Odyssey Summary 2: Ithaca

My summary of The Odyssey Books 13-24 is below this short discussion about xenia.

The Odyssey and Xenia

The Odyssey is a deeply complex text, but perhaps its most important theme is the sacred relationship between guest and host (the Greek word for this concept is xenia). Almost every part of The Odyssey can be seen as an exploration of this relationship: Nestor and Menelaus are good hosts for Telemachus, and the Phaeacians provide an idealised form of hospitality for Odysseus. Odysseus expects hospitality from the cyclops and instead discovers his brutality; Odysseus’s men are bad guests on Thrinacia, eating their host’s sacred cattle, and they are punished accordingly; Calypso’s seemingly perfect hospitality is spoiled by her refusal to let her guest leave; and Circe, an inscrutable sorceress, shifts from being a nightmarish host to being a very generous one.

Board games
Two Greek heroes play a board game during the long siege of Troy. (A Classical Greek vase in the Troy Exhibition)

In the second half of the poem, Eumaeus the swineherd will show the value of generous hospitality even when the host does not have much to give. And of course, the suitors are the main villains of The Odyssey because they are terrible guests, consuming their host’s wealth and plotting against the life of his son. In the second half of the poem, they become equally terrible hosts, abusing the disguised Odysseus rather than showing him kindness. Xenia is so important that the suitors’ abuse of this sacred bond is presented as an even more serious crime than their plans to murder Telemachus.

Xenia is related to two other points about The Odyssey. First is the importance of material wealth and of generosity. Acquiring wealth, and giving generous gifts, are both important ways of gaining honour. Telemachus is keen to receive gifts from Menelaus, and Menelaus is keen to give them, as this brings them both honour and confirms the bond of xenia. It is by going through this process that Telemachus becomes a man and wins a reputation for himself. Odysseus’s honour is in large part judged by how much treasure he brings home, and the Phaeacians are keen to make sure that he gets plenty. This in turn will enable him to give lavish gifts in the future. The suitors, however, are consuming his wealth, bringing upon themselves both dishonour and their host’s violent anger. And they are ungenerous when it comes to others – particularly the beggar who arrives in their midst in Book 17.

The second point is that – despite far-fetched claims that only a woman could have written The Odyssey – female characters in The Odyssey are largely a function of hospitality. Penelope, Eurycleia, Helen, Calypso, Nausicaa, Arete and Circe all have distinct personalities and interests, but they are all defined, to a great extent, by their domestic role in looking after guests. None of them are ever guests themselves, because they exist as part of their households: they have power within their spheres, but not beyond. This goes some way to explaining the ruthless way in which Odysseus and Telemachus deal with the wayward slave-girls (Book 22): they are seen as part of what has gone wrong with the hospitality relationship in Odysseus’s house, and therefore they need to be purged. To modern readers it is horrific and unjustifiable, but Odysseus sees it as a sacred necessity. Only Athena, the cunning goddess who drives the story from start to finish, transcends her gender and exists as an independent individual, not tied down by a home that she belongs to. (The translator Emily Wilson thinks a lot about gender in The Odyssey.)

Mycenaean pottery
Fragments of pottery showing Mycenaean chariots (Nafplio)

The Odyssey II: Ithaca

Back to Parts 1-3

Part 4: Return to Ithaca

Book 13

The Phaeacians give Odysseus more gifts, to appropriately honour a man who has endured such an extraordinary journey, and then send him on his way. Phaeacian ships are miraculously fast, quicker than the fastest bird, and the crew gets Odysseus home by early the next morning. Here, at the midpoint of the poem, Odysseus finally reaches Ithaca again. He is sound asleep, so they carry him onto the shore of a secluded bay and leave him there with all his newly-gained Phaeacian treasure. But on their way home, Poseidon takes his final revenge. Within sight of their harbour, Poseidon turns the ship and its whole crew to stone, ensuring that Odysseus will be the last visitor the Phaeacians ever give passage home to.

