The Odyssey, Book XXI

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Odysseus’ Bow

Penelope went to fetch the bow and axes of Odysseus which were stored in a locked room to which she kept the key. Odysseus had been given the bow by Iphitus when they had met in Messene, Odysseus to recover the cost of three hundred stolen sheep and Iphitus to recover twelve stolen horses.

Penelope carried to the hall the bow and its quiver of arrows and her women the iron and bronze axes Odysseus had won as prizes. Penelope issued her challenge to the suitors: that she would marry the one who could string the bow and shoot an arrow through the heads of the twelve axes.

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Eumaeus and Philoetius both wept at the sight of Odysseus’ bow for which they were reprimanded by Antinous who realised the challenge would not be easy but hoped he would be successful. Telemachus urged the competition to begin and, with his sword, he dug a long trench and placed the axes in a line. Taking the lead, three times he tried to string the bow, almost being successful in his fourth attempt until Odysseus stopped him. The suitors then stepped forward: first Leodes who, when unsuccessful, stressed the great difficulty; at Antinous’ request Melanthius made a fire so they could grease the bow with tallow brought from the stores.

While other suitors tried and failed, Eumaeus, Philoetius and Odysseus slipped out of the hall and, having ascertained their loyalty to him, revealed who he really was by showing them his scar received from the wild boar. They were overjoyed. Odysseus told them he would return to the hall and they should follow; when the suitors refused to let Odysseus try the bow Eumaeus should bring it to him; he should tell the women to lock the door to their apartments and not open it, whatever they might hear; Philoetius must bolt the courtyard gate so that the suitors could not leave the hall.

After Eurymachus tried and failed to string the bow, Antinous suggested they continue the contest on the next day, having sacrificed to Apollo. When Odysseus asked to be allowed to test his strength with the bow, Antinous was outraged and suggested the wine had gone to his head, just like it had to the Centaur, Eurytion, and would bring him trouble. Penelope insisted the beggar be allowed to try: if he were successful she would not marry him but would reward him with fine gifts. Telemachus surprised his mother by saying it was his right, and not a woman’s, to decide who to give the bow to and Penelope returned to her bedroom. With the support of Telemachus, Eumaeus gave the bow to Odysseus. Eumaeus told Eurycleia to lock the door to the womens’ apartments and Philoetius barred the hall door leading into the courtyard.

Red-figure vase, depicting Odysseus firing his bow. (c) Kendal Schmidt

While the suitors mocked him, Odysseus checked and strung the bow and received an omen of thunder from Zeus. He shot an arrow which passed through all twelve axe heads. Telemachus took his sword and spear at his father’s side.

Book XX Book XXII