Study Guide: Homer's Odyssey
Washington State University
Books I-IV are referred to as the Telemachy--the opening story of Odysseus' son Telemakhos--which prepares us for what's to come. The Telemachy serves a dramatic purpose by implying that the son has a essential role in the overthrow of the brazen suitors, a part for which he is not yet ready. Athena intervenes in Telemakhos' life disguised as Mentor. In Book II, Telemakhos "awakens" and begins to test his prowess--he surprises the suitors with his new found earnestness, he calls an assembly, and he embarks on a "father quest." During his journey, the stories told to him by Nestor, Menelaus, and Helen all recall the kleos or fame of his father, Odysseus, and describe his part in the Trojan War. We also get a reference to Agamemnon's death at the hands of Aigisthos and Klytaimnestra (Clytemnestra). The stories of adventure and war also serve as a contrast to the normal, domestic life (now gone awry) that Telemakhos lives in Ithaca. We learn the plight of Ithaca. We learn the plight of Penelope. We learn the true character of the suitors--lead by the powerful and arrogant Antinoos. These men put themselves fully in the wrong when they plot to murder Telemakos at the end of Book IV.
The Telemachy establishes a value system within the epic whereby mortals begin to see their own part in bringing about human affliction and suffering. Zeus says in the opening of the epic: "My word, how mortals take the gods to task! / All their afflictions come from us, we hear / And what of their own failings? Greed and Folly / double the suffering in the lot of man." In the beginning of the epic, Zeus condemns Aigisthos for his "folly" in the murder of Agamemnon (when he returns from the Trojan War) and champions Agamemnon's son, Orestes, as the avenger. Orestes serves as a role model for the yet unwilling and immature Telemakhos. Penelope's character will be measured by the story of Agamemnon's wife, Klytaimnestra, and her betrayal of her husband on his homecoming day. Nestor tells this story to Telemakhos in Book III and establishes Klytaimnestra as the Bad/Mother/Woman archetype. Folly and greed link the suitors with Odysseus' lost shipmates and the now dead Aigisthos. The Telemachy shows us exactly what Odysseus does not know about his wife and son and their plight.
The story of the House of Atreus establishes a recurrent pattern (archetype) for women to overcome and men to live up to--the myth influences the behavior of Telemakhos, Penelope, and Odysseus, and our understanding of their family drama. Focus remains on Aigisthos as prime villain, on Agamemnon as victim, and above all on Orestes as slayer and avenger. It is up to Telemakhos to see that his part and the suitors coincides with the story of Aigisthos' death at the hands of Orestes. In Book XI, the ghost of Agamemnon tells Odysseus the story of his deadly, unfaithful wife Clytemnestra. Agamemnon's warning to Odysseus establishes the tradition of misogyny and justifies Odysseus' dolos when he returns to Ithaca. Penelope, for her part, must avoid becoming like Clytemnestra, a femme fatale, and therein she ultimately verifies the archetype of the Good/Woman/Mother. However, Penelope is not ultimately predictable, for she has hidden depths and surprises, even for Odysseus, when she tests his identity with her story of the marriage bed in Book XXIII. Regardless of Penelope's character, Agamemnon's story of Clytemnestra continues to define--in literature, art, song, and politics--male expectations of female behavior. As part of revising an ideology of misogyny, the Agamemnon-Clytemnestra mythos is contrasted with that of Odysseus and his wife Penelope.
As husband and wife, Menelaos and Helen (Book IV) play upon the game of ambiguity--Helen tells Telemakhos the story of how she recognizes Odysseus, who has entered the city of Troy in disguise (and how she converses with him but does not give him away). She is not without shame, but her own story casts her as pro-Greek; Menelaus tells how Helen attempted to betray the Greek warriors (hidden inside the Trojan Horse) by calling out each man's name in the voice of his wife. Her calling out to the Wooden Horse suggests she favors the Trojans. The pro-Greek position she attributes to herself in her own story is juxtaposed to her husband's account of her behavior at the city of Troy. So, while Clytemnestra perhaps, more clearly, represents a binary opposite to Penelope, Helen (as wife) is more complex and potentially more troubling because she is undefined and unlimited, even though her mythos is shame. She represents the lover archetype.
