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The Odyssey Reading Club -- Entry 42: Thoughts on Book XXII

Well, we were promised a bloodbath, and that's what Homer gave us. But I can't be the only who found the whole thing rather distasteful, surely?

The question, of course, is what Homer meant us to feel. I will admit, when that total jerk Antinous got an arrow through the neck, part of me cheered. He was a truly loathsome human being who had plotted to kill Telemachus and usurp the throne. And even when most of the other suitors were speared and gouged and stabbed until they became a lifeless pile of bodies, I felt little compunction. (Incidentally, if anyone wanted a glimpse of the goriness and violence of The Iliad, well, you got it here. It's not pretty.) So far, I think Homer was portraying a justifiable reaction to some truly disgraceful crimes.

However.

It wasn't even that the serving women who had disrespected Penelope and had sex with the suitors were killed that got me--I knew that was coming. What bothered me was that, before sending his son and servants to hack them to death, trapped like animals, Odysseus made the women help carry away the bodies and clean the great hall. These women, whose utter lack of power over their situation in life is essentially their defining characteristic, have to clean the house one last time, only this time instead of a feast, they're cleaning up after a slaughter. A slaughter of men they had known, some they may have even loved, and they may have fancied loved them. And then, unceremoniously, deprived, by and large, of even the individual names that we had for many of the suitors as they were killed one by one, they're hacked to bits. Note Odysseus doesn't do this himself--it's as if these women are below his notice. I think Homer knows that, even if they have committed crimes, which they have, this is not a just punishment of them.

Mercy, as we understand it today, is not a Homeric virtue. But Justice, that multi-faceted wisdom that displays itself in everything from simple matters of fairness to the highest concerns of law, is. We cannot expect Odysseus to be merciful, even though he does show something resembling mercy in sparing the lyre-player and the messenger. And yet he kills the priest, who is grasping Odysseus' knees in supplication. The priest finds no mercy, but it is debatable that he finds a harsh form of justice. But the serving women? No. They find neither mercy nor justice. I think Homer knows that and, to some extent, I think Odysseus does, too.

The "Great Men" of Homeric epic are not, as we might think when we first encounter them, moral exemplars. They are models, yes, but of larger-than-life men whose lives are bigger than anything we can imagine, whose deeds are greater and, as a result, suffer greater setbacks and make greater mistakes. What makes them interesting is their complexity and depth. Odysseus is brave and cunning and long-enduring, but he is also vain and deceitful and, as we see here, blood-thirsty. Throughout both this poem and The Iliad, Homer builds a portrait of Odysseus that makes him seem completely real and yet so much bigger than reality. He is Odysseus of Ithaca, a utterly unique figure as present and compelling now as he was when people sang of him around a fire almost 3000 years ago.

As for quotations, there is only one in this book that made me feel anything other than tension or mild revulsion, as befits a Homeric battle scene. It comes at the end, after the palace has been purified, and Odysseus greets the serving woman who were loyal to their queen, and again, it shows yet another side to this man of many ways. From the Fagles translation, lines 525-end

"They came crowding out of their quarters, torch in hand,
flung their arms around Odysseus, hugged him, home at last,
and kissed his head and shoulders, seized his hands, and he,
overcome by a lovely longing, broke down and wept...
deep in his heart, he knew them one and all."

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