The Odyssey

Summary and Analysis of Books 21-24

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Book XXI Summary:

Penelope retrieves Odysseus' great bow from the storeroom and her maids bear axeheads into the main hall. Penelope explains the game: whoever can string her husband's bow and shoot an arrow through the twelve axeheads will marry her. Telemakhos gives it a try first; he is unable to string the bow three times, then is about to succeed on the fourth when Odysseus gives him a look and he stops. Other suitors fail to string the bow. Meanwhile, Odysseus follows Eumaios and Philoitios outside and reveals his true identity to them, using his scar as proof. After they swear loyalty to him, he instructs them to give him the bow and lock the door when the time comes.

Back in the hall, Eurymakhos fails with the bow, and Anitinoos suggests they postpone the contest, make a sacrifice tomorrow to Apollo, god of archers, and try again. Odysseus asks to try the bow, but Antinoos threatens him not to. Penelope insists the beggar be allowed the opportunity; if he succeeds, she will give him clothing and other gifts. Telemakhos sends her to her room, and then orders Eumaios to give Odysseus the bow. The door and courtyard gate are also locked. Odysseus examines the bow as the suitors mock him. He smoothly strings it as Zeus thunders, then shoots the arrow through the axeheads.

Analysis:

This brief episode marks the ascendance of Telemakhos and Odysseus. The son grows increasingly authoritative, sharply ordering Eumaios to defy the suitors and give Odysseus the bow, while Odysseus assumes his rightful place as man of the house by besting the suitors in the contest. Even Penelope regains some grandeur, decreeing that the beggar receive his chance in the contest.

The contest, centering on a weapon, presages the fighting that will soon take place. Homer makes this graphically clear when foretelling Antinoos' fate: "destined to be the first of all to savor / blood from a biting arrow at his throat, / a shaft drawn by the fingers of Odysseus" (108-110). Against the skillful Odysseus and Telemakhos, who proves his worth by nearly stringing the bow but holding back under the watchful eye of his father, the suitors seem to stand little chance.

Book XXII Summary:

After he has proven himself with the axeheads, Odysseus stands by the door and kills Antinoos with an arrow through the throat. The suitors look for weapons on the wall, but there are none. They promise death for Odysseus, but he reveals his identity and vows to exact vengeance. The suitors are intimidated, and Eurymakhos says that the dead Antinoos was their leader and coerced them into following him; if Odysseus spares the suitors, they will repay what they took from him. Odysseus angrily refuses, and Eurymakhos calls on the suitors to draw their swords and fight.

Eurymakhos attacks, but Odysseus cuts him down with an arrow in his chest. While Odysseus staves off the suitors with his bow, Telemakhos retrieves arms and armor from the room he stored them in and gives them to his father, Eumaios, and Philoitios. Melanthios steals away to the storeroom and returns with arms and armor for the suitors. Eumaios catches him in the act the second time around, and he and Philoitios tie him in a painful position to the rafters.

Athena appears in the main hall in the form of Mentor, though Odysseus knows it is she. The suitors threaten to kill Mentor if he joins the fight, but Athena, while on Odysseus' side, does not immediately join in the action; she wants Odysseus and Telemakhos to prove their worth first. The suitor Agelaos leads the plan: attack Odysseus alone. But Athena sends their spears awry, and Odysseus' team slaughters a number of the suitors while suffering only minor damage. Athena's shield appears in the hall, inspiring further dread in the suitors. One suitor, Leodes, supplicates himself at Odysseus' knees, excusing himself from the others' actions. Odysseus does not believe his claims and decapitates Leodes. Phemios, the minstrel, also begs mercy, and Telemakhos grants it to him and also to Medon, their herald.

With the suitors all dead, Odysseus asks Eurykleia, the old nurse, which of the women of his house were disloyal to him. Twelve were, she replies, and Odysseus has them clean the bloody room before they are hanged outside. The men amputate several of Melanthios' body parts. Odysseus orders the room to be purified with fire and brimstone, and weeps as all his loyal servants embrace him.

Analysis:

The prior individuation of the suitors makes for a more satisfying, if gruesome, climax. When Odysseus kills Ktesippos, the rich suitor who had thrown a cow's hoof at him earlier, he has some choice words for him, while the graphic amputation of Melanthios seems appropriate for that of a goatherd; just as Melanthios divided up Odysseus' stock for the suitors, so too does Odysseus divide up Melanthios' body, even pulling "off his genitals to feed the dogs" (529). His dismemberment also recalls the mutilation of the centaur Eurytion that Antinoos describes in Book XXI.

Other deaths are portrayed in an ironic light, as well. The description of Antinoos' death reminds us of his gluttonous ways: "one last kick upset the table / knocking the bread and meat to soak in dusty blood" (20-21). Eurymakhos' death, too, entangles him with Odysseus' food and drink one last time: "He lurched and fell aside, / pitching across his table. His cup, his bread and meat, were spilt and scattered far and wide" (90-92).

Most tellingly, Homer finally pays off the repeated oracular signs of Odysseus as a bird of prey with a simile comparing him and his allies to falcons: "After them the attackers wheeled, as terrible as falcons /from eyries in the mountains veering over and diving down / with talons wide unsheathed on flights of birds" (337-339).

Lest the audience find it unfair that Odysseus receives help from Athena, Homer has her aid Odysseus only at the end of the fight, after his skill and shrewd planning have already tipped the scales of the battle.