Book V through XII are distinctive. These books establish the importance of hospitality or Xenia for Odysseus as he meets the Phaiakians on the golden isle, Skheria. Odysseus' stories (that make up the Ring Compositions, Books IX through XII) are told to the Phaiakians during feasts and celebrations.
In Book V we meet Odysseus for the first time, trapped in the sea chambers of Kalypso. Book V represents a second beginning as we shift narratives from the story of the son to the story of the father. While Athena travels to Ithaca to awaken Telemakhos, Zeus commands Hermes to travel to Kalypso and order her to let Odysseus go. The first words that Odysseus speaks in the epic establish the heroic emphasis in Homer's Odyssey. The Iliad portrays heroes fighting against other heroes in battle and establishes prowess as the most valuable heroic quality. In the Odyssey, heroic qualities are measured not by a struggle with equals on a battlefield, but with struggles against enormous odds (suitors), struggles against monsters (Kyklops) and struggles against supernatural powers (Kirke). The Heroic qualities now include honeyed speech, knowledge of civility and xenia, diplomacy, cunning and wit, endurance and intelligence, guile and craftiness, disguise and trickery. In Book V we get the importance of nostos, the homecoming. Odysseus declares that he seeks home as his telos or goal, even above Kalypso's promise of immortality. Hardships are inevitable: "Let the Trial Come." We learn that Poseidon is indeed Odysseus' adversary and we hear how Ino, a sea nymph, saves Odysseus from drowning. Odysseus washes onto the cold shores of the Phaiakians' island and sleeps in a bed of leaves.
More on Book IV: Menelaus' story at the end of Book IV about Proteus, the ancient sea-god, acts as a subtle but direct transition linking Book IV to Book V, the second beginning, where we meet the marooned Odysseus on the island with Kalypso, which means "hidden." Menelaus tells Telemakhos the story of being trapped on an island unsure of direction and course. This is of course the same condition we find our epic hero in at the beginning of Book V.
Menelaus' story also suggests something intriguing about the nature of Proteus. Such shape shifters are connected with the images of dreams; he is the sea-god who know the deeps (lines 407-408) and serves Poseidon and perhaps shares in the archetype with Thetis, Achilles goddess/mother who also changes shape. From a psychological perspective, the sea then is a likely metaphor for the unconscious depths of the human mind. And extending the metaphor in narrative creates the allegory of the hero's journey across the sea as a journey into some form of self-knowledge or apprehension of divine knowledge, the hero's transformation of consciousness. Andriene Rich uses the same motif in her mythic poem "Diving into the Wreck."First having read the book of myths,
and loaded the camera,
and checked the edge of the knife-blade,
I put on
the body-armor of black rubber
the absurd flippers
the grave and awkward mask.
I am having to do this
not like Cousteau with his
aboard the sun-flooded schooner
but here alone.
This is a modern woman's claim to the journey that has always been--in western mythology--the property of the animus or masculine. The awkward body-armor reminds me of the sealskins the goddess Eidothea, the daughter of Proteus, throws over Menelaus and his men. Rich will go on to explore the depths where the anima (feminine) and animus meet:This is the place.
And I am here, the mermaid whose dark hair
streams back, the merman in his armored body
we Circle silently
about the wreck
we dive into the hold.
I am she: I am he
This kind of crossing from one world to another is evident in Book XII when Odysseus finally arrives--asleep--on the shores of Ithaka. It is a kind of crossing from a world defined by the fantastic or superstitious (which houses creatures like the Cyclops and Skylla) to a world of real human enemies and the harsh reality of bloody swords htat makes up so much of the Iliad. The army of young and brazen suitors represents a formidable and dangerous threat to Odysseus and his family. In addition to the trial of overcoming this force of suitors, the return also represents the potential fulfillment of Odysseus' words to Kalpso in Book V. "I long for home." Home includes Penelope's love as well, a love which is sealed by a secret pact. "I am she; I am he" reminds me of the famous words of Catherine in the novel Wuthering Heights: "I am Heathcliff." It will become apparent that the bond between Odysseus and Penelope is private, intimate, and profound.
