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book 21 summary odyssey

book 21 summary odyssey

The Odyssey

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Summary and Analysis Book 21

Penelope announces the contest and retrieves Odysseus' great backsprung bow from a secret storeroom deep in the palace. For sport, Telemachus attempts to string the bow and fails three times. He is about to succeed on his fourth try when Odysseus privately signals him to back off. The suitors then take their turns, their early efforts failing dismally. As the suitors contend, Odysseus meets outside with Eumaeus and Philoetius, his faithful servants and reveals to them his true identity and enlists their support in his plan.

Meanwhile, the suitors continue to struggle with the bow. Antinous suggests that the contest be postponed until the next day, but then Odysseus asks if he might give the bow a try, an idea that Penelope strongly supports. Odysseus easily strings the weapon and fires an arrow straight through the axes; then he and Telemachus stand together to face the suitors.

Penelope's choice of contest — one that only Odysseus could win — supports the suspicion that she is aware of the beggar/Odysseus's real identity. When the beggar/Odysseus asks for an unofficial chance at the bow, Penelope immediately counters Antinous' objection. Dismissing the idea that the guest would claim her as his bride, she responds that by giving the wandering stranger a shot she is simply being hospitable. Of course, the beggar would not claim her for his bride; Odysseus would not have to.

Scholars have long pondered the details of the contest itself, the most debatable point being what shooting an arrow through a dozen axes actually means. Fagles and Knox offer this solution (p. 515): Each ax has its handle attached. Each handle probably has a metal ring on the end opposite the blade so that it can easily be hung on a wall peg. That ring is what Odysseus shoots his arrow through. Twelve in a row is an amazing but conceivable feat, and because he is sitting on a stool at the time, he is at about the right height for such a shot.

Several folklore motifs appear in this section of the epic. Most prominent is a contest involving a mystical weapon that only the hero can wield. In Beowulf, for example, the hero (Beowulf) strikes down his foe's (Grendel's) mother with a mystical sword inscribed with runic symbols. In the Arthurian legend, only Arthur, the true king, is able to pull the sword Excalibur from the stone. The difference here is that the challenge in The Odyssey requires less magic and more skill and physical strength. Other motifs are the disguise of the hero, the battle for the bride, revenge upon interlopers, maturation of the heir apparent, and restoration of a king to his rightful reign.

Telemachus' role at the contest is secondary but significant. His attempt at stringing the bow symbolically illustrates that, although he isn't quite yet ready to assume the burden of leadership from Odysseus, he is, indeed, the destined heir to Odysseus' legacy. Some critics also complain that Telemachus is unduly rude when he sends his mother to her quarters as Odysseus is about to string the bow; other suggest that he is angry. Neither is the case. In fact, Telemachus is accomplishing two important tasks. He is asserting his own position in the household, and he is removing his mother from harm's way. She may suspect that the beggar is her husband, but Telemachus knows that a battle is about to take place and that his place is at the side of the king.

The structure of the contest section is especially effective. First Penelope introduces the idea, which is news to the suitors. Antinous immediately feels threatened. He attacks his underlings, Eumaeus and Philoetius, a safe way for him to let out aggression. Then he hypocritically praises Odysseus, the king he otherwise mocks and hopes to replace. The purpose of this passage is not just to advance the plot. Here, the reader is given important insights into the characters by virtue of Homer's arrangement of the events. Homer shifts the reader's focus as a film director might.

After the contest gets underway, Homer cleverly takes the reader outside the great hall to a scene in which Odysseus identifies himself and shows his famous scar to his loyal servants, Eumaeus and Philoetius. Then he asks the former to get the maidservants out of the hall and the latter to bolt the courtyard's outer gate. In addition to enabling Odysseus to recruit the help of two faithful servants, this passage also spares the reader the boring task of watching suitor after suitor fail to string the bow.

The whole energy of the section seems to be dying when Antinous successfully requests a postponement of the contest, but Odysseus revitalizes it by asking for a chance at the bow. Antinous immediately objects. Penelope counters. Telemachus intercedes and takes over. Just as the action hits this staccato beat, Odysseus slows it down, teases the onlookers by toying with the bow, and then . . . and then . . . easily strings it and casually shoots the arrow through the axes. Zeus accentuates the action with a thunderbolt, in essence indicating that something important has just been accomplished and something more important is about to take place.

Messene a city in Menelaus' kingdom of Lacedaemon in the southern Peloponnesus.

Mycenae Agamemnon's capital city.

Centaur a mythological creature that is part man, part horse.

