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The Wine Red Sea:  Journeys of Odysseus
© Copyright 2014 - 2018 by Peter J Ponzio

The Beggar at the Palace - Book XVII

As Odysseus ate his food, Athena appeared to him and urged him to beg from each of the suitors in turn, so that the man of sorrows could discern which men where innocent and which guilty.  Homer, in an ominous twist, adds these thoughts of the goddess:  “But not even so would Athena save one man from death” (XVII 399).  So Odysseus went from man to man, begging for food, until Melanthius told the assembly that he saw the beggar with Eumaeus.  Antinous, hearing the words of the goatherd, lashed out an Eumaeus, asking why he’d brought such a dirty beggar to disturb the feasting of the suitors.  At first, Eumaeus objected to the words that Antinous spoke, but Telemachus, indignant at the suitor, let fly with his own rebuke: How kind you are to me, Antinous, kind as a father to his son!  Encouraging me to send this stranger packing from my house with a harsh command!  I’d never do it, God forbid. Take and give to the beggar.  I don’t grudge it- I’d even urge you on.  No scruples now, never fear your gifts will upset my mother or any servant in King Odysseus’ royal house. But no such qualm could enter that head of your, bent on feeding your own face, not feeding strangers!  (XVII 436-445) Of course, the irony in these lines is palpable.  Telemachus replies that Antinous is as kind as a father to him, when in fact, his real father is present in the form of a beggar.  Telemachus’ words also underscore once again, that the suitors do not act in accordance with the rules of host and guest.  The suitors have overstayed their welcome and eat Telemachus’ food and drink his wine, but begrudge a simple beggar his place at the table.  Antinous, incensed that Telemachus should upbraid him, rounded on the prince.  Odysseus continued his begging as if nothing happened.  Making the rounds, he eventually ended up before Antinous.  Here, the man of wiles stopped and spun a tale of his life on Crete and subsequent adventures, leading up to his landing on Ithaca.  Antinous was angered by Odysseus’ lack of fear and his continued begging.  Taking up a stool, Antinous hurled it at Odysseus, striking him on the right shoulder.  Odysseus took the blow, never flinching, and replied to the suitors:  “But if beggars have their gods and Furies too,/let Antinous meet his death before he meets his bride!” (XVII 524-525). The other suitors warned Antinous to stop provoking the stranger, reminding him that the gods protected travelers.  Penelope, hearing how Antinous treated the stranger, called down Apollo’s wrath upon the head of the suitor.  Penelope then asked Eumaeus to invite the suitor to talk to her, so that she might learn news of her husband.  Eumaeus then told the queen that the stranger was full of tales, and that his ability was like that of a bard:  “You know how you can stare at a bard in wonder- /trained by the gods to sing and hold men spellbound-/how you can long to sit there, listening, all your life/when the man begins to sing.  So he charmed my heart,/I tell you, huddling there beside me at my fire” (XVII 575-579). Penelope, after hearing Eumaeus’ words, wished once again that her husband were near:  “Dear god,/if only Odysseus came back home to native soil now,/he and his son would avenge the outrage of these men-like that!” (XVII 599-601).  Eumaeus went to tell the stranger that the queen wished to speak to him, and Odysseus, still disguised, consented, with a stipulation.  He would visit the queen once the sun went down and the suitors departed the palace.  His mission finished, the swineherd journeyed back to his hut after taking his leave of the queen and young prince.