Home » Greek and Roman Mythology » The Odyssey – Books seventeen to twenty four

The Odyssey – Books seventeen to twenty four


Notes of my lectures form Peter Struck from Pennsylvania university.

Odysseus Meets the Suitors

Odysseus is now ready to move towards the centre of his world, in particular he wants to be reunited with Penelope.

Telemachus departing from Nestor : commons.wikimedia.org

Telemachus has learned all he needed on his journey, and is a purposeful, slightly angry man, in charge of a house that other people are abusing. He starts to take responsibility and lays markers for the suitors. He really grows up a lot in book seventeen. At the beginning of the book he lies to Eumaeus about Odysseus bringing him into Odysseus’s inner circle of lies.

He says to Eumaeus,

“take this luckless stranger to town, so he can beg his supper there, and whoever wants can give the man some crumbs and a cup to drink.  How can put up with every passer-by? My mind’s weighed down with troubles. If the stranger resents it, all the worse for him. I like to tell the truth and tell it straight”

Telemachus is positioning his father, disguised as the beggar, so that he can get to know the situation with the suitors.  Telemachus then tells Penelope that he needs to meet his friend, Theoclymenus.   We can by this that Telemachus is now ready to start taking responsibility for some of the things in this house. At the end of book seventeen, he says

“ I’ll tend to all things here, I and the deathless gods.”

This is much more what a hero says than the things he was saying that the beginning when he blamed the gods for all his troubles.

In book eighteen Telemachus is still in the centre of the city. He sees Odysseus and Iris another beggar arguing and about to get into a fight. They have sworn about what will

Odysseus Fighting with the Beggar by Lovis Corinth : museumsyndicate.com

happen if either wins. Telemachus steps up and presented himself as the guarantor of the oaths. That authority to execute on someone else’s promises is the thing that someone who’s in charge of a situation takes. So Telemachus is showing himself to be that way. After Penelope points out how this stranger Odysseus was abused by the suitors, he jumps in and starts to take responsibility for that situation too. Telemachus basically undoes any doubt that we had about whether he’s grown up.

“I cannot fault your anger at all this. My heart takes note of everything, feels it, too, both the good and the bad—the boy you knew is gone. But how can I plan my world in a sane, thoughtful way?”

He is ready to take on responsibility, not just his own messes, but other people’s messes which is a strong part of what it is to grow up. He makes threats that the suitors take seriously. The suitors bite their lips, amazed at Telemachus stepping up and taking responsibility for what’s happening around him.

Through Odysseus’s eyes we also see what the suitors are like. We’ve seen the misery and threats to Telemachus and Penelope’s interactions, but haven’t seen them at work. When Odysseus as a beggar comes in and ask them for their scraps, they turn him away. The suitor’s not only abused the xenia that they expect as guests but they also refuse to offer the xenia they should offer to the stranger. They treat him with abuse, they don’t give him any food, and they surely don’t wash his feet, none of the things that a great aristocrat is supposed to do when a stranger comes up on their shores.

Slaughter of the suitors by Odysseus, Telemachus and Eumeus : Wikimedia Commons.

Early when Nausicaa saw him naked and destitute, she said even this person deserves our respect because all guest friends come from Zeus. But the Suitors don’t have any of this graciousness. They hoard and take Odysseus’ goods without sharing. Then Odysseus as he works his way into this group has a chance to tell his story. We’ve seen him do this in the context of Eumaeus. When he tells a story, Eumaeus listens to all the details and makes a connection with them. Not so, with the suitors. Odysseus talks about being a Cretan sailor but they don’t understand the meaning.

Eumaeus by contrast is doing the right thing. The suitors treat a beggar poorly, and they should have treated him well, they are violating a core social code that is built into what it is to be Greek. You ought to treat strangers well. Not only is this strongly knitted into the Greek cultural fabric but it also comes from Zeus himself. They are committing an offense against Zeus

“And the gods do take on the look of strangers dropping in from abroad—Disguised in every way as they roam and haunt our cities, watching over us—All our foul play, all our fair play too!”

Picture Credit : darvillsrareprints.com

In book twenty, one of the suitors, Ctesippus comes to Odysseus up and says,

“Listen to me, my fine friends, here’s what say! From the start our guest has had his fair share—it’s only right, you know. How impolite it would be, how wrong to scant whatever guest Telemachus welcomes to his house. Look here, I’ll give him a proper guest-gift too, a prize he can hand the crone who bathes his feet or a tip for another slave who haunts the halls of our great king Odysseus!” On that note, grabbing an ox hoof out of a basket where it lay, with a brawny hand he flung it straight at the king”

This is a further perversion of the custom of the xenia.

Eumaeus develops in his role as messenger. He brings a message from the ‘stranger’ to Penelope, then comes back and talks to Odysseus who asks then Eumaeus to take another message back to Penelope. The message from Penelope invites him to talk to her. Odysseus sends back the message, not yet; let’s wait until night-time. Very interesting exchange of messages there. On the surface level all that’s happened is Penelope has said, sure I’d like to talk to this stranger, I could find out about my husband, and this stranger says, well let’s do it later on, it’s more convenient for me. But, there’s something also the forwardness of Penelope asking for an audience with this stranger who is nothing but a beggar, and the stranger coming back and wait until night-time. There’s a back message being sent in the message, metadata built into the message that’s being sent that says “I want to pay some attention to you” on both sides.

