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Free Study Guide-The Odyssey by Homer-Free Book Notes Summary
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BOOK 20

Summary

Odysseus prepares to sleep but is unable to. He lies awake with evil thoughts for the suitors. He sees some of the maids coming forth from their chamber laughing, on their way to lie with the suitors. He is furious at this sight, but restrains his anger. Athena appears and tells him not to worry about the suitors and go to sleep instead. While he sleeps, Penelope awakens and prays to Artemis that she might be taken away by death rather than marry another man. She speaks about yet another dream that she had dreamed and starts weeping. In the morning, Odysseus awakes, hears Penelope weeping, and asks Zeus to show him some good omen so that he may be reassured. Zeus obliges, and Odysseus is comforted by a thunderous sound and an ominous prayer uttered by a weary woman grinding at the mill.

The household begins to stir. Telemachus awakes and asks Euryclea whether the beggar has been looked after properly. Meanwhile, the maids prepare for yet another day of feasting. Eumaeus and the disloyal Melanthius arrive at the palace, and the latter insults Odysseus yet again. Philoetius, a loyal cowherd, comes to the palace and greets the disguised Odysseus with kind words. The suitors make plans to kill Telemachus but defer their plot after Antinous sees an eagle fly by on their left hand with a dove in its talons.

As they dine, the mood is tense. Telemachus sits Odysseus at his own table and tells the suitors to leave him alone. One of the suitors, Ctessipus, throws an ox's foot at Odysseus, but he avoids it. After Telemachus delivers another threatening speech, the suitors are momentarily silenced. Then Agelaus asks Telemachus to tell Penelope to choose the best man and wed him. Telemachus answers that he cannot drive away his own mother without her consent. The men begin laughing, but it is a forced laughter, and the seer Theoclymenus suddenly sees shrouds of death covering their bodies and the walls dripping with blood. They laugh at his warnings, and he leaves the doomed company. Meanwhile, Penelope has heard the words of each one of the men in the halls, for she had set her chair near them.

Notes

Odysseus' endurance is tested here when he sees the insolent maids laughing on their way to sleep with the suitors. He controls his anger with great difficulty, and, in a brilliant epic simile, his growing anger is compared to that of a dog guarding her young ones from a stranger. Later, he endures the goatherd Melanthius' taunts and escapes an ox's foot that is thrown at him by one of the suitors. All these incidents serve to increase his anger and are needed to justify the cruel slaughter of the suitors soon afterwards. Athena often encourages such taunts, so that they may wound Odysseus' pride and increase his desire for revenge. An important theme of the epic is Odysseus' humbling, and these episodes serve this theme's purpose.


The suitors are deplorable beyond belief. They have inflated opinions of themselves and no scruples about getting what they want. Antinous differs from Eurymachus only in being more outspokenly brutal. The others conform to type, except, perhaps, Amphinomus, who has some relics of decency, though not enough to escape death. In the suitors, it is hard not to see an embodiment of a heroic society in decay. This is the generation that did not fight at Troy, and their lack of heroic qualities fits the relatively unheroic temper of The Odyssey. When the doom of the suitors is near and Ctessipus has just thrown an ox's foot at Odysseus, they are seized with a frenzy of madness, and Theoclymenus in ringing tones foresees their doom. It is an apocalyptic moment, but they are too far gone to recognize their predicament. This is the last scene for Theoclymenus. He has completed his task, which is to forecast events by augury and vision.

The element of the supernatural is more dominant here than anywhere else in the epic. Odysseus prays to Zeus for a good omen, and it is granted. Penelope dreams of a man such as Odysseus lying next to her in bed. The suitors see an eagle with a cowering dove in its clutches, and Theoclymenus has his bloody vision. The doom that is to come upon the suitors is not only brought about by Odysseus, but by the will of the gods themselves. In a chilling commentary at the end of the Book, the poet indicates that they have had a fine lunch in which they have sacrificed many victims and, in doing so, have earned a gruesome supper which will be served to them by "a god and a man."

In addition to showing the suitors' folly, the dinner scene also reveals the mood of Odysseus' family. Odysseus bides his time, Telemachus grows angry and impatient, and Penelope is allowed to hear each word the suitors speak, solidifying her distaste for them. Homer brings together all three members of the family in their desire for vengeance on the arrogant, audacious suitors.

In a small but important scene, Odysseus meets another well-wisher, Philoetius. He needs all the help he can get in the final slaying of the suitors. There are only a few men to help him in this, but they are loyal and dependable, and Philoetius is no exception.

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