The opening of Book V puts us once again in the hall of Zeus and Athena is once again putting in motion the release of Odysseus from the thralldom of the nymph. We know he will land upon the island of the Phaiakians and that these ideal people will return him to his home as the bard says in the first lines of the poem. We get then a repeat of the epic formula in Book V that corresponds to the beginning of the Teklemachy in Book I. We meet Odysseus; we have already heard a great deal about him (kleos). This tribute to the hero reminds me of Major Strassuer's first words when he gets of the plane after his arrival in Northern Africa in the film Casablanca: Yes I've already heard about this Rick. . . .
In Book V, we get the first words actually spoken by our hero in the story. What is the tenor of these words? What heroic quality is being displayed?
What does Calypso offer Odysseus if he will remain with her?
How does Odysseus handle her? What can we say about the hero's use of language and style?
"Let the trial come." Lines 233 in Book V set the tone of Odysseus' character in general. Ody will build a boat and depart from the island only to be fell upon by the stormy Poseidon. Here we have elements of heroic despair--as in the story of Job--in Odysseus' desire to be dead, and we also see the way he continues to doubt the helping hand of the goddess Ino. Gods are always suspect. Odysseus' resolve here is much different than in the Iliad where Agamemnon for instance receives the murderous dream from Zeus and almost as fact takes the message as truth. Odysseus is defined by his immediate skepticism in all situations. Odysseus eventually washes up on the shore of the land of the Phaiakians. We have this marvelous scene where Odysseus makes a bed out of leaves--naked and forlorn delivered up like Jonah into a new life of adventure: Let the trial Come.
Book VI--Ody's encounter with Nausikaa borrows from an Egyptian folk tale, the wanderer and the king's daughter, which traditionally suggests that a sexual encounter underpins the pastoral scene where women dance alone and celebrate life in a pastoral setting. The scene also mimics the setting where Hades abducts Persephone and takes her to the underworld to be his wife. The pastoral combined with the presence of the princess virgin and the strange man has a nefarious quality in mythology. The encounter represents another trial for our hero. Odysseus must use all his wit and intelligence here. Nausikaa is on the threshold of maturity and marriage and Odysseus therein enters a labyrinth defined by the false promise of romance and above all marriage. He is not a true candidate for the position of King Alkinoos' son-in-law. He must "find love and mercy" among these people, yet avoid offending the sensibilities of royal family. Odysseus uses honeyed speech to achieve his telos. He is at the mercy of Nausikaa, for he is naked and weary. Nausikaa helps him; she is prescriptive and offers him directions on how to gain favor in her home, which links her with the goddess archetype of Kirke. We learn of gender reversals here as well, for Nausikaa tells him that he must supplicate himself to her mother, Queen Arete.
Book VII--Odysseus shows piety. Athena disguised as a small girl gives Odysseus advice and then shrouds him in sea fog so that he enters the palace without incident. Odysseus mediates a long time before crossing the threshold of the great courtyard. We learn the splendor of the palace and witness xenia defined with the ritual of wine and the aesthetics of the banquet. Odysseus proclaims that he wants nothing more than safe passage home, but he continues to shield his true identity from the king and queen. When Odysseus is alone with Arete and King Alkinoos, the Queen asks him three questions. She is intelligent and crafty because her questions imply that she wants to know the extend of Odysseus' relationship with her daughter, Nausikaa. We get the first ring composition here as Odysseus tells the Queen and King the story of his life on the island of Kalypso and how he built a raft and sailed on the ocean only to be beaten and nearly drowned by Poseidon. He tells of coming ashore at the river and meeting their daughter (and therein how he came to be wearing the royal clothing). Alkinoos is displeased with his daughter for not bringing Odysseus directly to the palace, but Odysseus lies to protect her character. Alkinoos offers Odysseus (his identity is still unknown) the hand of his daughter in marriage and the wealth of the land. Odysseus tells the king (with honeyed language) that returning to his homeland is all he truly desires. We may want to consider the consequences of refusing the king; at the least, we perhaps sense that Odysseus has not, as yet, acquired an oath from the king that he will provide Odysseus a safe passage home.