Signs as a Way of Knowing

Across the books, seventeen to twenty, there is an interesting new language in the story. It move, by secret signs and secret codes. We’ve already seen Odysseus and Athena especially share some secret codes, they do their winks and their nods back and forth. There is a further kind of richness in secret languages that gets built into this part of the story.

Heracles & the Stymphalian Birds:theoi.com

In antiquity it was understood that messages from the gods were built into the world around us, they were not just leaving us hanging, that we had to figure everything out on our own, but they were purposely trying to send us messages in the otherwise innocuous things that seem to be happening around us. So if there was a strange coincidence, something fell off a mantelpiece or something, there must be a god trying to talk to us. The gods talked to us in certain types of ways. They talk to us through the behaviour of animals, so the flights of birds, the croak of a frog before a storm, the screeches of a bird or the flight path, the darting to the left or to the right. They also were interested in things like thunder and lightning. Overheard words were also important. So if you were walking past a window and someone just happened to be saying you’ll win the lottery today to their friend that was a message for you. There are direct visions that sometimes people get. So if you see something and it reveals a future state of events that is a message. There are dreams that the ancients are interested in. The gods were thought to send messages this way to us. So we could hear what was going on in their minds, and what was going to happen in the universe, as long as we paid attention to what we saw in our dreams. Things that we might use our intuition to draw conclusions from so, I just don’t like the feel of this place or this seems a little bit strange to me, I’m not sure why. When you and I start talking about intuition, it’s during those moments that the Greeks start talking about signs. They don’t talk about intuitive knowing; they talk about knowing by signs. Signs that show up physically that give information that sometimes some people are able to see and other times other people are not.

Odysseus Ajax Louvre : commons.wikimedia.org

If we take as an example the body of Odysseus itself is a sign. The Greeks thought that great person would have a marvellous physique and would be beautiful. On the surface he is a beggar but on occasions we get little glimpses that there is amazing physique underneath all those rags. If we’re smart Greeks, we would know that he can’t be just any beggar, he must be someone really important. The suitors get chance to see this happening at a couple of really interesting points and they blow it; they don’t draw the right conclusion.  Melanthius, the goat herd, giving Odysseus a hard time and he hauls off and kicks Odysseus really hard right in the hip. The kick, though, doesn’t leave any mark, it just bounces off. Odysseus is so strong that the kick basically just bounces off. No one around seems to notice. The suitors are not good at drawing conclusions from the signs around them. Then we have Antinous, who is this lead suitor, he picks up a stool and hurls it at Odysseus, this just bounces off of him and again doesn’t leave a mark, and the suitors don’t draw the right conclusion that there is probably someone other than just a wayward beggar here. In his fight with Iris we see Odysseus lifting the rags that are forming his garment, and we see huge thigh muscles rippling. The suitors take note of this, but they don’t draw any conclusions from it.

“They all shouted approval of the prince as Odysseus belted up, roping his rags around his loins, baring his big rippling thighs—his boxer’s broad shoulders, his massive chest and burly arms on full display as Athena stood beside him, fleshing out the limbs of the great commander …Despite their swagger, the suitors were amazed, gaping at one another, trading forecasts:

Irus will soon be ironed out for good! He’s in for the beating he begged for all along. Look at the ham on that old gaffer—Just under his rags!”

Theoclymenus, : sacred-texts.com

There are signs coursing around in these events. Some of them are purposeful and intentional like when Athena gives the wink to Odysseus, and Odysseus is ready to give a wink back. Telemachus gets in on these signs, eventually. There are the signs that are being registered in the events around us like Odysseus’ body, and it’s revealing itself, if you know how to draw the conclusion.

What the Greeks would have thought of as the most important of the signs are the ones thought to come from the gods. We see an example of importance when Theoclymenus just jumps in almost interrupting a conversation with Penelope and says, he swears by Zeus that Odysseus is already here. Remember Theoclymenus. He’s this person who’s come with us, escaping blood guilt, links up with Telemachus in Pylos and comes back to Ithaca, a stranger in our midst who’s good at reading divine signs. When he lays down this remark we should take note. Another sign in book seventeen is when we hear the statement made that if only Odysseus would come back that would be a grand thing. At that point we get a sneeze from Telemachus, right at the end, as a punctuation mark to that statement.

Dear god, if only Odysseus came back home to native soil now, he and his son would avenge the outrage of these men—like that!  

At her last words Telemachus shook with a lusty sneeze and the sudden outburst echoed up and down the halls. The queen was seized with laughter, calling out to Eumaeus winged words: “Quickly, go! Bring me this stranger now, face-to-face! You hear how my son sealed all I said with a sneeze?

Zeus wielding his thunderbolt : oocities.org

A sneeze in classical Greek times was thought to be a divine sign and it was thought to be, a punctuation mark that said that what was just said was indeed true. There’s something powerful in that remark and the Gods are underlining it. In case we missed that connection between sneezes and divine signs, Homer adds another one for us because the sneeze of Telemachus is like a thunder clap comparing it to the most well-known sign from Zeus, the thunderbolt. This is how Zeus sends us messages. The Queen understands this sign.

In book eighteen, there is a strong speech that comes after Odysseus beats the other beggar, and he speaks in a full-throated ominous way to the suitors. When he lays down that to the Suitors, just how awful they’ll be and the trouble that they’re about to face, it has an heir of a divine pronouncement almost because it’s so strongly worded it’s not normal. It sounds almost like something Theoclymenus would say. Odysseus is becoming that seer now and reading the riot act to the suitors. Again, they don’t notice.