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More on The Odyssey

Introduction see all, summary see all, themes see all.

  • Fate and Free Will
  • Lies and Deceit
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  • Perseverance
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  • Klytaimestra
  • The Taphians
  • Little Aias
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  • Telamonian Aias
  • Alkinoös
  • The Cyclopes
  • The Kikonians
  • The Laistrygones
  • The Lotus Eaters
  • Peisistratos
  • Theoklymenos
  • Halitherses

Analysis See All

  • What’s Up With the Title?
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  • Tough-o-Meter
  • Writing Style
  • Odysseus' Bow
  • Food and Banqueting
  • Narrator Point of View
  • Booker's Seven Basic Plots Analysis
  • Plot Analysis
  • Three Act Plot Analysis

Quotes See All

  • For Teachers
  • Penelope takes Odysseus' bow down from its place of honor on the wall. She remembers how he obtained it as the payment for a debt from Iphitos from Lakedaimon.
  • Don't worry—Homer tells you the story: Odysseus met Iphitos in Messene, where he (Odysseus) had come claiming the natives owed Ithaka for having stolen some sheep way back when. Iphitos was also there on the account of livestock; he was tracking some stray mares that apparently wandered to Messene themselves.
  • But these mares ended up being the death of Iphitos, since he later wandered to the house of Herakles (Hercules), who promptly killed him so he could have the mares.
  • The point is, Odysseus became friends with Iphitos; he gave him a sword and spear, and Iphitos in return gave him the bow that Penelope is now taking off the wall.
  • Back to the Queen. She approaches the suitors and announces the contest and all its details, which we've already heard.
  • Eumaios and Philoitios present the weapons and both break down in tears, since they know Penelope has given up hope that her husband will ever return.
  • Antinoös mocks them for their sniveling, of course.
  • Telemachos is the first to try stringing the bow, not because he wants to marry his mother (he'll leave that to this ancient Greek hero ), but because he wants to prove his strength, manliness, and virility.
  • After four tries, it looks like Telemachos is finally about to succeed—when beggar Odysseus signals for him not to do it. Convenient.
  • Telemachos obeys and hands the bow over to the first suitor, who fails miserably.
  • Antinoös orders Melanthios to build a fire and bring a cake of lard so that they can limber up the bow in the hopes of stringing it. (Cheating!)
  • As he does, beggar Odysseus notices Eumaios and Philoitios leaving the hall. He rushes after them and reveals himself as Odysseus. As proof, he shows them his scar. Woohoo!
  • In the meantime, Eurymachos has been shamed by the bow; he can't string it, either.
  • To delay his own attempt, Antinoös distracts everyone's attention with the feast and says he'll try the bow tomorrow after they have eaten.
  • Beggar Odysseus speaks up; he wants a chance at stringing the bow.
  • The suitors, especially Antinoös, emphatically say no. They're afraid he can actually do it, since they saw his absolutely awesome body a few days before.
  • Penelope scolds Antinoös and Eurymachos for treating the beggar so badly and invites him to give it a shot.
  • Telemachos uncharacteristically steps forward and tells his mother that this is a man's affair and she ought to go upstairs and be a woman. Alone. In the bedroom.
  • Incidentally, that's where ancient Greek women actually did spend a lot of their time .
  • Penelope obeys, marveling at Telemachos' sudden bravery. Because there's nothing a mom likes better than being ordered around by her son.
  • As the beggar takes his time feeling the bow, Telemachos tells Eurykleia to shut all the women in their rooms and tell them not to come out until summoned, even if they hear sounds of battle.
  • As the beggar takes his time stringing the bow, the suitors shout insults at him…
  • …Until he successfully strings the bow in one easy motion, grabs an arrow and shoots it straight through the twelve axe heads.
  • In the silence that follows, Zeus sends a sign of his favor—a single thunderclap.
  • Telemachos arms himself and moves to stand next to his now unmasked father.
  • Odysseus is back. Yeah!

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The Odyssey

The Odyssey Summary and Analysis of Books 21-24

Book xxi summary:.

Penelope retrieves Odysseus ' great bow from the storeroom and her maids bear axe heads into the main hall. Penelope explains the game: whoever can string her husband's bow and shoot an arrow through the twelve axeheads will marry her. Telemachus gives it a try first; he is unable to string the bow three times. Other suitors fail to string the bow. Meanwhile, Odysseus follows Eumaeus and Philoitios outside and reveals his true identity to them, using his scar as proof. After they swear loyalty to him, he instructs them to give him the bow and lock the door when the time comes.

