Summary: Book 17

Telemachus leaves Odysseus at Eumaeus’s hut and heads to his palace, where he receives a tearful welcome from Penelope and the nurse Eurycleia. In the palace hall he meets Theoclymenus and Piraeus. He tells Piraeus not to bring his gifts from Menelaus to the palace; he fears that the suitors will steal them if they kill him. When he sits down to eat with Penelope, Telemachus tells her what little news he received of Odysseus in Pylos and Sparta, but he doesn’t reveal that he has seen Odysseus with his own eyes in Eumaeus’s hut. Theoclymenus then speaks up and swears that Odysseus is in Ithaca at this very moment.

Meanwhile, Eumaeus and Odysseus set out toward town in Telemachus’s footsteps. On the way they meet Melanthius, a base subordinate of the suitors, who heaps scorn on Eumaeus and kicks his beggar companion. Odysseus receives a similar welcome at the palace. The suitors give him food with great reluctance, and Antinous goes out of his way to insult him. When Odysseus answers insult with insult, Antinous gives him a blow with a stool that disgusts even the other suitors. Report of this cruelty reaches Penelope, who asks to have the beggar brought to her so that she can question him about Odysseus. Odysseus, however, doesn’t want the suitors to see him heading toward the queen’s room. Eumaeus announces that he must return to his hut and hogs, leaving Odysseus alone with Telemachus and the suitors.

Summary: Book 18

Of all that breathes and crawls across the earth,
Our mother earth breeds nothing feebler than a man.

See Important Quotes Explained

Another beggar, Arnaeus (nicknamed Irus), saunters into the palace. For a beggar, he is rather brash: he insults Odysseus and challenges him to a boxing match. He thinks that he will make quick work of the old man, but Athena gives Odysseus extra strength and stature. Irus soon regrets challenging the old man and tries to escape, but by now the suitors have taken notice and are egging on the fight for the sake of their own entertainment. It ends quickly as Odysseus floors Irus and stops just short of killing him.

The suitors congratulate Odysseus. One in particular, the moderate Amphinomus, toasts him and gives him food. Odysseus, fully aware of the bloodshed to come and overcome by pity for Amphinomus, pulls the man aside. He predicts to Amphinomus that Odysseus will soon be home and gives him a thinly veiled warning to abandon the palace and return to his own land. But Amphinomus doesn’t depart, despite being “fraught with grave forebodings,” for Athena has bound him to death at the hands of Telemachus (18.176).

Athena now puts it into Penelope’s head to make an appearance before her suitors. The goddess gives her extra stature and beauty to inflame their hearts. When Penelope speaks to the suitors, she leads them on by telling them that Odysseus had instructed her to take a new husband if he should fail to return before Telemachus began growing facial hair. She then tricks them, to the silent delight of Odysseus, into bringing her gifts by claiming that any suitor worth his salt would try to win her hand by giving things to her instead of taking what’s rightfully hers. The suitors shower her with presents, and, as they celebrate, Odysseus instructs the maidservants to go to Penelope. The maidservant Melantho, Melanthius’s sister, insults him as an inferior being and a drunk; Odysseus then scares them off with threats. Hoping to make Odysseus even more angry at the suitors, Athena now inspires Eurymachus to insult him. When Odysseus responds with insults of his own, Eurymachus throws a stool at him but misses, hitting a servant instead. Just as a riot is about to break out, Telemachus steps in and diffuses the situation, to the consternation of the suitors.

Analysis: Books 17–18

Homer uses minor characters of low rank to great effect in Books 17 and 18. Like many Homeric characters, neither the swineherd Melanthius nor the maidservant Melantho is very developed. They are little more than male and female versions of the same malevolent person: each ostensibly works for Odysseus but has become a partisan of the suitors. Despite their simplicity, they function as foils—characters whose traits or attitudes contrast with and thereby accentuate those of other characters. Melanthius’s disrespectful treatment of Odysseus stands in stark contrast to Eumaeus’s unflinching loyalty to his master. Similarly, in contrast to the devoted Eurycleia, Melantho proves the embodiment of ingratitude toward Penelope: though Penelope raised her like her own child, Melantho shows no concern for Penelope’s grief. Additionally, Irus’s mingled bravado and cowardice provide a good foil for Odysseus’s prudence and courage. Homer also uses Irus to foreshadow the ultimate downfall of the suitors: disguised as a beggar, Odysseus cuts down an impudent beggar, leaving little doubt as to what he will do to the impudent nobles when he reassumes his noble form. The foreshadowing is not lost on the suitor Amphinomus, who walks away stony with dread.

Amphinomus provides another case study in the absolute power of the gods. Even though Amphinomus shows some kindness toward the seeming beggar, Odysseus pities him, and Homer singles him out as the one moderate and thoughtful man among all of the suitors, nothing can save him from the punishment that Athena has planned for him. In fact, Athena doesn’t even take his benevolence into consideration. Homer explains that “[e]ven then Athena had bound him fast to death / at the hands of Prince Telemachus and his spear” (18.178179). Just as Poseidon vents his wrath on the well-intentioned Phaeacians, in Book 13, for treating his nemesis Odysseus kindly, Athena condemns Amphinomus to the same fate as the most worthless suitors of the bunch.

Homer continues to individualize the suitors, with the seeming purpose of exposing their specific character flaws. In Book 17, for example, he gives us the most critical depiction yet of Antinous, who disgusts even the other suitors with his abuse of the disguised Odysseus. Whereas other suitors at least give the beggar food, Antinous displays nothing but contempt for the man’s apparent low breeding and physically assails him; Penelope thus labels Antinous “the worst of all . . . black death itself” (17.554). Homer portrays Antinous as an ignoble noble, and Antinous’s detractors often point out the disparity between the nobility of his birth and the baseness of his actions (“‘Antinous, / highborn as you are . . . / that was a mean low speech!’” [17.417419]).

The explanation for the contempt in which the others hold Antinous for mistreating Odysseus lies in the feudal structure of Homeric society, which was bound together by reciprocal obligations and responsibilities among people of different social classes. While it would be a mistake to think that the Greeks considered mistreatment of the poor an automatic sign of evil or moral deficiency, we definitely get the sense that Antinous is abusing his rank when he beats the seemingly helpless beggar. Antinous is guilty not of pure evil but of a kind of arrogance. Accordingly, the insults hurled at him accuse him not of straying from some moral code but of straying from the expectations of his noble birth.