Odysseus, though showing no mercy to the two suitors who beg at his knees or to the disloyal women of the house, does forgive his minstrel and herald. His vendetta against the others, then, is somewhat palliated by his kind attitude to them, as well as by his tearful reunion with his servants.

Book XXIII Summary:

Eurykleia wakes Penelope and tells her about Odysseus' return and his victory over the suitors. Penelope believes she is wrong, that a god must have killed the suitors and that Odysseus is dead. She finally goes downstairs and observes Odysseus in silence and from a distance, unsure if it is really he. She wants to test him with "secret signs" only the two of them know. Odysseus consents, but first lays out a plan to deal with the aftermath of the massacre: to make sure no one finds out about the murders, they will pretend Penelope's wedding to one of the suitors is occurring in the palace to give them time to flee to the woods.

Telemakhos and the others set up a fake wedding celebration. Penelope maintains her neutral attitude toward Odysseus and asks Eurykleia to make up his bed outside her bedchamber. Odysseus is angry; no one can move the bed he made out of an olive tree. His intimate knowledge of the bed is proof that he is truly Odysseus, and Penelope embraces him and asks forgiveness for her suspicion. Odysseus weeps and holds his wife. He has one more trial, however, that Teiresias told him about: he must take an oar through the mainland and find men who do not know of the sea, until one asks what the oar is. Then he shall plant the oar there and make a sacrifice to Poseidon, return home, and make further sacrifices to all the gods. In bed, she tells him about the suitors, and he recounts his adventures.

In the morning, Odysseus tells Penelope that he must visit his father. He is afraid word will spread about yesterday's events, so he instructs her to take her maids to the upper floor and not have any contact with the outside. He leaves with Telemakhos and his herdsmen, hidden with Athena's help.

Analysis:

After the climactic battle in Book XXII, Homer maintains the tension in this episode on two fronts. First, Odysseus' reunion with Penelope is suspenseful; after dealing with so many impostors in the past, will she admit this is the true Odysseus, and once she does, how will the two react to each other?

Fittingly, Homer has the couple's bed serve as proof of Odysseus' identity. For a story so concerned with marital longing, the bed is the perfect symbol for their marriage: carved by Odysseus from a solid olive tree, it is a permanent, immovable, and intimate space solely for him and Penelope.

Once the bed clears the air of any suspicions, Homer writes a beautiful emotional payoff of the couple's reunion with elegant and meaningful simile-filled language:

Now from his breast into his eyes the ache

of longing mounted, and he wept at last,

his dear wife, clear and faithful, in his arms,

longed for

as the sunwarmed earth is longed for by a swimmer

spent in rough water where his ship went down

under Poseidon's blows, gale winds and tons of sea.

(259-265)

The comparison of Odysseus to a tempest-tossed swimmer is far from arbitrary; the passage nearly provides a synopsis of Odysseus' adventures preceding his arrival in Ithaka.

The second dramatic conflict Homer promises is Odysseus' final trial as prescribed by Teiresias. This mini-odyssey, coupled with Odysseus' need to escape the town and see his father, keeps the audience engaged for the final episode.

Book XXIV Summary:

Hermes leads the suitors - who squeal like bats - into Hades, where they encounter the ghosts of Achilles and Agamemnon. The suitor Amphimedon explains their fate to Agamemnon, who invidiously compares his deceitful, murderous wife Klytaimnestra to the faithful steadfastness of Penelope.

Meanwhile, Odysseus and his troop reach Laertes' dwelling. On his own, Odysseus finds his frail, elderly father tending to his vineyard. Odysseus comes up with a false identity and introduces himself, noting that he last saw Odysseus five years ago. Laertes' grief forces Odysseus to reveal himself, proving his identity via his scar and knowledge of the vineyard's trees. They embrace and join the others inside to eat, including the old servant Dolius, father of the treacherous Melantho and Melanthius. Odysseus tells his father about his victory over the suitors.

Back in town, the goddess Rumor bandies about word of the suitors' defeat. The townspeople take away the bodies and bury them, then convene. Half of them, led by Eupeithes, father of Antinoos, want vengeance for the deaths of their sons, while others realize that a god was on Odysseus' side and argue that their uninhibited sons deserved their fates. Eupeithes leads the former camp to Laertes' house, but Athena, disguised as Mentor, incites Laertes to hurl his spear at Eupeithes. Odysseus and his comrades begin killing the others, but Athena stops them and declares a truce between the warring parties.

Analysis:

The uneven final episode - with its tangential scene in Hades, the lack of conflict with Dolius, whose backstabbing son and daughter have been slain by Odysseus, and Odysseus' failure to carry out Teiresias' instructions to make a sacrifice to Poseidon - lends credence to the argument that much of the final part of The Odyssey has plural authorship.

Nevertheless, the episode does tie up many other loose ends and thematic threads. We are reminded once more of the theme of fidelity as Agamemnon contrasts Penelope and Klytaimnestra. Moreover, the father-son reunion between Odysseus and Telemakhos and the latter's maturation through battle is given a twist here - Odysseus reunites with his own father (again under a false identity at first, yet another motif), and it is Laertes who proves himself in a fight.

The tidy resolution underscores a final theme: the power of the gods. It is the gods who decide the fate of the humans, the gods who can declare war, and the gods who can make peace. The closest the Greeks came to the gods, one could argue, was through their writers - for they, too, had complete control over their characters, and none had it more so than Homer.