Of all creatures that breathe and walk on the earth there is nothing
more helpless than a man is, of all that the earth fosters;
for he thinks that he will never suffer misfortune in future
days, while the gods grant him courage and his knees have spring
in them. But when the blessed gods bring sad days upon him,
against his will he must suffer it with enduring spirit.
I’m surprised that Odysseus has the time to turn philosophical with all that has been going on in the previous few days. The Phaiakians dump him on a deserted beach near home and he spends some time, in disguise, with his loyal and hospitable swineherd who brings him up to speed on local developments. When the swineherd asks him who he is and how he got there he has to do some quick thinking and comes up with quite an elaborate tale of woe that doesn’t quite convince his interlocutor but he gets away with it. Meanwhile, Athene gets Telemachos to come around and he finally sees his father again. Much weeping ensues, naturally. Eventually they get down to plotting the downfall of the suitors and head off, separately, for their palace. Odysseus travels as a beggar and suffers much abuse, but you can be sure he will even the score presently. Penelope gets wind of his impending return so now the whole family is more or less on the same page and are drawing the suitors into their trap. Penelope scolds the suitors for not bringing her gifts, and the bling starts pouring in from all directions, much to Odysseus’ delight. Whatever costs the suitors is fine by him. All three of them get in some pretty good speeches chastising the suitors for their uncouth behaviour and warning them of what will happen when the master of the house gets home. Naturally they scoff, but they can’t say they weren’t warned. Only one of them, Amphinomos, calls for some restraint, but I have the feeling that won’t help him much in the end. If he’s in the house he’s on the list.
I was glad to be done with all the monsters and I have to say that this section of The Odyssey had me in suspense much more than the last. With the monsters you pretty well knew it was going to end badly, but now we are in an unknown situation and it’s hard to say how it will play out. Odysseus and Telemachos have laid out some plans but how it will go down in the end is apparently in the hands of the gods. No doubt Athene will be there every step of the way as Odysseus and Telemachos go snicker-snack through the suitors.
The saddest moment had to be when Odysseus’ poor old neglected dog who he raised from a puppy recognizes him but doesn’t have the strength to greet him. After 20 years of waiting for his master he finally dies right there on a dung heap—how sad!
One thing I liked about this section was all the humble little details that provide a refreshing contrast to the more epic and magical aspects of the tale. There aren’t many of them but they really attracted my attention. For example, Telemachos woke up Peisistratos “stirring him with a nudge of his heel,” after which he “made haste to slip the shimmering tunic over his skin.” I liked how it is said of the chariot horses that “All day long they shook the yoke they wore on their shoulders.” At one point Athene “nodded to him with her brows,” and later Penelope “rubbed her cheeks with both her hands.” These are not important remarks but the rarity of such descriptions makes them stand out to me.
Another thing that stands out in this section is the augury. During the sea voyage it was the gods who warned Odysseus of future perils, but now it is the birds who portend what is to come. Luckily there always seems to be someone by who can interpret the signs. They have pretty much the same message for Odysseus, Telemachos, and Penelope: woe to the suitors!
One of the major themes here, as with the travels (among humans) of Odysseus and Telemachos, is hospitality. In this case it is hospitality towards beggars, and almost everyone fails in this regard except for Eumaios the swineherd. Odysseus chides Eurymachos, the most prominent and dastardly of the suitors, for being so stingy that he won’t even share food that isn’t his. One of Odysseus’ own serving girls, who happens to be Eurymachos’ girlfriend, is rude to him as well and gets some sharp words in return. Even the most famous local beggar lords it over Odysseus, and gets a broken jaw for his trouble. Just about everyone is getting on to Odysseus’ naughty list, and I have the feeling that the last 6 books are going to get pretty messy.
Read more Odyssey Readalong posts at Love, Laughter, and a Touch of Insanity.