HOMER: The Odyssey [Book XX]

In Book XX of Homer’s Odyssey, Odysseus awakens from his troubled sleep and asks Zeus to send him a favorable omen. Zeus complies with Odysseus’ wish. He sends thunder from a clear sky and compels a maidservant to proclaim that the thunder is an omen that the suitors will be killed that day.

Having received assurance from the prophecy that he will succeed in routing the suitors from his home, Odysseus happily attends the banquet being held in the palace to celebrate the feast of Apollo. At the party, the suitors continue their general debauchery and their mistreatment of Odysseus. However, at the height of their insolence, the suitors succumb to an involuntary laughter and grisly portents appear. “They were laughing with a forced laughter. Their meat became smeared with blood; their eyes filled with tears, and their hearts were heavy with forebodings.”

Until this point in the epic, all omens have been related to birds or to the weather. The omens were unusual, but neither impossible nor unbelievable. This omen, however, is particularly extraordinary. Homer chooses a blatantly supernatural omen as the last sign of the suitors’ impending doom to demonstrate the inability of some men to foresee their own ruin, even when it is made abundantly clear to them.

Thus, the last chance for the suitors’ to renounce their misbehavior and leave the house passes. They heartily enjoy their last meal, ignorant of the fate that awaits them. “The dinner had been prepared amid merriment; it had been both good and abundant, for they had sacrificed many victims; but the supper was yet to come, and nothing can be conceived more gruesome than the meal which a goddess and a brave man were soon to lay before them – for they had brought their doom upon themselves.”

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