Book VIII--King Alkinoos orders a ship made ready, but ambiguity persists, We get a sense that Alkinoos displays the worth of his kingdom before Odysseus in hopes the hero will choose to stay. The kingdom represents an ideal civilization. The crier sings songs of the Trojan war and Odysseus weeps, but hides his tears from everyone except the king. The book sets up a tension between dolos and recognition, the unveiling. We get the competitive games, the brazen behavior of one of the sons of Alkinoos (which suggests the brazenness of the suitors). Odysseus makes a profound reference to the bow, which foreshadows his stringing of the bow upon return to Ithaca. Demodokos sings the tale of an unfaithful wife which indirectly amplifies the plot and keeps the question of Penelope's faithfulness in the foreground of the drama. Odysseus asks Demodokos to sing the song of the Trojan Horse which sets up the recognition scene in the next book.
Book IX--Recognition scene. Odysseus tells King Alkinoos and his people who he is and then begins telling the stories of his journeys, known as the Ring Compositions. The stories represent Odysseus' rhetorical strategy to assure that King Alkinoos provides him passage home. Odysseus is presented as a perennially lying narrator, most evidently in the series of tales he tells under the assumed identity of the Cretan at the house of Eumaios. The use of honeyed speech (which often includes lies and flattery) again suggests that the heroic qualities in the Odyssey are significantly more complex than the single quality of prowess so essential to the hero in the Iliad. In the Book XIII of the Odyssey, Athena calls Odysseus a chameleon, a bottomless bag of tricks. If we know this about Odysseus, then the scenes where he supplicates himself among the Phaiakians may be suspect--our intelligent and crafty hero has a strategy in mind as he tells the stories of his sailing from Troy. Glenn W. Most suggests in his essay "The Structure and Function of Odysseus's Apologoi" that Odysseus relates these exemplary accounts of hospitality, both positive and negative, monstrous and divine, as parts of one sustained attempt to persuade the Phaiakians to receive him well and return him home. The story of the Kikones reiterates folly. The lotus eaters signify interference with the hero's telos or the dangers of being consumed by singularity. The Kyklopes episode brings with it the curse of Poseidon.
Book X--The stories continue. The wind king befriends Odysseus and his men--xenia. The gift of the wind in a bag tempts Odysseus' crew and represents the dangers of folly and greed once again. The Laistrygones are vampires, but the story is similar to the wanderer and the king's daughter and therein is the antithesis of Nausikaa and her father. Kirke represents first a threat and then a loyal guide and lover. Kirke tells Odysseus that he must travel to the underworld to see the blind seer, Teiresias, if he wants truly to return home. She gives him prescription--pour libations, sacrifice the black ewe, ward off the phantoms from the bloody pit, until Teiresias appears. Elpenor dies by falling off Kirke's roof.
Book XI--The underworld and the center of the ring compositions. Elpenor asks Odysseus to return to Kirke's and give him a proper burial. Teiresias tells Odysseus to avoid Helios' cattle and how to appease Poseidon. Odysseus meets his mother. We get the catalogue or parade of women. Significance? At this point we get a narrative break where Arete speaks elegantly of the honor the guest brings to the land and suggests that the Phaiakians bestow gifts on Odysseus so he can return home a wealthy man. This narrative break has a function within the text because it comes immediately before (a juxtaposition) Odysseus talks with the shade of Agamemnon who establishes the tradition of misogyny. We also meet Achilles who offers an ideological position that is in direct opposition to his choice in the Iliad. The Iliad is one dimensional, restricted to one way of life on the plains of Troy . . . where in essence the heroes are trapped. To return home, which in the Iliad is incompatible with heroic glory, is in the Odyssey itself the source of glory.