Back in the hall, Eurymakhos fails with the bow, and Antinous suggests they postpone the contest, make a sacrifice tomorrow to Apollo, god of archers, and try again. Odysseus asks to try the bow, but Antinous threatens him not to. Penelope insists the beggar be allowed the opportunity; if he succeeds, she will give him clothing and other gifts. Telemachus sends her to her room, and then orders Eumaeus to give Odysseus the bow. The door and courtyard gate are also locked. Odysseus examines the bow as the suitors mock him. He smoothly strings it as Zeus thunders, and then shoots the arrow through the axe heads.

This brief episode marks the ascendance of Telemachus and Odysseus. The son grows increasingly authoritative, sharply ordering Eumaeus to defy the suitors and give Odysseus the bow, while Odysseus assumes his rightful place as man of the house by besting the suitors in the contest. Even Penelope regains some grandeur, decreeing that the beggar receive his chance in the contest.

The contest, centering on a weapon, presages the fighting that will soon take place. Homer makes this graphically clear when foretelling Antinous' fate: "destined to be the first of all to savor / blood from a biting arrow at his throat, / a shaft drawn by the fingers of Odysseus" (108-110). Against the skillful Odysseus, the suitors seem to stand little chance.

Book XXII Summary:

After he has proven himself with the axe heads, Odysseus stands by the door and kills Antinous with an arrow through the throat. The suitors look for weapons on the wall, but there are none. They promise death for Odysseus, but he reveals his identity and vows to exact vengeance. The suitors are intimidated, and Eurymakhos says that the dead Antinous was their leader and coerced them into following him; if Odysseus spares the suitors, they will repay what they took from him. Odysseus angrily refuses, and Eurymakhos calls on the suitors to draw their swords and fight.

Eurymakhos attacks, but Odysseus cuts him down with an arrow in his chest. While Odysseus staves off the suitors with his bow, Telemachus retrieves arms and armor from the room he stored them in and gives them to his father, Eumaeus, and Philoitios. Melanthios steals away to the storeroom and returns with arms and armor for the suitors. Eumaeus catches him in the act the second time around, and he and Philoitios tie him in a painful position to the rafters.

Athena appears in the main hall in the form of Mentor, though Odysseus knows it is she. The suitors threaten to kill Mentor if he joins the fight, but Athena, while on Odysseus' side, does not immediately join in the action; she wants Odysseus and Telemachus to prove their worth first. The suitor Agelaos leads the plan: attack Odysseus alone. But Athena sends their spears awry, and Odysseus' team slaughters a number of the suitors while suffering only minor damage. Athena's shield appears in the hall, inspiring further dread in the suitors. One suitor, Leodes, supplicates himself at Odysseus' knees, excusing himself from the others' actions. Odysseus does not believe his claims and decapitates Leodes. Phemios, the minstrel, also begs mercy, and Telemachus grants it to him and also to Medon, their herald.

With the suitors all dead, Odysseus asks Eurykleia, the old nurse, which of the women of his house were disloyal to him. Twelve were, she replies, and Odysseus has them clean the bloody room before they are hanged outside. The men amputate several of Melanthios' body parts. Odysseus orders the room to be purified with fire and brimstone, and weeps as all his loyal servants embrace him.

The prior individuation of the suitors makes for a more satisfying, if gruesome, climax. When Odysseus kills Ktesippos, the rich suitor who had thrown a cow's hoof at him earlier, he has some choice words for him, while the graphic amputation of Melanthios seems appropriate for that of a goatherd; just as Melanthios divided up Odysseus' stock for the suitors, so too does Odysseus divide up Melanthios' body, even pulling "off his genitals to feed the dogs" (529). His dismemberment also recalls the mutilation of the centaur Eurytion that Antinous describes in Book XXI.

Other deaths are portrayed in an ironic light, as well. The description of Antinous' death reminds us of his gluttonous ways: "one last kick upset the table / knocking the bread and meat to soak in dusty blood" (20-21). Eurymakhos' death, too, entangles him with Odysseus' food and drink one last time: "He lurched and fell aside, / pitching across his table. His cup, his bread and meat, were spilt and scattered far and wide" (90-92).

Most tellingly, Homer finally pays off the repeated oracular signs of Odysseus as a bird of prey with a simile comparing him and his allies to falcons: "After them the attackers wheeled, as terrible as falcons /from eyries in the mountains veering over and diving down / with talons wide unsheathed on flights of birds" (337-339).

