The Odyssey, Book XX

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The Omens

A number of omens predicted the success of Odysseus and Telemachus and the destruction of the suitors.

Odysseus spent a sleepless night, in part debating whether to kill those women in the palace who had become mistresses of the suitors but he decided to bide his time; as he was wondering how he was going to be successful in his bid to kill the suitors, Athena reassured she would help him, as she always had. Penelope, also finding it difficult to sleep and preferring to die rather than marry a man inferior to Odysseus whom she had dreamt was lying beside her, prayed that Artemis shoot her with one of her arrows and she go to the Underworld just like the daughters of Pandareus.

Lightning over the Temple of Poseidon, Sounion, Greece | Lightning, Greece,  Wild weather
Lightning strikes above the Temple of Poseidon, Sounion. (c) Paul Lekker

Hearing her tears, Odysseus prayed for a good omen and immediately heard one in the form of Zeus’ thunder. This was also heard by one of the women grinding grain who prayed that this would be the last day the suitors would feast in the palace. Another clap of thunder followed and Odysseus was reassured of success.

As preparations were made for another day’s feasting Melanthius once again taunted Odysseus for begging. Odysseus did not respond but silently plotted revenge. However, Odysseus did receive a friendly welcome from Philoetius, a cowherd, who said the beggar reminded him of Odysseus who, when he was young, had put him in charge of his cattle; he said he had thought many times about leaving Ithaca in disgust at the suitors’ behaviour and had only stayed in the hope Odysseus would return. Trusting him, Odysseus said his master would soon return and he would witness the slaughter of the suitors.

Mosaic of a Symposium with Asarotos Oikos
Mosaic of a Roman feast with Asarotos Oikos, 3rd-5th c. AD, Lebanon. (c) Phoenix Ancient Art

As the suitors once again plotted Telemachus’ murder, a bad omen of an eagle with a dove in its talons deterred them and they began to feast instead. Telemachus seated Odysseus just inside the doorway and gave him food and drink. Athena, in order to further inflame Odysseus’ anger, ensured that the suitors continued to insult him. Ctesippus threw a cow’s hoof at Odysseus, narrowly missing his head. Telemachus immediately came to his father’s defence, telling the suitor that if the hoof had hit its target he would have killed him with his spear; he would rather die than tolerate such behaviour in his house. Another suitor, Agelaus, kept the peace and said no-one should harm the stranger or anyone in the household; since it was obvious Odysseus was not going to return, Telemachus should ensure his mother married one of the suitors and he could then enjoy his inheritance. Telemachus confirmed he had urged his mother to do just that.

Athena intervened again, causing the suitors firstly to laugh uncontrollably and then to see blood spattered all around them. A prophet, Theoclymenus, predicted a catastrophe coming on them which they would not survive. The suitors laughed this off and suggested that Telemachus choose his guests more carefully and sell as slaves the beggar and the prophet. Telemachus did not respond but, looking at his father, waited for the moment when they would take their revenge on the suitors. Penelope discreetly listened to what was being said.

Book XIX Book XXI