Homer World Literature Analysis

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4943

Accepting an eighth century dating for composition of the Iliad and Odyssey, as most modern scholars do, logically raises questions regarding the appropriateness of the Homeric poems as historical testimony. Such questions do not grow substantially fewer by moving Homer’s century back to the ninth. Archaeological methods developed since Heinrich Schliemann’s excavations at the site of Troy in the 1870’s have set the dates for the historical Trojan War between 1194 and 1184 b.c.e. That would mean that Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey describe a historical period four or three hundred years anterior to his own. Since the Greek world was still at its preliterate stage (the ability to write existed, but the written language was not used for literary purposes), Homer had no written records upon which to rely. Even so, memory remains strong in preliterate societies. Mythic storytelling becomes a privileged art, one that does not tolerate deviation from elements considered essential. Descriptions of personalities, places, events, and outcomes must remain consistent. Numbers involved and chronological frames for these events assume considerably less importance. Given that classical Greek identifies all numbers above ten thousand as myría (myriad), no ancient reader would have expected a precise inventory of numbers in the “Catalogue of Ships and Heroes” that fills Iliad 2. In fact, Greek notions of history before Thucydides differed as much as their understanding of biography before Plutarch (c. 46 c.e.-after 120 c.e.).

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Nevertheless, archaeology supports much of what Homer provides regarding the Trojan War. Read emblematically, the Iliad implies a major clash of Greek and non-Greek cultures. Even ancient historical sources document the friction between the Peloponnesic Greeks and the inhabitants of Ionia, Caria, and Anatolia, and it is likely that the theft of Helen (whose value is material, not human, by Mycenaean standards) represents the mercantile friction that existed between the Peloponnesus and Asia Minor.

Moreover, the internal consistency of the Homeric poems constitutes a strong argument in favor of their reliability. Both Iliad and Odyssey rely extensively on verbatim repeated passages, epithets regularly assigned to people, places, and things, and massive lists known as epic catalogs. Formulaic endings often fill out the hexameter verse, implicitly supporting the authenticity of the line in question. All these techniques effectively become mnemonic devices that facilitated oral transmission of the poems by rhapsodes, who originally circulated the Homeric poems throughout the Greek world. It is clear that the Iliad and Odyssey had assumed privileged status at a period that approximates their composition. With this understood, it is unlikely that the rhapsodes would have altered the essentials of the poems in any substantive way. Late second century b.c.e. codification by Aristarchus and Xenodotus appears limited to division into books and a choice of likely readings between or among variant readings not significantly affecting the poems themselves. Obviously, stability of text cannot guarantee reliability of content, but, given the pre-Thucydidean conception of history, it is clear that the Homeric epics can provide valuable insights into the Mycenaean world.

Of course, Homer was not Mycenaean. Archaeological evidence shows that pre-Greek culture died following, and perhaps partly in consequence of, the power vacuum created by the absence of traditional power structures on the Peloponnesus during the years of preparation and fighting at Troy. It is another question whether the Mycenaean kingdoms fell by a Dorian invasion or simply by neglect. Still, the Odyssey would support the latter contention, one sustained as well by modern archaeology. The instability of Odysseus’s Ithaca is clear, and the poem clearly contrasts the Mycenaean outlook of Odysseus, Nestor, and Eumaeus with that which the suitors of Penelope have imposed. Likewise, it is easy to detect the unease that Menelaus shows upon his return to Sparta with the reclaimed Helen. Even young Telemachus, the son of Odysseus, senses how much the war has cost and the unhappiness that prevails in its aftermath.

One typical characteristic of Homeric epic is thus its ability to restrict a massive theme such as the Trojan War both chronologically and to its human dimension. The Iliad, though its theme is indeed the fighting at Troy, treats its subject only in terms of the conflict of Achilles and Agamemnon. Chronologically, it covers no more than ninety days, perhaps as few as sixty. It also initiates what would become the accepted practice of beginning in medias res (in the middle of events) and ending before the final conclusion of the events that it describes. There is nothing of the nine years that preceded the quarrel of Achilles and Agamemnon, nor is there anything of the strategy that would result in Greek victory: the wooden horse. Homer’s narrative ends with the return of Hector’s body to his father, Priam. The effect is to underscore the importance of moira (fate) as a controlling factor in Achilles’ life. Readers know that once Achilles has made the decision to remain at Troy he will kill Hector and will himself die soon after. That Achilles’ acceptance of moira would become a moral imperative as a result of Hector’s killing of Patroclus thus emerges as the climax of Homer’s narrative.

