A sampling of comments on Odyssey Rhapsody 21

2017.08.10 / updated 2018.10.13 | By Gregory Nagy

Toward the end of Rhapsody 21, Odysseus will pass an all-important test set by Penelope: he will string his famous bow—which none of the suitors could string, no matter how hard they tried—and he will shoot an arrow straight through all the holes of twelve axe-heads lined up in a row for this one-time occasion, designed to be viewed as the contest to end all contests in the skills of archery. This contest will determine, once and for all, who is really eligible, among all the Achaeans, to be recognized as the husband of the queen. But the winning of this ultimate contest by Odysseus is not enough: the king must now kill, with the same bow, all the would-be husbands of the queen. So, once Odysseus passes the test set by Penelope, as narrated toward the end of Rhapsody 21, the killing of the rival Achaeans can begin in Rhapsody 22. And the overall occasion for both the passing of Penelope’s test and the killing of the suitors is the beginning of a grand festival celebrating the god Apollo and the arrival of spring. [[GN 2017.08.008.]]

Hēraklēs stringing a bow. Silver stater, c. 450–440 BCE, Thebes (Boeotia).Image via Wikimedia Commons.
Hēraklēs stringing a bow. Silver stater, c. 450–440 BCE, Thebes (Boeotia). Image via Wikimedia Commons.



subject heading(s): Hēraklēs; bow of Odysseus; epi-histōr ‘one who has witnessed [events in which one was involved]’

Hēraklēs is involved here, however indirectly, in the story that tells how Odysseus once upon a time acquired his famous bow. The epithet epi-histōr describing Hēraklēs in this context, at O.21.026, can be interpreted as an agent noun: ‘one who has witnessed great events’ (Ἡρακλῆα μεγάλων ἐπιίστορα ἔργων). As an agent noun, histōr is derived not only from eidénai ‘know’ but also from ideîn ‘see’: a case in point is the meaning of ep-ideîn at I.22.061, ‘having witnessed many evil events’ (κακὰ πόλλ’ ἐπιδόντα). [[GN 2017.08.008 via PH 250.]]


subject heading(s): ainos ‘coded words; fable; praise’

Telemachus recognizes here that the praise deserved by Penelope is self-evident, in the sense that the word ainos here can mean ‘praise’. What is less clear, however, is whether he fully recognizes—as of yet—the right words to use for encoding and decoding what should be said about his mother. The further meaning of ainos as ‘coded words’ leaves room for such lack of full clarity. [[GN 2017.08.08 via BA 235.]]


subject heading(s): biē ‘force, violence, strength’

Here we see that Odysseus is a paragon of biē ‘force, violence, strength’ in his own right. He and only he has the strength to string his own bow, while all the suitors fail to show any matching strength. So, Odysseus here is a paragon not only of mētis ‘mind, intelligence’ but also of biē ‘force, violence, strength’. [[GN 2017.08.08 via BA 317.]]


subject heading(s): nóos ‘mind’; anagignōskein ‘recognize’

Odysseus here can read minds, as it were. What Philoitios the cowherd and Eumaios the swineherd are thinking is understood by Odysseus, as expressed by way of the verb anagignōskein ‘recognize’, which takes as its object here the noun nóos ‘mind’. [[GN 2017.08.09 via GMP 205.]]


subject heading(s): sēma ‘sign’; nóos ‘mind, thinking’

Odysseus at O.21.217–224 shows his scar to Philoitios the cowherd and Eumaios the swineherd: this way, he is finally recognized by them. In this context, the scar is explicitly called a sēma ‘sign’, O.21.217. As we saw at O.21.205, Odysseus already knows that both the cowherd and the swineherd have the right way of thinking, the right nóos ‘mind’, and it is this mentality that will enable them to recognize him. See the comment on O.21.205. [[GN 2017.08.09 via GMP 203 and 205.]]


subject heading(s): biē ‘force, violence, strength’

