The Odyssey
Homer
Contributed by Joslyn Justiniano

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Book 17-18
Summary

Summary: Book 17

Telemachus leaves Odysseus at Eumaeus’s hut and reaches his palace where mother Penelope and nurse Eurycleia receive him with tears. He meets Theoclymenus and Piraeus in the palace hall and tells Piraeus not to bring his gifts from Menelaus to the palace as the suitors might kill him and steal the gifts. Telemachus tells Penelope of the news he received of Odysseus in Pylos and Sparta, but he does not reveal that he has seen Odysseus with his own eyes in Eumaeus’s hut. Theoclymenus then reveals that Odysseus is in Ithaca at this very moment. Meanwhile, Eumaeus and Odysseus head for the town in Telemachus’s footsteps. On the way they meet Melanthius, a subordinate of the suitors, who heaps scorn on Eumaeus and kicks his beggar companion. Odysseus gets a similar welcome at the palace.
The suitors give him food unwillingly and Antinous humiliates him. When Odysseus returns insult, Antinous hits him with a stool that disgusts even the other suitors. The reports of this cruelty reach Penelope, who asks to bring the beggar to him so that she can question him about Odysseus. Odysseus, however, does not want the suitors to see him going toward the queen’s room. Eumaeus returns to his hut, leaving Odysseus alone with Telemachus and the suitors.

Summary: Book 18

Arnaeus, a rash beggar, walks into the palace and insults Odysseus, challenging him to a boxing match. Nicknamed as Irus, he thinks that he will beat the old man easily but Athena gives Odysseus extra strength and stature. Irus soon regrets his decision and tries to escape, but by now, the suitors have noticed him and egg on the fight for the sake of their own entertainment. Soon, Odysseus knocks down Irus and stops short of killing him.

The suitors congratulate Odysseus on his victory. One of them, the moderate Amphinomus, toasts him and gives him food. Fully aware of the bloodshed to come and overcome by pity for Amphinomus, Odysseus pulls him aside and tells him that Odysseus will soon be home. He gives him a veiled warning to leave the palace and return to his own land. But Amphinomus doesn’t go, despite being “fraught with grave forebodings,” for Athena has fixed his death at the hands of Telemachus (18.176). Athena now gets Penelope to make an appearance before her suitors. The goddess gives her extra stature and beauty to inflame their hearts. Penelope falsely tells her suitors that Odysseus had instructed her to take a new husband, if he fails to return before Telemachus began growing facial hair. She then tricks them into bringing her gifts by claiming that suitors should try to win her hand by giving things to her, rather than claiming what’s rightfully hers. The suitors present her gifts, 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. Athena now incites Eurymachus to insult Odysseus in the hope to make Odysseus angrier at the suitors. When Odysseus responds with insults, Eurymachus throws a stool at him but misses, hitting a servant instead. A riot is about to break out but Telemachus diffuses the situation, to the consternation of the suitors.

Analysis

Homer's use of minor characters of low rank in Books 17 and 18 is remarkable. Like many Homeric characters, swineherd Melanthius and maidservant Melantho's character are under-developed. They are little more than the male and female versions of the same malevolent person. Both ostensibly work for Odysseus but have chosen to side with the suitors. They are simple but act as perfect foil to the other characters, by showing contrasting traits or attitudes. Melanthius’s humiliation of Odysseus stands in stark contrast to Eumaeus’s unflinching loyalty to his master. In contrast to the devoted Eurycleia, Melantho proves to be an embodiment of ingratitude toward Penelope. The queen raised her like her own child but Melantho shows no concern for Penelope’s grief.

Irus’s mix of bravado and cowardice is also a good foil for Odysseus’ prudence and courage. Through the use o Irus, Homer also predicts the fall of suitors. Disguised as a beggar, Odysseus humbles an impudent beggar, leaving no doubt as to what he will do to the suitors when he comes out of his disguise. The forecast is obvious to the suitor Amphinomus, who leaves the scene with dread in his eyes.

Suitor Amphinomus is a case study in the absolute power of the gods. Even though Amphinomus shows some kindness toward the beggar, and Odysseus warns him, yet nothing can stop him from the meeting his fate as destined by Athena. The Greek goddess is unmindful of his benevolence towards Odysseus. Homer says, “Even then Athena had bound him fast to death/at the hands of Prince Telemachus and his spear” (18.178–179).

In Book 13, Poseidon vents his ire on the well-intentioned Phaeacians for treating Odysseus, his nemesis, kindly. Similarly, Athena condemns Amphinomus to the fate as she did to others. Homer continues to individualise the suitors in order to expose their specific flaws in character. In Book 17, he depicts Antinous critically, 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 calls Antinous “the worst of all... black death itself” (17.554). Homer paints Antinous as an abhorrible noble and Antinous’s detractors 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!’” [17.417–419]). The explanation for the contempt for Antinous lies in the feudal structure of Homeric society. It was knit together by reciprocal obligations and responsibilities among people of different social classes. It would be a folly to think that Greeks considered mistreatment of the poor as a sign of evil or moral deficiency. Here, Antinous is abusing his rank when he beats the helpless beggar. Antinous is not guilty of pure evil but of a kind of arrogance. He is not straying from some moral code but straying from the expectations of his noble birth.

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