Summary and Analysis
The final book opens with Hermes, the traditional guide, leading the souls of the dead suitors to the Land of the Dead (commonly referred to as Hades). These souls pass such Greek heroes as Achilles and Agamemnon. One of the suitors recites the story of the courtship of Penelope, her resistance to the suitors, and Odysseus' revenge.
Back on Ithaca, Odysseus arrives at his father's farm and approaches Laertes, who looks and acts more like a slave than a former king. After identifying himself, Odysseus joins Laertes, Telemachus, and the two faithful herdsmen for a homecoming meal.
Meanwhile, rumor of the slaughter has spread through the city, and Eupithes, father of Antinous (the aggressive leader of the suitors), calls for revenge. More than half of the men follow Eupithes to Laertes' farm, seeking Odysseus and vengeance. Only the intervention of Athena, again appearing as Mentor, avoids another major battle and perhaps civil war.
Since classical times, the legitimacy of this final section has been controversial. Some scholars maintain that a later, inferior poet wrote it. They suggest that the epic should end when Odysseus and Penelope reunite. (For a thorough discussion of the issue, see Fagles and Knox, pp. 59-64.) The consensus of opinion, however, is that the last book does belong. It ties up at least three loose ends.
The scene in the Land of the Dead may seem tedious, even intrusive, to modern readers; but it serves to complete the Agamemnon parallel. Agamemnon's ghost celebrates Penelope's fidelity and compares her favorably to his treacherous wife, Clytemnestra (24.210-23). The retelling of Penelope's story and Odysseus' revenge may be better understood if we remember that the epic was presented orally, probably over a period of several days or even weeks. As the rhapsode (a bard specializing in epics) is about to conclude his performance, this interlude updates the audience and anticipates the conclusion.
More germane to the continuing action is the meeting between Odysseus and his father, Laertes. During his visit to the Land of the Dead (Book 11), Odysseus learns from his mother, Anticleia, that old King Laertes suffered greatly from his son's absence. Athena and Eumaeus have also mentioned Laertes' struggle. A serious gap would remain if Odysseus did not reunite with his father and restore him to dignity.
One major problem remains. Odysseus has slaughtered more than 100 young men from powerful families on Ithaca and surrounding islands. He knows that he has to deal with an attempt at revenge, which he earlier mentioned to Athena and postponed by having Telemachus stage a fake wedding feast at the palace the night of the slaughter. Now, Eupithes (father of the chief suitor, Antinous) leads a large contingent in an assault on Laertes' farm. Once again, the gods intervene. The two sides engage in battle. Strengthened by his son's return and Athena's blessing, Laertes kills Eupithes. With one father defeating the other, the war ends there. Under directions from Zeus, Athena stops the conflict and calls for peace and cooperation. Prosperity is restored to Ithaca, and Odysseus is home at last.
Thetis a sea goddess, the mother of Achilles.
Nestor ruler of Pylos and eldest of the Greek leaders.
Old Man of the Sea Proteus the shape-shifter, servant of Poseidon.
Dionysus god of wine for whom a cult is named, celebrating the power and fertility of nature.
Cephallenians Fagles and Knox (p. 525) point out that the term is used to refer to all of Odysseus' subjects, but specifically residents of an island west of Ithaca that is part of his kingdom.