Wily Odysseus, Slaughter, and Restoration - "The Odyssey" Books XI - XXIV by Homer

Books XI - XIV
This post is a continuation from my first post on Books I - X, here. This story is certainly one of the greatest epic tales ever told, and the imagery from the story has help shape Western society. While there is so much that could be talked about, here I am only going to post a few points which stuck out to me: Tracking Odysseus fate, his cunning mind, his and Penelope's sacred bed, the importance of funerals and strangers, and a Christian parallel. 
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Continuing the Fate of Odysseus Leading Back to Ithaca
They set sail from the house of Circe and continue to the land of the dead, "...where Cimmerian people have their homes-their realm and city shrouded in mist and cloud. The eye of the Sun can never flash his rays through the dark and bring them light..." (Bk XI 15 - 20) They park the ship and the on shore Odysseus performs a type of ritual which summons the dead. He dug a trench in the ground and offered them milk, honey, wine, water, and barley. Then he vowed to pray for them upon his return home. Finally, he slaughtered sheep and poured their blood in the trench. "... and up out of Erebus they came, flocking toward me now, the ghosts of the dead and gone ... Brides and unwed youths and old men who had suffered much and girls with their tender hearts freshly scarred by sorrow and great armies of battle dead, stabbed by bronze spears, men of war still wrapped in bloody armor - thousands swarming around the trench from every side - unearthly cries - blanching terror gripped me!" (Bk XI 40 -50) 

Odysseus does not allow the souls access to the blood until he gets what he needs by talking to the ghost of Tiresias. While Tiresias warns him not to kill the cattle of the god Helios which they will encounter on their way home, he also gives Odysseus a prophecy about his end days, one which is still incomplete at the end of the story. Something about having Odysseus go wandering again, but he will die a peaceful death with him family. 

He says, "But once you have killed those suitors in your halls - by stealth or in open fight with slashing bronze - go forth once more, you must ... carry your well-planed oar until you come to a race of people who know nothing of the sea, whose food is never seasoned with salt, strangers all to ships with their crimson prows and long slim oars, wings that make ships fly. And here is your sign - unmistakable, clear, so clear you cannot miss it: When another traveler falls in with you and calls that weight across your shoulder a fan to winnow grain, then plant your bladed, balanced oar in the earth and sacrifice fine beasts to the lord god of the sea, Poseidon - a ram, a bull and a ramping wild boar - then journey home and render noble offerings up to the deathless gods who rule the vaulting skies, to all the gods in order. And at last your own death will steal upon you... a gentle, painless death, far from the sea it comes to take you down, borne down with the years in ripe old age with all your people there in blessed peace around you." (Bk XI 135 - 155) 

Odysseus does not forget this, even after the drama of returning home is over. After reuniting with Penelope, he tells her. "'Dear woman ... we have still not reached the end of all our trials. One more labor lies in store - boundless, laden with danger, great and long, and I must brave it out from start to finish. So the ghost of Tiresias prophesied to me, the day that I went down to the House of Death ... The prophet said that I must rove through towns on towns of men, that I must carry a well-planed oar until I come to a people who know nothing of the sea, whose food is never seasoned with salt, strangers all to ships with their crimson prows and long slim oars, wings that make ships fly. And here is my sign, he told me, clear, so clear I cannot miss it, and I will share it with you now ... When another travelers falls in with me and calls that weight across my shoulder a fan to winnow grain, then, he told me, I must plant my oar in the earth and sacrifice fine beasts to the lord god of the sea, Poseidon - a ram, a bull and a ramping wild boar - then journey home and render noble offerings up to the deathless gods who rule the vaulting skies, to all the gods in order. And at last my own death will steal upon me ... a gentle, painless death, far from the sea it comes to take me down, borne down with the years in ripe old age with all my people here in blessed peace around me. All this, the prophet said, will come to pass.'" (Bk XXIII 280-320) 

In encountering the dead he met countless souls of women related to famous men, as well as his own mother, and talked with them. Finally, he also met some of his old friends from the war: Agamemnon, Achilles, Patroclus, Antilochus, and Ajax. We learn that being dead is not so awesome. Achilles says, "'No winning words about death to me, shining Odysseus! By god, I'd rather salve on earth for another man - some dirt-poor tenant farmer who scrapes to keep alive - than rule down here over all the breathless dead.'" (Bk XI 555) And yet, when Odysseus tells Achilles how well his son fought after his death, and that he was doing well, Achilles bursts into joy and floats away in excitement. Finally Odysseus encounters heroes of old, some of whom are still suffering to that day. For example, he sees Sisyphus. "... bound to his own torture, grappling his monstrous boulder with both arms working, heaving, hands struggling, legs driving, he kept on thrusting the rock uphill toward the brink, but just as it teetered, set to topple over - time and again the immense weight of the thing would wheel it back and the ruthless boulder would bound and tumble down to the plain again - so once again he would heave, would struggle to thrust it up, sweat drenching his body, dust swirling above his head." (Bk XI 680-690)

