Michael Delahoyde, PhD

Professor of English

Homer’s Odyssey: Book 21

“The time had come” (21.1). Athena prompts Penelope to fetch Odysseus’ bow and axes, and we learn of the lineage of the weapons. The contest is formally announced, and Odysseus’ loyal men weep to see their master’s weapons. Antinous berates them, “but deep in the suitor’s heart his hopes were bent / on stringing the bow and shooting through the axes. / Antinous — fated to be the first man to taste / an arrow whipped from great Odysseus’ hands” (21.110-113). Telemachus can’t help laughing, and excuses it as hysterical grief for the fate of his mother. He decides to try stringing the bow, but Sonny is learning deception from his father and with the signal from the disguised Odysseus, he demonstrates a strategic underachieving, claiming that he’s too weak or young to manage the task. A seer who loathes the suitors’ ways tries and fails.

Odysseus sneaks off and asks the cowherd and swineherd if they would fight for their master. They declare loyalty and Odysseus reveals his identity to them, complete with scar. Odysseus instructs them with practicalities in preparation for the coming event, such as locking away the women.

Meanwhile, Eurymachus tries his strength and fails. Antinous calls for more wine and animal flesh; they can resume the contest tomorrow. Odysseus commends this idea, and modestly says that in the meantime he’d like to have a look at the bow. Antinous warns that he’d better not succeed; but Penelope interjects that the beggar is still Telemachus’ guest and that he obviously doesn’t have a prayer of stringing Odysseus’ bow. Eurymachus notes the potential for them all to be put to shame. “Shame? … / How can you hope for any public fame at all? / You who disgrace, devour a great man’s house and home! / Why hang your heads in shame over next to nothing?” (21.369-372). Telemachus takes charge, claiming the right to present the bow and advising Penelope to return to her chamber and to keep the women there working. Penelope is surprised by Telemachus’ maturity, and complies. Telemachus has the swineherd Eumaeus bring the bow to the beggar. Eurycleia is to prevent the women from responding when they hear the groans of men; she bars the hall doors.

“Now he held the bow / in his own hands, turning it over, tip to tip, / testing it” (21.439-441). The suitors hurl derisive comments, but “with his virtuoso ease Odysseus strung his mighty bow. / Quickly his right hand plucked the string to test its pitch / and under his touch it sang out clear and sharp as a swallow’s cry. / Horror swept through the suitors, faces blanching white” (21.456-459). Zeus sends a lightning bolt. Odysseus takes an arrow and shoots flawlessly through the axes. Odysseus announces to Telemachus that “the hour has come to serve our masters right” (21.477).


Odyssey: Book 22
Odyssey Index