So we’ve got example of examples of thunder that shows up. Then we have the overheard words. We see birds being talked about. Then Theoclymenus has this direct vision.

“Poor men, what terror is this that overwhelms you so?

Night shrouds your heads, your faces, down to your knees—cries of mourning are bursting into fire—cheeks rivering tears—the walls and the handsome crossbeams dripping dank with blood! Ghosts, look, thronging the entrance, thronging the court, go trooping down to the realm of death and darkness! The sun is blotted out of the sky—look there—a lethal mist spreads all across the earth!”

Every time these signs come to the suitors, they just brush them off. Odysseus’ inner circle sees what’s happening, they feel what’s happening, they see the coursing of the energy building toward the sense that the suitors’ days are numbered. The only ones that don’t see it are the suitors themselves.

The most important one of these signs and the most lengthy and detailed one comes in book nineteen.

What Does Penelope Know?


There are a very subtle couple of suggestions that Homer makes that maybe Penelope actually knows a little bit more than we might think that she does. She’s busy with her weaving and her un-weaving and this cleverness of Penelope and her circumspect ability to move around events without necessarily getting right to them it leads us to have a second look at her and ask the question whether she might know more than appears at first

Odysseus is going to come to see her in the evening and Athena in the shape of Eurynome appears to her persuades her to talk to these suitors. Athena makes Penelope even more beautiful and desirable. She puts on her finery comes down from her chambers. She chides Telemachus for allowing the stranger to be abused and then makes a speech.

“Your way is a far cry from the time-honored way of suitors locked in rivalry, striving to winsome noble woman, a wealthy man’s daughter. They bring in their own calves and lambs to feast the friends of the bride-to-be, yes, and shower her with gleaming gifts as well. They don’t devour the woman’s goods scot-free.”

She says, Odysseus told me just before he left that is as soon as my son grew some hair on his chin, that if he still wasn’t back by that time, it would be okay for me to go ahead and take up with someone else. We know that that’s a lie; we know it through Odysseus’s eyes.

“Staunch Odysseus glowed with joy to hear all this—his wife’s trickery luring gifts from her suitors now, enchanting their hearts with suave seductive words but all the while with something else in mind.”

According to Odysseus she’s lying with something else in mind. It could be that she just wants to get gifts from the suitors.  It could also be a way for Penelope to tell that stranger who she knows is out there in that group of people that if you are really Odysseus you’re the one person in the world who’s going to know that this is a lie you’ll know that there’s a subterranean message here.

She then calls these things to a head. She tells the suitors that they will have to compete for her and that’s when the axe trick comes up. Odysseus by cleverness gets the bow in his hands and all the other weapons away from the suitors, he becomes maximally powerful and they become maximally vulnerable. The way he does that is by using this bow and arrow trick.

Book Nineteen

Odysseus and Penelope;commons.wikimedia.org

Nineteen is an amazing book where all kinds of things happen. Odysseus and Penelope come together. Odysseus has made his way back home, and now he’s made it into the inner chambers of his house. He has a private audience with his wife, Penelope. She has gone through her own long path her suffering, all these years not having had this person nearby has led her to this spot now in the room with Odysseus. It is not quite private. When Penelope and Odysseus are talking together, there are servant girls that are around the outside who can hear. The indirection and the carefulness of both of them in revealing themselves to each other is likely because they’re worried about what the other one is going to think, but also, especially in the case of Penelope, she does not want to tip off these serving maids. If they ran and embraced each other right here in their chambers on their first meeting, those servant girls would see what was up and tip off the suitors. The surprise Odysseus is about to spring on them would be completely lost.

She then asks his identity, his name, where he’s from, and his parents. She also tells him of her own weaving and un-weaving. She lets him in on some of her schemes that she’s been trying to play out with to keep these suitors at bay. Odysseus answers her question of who he is with a lie about his Cretin background. He gives his name there as Aethon, and claims to have seen Odysseus who is away at the Dodona. He says, your husband, Odysseus, I’ve seen him. I know him and I know he’s on his way home right now, he’s trying to decide whether he should come back home just straight away or in a disguise. Again, a subterranean message that this Odysseus disguised is saying, if the real Odysseus ever does come back he’s going to be careful.  Penelope is getting the message. She responds quickly

“Now, stranger, I think I’ll test you, just to see if there in your house, with all his friends-in-arms, you actually entertained my husband as you say. Come, tell me what sort of clothing he wore, what cut of man was he?”

Odysseus can go through and say exactly what Odysseus wears, being him. She then starts to quiz him on more and more intimate details that only Odysseus would know. Even after he reveals himself to Penelope there’s more test’s he’s going to have to pass. Penelope will be cautious, she will be circumspect. Neither of them are able to drop everything and rush into each other’s arms, there’s too much danger afoot.

At the end of book twenty Penelope sits within earshot of the door

“…wise Penelope, had placed her carved chair within earshot, at the door, so she could catch each word they uttered in the hall. Laughing rowdily, men prepared their noonday meal, succulent, rich—they’d butchered quite a herd. But as for supper, what could be less enticing than what a goddess and a powerful man would spread before them soon? A groaning feast—for they’d been first to plot their vicious crimes.”

Homer highlights the difference between Penelope sitting and listening and this revelry, this awful stuff that’s about to happen to the suitors. It seems that Homer’s giving us another hint, that Penelope might know these suitors are about to, about to go down.

