Summary: Book 15

Athena travels to Sparta, where she finds Telemachus and Pisistratus, Nestor’s son. She tells Telemachus he must hurry home to Ithaca before the suitors succeed in winning his mother’s hand. She also warns him of the ambush that they have set and explains how to avoid it. Finally, she instructs him to head first for the home of the swineherd Eumaeus, who will convey the news of his safe return to Penelope.

The next day, Telemachus announces his departure and accepts gifts from Menelaus and Helen. As Telemachus pulls away from the palace in his chariot, an eagle carrying a goose stolen from a pen swoops down beside him. Helen interprets the incident as an omen that Odysseus is about to swoop down on his home and exact revenge on the suitors.

Once at Pylos, Telemachus has Pisistratus drop him off at his ship, insisting that he has no time to spare to visit Nestor again. The ship is about to set off when Theoclymenus, a famous prophet’s descendant who is fleeing prosecution for a crime of manslaughter that he committed in Argos, approaches Telemachus and asks to come aboard. Telemachus welcomes him and offers him hospitality when they get to Ithaca.

In the hut of Eumaeus, Odysseus tests the limit of his hospitality by offering to leave in the morning, a false gesture that he hopes will prompt Eumaeus to offer to let him stay longer. He urges the old man not to go out of his way and says that he will earn his keep working for the suitors, but Eumaeus will have none of it. To get mixed up with those suitors, he warns, would be suicide. Odysseus and the swineherd then swap stories. Eumaeus explains how he first came to Ithaca: the son of a king, he was stolen from his house by Phoenician pirates with the help of a maid that his father employed. The pirates took him all over the seas until Laertes, Odysseus’s father, bought him in Ithaca. There, Laertes’ wife brought him up alongside her own daughter, the youngest born.

The next morning, Telemachus reaches the shores of Ithaca. He disembarks while the crew heads to the city by ship. He entrusts Theoclymenus to a loyal crewman, Piraeus. As they part, they see a hawk fly by carrying a dove in its talons, which Theoclymenus interprets as a favorable sign of the strength of Odysseus’s house and line.

Summary: Book 16

When Telemachus reaches Eumaeus’s hut, he finds the swineherd talking with a stranger (Odysseus in disguise). Eumaeus recounts Odysseus’s story and suggests that the stranger stay with Telemachus at the palace. But Telemachus is afraid of what the suitors might do to them. Eumaeus thus goes to the palace alone to tell Penelope that her son has returned.

When father and son are alone in the hut, Athena appears to Odysseus and calls him outside. When Odysseus reenters the hut, his old-man disguise is gone, and he stands in the pristine glory of his heroic person. At first, Telemachus cannot believe his eyes, but then the two embrace and weep. Odysseus recounts his trip with the Phaeacians and then begins plotting the overthrow of the suitors. He formulates a plan to launch a surprise attack from within the palace: Odysseus will enter disguised as a beggar and Telemachus will hide the palace’s surplus arms where the suitors cannot easily reach them. The two of them will then seize the arms and slaughter the suitors.

Before Eumaeus can give Penelope news of Telemachus’s return, the messenger from the ship arrives and informs the entire palace that Telemachus has returned. The suitors, dejected that their plot has failed, huddle outside to plan their next move. Antinous recommends putting Telemachus to death before he can call an assembly at which the suitors’ dirty schemes can be aired, but Amphinomus, one of the more thoughtful and well-behaved suitors, persuades the others to wait for a sign from the gods before doing anything so rash. Penelope later finds Antinous in the palace and denounces him for the plot against her son, the details of which Medon had overheard and revealed to her in Book 4. Eurymachus succeeds in calming Penelope down with his lies and false concern for the safety of Telemachus.

Analysis: Books 15–16

In Books 15 and 16, the plot becomes much more complicated, as Homer plants details and characters crucial for bringing the story to its climax. For the first time in the poem, the paths of Odysseus and Telemachus converge. Athena must have them meet in the privacy of Eumaeus’s hut—a meeting in the palace might be suspicious, since princes and beggars have no reason to interact with each other—so that Odysseus can reveal his identity to his son without endangering his plans to exact vengeance upon the suitors. From a literary standpoint, the tender irony of a king and prince reuniting in the lowly hut of a swineherd reaffirms these men’s human qualities. They are not simply the emotionless figures of established and budding hero, respectively, but rather emotional individuals with interior lives.

Up until the suitors’ discovery of Telemachus’s return, Homer has generally refrained from individualizing the suitors; they work much better as an undifferentiated mass of degenerate, one-dimensional characters with whom we have no desire to sympathize. But in the suitors’ ensuing debate, two sides emerge: one, whose spokesman is Antinous, is predictably thuggish; the other, however, advocates a more thoughtful and moderate position. To represent this latter side, Homer introduces the suitor Amphinomus, who is thoughtful, pious, and eager to see what the gods think before doing anything rash; additionally, he is one of Penelope’s favorites. These positive attributes complicate the justness of Odysseus’s revenge, as the suitors are no longer exclusively faceless villains; Odysseus’s revenge will come at the expense not only of the truly malevolent suitors but also of the few who are not wholly bad individuals.

Helen’s and Theoclymenus’s interpretations of the separate bird omens rely on the perception of Odysseus as an aggressive, predatory creature: in each incident, a more powerful, regal bird (eagle, hawk) asserts its superiority over a more common, vulnerable one (goose, dove). Just as these rapacious birds swoop down upon their unsuspecting prey, so too, the interpretations imply, will Odysseus pounce upon the suitors without warning. Ancient Greek culture revered omens as indications of unalterable divine will, and the prophet Theoclymenus, whom Telemachus finds, begins to play an important role. Over the next few books, the number of omens in need of interpretation rises dramatically, as Homer increasingly depicts the suitors as condemned men and ever more explicitly foreshadows their impending doom.

Homer continues exploring how the extension of, and reaction to, xenia, or hospitality, reflects various characters’ concerns. Nestor’s insistence that Telemachus stay and feast with him in Pylos before returning to Ithaca confirms that he is a commendable, gods-fearing man. Telemachus’s eagerness to avoid this social commitment may seem a breach of social propriety, but, in desiring not to delay his return further, he resembles his shrewd father. His evasion is justified by his prioritizing of practical considerations—the need to return home quickly—over decorum and other formal considerations. Besides, Telemachus’s warm reception of Theoclymenus, in addition to the genuine urgency of the moment, takes some of the edge off of his apparent inconsiderateness.