The Hero Returns

When Odysseus awoke, Athena warned him that not all was well in his house.

"The suitors each hope to marry your beautiful wife and become the owner of all your wealth," Athena told him. "They will not be happy to see that you have returned. If you come unarmed and without companions, they will set upon you and kill you. You must come in disguise and stay with people you can trust."

Athena placed a spell on Odysseus to make him look like an old begger, and left him at the house of his swineheard -- one of the most loyal servants on the estate. There Odysseus waited for Telemachus, whom Athena had told him would return to Ithaca later that day.

Then Athena went up to the palace and appeared to Penelope in her chamber. Penelope was weeping because she had not heard any news from Telemachus on his journey, and she had begun to fear that Odysseus might really be dead.

"Do not weep, Penelope," said Athena. "Today will mark the end of your troubles. Your son Telemachus will return from his journey today, and I have made a plan which will end your troubles with the suitors. But you must obey me in every detail, and trust me even if you do not understand why I tell you to do these things."

Penelope knew that she was being spoken to by a goddess, and so she agreed. She listened carefully to the goddess's instructions, and then she went to do as she was told.

First she went down to the treasure room with two of her maids, and she took down the great hunting bow that was so strong that only Odysseus himself had ever been able to string it. Penelope took the bow and its quiver full of arrows, and she told her maids to bring twelve axes which Odysseus had used many times to do a trick for his guests.

In the great hall, Penelope called all of the suitors together and told them, "Athena has appeared to me and told me that I must delay no longer: I must choose one of you as a husband. But whoever will marry me must prove himself to be as strong as Odysseus. This is the hunting bow which only Odysseus could string. Whoever can string this bow, and then shoot an arrow through this line of twelve axes without the arrow touching even one of them, will be my husband."

As she spoke, Telemachus entered the hall leading behind him an old man dressed in beggar's rags. The old man sat down in a corner, and Telemachus came forward. "This is a good test that my mother has set for you," he said. "But first let me see if I am as strong as my father was." He took the bow and bent it, but he could not bend it quite far enough to fit the string to it.

Then Antinous, the leader of the suitors and a very proud man, took the bow. He tried and tried, but he could not string the bow. "This must be a trick!" he shouted. "I don't believe any man can string this bow." And he threw the bow on the floor and stomped away.

One by one the suitors each tried, but none of them were strong enough to string the bow. Then some tried to heat the bow, and others rubbed it with oil and wax, hoping to make it easier to bend. But still none succeeded. At last Antinous said, "Enough of this. This is not a fair test. Let's pick some easier task and make the queen marry whoever wins."

As he was speaking, the old man in rags stepped forward. "Once I was a good man with a bow," he said. "Let me try to string it."

"Old fool!" shouted Antinous. "Do you think you are stronger than we? Get out before I give you the beating you deserve."

But Telemachus said that the old man should be given a chance. "If he can string the bow, I will give him a bag of gold," he said.

The old man was Odysseus, still in disguise. He took the bow and ran his hands gently over its curves, remembering it. Then he braced it against his foot and with one smooth motion bent and strung the bow. Many of the suitors gasped, and all their eyes were now on the old man as he took an arrow and aimed it down the line of axes. They did not see Telemachus quietly lead his mother out of the great hall and bar the door.

Odysseus sent his arrow flying straight through the line of axes without touching one. It stuck in the wall and quivered. Before anyone could move or say a word, he took another arrow, and he sent it flying straight towards Antinous, striking him in the neck and killing him.

Then Odysseus cast aside his disguise and said, "I am Odyssues returned from Troy. You have taken my food, threatened my wife, and disgraced my house. Now defend yourselves if you are men, for I intend to kill every one of you."

The suitors drew their swords and rushed at Odysseus and Telemachus, but they were no match for the hero and his son. Odysseus's loyal servants barred the doors of the hall, and would not let anyone escape. The battle raged all through the great hall, but in the end all of the suitors were slaughtered, and Odysseus told the servants to drag the bodies out and wash the hall clean of all traces of them.

Odysseus went and bathed, washing the blood and dirt from himself. Then the clothed himself in fine clothes which Telemachus brought to him, and he went to see Queen Penelope.

Penelope's maids had told her of what had happened, and now she understood what Athena had planned for her when she appeared to her that morning. When she first saw Odysseus she hesitated. He was a much older and grimmer man than her young husband who had left for Troy so many years before. But when he spoke she knew that it was him, and she rushed to him, glad that her family was united once again.

For recommendations on other re-tellings of Homer's Iliad and Odyssey, click here.

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