The Scar


Penelope has heard the story from this stranger about being a Cretan sailor. She’s not sure she trusts it. They turn then to the next point in their conversation, and now Penelope has her turn to talk for a little while. She extends the hospitality in her first gesture saying well, let’s wash your feet and you can sleep here inside the inner rooms. She has her trusted maid servant, Eurycleia, who raised Odysseus at her knee, and knows him extremely well, wash his feet, stranger. At that point he thinks, she’s going to see the scar. He has a scar near his inner thigh, a part of his body that you wouldn’t just necessarily see if you saw him up on the street. Not everyone knows about it, but some people do and it’s surely the case that Eurycleia does. If she gets involved in the washing she’s going to see it. In antiquity, as today, if someone’s trying to verify an identity finding a scar is great. Scars operate in order to identify people they are the remnant trace of some past. Eurycleia comes over to greet him and starts the foot washing.

“Listen to me closely, mark my words. Many a way worn guest has landed here but never, I swear, has one so struck my eyes—your build, your voice, your feet—you’re like Odysseus …to the life!”

“Bending closer she started to bathe her master … then, in a flash, she knew the scar—“

The old nurse Euryclaea recognizes Odysseus by the scar on his thigh : irasov.com

We then have a very long extended discussion of where the scar came from. Homer intrudes in this moment with a beautiful example of Ring Composition. All of this, you can imagine going through Eurycleia’s mind for that momentary- look, oh my gosh it’s the scar. She is going through and re-living the memory of the scar.

The scar is something we learn in the story that is deeply connected to an intimate part of Odysseus’ past. Odysseus goes through in this manhood ritual of joining a dangerous hunt, waking up early in the morning with a chill in the air, carrying a spear and goes with the maternal side of his family, the grandfather and the uncles, out to seek a boar. A boar is a very dangerous creature. Those tusks in the front are nasty. It’s territorial and doesn’t like its territory encroached upon. It also is very good food, so people hunt and kill boar, and then eat it. The boar is hunkered down, Odysseus is approaching and making his lunge but the boar comes out and gets a gore out of him first. Then Odysseus comes back and kills the boar. So he gets his scar, he earns his scar and the scar is forever attached to this moment in Odysseus’s life where he passes from being a boy to being a man. It is a pivotal part in Odysseus emerging into his own mature identity.

Young Odysseus Fights a Wild Boar : allposters.co.uk

There are other things that happen during the story as well. Odysseus actually gets his name from such an event. The maternal grandfather, at that point, bestows upon him the name Odysseus, which he, at that point, ties to an, an etymology in Greek, linking that name with Greek words for “pain.” It’s a little bit of a stretch, but good enough, that the idea of painfulness dwells inside of the sounds that make up Odysseus’s name. Odysseus then earns his name, earns that critical piece of his own identity, in this incident with the boar. Not only is Eurycleia recognizing just any scar, a scar which acts as an identity token to verify that this really is Odysseus, but it’s one that Odysseus himself earned, in earning his own identity and earning his own name. The scar is deeply tied in with Odysseus’ own identity. Homer also has a particular way of describing this very dangerous creature, one that ties back to Odysseus. We have a discussion of that boar and where it is, just before it comes out and lunges at Odysseus.

“Then and there a great boar lay in wait, in a thicket lair so dense that the sodden gusty winds could never pierce it, nor could the sun’s sharp rays invade its depths nor a downpour drench it through and through, so dense, so dark, and piled with fallen leaves. Here, as the hunters closed in for the kill, crowding the hounds, the tramp of men and dogs came drumming round the boar—he crashed from his lair, his razor back bristling, his eyes flashing fire and charging up to the hunt he stopped, at bay—

This is the boar’s thicket and where the boar is waiting to strike against Odysseus. Compare it to what we saw at the end of book five. Odysseus at this point is trying to find a spot to shelter so that he can have a lair in which he’ll be protected for the night.

“[He]  found a grove with a clearing all around and crawled beneath two bushy olives sprung from the same root, one olive wild, the other well-bred stock. No sodden gusty winds could ever pierce them, nor could the sun’s sharp rays invade their depths, nor could a downpour drench them through and through, so dense they grew together, tangling side-by-side.”

Eurycleia : en.wikipedia.org

Homer repeats the exact same four sentence Greek description of the shelter that Odysseus has at his most extreme moment. Odysseus is connected to the boar in the sense of not only having the challenge to slaughter this thing so that he can have a great exploit. It gives him a chance to move from being a boy to a man and also earns him his name.

Eurycleia sees it and now she knows that this is indeed Odysseus. Having made this connection, she is sure this is the real Odysseus. There’s a secret that shouldn’t be out there, Odysseus is not ready for Penelope, for all the serving women that are sitting around the outsides that are sleeping with the suitors. He’s not ready for that secret to get out. He stops her; he takes his hand and puts the secret back down in her mouth and says don’t you dare tell or I’ll kill you. This is someone who’s an intimate of his a very close in with his family, this serving woman, Euryclea, beloved by the family. Not just Odysseus, but Telemachus also all the way back to, the, the, back to the times when Telemachus was a small child. He takes this secret very seriously; it is not now time for it to come out.

Penelope’s Dream

Penelope : beazley.ox.ac.uk

Penelope tells Odysseus her dream.  This dream of Penelope’s was perhaps the most elaborate and most carefully wrought of all the divine signs, suggesting that Odysseus is indeed really here. It’s a move of almost vertiginous ingenuity. Homer has Odysseus involved in his own self-revelation to Penelope but through his own disguise. What’s been happening in these secret codes of knowledge back and forth with Odysseus and Athena, and then Odysseus and Telemachus, and the, the special messages that they send one another is that they have some proprietary knowledge. Knowledge that not everybody knows, but only a select few know. This is secrecy and it’s worked to a great degree in this part of the story.

