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The Odyssey


Books 21–22

Summary Books 21–22

Summary: Book 21

Penelope gets Odysseus’s bow out of the storeroom and announces that she will marry the suitor who can string it and then shoot an arrow through a line of twelve axes. Telemachus sets up the axes and then tries his own hand at the bow, but fails in his attempt to string it. The suitors warm and grease the bow to make it supple, but one by one they all try and fail.

Meanwhile, Odysseus follows Eumaeus and Philoetius outside. He assures himself of their loyalty and then reveals his identity to them by means of the scar on his foot. He promises to treat them as Telemachus’s brothers if they fight by his side against the suitors.

When Odysseus returns, Eurymachus has the bow. He feels disgraced that he cannot string it, because he knows that this failure proves his inferiority to Odysseus. Antinous suggests that they adjourn until the next day, when they can sacrifice to Apollo, the archer god, before trying again. Odysseus, still disguised, then asks for the bow. All of the suitors complain, fearing that he will succeed. Antinous ridicules Odysseus, saying that the wine has gone to his head and that he will bring disaster upon himself, just like the legendary drunken centaur Eurytion. Telemachus takes control and orders Eumaeus to give Odysseus the bow. Needless to say, Odysseus easily strings it and sends the first arrow he grabs whistling through all twelve axes.

Summary: Book 22

Before the suitors realize what is happening, Odysseus shoots a second arrow through the throat of Antinous. The suitors are confused and believe this shooting to be an accident. Odysseus finally reveals himself, and the suitors become terrified. They have no way out, since Philoetius has locked the front door and Eumaeus has locked the doors to the women’s quarters. Eurymachus tries to calm Odysseus down, insisting that Antinous was the only bad apple among them, but Odysseus announces that he will spare none of them. Eurymachus then charges Odysseus, but he is cut down by another arrow. Amphinomus is the next to fall, at the spear of Telemachus.

Telemachus gets more shields and swords from the storeroom to arm Eumaeus and Philoetius, but he forgets to lock it on his way out. Melanthius soon reaches the storeroom and gets out fresh arms for the suitors. He isn’t so lucky on his second trip to the storeroom, however, as Eumaeus and Philoetius find him there, tie him up, and lock him in.

A full battle now rages in the palace hall. Athena appears disguised as Mentor and encourages Odysseus but doesn’t participate immediately, preferring instead to test Odysseus’s strength. Volleys of spears are exchanged, and Odysseus and his men kill several suitors while receiving only superficial wounds themselves. Finally, Athena joins the battle, which then ends swiftly. Odysseus spares only the minstrel Phemius and the herald Medon, unwilling participants in the suitors’ profligacy. The priest Leodes begs unsuccessfully for mercy.

Odysseus has Eurycleia come out. She openly rejoices to see the suitors dead, but Odysseus checks her impropriety. She rounds up the disloyal servant women, who are first made to clear the corpses from the hall and wash the blood from the furniture; they are then sent outside and executed. Odysseus tells Telemachus to cut them down with a sword, but Telemachus decides to hang them—a more disgraceful death. Last of all, the traitor Melanthius is tortured and killed. After the bloodbath, Odysseus has the house fumigated.

Analysis: Books 21–22

The dramatic scene in which Odysseus effortlessly strings the bow is justly famous. The bow gives double meaning to the revelation scene, for the beggar’s success not only implies his true identity as Odysseus but reveals his inherent superiority to the suitors. Since the bow gives Odysseus a weapon in hand, it also allows for a seamless transition to the fighting of Book 22. Finally, the bow’s associations recall Odysseus’s preeminence in Ithaca before the Trojan War. Homer tells us that Odysseus received the bow during a diplomatic trip to Messene, long before any of his hardships began, and that it has been seldom used since then. The bow thus recalls the good old days when there were no suitors and Odysseus’s rule was unchallenged. Through his mastery of the bow, Odysseus comes full circle, once again the king and most powerful man in Ithaca.

Athena plays a less prominent role in the battle than earlier books suggest she might. Disguised as Mentor, she offers encouragement at a crucial moment, but her departure to the sidelines puts the focus squarely on Odysseus and his allies. Though she protects them from direct hits by the suitors’ spears, they still receive some wounds. Melanthius’s moderate success in arming the suitors occasions a rare moment of panic for Odysseus. Of course, Athena would presumably intervene if the battle were to go awry, but her reserve until the very end allows the victory to be portrayed as the work of Odysseus and Telemachus. Indeed, as two against a host of suitors, they seem to overcome remarkable odds, whereas, if Athena were to fight openly, the odds would tilt against the suitors and thus Odysseus and Telemachus’s victory would be less impressive.

When the suitors do fall, Homer makes their deaths seem fitting by reminding us of the foul deeds that merited this purge. Antinous, foremost among the suitors for his impudence, falls first. Eurymachus, who earlier insults Telemachus, falls by Telemachus’s spear. When Ctesippus falls, Philoetius reminds him of his abuse of Odysseus with the cow’s hoof. Even Melanthius’s death contains an interesting, though seemingly unrelated, echo: he suffers the same sort of humiliating and painful dismemberments as the drunk centaur that Antinous describes in Book 21.

The fighting of Book 22 is the only pitched battle in The Odyssey, and while it cannot help but recall The Iliad, which abounds in bloodshed, the description remains thoroughly Odyssean. For one thing, it maintains the comic and domestic flavor that many critics find characteristic of The Odyssey. The battle, for instance, occurs not on a field but in a palace with the doors locked. Additionally, some of the deaths have a kind of Gothic humor to them, as suitors like Antinous and Eurymachus trip over their dinners. The incapacitation of Melanthius in the storeroom adds comic relief, as does his castration. Although Odysseus faces some genuinely tense moments, especially when Melanthius is procuring arms for the suitors, and although the battle is, at times, quite riveting, the grandeur and significance of The Iliad’s famous duels are absent from this melee. After all, these are not famous heroes fighting one another but rather one famous hero warding off a bunch of freeloaders.