A sampling of comments on Odyssey Rhapsody 22

2017.08.17 / updated 2018.10.13 | By Gregory Nagy

At the end of Rhapsody 21, Odysseus has already passed, in rapid succession, two of three successive tests that needed to be endured by the true king of Ithaca. That is, he has already performed a stringing of his mighty bow and has already won an ultimate contest in archery by executing a perfect shot with the very first arrow that he shoots from the bow. But now, at the beginning of Rhapsody 22, the third test awaits Odysseus. He must now kill the suitors, and the successive killings that follow will ultimately eliminate all the would-be husbands of Penelope. In the end, Odysseus will be the only Achaean left standing. And he has by now been revealed as the only true husband, the only true king. So, he has become the best of the Achaeans in the Homeric Odyssey. But a question remains. Now that all the suitors have been killed, what will happen to the other characters in the Odyssey who had turned against the king in the course of his lengthy absence? Here is where things get really ugly. The extreme cruelty of the retribution that awaits these characters, as we see it narrated here in Odyssey 22, presents the modern reader with moral problems that cannot be evaded. [[GN 2017.08.16.]]

Odysseus kiling Penelope’s suitors. Attic red-figure skyphos, ca. 440 BCE. Image via Wikimedia Commons.
Odysseus kiling Penelope’s suitors. Attic red-figure skyphos, ca. 440 BCE. Image via Wikimedia Commons.



subject heading(s): a third test for Odysseus

Now, at the beginning of Rhapsody 22, a third test awaits Odysseus: he must kill the suitors. The king shows no hesitation. Having just won the contest in archery with the very first arrow that he shoots after stringing his mighty bow, he now goes on to aim his next arrow at Antinoos, who has been by far the worst of those leftover Achaeans of Ithaca. Odysseus shoots the arrow, and it hits the mark: Antinoos is instantly killed, O.22.008–021. The successive arrows, each one of them, will also hit the mark, and he keeps on shooting until there are no arrows left, O.22.116–119. Then, after Odysseus has run out of arrows to shoot, he arms himself with his armor for hand-to-hand combat, O.22.120–125. The slaughter of the suitors will continue until in the end all are killed. [[GN 2017.08.16.]]


subject heading(s): transition from one rhapsody to the next

The rapid succession of actions at the end of Rhapsody 21, where the stringing of the bow had been followed immediately by the shooting of the first arrow, is now matched at the beginning of Rhapsody 22 by a similarly rapid succession of actions taken by Odysseus. The king shows no hesitation as he proceeds to kill Antinoos, O.22.008–021. And he will thereafter keep on killing the suitors, one after the other. Correspondingly, the transition from Rhapsody 21 to Rhapsody 22 shows no hesitation: the shooting of the first arrow, which wins the contest in archery at the end of one rhapsody, is followed immediately by the shooting of the next arrow that kills Antinoos here in the next rhapsody—to be followed in turn by the successive killings that will ultimately eliminate all the other would-be husbands of Penelope. [[GN 2017.08.16.]]


subject heading(s): arrows of Odysseus; Plato’s Ion

Here at O.22.001–007 is the moment when Odysseus finally strips off the rags of a beggar and stands tall at the threshold as he scatters at his feet the arrows from his quiver. He will now pick up the arrows, one by one, and shoot them at the suitors. And he starts by taking aim at Antinoos. In Plato’s Ion, this moment is treated as the greatest of all scenes pictured in Homeric poetry. In a conversation with the rhapsode Ion, who specializes in the performance of Homeric poetry, Plato’s Socrates is making a mental list of what he considers to be the greatest Homeric scenes. First place in the list goes to the moment that we see here at the beginning of Rhapsody 22, where Odysseus stands at the threshold and pours the arrows from his quiver. This moment in the Odyssey, as we see in the order of mention by Plato’s Socrates, outranks even the greatest moment in the Iliad, which gets only second place. The Iliadic moment is where Achilles lunges at Hector, evidently for the last time. And third place goes to any one of those moments in the Iliad where Andromache or Hecuba or Priam, in that order, are shown lamenting. In this mental list of Plato’s Socrates, we see two examples of fear or terror and one combined example of pity—two emotions that are considered to be primary in tragedy as analyzed by Aristotle in his Poetics. I quote here the relevant wording, where Plato’s Socrates is speaking directly to the Homeric rhapsode Ion (Plato Ion 535b–c):