Universal law number six – secrecy creates intimacy.

Proprietary knowledge makes people feel closer together. There’s a corollary to this universal law which says, that if you want to flirt with someone, tell them you had a dream about them. However, this corollary should only be used with extreme caution; it has a very high degree of difficulty. If you just walk up to someone and say, I had a dream about you, they might think, that’s creepy, it’s a little bit too intimate.

Penelope seems like she’s sensed something’s going on but she never says and Homer never says it.

She knew it was Odysseus but there’s stuff that’s been happening and Penelope’s not unobservant. She is sitting on a chair laid with ivory Odysseus is looking at her with “eyes made of horn”. She says,  I want you to help me because I recently had this dream and I need you, stranger, to help me interpret the dream. She tells him that an eagle comes down and kills some birds that had been feeding in a trough at her house. She’s upset at the violence and the carnage. Then the eagle flies over to her, as if to reassure her, and says, I am Odysseus. I am here in order to set your house right and all is going to be well. Then, the eagle flies away. She asks him to be the interpreter of her dream.

It already has an interpreter, the eagle interprets the dream. So, when she asks Odysseus to be the interpreter, she’s also simultaneously asking him to please, be the eagle. She’s asking Odysseus, then, not only to be the interpreter of her dream, but also, by the language of her dream itself, to be Odysseus.

“Dear woman, «quick Odysseus answered, “twist it however you like, your dream can only mean one thing. Odysseus told you himself—he’ll make it come to pass. Destruction is clear for each and every suitor; not a soul escapes his death and doom.”

“Ah my friend,” seasoned Penelope dissented, «dreams are hard to unravel, wayward, drifting things—not all we glimpse in them will come to pass …Two gates there are for our evanescent dreams, one is made of ivory, the other made of horn. Those that pass through the ivory cleanly carve dare will-o’-the-wisps, their message bears no fruit. The dreams that pass through the gates of polished horn are fraught with truth, for the dreamer who can see them. But I can’t believe my strange dream has come that way”

Earlier in Book nineteen, we’ve been told Penelope is sitting on a chair inlaid with ivory. She is associated with the gate of false dreams. Homer tells us that Odysseus is looking at her with eyes made of horn associating him with the gate of true dreams. Now, what’s happening with those associations is very subtle. It seems that Homer is making a suggestion in associating Penelope with the gate of false dreams that what she’s really telling him here is a story to carry on what she’s already been doing in Book nineteen, to test.  It could be that Penelope’s dream is something she’s just made up in order to test Odysseus.  Homer has her sitting on a chair inlaid with ivory, associating with false dreams and Odysseus associated with horn; it could be that he’s now speaking the truth. Very subtle things it seems that the dream is a world that is packed with hidden meanings.

What we know for sure is that Penelope claims to Odysseus that she had a dream, that Odysseus is here and he’s come and set her house right. She’s asking him whether, what he thinks about that, and whether he thinks that might be true. He’s saying, yes, indeed. It’s true.

The Bow


Odyssey has made his way back into the external area of his own house. Now he has to get to the inner area. That requires some violence as there are all the suitors between him and occupying his rightful place in his own house. His only way to be able to deal with that is going to be with a bow and arrow. Penelope has set up things so that Odysseus will have a chance to have his bow in his hand. She has set up the contest to see among the suitors who could earn a place with her, whoever is strong enough to string the bow and send it through the axes. No one of course is, they go around giving it a try, they all fail apart from Odysseus. He strings it not just like someone who knows how to use bows well, but like someone who makes bows, his intimacy with that object is so deep and it’s like a creator of the object, rather than just somebody even who knows how to use it. He then plucks it like a lyre at which point the suitors start to take note.

Odysseus turns and nods but this time it’s not to Athena but to Telemachus. Telemachus is now in on this inner circle of knowledge. He’s getting the secret signs from his father, it’s time to pull the trigger and, and jump into action. When he does Telemachus is there right next to him and Odysseus, Telemachus, and Eumaeus form a, small army and they operate just like a hero army should. They’re extremely effective; we see them practice their war skills. The suitors give us an education in how not, to fight, in how to lose. The first one to go down is Antinous

“But Odysseus aimed and shot Antinous square in the throat and the point went stabbing clean through the soft neck and out—and off to the side he pitched, the cup dropped from his grasp as the shaft sank home, and the man’s life-blood came spurting out his nostrils—thick red jets—“


Odysseus turns around and gets ready to fire at his next victim, Eurymachus. At that point Eurymachus gives us a next lesson on how you should turn on your friends. Don’t stick together, that’s how to lose. Eurymachus says

“If you, you’re truly Odysseus of Ithaca, home at last, you’re right to accuse these men of what they’ve done—so much reckless outrage here in your palace, so much on your lands. But here he lies, quite dead, and he incited it all—Antinous—look, the man who drove us all to crime!”

Odysseus doesn’t take that for a minute, and down goes Eurymachuss. From then on there’s just wave after wave of violence as the suitors get taken out and Odysseus, Telemachus and Eumaeus, clean the house. It’s ugly, it’s nasty, and the fighting is very violent and brutal. It’s shocking for us to see violence like this, this is pretty standard here, Guerrilla war stuff, it’s nasty, it’s very gruesome and very, very graphic. There are a couple of people that get spared, Telemachus urges that Odysseus should spare Phemius, and Odysseus relents. A lot of us look at this as Homer telling us they ought to be nicer poets. It’s a poet saving a poet. Then Telemachus also urges that Medon, a loyal herald be spared.

