“Odyssey” by Homer: Book XXI – The Test of the Bow

Image Source: Wikipedia

Image Source: Wikipedia

In this episode, Penelope announces she will marry the suitor who can string Odysseus’ bow and shoot an arrow through a line of 12 axe heads. The suitors all fail, and then Odysseus, still disguised as a beggar, easily strings the weapon and shoots an arrow through the axe heads.

The first thing I considered when I read this episode was the symbolism of the 12 axes. My initial thought is that the axes represent the 12 zodiac signs. There is a lot of support for astrological symbolism incorporated into The Odyssey. For more information on this topic, I recommend visiting the Symbol Reader blog. Search the page for posts on The Odyssey. There are several very good posts there on astrological symbolism in the text.

When Odysseus asks for a try at the bow, the suitors are opposed. Telemachus speaks up and strongly asserts his right over who can use the bow. The bow, therefore, becomes a symbol of authority over the household. Once the bow is placed into Odysseus’ hands, then he will once again be master of the house.

Mother, as to the bow and who may handle it
or not handle it, no man here
has more authority than I do—not one lord
of our own stony Ithaka nor the islands lying
east toward Elis: no one stops me if I choose
to give these weapons outright to my guest.

(Fitzgerald Translation: p. 402)

Finally, there is another analogy regarding the bow that is worth noting. The narrator (which we can assume is Homer as poet/bard) establishes a connection between Odysseus’ bow and the harp of the poet/bard. Homer is asserting that warriors and poets are similar in essence, that deep down in the psyches of both, there is a shared attribute which both the bard and the warrior possess.

But the man skilled in all ways of contending,
satisfied by the great bow’s look and heft,
like a musician, like a harper, when
with quiet hand upon his instrument
he draws between his thumb and forefinger
a sweet new string upon a peg: so effortlessly
Odysseus in one motion strung the bow.
Then slid his right hand down the chord and plucked it,
so the taut gut vibrating hummed and sang
a swallow’s note.

(ibid: p. 404)

Just as the tension of the bow increases before the arrow is launched, so the tension of the overall story increases before the moment when Odysseus launches into his attack on the suitors. It is impossible to get to the end of this book without diving right in to the next episode. Check back soon for my thoughts on Book XXII. Cheers!


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6 responses to ““Odyssey” by Homer: Book XXI – The Test of the Bow

  1. Thanks for the mention, Jeff. I also think that apart from the Zodiac the number 12 indicates the ripeness of a cycle or its end.

    • Hi Monika!

      Always glad to give your blog a plug. I cannot praise your site enough 🙂

      Great point regarding 12 symbolizing the end of a cycle. As always, your input is spot on.



  2. Exactamente! Enough with the buildup! I plunged right ahead — couldn’t help myself. Still saving the very last book, though, until we get to it.

    • LOL – me too. FYI – I finished the book, I’m just behind on writing my blog posts 😉 But I will get them done soon.

      Thanks for following along! It’s been a great “journey.”


  3. Yeah, I finished it too. Here’s a side note about the way things always seem to go. Cindy and I sat down to watch a movie last night (“Wild” — not a bad flick) and one of the logos at the beginning (TSG Entertainment) featured a golden god-like man shooting an arrow through a row of axes. Ha! I perked right up and exclaimed, “That’s Odysseus!” I’ve probably seen that logo before but it had never registered on me.

    • You know, I didn’t make the connection until you pointed it out and I watched the video you posted on FB. Seen it plenty of times but never realized the connection. Good catch! The next step is to watch O Brother Where Art Thou again 😉