Odysseus wakes up in thick mist. Not recognising his homeland, he is distressed, believing he has been abandoned on yet another foreign shore. Athena comes to him in disguise and tells him that he is in Ithaca, and Odysseus – though he is overjoyed – does not let his guard down, pretending to be a Cretan murderer rather than revealing his true identity. Impressed by Odysseus’s ceaseless cunning, Athena reveals herself and the two of them talk as equals, planning how to outmanoeuvre the suitors. Athena tells Odysseus that the swineherd is still loyal to him, and then puts a spell on his body to make him withered, ugly and unrecognisable.

Book 14

Disguised as a beggar, Odysseus reaches the sties of the swineherd, Eumaeus, the best and most loyal of all his slaves. Eumaeus does not recognise his disguised master, but proves to be unflinchingly loyal to Odysseus’s memory in the face of the kingdom’s steady decay. The suitors have claimed a large number of the pigs, and Odysseus’s wife and father seem to have forgotten about Eumaeus, but he remains steadfast. He is also very kind and hospitable to the beggar whom he believes to be a stranger. When he asks Odysseus where he has come from, Odysseus tells a very elaborate story, apparently for his sheer enjoyment of the fiction and to demonstrate his mastery of deceit. At one point in the story, he claims to have heard reliable information that Odysseus is not far away. Afterwards the cynical Eumaeus chastises him, thinking that the beggar – like others before him – has invented a pleasing story about Odysseus in order to win favour. Nonetheless, he shows his guest every mark of kindness that his humble circumstances can afford. As a test, Odysseus hints that he would like a warm cloak, and Eumaeus gives him one while he himself goes to spend the night devotedly looking over his pigs.

The Lion Gate
The monumental Lion Gate that leads into Mycenae, which appears to have been the most important Bronze Age Greek city. The Mycenaean civilisation is named after this site. Odysseus’s Mycenaean-era palace in The Odyssey would have been based on ruins like this.

Book 15

Athena comes to Telemachus and tells him to hurry home. She warns him about the trap that the suitors have laid for him (see Book 4), and tells him to visit Eumaeus before going into town, so that the suitors will not have a chance to kill him before Penelope knows he has returned. Telemachus and Pisistratus receive gifts and a splendid send-off from Menelaus and Helen. By the time they reach Telemachus’s ship near Pylos, they are fast friends and part in mutual admiration. As Pisistratus heads for Nestor’s halls, Telemachus is approached by a prophet called Theoclymenus, who says he is on the run for murder, and who asks for passage on their boat. Telemachus lets him come aboard and they set off, choosing a route that avoids the suitors’ ambush.

Odysseus and Eumaeus spend a second companionable evening together. Odysseus tests Eumaeus again, saying he plans to go to the palace the next day, and Eumaeus passes the test by insisting that Odysseus should remain there as his guest rather than risk the violence of the suitors. Eumaeus tells the story of how he was once a prince, kidnapped as a child and later looked after by Odysseus’s kindly mother. He shows no sign of bitterness, and his only regret is Odysseus’s continuing absence.

Meanwhile, Telemachus makes it back to Ithaca. He asks one of his men to act as Theoclymenus’s host for the time being, and sets off towards the swineherd’s hut.

Book 16

Telemachus arrives at Eumaeus’s hut, and Odysseus sees his son for the first time in twenty years. Eumaeus joyfully embraces him, relieved that he has returned from Pylos alive. The three of them share Eumaeus’s food, and then Telemachus sends Eumaeus to tell Penelope that he is safely back on Ithaca. When Eumaeus has left, Athena transforms Odysseus back into his true form, and he reveals himself to his son. Telemachus does not at first believe it’s really him, but when Odysseus convinces him that he really is back, the two of them are emotionally reunited. Then they begin to lay their plans to defeat the suitors. Telemachus says they are too heavily outnumbered – there are 108 suitors and ten servants – but Odysseus persuades him to trust Athena.