Book XII--Elpenor's body links the underworld journey with the return to the home of Kirke for Odysseus and his men must return to bury their comrade. The goddess offers more prescription--advice--on how Odysseus will over come the perils he will encounter at sea. Kirke tells Ody how to deal with the Sirens (Seirenes) and gives him two choices of passage in dangerous waters: the prowling rocks or the den of Skylla. She also tells Odysseus to avoid the land of Helios' cattle, for like Teiresias, she foresees a dire future if he fails to "give those kine a wide berth." Like the blind seer Teiresias, Kirke has the power of divination. The Kyklops becomes the symbolic measure of Odysseus's endurance of trials. The shipmates swear a great oath and Odysseus (outvoted) lands the ship on the land of Helios' cattle and then goes alone into the wilderness looking for salvation only to return and discover that his crew have slaughtered the cattle--folly. During a storm, Zeus destroys all of Odysseus' shipmates. Odysseus drifts for days until he comes ashore on the island of Orygia, the home of Kalypso, which marks the end of the book and the end of the ring compositions.
Book XIII--King Alkinoos takes Odysseus to the ship. Odysseus sleeps during the crossing to Ithaca, which is significant because we witness, in fact, the passage of our hero from a fantasy world or dream world to the harsh reality of Ithaca. Odysseus meets Athena and they both try to fool each other with dolos. Their conversation is significant and sets the plot or mythos to come. Athena tells Odysseus: "Always the same detachment! That is why / I cannot fail you, in your evil fortune, / coolheaded, quick, well-spoken as you are! / Would not another wandering man, in joy, / make haste home to his wife and children? Not / you, not yet. Before you hear their story / you will have proof about your wife." Here we see that Penelope is still measured in terms of Clytemnestra' s betrayal of her husband, Agamemnon. Penelope remains outside the mythos until the end. Odysseus is transformed into a hideous beggar by Athena. She tells him to go see the forester, Eumaios the swineherd.
Book XIV--We meet Eumaios, the swineherd, an interesting character. He understands xenia and his conversations with Odysseus show his loyalty to the kingdom. Eumaios also has the heroic quality of detachment. The stories Odysseus tells him (as mentioned before) set up an interesting insight into the purpose of stories within the epic. Eumaios says that wandering men will always tell lies for a night's lodging. Eumaios is a seer as well. Odysseus tells a lie about his origins but his stories also follow closely the recent events in the land of the Phaiakians. Eumaios asks him why he must lie. The story Odysseus tells about the Trojan war and the soldier and the cloak is a request, in disguise, for warm bedding for the night. Eumaios understands the underlying significance of the story: "His host threw over him/ a heavy blanket cloak, his own reserve / against the winter when it came wild."
Book XV--Back to the narrative of the son. Athena goes to inspire Telemakhos to go home. Menelaus and Helen give him gifts before his departure. Helen interprets the meaning of the bird flight, a mountain eagle, grappling a white goose in his talons. This scene is almost identical to Penelope's dream in Book XIX. Helen says that his father will triumph over the spoilers of their house. Telemakhos sets sail in the night because Athena has informed him that the suitors plan to murder him at sea. Telemakhos befriends a fugitive, Theoklymenos, and this stranger sets sail with him back to Ithaca. Cut back to the home of the swineherd and Odysseus conversation with Eumaios. Telemakhos lands on Ithaca and travels on foot across country while his shipmates sail around to the harbor.
