From, Homer's Odyssey: A commentary
[Please note that the Table of Contents here published, is created by Elpenor and is not to be found in the print version]
Book Twentieth. This book is devoted to describing more fully the situation in the house of Ulysses just before the slaying of the Suitors. The guilty and the guiltless are indicated anew, with fresh incidents; especially the fatuity of the Suitors is set forth in a variety of ways. The scene is in the palace.
The Book may be divided into three portions, which deal with (1) the royal pair, (2) the servants faithful and faithless, (3) the Suitors at their banquet.
I. Ulysses is lying on the porch, restless, unable to sleep; he sees the disloyal women of the household come forth to the embraces of the Suitors. He commands himself: "Endure it, heart; thou hast borne worse than this." Pallas has at last to come and to answer his two troublesome thoughts: "How shall I, being only one, slay the Suitors, being many?" And still, that is not the end. "How shall I escape afterward, if I succeed?" Wherein we may note already a hint of the last Book of the Odyssey. Pallas reproves him, yet gives him assurance. "If fifty bands of men should surround us," still we shall win, "for I am a God, and I guard thee always in thy labors." Whereupon Ulysses at once went to sleep.
The wife Penelope is also having her period of anxiety and of weeping for her husband; she prays to Diana and wishes for death, being awake. But when asleep, her unconscious nature asserts itself: "This very night a man like him lay by me, my heart rejoiced, I thought it no dream." Such is the contrast between her waking and her sleeping state; in the one her skepticism, in the other her instinct manifests itself.
II. We now pass to quite a full survey of the servants of the household. Female slaves have to grind the corn to make bread for the Suitors; one of these slaves is still at her task, though past daybreak, she being the weakest of all. Standing at her hand-mill she utters the ominous word: "O Zeus, ruler, fulfill this wish for me wretched: may the present feast of the Suitors be their last, they who have loosed my limbs with painful toil in grinding their barley meal!" Thus the prayer of the poor overworked slave-woman calls down the vengeance of the Gods, giving the word of friendly omen to the avenger. Certainly a most powerful motive; but again we think, how modern it sounds! Yet ancient too the thought must have been, for here it stands in Homer truly prophetic of many things.
Eurycleia is the controlling power among the handmaids, of whom there was a large number; "twenty went to the spring to fetch water, while others were busy about the house," preparing for the coming banquet. The swineherd Eumaeus came with three fat porkers; his disloyal counterpart, Melanthius, also appeared with goats for the feast; both again show their character to Ulysses. The cowherd Philoetius is now introduced, in a full account; he is one of the faithful, has charity for the beggar, and shows his fidelity in a number of points. The beggar assures him: "Ulysses will return, thou shalt see him slaying those Suitors," whereupon Philoetius volunteers his aid.
Thus the forces are assembling; the two sides, loyal and disloyal, are separating more and more, preparatory to the grand struggle. Ulysses in his disguise has discovered those upon whom he can depend. But the banquet is ready, the Suitors, who have been plotting against the life of Telemachus, enter; they are divided among themselves, and can show no concerted action.
Pharr, Homer and the study of Greek * Odyssey Complete Text
Iliad Complete Text * Homer Bilingual Anthology and Resources * Livingstone, On the Ancient Greek Literature
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