Summary: Book 12
Odysseus returns to Aeaea, where he buries Elpenor and spends one last night with Circe. She describes the obstacles that he will face on his voyage home and tells him how to negotiate them. As he sets sail, Odysseus passes Circe’s counsel on to his men. They approach the island of the lovely Sirens, and Odysseus, as instructed by Circe, plugs his men’s ears with beeswax and has them bind him to the mast of the ship. He alone hears their song flowing forth from the island, promising to reveal the future. The Sirens’ song is so seductive that Odysseus begs to be released from his fetters, but his faithful men only bind him tighter.
Once they have passed the Sirens’ island, Odysseus and his men must navigate the straits between Scylla and Charybdis. Scylla is a six-headed monster who, when ships pass, swallows one sailor for each head. Charybdis is an enormous whirlpool that threatens to swallow the entire ship. As instructed by Circe, Odysseus holds his course tight against the cliffs of Scylla’s lair. As he and his men stare at Charybdis on the other side of the strait, the heads of Scylla swoop down and gobble up six of the sailors.
Odysseus next comes to Thrinacia, the island of the Sun. He wants to avoid it entirely, but the outspoken Eurylochus persuades him to let his beleaguered crew rest there. A storm keeps them beached for a month, and at first the crew is content to survive on its provisions in the ship. When these run out, however, Eurylochus persuades the other crew members to disobey Odysseus and slaughter the cattle of the Sun. They do so one afternoon as Odysseus sleeps; when the Sun finds out, he asks Zeus to punish Odysseus and his men. Shortly after the Achaeans set sail from Thrinacia, Zeus kicks up another storm, which destroys the ship and sends the entire crew to its death beneath the waves. As had been predicted, only Odysseus survives, and he just barely. The storm sweeps him all the way back to Charybdis, which he narrowly escapes for the second time. Afloat on the broken timbers of his ship, he eventually reaches Ogygia, Calypso’s island. Odysseus here breaks from his story, stating to the Phaeacians that he sees no reason to repeat to them his account of his experience on Ogygia.
Summary: Book 13
The account of his wanderings now finished, Odysseus looks forward to leaving Scheria. The next day, Alcinous loads his gifts on board the ship that will carry Odysseus to Ithaca. Odysseus sets sail as soon as the sun goes down. He sleeps the whole night, while the Phaeacian crew commands the ship. He remains asleep even when the ship lands the next morning. The crew gently carries him and his gifts to shore and then sails for home.
When Poseidon spots Odysseus in Ithaca, he becomes enraged at the Phaeacians for assisting his nemesis. He complains to Zeus, who allows him to punish the Phaeacians. Just as their ship is pulling into harbor at Scheria, the prophecy mentioned at the end of Book 8 is fulfilled: the ship suddenly turns to stone and sinks to the bottom of the sea. The onlookers ashore immediately recognize the consummation of the prophecy and resolve to abandon their custom of helping wayward travelers.
Back in Ithaca, Odysseus wakes to find a country that he doesn’t recognize, for Athena has shrouded it in mist to conceal its true form while she plans his next move. At first, he curses the Phaeacians, whom he thinks have duped him and left him in some unknown land. But Athena, disguised as a shepherd, meets him and tells him that he is indeed in Ithaca. With characteristic cunning, Odysseus acts to conceal his identity from her until she reveals hers. Delighted by Odysseus’s tricks, Athena announces that it is time for Odysseus to use his wits to punish the suitors. She tells him to hide out in the hut of his swineherd, Eumaeus. She informs him that Telemachus has gone in search of news of him and gives him the appearance of an old vagabond so that no one will recognize him.
Book XIII Summary:
Odysseus stops telling his story, and the next day Alcinous and others give him gifts. Odysseus thanks Alcinous for his hospitality, and after some fanfare Alcinous' men set sail while Odysseus sleeps peacefully on board. The Phaeacians arrive at Ithaca the next day, unload Odysseus and his gear, and return home.
Poseidon appeals to Zeus, angry that Odysseus has had such a placid return home. He receives permission from Zeus to turn the Phaeacian ship into stone near their harbor for punishment. Alcinous observes this, which fulfills a prophecy (from Book VIII) and leads his men in a sacrifice to Poseidon; the Phaeacians resolve never again to give strangers conveyance.
Odysseus awakens, thinking he is in a strange land. Athena comes to him in the form of a shepherd and informs him he is in Ithaca. Odysseus makes up a story about how he came to Ithaca. Athena turns into a woman and good-naturedly tells him she knows he is lying, and then reveals her identity. She warns him not to let anyone know of his return, and helps him plan death for the suitors. He will reunite with his old swineherd, while she will recall Telemachus from Lakedaimon. She transforms him into a decrepit old man for safety, and they part ways.
