Last Reviewed on June 23, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1548
Telemachus arrives at Eumaeus’s home, where he meets Odysseus, still disguised as a beggar. The three talk of how Odysseus’s household is overrun by wicked suitors, prompting Odysseus to remark that honor calls for their slaughter at the hands of Telemachus and his father. Telemachus agrees. Still following Athena’s plan, he then instructs Eumaeus to run to the palace and inform Penelope that he has returned.
In Eumaeus’s absence, Athena appears to Odysseus (and Odysseus alone) and advises him to reveal himself to his son. The goddess then restores Odysseus’s appearance, leaving Telemachus in awe, believing himself to be in the presence of a god. Odysseus informs Telemachus that he is his father, and the two reunite in tears. They then discuss how they will handle the suitors. Telemachus is doubtful that he and Odysseus will manage to overtake the suitors, as there are over a hundred of them, but Odysseus assures him that the gods are on their side. Finally, Odysseus instructs Telemachus to keep his return a secret from everyone, including Eumaeus, Penelope, and Laertes.
At the palace, the suitors are frustrated to hear that Telemachus has evaded their ambush. Antinous suggests that they murder Telemachus as soon as they have the chance. Amphinomus, however, voices his concern that their plans might anger the gods.
Penelope, who has learned of the suitors’ schemes, confronts Eurymachus, reminding him of the time Odysseus saved his father’s life. Eurymachus lies and asserts that the suitors have no intention of harming Telemachus.
Telemachus, accompanied by the seer Theoclymenus, arrives at the palace. He informs his mother of what he learned from King Menelaus—that Odysseus is trapped on Ogygia by the nymph Calypso. Theoclymenus, however, adds that signs point toward Odysseus’s imminent return and swift revenge upon the suitors.
Meanwhile, Eumaeus and Odysseus are on their way to the palace when they encounter the goatherd Melanthius. Melanthius insults the disguised Odysseus and even kicks him. Despite his urge to retaliate, Odysseus remains silent. When he and Eumeaus arrive at the palace, Odysseus meets the eyes of his old hunting dog, Argos, who recognizes him immediately. Argos, having seen his master one last time, dies peacefully. Odysseus holds back his tears.
Telemachus, following the plan Odysseus laid out, instructs Eumaeus to let the disguised Odysseus go around the main hall and beg the suitors for scraps. This way, Odysseus will be able to experience firsthand what the suitors are like. Most of the suitors give him food, but Antinous complains that a beggar is hardly fit to attend their feast. He insults Odysseus and throws a chair at him. Odysseus admonishes Antinous, telling him that the gods have a way of punishing such cruelty. It hurts Telemachus to see his father mistreated, but he holds his tongue.
Before returning home, Eumaeus meets briefly with Penelope and informs her that the beggar has news of Odysseus. She agrees to meet with the beggar, really Odysseus, after all the suitors have retired.
A beggar named Arnaeus (or Irus) arrives at the palace and insults Odysseus in front of the suitors. This gives the suitors the idea to pit the two beggars against each other for sport, with the winner of the fight to be given choice cuts of meat and a place at the suitors’ table. When Odysseus takes off his robe to spar with Arnaeus, he reveals his muscular build. So as to hide his full strength, Odysseus decides not to kill Arnaeus and instead defeats him by breaking his jaw.
At the table, the suitor Amphinomus shows kindness to the disguised Odysseus. Because of this, Odysseus tells him a cautionary tale of greed and dishonor, hinting that Amphinomus must leave the palace or perish along with the other suitors when Odysseus returns to take revenge. This troubles Amphinomus, but as he is fated to die along with the rest of the suitors, he does not leave.
Meanwhile, Athena compels Penelope to come downstairs and appear before the suitors. The goddess makes her look lovelier without her knowledge, and so the suitors are stricken with lust when she addresses them. Penelope hints that courtship gifts are due to her, as she will soon choose a husband. In response, the suitors readily bring forth splendid gifts. Odysseus is delighted at his wife’s cunning.
