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“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!



Filed under Literature

“Odyssey” by Homer: Book XIII – One More Strange Island


In this episode, Odysseus is taken by the Phaeacians back to Ithaca. He is asleep when they arrive and is dropped off on the shore along with his treasure. When he wakes, he thinks he was tricked and dropped off somewhere else, since he does not recognize Ithaca because of the mists. Athena then appears to Odysseus in disguise, and Odysseus attempts to hide his identity from her. Athena then reveals herself and informs Odysseus that he is in Ithaca.

For me, the key section in this section is what Athena says as she reveals herself to Odysseus.

Whoever gets around you must be sharp
and guileful as a snake; even a god
might bow to you in ways of dissimulation.
You! You chameleon!
Bottomless bag of tricks! Here in your own country
would you not give your stratagems a rest
or stop your spellbinding for an instant?

You play a part as if it were your own tough skin.

No more of this, though. Two of a kind, we are,
contrivers, both. Of all men now alive
you are the best in plots and story telling.
My own fame is for wisdom among the gods—
deceptions, too.

Would even you have guessed
that I am Pallas Athena, daughter of Zeus,
I that am always with you in times of trial,
a shield to you in battle, I who made
the Phaiakians befriend you, to a man?

(Fitzgerald Translation: p. 239)

Here we have Athena acknowledging Odysseus as the Trickster. But there is something even deeper going on here. First off, she points out that “even a god might bow to you in ways of dissimulation.” I see a double meaning in this line. On one hand, Athena is saying that the gods would bow to him as a sign of acknowledgment and respect for his skill in the art of deception. But bow could also mean bend. If that is the case, then Athena is stating that Odysseus as the Trickster is so powerful that he has the ability to actually deceive the gods. The fact that Odysseus can bend the will of a god by sheer guile and will is an awesome power.

Next, we have the correlation between Athena and Odysseus in the area of trickery. She states that she is also famed among the gods for her deceptions. This made me wonder if Athena is the feminine counterpart to the masculine Trickster archetype expressed through the character of Odysseus. Essentially, Athena and Odysseus would be the anima and animus of the Trickster, if we were to consider this from a Jungian perspective.

If Athena and Odysseus are truly two aspects of the Trickster archetype, then that would explain why the goddess is so steadfast in her support for Odysseus. I feel that the text supports this idea, particularly when we consider how many times Athena has disguised and concealed herself throughout the tale, just as Odysseus has done.

Thanks for taking the time to read my thoughts. I will be posting on Book XIV soon.


Filed under Literature