HOMER: The Odyssey [Book XVII]

In Book XVII of Homer’s Odyssey, Telemachus returns to the city and tells his mother Penelope about his journey to Pylos and Sparta. As she listens to Telemachus relate the story of Menelaus’ encounter with the sea-god Proteus, who informs Menelaus that Odysseus is alive, Penelope grows hopeful that Odysseus will return home soon.

Meanwhile, the swineherd Eumaeus leads Odysseus, who is disguised as a beggar, to the palace where the suitors are feasting. Outside, Odysseus sees his dog, Argus, whom he last saw 20 years ago, before he left for Troy. Argus is lying on a dung heap and covered in fleas. But when he sees Odysseus, he perks up, wags his tail, and tries to reach his master. Odysseus sheds a tear at the sight of his old, faithful dog, and then enters the palace, unable to greet the dog lest he disclose his true identity. Having seen his master one last time, Argus dies happy. Although the statement – “dog is man’s best friend” – was coined in 1789, Homer demonstrates that the strong bond between men and their dogs existed long before then.

Having passed into the palace, Odysseus begins to beg each of the suitors for bread in order to determine their moral characters. As expected, most of the suitors treat him with disdain. Antinous, in particular, severely rebukes Odysseus and then throws a stool at him, striking him in the back. Yet Odysseus calmly walks away, preserving the secret of his identity until the time is right. Here, Homer demonstrates that Odysseus’ sufferings have hardened him. Odysseus is focused on one goal – killing the suitors – and he will happily suffer much more than being struck by a stool for the sake of that goal.

After Odysseus leaves the place where the suitors are feasting, Eumaeus tells Penelope that the beggar, whom Antinous struck, claims that he has news about Odysseus’ whereabouts. Penelope requests a meeting with the beggar and he agrees to meet with her that night. Thus ends Book XVII, leaving the audience in suspense about the impending meeting between Penelope and Odysseus.

The main theme of Book XVII is beggars. The suitors and servants disdain beggars. They consider them lazy freeloaders, who would rather beg for food than earn it. “He has taken to bad ways and will not go about any kind of work; he will do nothing but beg victuals all the town over, to feed his insatiable belly.” While some beggars do actually prefer begging over working, Homer emphasizes that all men ought to be treated with respect; for “the gods go about disguised in all sorts of ways as people from foreign countries, and travel about the world to see who do amiss and who righteously.” And whoever commits injustice will incur the wrath of the gods.

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