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Book 21

The Odyssey – Book 21 The Great Bow (Context)


·        Penelope takes Odysseus's bow down. She remembers how he obtained it as the payment for a debt from Iphitus from Lacedaemon.

·        Odysseus met Iphitus in Messene, where he (Odysseus) had come claiming the natives owed Ithaca for having stolen some sheep way back when. Iphitus was also there on the account of livestock; he was tracking some stray mares that apparently wandered to Messene themselves.

·        But these mares ended up being the death of Iphitus, since he later wandered to the house of Heracles who promptly killed him so he could have the mares.

·        The point is, Odysseus became friends with Iphitus; he gave him a sword and spear, and Iphitus in return gave him the bow that Penelope is now taking off the wall.

·        Penelope approaches the Suitors and announces the contest and all its details, which we've already heard.

·        Eumaeus and Philoetius present the weapons and both break down in tears, since they know Penelope has given up hope that her husband will ever return.

·        Antinous mocks them for their snivelling, of course.

·        Telemachus is the first to try stringing the bow, not because he wants to marry his mother, but because he wants to prove his strength, manliness, and virility.

·        After four tries, it looks like Telemachus is finally about to succeed—when beggar Odysseus signals for him not to do it.

·        Telemachus obeys and hands the bow over to the first suitor, who fails miserably.

·        Antinous orders Melanthius to build a fire and bring a cake of lard so that they can limber up the bow in the hopes of stringing it.

·        As he does, beggar Odysseus notices Eumaeus and Philoetius leaving the hall. He rushes after them and reveals himself as Odysseus. As proof, he shows them his scar.

·        In the meantime, Eurymachus has been shamed by the bow; he can't string it, either.

·        Antinous distracts everyone with the feast and says he'll try the bow tomorrow

·        Beggar Odysseus speaks up; he wants a chance at stringing the bow.

·        The Suitors, especially Antinous, emphatically say no. They're afraid he can actually do it, since they saw his absolutely awesome body a few days before.

·        Penelope scolds Antinous and Eurymachus for treating the beggar so badly and invites him to give it a shot.

·        Telemachus uncharacteristically steps forward and tells his mother that this is a man's affair and she ought to go upstairs and be a woman. Alone. In the bedroom.

·        Penelope obeys, marvelling at Telemachus’ sudden bravery.

·        As the beggar takes his time feeling the bow, Telemachus tells Eurycleia to shut all the women in their rooms and tell them not to come out until summoned, even if they hear sounds of battle.

·        As the beggar takes his time stringing the bow, the Suitors shout insults at him…

·        …Until he successfully strings the bow in one easy motion, grabs an arrow and shoots it straight through the twelve axe heads.

·        In the silence that follows, Zeus sends a sign of his favour—a single thunderclap.

Telemachus arms himself and moves to stand next to his now unmasked father.