HOMER: The Odyssey [Book XVI]

In Book XVI of Homer’s Odyssey, Telemachus arrives at the house of Eumaeus. He sends Eumaeus to his mother, Penelope, with news of his return. While Eumaeus is on his errand, Odysseus reveals himself to Telemachus. The father and son joyfully embrace one another. “Telemachus threw his arms about his father and wept. They were both so much moved that they cried aloud like eagles or vultures with crooked talons that have been robbed of their half fledged young by peasants.”

This is one of the best recognition scenes in Ancient Greek literature. In the Poetics, Aristotle notes that all great plots include scenes of recognition because they are particularly efficient at arousing pity. Upon hearing Telemachus’ recognition of Odysseus and their subsequent embrace, the audience cannot help but feel sympathy for them. They have been separated from each other for 20 years, which is essentially the entire life of Telemachus. Both have endured misfortune and suffering – Odysseus at the hands of the god Poseidon, and Telemachus at the hands of the suitors. But now that they are reunited, the audience senses that the tide of fortune will turn in their favor.

After the scene of recognition, Telemachus and Odysseus plot to kill the suitors. Telemachus fears that the number of suitors is too many for he and Odysseus alone to fight. “No matter how valiant a man may be he can do nothing against numbers, for they will be too strong for him.” But Odysseus is fearless, and he also reassures his son that the gods favor their design to punish the impious suitors. “I would rather die fighting in my own house than see such disgraceful sights day after day. And think whether Minerva and her father Jove may seem sufficient, or whether I am to try and find some one else as well.”

While Telemachus and Odysseus consult with one another in Eumaeus’ house, the suitors return to Ithaca and learn of Telemachus’ arrival. They grow very angry that Telemachus was able to avoid their ambush and they conspire to kill Telemachus while he is traveling from the countryside to the city. For once he reaches the city, they cannot kill him because the citizens would witness the murder and avenge it.

Guilt and punishment are two themes that pervade Greek literature. Here, the audience listens with horror as the suitors coldly calculate the best way to kill Telemachus with impunity. Yet the audience also knows that the gods will punish all impiety; for “the day of their reckoning is at hand.”

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