Eumaeus gives Penelope the message, at the same time as Telemachus’s sailors arrive to say the same thing. The suitors are furious that Telemachus has avoided their trap, but encouraged by the arrival of their comrades who had been lying in wait in the failed ambush. They plot against Telemachus’s life, even while denying that they mean him any harm when Penelope tearfully confronts them.

Entrance to the Tomb of Atreus
The entrance to a gigantic Mycenaean tomb known as the Tomb of Atreus, near Mycenae

Part 5: In Disguise among the Suitors

Book 17

The next morning, Telemachus orders Eumaeus to bring the beggar to the palace. Telemachus himself goes ahead, returning home and receiving an emotional welcome. He explains himself to his mother, and Theoclymenus arrives and prophesises that Odysseus is already on Ithaca.

Odysseus and Eumaeus make their way to the palace. On the way they encounter Melanthius, the goatherd, who insults both of them and even gives Odysseus a kick. Arriving at the palace, Odysseus is deeply moved to see his dog, Argus, lying on a dung-heap, old and forgotten. The aged Argus recognises his master, wags his tail, and then his heart gives out and he dies before Odysseus’s eyes.

The suitors are having yet another rowdy feast. Telemachus and Eumaeus sit together quietly, out of the way, while Odysseus goes around the hall begging. All the suitors give him scraps, except for Antinous, who along with Eurymachus is the ringleader of the suitors. Antinous hurls abuse at him and – when Odysseus answers back – throws a stool at him. Penelope, hearing the kerfuffle, asks Eumaeus to bring the beggar to her, so that she can ask whether he has news of Odysseus. Odysseus tells Eumaeus that it would be better to wait until the suitors have gone home to bed before he speaks to the queen, so as not to provoke them. Eumaeus and Penelope see the sense in this suggestion.

Book 18

A good-for-nothing beggar known as Irus arrives at the palace, where he is a regular fixture. Outraged to find another beggar there, he is aggressive towards Odysseus. The suitors find this very funny, and goad the two beggars on, urging them to fight. They promise to give honour to the winner and deal a nasty fate to the loser. Odysseus wins the fight and is mockingly congratulated by the suitors.

Odysseus urges the kindest and most reasonable of the suitors, a man called Amphinomus, to go home before it is too late. Amphinomus is troubled and considers Odysseus’s words, but ultimately he fails to save himself.

Athena puts an idea into Penelope’s head: Penelope comes down, looking beautiful, and craftily manages to get several of the suitors to give her gifts. Telemachus and Odysseus see what she is doing and respect her for partially replenishing the family coffers.

Melantho, a slave-girl who is Melanthius’s sister and who is sleeping with Eurymachus, starts mocking Odysseus. Then Eurymachus does the same. Again, Odysseus replies boldly, and Eurymachus hurls a footstool at him. As the mood turns ugly, Telemachus and Amphinomus encourage everyone to leave the palace and go to sleep instead, and they do so.

Interior of the Tomb of Atreus
Interior of the Tomb of Atreus

Book 19

Telemachus and Odysseus, aided by Athena, remove the weapons from the hall, laying their trap for the suitors. Penelope comes downstairs. Melantho starts taunting Odysseus again, and Penelope tells her off. Then in the darkness of the hall, Odysseus and Penelope talk – Penelope failing to recognise her husband. The conversation is intimate and emotionally charged, even though it seems to be between two strangers: Penelope is very honest with her unexpected guest. Odysseus tells Penelope another elaborate false backstory, in which he met Odysseus on Crete twenty years previously when he was on his way to the Trojan War. He describes “Odysseus” with tokens he knows Penelope will recognise, to prove the apparent truth of his story.

An emotional Penelope offers for one of her slaves to bathe the mysterious guest. Odysseus suggests that only an old lady would be suitable, so Penelope gives the job to Eurycleia (see Book 2). While bathing his legs, Eurycleia recognises a scar that Odysseus got as a youth during a boar hunt. Before she can cry out, Odysseus swears Eurycleia to secrecy.

