The Odyssey, Book XIX

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Odysseus speaks with Penelope

Odysseus then made preparations with Telemachus to kill the suitors. They removed all the weapons from the hall; if they were missed Telemachus should say they had been damaged by the fire and the suitors could not be tempted to use them if they quarrelled. Telemachus told Eurycleia to keep the women in their apartments while the weapons were removed and then went to bed.

Penelope accompanied by her maid servants then came down to speak to Odysseus. Melantho verbally attacked Odysseus again to which he answered that she might one day lose her privileged position, just as he once had, if Penelope or Telemachus turned against her or Odysseus returned. Penelope also rebuked her for treating the stranger inhospitably. After Odysseus was seated Penelope asked him who he was and where he had come from. Odysseus eluded answering by saying it would bring him too much grief to recall his past.

Penelope and the Suitors, painting by John William Waterhouse, 1912.

Penelope told him about the suitors pressing her to marry one of them and eating up the palace’s wealth; to postpone her decision she had come up with the plan of not deciding until she had completed weaving a shroud for Laertes; every night for three years she undid what she had woven in the day but then her deceit had been discovered by her maid servants and was forced to finish the shroud; she was being pressurised by her parents to decide which of the suitors to marry.

She asked Odysseus again about his past so he fabricated that he was the son of Deucalion and brother of Idomeneus from Crete; he had met with Odysseus when he was blown off course on his way to Troy and came looking for Idomeneus who had already left for Troy; Odysseus stayed for twelve days until the storm abated and then left for Troy. Penelope wept at the mention of her husband and, although he was moved by her loyalty and love, Odysseus did not reveal who he really was. To test that he was telling the truth Penelope asked him what Odysseus was wearing and he described the clothing and brooch he had worn when he left Ithaca which Penelope had given him.

He then told her Odysseus was alive and on his way home; Pheidon, king of the Thesprotians, told him that all of his companions and ship had been lost in a storm but the Phaeacians had rescued him and given him great riches; meanwhile he had gone to consult the oracle at Dodona as to whether he should return to Ithaca openly or in disguise; he would be here within the month. Odysseus declined the offer of a fine bed and being bathed by her maid servants but allowed his old nurse, Eurycleia, to wash him.

Odysseus and Eurycleia by William Adolphe Bouguereau - Art Renewal Center
Eurycleia recognises Odysseus, painting by William Adolphe Bouguereau.

Eurycleia remarked that he reminded her of Odysseus and then she recognised an old hunting scar just above his knee received during a boar hunt whilst visiting Autolycus, knocking over the bowl of water in her surprise. Odysseus swore her to secrecy and she promised to tell him the names of the disloyal maid servants although Odysseus said there was no need. Athena had distracted Penelope so that she did not notice Eurycleia’s reaction.

Penelope asked Odysseus’ advice as to whether she should remain in the palace, loyal to her husband, or marry the suitor who was the most distinguished and offered the best wedding presents; Telemachus was urging her to marry as the palace’s wealth was being squandered by the suitors. She told Odysseus of a recurrent dream: of an eagle slaughtering twenty geese, the eagle telling her he was Odysseus and the geese were the suitors whom he would slaughter. Odysseus told her the dream would come true. Next she told him she had devised a test for the suitors: she would marry the one who could shoot an arrow through the holes at the top of twelve axes lined up in a row. Odysseus encouraged her to set up the test immediately as her husband would soon be there. Penelope then went to bed.

Book XVIII Book XX