Book XX

Odysseus cannot sleep
Penelope's prayer to Artemis
The two signs from Heaven
Eumaeus and Philoetius arrive
The suitors dine
Ctesippus throws an ox's foot at Odysseus
Theoclymenus foretells disaster and leaves the house

ODYSSEUS SLEPT IN the cloister upon an undressed bullock's hide, on the top of which he threw several skins of the sheep the suitors had eaten, and Eurynome threw a cloak over him after he had laid himself down. There, then, Odysseus lay wakefully brooding upon the way in which he should kill the suitors; and by and by, the women who had been in the habit of misconducting themselves with them, left the house giggling and laughing with one another. This made Odysseus very angry, and he doubted whether to get up and kill every single one of them then and there, or to let them sleep one more and last time with the suitors. His heart growled within him, and as a bitch with puppies growls and shows her teeth when she sees a stranger, so did his heart growl with anger at the evil deeds that were being done: but he beat his breast and said, “Heart, be still, you had worse than this to bear on the day when the terrible Cyclops ate your brave companions; yet you bore it in silence till your cunning got you safe out of the cave, though you made sure of being killed.”

Thus he chided with his heart, and checked it into endurance, but he tossed about as one who turns a paunch full of blood and fat in front of a hot fire, doing it first on one side and then on the other, that he may get it cooked as soon as possible, even so did he turn himself about from side to side, thinking all the time how, single handed as he was, he should contrive to kill so large a body of men as the wicked suitors. But by and by Athena came down from heaven in the likeness of a woman, and hovered over his head saying, “My poor unhappy man, why do you lie awake in this way? This is your house: your wife is safe inside it, and so is your son who is just such a young man as any father may be proud of.”

“Goddess,” answered Odysseus, “all that you have said is true, but I am in some doubt as to how I shall be able to kill these wicked suitors single handed, seeing what a number of them there always are. And there is this further difficulty, which is still more considerable. Supposing that with Zeus' and your assistance I succeed in killing them, I must ask you to consider where I am to escape for safety when it is all over.”

“For shame,” replied Athena, “why, anyone else would trust a worse ally than myself, even though that ally were only a mortal and less wise than I am. Am I not a goddess, and have I not protected you throughout in all your troubles? I tell you plainly that even though there were fifty bands of men surrounding us and eager to kill us, you should take all their sheep and cattle, and drive them away with you. But go to sleep; it is a very bad thing to lie awake all night, and you shall be out of your troubles before long.”

As she spoke she shed sleep over his eyes, and then went back to Olympus.

While Odysseus was thus yielding himself to a very deep slumber that eased the burden of his sorrows, his admirable wife awoke, and sitting up in her bed began to cry. When she had relieved herself by weeping she prayed to Artemis saying, “Great Goddess Artemis, daughter of Zeus, drive an arrow into my heart and slay me; or let some whirlwind snatch me up and bear me through paths of darkness till it drop me into the mouths of over-flowing Oceanus, as it did the daughters of Pandareus. The daughters of Pandareus lost their father and mother, for the gods killed them, so they were left orphans. But Aphrodite took care of them, and fed them on cheese, honey, and sweet wine. Hera taught them to excel all women in beauty of form and understanding; Artemis gave them an imposing presence, and Athena endowed them with every kind of accomplishment; but one day when Aphrodite had gone up to Olympus to see Zeus about getting them married (for well does he know both what shall happen and what not happen to everyone) the storm winds came and spirited them away to become handmaids to the dread Erinyes. Even so I wish that the gods who live in heaven would hide me from mortal sight, or that fair Artemis might strike me, for I would fain go even beneath the sad earth if I might do so still looking towards Odysseus only, and without having to yield myself to a worse man than he was. Besides, no matter how much people may grieve by day, they can put up with it so long as they can sleep at night, for when the eyes are closed in slumber people forget good and ill alike; whereas my misery haunts me even in my dreams. This very night methought there was one lying by my side who was like Odysseus as he was when he went away with his host, and I rejoiced, for I believed that it was no dream, but the very truth itself.”