Book XVI--Father and son reunion at the Swineherd's home. Telemakhos still proclaims that the suitors are too strong. Odysseus, still in disguise, chides his son. However, Telemakhos answers him with style. When Eumaios leaves for the manor, Odysseus sheds his disguise and convinces Telemakhos that he is his father. Odysseus and Telemakhos plot the overthrow of the suitors. The ability of Telemakhos to hold his anger (detachment) and round up all armor, lances, and the gear of war left in the hall and stow the lot away in a vaulted storeroom is essential to the plot. They will learn how far the women and men are corrupted. The suitors are confused by Telemakhos' safe return. Among the suitors, Amphinomos persuades the group to give up on murder. Penelope the wise makes an appearance before the suitors and calls on them to make an end to their folly. The suitor Eurymakhos tells her a blasphemous lie that he will protect Telemakhos--he was the one who planned the lad's destruction. The swineherd returns home--Eumaios, Telemakhos, and Odysseus (as beggar) feast on the savory flesh of the pig and then take the gift of sleep.
Book XVII--Telemakhos goes into the city to relieve the grief of his mother. Eumaios must lead Odysseus into the manor. After Penelope asks twice, Telemakhos tells his mother only that Odysseus is trapped on the isle of Kalypso--she remains outside the mythos as part of a test to her loyalty. Eumaios and Odysseus as beggar cross the path of Melanthois, the goatherder. Melanthois has fallen in with the suitors and consequently he is cruel to Odysseus the beggar. He kicks at Odysseus. This sets up the first test of Odysseus' heroic resolve, for he is inclined to beat the life out of Melanthois but controls his anger and bores the insults quietly. The scene begins a tripartition of caretakers of the domestic realm. In book XX we meet Philoitios, the cattle foremen who, like Eumaios, stands in contrast to Melanthois. Philoitios is gracious and kind to Odysseus the beggar. Both these men, Eumaios and Philoitios, will become part of the plot and help to overthrow the suitors; they also carry out a brutal assassination of Melanthois.
As Odysseus enters his own manor he says to Eumaios, "Let this new trial come." His old dog Argos recognizes him and then dies. The scene sets up a moment of doubt as the dog was once the greatest of hunters and his prowess well-known. Now he is old and feeble and finally dies. Odysseus himself is no longer a young man and the suitors he faces are formidable--many brazen young and powerful men.
Inside the realm Telemakhos helps set up the xenia necessary to get his father inside and therefore in a position to enact their revenge. Xenia or entrance into the great hall among the suitors is critical to their plan and ultimately depends on Penelope. The goddess Athena whispers in Odysseus' ear her decree--all must die. Odysseus is insulted by Antinoos and Odysseus lets fly a series of insults of his own. In anger Antinoos throws a stool at Odysseus which strikes soundly on his right shoulder. Odysseus answers with an elegant speech to all the suitors and proclaims his wish that Antinoos will die soon. Telemakhos holds his anger at the blow to his father. Penelope desires to talk with the beggar and therein the conversation will ensure his status as guest. Odysseus delays the meeting and bids the queen be patient. She recognizes the sense of waiting until nightfall. Eumaios returns home. The banquet continues with song and dance.
Book XVIII--a true scavenger comes to the manor, the beggar of the town, Iros. Odysseus and Iros hold a rough exchange of words under the lofty doorway. Iros threatens Odysseus. This scene exemplifies the tension between appearances and truth--the unveiling of Odysseus' strength. Antinoos sees this as a chance to get rid of Odysseus the beggar and suggests the two engage in a test of prowess, a boxing match. The reward for the winner is a permanent place among the suitors in the hall. Odysseus gets them to swear an oath not to step in for Iros. Telemakhos participates here in the oath. In preparation for the bout, Odysseus discards his fowl rags to reveal his bulk and power. Panic makes Iros' heart jump. Antinoos threatens Iros, telling him that if he loses he will be shipped into slavery where his private parts will be pulled out by the roots and fed raw to the dogs. Odysseus once again must control himself and use gentle blows so as not to give himself away. He defeats Iros easily and gains further access into the great hall.
