots the leader of the suitors, Antinous, and kills him. He then reveals his identity and states his desire for vengeance against the suitors for their crimes. The suitor Eurymachus offers a repayment of vast wealth, but Odysseus refuses.

Odysseus, Telemachus, Eumaios, and Philotios arm for battle and then fight the suitors. Although the suitors have no weapons or armor (because Telemachus and Odysseus have put them into storage), Melanthios the goatherd sneaks out to find some for them. The second time he leaves, Eumaios and Philotios catch him and tie him up.

Odysseus engages the suitors in combat. 1814 painting by Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg

Athena appears disguised as Mentor and aids them in battle. She keeps them safe from the suitors’ spears and ensures their spears hit their targets. Odysseus and his allies kill most of the suitors. Some supplicate Odysseus and beg to be spared. Odysseus kills Leodes, a seer who aided the suitors, but he leaves alive the bard Phemius, who was forced to sing for the suitors, as well as the good herald, Medon.

After the battle, Odysseus has his female servants clean up the mess of blood. Then, the disloyal handmaidens who aided the suitors and slept with them are killed.

Book 23: The nurse Eurykleia goes upstairs to awaken Penelope and tell her that Odysseus is back and the suitors are dead, but Penelope, although overjoyed, still seems skeptical that her husband has really returned. She comes down and tests Odysseus by asking Eurykleia to remove the bed from their chambers for him to sleep in, but he responds angrily, saying that the bed was built by him from an olive tree, that it is rooted down and cannot be moved.

Only they and one servant know this secret. Penelope now sees that this is truly Odysseus, and husband and wife joyfully reunite. They sleep together and spend the whole night telling each stories about what they experienced while apart from each other.

Odysseus and Penelope in bed together. 1563 painting by Francesco Primaticcio

Book 24: Hermes, the god who guides the dead, brings the suitors’ souls to the underworld. The suitors recount the destruction brought against them by Odysseus to the ghosts of Agamemnon and Achilles, who praise Odysseus for his good fortune and faithful wife.

Odysseus goes to his father Laertes’ farm out in the country and tries to test him with more false tales. But his father’s anguished response proves too much and he quickly reveals himself. Odysseus, Telemachus, and their allies have a meal with Laertes.

Meanwhile, the suitors’ families hear of their sons’ deaths and plot vengeance. They arm for battle and approach Laertes’ home. Grandfather, son, and grandson prepare to fight together, and Laertes kills one man, before Athena stops the battle, declaring that peace has arrived and that the bloodshed is over.

Here are a couple of things I noticed about these sections of the Odyssey:

1) Although the Odyssey seems to end happily and affirm the strength of domestic life, Homer still leaves Ithaca in a state of unease at the end of the poem.

The hero Odysseus successfully returns home. His enemies, the arrogant suitors, have been punished for their crimes. He has been reunited with his faithful wife and his son, who has started along his own path of maturation. He is now allowed to rule over Ithaca until his peaceful death in old age. All signs point to the success of peace and domesticity.

Yet there is a hint of trouble: Odysseus’ killing of the suitors have stirred up the anger of their families. To sate his own desire for vengeance, he has ruthlessly slaughtered an entire generation of young men, without regard for consequences on society. Indeed, civil war would probably have torn Ithaca apart without Athena’s intervention.

Left to their own devices, humans would continue to perpetuate the cycle of revenge and death. The happy ending of the Odyssey could only have happened through divine action.

In Homer’s Iliad, we actually see that the opposite is true. In this epic of death, the destruction of war rushes inexorably forward. Divine will has guaranteed Troy’s fall. The heroic protector of the Trojans, Hector, is dead. Yet, despite this darkness, there is a glimmer of light as Achilles and King Priam of Troy recognize their common humanity.

2) Odysseus and Penelope, as husband and wife, seem to be a perfect match for each other. Penelope has shown that she is as cunning and intelligent as her husband. She has fended off the suitors for years with a clever trick: she told them that she would marry as soon as she finishes weaving a funeral shroud for Laertes, all while unweaving the shroud at night.

Also, if it is true that she is perceptive enough to know who the beggar is, perhaps she is actively trying to aid her husband in his plan for revenge by allowing him to handle the bow.

Not only that, but she is given a chance to match her wits against Odysseus. While disguised, her husband has been “testing” people with his crafty lies, probing Eumaios and Penelope to determine their loyalties, but now in a final affirmation of her fidelity, Penelope gets to be the cunning “tester,” checking to make sure that this man is really Odysseus. It is fitting that their intellects are what determine the strength of their marriage.

Finally, both Odysseus and Penelope are both storytellers and crafters of words. Their reunion not only occurs through love-making but also through an exchange of tales.

3) The ending of the Odyssey appears to mirror the ending of the Iliad. Book 22 in both epics features a terrible slaughter, as Achilles brutally slays Hector and as Odysseus mercilessly takes down the suitors. In both cases, the glory of heroic combat is distorted, whether by Achilles’ inhuman rage removing all semblance of honor in war or by the inglorious deaths of the suitors amid the spilled food and wine, upon which they are glutting themselves.

The final moments of both epics feature a meal with a father-figures with sons: Odysseus shares a meal with his son and his father, while Achilles shares a meal with Priam. The fearsome, raging Achilles puts aside his anger and returns Hector’s body to Priam. Odysseus too must cease from his rage: he is about to storm into battle against the suitors’ families, but Athena stops him and ensures a restoration of peace.

So, that’s it! I have finished re-reading all of Homer’s Odyssey, and now I’m going to move on by continuing to read some secondary scholarship on the epic, in order to see what interesting ideas come up for my senior thesis project. I will keep you updated on all of that, and thanks again for reading.

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