On this the day broke, but Odysseus heard the sound of her weeping, and it puzzled him, for it seemed as though she already knew him and was by his side. Then he gathered up the cloak and the fleeces on which he had lain, and set them on a seat in the cloister, but he took the bullock's hide out into the open. He lifted up his hands to heaven, and prayed, saying “Father Zeus, since you have seen fit to bring me over land and sea to my own home after all the afflictions you have laid upon me, give me a sign out of the mouth of some one or other of those who are now waking within the house, and let me have another sign of some kind from outside.”

Thus did he pray. Zeus heard his prayer and forthwith thundered high up among the clouds from the splendor of Olympus, and Odysseus was glad when he heard it. At the same time within the house, a miller-woman from hard by in the mill room lifted up her voice and gave him another sign. There were twelve miller-women whose business it was to grind wheat and barley which are the staff of life. The others had ground their task and had gone to take their rest, but this one had not yet finished, for she was not so strong as they were, and when she heard the thunder she stopped grinding and gave the sign to her master. “Father Zeus,” said she, “you, who rule over heaven and earth, you have thundered from a clear sky without so much as a cloud in it, and this means something for somebody; grant the prayer, then, of me your poor servant who calls upon you, and let this be the very last day that the suitors dine in the house of Odysseus. They have worn me out with labor of grinding meal for them, and I hope they may never have another dinner anywhere at all.”

Odysseus was glad when he heard the omens conveyed to him by the woman's speech, and by the thunder, for he knew they meant that he should avenge himself on the suitors.

Then the other maids in the house rose and lit the fire on the hearth; Telemachus also rose and put on his clothes. He girded his sword about his shoulder, bound his sandals on to his comely feet, and took a doughty spear with a point of sharpened bronze; then he went to the threshold of the cloister and said to Euryclea, “Nurse, did you make the stranger comfortable both as regards bed and board, or did you let him shift for himself?—for my mother, good woman though she is, has a way of paying great attention to second-rate people, and of neglecting others who are in reality much better men.”

“Do not find fault child,” said Euryclea, “when there is no one to find fault with. The stranger sat and drank his wine as long as he liked: your mother did ask him if he would take any more bread and he said he would not. When he wanted to go to bed she told the servants to make one for him, but he said he was such a wretched outcast that he would not sleep on a bed and under blankets; he insisted on having an undressed bullock's hide and some sheepskins put for him in the cloister and I threw a cloak over him myself.”

Then Telemachus went out of the court to the place where the Achaeans were meeting in assembly; he had his spear in his hand, and he was not alone, for his two dogs went with him. But Euryclea called the maids and said, “Come, wake up; set about sweeping the cloisters and sprinkling them with water to lay the dust; put the covers on the seats; wipe down the tables, some of you, with a wet sponge; clean out the mixing-jugs and the cups, and go for water from the fountain at once; the suitors will be here directly; they will be here early, for it is a feast day.”

Thus did she speak, and they did even as she had said: twenty of them went to the fountain for water, and the others set themselves busily to work about the house. The men who were in attendance on the suitors also came up and began chopping firewood. By and by the women returned from the fountain, and the swineherd came after them with the three best pigs he could pick out. These he let feed about the premises, and then he said good-humoredly to Odysseus, “Stranger, are the suitors treating you any better now, or are they as insolent as ever?”

“May heaven,” answered Odysseus, “requite to them the wickedness with which they deal high-handedly in another man's house without any sense of shame.”

Thus did they converse; meanwhile Melanthius the goatherd came up, for he too was bringing in his best goats for the suitors' dinner; and he had two shepherds with him. They tied the goats up under the gatehouse, and then Melanthius began gibing at Odysseus. “Are you still here, stranger,” said he, “to pester people by begging about the house? Why can you not go elsewhere? You and I shall not come to an understanding before we have given each other a taste of our fists. You beg without any sense of decency: are there not feasts elsewhere among the Achaeans, as well as here?”

