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The Odyssey: Book 21 Analysis



Author: Poetry of Homer Type: Poetry Views: 133

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The Odyssey850 B.C.Minerva now put it in Penelope's mind to make the suitors try

their skill with the bow and with the iron axes, in contest among

themselves, as a means of bringing about their destruction. She went

upstairs and got the store room key, which was made of bronze and

had a handle of ivory; she then went with her maidens into the store

room at the end of the house, where her husband's treasures of gold,

bronze, and wrought iron were kept, and where was also his bow, and

the quiver full of deadly arrows that had been given him by a friend

whom he had met in Lacedaemon- Iphitus the son of Eurytus. The two

fell in with one another in Messene at the house of Ortilochus,

where Ulysses was staying in order to recover a debt that was owing

from the whole people; for the Messenians had carried off three

hundred sheep from Ithaca, and had sailed away with them and with

their shepherds. In quest of these Ulysses took a long journey while

still quite young, for his father and the other chieftains sent him on

a mission to recover them. Iphitus had gone there also to try and

get back twelve brood mares that he had lost, and the mule foals

that were running with them. These mares were the death of him in

the end, for when he went to the house of Jove's son, mighty Hercules,

who performed such prodigies of valour, Hercules to his shame killed

him, though he was his guest, for he feared not heaven's vengeance,

nor yet respected his own table which he had set before Iphitus, but

killed him in spite of everything, and kept the mares himself. It

was when claiming these that Iphitus met Ulysses, and gave him the bow

which mighty Eurytus had been used to carry, and which on his death

had been left by him to his son. Ulysses gave him in return a sword

and a spear, and this was the beginning of a fast friendship, although

they never visited at one another's houses, for Jove's son Hercules

killed Iphitus ere they could do so. This bow, then, given him by

Iphitus, had not been taken with him by Ulysses when he sailed for

Troy; he had used it so long as he had been at home, but had left it

behind as having been a keepsake from a valued friend.Penelope presently reached the oak threshold of the store room;

the carpenter had planed this duly, and had drawn a line on it so as

to get it quite straight; he had then set the door posts into it and

hung the doors. She loosed the strap from the handle of the door,

put in the key, and drove it straight home to shoot back the bolts

that held the doors; these flew open with a noise like a bull

bellowing in a meadow, and Penelope stepped upon the raised

platform, where the chests stood in which the fair linen and clothes

were laid by along with fragrant herbs: reaching thence, she took down

the bow with its bow case from the peg on which it hung. She sat

down with it on her knees, weeping bitterly as she took the bow out of

its case, and when her tears had relieved her, she went to the

cloister where the suitors were, carrying the bow and the quiver, with

the many deadly arrows that were inside it. Along with her came her

maidens, bearing a chest that contained much iron and bronze which her

husband had won as prizes. When she reached the suitors, she stood

by one of the bearing-posts supporting the roof of the cloister,

holding a veil before her face, and with a maid on either side of her.

Then she said:"Listen to me you suitors, who persist in abusing the hospitality of

this house because its owner has been long absent, and without other

pretext than that you want to marry me; this, then, being the prize

that you are contending for, I will bring out the mighty bow of

Ulysses, and whomsoever of you shall string it most easily and send

his arrow through each one of twelve axes, him will I follow and

quit this house of my lawful husband, so goodly, and so abounding in

wealth. But even so I doubt not that I shall remember it in my

dreams."As she spoke, she told Eumaeus to set the bow and the pieces of iron

before the suitors, and Eumaeus wept as he took them to do as she

had bidden him. Hard by, the stockman wept also when he saw his

master's bow, but Antinous scolded them. "You country louts," said he,

"silly simpletons; why should you add to the sorrows of your

mistress by crying in this way? She has enough to grieve her in the

loss of her husband; sit still, therefore, and eat your dinners in

silence, or go outside if you want to cry, and leave the bow behind

you. We suitors shall have to contend for it with might and main,

for we shall find it no light matter to string such a bow as this

is. There is not a man of us all who is such another as Ulysses; for I

have seen him and remember him, though I was then only a child."This was what he said, but all the time he was expecting to be

able to string the bow and shoot through the iron, whereas in fact

he was to be the first that should taste of the arrows from the

hands of Ulysses, whom he was dishonouring in his own house- egging

the others on to do so also.Then Telemachus spoke. "Great heavens!" he exclaimed, "Jove must

