HOMER’s ODYSSEY, Ch. XXI- SAGITTARIUS II
We’re up to the twenty-first out of twenty-fourth chapter of Homer’s Odyssey, and we’re pretty darn pleased with the results. What is becoming evident is that both the Iliad and the Odyssey are celestial choreographies, using various stellar landmarks as benchmarks to weave their way through their plot line.
This week we’re looking at Sagittarius, a centaur labeled as a mutable FIRE sign ruled be the planet Jupiter. Its symbol is either a centaur shooting an arrow from his bow, or in script as simply an arrow with a cross on the shaft representing the bow. As an image this motif goes back a long, long way into the archaeological record, even earlier than Homer. There are various themes which are depicted in this chapter that represent Sagittarius, such as horses, donkeys and centaurs for instance. Sagittarius is the equestrian sign. With the suitors there are plenty of ‘shoot-from-the-hip’ criticisms, insinuations, jeering, taunting and various other connections, but we’re going to focus simply on the symbolism of the bow, arrow and quiver and offer the preponderance of repetition of this theme throughout the chapter.
The bow and arrow are the stars of this show.
The time had come. The goddess Athena with her blazing eyes (line 1)
inspired Penelope, Icarius’ daughter, wary, poised,
to set the bow and the gleaming iron axes out
before her suitors waiting in Odysseus’ hall-
and there it lay as well . . . his backsprung bow
with its quiver bristling arrows, shafts of pain.
Iphitus gave him the bow (line 36)
who gave the prince the bow. (line 44)
That great weapon-
King Odysseus never took it abroad with him
when he sailed off to war in his long black ships.
He kept it stored away in his stately house,
guarding the memory of a cherished friend,
and only took that how on hunts at home.
Reaching tiptoe, lifting the bow down off its peg, (line 62)
still secure in the burnished case that held it,
down she sank, laying the case across her knees
and dissolved in tears with a high thin wail
as she drew her husband’s weapon from its sheath
cradling her husband’s backsprung bow in her arms (line 69)
its quiver bristling arrows, shafts of pain
I set before you the great bow of King Odysseus now! (line 85)
The hand that can string this bow with greatest ease,
that shoots an arrow clean through twelve axes-
She turned to Eumaeus, (line 93)
ordered the good swineherd now to set the bow
The cowherd wept too, when he saw his master’s bow. (line 96)
Sit down. Eat in peace, or take your snuffling (line 103)
out of doors! But leave that bow right here-
No easy game, I wager, to string his polished bow, (line 95)
but deep in the suitor’s heart his hopes were bent (line 110)
on stringing the bow and shooting through the axes
Antinous- fated to be the first man to taste
an arrow whipped from great Odysseus’ hands
no turning back from the stringing of the bow- (line 128)
we’ll see who wins, we will.
I’d even take a crack at the bow myself . . .
If I string it and shoot through all the axes
He stood at the threshold, poised to try the bow . . . (line 142)
Three times he made it shudder, straining to bend it,
three times his power flagged- but his hopes ran high
he’d string his father’s bow and shoot through every iron
and now, struggling with all his might for the fourth time,
he would have strung the bow
“Come, my betters, so much stronger than I am- (line 153)
try the bow and finish off the contest.”
He propped his father’s weapon on the ground, (line 155)
tilting it up against the polished well-hung door
and resting a shaft aslant the bow’s fine horn
then back he went to the seat that he had left.
Picking up the weapon now and the swift arrow, (line 168)
he stood at the threshold poised to try the bow
but failed to bend it. As soon as he tugged the string
“Friends, (line 172)
I can’t bend it. Take it someone- try
Here is a bow to rob our best of life and breath
just let him try the bow; he’ll see the truth (line 181)
With those words he thrust the bow aside (line 186)
tilting it up against the polished well-hung doors
and resting a shaft aslant the bow’s fine horn,
What awful, grisly nonsense- it shocks me to hear it- (line 192)
‘here is a bow to rob our best of life and breath!’
Clearly your genteel mother never bred her boy (line 195)
for the work of bending bows and shooting arrows.
We have champions in our ranks to string it quickly.
