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The Odyssey Reading Club -- Entry 40: Thoughts on Book XX

So, you know how every action movie or war movie or super-hero movie has the lull before the action where we check in with all the main characters on the even of the big battle? Often a montage, it generally sets the stage for the action set-piece that's going to wrap up the narrative. Well, you can thank Homer for all of those, because this book is exactly that. It's the dangerously deceptive calm before the storm. It's also mentioned that the day that is dawning is a feast day to Apollo, the god of prophecy, hence the portents take on an even greater impact--another trick picked up in future narratives. Also, Apollo is, along with is sister Artemis, the god of the bow, another bit of foreshadowing to what is to come.

As for the text itself, it is quite short. In a very clever bit of construction on Homer's part, we see in turn essentially all of the key players on Ithaca: we start with Odysseus, tossing and turning and finally being chided to sleep by Athena; then we move on to Penelope, then back to Odysseus briefly before moving on to Telemachus and the old nurse, Eurycleia; then we get Eumaeus the swineherd, and the other livestock tenders; then we circle back to the suitors, giving them a final boorish hurrah, before, interestingly, we finish with Penelope, hidden from view but in earshot, listening and planning. Indeed, it will be Penelope who sets the stage for what is to come--but that's in Book XXI. (Consider this your official teaser.)

And the sense of doom is palpable. Everything indicates that the suitors will never again see the dawn--this is their final day of life. If only they could see the portents gathering, hear the thoughts of all those around them, they would run for their lives, as Theoclymenus, the seer Telemachus brought back with him from his travels, does after foretelling their fate in as stark of terms as possible. Athena, however, will not have them spared. Rather, she conspires to have them take one more crack at the beggar Odysseus, just to make sure his blood lust is at its peak. And then, just to set the proper mood, she fills them with a terrifying, unearthly laughter.

Maybe it's because I'm a bleeding heart, but I found this section rather difficult to read. The suitors at this point are not a real threat; Odysseus may have trouble sleeping because he's not sure how to take them all on, but Athena makes it clear that this is not a battle that is being planned: it is a slaughter. Whatever their misdeed, these suitors are men, fairly young men; many are the sons of fathers that Odysseus took with him twenty years ago when he sailed for Troy. Unlike Telemachus, however, they will not get a reunion with the fathers, except for in the Underworld, where they will be sent by Odysseus and his actions, just as their fathers were before them.

And Athena makes them laugh at their impending death.


A few choice quotes--just a few, as this is one of the shortest books in the poem:

"Don't let me see more offenses in my house, / not from anyone! I'm alive to it all, now, / the good and the bad--the boy you knew is gone." (Fagles translation, lines 345-7)

Telemachus asserts his authority for the final time over the suitors, showing just how far he has come since the beginning of the poem. Of course, the suitors mock him, but he knows that he is now a man and that his father recognizes him to be such.

My favorite description of the insane laughing Athena inspires:

"Now they laughed with jaws that were no longer their own. / The meat they ate was a mess of blood, their eyes were bursting / full of tears, and their laughter sounded like lamentation." (Lattimore translation, lines 347-9)

And the closing lines of the section:

"but as for supper, men supped never colder / than these, on what the goddess and the warrior / were even then preparing for the suitors, / whose treachery had filled the house with pain." (Fitzgerald translation, lines 436-end)


  1. And this is the point at which I couldn't put the poem down and read on ahead a couple of books. Will be waiting for your blog to catch up. :)

  2. Indeed--this is where pretty much the fire is lit that will cause the inferno to come. It's pretty much all go from here on out--except Book XXIV, which is a bit of an odd one. :-)


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