The Odyssey
Homer
Contributed by Joslyn Justiniano
Book 23-24
Summary

Summary: Book 23

Eurycleia goes upstairs to call Penelope who has slept through the entire episode. Penelope doesn’t believe what Eurycleia says and remains in disbelief even when she comes downstairs and sees her husband. Telemachus rebukes her for not greeting Odysseus lovingly after his long absence.
Odysseus is now worried that he has just killed all the noble young men of Ithaca and their parents must be seething in anger. He decides that he and his family will need to lay low at their farm for a while. A minstrel strikes up a happy song so that no one will suspect what has happened in the palace. Penelope is still wary, afraid that a god is playing a trick on her. She orders Eurycleia to move her bridal bed but Odysseus gets angry on her, saying that their bed is immovable, explaining how it is built from the trunk of an olive tree around which the house had been constructed. It confirms Penelope that this man must be her husband. Afterwards, Odysseus gives his wife a brief account of his wanderings, telling her about the trip that he must make to fulfill the prophecy of Tiresias in Book 11. The next day, Odysseus and Telemachus go to Laertes’ orchard. He tells Penelope not to leave her room or receive any visitors. Athena hides Odysseus and Telemachus in darkness so that no one sees them as they pass through the town.

Summary: Book 24

The scene changes abruptly. Hermes takes the souls of suitors, who are crying like bats, into Hades. Achilles and Agamemnon are debating over who had a better death. Agamemnon describes Achilles’ funeral in detail. They see the suitors coming in and ask how so many noble young men were killed. Suitor Amphimedon, whom Agamemnon knew in life, tells of their ruin, blaming Penelope and her indecision for their death. Agamemnon compares the constancy of Penelope with the treachery of Clytemnestra. Back in Ithaca, Odysseus reaches Laertes’ farm. He sends his servants into the house so that he can be alone with his father in the garden. Odysseus finds that Laertes has aged prematurely out of grief for his son and wife. He does not recognize Odysseus, and Odysseus doesn’t disclose his identity immediately, pretending to be someone who once knew and befriended Odysseus. But when Laertes begins to cry at the memory of Odysseus, Odysseus throws his arms around Laertes and kisses him. He proves his identity with the scar and with his memories of the fruit trees that Laertes gave him when he was a little boy. He informs Laertes how he has avenged himself by killing all the suitors. Laertes and Odysseus have lunch together. They are joined by Dolius, the father of Melanthius and Melantho.
While they are having their lunch, the goddess Rumor spreads the news of the massacre in the city. The parents of the suitors gather and assess how to take revenge. Halitherses, the elder prophet, says that the suitors got what they deserved for their wickedness. But Eupithes, Antinous’s father, encourages the parents to seek revenge.  Their small army spots Odysseus in Laertes’ house, but Athena, disguised as Mentor, stops the violence. Antinous’s father is the only one killed, felled by one of Laertes’ spears. Athena makes the Ithacans forget the bloodshed and recognise Odysseus as the king. Finally, peace is restored in Ithaca.

Analysis

The scene in which Penelope checks her husband’s knowledge of the bed brings together several ideas that the epic has touched before. This subtle test reveals Penelope’s clever side, the side we have seen in her ploy to use a never-to-be-finished burial shroud to put off remarriage for four years. This successful completion of this test leads to the reunion of Odysseus and Penelope. It also shows why their love for each other is so unflinching. Their love for plotting, testing, and outmaneuvering their opponents is the common streak among them. They are kindred spirits because they are kindred wits. None of the suitors could ever take place of Odysseus, just as Circe or Calypso could never replace Penelope. Literally and metaphorically, no one can move their wedding bed.

For over two thousand years, Homeric scholars are divided over the ending. Some believe that the epic originally ended with Odysseus and Penelope returning to their marriage bed. This end gives the story a nice closure, while the scenes that follow seem un-Homeric. The bat metaphor is unusual at the beginning of Book 24 as most of the Homeric metaphors concern bright, pastoral imagery. The description of suitors being led into the underworld is also troublesome. It deviates from the Homeric principle that only the soul of a properly buried body can enter Hades. Book 11 discusses this principle as Elpenor pleads Odysseus for a proper burial. He is worried that otherwise he will not be able to gain entry in the underworld. Many scholars find Book 24 inferior to the rest of the Odyssey. The early ending theory is based on a subjective evaluation of the quality of the present ending. The conversation between Achilles and Agamemnon is pointless and has little relevance to the story. The conversation between Odysseus and Laertes is also clumsy. Odysseus’ revelation of his identity to his father seems anti-climactic after the tension he creates with his disguise.
Further, the lunch with Dolius makes no sense since Odysseus has murdered Dolius’s two children. Halitherses’ speech in the assembly blames Penelope crudely without any sophistication. Athena’s tacit support in the murder of Antinous’s father is bizarre since he has been introduced a few lines before.

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