Homer, The Odyssey, Books 18, 19, 20, 21


     Now that we are in Odysseus' hall on Ithaka, the poet can bring the suitors and the household's servants into much closer focus.  We already had met the nurse, Eurykleia, in Book IV, and with Eumaios, we begin building a catalogue of good and bad servants that parallel the suitors' increase in "roundness" of character.  Odysseus also begins to change the sides of himself he shows others, perhaps first when he rounds on Melantho, the unfaithful serving woman and threatens her with dismemberment (XVIII.418-20).  The "sacker of cities" slowly begins to emerge and to reclaim his name.  Think of the number of times Odysseus has been named by others in this epic, especially in the course of speculations about his fate.  Now he can attempt to create his own fate, or at least to bring about what the gods have decreed for him.  It might be a good idea to review what Zeus told Athena in Book I, and to notice what he did not tell her. 

     As we move into Books XIX-XX, the poem will reveal Odysseus to a series of characters, each in different ways, and each revelation will tell us something we did not know about him.  Again, as we noted in the Sphinx's riddle solved by Oedipus in Sophocles' Oedipus Tyrannus, a man may be many men in his lifetime if we consider "by whom" or even "as whom" the man's identity is understood.  If you consider that I am a different man to my mother than I am to my wife, a non-obvious part of Oedipus' problem with prepon or "the fitting/decorus" in everyday life becomes clearer.  He can follow neither rule of relationship in his behavior with Jocasta, and the conflict destroys him.  Odysseus must re-establish each of his other-relations properly and in due time if he is to regain his place in his own hall.  In Books XXI-XXIII, pay close attention to the final two tests of his identity "by whom" the suitors and Penelope come to know him again.

For an excellent scholarly article explaining the "nomen-->omen" significance of names in this epic, see:  Norman Austin, "Name Magic in the 'Odyssey'." California Studies in Classical Antiquity, Vol. 5 (1972), 1-19 Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/25010630

Book 18‑‑


1)  Just as the epic has many "false brides," it has a "false  hero" in Arnaios, known as "Iros" (Dawn), the messenger and  beggar.  How does he function in the plot?  What does he enable  the poet to show us about Odysseus?  (See also the link to Propp in 3 below for more folk-tale motifs that either originated in epic songs or were adapted from older folk literature by epic poets.)


2)  What kind of event does Iros' challenge parody and what is  the "prize"?


3)  In folk tales (see Propp's Morphology of the Folk Tale),  heroes usually are "transfigured" in some way, marked, before  their ultimate success.  How is that accomplished for Odysseus, and how  does it develop the pattern of events which began with the kick  Melanthios gave Odysseus in Book 17?


4)  What advice does Odysseus give Amphinomos, why, and what is  the result? 


5)  Why does Athena wish Penelope to be seen by Odysseus and  Telemakhos?  What does she ask her son, and how might it relate  to events in Book 1?  How do you read Telemakhos' response in  light of that earlier scene?


6)  How does Penelope respond to Eurymakhos' complement, and what  delights Odysseus about this response?  This fact will be easier  to understand after you learn of O's maternal grandfather, Autolykos (Book 19).  Most importantly, to what long‑awaited  event does she refer and how does it affect the suitors?


7)  Who is Melantho and how does she treat Odysseus?  How do you  read his response?  Do you sense a bit of strain in Odysseus'  character here?  Why?


8)  When Eurymakhos takes up the taunting, Odysseus gives a  lengthy answer ending with a description of the hall's doors,  upon Odysseus' return, being too narrow for Eurymakhos to pass  through them in escape.  In what way is a great hall a trap? 


9)  When the typical footstool misses its target and hits the  serving man, the dropped pitcher is described in a formula which  is used in The Iliad to represent an armored warrior's fall in  battle.  Why here and now?  See also Book 19: 545.


10)  Why doesn't this scene end in violence, and what tension  does this create in the plot?


Book 19--


1)  Why is Odysseus' story about moving the armor a good lie?


2)  How do you interpret Penelope's response to Odysseus'  tale (told in disguise) of the Trojan expedition?


3)  With what remembered details does Odysseus prove that he knows what he looked like when he set out from Ithaka 20 years ago, and what theme is evoked in the details he remembers?  (Hint: it's also present in the story of Ody's name.)


4)  What crucial detail is left out of Odysseus' second fiction  about his history?  Hint: check the Phaiakian passages.


5)  What is going on while the poet digresses to tell us the story of Odysseus' naming, and why does the poet halt the story there?


6)  How does Odysseus react to Eurykleia's identification of him, and why?


7)  According to the poet, how do dreams come to humans?  What does this suggest about dream interpretation?


8)  What is the specific result of Odysseus' visit to Penelope in disguise?


Book 20‑‑


1)   How do you interpret Odysseus' enraged comment to himself  when the maids go to the suitors' beds?  How can he become  "Somebody" again?


2)  To whom does Penelope pray, for what, and why? Compare this to Odysseus' advice to Telemakhos in Book 16.


3)  To whom and for what does Odysseus pray, and what is the result of the prayer?


4)  In addition to Eumaios and Telemakhos, what allies does Odysseus have?  Why?


5)  Why don't the suitors kill Telamakhos, and what plot tension is that helping to develop?


6)  What qualities does Ktesippos represent, and how does he fit into the suitors as a group?


7)  Why is laughter read as a sign of approaching death?  Who reads it that way, and what becomes of him?  How does he express what he sees, and what later work may have made use of this image?  The Greek text specifically says they laughed so hard their tears defiled with blood the meat they were eating.  What kind of taboo is being invoked here?


Book 21--


1)  When Penelope goes down to the storeroom to retrieve Odysseus' bow, we are told the bow's history.  Why?  What status does this give the weapon of the hero?  (Compare the "arms of Achilles" in The Iliad.)  What thematic associations is the poet building with Herakles, and what tensions does this create in the poem's larger thematic structure?


2)  When Telemakhos laughs, and undertakes the bow test, what  kind of dangerous possibility does he risk and why?  (ll.  115‑53)


3)  Why do Antinoos and Eurymakhos wait until all the other suitors have tried the bow before attempting to string it?  Remember what the bow is made of and how long it has lain idle.


4)  How does Odysseus prove his identity to the servants he chooses as his allies, and what does he promise them?


5)  With what does Antinoos charge Odysseus when he begs to be allowed to attempt the bow test?  How does its literary allusion relate to the poem's thematic structure? 


6)  How does Penelope manage the suitors' objections, and how does Telemakhos respond?  Compare this with events in Book 1.


7)  As Odysseus handles the bow, how are the suitors' comments about him unconsciously ironic? 


8)  Why is Odysseus compared to a harper when stringing the bow?