Odysseus made no answer, but bowed his head and brooded. Then a third man, Philoetius, joined them, who was bringing in a barren heifer and some goats. These were brought over by the boatmen who are there to take people over when any one comes to them. So Philoetius made his heifer and his goats secure under the gatehouse, and then went up to the swineherd. “Who, Swineherd,” said he, “is this stranger that is lately come here? Is he one of your men? What is his family? Where does he come from? Poor fellow, he looks as if he had been some great man, but the gods give sorrow to whom they will—even to kings if it so pleases them.”

As he spoke he went up to Odysseus and saluted him with his right hand; “Good day to you, father stranger,” said he, “you seem to be very poorly off now, but I hope you will have better times by and by. Father Zeus, of all gods you are the most malicious. We are your own children, yet you show us no mercy in all our misery and afflictions. A sweat came over me when I saw this man, and my eyes filled with tears, for he reminds me of Odysseus, who I fear is going about in just such rags as this man's are, if indeed he is still among the living. If he is already dead and in the house of Hades, then, alas! for my good master, who made me his stockman when I was quite young among the Cephallenians, and now his cattle are countless; no one could have done better with them than I have, for they have bred like ears of corn; nevertheless I have to keep bringing them in for others to eat, who take no heed to his son though he is in the house, and fear not the wrath of heaven, but are already eager to divide Odysseus' property among them because he has been away so long. I have often thought—only it would not be right while his son is living—of going off with the cattle to some foreign country; bad as this would be, it is still harder to stay here and be ill-treated about other people's herds. My position is intolerable, and I should long since have run away and put myself under the protection of some other chief, only that I believe my poor master will yet return, and send all these suitors flying out of the house.”

“Stockman,” answered Odysseus, “you seem to be a very well-disposed person, and I can see that you are a man of sense. Therefore I will tell you, and will confirm my words with an oath. By Zeus, the chief of all gods, and by that hearth of Odysseus to which I am now come, Odysseus shall return before you leave this place, and if you are so minded you shall see him killing the suitors who are now masters here.”

“If Zeus were to bring this to pass,” replied the stockman, “you should see how I would do my very utmost to help him.”

And in like manner Eumaeus prayed that Odysseus might return home.

Thus did they converse. Meanwhile the suitors were hatching a plot to murder Telemachus: but a bird flew near them on their left hand—an eagle with a dove in its talons. On this Amphinomus said, “My friends, this plot of ours to murder Telemachus will not succeed; let us go to dinner instead.”

The others assented, so they went inside and laid their cloaks on the benches and seats. They sacrificed the sheep, goats, pigs, and the heifer, and when the inward meats were cooked they served them round. They mixed the wine in the mixing-bowls, and the swineherd gave every man his cup, while Philoetius handed round the bread in the bread baskets, and Melanthius poured them out their wine. Then they laid their hands upon the good things that were before them.

Telemachus purposely made Odysseus sit in the part of the cloister that was paved with stone; he gave him a shabby looking seat at a little table to himself, and had his portion of the inward meats brought to him, with his wine in a gold cup. “Sit there,” said he, “and drink your wine among the great people. I will put a stop to the gibes and blows of the suitors, for this is no public house, but belongs to Odysseus, and has passed from him to me. Therefore, suitors, keep your hands and your tongues to yourselves, or there will be mischief.”

The suitors bit their lips, and marveled at the boldness of his speech; then Antinous said, “We do not like such language but we will put up with it, for Telemachus is threatening us in good earnest. If Zeus had let us we should have put a stop to his brave talk ere now.”

Thus spoke Antinous, but Telemachus heeded him not. Meanwhile the heralds were bringing the holy hecatomb through the city, and the Achaeans gathered under the shady grove of Apollo.

Then they roasted the outer meat, drew it off the spits, gave every man his portion, and feasted to their heart's content; those who waited at table gave Odysseus exactly the same portion as the others had, for Telemachus had told them to do so.

But Athena would not let the suitors for one moment drop their insolence, for she wanted Odysseus to become still more bitter against them. Now there happened to be among them a ribald fellow, whose name was Ctesippus, and who came from Same. This man, confident in his great wealth, was paying court to the wife of Odysseus, and said to the suitors, “Hear what I have to say. The stranger has already had as large a portion as anyone else; this is well, for it is not right nor reasonable to ill-treat any guest of Telemachus who comes here. I will, however, make him a present on my own account, that he may have something to give to the bath-woman, or to some other of Odysseus' servants.”