Odysseus speaks with Amphinomos ( a good man it is said) about his part in the spoiling of the house. Amphinomos is the man who convinces the suitors to give up the plan to murder Telemakhos. Odysseus tells him to go home before it is too late. He cannot take flight because Athena binds him there and we get a sense of the absoluteness of Athena's decree.
Penelope appears before Telemakhos. They converse about the suitors wrongdoing. The second suitor, Eurymaklos, speaks out to Penelope calling attention to her beauty. Penelope tells the suitors of Odysseus' last words when he went away to fight the Trojan War. Penelope says that "Marriage overtakes me." Antinoos declares that none will leave until she has taken the best for her lord. Here Penelope seems at the end of hope. The young maid Melantho is unfaithful; she sleeps with the suitors and now treats Odysseus unkindly. Eurymakhos boasts and then chides Odysseus. Odysseus' speech is bold. He tells him that he is on his way out when the king returns. Eurymakhos throws a stool at Odysseus hitting instead a steward on the serving hand and the pitcher of wine clangs as it hits the floor. Amphinomos intervenes saying that rough treatment is unnecessary. The suitors go off to bed.
Book XIX--Odysseus tells Telemakhos to harness the weapons out of sight. Eurykleia shuts the women in their quarters. Odysseus goes to speak with Penelope and the maid Melanthos again is cruel and wants to prevent him from seeing the queen. Penelope overhears their words and scolds the maid, "It will cost you your life." Penelope tells Odysseus of her weaving and unweaving of the shroud for Laertes. The maids were the ones who betrayed the scheme to the suitors. Melanthos is clearly implicated.
Odysseus continually refers to Penelope as the honorable wife of Lord Odysseus. Once again the hero uses language to remind the queen of her true loyalty. If Odysseus is suspicious of her (detachment) then these words simply serve as a reminder for the queen. Odysseus once again lies to the queen, making up stories about Odysseus. Now all the lies he made appear truthful and she wept as she listened. Penelope asks for proof to his stories because she is also like-minded and therefore detached. Remeber that Eumaios has said that travels will lie for lodging. "Tell me the quality of his clothing?" Odysseus tells her what she wants to hear. At this moment, Penelope grants Odysseus Xenia.
This sets up the famous bath scene where the old nurse, Eurykleia, recognizes a scar on Odysseus' thigh and therefore knows the beggar is her lost master. Odysseus grabs her throat and tells her to keep it from all others or else he will kill her. Eurykleia ,saying his fears are unfounded, becomes part of the mythos and proclaims her loyalty. She will report on the maids, those who dishonor him and the innocent. Penelope asks Odysseus if she should marry the best of the suitors. She shows her despair.
Penelope's dream: the eagle and the geese, which foretells Odysseus return and his vengeance on the suitors. The dream mimics the eagle and goose omen Telemakhos, Menelaus, and Helen witness as Telemakhos departs from Sparta. Penelope speaks of dreams and their power and their curse. She remains "detached." Penelope tells Odysseus that she will test the suitors. "The one who easily handles and strings the bow and shoots through all twelve axes I shall marry." Odysseus tells her not to postpone the trial. She goes off to her chamber where she weeps for Odysseus until Athena casts sweet sleep upon her eyes.
Book XX--Odysseus sleeps outside Penelope's door and sees the covey of women slipping out to the suitors' beds. His anger rises but the memory of the Kyklops helps him maintain his dolos. Nobody, only guile got me out of the cave alive. Odysseus then has a moment of doubt, and Athena comes down to ruthlessly reprimand him. Penelope prays to Artemis for her own death.
In the morning, Telemakhos is angry at his mother, even rude in his appraisal of her nature. The day's feast is made ready and Melanthios shows up driving goats; he threatens Odysseus once again. We meet Philoitios the cattle foreman. He is loyal to the kingdom and shows respect for the beggar Odysseus. Odysseus promises that the king will return and Philoitios and Eumaios say they will fight if it is so.
