Odyssey, Blog 4, The Slaughter of the Suitors

That night he Odysseus sleeps in the porch of the palace, much like Uriah the Hittite slept in the porch of David’s palace before he went into battle.  “Forth from the hall came women who had long been mistresses of the suitors, now making jests and merriment among themselves.  The heart of Odysseus stirred within, and in his mind and heart he doubted much whether to hasten after and deal out death to each, or to allow to the audacious suitors one last and latest night.  Within him growled his spirit.”

As she promised, the next morning Penelope proceeds down the stairs and announces to the suitors, “Before you stands your prize, I offer you the mighty bow of prince Odysseus; and whoever with his hands shall lightliest bend the bow and shoot through all twelve axes, him I will follow and forsake this home, this bridal home, so very beautiful and full of wealth, a place I shall ever remember, even in my dreams.”

Odyssey Blog 1 http://www.seekingvirtueandwisdom.com/odyssey-blog-1-waiting-those-very-long-years-for-odysseus/

Telemachus tries first, and almost strings the bow, but a look from Odysseus reaches his eye and he abandons the effort, and the bow is passed around the room, giving each suitor a try at stringing the bow, they each tried to bend the bow, they warmed the bow, they rubbed fat into the bow so they could bend it, they readied the bow for the slaughter ahead, but none of the suitors could even bend the bow so it could be strung, let alone try to shoot the arrow through the axes.

Then the beggar disguised as Odysseus asked if he could try, which outraged the suitors, who feared that perhaps the beggar could string the bow.  Penelope assures the suitor that she would never marry a beggar, that no harm is done to let him try.  Telemachus then urges Penelope and the women to leave the hall for their quarters and the bow is given to the beggar to try.

The beggar handled the bow like it was an instrument played many long years ago.  “Great consternation came upon the suitors.”  “Laying the arrow upon the arch, Odysseus drew the string and arrow notches, and forth from the bench on which he sat left fly the shaft, with careful aim, and did not miss an axe’s ring from first to last, but clean through all sped on the bronze-tipped arrow.”

“Then wise Odysseus threw off his rags and sprang to the broad threshold, bow in hand and quiver full of arrows.”  His first arrow ran through the throat of the main suitor as he was drinking from his goblet, dropping instantly, scattering his bread and roasted meat on the floor.

Odysseus then killed many more of the suitors with the remainder of his arrows, then he and his son Telemachus and a few faithful servants, in the ebb and flow of battle, with setbacks that were overcome, after a long struggle finished off the last of the suitors, a narrative you are invited to read for yourself as Odysseus begins the battle with the rage of Achilles in the Iliad, furiously killing the suitors with the aid of Athena, showing no mercy.  One of the more virtuous suitors Leiodes clasps the knees of Odysseus, begging for mercy, but like Achilles he shows no mercy, driving the blade through his neck.

But then a bard also clasps his knees, and his son Telemachus pleads, “Hold!  For the man is guiltless.  Do not stab him with the sword!  And also let us spare Medon, the page who had charge of me while I was a child.”  Even the gods could not relax the rage of Achilles, but Telemachus softened the heart of Odysseus, and these few were spared the sword and lived.

Do we win glory on the battlefield?  This same question today we would ask, Do we win glory for our success, for the money we earn in our bank account, for the cars and boats and trucks and toys we buy?  When he was visiting the underworld, Odysseus tried to comfort Achilles, “no man in the past was more fortunate than you Achilles, nor in the future shall be, for we Argives gave you equal honor with the gods, and now you are a mighty lord among the dead.  Do not grieve at your death, Achilles.”

Achilles answered, “Mock not death, glorious Odysseus.  Better to be the hireling of a stranger, and serve a man of mean estate whose living is but small, than be the ruler over all these dead and gone.  No, tell me tales of my proud son, whether or not he followed me to the war to be a leader.”

AFTER THE SLAUGHTER

After the slaughter Telemachus fetches the loyal nurse Eurycleia, and she is about to shout for joy upon seeing the corpses of the hated suitors, but Odysseus stops her, saying, “Woman, be glad within; but hush, and make no cry.  The gods’ doom and their reckless deeds destroyed them; for they respected nobody on earth, bad man or good, who came among them.  Through their own perversity they met a dismal gloom.”  We should never rejoice in the misfortunes of others, even when they bring on their sufferings upon themselves.

They forced the unfaithful servants who were the mistresses to the suitors to clean up the blood and the gore of the hall, then they were led out to the courtyard and slain.  This sounds brutal to modern sensibilities, but in the ancient world there were no courts, there were no prisons, there was no judicial system to try the criminals, and these maidens could not be trusted once the masters of the house fell asleep after an event like this.

When Odysseus had seen his departed mother in Hades she said from the shades, “your father stays among the fields, and comes to town no more.  Bed he has none, no robes, no bright-hued rugs.  Through the winter he sleeps in the house where the servants sleep, in the dust besides the fire, and wears upon his body sorry clothes. . . . There he lies in distress, woe waxing strong within him, longing for your return; and hard old age comes on.  Even so I also died and met my doom. . . . longing for you, your wise ways, glorious Odysseus, and your tenderness, took joyous life away.”

After the battle Odysseus had to convince his wife Penelope of his identify, so traumatic his long absence been, and likewise when afterwards he traveled to his father’s farm he also had to prove his identity to his Laertes, his father.

The Odyssey ends with all three generations, Telemachus his son, mighty Odysseus, and Laertes his father, travelling to town to meet the enraged fathers and families of the slain suitors, with a few faithful servants and the goddess Athena, threatening an endless cycle of revenge.  Athena grants Laertes the first blow, throwing a spear through the father of the main suitor, after which father and son attacked the mob with sword and spear, interrupted by a shout of Athena, “Hold, men of Ithaca, from cruel combat, and without bloodshed this instant part!”

“As thus Athena spoke, pale fear took hold of them all.  Their weapons all flew from their trembling hands and fell upon the ground, as the goddess gave her cry.  To town they turned, eager to save their lives.”[1]

Professor Vandiver notes that some scholars argue that this last chapter was a later addition, that it was not part of the original work.  Certainly wars and feuds do not end at the mere shout of a god.  But this is the only way to end the story, for in life wars never really end, they merely set the stage for the next round of conflicts.[2]

[1] Homer, “The Odyssey,” translated by George Herbert Palmer (New York: Barnes and Noble Classics, 2003), Books XIII-XIX, pp. 249-306.

[2] Elizabeth Vandiver, “The Odyssey of Homer,” lectures recorded by The Great Courses, (www.thegreatcourses.com, 1999), lecture 12.

About Bruce Strom 127 Articles
I was born and baptized and confirmed as a Lutheran. I made the mistake of reading works written by Luther, he has a bad habit of writing seemingly brilliant theology, but then every few pages he stops and calls the Pope often very vulgar names, what sort of Christian does that? Currently I am a seeker, studying church history and the writings of the Church Fathers. I am involved in the Catholic divorce ministries in our diocese, and have finished the diocese two-year Catholic Lay Ministry program. Also I took a year of Orthodox off-campus seminary courses. This blog explores the beauty of the Early Church and the writings and history of the Church through the centuries. I am a member of a faith community, for as St Augustine notes in his Confessions, you cannot truly be a Christian unless you worship God in the walls of the Church, unless persecution prevents this. This blog is non-polemical, so I really would rather not reveal my denomination here.

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