Homer’s Odyssey: Book 19

With Athena’s coaching, Odysseus instructs Telemachus to help hide the suitors’ weapons and to lie to them, saying that it was to prevent smoke damage and also to hinder heated tempers leading to homicide when they’re all drunk. With the cooperation of the nurse Eurycleia, Odysseus and Telemachus accomplish this chore, also with Athena lighting the way. Odysseus says that he will accept an audience with Penelope, and that he will test her. (Again, trust issues.)

Penelope emerges, “looking for all the world like Artemis or golden Aphrodite” (19.57). The rotten maid Melantho heaps abuse on Odysseus, who initially is mild regarding her treatment of a poor beggar, but also informs her that if she thinks Odysseus will never return, “well there’s his son, Telemachus … / like father, like son” (19.). Penelope adds, “Make no mistake, you brazen, shameless bitch, / none of your ugly work escapes me either — / you will pay for it with your life, you will!” (19.99-101). Penelope instructs Eurynome to fetch a cushy chair so that she can speak with the disguised Odysseus. She acknowledges that her “life is now torment” (19.143) and makes clear her devotion to Odysseus. In return, Odysseus spins another long yarn about his origin in Crete, with king Minos as his grandfather and Deucalion as his father and Idomeneus as his brother and brother-in-arms at Troy. “Falsehoods all, / but he gave his falsehoods all the ring of truth. / As she listened on, her tears flowed and soaked her cheeks” (19.234-237). (Can we trust that the whole story he told Alcinous and the Phaeacians was the truth now?! It seems he can’t help himself.)

But Penelope proves again that she is a good match for him: “Now, stranger, I think I’ll test you, just to see / if there in your house, with all your friends-in-arms, / you actually entertained my husband as you say. / Come, tell me what sort of clothing he wore, / what cut of man was he? / What of the men who followed in his train?” (19.248-253). Odysseus first notes that it’s been many years, but he describes in exact detail what Odysseus wore including precision about a golden engraved brooch, and other proofs that he knew Odysseus. Penelope weeps, tells the beggar that she gave Odysseus those clothes, and puns: “A black day it was / when he took ship to see that cursed city … / Des-troy, I call it — I hate to say its name!” (19.297-299). Odysseus tries to comfort her with assurances that her husband is coming home. Penelope dares not hope: “Odysseus. There was a man, or was he all a dream?” (19.363). She insists that the beggar accept fine treatment, and she adds a philosophical dimension to the issue of hospitality: “Our lives are much too brief … / If a man is cruel by nature, cruel in action, / the mortal world will call down curses on his head / while he is alive, and all will mock his memory after death. / But then if a man is kind by nature, kind in action, / his guests will carry his fame across the earth / and people all will praise him from the heart” (19.377-383). Odysseus says he is used to a humbler existence, but at least the nurse Eurycleia will wash his feet. She is struck by how much the beggar resembles Odysseus; Odysseus says a lot of people say that. But Eurycleia recognizes the scar from an old wound.

The poet recounts the episode, starting with Odysseus’ grandfather Autolycus (whose name means “lone wolf”) bestowing the child’s name: “so let his name be Odysseus … / the Son of Pain, a name he’ll earn in full” (19.463-464). Much later, on a wild boar hunt with Odysseus “shaking his long spear in a sturdy hand” (19.507), Odysseus received his wound from the boar’s tusk.

Eurycleia is emotionally overwhelmed. She tries to signal Penelope, but Athena prevents the glance and Odysseus warns the nurse of the dangers if she fails to keep quiet. Penelope resumes their conversation with the key question: now that Telemachus has just about reached manhood, should she finally give up and marry one of the suitors? But first, interpret this dream: an eagle broke the necks of all twenty of her pet geese, but the apparent misfortune was interpreted in the dream itself when a voice claimed that the geese were the suitors and the eagle her husband. Odysseus tries to second that interpretation, but Penelope still does not dare to hope for what she most desires. She tells the beggar that she has decided to hold a contest: she will forsake her estate and marry whoever can string Odysseus’ bow and whip an arrow through a line of twelve axes. Odysseus says that Odysseus will be home before any suitor can win such a contest: bring it on! And Penelope goes to bed weeping.

Odyssey: Book 20
Odyssey Index