The feast begins. Another suitor throws a cow's foot at Odysseus. Telemakhos blazes up and threatens the life of anyone who shows contempt toward the beggar. The suitors calm down. Here we see Telemakhos assent into manhood. Telemakhos says he is no impediment to his mother's marriage. Theoklymenos the man Telemakhos brought home with him to Ithaca, denounces the spoiling of the house and departs for home. Telemakhos waits for his father's first strike.
Book XXI--Story of the origin of Odysseus' Bow. Penelope goes to get the bow out of the storehouse. She then goes to the feast to speak to the crowd of suitors. "Bend and string it if you can, Who sends an arrow through iron ax helve sockets, twelve in a line, I join my life with his, and leave this place, my home." Eumaios carries the bow to the suitors' feet. Telemakhos himself declares that he would like to try the bow. The episode of Telemakhos and the bow brings together a series of dramatic tensions suggested by succession mythology. He must not string the bow but it appears for a moment that he will, for in doing so his prowess will be proven. He must control himself and therein show his true maturity. Odysseus stiffens and Telemakhos cheeks himself. Antinoos tells the other suitors to try the bow one man at a time. The first men who try cannot do it . Melanthios builds a fire and brings lard so that they can soften the bow and make it easier to string. In the meantime, Odysseus goes outside following Eumaios and Philoitios--Odysseus tells them that he is the king returned to overthrow the suitors. They become part of the mythos. "Now listen to your orders." Eumaios is to bring the bow into Odysseus' hands while Philoitios locks the outer gate. Back inside Eurymakhos picks up the bow but cannot string it. Antinoos decides to postpone the contest until they can make an offering to Apollo. All the suitors agree. Odysseus speaks: "Let me try the bow." The suitors are irritated beyond reason at this request. Antinoos threatens Odysseus if he touches the bow. Penelope intervenes and tells Antinoos that the chances of the beggar succeeding are very improbable. Eurymakhos tells Penelope that the ridicule would be to great to risk letting the beggar try. Penelope wisely points out that the suitors have no claim to honor anyway. Telemakhos is the key here as he declares that he is the authority in the house. No one can stop him if he chooses to give these weapons outright to the guest. I am master here. He has come a long way in his rite of passage. He sends his mother away in awe of her son. Eumaios moves with the bow in hand towards Odysseus. He falters when Antinoos bellows, but Telemakhos yells: "Go on, take him the bow!" Odysseus strings the bow and shoots an arrow through the ax rings. Telemakhos belts on his sword and stands beside his father.
Book XXII--Death in the Great Hall. The violence here is graphic. The first arrow brings down Antinoos. Eurymakhos speaks. He says that Antinoos was the ringleader, now dead. The suitors will make restitution for what they have consumed, plus give the king additional gifts. "Spare your own people." Odysseus deals out death. Eurymakhos dies. Telemakhos kills Amphinomos. Melanthois scales the wall to get arms for the suitors. He retrieves twelve shields and spears. And for the moment the fight turns grim. The suitors attack in unison, but Athena protects Odysseus. Eumaios and Philoitios bind Melanthios to the ceiling beams until after the fight. Athena appears in the guise of Mentor. A slaughter follows and all the suitors are killed. "The attackers wheeled, as terrible as falcons. " After the unfaithful women clean up the blood and mire, they are hanged. Melanthios is mutilated. Only two of the men are spared, the minstrel and the herald.
Book XXIII--Penelope tests Odysseus. Private mythos. The bed and the Olive Tree. The frauds of men.
Book XXIV--suitors' ghosts begin arriving in the underworld. Agamemnon repeats his misogyny. The towns' people, the fathers of the suitors, seek retribution and form a war party with the intention of killing the king. Athena intervenes: "Ithakans, now listen to what I say/ Friends by your own fault these deaths came to pass." Laertes cried out aloud "Ah, what a day for me, dear gods / to see my son and grandson vie in courage!" A battle ensues and after the ringleader, Eupeithes the father of Antinoos, falls Athena stops the fighting. The son of Kronos drops a thunderbolt to confirm Athena wishes. The parties swear to the terms of peace.