Thinking Out Loud about The Odyssey, Part 5

The Odyssey, Books XVII-XXIV

This section drives home (no pun intended) the idea that hospitality reveals a person’s reverence towards the gods. Hospitality is said to be a test of the suitors, for example, when Odysseus as a beggar in Book XVII is told to ask them for food, and although they would not pass the test, the chance was still given to them (366). In the end, the suitors are impious because they are not hospitable towards the beggar and because they abuse Telemachus’ and Penelope’s hospitality (383, 417, 422) [or perhaps they are just impious and their lack of hospitality is another factor revealing their impiety]. Hospitality also is said to bring much honor to the person who practices it, because guests carry the person’s good report to far away places (Book XIX, 401). So even though Penelope had never left her home, her praise could be spread throughout the world through her hospitality.

Penelope, who does not heed strangers at her door who tell her about her husband (394), is called a stranger when her husband returns (461). She and her husband become strangers to each other because they have been separated so long. She is hospitable towards the stranger Odysseus, but is reluctant to trust him, until he passes her astute tests and proves to be who he says he is. It seems that those who are good at tricking others for their own advantage fear that they will be tricked, and therefore, need ways to confirm what strangers tell them. Once the stranger becomes familiar, it seems that the deceitfulness is no longer necessary. In other words, Odysseus no longer tricks Telemachus or Penelope once he reveals himself to them. Perhaps this is what Athena meant when she told Odysseus that now that he was home, he could put off tricks.

Penelope’s wit allows her to bring into her home her share of riches, just like Telemachus and Odysseus had brought riches from their travels. Penelope cunningly requests gifts from the suitors, and they fill her arms with precious items (384-385). Like Odysseus, she is able to use her words to bring about some benefit to herself, in this case, material goods.

Especially Book XXII reveals numerous parallels to The Iliad. The description of the death of the suitors, where the arrows pierced, how they fell to the ground, how Odysseus puts on the armor, all seem akin to the descriptions of the battle scenes in The Iliad. What does not seem to correspond is the quality of the warriors, as Athena points out under the guise of Mentor: the suitors are not great warriors (446). In fact, they are even unable to bend the Odysseus’ bow, so the battle—or the threat of the suitors—seems disproportionate and exaggerated at this point. Why is this the case? Is it to elevate the swineherd and the cowherd? Is it to bind them to Telemachus and Odysseus as people who are bound by war? Is it merely to reflect The Iliad? In fact, the statement that Penelope would be so virtuous that a song would be composed to praise her (474) is even parallel to Achilles’ prediction that the fight between him and Agamemnon would be known for ages (Iliad 490).

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