Classical Mythology: Hi, Honey, I'm Home!

Hi, Honey, I'm Home!

Once onboard the Phaeacian ship, Odysseus fell so deeply asleep that the sailors did not have the heart to wake him when they arrived at Ithaca. They simply laid him on the shore, piled up gifts from Alcinous next to him, and returned homeward. (They never made it. Poseidon turned the ship to stone as they approached their harbor.)

Odysseus awoke completely disoriented, but Athena appeared and reassured him that he was at last in Ithaca. Ten years after setting out from Troy—and 20 years after leaving Ithaca—he had finally come home. Yet Athena warned Odysseus that the crowds of lords and princes who were courting Penelope in an attempt to gain his wealth would not be pleased to see him. If he returned to the palace alone, they would surely kill him. So the goddess disguised Odysseus as an aged beggar.

Reports of My Death Have Been Greatly Exaggerated

Odysseus went first to the hut of his loyal swineherd Eumaeus. Odysseus learned from Eumaeus that his father Laertes—due to grief over his wife's death, his son's presumed death, and his inability to rid the palace of the freeloading suitors—had become increasingly feeble, quit the palace, dressed in rags, and lived in a small hut.

Odysseus's son Telemachus—an infant when Odysseus left for Troy but now fully grown—stopped by the hut, but regarded his father as a stranger. Though he offered the old man food and clothing, Telemachus regretted that he could not invite the stranger to stay in the palace. The young man doubted that he had the strength to defend his guest from the all-but-certain abuse of his mother's suitors.

When Eumaeus left the hut, Odysseus revealed himself to his son. Tears of joy cascaded from the eyes of both father and son. But they quickly set aside the happiness of their reunion to plot their revenge against Penelope's suitors.

Still in disguise, Odysseus entered the banquet hall of his palace and began begging food. All the lords and princes gave him tidbits except the arrogant Antinous, who tossed a stool at him. When a beggar named Irus, attempting to protect his territory, threatened the old stranger, the suitors, ever eager for some excitement, arranged a boxing match. Odysseus knocked the man out with a single blow.

What a Life!

Penelope had warded off her suitors for years by telling them that she would choose a new husband only after she had completed knitting a shroud for her father-in-law, Laertes. Every day, she made a show of working hard at the loom. But at night, she carefully unraveled everything she had woven during the day. A disloyal servant gave away her trick, and the suitors forced her to finish the shroud.

Soon Penelope entered the hall and reproached the suitors for their boorishness and for living off her husband's wealth. Odysseus watched her with silent admiration and adoration, but did not want to reveal himself until he had rid the palace of her suitors. That night, while the suitors slept, Odysseus and Telemachus removed all the suitors' spears to the cellar storeroom.

Odysseus also arranged a meeting with Penelope that night under the pretext of having news of her husband. The stranger, claiming he had once entertained her husband, assured her that Odysseus would be home soon. Penelope wanted to believe this stranger, but replied that it would have to be very soon. Odysseus himself had instructed her to choose a second husband if he did not return from Troy, and she could not delay the decision any longer. She planned to hold a test of strength and skill—her husband's old trick of shooting an arrow through the hollow throats of 12 ax heads set in a straight line—to determine who would be her next husband.

Penelope bid the stranger goodnight and told her nurse, Eurycleia, to take good care of him. Eurycleia, who had nursed Odysseus as a boy, washed his feet that night. She gasped when she recognized the scar the boar had left on his thigh, but Odysseus urged her to keep his secret.

No Contest

The next day, Penelope brought out Odysseus's old bow, announced the rules of the contest, and offered herself as the prize. Yet try as they might, not one of the suitors could even string the bow, much less shoot an arrow through the axes. When the disguised Odysseus asked to take up the challenge, Penelope, despite the suitors' protests, consented to the request before retiring to her bed chamber.

Philoetius, a cowherd to whom Odysseus had revealed his identity, locked the door of the hall behind her. Odysseus strung the bow and sent an arrow through the axes.

In an instant, he turned the bow on the suitors, shooting Antinous and Eurymachus, while Telemachus killed Amphinomus with his spear. A bloody battle followed—pitting Odysseus, his son, and two servants against the many suitors. The four killed all the suitors, sparing only a herald, Medon, and a bard, Phemius, who despite their loyalty to him had been forced to serve the suitors.

Telemachus forced a dozen female servants who had become mistresses to the suitors to carry the corpses out of the hall. He then hanged the mistresses in the courtyard. Melanthius—Odysseus's goatherd and the brother of Melantho, one of the 12 mistresses—whose betrayal included bringing the suitors their weapons once the battle broke out, was mutilated and left to die in the courtyard.

Penelope disbelieved the good news of her husband's return, even after Odysseus came and stood before her. Penelope—a perfect match for her devious husband—then used trickery to find out whether this man truly was her husband. In his presence, Penelope ordered her servants to move their marriage bed out of their bedroom and make it up for this guest. Odysseus, who had carefully crafted their bed using an ancient olive tree—still rooted in the soil—as one of the bedposts, became enraged, thinking that someone must have sawed the bedpost. Hearing this secret of their bedchamber, Penelope embraced Odysseus as her husband, home at last. After 20 years of pure loyalty in his absence, Penelope's name now epitomized fidelity.

Eupeithes, the father of Antinous, urged the nobles of Ithaca to rise up against their king, who had returned only to kill all their sons. (Eupeithes gave no weight to the fact that Odysseus had saved his life years earlier.) Laertes, who had recovered his dignity when reunited with his son, threw the first spear, killing Eupeithes.

Another bloodbath might have followed, but Athena put a stop to the fighting with a scream that caused the Ithacan nobles to run away in terror. Odysseus began to pursue them, but Zeus stopped him by hurling a thunderbolt before him. Athena, taking the form of Mentor, a wise and respected Ithacan, then brokered a peace.

Many years later, Telegonus, a son of Odysseus and Circe, came searching for his father at Circe's request. Not knowing he had landed on Ithaca, Telegonus and his crew began raiding the island for food. When the aged Odysseus and Telemachus came out to defend Ithaca, Telegonus—who had never met his father—killed the old man with a spear dipped in the poison of a stingray.

Upon discovering who the killer was, Odysseus's family forgave him. Telemachus, Telegonus, and Penelope transported Odysseus's body to Aeaea and buried him there. Odysseus's wanderings became complete when Penelope married her stepson, Telegonus, while Telemachus married Circe. The sorceress gave them all immortality.

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Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to Classical Mythology © 2004 by Kevin Osborn and Dana L. Burgess, Ph.D.. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

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