Narrative pattern in the Odyssey resembles that of the Iliad insofar as it begins in medias res. Odysseus has spent approximately seven years on Calypso’s island as the epic begins. His adventures with his crew are behind him, and he recalls them subsequently to his Phaeacian hosts only by way of flashback. Most of the ongoing narrative of the Odyssey concerns itself with recognition scenes, and these culminate with Odysseus’s recognition by the suitors and his gory slaughter of them and the unfaithful handmaidens. Another slaughter, that of the fathers of the suitors, appears about to start when the goddess Athena suddenly appears and ends the entire narrative by dea ex machina (goddess from the machine, describing any unnatural termination of narrative). Readers learn nothing through the Odyssey regarding how well (or badly) Odysseus resumes his position as king, husband, or father.


First compiled: c. 750 b.c.e. (English translation, 1611)

Type of work: Epic poem

Homer’s Iliad presents the Trojan War in terms of the conflict between Achilles and Agamemnon; fate, willingness to accept death, courage, and pettiness are its timeless themes.

Though the myths describe the Trojan War as a thirty-year cycle of preparations, conflict, and homecomings, the chronological period that the Iliad covers is actually quite restricted, not more than ninety days in the final year of fighting. Despite its focus on the quarrel of only two of its warriors, both of them Greek, Homer nevertheless conveys the full range of human emotions that prevails in war, even as he provides a vivid portrait of Mycenaean culture. The result is that his Iliad, bold and all-encompassing though it is, remains essentially quite limited; that is undoubtedly one of the most distinctive features of Homer’s epic. Homer makes the limits of his intentions clear from the outset. His invocation to Caliope, the Muse of epic, specifies that he will sing of Achilles’ anger.

Obviously, the anger of Achilles operates on several levels and has far-reaching consequences. On the personal level, it refers to the quarrel between Achilles and Agamemnon for possession of Briseis, a young woman originally given to Achilles by the Achaeans as his prize of honor. Agamemnon, too, had a captive mistress, Chryseis; yet, she was the daughter of a priest of Apollo named Chryses. When Agamemnon haughtily refuses to return Chryseis to her father, Chryses invokes Apollo himself, who sends a plague upon the Achaeans. Once he realizes that the army will be decimated by disease if he takes no action, Agamemnon returns Chryseis to her father, though he simultaneously demands that Achilles surrender Briseis to him as her replacement. Agamemnon fears that the Achaeans will consider him weak if he does not enforce his will upon Achilles in this way, yet the reader perceives only Agamemnon’s pettiness and insecurity.

Achilles reviles Agamemnon in the agora (assembly) of leaders, yet he surrenders Briseis to him without active resistance. More significantly, Achilles announces his intentions to withdraw his Myrmidons from battle and return with them to Phthia, their home in southern Thessaly. These dramatic announcements made, Achilles throws down the skeptron (staff), which gives him the uncontested right to speak, and dashes from the agora. This extraordinary behavior at the least implies weakness and apparently cowardice. It seems to complement the pettiness of Agamemnon, but there are clearly other reasons for Achilles’ actions.

Thetis, the goddess-mother of Achilles, subsequently appears to comfort her son, who is all too aware of how the Achaeans could interpret his sudden withdrawal and threat to return home. She reviews the alternatives that moira (fate) has assigned to him: either to slay Hector, the first of the Trojan warriors, and to be killed at Troy soon thereafter or to live a long and undistinguished life in Phthia, dying there of old age. Achilles well knows these alternatives. His withdrawal, which extends from Iliad 1 to Iliad 22, represents an essential pause to consider these alternatives at a crucial juncture of his life. Worth noting is the fact that Achilles undertakes no preparations to return home; also, although the war initially goes badly for the Achaeans, to the extent that Agamemnon offers Achilles an impressive series of gifts (including restoration of Briseis) for his return, Achilles’ prolonged absence makes relatively little difference overall.

