Summary and Analysis
Book 23 - The Great Rooted Bed
Now that the battle has ended and the house has been cleaned, good nurse Eurycleia scurries up to Penelope's quarters to tell her all that has happened. As much as Penelope would like to believe that her husband has returned and vanquished the suitors, she is cautious and goes to the great hall to see for herself. When she expresses ambivalence, Telemachus chides his mother for her skepticism. Odysseus gently suggests that the prince leave his parents to work things out. He also wants Telemachus to gather the servants and the bard and stage a fake wedding feast so that any passersby do not suspect the slaughter that has taken place.
To assure herself of Odysseus' identity, Penelope tests him. As he listens, she asks Eurycleia to move the bedstead out of the couple's chamber and spread it with blankets. The king himself had carved the bed as a young man, shaping it out of a living olive tree that grew in the courtyard of the palace. He built the bedroom around the tree and would know that the bed cannot be moved. When Odysseus becomes upset that the original bed may have been destroyed, Penelope is relieved and accepts him as her long-absent husband. For the first time in 20 years, they spend a blissful night together. Athena delays the dawn to grant the couple more time.
Although she seems to suspect that the visitor might be her husband, it is not surprising that Penelope is cautious. She has been approached by frauds before. Some critics suggest that the queen's hesitance is feigned, that she knows the visitor is her husband, and that she is simply being coy, perhaps to impress him with her prudence. This interpretation is a stretch beyond the text. Homer depicts a woman who is very hopeful but careful. It is in Penelope's character to test the man one more time to be certain. No outsider would be likely to know the history of the couple's wedding bed, and that final piece of evidence convinces Penelope and liberates her at last.
Odysseus demonstrates the wisdom of an understanding father as well as caution in his treatment of Telemachus. Rather than scolding the son for chiding his mother, Odysseus assures him that the parents will work things out. Still a military strategist, Odysseus knows that the intruders belong to some of the most influential families in the area who will be bent on revenge. He, therefore, asks his son to create the illusion of a wedding feast in the great hall so that anyone passing by will think that one of the suitors has succeeded and not suspect that they have been slaughtered. Giving Telemachus this assignment not only gives Odysseus time alone with Penelope, but it also demonstrates his faith in the maturing prince.
A few responsibilities remain. Odysseus must visit his father, Laertes, who has suffered emotionally from his son's long absence; the families of the suitors will have to be dealt with to avoid civil war; and, sometime, Odysseus must fulfill the prophecy of Tiresias, spoken at the Land of the Dead: The king must walk inland, from a foreign shore, carrying a well-planed oar until he finds people who know nothing of the sea. When someone mistakes the oar for a fan that winnows grain, Odysseus is to plant the oar and sacrifice a ram, a bull, and a wild boar to Poseidon. He can then return home, make offerings to the gods, and live out a peaceful life.
tunic a loose, gownlike garment, sleeved or sleeveless, hanging to the knees and worn by men as well as women.
hallmark a stamp of genuineness or excellence.
Helen of Argos the same Helen whose abduction from Sparta brought on the Trojan War. By the time of The Odyssey, she is the somewhat matronly queen of Sparta and content to be the wife of King Menelaus.
winnow grain to separate the chaff from wheat or other grain, by tossing it and allowing the wind to blow the chaff away.