As he spoke he picked up a heifer's foot from the meat-basket in which it lay, and threw it at Odysseus, but Odysseus turned his head a little aside, and avoided it, smiling grimly Sardinian fashion as he did so, and it hit the wall, not him. On this Telemachus spoke fiercely to Ctesippus, “It is a good thing for you,” said he, “that the stranger turned his head so that you missed him. If you had hit him I should have run you through with my spear, and your father would have had to see about getting you buried rather than married in this house. So let me have no more unseemly behavior from any of you, for I am grown up now to the knowledge of good and evil and understand what is going on, instead of being the child that I have been heretofore. I have long seen you killing my sheep and making free with my corn and wine: I have put up with this, for one man is no match for many, but do me no further violence. Still, if you wish to kill me, kill me; I would far rather die than see such disgraceful scenes day after day—guests insulted, and men dragging the women servants about the house in an unseemly way.”

They all held their peace till at last Agelaus son of Damastor said, “No one should take offense at what has just been said, nor gainsay it, for it is quite reasonable. Leave off, therefore, ill-treating the stranger, or anyone else of the servants who are about the house; I would say, however, a friendly word to Telemachus and his mother, which I trust may commend itself to both. ‘As long,’ I would say, ‘as you had ground for hoping that Odysseus would one day come home, no one could complain of your waiting and suffering the suitors to be in your house. It would have been better that he should have returned, but it is now sufficiently clear that he will never do so; therefore talk all this quietly over with your mother, and tell her to marry the best man, and the one who makes her the most advantageous offer. Thus you will yourself be able to manage your own inheritance, and to eat and drink in peace, while your mother will look after some other man's house, not yours.’“

To this Telemachus answered, “By Zeus, Agelaus, and by the sorrows of my unhappy father, who has either perished far from Ithaca, or is wandering in some distant land, I throw no obstacles in the way of my mother's marriage; on the contrary I urge her to choose whomsoever she will, and I will give her numberless gifts into the bargain, but I dare not insist that she shall leave the house against her own wishes. Heaven forbid that I should do this.”

Athena now made the suitors fall to laughing immoderately, and set their wits wandering; but 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. Theoclymenus saw this and said, “Unhappy men, what is it that ails you? There is a shroud of darkness drawn over you from head to foot, your cheeks are wet with tears; the air is alive with wailing voices; the walls and roof-beams drip blood; the gate of the cloisters and the court beyond them are full of ghosts trooping down into the night of hell; the sun is blotted out of heaven, and a blighting gloom is over all the land.”

Thus did he speak, and they all of them laughed heartily. Eurymachus then said, “This stranger who has lately come here has lost his senses. Servants, turn him out into the streets, since he finds it so dark here.”

But Theoclymenus said, “Eurymachus, you need not send anyone with me. I have eyes, ears, and a pair of feet of my own, to say nothing of an understanding mind. I will take these out of the house with me, for I see mischief overhanging you, from which not one of you men who are insulting people and plotting ill deeds in the house of Odysseus will be able to escape.”

He left the house as he spoke, and went back to Piraeus who gave him welcome, but the suitors kept looking at one another and provoking Telemachus by laughing at the strangers. One insolent fellow said to him, “Telemachus, you are not happy in your guests; first you have this importunate tramp, who comes begging bread and wine and has no skill for work or for hard fighting, but is perfectly useless, and now here is another fellow who is setting himself up as a prophet. Let me persuade you, for it will be much better to put them on board ship and send them off to the Sicels to sell for what they will bring.”

Telemachus gave him no heed, but sate silently watching his father, expecting every moment that he would begin his attack upon the suitors.

Meanwhile the daughter of Icarius, wise Penelope, had had a rich seat placed for her facing the court and cloisters, so that she could hear what everyone was saying. The dinner indeed had been prepared amid much 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.


  1. This line would suggest that the darkness is entirely in Theoclymenus' head, but we can't be certain of this, since the suitors' eyes began to fill with tears even before his moment of insight or prophecy. Eurymachus might be hiding his fear, or he might be one of the few suitors who doesn't feel it.

