Last Updated on June 25, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1780
Odysseus finds it difficult to sleep that night, worrying about what lies before him. He angrily notes the maidservants who sneak off and sleep with the suitors. Penelope finds it difficult to sleep as well, mourning for her husband. Just as Odysseus is drifting off to sleep, he is awakened by Penelope’s crying. To strengthen his resolve, he asks Zeus to show him a sign of his favor. Zeus sends a great thunderbolt, which a few of the servants interpret to be a sign of Odysseus’s homecoming. Odysseus is assured when he overhears them.
The servants prepare a great feast in the main hall. Eumaeus and Philoitios, the cattle foreman, arrive at the palace. They converse with the disguised Odysseus, expressing their longing for their master’s return.
Meanwhile, the suitors are plotting Telemachus’s murder when an eagle flies by with a dove in its claws. Amphinomos interprets this to be an ill omen and convinces the suitors to focus on feasting instead.
To further rouse Odysseus’s anger, Athena compels the suitors to loosen their restraint. As a result, they mock Odysseus again, and a suitor named Ctesippus throws an ox-foot at him. Telemachus scolds the suitors for their behavior, to which the suitor Agelaos replies that Telemachus should force Penelope to choose a husband with haste. Athena then drives the suitors to hysterical laughter, prompting the seer Theoclymenos to remark that the hall is filled with dark omens which point to their imminent deaths.
Penelope enters the main hall, followed by servants carrying axes and Odysseus’s great bow. She announces that whoever can use the bow to shoot through the openings of twelve axes will be her husband. Telemachus is quick to take up the challenge, asserting that he will free his mother from the obligation to choose a husband if he succeeds. On his third attempt to string the bow, Odysseus signals for Telemachus to give up. One by one, the suitors take up the challenge but fail to even string the bow.
Outside, Odysseus reveals himself to Eumaeus and Philoetius, a loyal cowherd. He orders them to lock the courtyard gates and join him in battle when the time comes.
The suitors have all failed Penelope’s task. Odysseus, in disguise again, offers to try the challenge, inciting vicious reactions from the suitors. Penelope assures them that the beggar will not win her hand in marriage—as, surely, he merely wishes to test his skill. Telemachus then commands his mother to go back to her quarters, as he will be the one to preside over the contest. She concedes.
Eumaeus brings the bow to Odysseus. The swineherd then discreetly orders Eurycleia to bolt all the doors of the main hall. First running his fingers over the bow, Odysseus then effortlessly shoots an arrow through the openings of the twelve axes, stunning the suitors into silence. Zeus follows with a bolt of thunder, an omen of the suitors’ demise. At his father’s signal, Telemachus arms himself and goes to stand next to Odysseus.
Odysseus shoots Antinous in the throat, killing him instantly. The hall is thrown into chaos, with the suitors cursing and threatening the beggar. Odysseus reveals himself and declares that the suitors’ actions in his home have earned them death. The suitors beg for mercy, offering to repay all they have cost him, to which Odysseus replies that their lives are the only payment he will accept.
Eurymachus rallies the suitors into fighting but is instantly shot by Odysseus. Telemachus runs to fetch Eumaeus and Philoetius, along with additional weapons and armor, while Melanthius sneaks in armor and weapons for the suitors. Telemachus spots Melanthius, however, and orders Eumaeus and Philoetius to stop him. The two capture Melanthius, bind his hands and feet, and leave him lying in the rafters.
Athena, in the form of Mentor, appears beside Odysseus and scolds him for not displaying the strength he had at Troy. She then transforms into a swallow and perches in the rafters, manipulating the suitors’ arrows so that they miss. Odysseus, assisted by Telemachus, Eumaeus, and Philoetius, slaughters the rest of the suitors mercilessly. They spare no one except the bard Phemios and the herald Medon.
The suitors are all dead. Telemachus calls on Eurycleia, who gathers the disloyal maidservants and instructs them to dispose of the bodies and clean the bloodstained hall. On Odysseus’s orders, Telemachus then hangs the maidservants, and the men brutally execute Melanthius. Odysseus orders the purification of his hall with fire and brimstone, after which his loyal servants crowd and kiss him while he cries tears of relief.
Eurycleia wakes Penelope and tells her that Odysseus has returned and rid them of the suitors. Disbelieving, Penelope timidly meets with Odysseus, who chides her for giving him such a coldhearted welcome.
