Wednesday, 3 October 2012

Blogging the Odyssey - Book 20

First, the Sparknotes summary:

Penelope and Odysseus both have trouble sleeping that night. Odysseus worries that he and Telemachus will never be able to conquer so many suitors, but Athena reassures him that through the gods all things are possible. Tormented by the loss of her husband and her commitment to remarry, Penelope wakes and prays for Artemis to kill her. Her distress wakes Odysseus, who asks Zeus for a good omen. Zeus responds with a clap of thunder, and, at once, a maid in an adjacent room is heard cursing the suitors.

As the palace springs to life the next day, Odysseus and Telemachus meet, in succession, the swineherd Eumaeus, the foul Melanthius, and Philoetius, a kindly and loyal herdsman who says that he has not yet given up hope of Odysseus’s return. The suitors enter, once again plotting Telemachus’s murder. Amphinomus convinces them to call it off, however, when a portent of doom appears in the form of an eagle carrying a dove in its talons. But Athena keeps the suitors antagonistic all through dinner to prevent Odysseus’s anger from losing its edge. Ctesippus, a wealthy and arrogant suitor, throws a cow’s hoof at Odysseus, in response to which Telemachus threatens to run him through with his sword. The suitors laugh and laugh, failing to notice that they and the walls of the room are covered in blood and that their faces have assumed a foreign, ghostly look—all of which Theoclymenus interprets as portents of inescapable doom.

Again, we find that we are in a world of gods, portents and soothsayers.  The signs are getting increasingly grim for the suitors.  It does not help that Ktesippos decides to throw a cow's hoof at Odysseus, in violation of his divinely protected status as a stranger and a guest.  Telemakhos, who is now saying openly that he is no longer a child but a man, severely rebukes him.

The prophet Theoklymenos' words are particularly haunting:
"Wretched men, what is this evil that you suffer?  Night
shrouds your heads and faces, and your knees beneath.
A sound of wailing is kindled, and your cheeks are weeping,
and the walls and beautiful rafters are spattered with blood.
The porch is full of phantoms, and the hall is full of them,
as they fly to Erebos in darkness; and the sun has
disappeared from the sky, and an evil mist has fallen."
So he spoke, but they all laughed merrily at him.
It is noteworthy that Philoitios enquires about Odysseus' identity by asking where he comes from and what his family background is (just as Penelope did when talking to the disguised Odysseus in the last book).  This seems to be fairly standard practice for characters in the epic, and reflects the importance of place and family in defining who someone is.