Agamemnon’s embassy to secure Achilles’ return contains elements of magnanimity and self-interest. Significantly, Agamemnon does not personally entreat Achilles. Instead, he enlists the cunning Odysseus and Diomedes (who would together devise the stratagem of the wooden horse), as well as Achilles’ old tutor Phoenix. The appeal thus emerges through a combination of clever argument and sage advice, and the collection of gifts (listed in catalog form) is calculated both to impress the Achaeans with Agamemnon’s megalapsyché (great-heartedness, generosity), as much as it is to force Achilles to make his decision. That is one of several places in which the humanity of the poem emerges. Achilles’ concern for his old tutor, seen in his insistence that Phoenix remain overnight rather than attempt to return immediately, shows that he values privileged relationships such as master and student. It has its counterpart in Achilles’ relationship to Patroclus, his young protégé in the art of war. This relationship, severed by Patroclus’s death, will ultimately provide the impetus that Achilles needs to accept the short but glorious life that moira has offered him.

In one sense, all the characters of the Iliad recognize the inevitability of moira yet remain essentially powerless to change it. The tears of Achilles that precede his mother’s appearance are an indication of this human frailty, but so is Hector’s meeting with his wife, Andromache, and their infant son, Astyanax. In Iliad 6, long before Achilles returns to battle, the Achaeans have advanced to the very walls of Troy. Hector, the bravest of the Trojan warriors, searches for Alexandrus (Paris), whose theft of Helen had been the immediate cause of the war, and finds him in Helen’s rooms. His reproaches make Alexandrus recognize his obligations, and Alexandrus takes up his arms to defend the city, but the primary contrast is clear. Andromache recognizes and regretfully accepts the likelihood of her husband’s death in battle, but Helen belittles Alexandrus as a sensualist willing to allow others to fight for him. Andromache’s fears for Hector correspond to those of the child, Astyanax, who does not recognize his father because of the helmet that he wears. When Hector removes the helmet, the child accepts his father’s embrace, and the couple laughs. There, then, is a contrast between pure love and simple sensual attraction as well as between responsibility and weakness.

Even the deities of Olympus display the flaws of their human counterparts. They, too, remain tied to moira and are essentially powerless to change it. They, too, govern by agorai, and these assemblies inevitably end as inconclusively as those of the human warriors below. The gods and goddesses have taken sides in the war, but these reflect their previous personal antagonisms rather than their concern with humanity. Thetis, for example, does intercede with Zeus for her son Achilles but is aware that doing so will necessarily provoke the jealousy of Hera, Zeus’s wife. She must also know that any favor that Zeus grants to Achilles would necessarily be in the context of glory on the battlefield. Ironically, any such benefaction would necessarily hasten her son’s death. Just as Agamemnon prevails in the human order, so does Zeus in the divine; yet neither appears able to take meaningful and decisive actions that affect outcomes. The power of both is limited to immediate actions and short-term results.

The peculiar powerlessness of Zeus emerges clearly in the Sarpedon episode, Iliad 16. At this point, Patroclus has received Achilles’ permission to reenter battle wearing his master’s armor. Patroclus experiences his aristeia (moment of glory), a series of combats in which he defeats one opponent after another. Sarpedon, a beautiful boy loved by Zeus, is one of those whom moira has determined that Patroclus will defeat. Zeus raises the scales of moira, watches Sarpedon’s weight descend, and realizes that he must accept the young man’s death. His resignation to moira parallels that of Andromache, even as it underscores the similarity of mortals and immortals.

Though Achilles allows his protégé, Patroclus, to enter battle, he himself remains apart. Patroclus is effectively Achilles’ surrogate, however, and his appearance in his master’s armor emphasizes this relationship. So devastating is the effect of his presence that the Trojans at first believe Achilles has returned. In one sense that is true, for Patroclus looks very much like Achilles, and the aristeia that he enjoys is equivalent to any that his master could have enjoyed. It is also true that once Patroclus has entered battle, the moira of Achilles is sealed, for the lives of master and student are tied by the bonds of friendship and obligation. Patroclus dies at the hands of Hector, and while Hector succeeds in claiming the armor of Achilles, the body of Patroclus remains with the Greeks. The announcement of Patroclus’s death sends Achilles into a threnody and leads to his construction of an extravagant pyre for the corpse. This development provides the opportunity for another catalog listing the offerings that formed the pyre. Averse as human sacrifice was to Greek sensibilities, the pyre includes young Trojans captured in battle.