So we young lords (line 201)
can heat and limber the bow and rub it down with grease
And the young men (line 207)
limbered the bow, rubbing it down with hot grease,
then struggled to bend it back but failed. No use-
they fell far short of the strength the bow required.
When all the rest in there, our lordly friends, (line 259)
are dead against my having the bow and quiver,
good Eumaeus, carry the weapon down the hall
and put it in my hands
Just now Eurymachus held the bow in his hands, (line 274)
turning it over, tip to tip, before the blazing fire
to heat the weapon. But he failed to bend it even so
What breaks my heart is the fact we fall so short (line 283)
of great Odysseus’ strength we cannot string his bow.
Today is a feast up and down the island (line 288)
in honor of the Archer God. Who flexes bows today?
Steward, pour some drops for the god in every cup, (line 294)
we’ll tip the wine, then put the bow to bed.
so we can burn the thighs to Apollo, god of archers- (line 298)
then try the bow and finish off the contest.”
Give the bow a rest for the day, leave it to the gods- (line 311)
at dawn the Archer God will grant a victory
to the man he favors most.
For the moment (line 314)
give me the polished bow now, won’t you? So,
to amuse you all, I can try my hand, my strength . . .
Modest rage (line 318)
that sent them all into hot, indignant rage,
fearing he just might string the polished bow.
You too, I promise you (line 342)
no end of trouble if you should string that bow.
You really think- if the stranger trusts so to his hands (line 353)
and strength that he strings Odysseus’ great bow
Look at the riffraff courting a king’s wife. (line 364)
Weaklings, look, they can’t even string his bow.
But along came this beggar, drifting out of the blue-
strung his bow with ease and shot through all the axes!’
Come, hand him the bow now, let’s just see . . . (line 375)
I tell you this- and I’ll make good my word-
If he strings the bow and Apollo grants him glory
“Mother” (line 382)
poised Telemachus broke in now, “my father’s bow-
even if I decide to give our guest this bow- (line 387)
As for the bow now (line 392)
And now the loyal swineherd had lifted up the bow (line 400)
“Where on earth are you going with that bow?” (line 404)
Eumaeus froze in his tracks, put down the bow, (line 409)
panicked by every outcry in the hall.
Telemachus shouted too, from the other side,
and full of threats: ‘Carry on with the bow, old boy!
The swineherd took the bow, (line 422)
carried it down the hall to his ready, waiting king
and standing by him, placed it in his hands.
Now he held the bow (line 439)
in his own hands, turning it over, tip to tip
testing it, this way, that way . . . fearing worms
had bored through the weapon’s horn with the master gone abroad.
A suitor would glance at his neighbor, jeering, taunting.
“Look at our connoisseur of bows!”
“Sly old fox- (line 445)
maybe he’s got bows like it, stored in his house.”
“That or he’s bent on making one himself.”
“Look how he twists and turns it in his hands!”
“The clever tramp means trouble-”
“I wish him luck,” some cocksure lord chimed it,
“as good as his luck in bending back that weapon!”
So they mocked Odysseus, mastermind in action, (line 451)
once he’d handled the great bow and scanned every inch,
so with his virtuoso ease Odysseus strung his mighty bow. (line 456)
and under his touch it sang out clear and sharp as a swallow’s cry.
He snatched a winged arrow lying bare on the board- (line 463)
the rest still bristled deep inside the quiver,
soon to be tasted by all the feasters there.
Setting shaft on the handgrip, drawing the notch
and bowstring back, back . . . right from his stool,
just as he sat but aiming straight and true, he let fly-
and never missing an ax from the first ax-handle
clean on through to the last and out
the shaft with its weighted brazen head shot free!
No missing the mark, look, and no long labor spent (line 476)
to string the bow.
A quick count yields 76 references to the bow, arrow, quiver or Archer God. That’s what we mean by repetition.
As we have seen in a number of chapters, it is not unusual for Homer to begin and end each with one of the representative themes being emphasized, and such is the case here. The image used here at the end of the chapter is a metaphor. We opened by stating that Sagittarius was a mutable FIRE sign, and here he closes with a FIRE image.
his bronze spearpoint glinting now like fire . . . (line 484)
In fact, it’s the final word.