The Odyssey

The Odyssey Summary and Analysis of Books 17-20

Book XVII Summary:

Telemachus excuses himself from Eumaeus to see his mother, and instructs him to lead Odysseus to town so he can beg. At the manor, Penelope tearfully embraces her son and asks what news he learned. Telemachus instead tells her to make a sacrifice to the gods to help them with their revenge. He meets up with the fugitive Theoklymenos in town and brings him home, where they receive baths. After, Telemachus tells his mother what he learned about Odysseus on his journey, although he lies and says Odysseus is still captive on Calypso's island. Theoklymenos, however, divines that Odysseus is now on the island somewhere, but Penelope is not ready to believe him. The suitors soon come in for dinner.

Meanwhile, Odysseus and Eumaeus head to town. They run into the hotheaded goatherd Melanthios, who taunts Odysseus' beggarly appearance and kicks him. Odysseus restrains himself and soldiers on, but Eumaeus curses him. At his manor, Odysseus' old dog, a puppy when he left, recognizes his master, though he is too decrepit to move; he dies soon after. Odysseus enters after Eumaeus to beg amongst the suitors. They give him bread, but Antinous soon turns against him. Telemachus defends the beggar and calls Antinous selfish. The others give Odysseus food, and he praises Antinous' appearance and starts a story about how he was once rich, too. Antinous interrupts him, orders him out, and hits his shoulder with his stool. Odysseus is unfazed by the blow and calls on the gods to kill Antinous. The other suitors scold Antinous for hitting the beggar in case he is a god in disguise, but he shrugs it off.

In her room, Penelope hears the blow and wishes ill will upon Antinous. She asks Eumaeus to send the beggar to her room, but Odysseus says that it is too risky right now with the suitors, and that he will visit her at night. Before he returns to his hut, Eumaeus warns Telemachus to be on his guard against the suitors.


Odysseus wisely resists the temptation to fight back against both Melanthios and Antinous. Temptation, to borrow a Homeric phrase, has been his Achilles' heel throughout The Odyssey, as exemplified by his taunting Polyphemus and earning the wrath of Poseidon. Now, with so much at stake, he has learned from his past mistakes and bears the unjust blows of the suitors, knowing his revenge will have to be plotted carefully, not executed rashly.

He also resists the temptation to see Penelope. His given reason is that the suitors may try to attack him if he sees the queen, but more likely he wants Penelope alone so he can test her loyalty.

Telemachus' mini-odyssey has clearly matured him. Not only is he more confident now in his stand against the suitors, accusing Antinous of selfishness, but he has also picked up his father's gift for improvisation - he tells necessary lies both to Eumaeus and his mother.

The suitors are further defined and complicated. Antinous is emerging as the most dreaded suitor, acting out of selfish arrogance and immorality; even the other suitors are offended by his treatment of the beggar Odysseus (although mostly because they fear he may be a god in disguise, a partially correct guess).

The loyalty Odysseus seeks in others and finds particularly in Eumaeus is given symbolic weight in his old dog, whose utter loyalty has kept him alive only to see his master once more.

Book XVIII Summary:

An actual beggar, Iros, enters the palace and violently orders Odysseus to leave. Odysseus tries to calm him down, but Iros challenges him to a fight. Antinous overhears the squabble and gathers the suitors to watch, promising a goat stomach and unlimited access to meals at the palace from now on to the victor. After ensuring that none of the suitors will strike him when he is not looking, Odysseus' strong body, with aid from Athena, intimidates Iros. Odysseus makes short work of him and takes him outside. The suitors congratulate Odysseus and reward him with food. Odysseus warns them that the lord of the house will return soon and win his revenge through blood. The suitor Amphinomos, knowing he will die, tries to leave, but Athena makes sure he stays.

Athena influences Penelope to make an appearance before the suitors, first beautifying her through her powers. Penelope comes downstairs and privately rebukes Telemachus for allowing such abuse of the stranger. He tells her he had no option with the suitors and informs her of the beggar's one-sided fight with Iros. She laments Odysseus' absence and recalls his directions when he departed for Troy to remarry once Telemachus has grown up, but she finds the suitors despicable. Odysseus happily hears this, as does Antinous, who insists that they will not leave until she marries one of them. The suitors bring her gifts, and she returns upstairs with them.

