The contest and therefore, the beginning of the slaughter of the suitors, is begun by the history of the backstrung bow. It was given to Odysseus by Iphitos when they had met trying to retrieve their sheep and horses from the men of Messene. Odysseus had left it behind in Ithaka when he went to Troy, and in his household it had remained. Penelope retrieves the bow, announces the contest to the suitors and then places it in the hands of Eumaios, who is weeping when he sees it in remembrance of his master. Antinoös derides him, and then admits that the bow will be hard to string, as he reminisces about Odysseus’ strength. Telemachos announces that he will be part of the contest and, if he wins, his mother will be able to remain in his house. He sets up the axes, making them perfect, although he has never done this task before, then picks up the bow, sending the string singing three times before Odysseus stops him at the fourth by making a signal with his head, and Telemachos encourages a suitor to come and test his skill. Antinoös determines the order in which they will proceed, and Leodes is the first to try, a man disapproving of the suitors’ actions. He fails, so the suitors decide to heat the bow but even then, they are not able to string it. Meanwhile, Odysseus meets Eumaois and the oxherd, Philoitios, outside the courtyard and, based on their unwavering loyalty, decides to reveal his identity to them. They are overjoyed and there is lots of kissing. He gives commands to both: to Eumaios, to put the bow into his hands and then tell the serving women to bar the doors and not to open them if they hear crashes and outcries; to Philoitios to make fast the courtyard with a bolt. In the meantime, Eurymachos finds he is unable to string the bow and is distraught, yet Antinoös chastises him, saying that of course they cannot string the bow on a holy feast day, and that they must try again tomorrow. Odysseus states he would like to attempt the feat that day, but the suitors are alarmed in case of his success, and issue threats if he is able to string it. Penelope chides them for their rudeness, stating the impossibility of her becoming the wife of “the stranger” but Eurymachos argues that their reputation is at stake, and finally Telemachos intervenes, sending his mother back to her house. Eumaios tries to carry the bow to “the stranger” but the suitors are so vehement against him, he drops it. Telemachos exerts his will and it is finally handed to Odysseus. Eurykleia and Philoitios carry out their orders, while Odysseus strings the bow and makes it sing, sending an arrow through all twelve of the axes.
A Decrease in Power
The suitors are made even more uneasy, not only by the bow itself, but at the possibility of “the stranger” being able to best them. Antinoös, though he is full of hot air and bragging, seems to avoid even attempting the feat and later makes an excuse that it’s because it’s a holy feast day that none of them can succeed.
The first people to whom Odysseus chooses to reveal himself, are two servants, Eumaios and Philoitios, a swineheard and an oxherd. What a surprise! ……. Or is it? One of Odysseus’ self-given tasks is to find who he is able to trust in his household and from that, whom he will kill and who will survive. Both servants have shown a steadfast devotion to their master and therefore, perhaps deserve his confidence.
There are more and more instances of Telemachos showing a governance and mastery of his household.
Odysseus sheds his rags and then springs upon the threshold, announcing that he will shoot another mark that has yet to be struck by man. To the shock of the assembled party, the arrow flies straight through the throat of Antinoös and he slumps over dead. “Poor fools”, they thought he had let the arrow fly in error and his target was accidental. In all his glory, Odysseus reveals his true identity:
“You dogs, you never thought that I would any more come back form the land of Troy, and because of that you despoiled my household, and forcibly took my serving women to sleep beside you, and sought to win my wife while I was still alive, fearing neither the immortal gods who hold the wide heaven, nor any resentment sprung from men to be yours in the future. Now upon all of you the terms of destruction are fastened.”
Fear choked the suitors, but they attempt to bargain for their lives, as Eurymachos blames all their behaviour on the influence of Antinoös, promising to pay Odysseus gifts. Odysseus rejects his explanation and proposal, stating not one man will be left alive, causing Eurymachos to call the suitors to arms. Odysseus kills Eurymachos and Telemachos, Amphinomos, on his way to his father’s side. He then runs to fetch arms for the four of them (including Eumaios & Philoitios) and they continue to kill. Agelaos calls for someone to run to the village for help but Melanthios informs him of the barred door but offers to search the house for the hidden weapons. Quickly he finds them and begins to arm the suitors, giving Odysseus pause. Telemachos confesses that he had inadvertently left the door open and asks Eumaios to find out the culprit. When he discovers Melanthios, Odysseus instructs them to bind him and hoist him up along the high column to suffer. Athene appears as Mentor and Agelaos appeals to him, causing anger to grow in Athene. Surprisingly she chastizes Odysseus for the temperance he’s shown towards the suitors, accusing him of complaining instead of standing up to his enemies. She assists him with some of the killing but “did not altogether turn the victory their way.” There is a volley of spears between the two parties, but while Odysseus and his warriors hit their targets, Athene causes the suitors’ aims to go astray. Now the slaughter ensues. Leodes grasps Odysseus’ knees in supplication and is killed, but when Phemios the singer does the same, Telemachos pleads for mercy for him and also Medon, their herald, who had taken care of him. Odysseus agrees, stating, “that good dealing is better by far than evil dealing.” Otherwise, not one man is left alive and Telemachos sends Eurykleia to Odysseus. When she sees him standing among the blood and battle-gore, she is ecstatic, yet Odysseus lightly scolds her: “Keep your joy in your heart, old dame; stop, do not raise up the cry. It is not piety to glory so over slain men.” Odysseus instructs her not to awaken Penelope, but to assemble all the women who have been disloyal into the hall. They proceed to hang all these women and, for a finale, hack off the nose, ears, hands, feet, and private parts of Melanthios to feed to the dogs. Eurykleia gathers all the women who remain and they are overjoyed to see Odysseus. “He recognized all these women.”
We understand the grudge Odysseus carries towards the suitors, but his anger towards the women was explored more in this book. Their crime appears to stem from their immorality and their mutiny against the household. Both Eurykleia and Telemachos state that they refuse to listen to him or his mother, and that they have taken to sleeping with the suitors. I’m not clear if the judgement of immorality is based on a cultural standard, or if it is because they are sleeping with enemies of Odysseus. Upon viewing the slain suitors, their reaction was weeping and wailing, so their treachery was quite apparent.
Note: The last sentence of this book: “He recognized all these women,” is very telling. That would mean that all the women would have had to be over 20 years old (probably 30 or more likely, 40). It appears all the young women were the immoral ones, and the older ones were the ones who remained loyal and steadfast. This is, perhaps, another example of the breakdown of societal conventions due to Odysseus’ absence, and the lack of leadeship on the island.
We witnessed a rather gory end to these young men. Should Odysseus been more temperate and spared more of them? I tend to think not. He will have enough to deal with, trying to explain his actions, and to leave one alive if he is not completely certain of his loyalty, could have been quite dangerous. If one of them appeared loyal at the palace and then later began to stir up dissent in town, his actions could undermine Odysseus’ position. Sadly, I think out of necessity, they all had to perish.
I wonder if any of these suitors had known the real Odysseus, if they would have dared to behave the way they did. My guess is no.
|The Slaughter of the Suitors by Odysseus & Telemachus
Christophe Thomas Degeorge 1812