Odysseus calls for the old nurse

“She found Odysseus in the thick of slaughtered corpses, splattered with bloody filth like a lion that’s devoured some ox of the field and lopes home, covered with blood, his chest streaked, both jaws glistening, dripping red—a sight to strike terror. So Odysseus looked now, splattered with gore, his thighs, his fighting hands”

The Suitors by Gustave Moreau. Begun: victorianweb.org

The nastiness of this all comes through. Odysseus shows us mostly utter mercilessness. In one scene in particular with Leodes the seer, Leodes comes up and gets a hold of Odysseus’ knees. From all that we’ve learned in prior books, and especially through Odysseus himself, on the island of Phaeacia, getting a person’s knees earns you instant suppliant status. It puts you under the protection of Zeus and makes the other person have an obligation to treat you like a guest in their home. You should get overwhelming hospitality once you make contact but, Odysseus does not heed Xenia, in this case he takes a weapon and cuts Leodes’ head off. Xenia is overrun in this episode. It should be disturbing but Homer spends no time though being disturbed by it. The conclusion we have to draw is that at certain times there are certain people in extreme situations that pieces of the social code need to give way.  Other pieces of the social code are more important and require that we cut corners in order to meet the end, a justice that’s dictated by the overarching social code. Homer’s telling us that there’s no way that Odysseus should have spared Leodes even despite of Leodes getting hold of his knees. Odysseus’s need for revenge and the crimes of the Suitors are in direct conflict with Xenia, his need for revenge and the duty to avenge the wrong that’s happening in his own house overrides even such an important value as Xenia.

He then punishes the unfaithful maids in an awfully violent scene executed by Telemachus. They first have to clean up all the dead, and then they are killed at the end to join them, a really disturbing, coup de grace, on this scene of carnage and killing.

Telemachus gave the men their orders: “No clean death for the likes of them, by god! Not from me —they showered abuse on my head, my mother’s too! You sluts—the suitors’ whores! ”With that, taking a cable used on a dark-prowed ship he coiled it over the roundhouse, lashed it fast to a tall column, hoisting it up so high no toes could touch the ground. Then, as doves or thrushes beating their spread wings against some snare rigged up in thickets—flying in for a cozy nest but a grisly bed receives them—so the women’s heads were trapped in a line, nooses yanking their necks up, one by one


The confusion of the violence is serious, it’s profound. Odysseus and his team are able to keep things together through their skill and their sticking together through their ability. Odysseus is almost like a God, an invisible avenger that arrives deals out justice of a summary way to these human beings they are all dead in a way that recalls Apollo in the Iliad mowing down the great warriors with his arrows. The sulphur and fire at the end as cleansing agents give a further sense of Odysseus as a God. He is careful always and also in this case, to separate himself from the Gods. It’s the will of the gods that needs to be done. He takes a step back in seriousness and says; now this is what the divine required in this particular circumstance. I’m not a divinity; I’m a human executing a divine will. There’s also an earlier mention of such a set of thoughts by Odysseus when he’s talking to Eurycleia. He talks about himself as a hero jumping into these events and you, the Gods will use his hands in order to execute. Fate, this is what a great hero thinks the Gods and Fate all work together through human agency to make things work. A far cry from Telemachus saying if only the God would make me powerful Odysseus says the Gods have made me powerful and that is why I am executing their will even in circumstances that are messy and nasty. Now as harsh as this has all been it’s not quite as hard as what Odysseus has to do next. He has earned his way into the inner courtyard of his house he belongs there. Now he’s got to have to earn his way into the inner rooms and eventually into the bedroom and eventually into the bed of his home. To get to that point it’s going to require even more of his skill.

Reunion (Almost)

In Book 23 Penelope’s dream becomes a reality. Eurycleia trundles upstairs and gives Penelope the news.

“Up to the rooms the old nurse clambered, chuckling all the way, to tell the queen her husband was here now, home at last. Her knees bustling, feet shuffling over each other, till hovering at her mistress’ head she spoke: “Penelope—child—wake up and see for yourself, with your own eyes, all you dreamed of, all your days! He’s here—Odysseus—he’s come home, at long last! He’s killed the suitors, swaggering young brutes who plagued his house, wolfed his cattle down, rode roughshod over his son!.”


That “all you dreamed of” gives us already an indicator that what we’re talking about is a world of dreams that’s actually coming true. Further, the way Homer positions Eurycleia, he puts her precisely in the shape of a dream. Eurycleia is precisely in the position of one of these dreams. The way she shuffles over trundling over to where Penelope is, standing at, hovering at her head, speaking at her, Penelope, wake up.  Penelope is being given the, the word Odysseus is here. She is thrilled but then, she holds back she is circumspect. She asks for more proof and Eurycleia tells her of the scar. Penelope hears that and that’s pretty good evidence but still Penelope needs more testing.

Odysseus has gained access to the inner rooms, he’s cleared house in the exterior rooms he’s earned his way in, but Penelope’s not quite ready to have him. In order to get to the next stage, he’s going to have to pass the final test that she’s going to give him. When Odysseus walks in, there’s this quite marvellous scene. She sees Odysseus

“As soon as she stepped across the stone threshold, slipping in, she took a seat at the closest wall and radiant in the firelight, faced Odysseus now.”