    — Sinead, Owl Eyes Contributor
  2. These sudden changes are not meant to be taken literally but rather metaphorically. It's unclear whether Theoclymenus sees these things because he's a seer and can foretell the future or because the suitors are behaving so strangely that it's as if the world is shrouded in darkness.

    — Sinead, Owl Eyes Contributor
  3. Agelaus' speech seemed so reasonable up until now, when his motives for being so considerate and friendly reveal themselves to be self-serving: he wants Penelope to choose a new husband, which is to say, he wants Odysseus' money, and he's tired of waiting.

    — Sinead, Owl Eyes Contributor
  4. A reference to the island of Sardinia, near to Italy, located in the Mediterranean Sea. Sardinia was originally settled by the Phoenicians, Greeks, and Carthaginians prior to the sixth century B.C. The Romans conquered the island in 238 B.C. This reference to Sardinia is one of the factors that dates the Odyssey later than 1200 B.C.

    — Sinead, Owl Eyes Contributor
  5. In the beginning of the poem, Telemachus made a similar speech to the suitors which also caused them to bite their lips until Alcinous spoke up. Here, he again speaks out against Telemachus, but doesn't have the courage to silence him because their attempt on his life has already failed (a bad omen if there ever was on).

    — Sinead, Owl Eyes Contributor
  6. Telemachus has never spoken this forcefully to the suitors. It could be a sign that he's matured, or he could be drawing strength from his father's presence, knowing that if he's ever truly in danger his father will rush to help.

    — Sinead, Owl Eyes Contributor
  7. This isn't the first time that one of Odysseus' servants has expressed the desire to leave the household and strike out on their own. Eumaeus himself has said that servants begin to feel thus when their masters are cruel or absent, which suggests that the servant-master bond was tenuous at best.

    — Sinead, Owl Eyes Contributor
  8. There's no way for Melanthius to know how he begs, in fact, because he's never been around to see it and has only met him once in passing on the way to the house. Melanthius' dislike for Odysseus has no foundation and reflects poorly on his character.

    — Sinead, Owl Eyes Contributor
  9. This miller-woman is essentially piggy-backing on Odysseus' prayer, hoping that Zeus, whose attention has already been won, will decide to listen to her as well. Luckily for her and Odysseus, she shows her master loyalty, and thus her prayer will be granted.

    — Sinead, Owl Eyes Contributor
  10. Wheat and barley had to be milled or ground to turn it into flour for bread, which the Greeks considered essential to life. A large estate like Odysseus' would've had its own mill room, as we see here, but this wasn't true of smaller estates, and many women of the lower classes had to either make their own bread or buy it at market.

    — Sinead, Owl Eyes Contributor
  11. Like Penelope, Odysseus appears to have dreamed that she was by his side. This suggests something about the psychological and emotional depth of their connection, which has survived the twenty years of their absence, making it the most stable relationship we've seen in The Odyssey.

    — Sinead, Owl Eyes Contributor
  12. It's curious that Penelope has dreamed (or fantasized) about a young Odysseus, and that this happened directly after meeting a much older and presumably unrecognizable Odysseus. This might suggest superficiality on her part, or it might foretell trouble in the relationship, because Odysseus has changed, and Penelope might not like the man he's become.

    — Sinead, Owl Eyes Contributor
  13. Pandareus, a resident of Miletus and son of a nymph, was urged by his friend Tantalus to steal a bronze dog from the temple of Zeus on Crete. As punishment, Zeus either turned Pandareus and his wife to stone or killed them, leaving their daughters orphans.

    — Sinead, Owl Eyes Contributor
  14. In ancient Greece, an act of revenge such as Odysseus plans often sparked an endless cycle of revenge, spurred on by the vengeful Furies. Odysseus fears that when he kills the sons of all the noblemen in Ithaca, he will himself become a target, regardless of the justness of his actions.