This episode marks a change in the Greek attitude toward hospitality. While the Phaeacians are gracious as ever in helping Odysseus, the fulfillment of the prophecy and sinking of their ship forces them to stop helping travelers. Zeus wearily permits the destruction of the ship only because Poseidon feels he has been wronged by the other gods; ensuring harmony among the gods, it seems, is more important than maintaining hospitality at all costs among the mortals.
Odysseus' penchant for quick-witted lying is rendered almost comical when Athena calls him on his made-up story. However, as she points out, he will need this skill to defeat the suitors and, in fact, she physically transforms him for his return - the most literal form of disguise we see Odysseus take in the poem.
Odysseus is upset that Athena has let Telemachus journey for him when she could have merely told him what happened, but she points out that she sent him off "to make his name" (528). We have not heard from him in a long time, but we may assume that his mini-odyssey is complete, and he is now ready to rejoin his father and help him drive off the suitors.
Book XIV Summary:
At his forest hut, Odysseus, disguised as a beggar, meets his old swineherd, Eumaeus. Eumaeus gives him dinner and tells him about the suitors and his dead lord, Odysseus. Odysseus promises him that his lord will return and seek vengeance against the suitors. Eumaeus, who hates the suitors and misses Odysseus dearly, tells him that the suitors are going to ambush Telemachus upon his return. When pressed for his background, Odysseus spins a yarn about growing up on Krete, fighting in the Trojan War, gaining his fortune in Egypt, and being enslaved and made the beggar he is now. During his adventures he heard that Odysseus was still alive, though Eumaeus is skeptical. Odysseus sleeps in the hut while Eumaeus faithfully tends to his lord's herd.
Odysseus displays his gifts for disguise (albeit aided by Athena) and improvisation (read: lying) in his encounter with Eumaeus. Just as he did in the famous Trojan horse story, Odysseus must secretly "invade" a city - this time his own - under wraps, and he must maintain this air of secrecy no matter what. His ability to weave spontaneous stories is exceptional, and this story even has some parallels to his own. He speaks of the greed of his crew, and we have seen evidence of greed in his men when they opened the bag of winds and sacrificed the oxen of Helios, and the story of his enslavement is not far off from what the suitors are attempting to do.
Odysseus' lying to Eumaeus may seem somewhat unnecessary, but he must test the loyalty of his old swineherd if he is to execute the suitors as planned. He can trust few people, but Eumaeus' overwhelming loyalty - he forgoes sleep to take care of Odysseus' herd, and he even treats the "beggar" as if he were, indeed, his lord - proves that he will be a strong ally.
Homer reminds us of Telemachus' return and the impending ambush by the suitors, creating suspense in this otherwise transitional episode.
Book XV Summary:
Athena finds Telemachus in Lakedaimon and urges him to return home lest his mother marry one of the suitors, Eurymakhos. She also warns him of the looming ambush, and tells him to find Eumaeus and have him deliver the message to Penelope that he has returned. Telemachus receives permission from Menelaos to leave and, his cart laden with gifts from his hosts, rides off with Peisistratos, Nestor's son, but not before an eagle flies off with a goose in its clutches. Helen interprets this as a sign that Odysseus will soon return to seek vengeance on the suitors.
Back at Pylos, Telemachus prepares to sail home with his crew. Theoklymenos, the son of a prophet and a fugitive for a murder he committed in his homeland, asks for and receives a place on Telemachus' ship. They sail through the night, wind-aided by Athena.
Back in Ithaca, Odysseus tries to get Eumaeus to invite him to stay longer by announcing he will leave in the morning and look for work with the suitors. Eumaeus refuses, insisting he stay until Telemachus returns. Odysseus asks about his parents, and Eumaeus tells him about the death of Odysseus' mother and the loneliness of his father, Laertes. Eumaeus then relates his life story: abducted by pirates, Laertes purchased him, and Odysseus' mother raised him as if he were her own son.
The men talk into the night; meanwhile, Telemachus lands, having safely avoided the ambush. Nearby, a hawk picks up a dove, and Theoklymenos sees this as a sign that Telemachus' family will stay in power forever. Telemachus sends his guest home with a shipmate and goes off on his own to meet Eumaeus.
Two omens foretell positive things for Odysseus, and it is interesting that Homer does the analytical work for the audience, having the characters interpret the symbols. Clearly, literary interpretation has changed dramatically since Homer's time, yet Homer - and the Greeks - still sought out symbolic meaning in both nature and in their literature. The symbolic depiction of Odysseus as a bird of prey fits with his persona: while not a cold-blooded killer, Odysseus acts swiftly and with keen foresight.