Achilles now recognizes that his obligations to Patroclus have forced his return, but he has no armor worthy of the event. Thetis intervenes again, this time to secure armor crafted by the artisan deity Hephaestus, and once again Thetis’s intervention hastens her son’s moira. In effect, the alternatives that had existed in Iliad 1 are no longer available. The period of intros2pection has ended, and Achilles reenters battle knowing that he will kill Hector but equally aware that his own death will follow soon after. When Achilles meets Hector in battle, he is, in effect, encountering an aspect of himself. Hector wears the armor of Achilles, and Achilles has donned the glorious new armor that his mother, Thetis, had secured for him. In killing Hector, especially because Homer has already portrayed that warrior’s character so sympathetically, Achilles eliminates his ties to the past and fully accepts the alternative of a short but glorious life. It is his true destiny and, like the armor provided by Thetis, the only moira that is appropriate for him.

The humanity that lies behind so much of the bravado in the Iliad emerges in the final scene of the poem. Old Priam, king of Troy, comes to Achilles to beg for the return of his son’s body. Even though Achilles realizes that Hector had been the immediate cause of his beloved Patroclus’s death and that Hector had forced Achilles to accept his own moira, he grants Priam’s request and declares a truce for ritual mourning and appropriate burial of the dead on both sides. The Iliad thus ends in a suspension, rather than a resolution, of events.


First compiled: c. 725 b.c.e. (English translation, 1614)

Type of work: Epic poem

The return of Odysseus to Ithaca nearly twenty years after his departure for Troy represents his personal struggle, often against larger forces, to restore the stability that war had cast aside.

Read at its most basic level, the Odyssey recounts Odysseus’s struggles to return to his native island of Ithaca after ten years of fighting at Troy. It appears to be a highly particularized account of one warrior’s struggles and sufferings. No doubt exists that Odysseus remains the focus; though names of his crew appear at intervals, they collectively constitute a vehicle that gets their master part of the way home, and all of them die long before their master reaches home. Even the mythic Phaeacians, who literally place the sleeping hero on his remote western island, remain peculiarly nameless, except for the family that rules them, but Alcinous, Areté, and Nausicaä merely approve this final phase of the journey. The seafaring Phaeacians themselves suffer permanent hardship for their good deed: Poseidon landlocks their harbors in retribution for Odysseus’s having blinded Polyphemus the Cyclops, the sea-god’s monster son.

Once Odysseus finally realizes that the Phaeacians have actually returned him to Ithaca, and not merely abandoned him on a forsaken island in order to steal the treasure that their king had given to him, the hero proceeds to test everyone he meets, starting with Eumaeus, his swineherd, and Telemachus, the son whom he had to abandon in infancy in order to honor his commitment to fight at Troy. He tests his old nurse, Eurycleia, who, when she recognizes his scar received in youth during a boar hunt, appropriately venerates him. He tests his wife, Penelope, who has waited for Odysseus more than nineteen years, resisting more than a score of much younger suitors. Her stratagem of weaving and unweaving a funeral shroud for the aging Laërtes, Odysseus’s father, allows her to delay choosing a new husband, but it also allows this assortment of brash young men with decidedly uncourtly manners to move into Odysseus’s great hall and deplete the wealth of his household through their ceaseless banquets and irresponsible behavior. This irresponsibility extends to the moral sphere as well, for the suitors, in short order, corrupt the handmaidens of the household.

True to form, Odysseus arrives disguised as a beggar, tests the suitors, finds that they have abused the laws of hospitality, and kills them all. He ratifies this action by pronouncing moral judgment on the handmaidens, as well. Once they have cleaned the great hall of the suitors’ blood, he orders the handmaidens to be collectively hanged in the courtyard. While this mass slaughter is in progress, Phemius, the court rhapsode, is ordered by Odysseus to sing as loudly as possible to the loudest of musical accompaniments in order to cover the screams of those being killed. Furthermore, Odysseus enlists both Telemachus and Eumaeus as accomplices. The first thing that Odysseus and his nineteen-year-old son do together is, in effect, commit mass murder, then retreat to the suburban vineyard at which old Laërtes is awaiting the arrival of the fathers of the suitors, who are avid for vengeance. Another slaughter is about to begin when the goddess Athene, the mentor of Odysseus from the outset, calls a halt, and the Odyssey ends.

