Monday, 24 March 2014

The Odyssey Read-Along Book XIX & XX



The Odyssey Read-Along @ Plethora of Books


Book XIX


Ordering Eurykleia to get the women into the house, Telemachos and his father proceed to store away all the weapons.  Afterwards Telemachos goes to bed, but Penelope descends from her chamber, wishing to speak with “the stranger”. Once again Melantho harps at Odysseus and he has harsh words for her, but Penelope, catching their conversation, scolds her maidservant and sends her away.  Sorrowfully she confesses to “the stranger” how she has avoided marriage for the past three years, but now she feels that she can delay her fate no longer.  Odysseus requests that Penelope not ask for his history but she ignores his entreaty and, seemingly against his will, he must weave an elaborate lie to placate her curiosity.  When he tells her of Odysseus’ return however, if spite of his apparent sincerity, she does not believe him,   She offers him a bath in the morning yet he will accept only if an old woman with as many sorrows as he, will give it to him.  Penelope sends him Eurykleia, his old nurse, and to his consternation she recognizes a scar he received on his leg from the tusks of a wild boar when he was just a young boy.  Wild with joy, she makes to summon Penelope but Odysseus stays her with rather harsh words.   Professing her loyalty, she leaves and returns with a new basin of water and proceeds to wash him and anoint him with oil.  Then Penelope speaks with him again, admitting to her indecision over her course with the suitors and then requesting that he interpret her dream:  she had twenty geese that fed on wheat and a great eagle came and broke the necks of all of them.  The eagle returned, claiming to be Odysseus and the geese the suitors.  Once again Odysseus tries to convince her of his return and the suitors' destruction, but she then prevaricates, stating that some dreams are true but others only deception, and she believes her dream the latter.  Tomorrow she will set up a contest between the suitors and whoever can send an arrow through twelve axes set up in order, that is the man she will marry.  She retires to her chamber to weep for Odysseus.

Disbelief

How believable is Penelope’s disbelief?  She has had numerous tales of Odysseus’ return, yet she absolutely refuses to lend them any credence.  One would think she could at least send out servants to try to confirm or deny the stories, but it is as if she has given up long ago and the only way she is able to survive is to believe the worst and attempt to deal with it.  It is not surprising that Eurykleia is able to recognize something of Odysseus in “the stranger”, yet Penelope cannot.  She has already abandoned hope.

Portents and Omens

We have seen many portents throughout this poem, which always seem to need to be read by someone.  The omen of the eagle and twenty geese perhaps is not difficult to interpret.  I also thought that the 20 geese could symbolize the 20 years that Odysseus had been away and the sudden appearance of the eagle, his sudden return.

Rather shockingly, in the dream, Penelope likes her geese and cries sorrowfully when they are slaughtered.  Does this mean she likes the attentions of the suitors?  Is her claim of delay a ruse to continue their behaviour, which may possibly stroke her ego?

Deception

We finally learn how Odysseus could have honestly come by his ability to so cleverly deceive:

“This was his mother’s noble father, who surpassed all men in thievery and the art of the oath ……” 

However he is not pleased to deceive his wife, although when she persists, he does lie to her, as he finds it necessary to do so.

 
Odysseus and Penelope
Johann Heinrich Wilhelm Tischbein (19th century)
source Wikimedia Commons

Book XX


Sleep evades Odysseus as he agonizes over the suitors' treatment of his household, meanwhile Athene descends and lightly scolds Odysseus for not being grateful that his wife and son and house are within his reach, as well as his lack of faith that he will overcomes his enemies.  As Athene drifts slumber over him, Penelope is praying for the gods to end her life; she would rather be under the earth with Odysseus than have an inferior husband.  Her husband hears her weeping and prays to the gods to send him an omen, both inside and outside, whereupon he hears thunder sent by Zeus and a mill woman prays for the suitors destruction.  Telemachos rises and checks with Eurykleia that the stranger has been treated well, then she makes sure that the palace is ready for the suitors’ arrival for the public festival.  Eumaios stops to speak with Odysseus but Melanthios mocks and challenges Odysseus, who gives no answer.  Philoitios, an oxherd, then arrives, asking about “the stranger” and lamenting the absence of Odysseus and how the suitors ruin his household.  Odysseus assures him of his master’s return, Eumaios prays for the same and Amphinomos reads an omen that Telemachos will not be murdered.  The sacrificing begins and Telemachos commands that “the stranger” will be treated well, amazing everyone with his authority, and even Antinoös defers to his spoken wishes.  One suitor, however, Ktesippos, protests at “the stranger’s” presence and hurls an ox hoof at him, which misses, causing Telemachos to praise the miss otherwise he would have had to stick him through the middle with his spear.  Again, everyone is astounded at his command, and Agelaos tried to calm the situation, but then refers to the giving of Penelope in marriage.  Telemachos states he would be willing to see her married if it was of her own free will, but since she resists, he will not force her.  The suitors laugh at his words, but instead of a sincere laughter, it is as the laughter of men who have lost control and sounds most like a lamentation.  Theoklymenos, disparages their laughter, prophesying their doom and leaves when they threaten him.  They continue their boisterous mocking and jeering but Telemachos only looks at his father.  Penelope listens outside the door.

Identity and Authority

Again we have numerous instances of Telemachos taking control of his household.  He is described as a “man like a god”, has control over his servants, to an acceptable degree, his own mother, and exhibits a subtle control over the suitors.  His speech to Ktesippos exemplifies his newly-acquired power and authority:

“Ktesippos, it was better for your heart that it happened so; you missed the stranger, he avoided your missile.  I would have struck you with my sharp spear fair in the middle, and instead of your marriage your father would have been busy with your funeral here.  Let none display any rudeness here in my house.  I now notice all and know of it, better and worse alike, but before now I was only an infant.  Even so, we have had to look on this and endure it all, the sheepflocks being slaughtered, the wine drunk up, and the food, since it is hard for one man to stand off many.  Come then, no longer do me harm in your hostility.  But if you are determined to murder me with the sharp bronze, then that would be my wish also, since it would be far better than to have to go on watching forever these shameful activities, guests being battered about, or to see you rudely mishandling the serving women all about the beautiful place.”

And yet there is still a sense that both the behaviour of Telemachos and Odysseus is a careful balancing act, but there is evidence, psychologically at least, that the scales are beginning to swing in their favour.

A Decrease of Power?

This chapter shows the suitors at a disadvantage in their surprise at Telemachos’ mastery of situations, and evidenced by their hysterical laughter.  While initially their mocking had a powerful ring to it, we sense now that their laughter is forced and purposed to cover up something.  Could it be the advent of fear?  Hmmm …….

Parthenon Temple of Athene


No comments:

Post a comment