The Odyssey By Homer Summary and Analysis Books 13-14 - Ithaca at Last; The Loyal Swineherd

Summary

Odysseus' account of his wanderings is complete. The Phaeacians know the rest. They are silent for a few seconds until Alcinous speaks to assure Odysseus that he will be returned safely to his home and to insist on even more gifts for the guest. Odysseus will arrive in Ithaca with treasure surpassing his fair share from Troy, which has long since been lost. Consistent with their custom, the Phaeacians provide the wanderer safe passage home. This annoys Poseidon who complains to Zeus. The gods agree on Poseidon's vengeance against the Phaeacians.

Athena meets Odysseus on Ithaca and disguises him as an old beggar so that he can gain information without being recognized. He meets his loyal swineherd, Eumaeus, and is pleased with the man's hospitality as well as his devotion to his master, whom he does not recognize.

Analysis

The pace slows as the story returns from the fantastic world of the wanderings. These books serve to return Odysseus, at last, to Ithaca; in addition, they further consider two of the most important themes in the epic: hospitality and loyalty.

One of the controversies in this section of the tale is that the Phaeacians, who are models of hospitality, apparently are to be punished by the gods for their kindness and generosity. Poseidon (13.142-157) complains to Zeus that he is disrespected by the mortals and will lose face with other gods because the Phaeacians have returned Odysseus safely to his homeland. The overriding conflict here is that Poseidon wants to punish the Phaeacians for granting safe passage to wayfaring strangers, a custom that is an exceptional virtue in Homer's world. The situation is further complicated because Zeus is the protector of wayfaring strangers and suppliants. As the introduction to Fagles and Knox puts it (p. 44), "If there is one stable moral criterion in the world of The Odyssey, it is the care taken by the powerful and well-to-do of strangers, wanderers and beggars." Zeus turns his back on this ideal code of conduct.

Echoing the prophecy of Alcinous' father, which the son, now King of Phaeacia, mentioned (8.631-641) just before Odysseus began the story of his wanderings, Poseidon vows to crush the ship that carries Odysseus home, sinking it (and all the men aboard) before the vessel can dock safely. Then he'll "pile a huge mountain" (13.173) around the Phaeacian port, ostensibly ending the sailing days of these peaceful, seafaring folk. Adding a touch of sculpture to the plan, Zeus suggests turning the ship to stone within sight of shore and then building the mountain around the harbor.

There are two possible loopholes for the Phaeacians. The first is that Poseidon can always change his mind. When Alcinous first told of the prophecy, he mentioned that the sea god could follow through with the vengeance or leave it undone, "whatever warms his heart" (8.641). As soon as Poseidon turns the ship to stone, the Phaeacians do decide to appease him before he closes their port forever. Alcinous quickly promises to stop the trips home for castaways and calls for the sacrifice of a dozen of the finest bulls in hopes of appeasing Poseidon.

The other hope for the Phaeacians is textual and was first advocated by the ancient editor Aristophanes of Byzantium. He pointed out that a slight alteration in the Greek (changing three letters) has Zeus telling Poseidon to turn the ship to stone but not to close the harbor. This interpretation seems more consistent with the rest of the epic and with the reputation of Zeus. Unfortunately, we never find out what happens. Homer leaves the Phaeacians' fate to our imaginations.

Now in Ithaca, Odysseus needs protection. He slept for most of the journey from Phaeacia and is unable to recognize Ithaca when he awakes. Athena has provided a mist to cover the land so that she can privately alter Odysseus' appearance and help him hide his treasure. Athena turns the hero into an old beggar, even going so far as to shrivel his skin, remove the "russet curls" (13.456) from his head, and dim the fire in his eyes. As he did successfully in The Iliad, Odysseus poses as a beggar to gather information.

Odysseus' first human contact is with his swineherd,Eumaeus, the epitome of loyalty and hospitality. Eumaeus repeatedly praises his old king but insists that his master must be dead despite the beggar's promise that Odysseus will soon return. Eumaeus despises the suitors. As a keeper of his master's property, he especially resents the way that the louts have diminished the droves of pigs and herds of cattle. He is kind to the apparent wayfaring stranger, and Odysseus is especially pleased with the swineherd.

Glossary

cauldron a large kettle or vat.

Phorcys an old sea god.

King Priam's craggy city Troy; "craggy" refers to a steep incline of rocks, a barrier.

naiads any of several nymphs living in and presiding over bodies of water.

Idomeneus commander of the warriors from Crete at Troy.

Phoenician a person from ancient Phoenicia, a region along the eastern shores of the Mediterranean.

Libya a kingdom in northern Africa.

Cronus a primordial god who ruled the world until dethroned by his son Zeus.

Thesprotia a region in northwestern Greece.

Dulichion island near Ithaca.

Back to Top

Take the Quiz

From what war is Odysseus attempting to return home?




Quiz