The suitors revel the rest of the night, and Odysseus tells the housemaids to attend to Penelope; he will look after the suitors. One of them, Melantho, who was raised by Penelope but does little to return her affection, insults Odysseus. He threatens retribution from Telemachus for her remarks, and she and the others leave. Eurymakhos hurls a number of jokes at Odysseus' expense. Odysseus again foretells the lord of the manor's vengeful return. Eurymakhos throws his stool, but Odysseus ducks. The suitors believe they are wasting their efforts on this beggar, and Telemachus gently encourages them to retire for the evening. This irritates them, but Amphinomos directs them to have one more drink before bed.


Just as the suitors have been individuated - Antinous is Machiavellian in his pursuit of Penelope, Eurymakhos is hotheaded, and Amphinomos is the most rational - Melantho distinguishes herself among Penelope's maids. Like her brother Melanthios, the disloyal goatherd, she fails to repay her employer's good graces and insults Odysseus.

Oddly, while Odysseus tests the loyalty of others, it seems Athena is testing his mettle. Homer briefly tells us that she is behind some of the suitors' taunts: "for Athena wished / Odysseys mortified still more" (428-429). Perhaps she recognizes that Odysseus has created trouble for himself in the past through rash vengeance; if he is deserving of her help, he will have to correct his behavior and diligently plan the suitors' downfall.

Telemachus, for one, is calm and wise in his plotting. To avoid further conflicts that night, he tries to send the suitors to bed while deferring to their authority: "Why not go home to bed? - / I mean when you are moved to. No one jumps / at my command" (498-499). When Amphinomos tells the others to do so, he insists that Telemachus take care of the beggar, since Odysseus came "to Telemachus' door, not ours" (512-513). The irony is heavy; if it is Telemachus' door, then he should be able to escort the suitors out of it.

Telemachus will have his revenge, however, as we learn he will spear Amphinomos. Homer's obvious foreshadowing here does not reveal everything, though, so the conclusion of the poem is left in doubt.

Book XIX Summary:

Odysseus and Telemachus stow away the weapons as planned. Telemachus goes to bed while Odysseus meets Penelope and her maids. Melantho again disparages his beggarly appearance, and Odysseus again reminds her he was once powerful, and warns her of Odysseus' return. Penelope also reprimands Melantho.

Penelope questions Odysseus about his origins, but he says it is too painful to discuss. She discloses her unpleasant situation with the suitors and feels she has no strength left to resist remarriage. She presses again for his background, and Odysseus tells his story about Crete and says he once hosted Odysseus at Knossos for twelve days before he shipped out again. Penelope cries at the story, then asks for some proof - a description of what Odysseus looked like and who was with him. He provides a somewhat accurate description of Odysseus' clothing, describing a cloak and tunic Penelope gave him, and some of his company. Penelope cries again and is won over. She promises to treat him as her guest, though she grieves for Odysseus, who she believes must be dead. Odysseus swears to her Odysseus is alive and preparing to return home, and recalls many of the actual details of his journey.

Penelope still believes in her heart that Odysseus is dead. She instructs her maids to tend to her guest and treat him well during his stay. Odysseus rejects the luxuries she wants to bestow upon him, however, as he claims he is used to austerity. Still, he will let one maid - Eurykleia - clean his feet. Both Penelope and the old nurse are reminded of Odysseus when they see the beggar's body; Odysseus says others have remarked on the similarity before. While Eurykleia bathes him, she recognizes an old hunting wound on Odysseus' thigh and exclaims that the beggar is Odysseus. But Athena diverts Penelope's attention so she does not hear the revelation, and Odysseus pulls Eurykleia close and tells her not to give him away, lest he kill her. She vows loyalty and silence.

Penelope asks Odysseus to interpret a dream she has had about an eagle who preys on geese near her house, then talks to her and says the geese were the suitors and he is Odysseus. Odysseus tells her he believes the dream is accurate, but Penelope is skeptical. She reveals a contest she has planned for tomorrow: she will marry the suitor who can take Odysseus' bow and shoot an arrow through twelve axe heads that are lined up. Odysseus insists that her true husband will show up for the event. Penelope goes upstairs to weep over Odysseus and sleep.