have robbed me of my senses. Here is my dear and excellent mother

saying she will quit this house and marry again, yet I am laughing and

enjoying myself as though there were nothing happening. But,

suitors, as the contest has been agreed upon, let it go forward. It is

for a woman whose peer is not to be found in Pylos, Argos, or

Mycene, nor yet in Ithaca nor on the mainland. You know this as well

as I do; what need have I to speak in praise of my mother? Come on,

then, make no excuses for delay, but let us see whether you can string

the bow or no. I too will make trial of it, for if I can string it and

shoot through the iron, I shall not suffer my mother to quit this

house with a stranger, not if I can win the prizes which my father won

before me."As he spoke he sprang from his seat, threw his crimson cloak from

him, and took his sword from his shoulder. First he set the axes in

a row, in a long groove which he had dug for them, and had Wade

straight by line. Then he stamped the earth tight round them, and

everyone was surprised when they saw him set up so orderly, though

he had never seen anything of the kind before. This done, he went on

to the pavement to make trial of the bow; thrice did he tug at it,

trying with all his might to draw the string, and thrice he had to

leave off, though he had hoped to string the bow and shoot through the

iron. He was trying for the fourth time, and would have strung it

had not Ulysses made a sign to check him in spite of all his

eagerness. So he said:"Alas! I shall either be always feeble and of no prowess, or I am

too young, and have not yet reached my full strength so as to be

able to hold my own if any one attacks me. You others, therefore,

who are stronger than I, make trial of the bow and get this contest

settled."On this he put the bow down, letting it lean against the door

[that led into the house] with the arrow standing against the top of

the bow. Then he sat down on the seat from which he had risen, and

Antinous said:"Come on each of you in his turn, going towards the right from the

place at which the. cupbearer begins when he is handing round the

wine."The rest agreed, and Leiodes son of OEnops was the first to rise. He

was sacrificial priest to the suitors, and sat in the corner near

the mixing-bowl. He was the only man who hated their evil deeds and

was indignant with the others. He was now the first to take the bow

and arrow, so he went on to the pavement to make his trial, but he

could not string the bow, for his hands were weak and unused to hard

work, they therefore soon grew tired, and he said to the suitors,

"My friends, I cannot string it; let another have it; this bow shall

take the life and soul out of many a chief among us, for it is

better to die than to live after having missed the prize that we

have so long striven for, and which has brought us so long together.

Some one of us is even now hoping and praying that he may marry

Penelope, but when he has seen this bow and tried it, let him woo

and make bridal offerings to some other woman, and let Penelope

marry whoever makes her the best offer and whose lot it is to win

her."On this he put the bow down, letting it lean against the door,

with the arrow standing against the tip of the bow. Then he took his

seat again on the seat from which he had risen; and Antinous rebuked

him saying:"Leiodes, what are you talking about? Your words are monstrous and

intolerable; it makes me angry to listen to you. Shall, then, this bow

take the life of many a chief among us, merely because you cannot bend

it yourself? True, you were not born to be an archer, but there are

others who will soon string it."Then he said to Melanthius the goatherd, "Look sharp, light a fire

in the court, and set a seat hard by with a sheep skin on it; bring us

also a large ball of lard, from what they have in the house. Let us

warm the bow and grease it we will then make trial of it again, and

bring the contest to an end."Melanthius lit the fire, and set a seat covered with sheep skins

beside it. He also brought a great ball of lard from what they had

in the house, and the suitors warmed the bow and again made trial of

it, but they were none of them nearly strong enough to string it.

Nevertheless there still remained Antinous and Eurymachus, who were

the ringleaders among the suitors and much the foremost among them

all.Then the swineherd and the stockman left the cloisters together, and

Ulysses followed them. When they had got outside the gates and the

outer yard, Ulysses said to them quietly:"Stockman, and you swineherd, I have something in my mind which I am

in doubt whether to say or no; but I think I will say it. What

manner of men would you be to stand by Ulysses, if some god should

bring him back here all of a sudden? Say which you are disposed to do-

to side with the suitors, or with Ulysses?""Father Jove," answered the stockman, "would indeed that you might

so ordain it. If some god were but to bring Ulysses back, you should

see with what might and main I would fight for him."In like words Eumaeus prayed to all the gods that Ulysses might