Leaving the land of the dead, they must go back to Circe, as their shipmate who fell of her roof accidentally, and died, asked that they go back and bury him properly. So they return and spend the day there completing the rites and resting with Circe before taking off again. She warns them of what is to come. They are going to have to pass by the Sirens, whose beautiful voices will draw them into death, crashing on the breakers. And so they must plug their ears. Then they will encounter a straight with a whirl pool, dangerous enough, but on the other side of the straight is a vicious monster who lives high in the rocks and pulls prey from the water. If they survive that they will reach the island of the Cattle of the Son god Helios. There they can rest, but cannot kill any of his animals or they will be struck down in pain. 

Passing by the Sirens, Odysseus has them plug their ears with beeswax, but he wants to hear the song. So they tie him to the ship and will not release him no matter how much he begs. Surviving that, they make it to the straight, and distracted by the whirlpool, the monster snatches six men from the boat and kills them, but the ship survives. Continuing on, they make it to the Island of the Cattle of the Sun, but his shipmates do not listen to his warnings about the animals. They are stuck there for over a month because of the winds, to the point that they run out of food. While Odysseus is away inland, his shipmates decide that it would be better to eat the cattle and then ask forgiveness when they return home. Because of this, when they set sail from the island, Zeus struck down their ship in a storm and only Odysseus was left alive, barely clinging to a part of the ship. The winds ended up pulling him back the way they came and he almost drowned in the whirlpool, but survived and was washed up on Calypso's island. (Remember from here he was set free and made it to the Phaeacians, to whom his has been telling his back story.) And so from here, after the story is complete, they load him with gifts and sail him home to Ithaca at last. Telemachus, too, is going to return home from King Menelaus right after Odysseus returns home. 

Odysseus' Cunning Mind 
One of the main pieces of advice that Agamemnon gives Odysseus is a warning about returning home. He makes it clear that Odysseus must test everyone, even his own wife, to see if they are still loyal to him. At the same time, one of the constant descriptions of Odysseus through both epics is one which depicts him as wise, wily, cunning, smart, etc. He certainly survives because of his quick thinking and brilliant mind. Here is no exception. Agamemnon was struck down in his own halls after returning him from Troy because his wife had turned on him while he was gone. Agamemnon trusted her, and so when his back was turned to eating a meal no their return, she and her wicked loved killed them all, not even allowing Agamemnon to see his own children again. And a major part of the end of the Odyssey is expressing just that, how Odysseus can come home after twenty years of being gone and determine who he can and cannot trust. Again, there's so much that could be talked about here, but I don't want to go into so much detail. I'll briefly outline the events.

Brief Outline When He Returns Home
- Odysseus lands and is left with his treasures, which he hides in a cave so they aren't stolen. 
- Athena transforms him into an older man wearing rags, a weary traveler from afar. 
- Odysseus first goes to a trusted farm hand under his false identity and receives hospitality. The man is still loyal to him and updates him on what has been happening. 
- His son shows up there as well, returning from his trip, and Odysseus reveals himself to his son, and his plan to overthrow the suitors. 
 - Then Odysseus is taken into the palace as a stranger and beggar, and receives much abuse from the suitors, but keeps his calm. 
- Helen was told by Odysseus years ago to remarry if he was killed. With Telemachus coming of age, it is going to be his turn to inherent the palace and land as his own, and so Penelope feels some pressure to remarry, but she really doesn't want to. She leads the suitors on, but in reality it is going to lead to their own slaughter. 
- Odysseus determines who of all his servants have been faithful to him, and reveals himself to a few of them so that he can plan the suitor's slaughter. 
- Helen puts a challenge to the suitors on the Feast of Apollo. whoever can string Odysseus' bow and shoot through a set of axes can have her hand. 
 - None of the suitors can do it, and Telemachus gives bow to Odysseus, who reveals himself and begins to shoot the suitors dead. A small battle ensues in the palace hall, but the result is that all of the suitors are slain. He also has the unfaithful servants killed as well. "I found Odysseus in the thick of slaughtered corpses; there he stood and all around him, over the beaten floor, the bodies sprawled in heaps, lying one on another ... How it would have thrilled your heart to see him- splattered with bloody filth, a lion with his kill! And now they're all stacked at the courtyard gates -" (Bk XXIII 45 -50)
- Odysseus reveals himself to his wife, and Athena removes the fake disguise. And his wife, after testing him to make sure its really him, embracing him and they are reunited.
- The next day they go to the farm to visit his father. The townspeople find out that their sons are all dead, and storm the farm in anger, but Odysseus fights them off and sends them fleeing. 
- Peace is restored. 

