The Odyssey


Books 23–24

Summary Books 23–24

Summary: Book 23

Eurycleia goes upstairs to call Penelope, who has slept through the entire fight. Penelope doesn’t believe anything that Eurycleia says, and she remains in disbelief even when she comes downstairs and sees her husband with her own eyes. Telemachus rebukes her for not greeting Odysseus more lovingly after his long absence, but Odysseus has other problems to worry about. He has just killed all of the noble young men of Ithaca—their parents will surely be greatly distressed. He decides that he and his family will need to lay low at their farm for a while. In the meantime, a minstrel strikes up a happy song so that no passers-by will suspect what has taken place in the palace.

Penelope remains wary, afraid that a god is playing a trick on her. She orders Eurycleia to move her bridal bed, and Odysseus suddenly flares up at her that their bed is immovable, explaining how it is built from the trunk of an olive tree around which the house had been constructed. Hearing him recount these details, she knows that this man must be her husband. They get reacquainted and, afterward, Odysseus gives his wife a brief account of his wanderings. He also tells her about the trip that he must make to fulfill the prophecy of Tiresias in Book 11. The next day, he leaves with Telemachus for Laertes’ orchard. He gives Penelope instructions not to leave her room or receive any visitors. Athena cloaks Odysseus and Telemachus in darkness so that no one will see them as they walk through the town.

Summary: Book 24

The scene changes abruptly. Hermes leads the souls of the suitors, crying like bats, into Hades. Agamemnon and Achilles argue over who had the better death. Agamemnon describes Achilles’ funeral in detail. They see the suitors coming in and ask how so many noble young men met their end. The suitor Amphimedon, whom Agamemnon knew in life, gives a brief account of their ruin, pinning most of the blame on Penelope and her indecision. Agamemnon contrasts the constancy of Penelope with the treachery of Clytemnestra.

Back in Ithaca, Odysseus travels to Laertes’ farm. He sends his servants into the house so that he can be alone with his father in the gardens. Odysseus finds that Laertes has aged prematurely out of grief for his son and wife. He doesn’t recognize Odysseus, and Odysseus doesn’t immediately reveal himself, pretending instead that he is someone who once knew and befriended Odysseus. But when Laertes begins to cry at the memory of Odysseus, Odysseus throws his arms around Laertes and kisses him. He proves his identity with the scar and with his memories of the fruit trees that Laertes gave him when he was a little boy. He tells Laertes how he has avenged himself upon the suitors.

Laertes and Odysseus have lunch together. Dolius, the father of Melanthius and Melantho, joins them. While they eat, the goddess Rumor flies through the city spreading the news of the massacre at the palace. The parents of the suitors hold an assembly at which they assess how to respond. Halitherses, the elder prophet, argues that the suitors merely got what they deserved for their wickedness, but Eupithes, Antinous’s father, encourages the parents to seek revenge on Odysseus. Their small army tracks Odysseus to Laertes’ house, but Athena, disguised again as Mentor, decides to put a stop to the violence. Antinous’s father is the only one killed, felled by one of Laertes’ spears. Athena makes the Ithacans forget the massacre of their children and recognize Odysseus as king. Peace is thus restored.

Analysis: Books 23–24

The scene in which Penelope tests her husband’s knowledge of the bed neatly brings together several ideas that the epic has touched on before. This subtle test reveals Penelope’s clever side—the side we have seen in her ploy to use a never-to-be-finished burial shroud to put off remarriage for four years. This test not only admits Odysseus to Penelope’s arms but also sheds some light on why their love for each other is so natural in the first place. They are united by the commonality of their minds, by their love of scheming, testing, and outmaneuvering. They are kindred spirits because they are kindred wits. None of the suitors could ever replace Odysseus, just as Circe or Calypso could never replace Penelope. Literally and metaphorically, no one can move their wedding bed.

What follows this scene has troubled Homeric scholars for over two thousand years. Some believe that the epic originally ended with Odysseus and Penelope returning at last together to their marriage bed. The end of this scene gives the story nice closure, while the scenes that follow seem un-Homeric. The bat metaphor at the beginning of Book 24 is unusual, as most Homeric metaphors exploit bright, pastoral imagery. The description of the suitors being led into the underworld is even more troubling, since it deviates from the Homeric principle that only the soul of a properly buried body can enter Hades. Book 11 bears out this principle, as Elpenor petitions Odysseus for a proper burial, unable otherwise to gain entrance to the underworld.

The early ending theory also rests on a subjective evaluation of the quality of the present ending. To many, Book 24 seems inferior to the rest of The Odyssey. The conversation between Achilles and Agamemnon has little point or relevance to the story; the conversation between Odysseus and Laertes is clumsy; Odysseus’s revelation to his father of his identity seems anticlimactic after the tension that he creates with his disguise. Furthermore, the lunch with Dolius ends without exploring or even acknowledging the obvious tension that should exist between Dolius and Odysseus since Odysseus has murdered Dolius’s two children. Halitherses’ speech in the assembly piles on blame gratuitously and without sophistication, and Athena’s tacit support for the exclusive murder of Antinous’s father—a character introduced only a few lines earlier—is bizarre.

At the same time, ending the epic with Odysseus and Penelope’s first night together leaves too many threads hanging. The suitors’ families will doubtless be enraged when they discover what has happened to their children, as Odysseus himself predicts. Something must be done to appease or stop them, but the earlier ending would leave this problem unaddressed. It would also leave Odysseus in the odd position of having revealed his identity to all of his loved ones (including Eurycleia) except his own father, even though Laertes’ grief at Odysseus’s absence is rivaled only by that of Odysseus’s deceased mother. It is perhaps fitting, then, for Homer’s audience—the gods-worshipping warrior culture of Greece—that an epic so marked by divine intervention should end with Athena restoring peace and urging Odysseus not to “court the rage of Zeus who rules the world!” (24.597).