ΣΩ. Ἔχε δή μοι τόδε εἰπέ, ὦ Ἴων, καὶ μὴ ἀποκρύψῃ ὅτι ἄν σε ἔρωμαι· ὅταν εὖ εἴπῃς ἔπη καὶ ἐκπλήξῃς μάλιστα τοὺς θεωμένους, ἢ τὸν Ὀδυσσέα ὅταν ἐπὶ τὸν οὐδὸν ἐφαλλόμενον ᾄδῃς, ἐκφανῆ γιγνόμενον τοῖς μνηστῆρσι καὶ ἐκχέοντα τοὺς ὀιστοὺς πρὸ τῶν ποδῶν, ἢ Ἀχιλλέα ἐπὶ τὸν Ἕκτορα ὁρμῶντα, ἢ καὶ τῶν περὶ Ἀνδρομάχην ἐλεινῶν τι ἢ περὶ Ἑκάβην ἢ περὶ Πρίαμον, τότε πότερον ἔμφρων εἶ ἢ ἔξω {c} σαυτοῦ γίγνῃ καὶ παρὰ τοῖς πράγμασιν οἴεταί σου εἶναι ἡ ψυχὴ οἷς λέγεις ἐνθουσιάζουσα, ἢ ἐν Ἰθάκῃ οὖσιν ἢ ἐν Τροίᾳ ἢ ὅπως ἂν καὶ τὰ ἔπη ἔχῃ;

SOCRATES: Hold it right there. Tell me this, Ion—respond to what I ask without concealment. When you recite well the epic verses [epos plural] and induce a feeling of bedazzlement [ekplēxis] for the spectators [theōmenoi]—when you sing [as the subject of your singing] Odysseus leaping onto the threshold and revealing himself to the suitors and pouring out the arrows at his feet, or [as another subject of your singing] Achilles rushing at Hector, or [as still another subject of your singing] something connected to the pitiful things about Andromache or Hecuba or Priam— are you then in your right mind, or outside yourself? Does your spirit [psukhē], possessed by the god [enthousiazein], suppose that you are in the midst of the actions you describe in Ithaca or Troy, or wherever the epic verses [epos plural] have it?

This description captures the high drama of Homeric performance, as here at the beginning of Rhapsody 22. [[GN 2017.08.16 via HC 3§198.]]


subject heading(s): aethlos (āthlos) ‘ordeal’; ekteleîn ‘reach an outcome; bring to fulfillment (in active forms of the verb)’

As noted in the comment at O.22.001–125, Odysseus passes three tests in proving that he is the lawful husband of Penelope and the genuine king of Ithaca: (1) the stringing of the bow, (2) the contest in archery, and (3) the killing of the suitors. Here at O.22.005, we see that the Greek word referring to the second test, the contest in archery, is aethlos (āthlos) ‘ordeal’. Now that he has performed his winning shot, Odysseus is saying that the contest has ‘reached an outcome’, as expressed by the verb ek-teleîn, O.22.005. On the use of this word aethlos (āthlos) ‘ordeal’ with reference to the heroic Labors of Hēraklēs, see the comment at O.11.620–624. On the use of this same word with reference to the ‘ordeals’ of warfare, see the comments at I.03.125–128; also at O.03.262 and O.04.170. On its use with reference to contests in athletics, see the comment at O.08.096–103. The masculine noun aethlos (āthlos), in referring to the ritualized ‘ordeal’ of āthlētai ‘athletes’, is correlated with the neuter noun aethlon (āthlon), which refers to a ‘prize’ that is won in competition among athletes. [[GN 2017.08.17.]]


subject heading(s): aethlon (āthlon) ‘prize won in a contest’; ‘best of the Achaeans’