return; when, therefore, he saw for certain what mind they were of,

Ulysses said, "It is I, Ulysses, who am here. I have suffered much,

but at last, in the twentieth year, I am come back to my own

country. I find that you two alone of all my servants are glad that

I should do so, for I have not heard any of the others praying for

my return. To you two, therefore, will I unfold the truth as it

shall be. If heaven shall deliver the suitors into my hands, I will

find wives for both of you, will give you house and holding close to

my own, and you shall be to me as though you were brothers and friends

of Telemachus. I will now give you convincing proofs that you may know

me and be assured. See, here is the scar from the boar's tooth that

ripped me when I was out hunting on Mount Parnassus with the sons of

Autolycus."As he spoke he drew his rags aside from the great scar, and when

they had examined it thoroughly, they both of them wept about Ulysses,

threw their arms round him and kissed his head and shoulders, while

Ulysses kissed their hands and faces in return. The sun would have

gone down upon their mourning if Ulysses had not checked them and

said:"Cease your weeping, lest some one should come outside and see us,

and tell those who a are within. When you go in, do so separately, not

both together; I will go first, and do you follow afterwards; Let this

moreover be the token between us; the suitors will all of them try

to prevent me from getting hold of the bow and quiver; do you,

therefore, Eumaeus, place it in my hands when you are carrying it

about, and tell the women to close the doors of their apartment. If

they hear any groaning or uproar as of men fighting about the house,

they must not come out; they must keep quiet, and stay where they

are at their work. And I charge you, Philoetius, to make fast the

doors of the outer court, and to bind them securely at once."When he had thus spoken, he went back to the house and took the seat

that he had left. Presently, his two servants followed him inside.At this moment the bow was in the hands of Eurymachus, who was

warming it by the fire, but even so he could not string it, and he was

greatly grieved. He heaved a deep sigh and said, "I grieve for

myself and for us all; I grieve that I shall have to forgo the

marriage, but I do not care nearly so much about this, for there are

plenty of other women in Ithaca and elsewhere; what I feel most is the

fact of our being so inferior to Ulysses in strength that we cannot

string his bow. This will disgrace us in the eyes of those who are yet

unborn.""It shall not be so, Eurymachus," said Antinous, "and you know it

yourself. To-day is the feast of Apollo throughout all the land; who

can string a bow on such a day as this? Put it on one side- as for the

axes they can stay where they are, for no one is likely to come to the

house and take them away: let the cupbearer go round with his cups,

that we may make our drink-offerings and drop this matter of the

bow; we will tell Melanthius to bring us in some goats to-morrow-

the best he has; we can then offer thigh bones to Apollo the mighty

archer, and again make trial of the bow, so as to bring the contest to

an end."The rest approved his words, and thereon men servants poured water

over the hands of the guests, while pages filled the mixing-bowls with

wine and water and handed it round after giving every man his

drink-offering. Then, when they had made their offerings and had drunk

each as much as he desired, Ulysses craftily said:"Suitors of the illustrious queen, listen that I may speak even as I

am minded. I appeal more especially to Eurymachus, and to Antinous who

has just spoken with so much reason. Cease shooting for the present

and leave the matter to the gods, but in the morning let heaven give

victory to whom it will. For the moment, however, give me the bow that

I may prove the power of my hands among you all, and see whether I

still have as much strength as I used to have, or whether travel and

neglect have made an end of it."This made them all very angry, for they feared he might string the

bow; Antinous therefore rebuked him fiercely saying, "Wretched

creature, you have not so much as a grain of sense in your whole body;

you ought to think yourself lucky in being allowed to dine unharmed

among your betters, without having any smaller portion served you than

we others have had, and in being allowed to hear our conversation.

No other beggar or stranger has been allowed to hear what we say among

ourselves; the wine must have been doing you a mischief, as it does

with all those drink immoderately. It was wine that inflamed the

Centaur Eurytion when he was staying with Peirithous among the

Lapithae. When the wine had got into his head he went mad and did

ill deeds about the house of Peirithous; this angered the heroes who

were there assembled, so they rushed at him and cut off his ears and

nostrils; then they dragged him through the doorway out of the

house, so he went away crazed, and bore the burden of his crime,

bereft of understanding. Henceforth, therefore, there was war

between mankind and the centaurs, but he brought it upon himself

through his own drunkenness. In like manner I can tell you that it

will go hardly with you if you string the bow: you will find no

mercy from any one here, for we shall at once ship you off to king

Echetus, who kills every one that comes near him: you will never get

away alive, so drink and keep quiet without getting into a quarrel

with men younger than yourself."Penelope then spoke to him. "Antinous," said she, "it is not right

that you should ill-treat any guest of Telemachus who comes to this

house. If the stranger should prove strong enough to string the mighty

bow of Ulysses, can you suppose that he would take me home with him

and make me his wife? Even the man himself can have no such idea in

his mind: none of you need let that disturb his feasting; it would

be out of all reason.""Queen Penelope," answered Eurymachus, "we do not suppose that

this man will take you away with him; it is impossible; but we are

afraid lest some of the baser sort, men or women among the Achaeans,

should go gossiping about and say, 'These suitors are a feeble folk;