Odysseus's testing of Eumaeus continues to showcase the swineherd's loyalty. He is amassing a small contingent to help him vanquish the suitors, and Homer stretches out the suspense by ending the episode with Telemachus about to reunite with his father.
Telemachus has completed his mini-odyssey, growing up from a powerless boy at the beginning of the poem to an independent young man ready to fight alongside his father. He also extends the hospitality he has received throughout his journey to Theoklymenos, whose virtue is summed up by Homer's calling him a "noble passenger" (614).
Book XVI Summary:
Telemachus arrives at Eumaeus' hut. The swineherd embraces him as if he was his own son, and introduces him to his "beggar" companion, Odysseus. Telemachus is reluctant to place Odysseus under his protection as requested, as he has his hands full with the suitors; he can only give him some staples and send him where he wishes. Odysseus tries to rally him to fight the suitors, but Telemachus insists that he is powerless against them. He asks Eumaeus to tell Penelope and Laertes that he has returned safely, but not to let the suitors know.
Athena appears to Odysseus as a tall woman and instructs him to disclose his true identity to his son. She makes him youthful and attractive again. Telemachus sees his new appearance and believes him to be a god, but Odysseus reveals he is his father and explains that Athena changed his form. Telemachus hugs him and both men cry. Odysseus recounts how the Phaeacians gave him safe passage to Ithaca, and says they need to plan to kill the suitors. Telemachus does not think they can defeat the suitors, who number over one hundred, even with the help of Athena and Zeus.
Odysseus hatches a plan: tomorrow Telemachus will return to the manor, and Odysseus, disguised as a beggar, will join him later with Eumaeus. Odysseus will endure whatever abuses the suitors heap on him. Then Athena will give Odysseus the word, and he shall signal to Telemachus to stow away all their weapons but two sets of arms for them to use later. He warns him not to let anyone, even Eumaeus or Penelope, know about his identity, as a test of loyalty.
Meanwhile, a messenger from Telemachus' ship loudly informs Penelope that her son has returned; Eumaeus whispers the same message to her. The suitors hear the messenger and do not understand how Telemachus escaped their ambush. They decide they must kill him before he tells the Achaeans about their murderous plans, and they will redouble their courtship of Penelope. One of the suitors, Amphinomos, argues that they should consult the gods to see if murdering Telemachus is the correct action; the others agree and they break up the meeting. Penelope, who has already heard that the suitors plan to kill her son, tells them to cease their plotting. The suitor Eurymakhos denies it, and Penelope goes off to sleep.
Eumaeus returns to his hut and tells Telemachus and the "beggar" that the messenger already gave word to Penelope about her son's return. The men go to sleep.
When father and son reunite in Eumaeus' hut, the audience is in a privileged position, in that we know who Odysseus is while neither Eumaeus nor Telemachus does. This privileged position continues once Odysseus reveals himself to Telemachus, since they will continue to obscure his identity as they try to overtake the suitors. Only three "characters," then, know who Odysseus truly is: Odysseus himself, Telemachus, and the audience. If his nobility of character and the suitors' despicability were not enough already, we are now irrevocably on Odysseus' side, in on his plot.
One of the many ironies in this episode - among them Odysseus' beggarly disguise and his residing in a lowly hut - is that the element of surprise has changed hands. The suitors believed they would surely ambush Telemachus, though, as they surmise, heavenly help prevented it. Odysseus and Telemachus are now planning their own ambush by hiding the weapons in the house and disguising Odysseus as a common beggar. Homer starts the engine of the rising climactic act exactly two-thirds of the way through the poem (the plan is conceived in Book XVI out of a total of XXIV books; the final act thus commences in Book XVII). We can now see that he has divided the poem into three distinct acts. The first eight episodes provide exposition and begin the various subplots; the next section of eight episodes begins with Odysseus' taunting Polyphemus in Book IX and raising the hackles of Poseidon, thus starting the central conflict of Odysseus against Poseidon.
Lest we think that Odysseus' keen planning will easily subdue the suitors, we are reminded of their great numbers and also of their intelligence. They rationally decide to consult with the gods over their planned murder of Telemachus, and they lie to Penelope about said plans. Whether or not she believes them is unclear, though her confrontation is at least her first show of strength we have seen.
Homer's simile in describing the tearful reunion of Odysseus and Telemachus - "cries burst from both as keen and fluttering / as those of the great taloned hawk" (257-8) - recalls the symbolic association Odysseus had with a hawk in Book XV.