Seeing that Odysseus has just now shot an arrow that has killed the suitor Antinoos, the rest of the suitors are feeling outraged, assuming as they do that this killing was accidental, O.22.031–032. They revile Odysseus, whom they still fail to recognize, exclaiming that he has accidentally shot the very best of all the young men in Ithaca, O.22.029–030. In effect, they are delusionally assuming that Odysseus has killed the best of the Achaeans in Ithaca. They exclaim further that they will kill the would-be beggar and feed his corpse to vultures, O.22.030, adding derisively: so, don’t expect to win some prize for this shot of the arrow, O.22.027–028. And the word that is used here at O.22.027 for ‘prize’ is aethlon (āthlon), O.22.027. Whereas the masculine noun aethlos (āthlos) refers to the ritualized ‘ordeal’ of competition, as noted in the comment at O.22.005, the neuter noun aethlon (āthlon) ordinarily refers to a ‘prize’ that is won in the competition—as also noted in the comment at O.22.005. [[GN 2017.08.17 via BA 39.]]


subject heading(s): eïskein ‘make likenesses, liken’; [‘best of the Achaeans’;] noeîn ‘take note (of), notice’; “speaking name” (nomen loquens); name of Alkinoos; name of Antinoos

Reacting to the death of Antinoos, the remaining suitors were now ‘making likenesses’, as expressed by the verb eïskein ‘make likenesses, liken’, O.22.031. That is, each one of them was ‘making likenesses’ in his own mind. They made things up in their own minds, and these things were not just illusions: they were delusions. They were still imagining that Odysseus was a mere beggar, since he had up to now looked like a beggar. The likeness of Odysseus to a beggar made the suitors imagine something different than what was really happening. They imagined that the shooting of Antinoos must have been a grotesque accident. After all, how would a mere beggar dare to shoot the best of the Achaeans in Ithaca? The suitors’ mistaken way of thinking shows a lack of the mental qualities it would take to recognize Odysseus as the true king, as the best of the Achaeans. By the time Odysseus reveals himself as his true self, it is too late for the suitors. Possession of the mental qualities that they would have needed to have—but did not have—for a timely recognition of Odysseus is expressed here by way of the verb noeîn ‘take note (of), notice’, O.22.032. This verb, derived from nóos, which means basically ‘mind, way of thinking’, signals the capacity to recognize what is true. Such a capacity is characteristic of Alkinoos, who ‘notices’ things about the disguised Odysseus, as expressed by way of the verb noeîn ‘take note (of), notice’ at O.08.094 and at O.08.533, where the power of this king to ‘notice’ is what leads ultimately to the self-revelation of Odysseus to the Phaeacians in Odyssey 8. See the comments at O.08.094 and at O.08.533; see also the anchor comment at I.05.669 on noeîn ‘take note (of), notice’. Relevant also is the note at I.13.726–735 about a generalizing statement that is made in those lines: it is said there that a person’s nóos ‘mind’, I.13.732, is what enables him or her to ‘recognize’, gignōskein, I.13.734; see also the comment at O.17.292. In the case of Alkinoos, his mental power to ‘notice’ is the motivation for his “speaking name” (nomen loquens), alkí-noos, ‘he who has the power [alk– as in alkē ‘power’] of mind [nóos]’. By contrast with Alkinoos, whose “speaking name” is positive, Antinoos as the worst of the suitors has a “speaking name” that is negative: antí-noos ‘he who has a mind [nóos] that is opposed [anti]’. The opposition between the meanings of these two names may also go deeper, involving the root *nes– in the older sense of ‘return to life and life’: Alkinoos had the mental power to promote such a return, whereas Antinoos was in the end powerless to prevent it (on this point, see also H24H 10§10). [[GN 2017.08.17; see also GMP 206.]]


subject heading(s): ‘breathing-out [pneîn] mental-power [menos]’

On the infusion of strength as by way of divinely breathing it into the hero and thus reminding him of his own menos in the sense of his ‘power’, see the comments at I.10.482, I.11.508, I.15.059–060, I.15.262. Here at O.22.203, the menos ‘power’ that is breathed-out had been presumably breathed-in by divine agency. [[GN 2017.08.17 via GMP 114.]]


subject heading(s): Ktesippos; [hekatombē ‘hecatomb’;] festival of Apollo; Poluthersēs; “speaking name” (nomen loquens); philokertomos ‘lover of insults’

