The Odyssey
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Book 21-22

Summary: Book 21

Penelope brings out Odysseus’ bow from the storeroom and announces that she will marry the person who can string it and shoot an arrow through a line of twelve axes. Telemachus lines up the axes and then tries his own hand at the bow but fails to string it. One by one, all the suitors try but fail to accomplish the feat. Meanwhile, Odysseus follows Eumaeus and Philoetius outside and reveals his identity to them by showing the scar on his foot. He promises to treat them as Telemachus’s brothers if they fight by his side against the suitors. When Odysseus returns, Eurymachus has the bow. He feels ashamed that he cannot string it because this failure proves his inferiority to Odysseus. Antinous suggests that the contest be adjourned for one day. The suitors can make sacrifices to the archer god, Apollo, and then begin afresh. Still disguised, Odysseus asks for the bow but all the suitors complain, fearing that he will succeed. Antinous ridicules Odysseus, likening him to the legendary drunken centaur Eurytion. He says that the wine has gone to his head and he will bring disaster upon himself. Telemachus takes control and orders Eumaeus to give the bow to Odysseus. Needless to say, Odysseus strings it and shoots the first arrow whistling through all twelve axes. 

Summary: Book 22

Before anyone could realise what is happening, Odysseus shoots a second arrow through the throat of Antinous. The suitors think of this shooting as an accident. Odysseus finally reveals himself, leaving the suitors terrified. They run helter-skelter but have no way out since Philoetius has locked the front door and Eumaeus has locked the doors to the women’s quarters. Eurymachus vainly tries to calm Odysseus down, saying that Antinous was the only bad one among them. But Odysseus is in no mood to spare anyone. Eurymachus then attacks Odysseus, but he is cut down by another arrow. Amphinomus is killed by the spear of Telemachus. Telemachus brings more swords and shields from the storeroom for Eumaeus and Philoetius but forgets to lock it. Melanthius gets arms for the suitors from the storeroom. But he isn’t so lucky on his second trip to the storeroom. Eumaeus and Philoetius find him there and lock him in. A full battle rages in the palace hall. Athena, disguised as Mentor, encourages Odysseus but doesn’t participate immediately, preferring to test Odysseus’ strength. Odysseus and his men put several suitors to death while receiving only minor wounds. Finally, Athena joins the battle to end it quickly.
Odysseus leaves only the minstrel Phemius and the herald Medon, who were unwilling participants in the suitors’ profligacy. The priest Leodes begs for mercy but is shown none. Eurycleia comes out and starts rejoicing suitors’ death but Odysseus checks her impropriety. She asks the disloyal servant women to clear the corpses from the hall and remove the blood from furniture. They are then sent outside and executed. Odysseus instructs Telemachus to cut them down with a sword, but Telemachus decides to hang them. Hanging, in those days, was considered as a more disgraceful death. Traitor Melanthius, too, is tortured and killed. After the bloodbath, Odysseus instructs the servants to fumigate the house.


The dramatic scene in which Odysseus strings the bow is one of the most famous scenes of the Odyssey. The bow scene has several connotations in the poem. The beggar’s success reveals his true identity as Odysseus. It also reveals his inherent superiority to the suitors. Since the bow gives Odysseus a weapon in hand, it allows for a seamless transition to the fighting in Book 22. The bow's association also signifies Odysseus’ pre-eminence in Ithaca before the Trojan War. Homer reveals that Odysseus got the bow during a diplomatic trip to Messene. It was long before bad times fell on him, and that it has been seldom used since then. The bow, thus, recalls the good old days when Odysseus’ rule was unchallenged.

Through his deft handling of bow, Odysseus regains his lost glory, once again the king and the most powerful man in Ithaca. Athena does not actively take part in the battle as she had suggested she might in the earlier books. Disguised as Mentor, she encourages Odysseus at a crucial moments but her departure to the sidelines puts the focus entirely on Odysseus. She protects Odysseus and his allies from the blows of suitors’ spears. Melanthius arms the suitors, triggering a rare moment of panic in Odysseus. Athena would surely pitch in if the battle were to go haywire, but her restraint till the end shows the victory to be a work of Odysseus and Telemachus.

Two nobles fighting against a host of suitors, they seem to be surmounting huge odds. But, if Athena were to fight openly, the odds would tilt against the suitors. Thus, Odysseus and Telemachus’s victory would be less impressive.

When the suitors are killed, Homer reminds us of the foul deeds that led to their end. Antinous -- the most impudent of all -- is killed first. Eurymachus, who earlier insults Telemachus, is killed by Telemachus’s spear. When Ctesippus is killed, Philoetius reminds him of his abuse of Odysseus with the cow’s hoof. Melanthius's death comes with humiliating and painful dismemberments, somewhat similar to the death of drunk centaur that Antinous describes in Book 21. The fighting in Book 22 is the only pitched battle in the Odyssey. It reminds of the Iliad, which is full of bloodshed, but the description in the two literary works is markedly distinct. Many critics find the comic and domestic flavor a characteristic of the Odyssey. For instance, the battle occurs not on a field but in a palace with the doors locked. Some of the deaths have a Gothic humor to them as suitors Antinous and Eurymachus trip over their dinners. The incapacitation and castration of Melanthius in the storeroom bring in comic relief. Odysseus faces some genuinely tense moments when Melanthius is procuring arms for the suitors. Although the battle is quite riveting, the grandeur of the Iliad’s famous duels is absent from this melee. For, these are not famous heroes fighting one another but one famous hero warding off a bunch of cowards.

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