HUM102W (Summer 2013) Unit 13 Cherry Fan
The second half of the Odyssey is an extended recognition scene. Odysseus begins by being transported
back to Ithaca by the Phaeacians, but he continues to obscure his identity even into the last book, when
he finally reveals himself to his father. His disguises and dissimulation are justified by the plot to some
extent: he wants to find out who is still loyal to him before exposing himself. But the poet takes this to
great lengths, making the revelation (anagnorisis) of Odysseus' identity a key theme of the poem.
Books 13-17 see Odysseus acquaint himself cautiously both with his swineherd Eumaeus and his son
Telemachus, to whom he finally reveals himself. In book 18 he goes finally to scout his own home and
takes the guise of a beggar, a nobody, as he appeared in book 6, 9, and 11. When challenged by another
beggar, he reluctantly fights him and wins, at which point he becomes a philosopher:
"Nothing feebler does earth nurture than a human (anthropos), of all things that on earth are breathing
and moving. For he thinks that he will never suffer evil in time to come, so long as the gods give him
prosperity and his knees are quick. But when again the blessed gods decree him sorrow, this too he bears
with steadfast heart; for the spirit of men upon the earth is like the day which the father of gods and
men brings upon them. For I, too, seemed once to be prosperous among men, but I did many deeds of
recklessness (atasthalia), yielding to my might and my strength, and trusting in my father and my
brethren. Therefore let no man at all be lawless at any time, but let him keep in silence whatever gifts
the gods give."
As a statement of the values of the Odyssey, I can see none better than this. (Interestingly, it occurs in
book 18, the same book number in which the important programmatic statement of the Iliad appears.)
Of course, Odysseus is engaging in dissimulation; he was not himself lawless. But what he has to say is
meant to hold true for every human being. Humans must obey the gods' laws and not presume that
their good fortune can be assumed, or that it is somehow of their own doing. Specifically, Odysseus is
giving a warning to the suitors who have invaded his household and taken advantage of its hospitality,
but the point also serves as a commentary on the fortunes of his crew and his own variable fortunes on
his return journey.
You may want to investigate and detail the characteristics of the individual suitors. Ultimately, Odysseus
will find them all guilty and execute them. Nevertheless, some quick observation may inform your
reading. First, the names: Antinous, "contrary minded", is son of Eupeithes, "good at persuasion";
"Eurymachus" means "wide power". The significance of names cannot be pushed too far, but it's worth
observing them from time to time. Homer has the ability to include and name as many suitors as he
wishes. It's an area where the individual poet has great control over the traditional story.
Page 1 of 4 HUM102W (Summer 2013) Unit 13 Cherry Fan
In book 18 the lawless behaviour of the suitors becomes readily apparent, but the poet also chooses to
bring Odysseus' wife Penelope out of the women's quarter of the house so that she can be seen by the
suitors, and by her husband and son:
"Then the goddess, flashing-eyed Athena, put it in the heart of the daughter of Icarius, wise Penelope, to
show herself to the suitors, that she might stir their hearts more and win greater honor from her
husband and her son than before."
Penelope chastises the suitors and demands the proper sort of gifts from men who are seeking to marry
a woman. She thus raises the stakes for the suitors, making them more expectant that she will marry
one of them (274-80).
In book 18 Odysseus overcomes the other beggar in a contest provoked by the suitors. In book 21-2 he
overcomes the suitors themselves, first in a contest of archery and then in a contest for their lives. The
slaughter of the suitors in book 22 corresponds to the triumph of Achilles over Hector in book 22 of the
Iliad. The greater number that Odysseus kills seems to make him a greater hero. Both men seem
excessive in their desire for blood. It seems very likely that the poet of the Odyssey is purposely
comparing the two heroes.
All the suitors must die. That's the logic Odysseues is pursuing. But the issue of clemency arises for three
individuals, Leodes the sacrificer, Phemius the bard, and Medon the tutor. In the context of such
bloodshed, it's worth observing what reasoning does allow for lives to be preserved. In response to
Leodes' plea that he played no active role in the suitors' misdeeds, Odysseus' response is curt.
"If you really declare yourself the sacrificer among these men, often, I suppose, you must have prayed in
the halls that far from me the goal of a joyous return might be removed, and that it might be with you
that my dear wife should go and bear you children; therefore you will not escape grievous death."
Odysseus sees through Leodes' plea and executes him. Phemius, on the other hand, is a bard and so akin
to Homer himself:
"By your knees I beseech you, Odysseus, and respect me and have pity; on yourself shall sorrow come
hereafter, if you slay the minstrel, even me, who sing to gods and men. Self-taught am I, and