At O.22.285–286, the cowherd Philoitios kills the suitor Ktesippos, who had thrown at the disguised Odysseus a most lowly portion of beef as a physical insult that augmented his verbal insults during the feast that followed the sacrifice of one hundred cattle in celebration of the festival of Apollo. See the comment at O.20.292–302. Then at O.22.287–291, having killed the suitor, the cowherd mocks the dead Ktesippos for having mistreated a lowly guest who should have really been the kingly host at the feast celebrating the festival of Apollo. In mocking Ktesippos here, the cowherd resorts to the language of blame: he addresses the dead suitor as ‘son of Poluthersēs’, where this “speaking name” (nomen loquens) Polu-thersēs means ‘he who has much boldness [tharsos]’, O.22.287. Such a name is parallel to Thersītēs, the name of a character in the Iliad who is represented as a blame poet of the worst kind. Philoitios also addresses the dead Ktesippos as philo-kertomos ‘lover of insults, O.22.287. On kertomeîn ‘say words of insult’ as used in the language of blame poetry, see the comments at I.02.256, O.02.323, O.18.350; also at O.20.263. [[GN 2017.08.17 via BA 261.]]


subject heading(s): Phemios; aoidos ‘singer’; Medon; kērux ‘herald’

All those who cooperated with the suitors are killed, except for two: Odysseus spares the lives of the poet Phemios and the herald Medon. Phemios is described as an aoidos ‘singer’ at O.22.330 and Medon as a kērux ‘herald’ at O.22.357. [[GN 2017.08.17.]]


subject heading(s): name of Phemios; Terpiadēs; “speaking name” (nomen loquens)

The name of this aoidos ‘singer’ Phemios is a “speaking name” (nomen loquens): the adjectival Phēmios is derived from the noun phēmē, defined in the comment at O.02.035 as ‘something said that means more than what is meant by the one who says it’. Accordingly, as I note in the same comment, Phemios is a singer whose songs mean more than what is meant by that singer. On the content of what Phemios sings, see the comment on O.01.342. For still more on the content, see the comment at O.22.376, where we see that an epithet of this singer is poluphēmos having many different kinds of things said’. Not only the name Phēmios is a “speaking name”: so too is the patronymic of this singer, Terpiadēs, O.22.330, derived from the verb terpein meaning ‘give delight’. On the poetic connotations of this verb, see especially the comment at O.08.026–045. [[GN 2017.08.17 via BA 17, PH 86, HC 3§41.]]


subject heading(s): oimē ‘thread, story-thread’

On oimē as the ‘story-thread’ of song, see the comment at O.08.074. [[GN 2017.08.17 via HC 2§92n.]]


subject heading(s): poluphēmos ‘having many different kinds of things said’

The description of the aoidos ‘singer’ here at O.22.376 as poluphēmos ‘having many different kinds of things said’ is relevant what is noted in the comments at O.01.342 and O.02.035: the content of the epic songs sung by this singer could be understood differently by different listeners. See also the comment at O.22.330–331 and, further back, at O.12.184. [[GN 2017.08.17 via BA 17.]]


subject heading(s): extreme cruelty in Homeric narrative; the disloyal handmaidens; Melanthios the goatherd[; Ekhetos; Eurytion the Centaur]; dysfunctionality in myth vs. functionality in ritual; post-heroic age; festival of Apollo; Apollo and Marsyas