Funerals and Strangers
Two things that I noticed which seem to span both the Iliad and the Odyssey are the important of proper funeral rites, and kindness to strangers. To deny someone a proper funeral is to level against them the worst of insults. Several times in The Iliad there are mini battles over the corpses of the people that they care about, Patroclus, Hector, Achilles. Likewise, if men died off in battle, a type of monument was erected to them. Thinking about why this might it be, it became clear to me. 

One of the main points of The Odyssey is that they don't know what's happened to Odysseus. Is he alive? Is he dead? How many years should they wait hoping he'll come back? What happened to him? Of course in the ancient world they had limited communication, and so to be able to identify that your loved one died, and offer a proper burial and monument to them, was a huge relief. There's no more confusion as to what happened to them, or if they are still alive. Their fate is confirmed and people can actually mourn properly for their loved ones. If someone is not buried, their bodies left out to be eaten by dogs and birds, then they may not be able to be identified. The fate of a loved one may be lost to understanding. Now there are other reasons, I'm sure, such as preserving the legacy of the individual, as well as praying for them and offering sacrifices for their soul, but that is one particular reason that struck me. 

On a similar vein, many times during The Odyssey it mentions how strangers are from Zeus. They had a deeply engrained culture of honoring foreigners and travelers if they showed up at your home. This includes bestowing on them a multitude of fine gifts in certain circumstances, as we see with Odysseus and the Phaeacians. Again, I think it reflects the harshness of travel in the time. Everyone is at risk at some point or another of becoming stranded, lost, left behind, or in need in a foreign place. And so strangers are sent from Zeus, meaning they are sacred and if you show them hospitality then you too will be shown hospitality when you are in need. 

The Sacred Bed
Another very interesting detail stood out to me when Penelope was testing Odysseus to see if he really was her husband. She mentions two secrets that only her and her husband knew between each other. One of them being what the inside of their bedroom looked like, with the only exception being one of her handmaids. And so Penelope tests Odysseus by calling one of the servants to bring the bed out in the courtyard for Odysseus to sleep on. Odysseus, truly being her husband, knows this is ridiculous because no one can possibly move that bed. When he was building their room he used a beautiful tree which grew from the ground and made it into one of the bedposts as he built a massive beautiful bed around it, nothing a man could move. The bed, like Odysseus' bow, is a symbol that no one can replace Odysseus to his wife. They are uniquely meant for each other. 

"Putting her husband to the proof- -but Odysseus blazed up in fury, lashing out at his loyal wife: 'Woman--your words, they cut me to the core! Who could move my bed? Impossible task, even for some skilled craftsman-unless a god came down in person, quick to lend a hand, lifted it out with ease and moved it elsewhere. Not a man on earth, not even at peak strength, would find it easy to prise it up and shift it, no, a great sign, a hallmark lies in its construction. I know, I built it myself--no one else.

There was a branching olive-tree inside our court, grown to its full prime, the bole like a column, thickset. Around it I built my bedroom, finished off the walls with good tight stonework, roofed it over soundly and added doors, hung well and snugly wedged. Then I lopped the leafy crown of the olive, clean-cutting the stump bare from roots up, planting it round with a bronze smoothing-adze-I had the skill I shaped it plumb to the line to make my bedpost, bored the holes it needed with an auger. Working from there I built my bed, start to finish, I gave it ivory inlays, gold and silver fittings, wove the straps across it, oxhide gleaming red. There's our secret sign, I tell you, our life story! Does the bed, my lady, still stand planted firm?-I don't know_or has someone chopped away that olive-trunk and hauled our bedstead off?"
 (Bk XXIII 205 -230) 

Christian Parallel
Lastly, I couldn't help but noticing a parallel between Odysseus' journey and return home and the parable from the New Testament Gospels of a master who goes on a journey and "is delayed." Meanwhile, at home his servants are left with the choice of being faithful or unfaithful to him. Some take the opportunity to become drunk and to beat and abuse others. Others wait faithfully because the time nor hour is known when the master will return. And the master returns in the middle of the night, taking everyone by surprise, and the wicked servants are destroyed. I'm not fully sure what the connection would be, or even if there is a connection other than the fact that both stories illustrate the same points ... namely that honor and fidelity to others, even when they are gone and far away, is incredibly important. As a Christian, it is a beautiful parable of living this life of discipleship. God is far off right now, and so many things are allowed to pass. But one day Jesus will return in judgment and all things will be brought into the light, and so I must be faithful every moment of my life. 

1 - Homer. The Odyssey