The Odyssey By Homer Summary and Analysis Book 20 - Portents Gather

Summary

Odysseus spends a restless night worrying about the impending battle. He angrily notices the maidservants as they sneak out to meet their lovers among the suitors. Suddenly Athena appears and assures him of vengeful victory. Penelope's room is nearby, and at dawn, he hears the end of her prayer for death if she cannot join her husband. He imagines (20.105) that she recognizes him and that they are together at last. Odysseus prays to Zeus for a sign of support and is answered by a thunderclap.

This day is a special holiday on Ithaca, a festal celebration in honor of Apollo, god of archery. Melanthius, the goatherd, is in town for the celebration and again bullies Odysseus. Eumaeus, the swineherd, continues to earn his master's trust as does Philoetius, a cowherd. The suitors, talking again of assassinating Telemachus, continue their boorish behavior. One of the lot, Ctesippus, mocks beggar/Odysseus and hurls an oxhoof at the king. Telemachus berates the suitors and lists some of their many offenses. The seer Theoclymenus speaks ominously to them, offering one of their last warnings, but in their arrogance, the suitors respond with derisive laughter.

Analysis

As the hour of the battle approaches, the tone is ominous. Evidence mounts against the suitors. Odysseus is, wisely, uneasy while the suitors go blithely about their usual proceedings, failing to notice the gathering storm.

Homer devotes much of this section to a collection of evidence against the maidservants and suitors. Odysseus hears the maids as they sneak out of the house, giggling in anticipation of another night with their lovers. Their trysts with the suitors especially bother him because these are blatant acts of disloyalty toward Penelope. The goatherd Melanthius is another disloyal servant. We remember him from his assault on the beggar/Odysseus during the king's initial trip to town with Eumaeus. Melanthius again bullies the guest. The suitors behave in their usual haughty manner. Ctesippus takes his turn insulting the disguised king and casts an oxhoof at him. Further building the case against the suitors, Telemachus boldly scolds them and catalogues their offenses. Although Telemachus may be emboldened partly because he is aware of his father's presence, this passage also demonstrates that he is now a stronger, more mature prince than the one portrayed early in the epic. He is ready for his first real battle. The effect of this detail, as well as Telemachus' recitation of the suitors' many violations is to further justify the merciless revenge that is about to take place.

Preparation for battle must include intervention by the gods. Athena comes to Odysseus in the night and guarantees success even if he were to face "fifty bands of mortal fighters" (20.53), and Zeus, responding to Odysseus' request for a sign, produces a massive roll of thunder. Penelope, too, hopes for help from the gods and asks that she die if she cannot be with her husband. Finally, Penelope has chosen Apollo the Archer's celebration for the contest of the bow. Not only is the contest fitting for archers, but Apollo's arrows carry death — as will those of Odysseus this day.

The suitors have been repeatedly warned, individually and as a group. Their standard response is to mock the speaker. Evidence has been gathered. In effect, they have testified against themselves. The gods have condemned the intruders. Justice, like a terrible storm, is about to break upon them.

Glossary

Pandareus father of the nightingale. See Fagles and Knox (pp. 514-515) for a thorough consideration.

the distant deadly Archer Apollo.

charlatan an impostor, fraud or fake.

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