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Homer’s Odyssey Book 23. The reunification of Penelope and Odysseus
The Greek warrior Odysseus has returned home to Ithaca after ten years fighting at Troy and an
additional ten years struggling to find his way home. He has returned disguised as a beggar and
finds his house besieged by gluttonous suitors vying for the hand of his wife, Penelope, and
hoping to inherit his home and property. Odysseus defeats the suitors with the help of his son
and his loyal swineherd and sets about taking back control. The goddess Athena restores his
visage and he appears before his wife in new clothes, resembling an older version of the man
who left some twenty years earlier. But how can Penelope be sure that this is really her
husband - and even if he is, can she trust the man who now stands before her? Odysseus is
perturbed that she does not instantly welcome him home and she devises a trick to test him.
Penelope orders their bed removed from their chamber so Odysseus can sleep outside
and he reacts with anger. The bridal bed of Penelope and Odysseus was a secret known only to
them and one maid and it cannot be moved. Odysseus tells how he built their entire house
around a great olive tree, the trunk of which formed the head of their bed. Now Penelope
knows that this is truly her husband returned. Not only does he know their secret but at this
moment she has managed to get the great trickster, the “man of many twists and turns,” to
reveal his emotions – his true self. Now Odysseus is finally home. Yet his homecoming is
bittersweet and after spending the night with her and telling of his long journey (the gods have
to hold back the morning sun,) he reveals that he must again leave to fulfill a prophecy and
make his peace with the god Poseidon. The returning warrior must wander once again.
The Odyssey is an ancient story that existed in many forms told by ancient bards in the
archaic period of ancient Greece. Sometime in the seventh century BCE, this version of the
story was written down, probably as a written record of a live performance. Scholars are
divided over what has been called “The Homeric Question” – was Homer a real person who
composed the Iliad and Odyssey (which were performed by a single bard as a long epic song
accompanied by the lyre) or a mythical personage applied to an ancient bardic tradition where
this great song-poem was recited in many versions across the Greek-speaking world? Whatever
the answer to the question of Homeric authorship is, the Odyssey remains one of the world’s
most famous and influential stories. The Odyssey is many things, but at its heart it is a
magnificent story of a combat veteran returning home from war.