The Odyssey by Homer

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Book 21 Summary and Analysis

New Character
Leodes: a suitor who serves as a diviner to his companions

Penelope ascends to the upper chamber of the palace where Odysseus’ famous bow is kept. Odysseus had received the mighty weapon years ago from Iphitus, a friend whom he met shortly before Iphitus’ death at the hands of Heracles. Odysseus had kept the bow in Ithaca when he left for Troy. Now Penelope retrieves the bow, its arrows, and her husband’s strong axes. She brings them down into the main hall and offers her challenge to the suitors: whoever strings the bow and shoots an arrow through twelve axe handles may claim Penelope as his bride. Antinoös, though outwardly cautious, believes that he will be the one to accomplish the feat.

Telemachus astonishes the suitors by expertly setting up the axes in a perfect row; he had never before seen them set up in this way. Claiming that his mother will be freed from her obligation to remarry if he can accomplish the feat, Telemachus is the first to attempt to string the bow. After failing three times, Telemachus almost succeeds in stringing the bow, but a quick sign from his disguised father makes him surrender at the last moment.

The suitors, at Antinoös’ bidding, take turns attempting to string the bow. The first to try after Telemachus is the prophet Leodes, who fails to string the bow. Anguished, he announces that death is preferable to losing the goal for which they have all striven so long; surely such death awaits all those who fail in the contest. Antinoös quiets him down and then orders Melanthius to start a fire and bring tallow to limber up the stiff bow. The goatherd complies, and the suitors resume their attempts at the bow, but to no avail.

Eumaeus and Philoitius wander outside the hall, and Odysseus shortly follows them. After ascertaining the extent of their loyalty, Odysseus suddenly reveals his identity to them, proving his authenticity with the scar on his leg. Eumaeus and Philoitius tearfully rejoice, agreeing to aid Odysseus in his vengeance against the suitors. After Odysseus has given them their orders, the three return inside, where Eurymachus himself has at last picked up the bow. He also fails to string the weapon and mourns not so much the loss of Penelope but the realization of the suitors’ complete inferiority to the bow’s master. However, Antinoös superstitiously uses the holiday as an excuse for their failures. He suggests that the suitors sacrifice goats to Apollo the next day and then attempt once more to win Penelope’s contest.

It is at this moment that Odysseus requests to try the bow in order to see if he has retained the strength of his youth. Antinoös violently protests, telling him to sit down and be silent, or else they will ship him off to be mutilated by ruthless kings. Penelope mocks Antinoös’ scorn, suggesting they let the beggar make the attempt. She asserts that the stranger cannot win her in marriage and that he only wants to try the bow for personal reasons. Eurymachus admits, however, that it is not the suitors’ fear that the beggar will win Penelope. They dread the scandalous reproaches they will receive if the old man succeeds where they have failed. Penelope continues to mock the suitors, but Telemachus takes the opportunity to silence her and send her away to her upper chamber. Although startled by his brashness, Penelope obeys and retreats to her room, where Athene sends her into a deep sleep. Now she is safely out of the way for the events to come.

Eumaeus, following Odysseus’ plans, picks up the bow and starts carrying it toward his master. The suitors immediately start threatening him, and the swineherd, daunted by them, returns the bow to its place. Telemachus, however, recovers the situation by offering Eumaeus some threats of his own. His angry speech makes the suitors laugh, and while their mood is lightened, Eumaeus takes the opportunity to bring the bow to Odysseus. The swineherd, following his orders, then commands Eurycleia...

(The entire section is 1,364 words.)