Lest the audience find it unfair that Odysseus receives help from Athena, Homer has her aid Odysseus only at the end of the fight, after his skill and shrewd planning have already tipped the scales of the battle.

Odysseus, though showing no mercy to the two suitors who beg at his knees or to the disloyal women of the house, does forgive his minstrel and herald. His vendetta against the others, then, is somewhat palliated by his kind attitude to them, as well as by his tearful reunion with his servants.

Book XXIII Summary:

Eurykleia wakes Penelope and tells her about Odysseus' return and his victory over the suitors. Penelope believes she is wrong, that a god must have killed the suitors and that Odysseus is dead. She finally goes downstairs and observes Odysseus in silence and from a distance, unsure if it is really he. She wants to test him with "secret signs" only the two of them know. Odysseus consents, but first lays out a plan to deal with the aftermath of the massacre: to make sure no one finds out about the murders, they will pretend Penelope's wedding to one of the suitors is occurring in the palace to give them time to flee to the woods.

Telemachus and the others set up a fake wedding celebration. Penelope maintains her neutral attitude toward Odysseus and asks Eurykleia to make up his bed outside her bedchamber. Odysseus is angry; no one can move the bed he made out of an olive tree. His intimate knowledge of the bed is proof that he is truly Odysseus, and Penelope embraces him and asks forgiveness for her suspicion. Odysseus weeps and holds his wife. He has one more trial, however, that Teiresias told him about: he must take an oar through the mainland and find men who do not know of the sea, until one asks what the oar is. Then he shall plant the oar there and make a sacrifice to Poseidon , return home, and make further sacrifices to all the gods. In bed, she tells him about the suitors, and he recounts his adventures.

In the morning, Odysseus tells Penelope that he must visit his father. He is afraid word will spread about yesterday's events, so he instructs her to take her maids to the upper floor and not have any contact with the outside. He leaves with Telemachus and his herdsmen, hidden with Athena's help.

After the climactic battle in Book XXII, Homer maintains the tension in this episode on two fronts. First, Odysseus' reunion with Penelope is suspenseful; after dealing with so many impostors in the past, will she admit this is the true Odysseus, and once she does, how will the two react to each other?

Fittingly, Homer has the couple's bed serve as proof of Odysseus' identity. For a story so concerned with marital longing, the bed is the perfect symbol for their marriage: carved by Odysseus from a solid olive tree, it is a permanent, immovable, and intimate space solely for him and Penelope.

Once the bed clears the air of any suspicions, Homer writes a beautiful emotional payoff of the couple's reunion with elegant and meaningful simile-filled language:

Now from his breast into his eyes the ache

of longing mounted, and he wept at last,

his dear wife, clear and faithful, in his arms,

as the sunwarmed earth is longed for by a swimmer

spent in rough water where his ship went down

under Poseidon's blows, gale winds and tons of sea.

The comparison of Odysseus to a tempest-tossed swimmer is far from arbitrary; the passage nearly provides a synopsis of Odysseus' adventures preceding his arrival in Ithaca.

The second dramatic conflict Homer promises is Odysseus' final trial as prescribed by Tiresias. This mini-odyssey, coupled with Odysseus' need to escape the town and see his father, keeps the audience engaged for the final episode.

Book XXIV Summary:

Hermes leads the suitors - who squeal like bats - into Hades, where they encounter the ghosts of Achilles and Agamemnon. The suitor Amphimedon explains their fate to Agamemnon, who invidiously compares his deceitful, murderous wife Klytaimnestra to the faithful steadfastness of Penelope.

Meanwhile, Odysseus and his troop reach Laertes' dwelling. On his own, Odysseus finds his frail, elderly father tending to his vineyard. Odysseus comes up with a false identity and introduces himself, noting that he last saw Odysseus five years ago. Laertes' grief forces Odysseus to reveal himself, proving his identity via his scar and knowledge of the vineyard's trees. They embrace and join the others inside to eat, including the old servant Dolius, father of the treacherous Melantho and Melanthius. Odysseus tells his father about his victory over the suitors.

Back in town, the goddess Rumor bandies about word of the suitors' defeat. The townspeople take away the bodies and bury them, then convene. Half of them, led by Eupeithes, father of Antinous, want vengeance for the deaths of their sons, while others realize that a god was on Odysseus' side and argue that their uninhibited sons deserved their fates. Eupeithes leads the former camp to Laertes' house, but Athena, disguised as Mentor, incites Laertes to hurl his spear at Eupeithes. Odysseus and his comrades begin killing the others, but Athena stops them and declares a truce between the warring parties.