The body, according to this episode, is the true, immutable marker of identity. Despite his disguise, Odysseus' form is still recognizable to those close to him, from both his physique and the wound that carries with it some historical meaning for him and Eurykleia. His "resemblance" to Odysseus, then, keeps this section of the poem suspenseful, as Odysseus is constantly worried that someone may discover him.

Ever the improviser, here Odysseus blends fact and fiction in describing his background to Penelope. While he lies about his own circumstances, he provides a truthful retelling of much of Odysseus' adventures. Her loyalty is proven by her constant weeping over her husband, but she is on the verge on abandoning hope and giving in to the determined suitors.

Melantho's disloyalty continues, but Odysseus shows he will not spare anyone who gets in his way when he threatens death for the faithful Eurykleia. Of course, he will certainly not spare the suitors, who again receive an ominous prophecy in the form of Penelope's dream. Once again, Odysseus is a bird of prey and they are fat, helpless birds who feed off Penelope's manor.

Book XX Summary:

As Odysseus lies awake on the ground, he restrains himself from killing the suitors, who cavort with women in their own beds. He asks Athena, who appears near him, how he alone can defeat them; she assures him that he will be fine with her protection, and sends him to sleep. Upstairs, Penelope is also sleepless and prays to Artemis to make her die. Her cries wake Odysseus, who prays to Zeus to give him a sign that he helped bring him home. Zeus sends down a peal of thunder, and one of Odysseus' maids takes it as a sign from Zeus and asks that this be the suitors' last day. Odysseus is encouraged.

Telemachus wakens and the house springs to life. Outside, Melanthios again belittles Odysseus, who resists fighting back. The cattle foreman, Philoitios, extends a warm welcome to the beggar and says his appearance reminds him of his lord Odysseus. The suitors make excessive demands on his cattle and he is agonizing over whether to relocate, but Odysseus promises that his lord will return and vanquish the suitors. Meanwhile, the suitors plot to kill Telemachus, but the passing of an eagle with a rockdove in its grip causes Amphinomos to abort the plan.

A feast ensures, and Telemachus seats his father and demands that the suitors leave him alone. Antinous recommends to the other suitors that they endure Telemachus' "hectoring." Yet Athena allows the abuse of Odysseus to resume, and one, Ktesippos, throws a cow's foot at him and misses. Telemachus threatens him and the rest of the suitors with strong words. They agree not to touch the beggar anymore, but insist that Odysseus is dead and it is time for Penelope to choose a husband. Telemachus says he cannot force his mother to marry when she does not want to; the suitors laugh uproariously. The prophet Theoklymenos sees the animal blood streaming from their mouths as signs of death for them, but they laugh it off.


Telemachus' resolve strengthens considerably in this scene. After he first reprimands them the suitors, they bite "their lips / at the ring in the young man's voice" (293-4). Interestingly, in the Robert Fitzgerald translation, Antinous calls this Telemachus' "hectoring" (297). The verb "hector" derives from the Greek hero Hector, who is slain by Achilles in The Iliad. Although the boastful Hector meets an untimely end, Fitzgerald's choice of words highlights Telemachus' approach to heroism.

The sign of an eagle appears once again and throws the suitors off their plot, yet they dismiss Theoklymenos' deathly prediction. Supernatural signs, it seems, hold more weight for the suitors than do oracular claims.

In fact, the supernatural controls nearly everything in the world of The Odyssey. Not only does Athena vow to protect Odysseus against the suitors, she even determines the suitors' taunting of Odysseus and their laughter at the end of the episode. It is becoming clear that she creates these extra problems for Odysseus both to test his patience - which is becoming monk-like as he nears his goal - and to ensure that the suitors get their just desserts. After all, they have occasionally acted as somewhat honorable men, so for the audience to appreciate their inevitable destruction, the suitors must also exhibit despicable behavior.

Another telling word emerges when Odysseus reminds himself of his need for patience, recalling his encounter with the Cyclops: "Nobody, only guile, / got you out of that cave alive" (21-22). Ironically, it was the tricky and diligent "Nobody," the pseudonym with which Odysseus tagged himself, that got him out of the cave, though it was the rash and arrogant Odysseus who brought destruction upon his crew (by telling the Cyclops his real name).