That evening, Odysseus is once more the subject of mockery and abuse, both from the suitors and from the slave girl Melantho. After Eurymachus throws a footstool at Odysseus, Telemachus ends the suitors’ drunken revelry and bids them all retire for the night.
While the suitors sleep, Odysseus and Telemachus, guided by Athena, remove all the spears and armor hanging in the main hall and hide them in a storeroom. Afterward, Penelope and the disguised Odysseus meet by the fireplace. Odysseus invents a story, telling Penelope that Odysseus stayed at his palace in Crete for twelve days on his way to Troy, almost two decades ago. In order to test if he is telling the truth, Penelope asks him to describe Odysseus and his crew. Odysseus replies with a detailed description of his own cloak and brooch, to which Penelope replies that she packed those clothes for Odysseus herself. She weeps, and Odysseus consoles her by saying that he has heard news of her husband’s imminent return.
Penelope wishes to have her maids bathe the disguised Odysseus, but he humbly declines, offering only his feet to be washed. The aged maidservant Eurycleia, who had been Odysseus’s wet nurse, washes Odysseus’s feet and spots a scar on his thigh from a boar hunt he had participated in when he was young. Recognizing the beggar to be Odysseus himself, Eurycleia turns to Penelope to tell her that Odysseus has returned. Odysseus stops her, however, explaining that his arrival must remain a secret for the time being.
Odysseus then resumes his conversation with Penelope, who asks him to interpret a recent dream of hers. In the dream, an eagle swoops down and breaks the neck of twenty geese. Odysseus interprets the dream as predicting the return of her husband and a swift death for the suitors. Penelope, unwilling to nurture false hope, remains skeptical. She then reveals to him that she will hold an archery contest tomorrow to decide once and for all who is to be her husband. Odysseus responds enthusiastically to this plan, assuring her that her husband will return before any other man is able to string the bow.
As in books 13 through 15, Odysseus uses dissimulation in order to uncover the truth. Disguised as a beggar, he experiences firsthand the wickedness and moral depravity of the suitors. Throughout The Odyssey, it is emphasized time and time again that beggars and travelers are often sent by the gods as a test of virtue. In fact, beggars are at times gods themselves in disguise. This is one of the instances in which parallelisms are drawn between Odysseus and the divine. Another instance can be found in book 14, where Telemachus mistakes Odysseus for a god when Odysseus first casts off his disguise. Additionally, in book 13, Athena herself lovingly compares her own craftiness to that of Odysseus. It is fitting, therefore, that Odysseus (on Athena’s advice) chooses to disguise himself as a wandering beggar—an instrument of the gods—in his return to his own household.
Athena, for her part, is instrumental in Odysseus’s dissimulation, as she manipulates his appearance to his favor. For example, she makes Odysseus appear more powerful in his duel with Arnaeus in order to intimidate the suitors. She also makes Penelope appear lovelier when she addresses the suitors so that she is able to easily manipulate them into surrendering gifts. Like Odysseus, Athena sees psychological manipulation as just as important as brute force.
In committing to his disguise, Odysseus displays remarkable composure and self-restraint. When the goatherd Melanthius insults him, for example, he merely bears it. This shows how Odysseus has grown and matured from his ten-year journey, as he is now able to swallow his hero’s pride for the greater good. Through his restraint, he chooses love of family and home above love of self.
Books 17 through 20 set the stage for the slaughter that is to come as the absolute extent of the suitors’ wickedness and greed is revealed. Apart from mocking and assaulting the disguised Odysseus, they also plot to murder Telemachus. The suitor Eurymachus lies about their plans when Penelope confronts him. It is made clear, therefore, that the suitors deserve the gruesome deaths that await them. Only Amphinomus tries to rein in the other suitors, even going so far as to show kindness to the beggar Odysseus. When he tries to leave the palace after Odysseus’s warning, however, Athena compels him to stay, as he is destined to perish along with the other suitors. This points to the fact that the slaughter of the suitors is not merely Odysseus’s personal revenge—it is also the will of the gods:
Amphínomos, for his part,
shaking his head, with chill and burdened breast,
turned in the great hall. Now his heart foreknew
the wrath to come, but he could not take flight,
being by Athena bound there.
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