Thursday, December 04, 2008

The Odyssey: Books 21, 22

The Odyssey Odysseus Strings His Bow

How Odysseus got his bow:
As a young man he was sent to Messene to retrieve stolen flocks. He met Iphitus who was there for his stolen mares.

Iphitus gave him the bow his father, mighty Eurytus,
used to wield as a young man, but when he died
in his lofty house he left it to his son.
In turn, Odysseus gave his friend a sharp sword
and a rugged spear to mark the start of friendship,
treasured ties that bind. (36-41)
Heracles killed Iphitus, apparently for the horses.

Penelope announces the test of the bow, and has the swineherd set up the axes. Telemachus tries to string the bow. No go. Poor kid, trying to measure himself against his father. Man after man tries the bow. None can string it. Meanwhile Odysseus takes the loyal swine and cow herds outside. Would they fight beside Odysseus, should the man miraculously show up. Of course. So O reveals his identity, using the identifiable scars from the boar. He promises them wives and houses, and they would be comrades of Telemachus. They solidify their plans. When the time comes, Eumaeus will bring the bow to Odysseus.

There's an awful lot of suitors, and none of them can measure up to Odysseus. Eurymachus is concerned none of them will.
"Eurymachus," Euphithus' son Antinous countered,
"it will never come to that, as you well know.
Today is a feast-day up and down the island
in honor of the Archer God. Who flexes bows today?
Set it aside. Rest easy now. (286-290)
He calls for a break. Odysseus uses the moment.
For the moment
give me the polished bow now, won't you? So,
to amuse you all, I can try my hand, my strength... (313-315)
Penelope supports the beggar's bid to try the bow, accepting he would not be doing it for her hand. Telemachus, suddenly the manly one, bids her leave, he's the man of the house, he'll take care of it. Eumaeus delivers the bow, and sends the nurse and the women to their rooms as planned.
...they mocked, but Odysseus, mastermind in action,
once he'd handled the great bow and scanned every inch,
then, like an expert singer skilled at lyre and song-- with his virtuoso ease Odysseus strung his might bow.
Quickly his right hand plucked the string to test its pitch
and under his touch it sang out clear and sharp as a swallow's cry.
Horror swept through the suitors, faces blanching white,
and Zeus cracked the sky with a bolt, his blazing sign... (451-460)
Well it's all over now for the suitors.

Slaughter in the Hall

Antinous is the first, gruesome and dramatic. Eurymachus the second, Amphinomous the third, and the rest, named and unnamed. Just to make it interesting, the traitorous goatherd figures out where they hid the arms, and brings some out to the usurpers. Odysseus orders him strung up, which the swine and cowherds do. Athena in the form of Mentor joins them.
And now Athena, looming ou tof the rafters high above them,
brandished her man-destroying shield of thunder, terrifying
the suitors out of their minds, and down the hall they panicked--
wild, like herds stampeding, driven mad as the darting gadfly
strikes in the late spring when the long days come round.
The attackers struck like eagles, crook-clawed, hook-beaked,
swooping down from a mountain ridge to harry smaller birds
that skim across the flatland, cringing under the clouds
but the eagles plunge in fury, rip their lives out--hopeless,
never a chance of flight or rescue--and people love the sport--
so the attackers routed suitors headlong down the hall... (311-321)
Just like the portents.

Phemius the bard pleads for his life...he was forced to sing. Telemachus agrees he is innocent, as well as the herald Medon. Leodes the seer was not so blessed. Then it's time for clean-up. Odysseus puts Telemachus in charge, and has the old nurse cull out the disloyal women.
She found Odysseus in the thick of slaughtered corpses,
splattered with bloody filth like a lion that's devoured
some ox of the field and lopes home, covered with blood,
his chest streaked, both jaws glistening, dripping red--
a sight to strike terror. So Odysseus looked now... (426-430)
In the face of all that, the nurse would cheer in triumph...not faint of heart, that old girl. Once the cleanup is done, Telemachus and the men are to take the women out back and hack them with their swords. Interestingly, this is what Telemachus does:
...taking a cable used on a dark-prowed ship
he coiled it over the roundhouse, lashed it fast to a tall column,
hoisting it up so high no toes could touch the ground.
Then, as doves or thrushes beating their wings
against some snare rigged up in thickets--flying in
for a cozy nest but a grisly bed receivs them--
so the women's heads were trapped in a line,
nooses yanking their necks up, one by one
so all might die a pitiful, ghastly death...
they kicked up heels for a little--not for long (491-500)
I wonder, is that significant that he chooses a different way to kill them? Is the means of killing symbolic? Or is he just tired of cleaning up bloody messes, and this will be neater?

Finally, Odysseus cleanses the house with fire and smoke.

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