Odysseus and Penelope talk some more, with Odysseus assuring her that the destruction of the suitors and the return of Odysseus are close at hand. Penelope is unconvinced, telling Odysseus that she plans to hold a contest among the suitors for her hand in marriage. She goes to bed, and Odysseus settles down to sleep at the entrance to the hall.

Book 20

The tension inexorably builds. Odysseus and Penelope, tormented by their thoughts, both struggle to sleep. Early the next morning, Odysseus begs Zeus for an omen. Zeus responds with two: a thunderclap, and a slave-girl within earshot of Odysseus praying aloud that today will be the suitors’ final day.

Telemachus and Eurycleia discuss the beggar, neither of them letting on that they know his true identity. Today happens to be a feast-day for Apollo, the God of Archery. Eumaeus the swineherd arrives to bring pigs for the suitors’ feast, and he stops to chat with Odysseus. Melanthius the goatherd comes past and heaps abuse on the beggar. But a third herdsman, Philoetius the cowherd, is friendly to Odysseus, telling him and Eumaeus how much he longs for Odysseus to return and punish the suitors.

The suitors feast, and Telemachus, Theoclymenus and Odysseus eat with them; all the tensions are on the verge of boiling over. One of the suitors abuses Odysseus and throws an ox-foot at him, and Telemachus responds angrily. The suitors are gripped by a grotesque hysteria, laughing until they seem to be wailing with grief. Theoclymenus is appalled, warning them that their destruction is near at hand. The suitors jeer at him, and he leaves to go to the house of Telemachus’s friend instead. The suitors laugh at Telemachus’s pair of good-for-nothing guests, blind to the omens all around them.

Mycenaean armour
High-status Mycenaean armour (Nafplio)

Part 6: Odysseus Unmasked

Book 21

It is finally time for the suitors to meet their reckoning. Athena inspires Penelope to bring out Odysseus’s mighty bow and set up the contest that she spoke about with Odysseus the previous night. Odysseus used to string this bow and shoot arrows through a line of twelve axe-heads. If one of the suitors can accomplish this feat, then Penelope will consent to marry the man and end the suitors’ feasting. They set up the challenge in the main hall. Telemachus goes first, to see if he is man enough to match his father. The bow require tremendous strength just to bend it into shape and string it. Telemachus tries three times to string the bow, but Odysseus signals at him not to try a fourth time and to leave the challenge to the suitors.

One by one the suitors take their turn, trying to loosen the bow by rubbing fat on it and warming it over the fire, but none of them can string it. While they are struggling, Odysseus goes out into the courtyard and reveals his true identity to Eumaeus and Philoetius. They are both overjoyed and pledge to help him; he gives them instructions for the next stage of the plan.

The suitors grow frustrated. They decide to give up and try again the next day, in case it’s Apollo who is stopping them from stringing the bow on his sacred day. Then Odysseus asks if he can have a turn. The suitors are outraged by his presumptuousness, but Penelope says he might as well – it’s not as if she would marry him if he succeeded. Telemachus tells Penelope to go upstairs, and she does so. Eumaeus carries the bow to Odysseus, and then goes and tells Eurycleia to bolt the doors that lead from the hall to the rest of the palace. Philoetius goes outside to the courtyard and ties shut the gates that lead out to the town, so that the suitors cannot escape. Odysseus’s trap is ready. He strings the bow with ease, and shoots an arrow through the twelve axe-heads, completing the task.