Seen in this way, Odysseus does not appear to be a very nice man, and certainly not very heroic. Even so, his epithet polutropos (many-wiled) implies that there is more to his character, and correspondingly to Homer’s poem, than this rather negative reading implies. Indeed, virtually every action of Odysseus admits of positive and negative interpretations. In this respect, Homer’s Odysseus mirrors humanity at large. To assess Odysseus positively, it is necessary to consider external particulars more carefully than has been done above. It is also important to bear in mind details that Homer assumes his audience knows and therefore does not, given the limited parameters of epic poetry, feel particularly obligated to supply.

First of all, Odysseus had never wanted to fight at Troy. He had been perfectly happy as king of his rural island with his young wife, Penelope, and infant son, Telemachus. He had even feigned madness by sowing his fields with salt instead of seed in order to escape his obligation to restore Helen to Menelaus. Canny Agamemnon, brother of Menelaus, recognized immediately, however, that this was a typical Odyssean ruse. To test Odysseus’s sanity, Agamemnon placed Telemachus in the path of the plowshare, and of course Odysseus had to turn the plow aside to spare the “seed” that he prized most of all: his son and heir. Homer knows that his audience will recognize immediately the disparate values of Odysseus and Agamemnon, for the latter would be willing to sacrifice his own daughter Iphigeneia in order to ensure a favorable wind for the departing armada. Agamemnon would, of course, pay the price for his moral lapse. Having escaped ten years of war with barely a scratch, his wife Clytemnestra, ironically Helen’s half sister, would murder him on the day of his return as he emerged from his bath.

Placing these sets of events beside each other shows the essential difference between Odysseus and Agamemnon. Odysseus privileges the values of home and family; Agamemnon quickly recognizes affronts to the honor of his clan but is willing to avenge these at the cost of his immediate family. Yet it is clear that the Trojan War has no positive effect on Odysseus. It forces him to place domestic considerations to one side and use his wiles in order to survive. Odysseus is, above all, a survivor, and his stratagems of the theft of the Palladium (the great statue of Athene in the citadel of Troy) and of the wooden horse ultimately bring victory to the Greek forces. Without them, the war would have continued even beyond the ten years specified in the myths.

That is the knowledge that Homer assumes, and the first item that he includes among Odysseus’s postwar exploits is that, after leaving Troy, Odysseus and his crew sack a town, that of the Cicones, who had been Trojan allies. Like many warriors, Odysseus has trouble laying aside the ways of war. What would have been acceptable behavior in the context of war becomes unacceptable afterward, yet Odysseus cannot recognize this fact. When he and his men arrive on the island of the Cyclops, the first thing that he and his men do is raid the stores of the Cyclops Polyphemus. Polyphemus is hardly a sympathetic creature. He is a giant, nonphiloprogenitive son of the sea-god Poseidon; like all Cyclops, he has in the middle of his forehead an eye the size of a wheel. This heterotopic eye effectively makes Polyphemus a symbol of irrationality, corresponding to the displaced moral environment in which Odysseus has functioned in the years since leaving Ithaca.

As Odysseus had eaten the food of Polyphemus without leave to do so, it is justifiable by the irrational standards of Polyphemus for the Cyclops to eat some of Odysseus’s crew, and he does so. When Polyphemus asks to know the name of their leader, Odysseus appropriately calls himself Outis (nobody), for he has, in effect, lost the dignity of a name derived from the infinitive odyssasthai (to be angry, wrathful). Wrath implies righteousness and reasonable cause, but the immediate history of Odysseus has allowed little chance for righteous anger. Once he blinds the Cyclops, however, Odysseus has neutralized one symbol of unreason in his world. When he follows this act by devising his crew’s escape from the Cyclops’s cave, strapping them to the undersides of Polyphemus’s sheep, he declares not only his name but also his patronymic and epithet to the monster: He is Odysseus, son of Laërtes, the sacker of cities.

Ironically, Odysseus’s bold insistence on his proper identity allows the anger of Poseidon to find its mark. Still, Odysseus has to identify himself fully in this way, even as he and his crew have to accept the consequences: long and hard struggles for the master and death by attrition for the crew. The crew, like the mass of humanity, satisfies itself with apparently easy courses of action and thereby defines life as existence that precedes death. As Homer kills them, singly and in groups, his audience wastes no mourning upon them; nor does Odysseus.