Already here at O.21.253–255, it is becoming evident that the suitors will not have the strength to string the bow of Odysseus, and the word for ‘strength’ here is biē, O.21.253. For more on the relevance of this word, see the comment at O.21.185. [[GN 2017.08.09 via BA 318.]]


subject heading(s): Eurytion the Centaur; Perithoos; Lapiths; extreme cruelty in Homeric narrative

The story about the drunken and reckless behavior of the Centaur Eurytion when he was a guest of Perithoos and his Lapiths is embedded in a morally flawed mental exercise here. The narrator of the story is Antinoos, whose behavior as a bad guest is comparable to that of the Centaur, but the suitor is perversely comparing the behavior of the Centaur to that of Odysseus. Antinoos is feeling outraged that a lowly beggar would dare to compete with the suitors as Odysseus prepares to string the bow, and so the suitor warns the disguised king at O.21.305–306, threatening that Odysseus will receive the same cruel punishment that was once upon a time received by the Centaur at the hands of his outraged hosts. On the horrific details of this punishment, see the anchor comment at O.18.085–087 on extreme cruelty in Homeric narrative. [[GN 2017.08.09 via GMP 271.]]


subject heading(s): biē ‘force, violence, strength’

Once again, it is made evident that Odysseus will be able to string his bow by virtue of his strength, as indicated by that most telling word biē ‘force, violence, strength’, O.21.315. [[GN 2017.08.09 via BA 318.]]


subject heading(s): festival of Apollo

The wording of Antinoos here refers to an act of sacrifice that the Achaeans are expected to perform in worshipping Apollo on the occasion of his festival. See the anchor comment at O.20.276–280 on the festival of Apollo; also the comment at O.21.429–430. [[GN 2017.08.09.]]


Q&T via GMP 298
subject heading(s): wishes correlated with premises

In this case, a negative wish is correlated with a faulty premise. [[GN 2017.08.09 via GMP 298.]]


Swallows, detail of the Spring Fresco at Thera, image via Flickr user F. Tronchin, reproduced under a CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 license.
Swallows, detail of the Spring Fresco at Thera, image via Flickr user F. Tronchin, reproduced under a CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 license.


subject heading(s): stringing the bow, plucking the string; phorminx ‘special lyre’; aoidē ‘song’; hup-aeidein ‘sing while accompanying oneself (on a lyre)’; metaphor; complex metaphor; simile; festival of Apollo

Odysseus effortlessly strings his bow, O.21.409, and this feat of strength for a warrior in stringing his weapon is now compared to a feat of skill for a singer who effortlessly strings his musical instrument, which is here a phorminx, a special lyre played by the singer in accompanying his aoidē ‘song’, O.21.406. Next, Odysseus tests the tautness of his bowstring, plucking it, and the sound that emanates from the string is said to be like a song: the string literally ‘sings’, as expressed by the verb hup–aeidein ‘sing [aedein] while accompanying [hupo-]’, O.21.411. The bowstring ‘sings’ like a singer who sings while accompanying himself by playing on the strings of his lyre. So, the sound of the bowstring that is plucked matches not only the sound of the strings on a lyre that are being plucked by the singer as he sings but also the sound of the singer’s voice. The metaphor is complex, since the comparison with the sound of the taut bowstring combines the sound of a musical instrument with the sound of the human voice. And the complexity is now intensified by the addition of a simile that follows the metaphor: this sound of the plucked bowstring, first compared by way of metaphor to the sound of a singer’s voice combined with the sound of the strings that he plucks in accompaniment of his song, is next compared, by way of simile, to the sound of the singing of a swallow, O.21.411. This singing of the swallow heralds not only the coming of spring but also the occasion that inaugurates this season of renewal, which is, a festival sacred to Apollo. See the anchor comment at O.20.276–280 on the festival of Apollo. [[GN 2017.08.09.]]


