The Odyssey
Contributed by Joslyn Justiniano

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Book 19-20

Summary: Book 19

At night when the suitors retire, Telemachus and Odysseus remove the arms as Athena lights up the room for them. Telemachus tells Eurycleia that they are storing the arms to keep them from being damaged. After the arms have been suitably disposed off, Telemachus retires and Odysseus is joined by Penelope. She has come from the women’s quarters to question her visitor.  The queen knows that he has claimed to have met Odysseus and she tests his honesty by asking him to describe her husband. Odysseus gives such a true description of himself that Penelope is reduced to tears. He then feigns a story of how he met Odysseus and eventually came to Ithaca. In many ways, this story is similar to the one told to Athena and Eumaeus in Books 13 and 14, respectively, though it is identical to neither. The beggar assures Penelope that Odysseus is alive and freely traveling the seas. He had a long ordeal but will be back within a month. The queen offers the beggar a bed to sleep in but he says he is used to sleeping on the floor. After great persuasion, he allows Eurycleia to wash his feet. As she is putting his feet in a basin of water, she notices a scar on one of the feet of beggar. She immediately remembers it as the scar that Odysseus got while hunting a boar with his grandfather Autolycus.  Eurycleia throws her arms around Odysseus, but he silences her while Athena keeps the queen distracted so that the secret is not out.

Before Penelope retires, she describes to Odysseus a dream that she has had in which an eagle swoops down upon her 20 pet geese and kills them all. The eagle then perches on her roof and, in a human voice, says that he is her husband Odysseus who has just put her suitors to death. The queen then declares that she is confused what this dream means. Odysseus tries to explain it to her but Penelope says she is going to choose a new husband nevertheless. Penelope will marry the first man who can shoot an arrow through the holes of twelve axes set in a line.

Summary: Book 20

Penelope and Odysseus were so tense that they could not sleep that night.  Odysseus is concerned that it will be next to impossible for him and Telemachus to conquer so many suitors. But Athena reassures him that their task will be accomplished with the help of gods. Penelope, on the other hand, is tormented by the loss of her husband and the thought of remarrying. She prays whole night that Artemis kills her and solves this vexing issue. Penelope's distress wakes up Odyesseus and he asks Zeus for a good omen. Zeus does him a favor with a clap of thunder, and, at once, a maid in an adjacent room is heard cursing the suitors. Next day, Odysseus and Telemachus meet, in succession, the swineherd Eumaeus, the foul Melanthius, and Philoetius, a kindly and loyal herdsman who has not yet given up hope of Odysseus’ return.

The suitors enter the palace, once again plotting Telemachus’s death. When a portent of doom appears in the form of an eagle carrying a dove in its talons, Amphinomus convinces the suitors to drop the plan. Athena keeps the suitors in disarray all through the dinner to stop Odysseus’ anger from losing its edge. Ctesippus, a wealthy and arrogant suitor, throws a cow’s hoof at Odysseus. Telemachus threatens to kill him with his sword. The suitors laugh at this, failing to notice that they and the walls of the room are covered in blood. Their faces have assumed a foreign and ghostly look, which Theoclymenus interprets as portents of imminent doom.


The suitors’ destruction now looks inevitable. While the earlier portents in the epic appear off and on and serve primarily to keep hope alive among Odysseus’ family and friends, they now occur frequently with such obvious implications that they foreshadow the suitors’ fate with grim effect.

Notably, the omens are more violent than the earlier ones. In Book 15, as Telemachus departs from Sparta, an eagle catching a goose soars overhead but the eagle flies away before killing its prey. But in Penelope’s dream, an eagle “snaps the geeses’ necks and kills them all,” leaving them in “heaps” (19.607–608). Penelope's dream contains more number of geese which correspond to the victims of vengeance. Her dreams are more graphic in nature, meaning that the occurrences are about to happen anytime soon. Zeus’s propitious thunderclap in Book 20 immediately precedes a maidservant’s cursing the suitors. The omens reach a grotesque climax when the suitors suddenly appear deformed and blood-splattered as they eat their last meal in the palace. It is unclear whether the human participants in these events are really responsible for their own actions. The suitors' impudent reaction to Telemachus at the end of Book 20 is because Athena has made them incapable of taking right decisions by robbing them of their wits. She manipulates them by inciting them to abuse Odysseus so as to enrage him further. In Book 20, Athena’s words of encouragement to Odysseus sound as if victory is already assured. And she, not Odysseus, will be the decisive factor in the final outcome. Just as in the Iliad, the Odyssey too shows the gods arranging the future based on the outcomes of great debates on Mount Olympus. It is the gods who guide their favorite mortals to success and make sure that their enemies are destroyed. Athena's relationship with Odysseus and the suitors proves this point. For a modern reader, it may be a bit perplexing to see such fatalism in the Odyssey but it is consistent with the outlook in Homer's poetry. In any case, Homer's audiences would have been familiar with the plot. It is Odysseus’ internal struggle and mental development that would have kept the audience engaged. The second half of the Odyssey is replete with long and mundane accounts of the time that Odysseus spends disguised on his estate. There is a lot of repetition in the epic poem. The suitors plot against Telemachus again and again without any action. Odysseus has things thrown at him again and again. His ignorant servants insult him repeatedly. Odysseus fakes his story about being from Crete. Scholars have argued that the second half of the poem shows signs of multiple-authorship. It reads more like several accounts of the same story knit together than a single narrative thread. But Homer is known for using repetition frequently in the Odyssey and the Iliad. Repetition is a standard feature of epic poems as it is in modern songs. The echoes and refrains bolster unity and emphasise individual ideas in the poem. Additionally, repetition often occurs with some variation from occurrence to occurrence or with a change in context to give new meaning to the repeated words.

For example, the suitors hurling insults at Odysseus draws a different reaction from him and Telemachus over a period of time. They respond with anger generally, but in Book 19, Odysseus launches into an extended tirade against Melantho. By the end of Book 20, the duo’s reaction has changed into disgust and pity; Odysseus merely shakes his head at Melanthius’s insults. The father and son have become less reactive because they know that suitors' doom is inevitable. The poet keeps repeating that the beggar resembles Odysseus only to build up the tension leading to the final confrontation. By doing this, he raises the possibility that Odysseus’ cover will be blown; and it nearly happens in the scene with Eurycleia. This repetition has the effect of bringing the audience closer and closer to the epic’s climax. The revelation of his identity would force Odysseus to take action and bring about the final resolution. Homer delays the climax, keeping the audience tantalized.

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