Michael Delahoyde, PhD

Professor of English

Homer’s Odyssey: Book 23

The nurse is delighted to be able to tell Penelope the news: Odysseus is here and killed all the suitors. At first, Penelope assumes that the nurse has gone bonkers. But the nurse persists, and Penelope is overjoyed. How he managed to slay everyone is a mystery: the nurse just heard the groans of the dying and afterwards saw the heaps of corpses and the hall blood-splattered. Penelope catches herself hoping and withholds her willingness to rejoice: what the nurse is reporting cannot be true, and it must have been a god who accomplished the slaughter. Jeez, says the nurse, he’s right here in the house with his scar and all, right now! Whatever, declares Penelope, I’ll just go see my son and this guy.

Penelope undergoes the same kind of hyper-careful consideration we’ve seen from Odysseus: “should she keep her distance, / probe her husband? Or rush up to the man at once / and kiss his head and cling to both his hands?” (23.97-99). She sits in silence a while, observing him. The rags are not a good validation. Telemachus can’t believe how unnecessarily cruel she is being, but she says, “if he is truly / Odysseus, home at last, make no mistake: / we two will know each other, even better — / we two have secret signs, / known to us both but hidden from the world” (23.121-125). Odysseus smiles and tells Telemachus to let his mother test him — the rags are a problem. (Also, awkwardly inserted, realize that there will be more enemies as a consequence of the slaying of the suitors. First, we’ll cover up the deed with partying and some bard-music. Anyone driving by will just think there’s a wedding happening.) The maid Eurynome and goddess Athena restore Odysseus to cleanliness and vigor, and he returns to Penelope, calling her hard-hearted and declaring he’ll sleep off somewhere alone.

Penelope acknowledges that, cleaned up, he does look like the real Odysseus, but she orders Eurycleia to move the bed out of the bridal chamber, the one Odysseus built himself. This is a test. Odysseus has a fit. Who could move the bed that essentially was built as part of an olive tree, with the bedroom constructed around it. He describes the finer details of the bed he crafted. This is the proof Penelope needed; she “felt her knees go slack, her heart surrender” (23.231). She flings her arms around Odysseus and asks for forgiveness, explaining that since the gods apparently grudged them a life together, she was always worried a fraud would show up. The case of Helen is referred to. Odysseus sheds tears too, “as he held the wife / he loved, the soul of loyalty, in his arms at last. / Joy, warm as the joy that shipwrecked sailors feel / when they catch sight of land — Poseidon has struck / their well-rigged ship on the open sea with gale winds / and crushing walls of waves, and only a few escape, swimming, / struggling out of the frothing surf to reach the shore, / their bodies crusted with salt but buoyed up with joy / as they plant their feet on solid ground again, / spared a deadly fate. So joyous now to her / the sight of her husband” (23.260-270). Oh, I thought it started out being an epic simile regarding his joy — but it turned into hers. Also, interesting that what was basically the prior narrative is now become a poetic decoration in the context of what finally matters most.

“Dawn with her rose-red fingers might have shone / upon their tears, if with her glinting eyes / Athena had not thought of one more thing. / She held back the night, and night lingered long / at the western edge of the earth” (23.273-277). Odysseus inappropriately (because it’s another insertion about Book 24) tells Penelope he’ll have to go on another business trip soon, prophesied by Tiresias in the Underworld. “But come, let’s go to bed, dear woman — at long last / delight in sleep, delight in each other, come!” (23.289-290). Penelope says she’ll go to bed with him any time he wants from now on, but also, what’s this extra business you mention. Odysseus blabs about the chore left to do, and mentions the prophecy that he’ll live to old age and die happy. Penelope is glad to hear that all the crap they’ve endured is over with.

“So husband and wife confided in each other, / while nurse and Eurynome, under the flaring brands, / were making up the bed with coverings deep and soft. / And working briskly, soon as they’d made it snug, / back to her room the old nurse went to sleep / as Eurynome, their attendant, torch in hand, / lighted the royal couple’s way to bed and, / leading them to their chamber, slipped away. / Rejoicing in each other, they returned to their bed, / the old familiar place they loved so well” (23.329-338).

* * *

That’s the end. Or, that’s no doubt the intended original end, and should be. But somebody decided to replicate the Iliad in having 24 books, so anti-climax time.

Telemachus, the loyal swineherd, and the loyal cowherd rest while Odysseus and Penelope fill each other in on all they’ve endured. It might be interesting to have heard Odysseus’ (expurgated?) version of his adventures: we get just a summary of what he reported. Athena isn’t quite done messing with her devotee, or else she’s not into the love stuff like Aphrodite might have been, and so she prods Odysseus to consider restoring his flocks, visiting his father, and tending to the business of dealing with the aftermath and fall-out of the suitor slaughter. Athena leads the four men shrouded in darkness.

Odyssey: Book 24
Odyssey Index