The uneven final episode - with its tangential scene in Hades, the lack of conflict with Dolius, whose backstabbing son and daughter have been slain by Odysseus, and Odysseus' failure to carry out Teiresias' instructions to make a sacrifice to Poseidon - lends credence to the argument that much of the final part of The Odyssey has plural authorship.

Nevertheless, the episode does tie up many other loose ends and thematic threads. We are reminded once more of the theme of fidelity as Agamemnon contrasts Penelope and Klytaimnestra. Moreover, the father-son reunion between Odysseus and Telemachus and the latter's maturation through battle is given a twist here - Odysseus reunites with his own father (again under a false identity at first, yet another motif), and it is Laertes who proves himself in a fight.

The tidy resolution underscores a final theme: the power of the gods. It is the gods who decide the fate of the humans, the gods who can declare war, and the gods who can make peace. The closest the Greeks came to the gods, one could argue, was through their writers - for they, too, had complete control over their characters, and none had it more so than Homer.

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The Odyssey Questions and Answers

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Yes, Penelope remains faithful. Although she resorts to trickery and promises to choose another husband, she never istends to do so. Her promises are simply a tenchnique that allow her to survive.

which of the following responses best explains why odysseus decides not to kill th cyclops in his sleep

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Study Guide for The Odyssey

The Odyssey study guide contains a biography of Homer, literature essays, a complete e-text, quiz questions, major themes, characters, and a full summary and analysis.

  • About The Odyssey
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Essays for The Odyssey

The Odyssey essays are academic essays for citation. These papers were written primarily by students and provide critical analysis of The Odyssey by Homer.

  • The Underworld in The Aeneid Versus The Odyssey
  • A Musing Contrast
  • Homeric Formalism
  • The Evolution of Civil Justice
  • Modus Operandi - The Ways of Greek Literature

Lesson Plan for The Odyssey

  • About the Author
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  • Common Core Standards
  • Introduction to The Odyssey
  • Relationship to Other Books
  • Bringing in Technology
  • Notes to the Teacher
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E-Text of The Odyssey

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The Odyssey

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Chapter Summaries & Analyses

Book 21 Summary: “An Archery Contest”

The contest of the axes is held in Book 21, with none of the suitors able to string and shoot Odysseus’s bow. He asks to take a turn and shoots the arrow through all 12 axes, then gives his herdsmen and Telemachus the signal.

Prompted by Athena , Penelope prepares for the contest with the axes. She fetches Odysseus’s bow and quiver from the storeroom, weeping as she holds her husbands famed bow, a guest-friend gift from Iphitus, in her hands. Returning to the hall, she explains to the suitors that whoever can string Odysseus’s bow and send an arrow through 12 axes will win her hand in marriage. She instructs Eumaeus to set up the axes. He complies, weeping with Philoetius as he does so. Antinous scolds them for crying, saying their tears are upsetting Penelope. He acknowledges that “it will be difficult” to “match Odysseus” (463).

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    Penelope announces the contest and retrieves Odysseus' great backsprung bow from a secret storeroom deep in the palace. For sport

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    In book 21, Odysseus has returned home dressed as a beggar and entered his home. His wife Penelope feels she can no longer hold off the suitors

  8. The Odyssey Book 21

    Penelope takes Odysseus' bow down from its place of honor on the wall. · Don't worry—Homer tells you the story: Odysseus met Iphitos in Messene, where he (

  9. The Odyssey by Homer

    Summarize videos instantly with our Course Assistant plugin, and enjoy AI-generated quizzes: The Odyssey book

  10. The Odyssey Book 21 Summary

    Odysseus finally reveals himself to Eumaeus and the servant Philoetius and fills them in on his plan of revenge. They agree to help. After the suitors have all

  11. The Odyssey Summary and Analysis of Books 21-24

    Book XXI Summary: ... Penelope retrieves Odysseus' great bow from the storeroom and her maids bear axe heads into the main hall. Penelope explains

  12. The Odyssey Books 21-22 Summary

    Book twenty-one begins with Penelope presenting the challenge to the suitors. She brings out Odysseus's heavy bow and arrow

  13. The Odyssey Books 21-24 Summary & Analysis

    The contest of the axes is held in Book 21, with none of the suitors able to string and shoot Odysseus's bow. He asks to

  14. Books 21-24

    Books 21 to 24: Summary. Penelope announces the contest and retrieves Odysseus' massive bow from a secret storeroom deep in the palace.