HOMER: The Odyssey [Book XXIII]

In Book XXIII of Homer’s Odyssey, the nurse Euryclea informs Penelope that Odysseus has returned and killed all the suitors. Penelope does not believe her, but rather claims that some god has punished the suitors for their wickedness. Nevertheless, she agrees to descend from her room to view the outcome of the battle.

When she arrives downstairs, she sits next to Odysseus beside the fire. She does not say a word to him because she is shocked and not entirely certain that the man before her is actually Odysseus. This grieves Odysseus. He calls her a hard-hearted woman and declares that he will sleep alone that night.

To determine whether he really is Odysseus, Penelope says that she will have his bed brought out of their room so that he can sleep where he chooses. Odysseus remarks that removing their bed from the bedchamber is impossible because it is part of a large olive tree, still rooted in the ground. Because only Odysseus and Penelope have seen their bed, Penelope becomes convinced that the man is really Odysseus. Both Odysseus and Penelope passionately embrace each other and shed tears of joy.

They recount to one another their past hardships – Odysseus’ sufferings after the Trojan War and Penelope’s sufferings at the hands of the insolent suitors. Odysseus knows that the kinsmen of the suitors will seek revenge, so he orders Penelope to lock herself and the other maidens within a room while Odysseus, Telemachus, Eumaeus, and Philoetius visit Odysseus’ father Laertes in the countryside.

Besides the reunion of Penelope and Odysseus, Book XXIII is notable for its discussion of the Ancient Greek way of atoning for murder. Speaking to Telemachus, Odysseus tells him that when a man has killed another, he must leave the city at once. “When one man has killed another, even though he was not one who would leave many friends to take up his quarrel, the man who has killed him must still say good bye to his friends and fly the country.”

While in exile, certain rituals were performed to atone for the killing. Thus, there is a notable distinction between the Ancient Greek way of absolving sins – which is accomplished through physical tasks such as sacrificing hecatombs to the gods – and the Judeo-Christian way of absolving sins – which is accomplished through spiritual tasks such as prayer and repentance.

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