At O.22.437–473, the disloyal handmaidens of the household are executed by hanging. There is considerable emphasis on the terror and suffering of these wretched women as they get strung up in a row, twisting and turning in their agony, O.22.471–473. Those who participate in the execution are Telemachus, the cowherd Philoitios, and the swineherd Eumaios; Odysseus too is present. Then at O.22.474–479 follows the punishment of the goatherd Melanthios: his nose and his ears are chopped off, then his genitalia are ‘pulled out’, to be fed to the dogs, and then, finally, his hands and his feet are also chopped off. After these torments, it appears that he is left still alive. Participating in this horrific retribution are the cowherd Philoitios and the swineherd Eumaios. It is not clear in this case whether Telemachus is also participating, though it is clear enough from O.22.479 that Odysseus is no longer present. In any case, as I already noted in the anchor comment at O.18.085–087 with specific reference to the extreme cruelty involved in the punishment of the goatherd, an explanation is needed for understanding how the supposedly righteous adherents of Odysseus could inflict horrors that were parallel to the horrors inflicted by the mysteriously infernal Ekhetos, as recounted in ghastly detail at O.18.085–087. In the anchor comment, I already indicated that at least one part of the explanation may involve the words of Antinoos at O.21.300–301 concerning a comparable mutilation inflicted on the Centaur Eurytion. But we are still left with the moral problem of the extreme cruelty at work here. Addressing this problem, I now turn to another part of my explanation, which involves what I described in the comment at I.23.001–064 as a dynamic tension between dysfunctionality in the heroic world of myth and functionality in the post-heroic world of ritual. I find it significant, in this regard, that the main agents of extreme cruelty in the narrative about the punishment inflicted on Melanthios are herdsmen, just as Melanthios himself is a herdsman. This pastoral context is relevant, I think, to the cruelty described in the narrative of O.22.474–479, which takes place in the festive setting of a festival that is sacred to Apollo. This festival, after all, is a pastoral celebration, centering on the sacrifice of a hundred cattle. For further pastoral details, I refer again to the anchor comment at O.20.276–280 on the festival of Apollo. But this festival as narrated here in Rhapsody 22 is not yet a ritually correct event: a correction can come about only in the post-heroic age, when the pollutions of the heroic age that happen in myth, including all the horrific cruelty, are purified year after year, into eternity, by way of festive re-enactment in ritual. The pastoral festivities of a festival of Apollo in the post-heroic world of ritual can now transcend the horrors that still pollute the heroic world of myth. But the first steps in purifying the pollution are already being taken in the myth, since Odysseus insists on the fumigation of his household in the aftermath of all the carnage. In my overall explanation, I have been emphasizing the festivities that mark the occasion of any festival, and this emphasis is relevant to a most telling insight shown by Plato when he looks into one of the most horrific of all narratives in Greek mythology. I am thinking here of the myth about Marsyas, a satyr who was an ultimate master in the art of playing the double-reed known as the aulos. According to this myth, Marsyas was skinned alive by the god Apollo, that ultimate master in the art of playing the lyre known as the kitharā. In Plato’s Symposium 215a–b, we can see how the extreme violence of Apollo in the world of myth, where he strips the skin from the body of Marsyas, is counterbalanced by the festive merriment of discovering what is under the skin of Marsyas in the world of ritual. In the passage that I have just cited from the Symposium, the speaker is Alcibiades, and he is comparing the external ugliness of Socrates to that of Marsyas—but here the focus is on the Marsyas of ritual, not of myth. As we now learn, there used to be a festive custom of making hollow figurines of Marsyas that contained in the inside the smaller figurines of gods. I infer that the defining god that was hidden in the inside of Marsyas was Apollo himself, so that, when you peeled off the Marsyas on the outside of the figurine, you found the god Apollo on the inside. Thus, the grim violence of the myth is purified here in the festive merriment of a ritual celebrating Apollo. There could be many parallels I could draw from other festive customs as we find them world-wide—perhaps my favorite is what I could fancifully call the “John Barleycorn Syndrome”—but I content myself here with presenting my formulation in its most basic form. Of course, the shock of the violence in myth remains, and I cannot exorcise it in my own mind, but at least it is expurgated by the merriment in ritual. A similar explanation could be attempted in the case of those wretched women who were caught in that snare, O.22.471–473, since they are compared to kikhlai ‘thrushes’ and peleiai ‘pigeons’ at O.22.468. These birds get comparably snared—but the difference is, they are caught in order to be cooked and eaten as delicacies. [[GN 2017.08.17.]]


Still life showing eggs, thrushes, napkin: from the House of Julia Felix, Pompeii. Image via Wikimedia Commons.
Still life showing eggs, thrushes, napkin: from the House of Julia Felix, Pompeii. Image via Wikimedia Commons.


subject heading(s): amphi-khu- ‘pour all over’; dissolving while weeping’

The women who were loyal to Odysseus, now that he has emerged victorious, weep with joy as they embrace him. The metaphor of ‘pouring all over’ someone in the act of embracing that someone, as expressed here by way of the verb amphi-khu-, is an extension of the metaphor of ‘dissolving’ while weeping, on which see especially the comments at O.08.522 and at O.08.527. [[GN 2017.08.17 via HC 2§344n.]]


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.