Notes on The Odyssey (Book 22, Lines 390-419)

This passage comes quite close to the end of The Odyssey, immediately after Odysseus has taken his revenge on the suitors who have been pursuing his wife in his absence. The suitors are lying in a bloody heap on the floor, and Odysseus asks his son Telemachus to summon Eurycleia, his nurse, because he is keen to extend his revenge upon any unfaithful serving women. After such a bloodthirsty and merciless scene, this passage provides some insight into Odysseus’ justification for his actions, and serves to maintain the audience’s sympathy for him and his plight. The theme of revenge in The Odyssey reaches its climax in Book 22, and this passage represents a pause between two acts: Odysseus’ revenge upon the suitors, and Telemachus’ revenge upon the serving women.

After being summoned, Eurycleia walks in on a graphic and bloody scene, where Odysseus stands “among the bodies of the slain, spattered with clotted gore”. The Homeric use of epic simile in this passage compares Odysseus to “a lion that has devoured an ox”, having made his kill and with “hands and feet spattered alike”. It is in a lion’s nature to devour its predators, so in this way the epic simile serves to naturalise Odysseus’ violent actions. However, despite this, to a modern reader there is still some difficulty in identifying with Odysseus at this bloodthirsty moment.

The passage continues on to explain Odysseus’ motivation, which further develops his character and helps to mitigate any horror that the audience may feel after his ruthless vengeance. When Eurycleia rejoices triumphantly at the bloodthirsty scene, Odysseus stops her, stating that “vaunting over men slain is a monstrous thing”. He goes on to explain and justify his vengeance, stating that “the gods willed it” and “their own deeds were evil”; he also proclaims that they have brought this “hideous end” upon themselves. He defers his own moral agency to the gods, and this goes to the question of honour, portraying Odysseus as an honourable man, reinforcing the audience’s sympathy for him. The fact that he checks Eurycleia in her exultation shows that while he stands by his actions, he does not rejoice in them.

The revenge is not complete however, and the final act is to be handed over to Telemachus. The passage ends with Odysseus asking Eurycleia for an account of the serving women in his palace, so he can know which are disloyal, in order to extend his revenge upon them as well. This leads to the second act of vengeance, where Telemachus is seen to have grown in confidence and stature, now that his father has returned. Interestingly, he disregards his father’s order to slay them with his sword, vowing that “sluts like these” will not be given a clean death, and he chooses to hang them instead, showing his new self-confidence and ability to take initiative. The Odyssey’s two main narrative arcs of Odysseus’ troubled voyage home and Telemachus’ lack of self-confidence having grown up without his father’s guidance, are both resolved in these acts of vengeance, and this particular passage strings these two acts together with an important moment of reflection.

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