To test Odysseus, Penelope orders Eurcyleia to move the marriage bed out of their bedchamber and prepare it for her husband. This inflames Odysseus, as he had built their bed around an olive tree, and so it is impossible to move—something only the two of them know. This proves to Penelope that he truly is Odysseus, and she runs to embrace him. Finally reunited, Penelope and Odysseus weep together. They then retire to their marriage bed to tell each other of the trials they have endured in each other’s absence. Before they make love, Odysseus reveals the final task the prophet Tiresias had decreed he must fulfill in order to finally rid himself of Poseidon’s wrath: Odysseus must travel to a far-off foreign land, far from the sea, and there make a sacrifice to Poseidon.
In the morning, Odysseus brings Telemachus with him to visit Laertes. He advises Penelope not to entertain guests and to keep the doors and windows locked. Last night, he had instructed Telemachus to feign a wedding feast in the palace so as to temporarily conceal the fact that they have slaughtered all the suitors.
Hermes leads the souls of the suitors down to the Land of the Dead. There, Agamemnon converses with Achilles, describing Achilles’s lavish funeral at Troy and how he, Agamemnon, was murdered when he returned home from the war. Agamemnon recognizes one of the suitors, Amphimedon, and asks how they all came to die so young. Amphimedon tells him the tale of their courtship of Penelope and Odysseus’s revenge, and Agamemnon praises Penelope’s loyalty.
Meanwhile, Odysseus, along with Telemachus, Eumaeus, and Philoetius, arrives at Laertes’s farm. At first he tries to disguise himself as a wandering traveler, but he cannot keep up the act, as Laertes’s obvious grief wounds him. He reveals himself to his father, and Laertes is so overcome with emotion that he faints. When he revives, Odysseus leads him to the farmhouse, where Athena grants Laertes a newly godlike appearance. Father and son then share a meal with Laertes’s servants, including the aged Dolius, who is overjoyed to see Odysseus.
Meanwhile, news of the suitors’ deaths reaches town. Medon warns those who seek retribution that Odysseus’s revenge is favored by the gods. Eupeithes, Antinous’s father, ignores this and gathers the men of the town to march on Laertes’s farm. There, they come face to face with Odysseus and his men. With the blessing of Athena, Laertes throws his spear and instantly kills Eupeithes. Athena, in the guise of Mentor, intercedes and commands the two parties to make peace. Despite her disguise, it is plain to all present that a goddess stands before them. All concede and lay down their arms.
In book 20, Athena compels the suitors to reveal their true nature, further emphasizing her primary role in The Odyssey—to watch over events and reveal, alter, or conceal. Even when she joins the battle in book 23, she does not manipulate all of the suitors’ arrows—thus Telemachus, Eumaeus, and Philoitios are wounded. The only instance in which she directly intervenes can be found in book 24, when she commands peace to be made on Ithaca with Zeus’s blessing. Because of this uncharacteristic intervention, however, some scholars speculate that Homer did not write book 24 and that it was added only after the poem’s original circulation. Hermes’s incursion to the Land of the Dead in book 24 is also somewhat controversial, as it is not traditionally Hermes’s duty to chaperone the dead.
Telemachus’s transition into manhood is made plain in books 20 to 24. Apart from assisting his father, Telemachus also addresses the suitors with a confidence he did not have prior to his visit to the Greek mainland. He is also almost able to string Odysseus’s bow, signifying his latent aptitude for reigning over the household (and, possibly, Ithaca). In fact, in book 24, Laertes rejoices to witness Odysseus and Telemachus vie over who is to face the wrath of the suitors’ families.
Odysseus is characteristically different from classical heroes such as Achilles or Heracles. However, the presence of a weapon only he can wield draws on a trope common among heroes not just of Greek mythology, but of other cultures as well. King Arthur, for example, is held as the only one fit to wield Excalibur. As weapons denote strength, the trope implies that true strength can only be exercised by those with great virtue and integrity.
As established repeatedly in the previous books, the slaughter of the suitors is a matter of divine justice as much as it is a matter of personal revenge. Thus, Eurymachus’s offer to pay Odysseus back for the damage to his household is meaningless, as the issue is not merely material. The suitors have disgraced Odysseus’s family and estate—and, by extension, the gods themselves. It is also important to note that Odysseus takes no pleasure in the slaughter. In fact, when Eurycleia rejoices to see the suitors dead, Odysseus reminds her that it is impious to take pleasure in the violence of divine justice:
No crowing aloud, old woman.
To glory over slain men is no piety.
Destiny and the gods’ will vanquished these,
and their own hardness. They respected no one,
good or bad, who came their way.
For this, and folly, a bad end befell them.
Finally, the execution of Odysseus’s disloyal maidservants point to the fact that, in The Odyssey, the master of the household has considerable leeway to dispense his own brand of justice in his home. Apart from this, disloyalty and betrayal is a consistent theme throughout The Odyssey, as seen in the emphasis placed on the fate of Clytemnestra, murdered by her son, Orestes, for betraying her husband, Agamemnon.
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