Penelope is making herself available to Odysseus; she’s ready to start to hear what he has to tell her. She’s thinking things through, calculating where we are. They haven’t quite come to the point where they’re ready to have a shared embrace. Odysseus is pretty much there but not quite Penelope. The two of them are going back and trying to find their mode of connection. Penelope says, eventually,in a  short, sharp retort as both Eurycleia and Telemachus are saying, come on Penelope, you should relent. She cuts them off and says,

“I’m stunned with wonder, powerless. Cannot speak to him, ask him questions, l ook him in the eyes … But if he is truly Odysseus, home at last, make no mistake: we two will know each other, even better—we two have secret signs, known to us both but hidden from the world.”

It’s a way for her to say, step back, Telemachus; you don’t know the full story here. You’re not in control. In fact, I am in control. Penelope is now going to jump in to figure out in her final test whether this really is the true Odysseus. The real deep importance of storytelling for understanding one’s own identity, knowing your past having it as a cohesive story, sharing it with people all of these things the, the idea of telling and re-telling all of these things are very important and built in to a Greek notion of what an identity is.

Penelope gives us another way into this whole question. Her story registers for us the importance in a Greek context of sometimes not telling, of sometimes keeping some things secret. Odysseus tried to keep his secret of the scar by holding back Eurycleia’s mouth and swearing her to secrecy under pain of death. He hid his scar underneath his underneath his clothes so that people wouldn’t see it. But it’s something that is public and visible, and he can show it to people. Penelope has a different sign of who she is and also who Odysseus is. The two of them can only verify each other’s identity through this sign. For Penelope, it’s her last way of making sure that the person in front of her is truly Odysseus. The final sign, the sign of signs is, of course, her bed. This bed that Penelope is going to use in this last proof draws an analogy to another bed that we’ve seen in this epic at the close of Book five.  Odysseus there as the firebrand trying to figure out if he could make it through the night., calculating whether it was better off to bury himself under some leaves so that he could have some shelter and keep his way or not die from exposure to the elements and then also trying to avoid taking too much shelter in the forest and making himself a victim to animals at that to be eaten by animals. He buries himself in the leaves of an olive tree. That bed made at the far end of Odysseus’ journey, is made with material drawn from the farthest point away from the root of the olive tree.

The bed that Penelope makes reference to is from a different part of the olive tree. It’s actually rooted. Odysseus himself crafted the bed, he made it with his axe and we’ve seen him wield axes before to great effect his skill with axes is tremendous. He took a living, breathing tree carved up pieces of it, cut others, linked it all together, and left the roots in the ground. It’s immovable, a gravitational centre of Odysseus and Penelope’s life together. When Penelope makes her very sly gesture saying, he may be Odysseus but we can’t really be sure. We’re going to have to wait another night, at which point, everyone’s exasperated and Odysseus says he will sleep alone.

“Strange man, ”wary Penelope said. “I’m not so proud, so scornful, nor am I overwhelmed by your quick change …You look—how well I know—the way he looked, setting sail from Ithaca years ago aboard the long-oared ship. Come, Eurycleia, move the sturdy bedstead out of our bridal chamber—that room the master built with his own hands. Take it out now, sturdy bed that it is, and spread it deep with fleece, blankets and lustrous throws to keep him warm.”

Odysseus then realizes that all of the sly, subtle subterfuges of Penelope have been put in place because she is testing him with the final test. The only response that is possible if he truly is Odysseus is the one that he knows, you can’t move that bed. It’s rooted in the ground and I’m the one that made it that way. Penelope then is able to prove that is truly Odysseus but he, she proves something else to him at the same time. The reason that the secret configuration of what this bed is all about and how it works still works for Penelope as a sign of verification is because she, herself, has kept it secret all those years that Odysseys is gone. Imagine if she let lots of people into her bedroom, and lots of people into her bed while Odysseus was gone. There’s no way she could use that bed to verify that this is truly Odysseus. Anyone would know about it. But instead, what she’s doing is saying, yes, I can verify who you are, Odysseus, because I’ll know that you know about that bed. But because she’s exhibiting to him that she’s relying on it to verify his identity, she’s also communicating to him that I have kept our bed secret, meaning, that our marriage is exclusive and remains so.

The gender balance is such that Odysseus has not done the same thing, she doesn’t demand it from him, but it’s quite a subtle craft that she’s able to pull in verifying both Odysseus and herself and having them both be verified to each other. This is something that she could not have done had she not lived up to what Odysseus expected of her. She does live up to what her part of the bargain from an Ancient Greek perspective is supposed to be.

Comparing these two signs is, is interesting. Odysseus as a marker of his identity, has this one mark on his body, it is a marker of past pain. It’s got a story embedded into it, but it’s visible by everybody. He doesn’t have to do anything to maintain it as being a marker of Odyssiusness. He will verify himself to whomever he wishes to. When he gives away information that I he is truly Odysseus, he doesn’t give anything extra away. Penelope’s sign, her marker of her bed, is something that she actively must maintain in an on-going act of the exclusivity of their marriage, her faithfulness to Odysseus.


Having earned his final step his final way in Odysseus finally gets to have his reunion with Penelope. Homer expresses this moment in a wonderful simile.