Original artwork, by Flickr user Veronica Roth, reproduced under a CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 license.
Original artwork, by Flickr user Veronica Roth, reproduced under a CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 license.


subject heading(s): hōrā ‘season’; dais ‘feast, division of portions (of meat); sacrifice’; molpē ‘singing-and-dancing’; stylized festival; festival of Apollo; aetiology

The wording here at O.21.429–430 is a reference to the festival of Apollo, picking up from O.20.276–280. See the anchor comment on those lines. After having successfully accomplished the two feats of stringing the bow and shooting through the holes of the twelve axe-heads, Odysseus can truly say to Telemachus: now is the hōrā ‘season’, O.21.428 (νῦν δ’ ὥρη). As the wording of Odysseus goes on to explain at O.21.429–430, now is the season for ‘the Achaeans’ to be feasting, in daylight, and there will be eating and drinking, also singing and dancing, as expressed by the noun molpē ‘singing-and-dancing’, O.21.430. On molpē as a combination of singing and dancing, see the note at O.04.015–019. Such merriment, as the wording highlights in the same line, O.21.430, is what happens on the occasion of a dais ‘feast. The word is used here in the general sense of ‘feast’, with reference to a stylized festival. On the use of this word dais ‘feast’ elsewhere as well in this general sense, see especially the comments at O.08.429 and at O.13.023; also the comment at O.20.276–289 with specific reference to the festival of Apollo. The overall wording of Odysseus here at O.21.429–430 can be read as good news about good feasting ahead for those in the post-epic future who will be participating in the festival of Apollo—but it is bad news for the suitors, whose perverted feasting in the epic present will soon lead to the carnage that commences in Rhapsody 22. This killing of the suitors, which follows the stringing of the bow and the winning of the ultimate contest in archery, is the third part of an epic mythological complex that functions as an aetiology for the post-epic ritual complex of celebrating the festival of Apollo by happily eating and drinking, singing and dancing. As Odysseus says at O.21.428, the season has arrived for such celebration. It is the season of springtime, and the song of swallows has once again returned to the land, as we saw previously at O.21.411. See again the comment at O.21.404–411. The mythological violence in the epic present will lead to ritual order in the post-epic future as celebrated at the festival of Apollo. For more on the ritualized function of this festival as stylized in the narrative of the Odyssey, I recommend the comprehensive analysis of Levaniouk 2011, especially pp. 13–15. [[GN 2017.08.09.]]


subject heading(s): hepsiâsthai ‘mock’; blame poetry; festival of Apollo

In the context of a future celebration, taking place in a post-heroic age at the festival of Apollo, the term hepsiâsthai ‘mock’ could refer to the ridiculing of the suitors by way of blame poetry. Odysseus as speaker here may be speaking beyond his own epic time, beyond the heroic age, by mocking his rivals for not yet knowing what he already knows full well will happen to them. On the perspectives of a post-heroic age with regard to the festival of Apollo, see the comment at O.22.437–479, where it is argued that the various grim dysfunctionalities that pollute the heroic world in myth are expurgated in the post-heroic world by way of ritual, as in the case of seasonally recurring festivals where primal ordeals are re-enacted in contexts of festive celebration, even merriment.  [[GN 2017.08.23.]]


Bibliographical Abbreviations

BA       = Best of the Achaeans, Nagy 1979/1999.

GMP    = Greek Mythology and Poetics, Nagy 1990b.

H24H   = The Ancient Greek Hero in 24 Hours, Nagy 2013

HC       = Homer the Classic, Nagy 2009|2008

HPC     = Homer the Preclassic, Nagy 2010|2009

HQ       = Homeric Questions, Nagy 1996b

HR       = Homeric Responses, Nagy 2003

LSJ      = Liddell, H. G., R. Scott, and H. S. Jones. 1940. A Greek-English Lexicon. 9th ed. Oxford.

MoM    = Masterpieces of Metonymy, Nagy 2016|2015

PasP    = Poetry as Performance, Nagy 1996a

PH      = Pindar’s Homer, Nagy 1990a



See the dynamic Bibliography for AHCIP.


Inventory of terms and names

See the dynamic Inventory of terms and names for AHCIP.