    — Sinead, Owl Eyes Contributor
  15. Here we plainly see Odysseus' priorities: he's first and foremost a soldier and his primary loyalty is to his men, whose deaths affect him more than the insolence of the suitors; his wife and son, and the glory of his estate, come second to this love of war and his relationships with his fellow soldiers.

    — Sinead, Owl Eyes Contributor
  16. That is, the Sicilians, the implication being that the Sicilians are slave traders and that Telemachus might be able to make some money off of his guests (though, according to the suitors, he wouldn't be able to fetch a high price for either Odysseus or Theoclymenus).

    — Stephen Holliday
  17. A sign that they,re becoming uneasy at the self-confidence being shown by Telemachus. The suitors truly believe that Odysseus will never return, which makes Telemachus' sudden bravery and maturity troublesome and gives them pause. They're laughing now because they're worried, not because they're amused.

    — Stephen Holliday
  18. This is the second time Amphinomus has attempted to stop a plot to murder Telemachus. Keep in mind that when Amphinomus showed Odysseus true hospitality earlier, Odysseus attempted to warn him of the impending revenge as a favor to Amphinomus' father, a friend of Odysseus. Unfortunately, this warning went unheeded.

    — Stephen Holliday
  19. Note that this is the second time Odysseus has taken such an explicit and strongly-worded oath. The ancient Greeks considered these oaths unbreakable, which suggests that Odysseus makes them to assure both the listener and himself that what he swears will in fact come to pass.

    — Stephen Holliday
  20. Cephallenians seems to refer to all of Odysseus' subjects, whether from Ithaca, nearby islands, or the adjacent mainland. In Book II of The Iliad, for example, in what is known as the Catalogue of Ships, there is a reference to Odysseus commanding Cephallenians, which includes men from Ithaca, Neriton, and the large island of Samos just to the south of Ithaca. On the southern part of Samos is the land identified as Cephallenia.

    — Stephen Holliday
  21. Saluting with one's right hand, especially in a warrior culture, is a sign of friendship: one's right hand would normally be used to carry a weapon, but if one instead uses it to shake, then they can't inflict any damage or mean any harm. That's why we traditionally shake hands with our right hand.

    — Stephen Holliday
  22. Philoetius' ability to see beyond the rags and recognize Odysseus' true nature places him among the few who comprise Odysseus' supporters. The implication being that a man's true nature is obvious to anyone who can see beyond a man's clothes. It's worth noting that the only people capable of doing so are servants considered unworthy themselves.

    — Stephen Holliday
  23. This is the first appearance of Philoetius, Odysseus' faithful cowherd, who's meant to form a pair of supporters with Eumaeus. Together, the two stand in sharp contrast to Melanthius, who aside from being a supporter of the suitors has proven himself to be a nasty and ill-mannered person.

    — Stephen Holliday
  24. It's Apollo's feast day, in fact, and Odysseus' palace must be cleaned and prepared for the festivities. This recalls the goatherd Melanthius' earlier statement that Apollo would have a hand in Telemachus' death. Evidently, he was expecting Apollo to do so on the day of the feast, if not sooner.

    — Stephen Holliday
  25. Penelope's wish to be sent down to Hades to search for Odysseus signals her profound disgust at having to marry one of the suitors. A willingness to go down into Hades, from which no one returns, is a sign of utter desperation (and, given what has been prophesied, a lack of faith in Odysseus, learned over the years of his absence).

    — Stephen Holliday
  26. A reference to the Harpies, monstrous creatures often depicted as half female, half bird, with sharp talons, and always thought to be hungry. They were often referred to as the storm winds and swift robbers and frequently stole or bore away young maidens like the daughters of Pandareus.

    — Stephen Holliday
  27. True to form, the goddess is so self-absorbed that she's offended by Odysseus' fears, which seem to imply weakness on her part. In fact, she hasn't always defended Odysseus and left him to rot on the island with Calypso for years before finally showing an interest in his troubles. Odysseus has reason to be worried.

    — Stephen Holliday
  28. A good example of a simile based on a common domestic image: everyone listening or reading the poem would be familiar with a dog trying to protect its puppies and would understand that Odysseus feels this way because he's protective of his family and willing to defend them at all costs.

    — Stephen Holliday