Book Twenty-One

Penelope now appears before the suitors in her glittering veil. In her hand is a stout bow left behind by Odysseus when he sailed for Troy. "Whoever strings this bow," she says, "and sends an arrow straight through the sockets of twelve ax heads lined in a row -- that man will I marry."

The suitors take turns trying to bend the bow to string it, but all of them lack the strength. Odysseus asks if he might try. The suitors refuse, fearing that they'll be shamed if the beggar succeeds. But Telemachus insists and his anger distracts them into laughter.

As easily as a bard fitting a new string to his lyre, Odysseus strings the bow and sends an arrow through the ax heads. At a sign from his father, Telemachus arms himself and takes up a station by his side.

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NOTES

bow The bow had been a gift from a young prince named Iphitus (IF-ih-tuss). He and Odysseus had exchanged gifts, but never hospitality. For before Odysseus could welcome his friend in his home, Iphitus was killed by Heracles. That this murder occurred while Iphitus was the great hero's guest arouses Homer's indignation. (back)

Heracles (or Hercules, as he was known to the Romans). Detail of the Farnese Hercules from the National Museum, Naples, Italy. Photo: Scala/Art Resource, N.Y. (back)

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