Though the crew appears largely as a collective entity, Homer makes clear that its individuals freely choose their doom. For example, the Lotos Eaters offer Odysseus’s crew lotos-fruit, which, when eaten, causes them to forget home and enjoy the earthly paradise of the present in which they find themselves. Forgetting one’s past is tantamount to abandoning the cause that produced the present and the impetus that impels the future. It is apparently easier to live in the eternal present, but doing so robs life’s journey of reason. The crew members who eat the lotos-fruit accept a form of the irrational with the excuse of world-weariness, but the drug culture of the Lotos Eaters is merely death in life.

When Odysseus’s crew taste the potion of the witch Circe, she transforms them into swine. Their almost unanimous collective identity had at least been human. After their transformation, they lose rationality, the highest human faculty; that happens because they had made insufficient use of the faculty. Hermes, Zeus’s messenger but also, fittingly, the guide to the Underworld, warns Odysseus to prepare himself for Circe’s magic by applying the molü (wild garlic), which he finds at his feet, before encountering the witch. Hermes also admonishes Odysseus to extract a promise from Circe not to emasculate him. In both respects, Hermes’ advice focuses on the weed to preserve a sense of personal identity and power. The herbal drug is as secondary in importance to the state of mind that it produces as the lotos-fruit had been in the Lotos Eaters episode. What is important is its obvious availability and the self-assurance that follows its use. It is worth noting that Odysseus temporarily loses sight of his personal mission to continue life’s journey, for he remains on Circe’s island until pressured to resume his adventures. In doing so, he comes dangerously close to accepting the paradisiacal present, essentially what the Lotos Eaters had offered. This lapse from obligation characterizes even the most heroic, however, and it underscores the fact that life’s journey is nonlinear; it rather assumes varying degrees of circularity that resemble the past, which spring from it but always differ. Life returns to its origins at its end, though the origins themselves appear other than what they had been.

Perhaps the Aeolus episode emphasizes the difference between Odysseus and his crew most profoundly of all. The king of the winds entrusts Odysseus with a sack filled with all winds, which could conceivably oppose Odysseus’s homeward journey. Aeolus appears to offer Odysseus an easy passage to his destination, but Odysseus must stay at the tiller nine days and nine nights, since he needs all his faculties to maintain his course. Within sight of Ithaca, Odysseus falls asleep, and this temporary loss of reason is enough to allow the jealousy and curiosity of his crew to surface. The crew resents the universal recognition that Odysseus receives and opens the sack thinking that it contains some special treasure that Odysseus does not wish to share. Immediately, the hostile winds blow Odysseus and his crew away from his homeland, and when the Ithacans reappear before Aeolus to request a second sack, the king refuses. This refusal is only right: Any benefaction requires personal responsibility for its proper use. Absent this responsibility, it becomes an imposed control that predetermines an outcome. Reaching the goal of the journey ultimately requires the skill of the traveler, not counting on the good fortune of meeting one’s personal equivalent of a sympathetic Aeolus to smooth the passage.

Even as the Phaeacians are returning Odysseus to Ithaca, Telemachus, at the instructions of Athene disguised as the traveler Mentes, is about to set sail in search of Odysseus’s whereabouts. The first four books of Homer’s poem thus belong firmly to Telemachus and represent the young man’s personal odyssey. Telemachus has never known his father, has seen only the aberrant, extended family that the arrival of the suitors has caused. His adventures in Odyssey 1 to 4 show him one family that respects moral values (that of Nestor of Pylos) and one that is entirely secular (that of Menelaus and Helen). Menelaus and Helen appear content, though the unease of their relationship is plain. It is only through an anodyne, which Helen adds to their wine, that they maintain this fragile equilibrium. They, like the crew members who had succumbed to the lotos-fruit or Circe’s potion, have chosen existence rather than life. Telemachus also refines his understanding of the laws of hospitality through gifts mutually offered and tactfully refused, as well as through his sagacity, the polytropic quality that characterizes his father. He manages to elude the suitors, who plan his assassination upon his return, and returns to the other side of his island and to the hut of Eumaeus, to be reunited with Odysseus and plot the extermination of the suitors.

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