The Ancient World (HUM 124 - UNC Asheville)/Texts/Odyssey/Book 17

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Summary of book[edit | edit source]

Telemachus returns home, and tells Penelope that he visited King Nestor in Pylos and King Menelaus in Sparta to ask about Odysseus' whereabouts. King Nestor has not seen or heard of Odysseus but King Menelaus, upon asking the old Sea God (Poseidon), has learned the Odysseus is stuck on Calypso's island, having no ship or crew to return home.

Odysseus, disguised as a beggar, is led to town by Eumaeus, a swineherd. On the way to town they encounter Melanthius, a goatherd who insults the disguised Odysseus and attacks him. Odysseus endures this attack, choosing restrain himself rather than lashing out. When Odysseus gets there, he encounters Argos, his old hunting dog. Argos is found laying in manure, neglected after Odysseus left. Unlike everyone else in Ithaca Argos recognizes Odysseus immediately despite Odysseus' disguise, but dies soon after.

Odysseus and Eumaeus make it to Odysseus' palace where the suitors and feasting and, upon encouragement from Telemachus and Athena, he goes to be for scraps from the suitors. Most suitors give him scraps but Antinous, one to the cruelest suitors, hurls his stool at him. After the feast, he arranges to meet with Penelope, saying that he was friends with Odysseus and knows something about his whereabouts.

Characters[edit | edit source]

Telemachus - Odysseus' son who returns from Sparta with news that Odysseus is trapped by Calypso.

Penelope - Odysseus' wife who tries to hear all she can about Odysseus' whereabouts.

Nestor - King of Pylos who meets with Telemachus. He doesn't know of Odysseus' whereabouts.

Menelaus - King of Sparta who meets with Telemachus. He heard of Odysseus' whereabouts from Poseidon.

Theoclymenus - A prophet who believes that Odysseus is already in Ithaca planning his revenge.

Odysseus - The protagonist, who is disguised as a beggar and finally makes it back to his home.

Eumaeus - A swineherd who helps Odysseus and leads him back to town.

Melanthius - A goatherd who attacks Odysseus on his way back to town.

Argos - Odysseus' old hunting dog who was neglected since Odysseus left. He recognized Odysseus despite his disguise before passing away.

Athena - Goddess of wisdom who encourages Odysseus to blend in as a beggar by begging for scraps from the other suitors.

Antinous - One of the suitors that is both cruel and lacks basic decency. He throws a stool at the disguised Odysseus.

Ancient worldview[edit | edit source]

Hospitality[edit | edit source]

Loyalty is an important quality to have in the ancient world, and there are a couple examples of characters in book 17 who exemplify it. One example in book 17 (as well as throughout the entire book) is Penelope, who faithfully and loyally waits for her husband Odysseus to return even though 20 years have passes. She even goes as far as to ask a beggar who might have news of her husband, saying:

“Eumaeus! Have the stranger come to me, so I may welcome him, and ask if he has heard or witnessed anything about long-lost Odysseus. The stranger seems as if he must have travelled far.”

Another example of loyalty in book 17 is about Argos, Odysseus’ old hunting dog. In the 20 years that passed as Odysseus was away from Ithaca, Argos was neglected and is now covered in fleas and dirt and dung. Despite the fact that the dog is weak and on death’s door, he immediately recognizes Odysseus, despite Odysseus’ beggar disguise.

“He was too weak to move towards his aster. At a distance, Odysseus had noticed, and he wiped his tears away and his them easily.”

Loyalty[edit | edit source]

Hospitality is one of the most prominent ancient worldviews in book 17. When Odysseus, disguised as a beggar, arrives at his palace, he sees all of the suitors feasting on his food and overstaying their welcome. This is an example of the suitors abusing the host-guest relationship. The suitors abuse their position, taking food that is not theirs and sharing little to none of it with others. Telemachus says in regards to Antinous:

“Go on, I tell you! You should pay no heed to Mother or the other household slaves belonging to my father. You were not concerned about them anyway. You want to gorge yourself, not share with other people.”    

Opposed to this abuse of hospitality is Odysseus who, on the suggestion of Athena and Telemachus, beg for scraps from the other suitors. As Eumaeus say to Odysseus:

“Telemachus gives you this food and says you ought to beg from all these suitors; shame, he says, is not fitting for those who have to live by handouts.”

Kindness towards the Poor[edit | edit source]

Kindness towards the poor is another important worldview held in ancient Greece. Not so much out of any altruistic feelings, but because you never know if a beggar is a god in disguise. When Odysseus begs for scraps from the other suitors even they, who steal his food and want to take his wife, give him scraps of food. But Antinous, the cruelest of the suitors, refuses to give him anything and strikes Odysseus with a stool. When the other suitors see this, they exclaim:

“You ought not to have hit a poor old beggar! If he turns out to be a god from heaven it will end badly! Gods disguise themselves as foreigners and strangers to a town, to see who violates their holy laws, and who is good.”