they are paying court to the wife of a brave man whose bow not one

of them was able to string, and yet a beggarly tramp who came to the

house strung it at once and sent an arrow through the iron.' This is

what will be said, and it will be a scandal against us.""Eurymachus," Penelope answered, "people who persist in eating up

the estate of a great chieftain and dishonouring his house must not

expect others to think well of them. Why then should you mind if men

talk as you think they will? This stranger is strong and well-built,

he says moreover that he is of noble birth. Give him the bow, and

let us see whether he can string it or no. I say- and it shall

surely be- that if Apollo vouchsafes him the glory of stringing it,

I will give him a cloak and shirt of good wear, with a javelin to keep

off dogs and robbers, and a sharp sword. I will also give him sandals,

and will see him sent safely whereever he wants to go."Then Telemachus said, "Mother, I am the only man either in Ithaca or

in the islands that are over against Elis who has the right to let any

one have the bow or to refuse it. No one shall force me one way or the

other, not even though I choose to make the stranger a present of

the bow outright, and let him take it away with him. Go, then,

within the house and busy yourself with your daily duties, your

loom, your distaff, and the ordering of your servants. This bow is a

man's matter, and mine above all others, for it is I who am master

here."She went wondering back into the house, and laid her son's saying in

her heart. Then going upstairs with her handmaids into her room, she

mourned her dear husband till Minerva sent sweet sleep over her

eyelids.The swineherd now took up the bow and was for taking it to

Ulysses, but the suitors clamoured at him from all parts of the

cloisters, and one of them said, "You idiot, where are you taking

the bow to? Are you out of your wits? If Apollo and the other gods

will grant our prayer, your own boarhounds shall get you into some

quiet little place, and worry you to death."Eumaeus was frightened at the outcry they all raised, so he put

the bow down then and there, but Telemachus shouted out at him from

the other side of the cloisters, and threatened him saying, "Father

Eumaeus, bring the bow on in spite of them, or young as I am I will

pelt you with stones back to the country, for I am the better man of

the two. I wish I was as much stronger than all the other suitors in

the house as I am than you, I would soon send some of them off sick

and sorry, for they mean mischief."Thus did he speak, and they all of them laughed heartily, which

put them in a better humour with Telemachus; so Eumaeus brought the

bow on and placed it in the hands of Ulysses. When he had done this,

he called Euryclea apart and said to her, "Euryclea, Telemachus says

you are to close the doors of the women's apartments. If they hear any

groaning or uproar as of men fighting about the house, they are not to

come out, but are to keep quiet and stay where they are at their

work."Euryclea did as she was told and closed the doors of the women's

apartments.Meanwhile Philoetius slipped quietly out and made fast the gates

of the outer court. There was a ship's cable of byblus fibre lying

in the gatehouse, so he made the gates fast with it and then came in

again, resuming the seat that he had left, and keeping an eye on

Ulysses, who had now got the bow in his hands, and was turning it

every way about, and proving it all over to see whether the worms

had been eating into its two horns during his absence. Then would

one turn towards his neighbour saying, "This is some tricky old

bow-fancier; either he has got one like it at home, or he wants to

make one, in such workmanlike style does the old vagabond handle it."Another said, "I hope he may be no more successful in other things

than he is likely to be in stringing this bow."But Ulysses, when he had taken it up and examined it all over,

strung it as easily as a skilled bard strings a new peg of his lyre

and makes the twisted gut fast at both ends. Then he took it in his

right hand to prove the string, and it sang sweetly under his touch

like the twittering of a swallow. The suitors were dismayed, and

turned colour as they heard it; at that moment, moreover, Jove

thundered loudly as a sign, and the heart of Ulysses rejoiced as he

heard the omen that the son of scheming Saturn had sent him.He took an arrow that was lying upon the table- for those which

the Achaeans were so shortly about to taste were all inside the

quiver- he laid it on the centre-piece of the bow, and drew the

notch of the arrow and the string toward him, still seated on his

seat. When he had taken aim he let fly, and his arrow pierced every

one of the handle-holes of the axes from the first onwards till it had

gone right through them, and into the outer courtyard. Then he said to

Telemachus:"Your guest has not disgraced you, Telemachus. I did not miss what I

aimed at, and I was not long in stringing my bow. I am still strong,

and not as the suitors twit me with being. Now, however, it is time

for the Achaeans to prepare supper while there is still daylight,

and then otherwise to disport themselves with song and dance which are

the crowning ornaments of a banquet."As he spoke he made a sign with his eyebrows, and Telemachus

girded on his sword, grasped his spear, and stood armed beside his

father's seat.





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