“The more she spoke, the more a deep desire for tears welled up inside his breast—he wept as he held the wife he loved, the soul of loyalty, in his arms at last. Joy, warm as the joy that shipwrecked sailors feel when they catch sight of land—Poseidon has struck their well-rigged ship on the open sea with gale winds and crushing walls of waves, and only a few escape, swimming, struggling out of the frothing surf to reach the shore, their bodies crusted with salt but buoyed up with joy as they plant their feet on solid ground again, spared a deadly fate. So joyous now to her he sight of her husband, vivid in her gaze, that her white arms, embracing his neck would never for a moment let him go …”


As Homer starts the comparison it seems to be a comparison of one person that you pretty sure who it is, but then, it gets turned around and matches another person who is taken the place of that other one. We saw that Eumaeus was compared to a father welcoming home a son who’s been gone a long time when Eumaeus embraced Telemachus. Look at the joy that Penelope feels, she feels the joy of someone who is like a sailor who’s been shipwrecked and then she feels like someone who has just landed on home ground. What Homer does with this simile is to allow Penelope to be Odysseus for a while.  Odysseus, the one that welcomes home the one that’s been so far away for so long, plays the role of Penelope. It’s a wonderful simile that shows the closeness of their intimacy. Penelope’s suffering at home is here compared and made congruent with, Odysseus’s tremendous suffering out there on the wilder world. The two of them share their reunion. They also have shared an identical, in this case at least congruent pain Homer’s very clever and subtle way for continuing the connection between these two. Now, that they have made their connection, the two of them sit down and have their reunion.

The reunion, first of all, starts with a lot of talking, a lot of telling. The whole epic comes out again as Odysseus tells Penelope where he’s been. He needs to share with Penelope all this past that she has missed out on in his own life for him to fill her in.

Book 24 begins and things are not over. The Odyssey is in some ways, it’s like a story that just can’t quite end. Some have suggested who’ve taken a close look at Book 24 that this must have been added on later to the original Odyssey that had only 23 books. The basis for the argument is only what is there there’s no exterior evidence base. It’s just how closely Book 24 fits in with all the rest. The thematic statement that it’s making it that Odysseus’s Journey, this great archetypal wayfarer is not going to end with him safe at home. There’s always more wandering, the Odyssey is not really going to end. My essay argues that book 24 is required to finish the epic despite there being more stories in the future.

We follow the suitors down to the underworld. They’ve been killed and down they go. We hear then, the whole story one more time as the suitors recount it to Agamemnon, they tell him all the things that have gone on and how Odysseus set things right. He is thrilled or his friend and contrasts his own situation with that of Odysseus and Penelope.

Happy Odysseus!” Agamemnon’s ghost cried out. “Son of old Laertes—mastermind—what a fine, faithful wife you won!What good sense resided in your Penelope—how well Icarius’ daughter remembered you, Odysseus, the man she married once! The fame of her great virtue will never die. The immortal gods will lift a song for all mankind, a glorious song in praise of self-possessed Penelope. A far cry from the daughter of Tyndareus, Clytemnestra—what outrage she committed, killing the man she married once!—

There is a strong indication of the momentousness of what has just happened, where it’s so huge that tales about it are not just limited to this upper world but also buzzing across the whole cosmos. Up in Olympus, they care, down in the underworld, they care and surely in our world people care. Odysseus, as this all is going on, heads off to visit his father, Laertes, finds him rolling around in the mud. Odysseus almost strangely,  a little perversely decides to start testing his father and lying to his father and all these things. It’s difficult to say why he does this, but it is just Odysseus’s way, he is a tester, he is a trickster, and he is a liar. So, he goes through his testing of his father. His father then, wants some test in return and Odysseus shows him his scar, so his identity proof comes back again he can show himself to Laertes as being the man that he is.

The town’s people in Ithaca are upset about what’s happened. Ttheir relatives their suitors have just been killed they are ready for battle. They get ready to bring things to a head. Odysseus now stands again with his allies, he’s got Telemachus, he’s got Eumaeus, and now, he’s got his father by his side Laertes too is ready to do battle.  Athena comes in and prevents another episode of cascading violence and wave after wave of, of killing. She has a spear throw from Laertes made into a clean kill which saps the energy of the enemy. She then comes in, makes peace

“Hold back, you men of Ithaca, back from brutal war! Break off—shed no more blood—make peace at once!” So Athena commanded. Terror blanched their faces, they went limp with fear, weapons slipped from their hands and strewed the ground at the goddess’ ringing voice”

The suitors’ relatives now slink away. With that, Odysseus has regained all of the things that make him Odysseus. His house is now stable. We know what he has to do next, he’s got to go take the oar and take it all the way inland until someone mistakes his oar for a winnowing fan. Once he does, he’ll know he’s far enough away from the sea that should he build a temple there, Poseidon will feel as though recompense has been made for the blinding of his son Polyphemus.

We know that Odysseus has more adventures ahead of him. He has recovered now his identity. He’s pieced together his name, his strength his capabilities, his family, his house, his city his relationship, his connection with Penelope solidified. His connection in an epilogue moment with his father, his connection with his past is now re-joined. Odysseus now is finally whole again, this poor, beaten and battered man that we saw at the beginning of Book one is now ready to be Odysseus again. He’s earned his place back to being himself.



  1. Oscar Lema says:

    I Think that in your resume in The Bow, there are a small mistake in reference to The island of Phiashia, I think that you are refering to the Island of Phaeacia (Scheria).
    Pero es simplemente un pequeñísimo error. Yo he disfrutado enormemente con su página de Internet. Soy un fanático de ella. Congratulaciones.

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