Book 22

Odysseus stands in the doorway, blocking the suitors’ route out into the courtyard. He shoots a second arrow, this time killing Antinous. The suitors are outraged – and they still don’t realise what’s happening, until Odysseus reveals himself. As the suitors are filled with fear, Eurymachus blames all their crimes on the dead Antinous and promises to pay reparations. When Odysseus refuses this offer, Eurymachus leads an attack on Odysseus to drive him from the doorway, and is promptly killed by another arrow. Telemachus kills Amphinomus and then goes to retrieve weapons and armour for the four heroes, from a storeroom that is inaccessible to the suitors but accessible to Odysseus’s comrades. Melanthius starts passing spears and armour to the suitors from the same storeroom, and Odysseus realises that someone is treacherously helping the suitors. Still guarding the doorway and keeping the suitors pinned down with his arrows, he sends Eumaeus and Philoetius to intercept the traitor. They duly tie up Melanthius and leave him dangling there, to be dealt with later.

Odysseus has run out of arrows, and the surviving suitors have twelve spears that Melanthius managed to pass to them. Watched over by Athena, Odysseus and his three comrades charge forward, avoiding their enemies’ hurled spears, and they keep slaying the suitors. Telemachus gets Odysseus to spare their bard and one other slave, who had both been forced to serve the suitors. When the massacre is complete, Odysseus summons the overjoyed Eurycleia, and she says that twelve of the fifty slave-girls have been disloyal and became the suitors’ lovers. Eurycleia sends the twelve disloyal slave-girls (including Melantho) to help the men clean up after the slaughter. All the other slaves remain locked in the inner part of the palace with the sleeping Penelope. When the work is complete, Telemachus hangs the twelve slave-girls in a single big noose, the two herdsmen chop Melanthius apart, and Odysseus cleanses the hall with smoke.

A model of Troy
A model of what Troy would have looked like at the time of the Trojan War, based on modern archaeology (in Çanakkale, Turkey)

Book 23

Eurycleia wakes up Penelope to tell her the good news. Penelope is wary, unable to believe it. She comes downstairs and meets Odysseus awkwardly, unconvinced that it can really be him and worried it might be a trick from the gods. Odysseus, meanwhile, knows that he is still in danger: by slaughtering the suitors, he has started a blood-feud with the families of more than a hundred leading Ithacans. He takes a bath and orders the slaves to make music and the sounds of celebration in the courtyard, so that the townsfolk will think that the palace is locked because Penelope is finally marrying one of the suitors.

Still disorientated, Penelope gives orders that her marriage bed should be moved, so that Odysseus can sleep in it in a different room. Odysseus protests that he secretly carved one of the bedposts out of a living olive tree, so it can’t be moved unless someone damaged the bed. Penelope is finally convinced, as nobody except Odysseus could know the secret of the bed, and husband and wife are at last tearfully reunited. When their bed is ready they go up to it and sleep together, and then Odysseus tells Penelope about all his adventures. The two of them share their marital happiness once more after a wait of twenty years. But he knows the massacre cannot be kept secret from the Ithacans for much longer. The next morning, he leaves before dawn, with Telemachus, Eumaeus and Philoetius.

Book 24

Achilles and Agamemnon are having a conversation in the Underworld when the shades of the suitors arrive. One of the dead suitors explains how Odysseus tricked and massacred them all.

Odysseus and the other three arrive at the farm of Laertes, his father. Odysseus goes alone to meet Laertes. First he pretends to be a stranger, and successfully tricks Laertes for no obvious reason. Then he reveals himself for one more emotional reunion.

The Ithacans gather to discuss the shocking news of the deaths of the suitors. Antinous’s father leads many of them in a vengeful mob to hunt down and kill Odysseus. Odysseus and his small band charges into battle against the mob of Ithacans, and Laertes kills Antinous’s father. At this point Athena intervenes on Zeus’s orders, getting the two factions to make peace and swear eternal loyalty to Odysseus and his family. Odysseus has won: his kingdom, and his household, are secure again. The king has returned.

Birds flying into Troy
A huge flock of birds flying over one of the entrance-ways to Troy. In Homer’s world, this might have been seen as some kind of omen.

Summary of The Iliad

Back to Book Summaries


Leave a Reply