Odysseus’ great bow was kept in the treasure chamber of the house. That bow had been given to him by a hero named Iphitus long ago. Odysseus had not taken it with him when he went to the wars of Troy.
Penelope went to the treasure chamber. She carried in her hand the great key that opened the doors—a bronze key with a handle of ivory. As she thrust the key into the locks, the doors groaned. She went inside, and saw the great bow upon its peg. She took it down and put it on her knees, and thought about the man who had bent it.
Beside the bow was its quiver full of bronze weighted arrows. The servant took the quiver and Penelope took the bow, and they went from the treasure-chamber and into the hall where the suitors were.
When she came in she spoke to the company and said: ‘Lords of Ithaka and of the islands around. You have come here, each wanting to marry me. Now the time has come for me to make my choice of a man from amongst you. Here is how I shall choose.’
‘This is the bow of Odysseus. Whosoever amongst you who can bend this bow and shoot an arrow from it through the holes in the backs of twelve axes which I shall have set up, can marry me, and I will go to his house, giving up the house of my marriage, this house so filled with treasure and wealth, this house which I shall remember in my dreams.’
As she spoke Telemachus took the twelve axes and set them upright in an even line, so that one could shoot an arrow through the hole that was in the back of each axe-head. Then Eumæus, the old swineherd, took the bow of Odysseus, and laid it before the suitors.
One of the suitors picked up the bow and tried to bend it. But he could not bend it, and he laid it down at the doorway with the arrow beside it. The others picked up the bow, and warmed it at the fire, and rubbed it with lard to make it more pliable. As they were doing this, Eumæus, the swineherd, and Philœtius, the cattleherd, left the hall.
Odysseus followed them into the courtyard. He laid a hand on each and said, ‘Swineherd and cattleherd, I have a word to say to you. But will you keep it to yourselves? First, what would you do to help Odysseus if he should return? Would you stand on his side, or on the side of the suitors? Answer me now from your hearts.’
Philœtius the cattleherd said, ‘May Zeus fulfill my wish and bring Odysseus back! Then you would know on whose side I would stand.’ And Eumæus said, ‘If Odysseus should return I would be on his side, with all the strength that is in me.’
When they said this, Odysseus revealed himself. Lifting up his hand to heaven he said, ‘I am your master, Odysseus. After twenty years I have come back to my own country, and I find that of all my servants, only you two desire my homecoming. If you need see proof that I am indeed Odysseus, look down at my foot. See there the mark that the wild boar left on me in the days of my youth.’
Straightway he drew the rags from, the scar, and the swineherd and the cattleherd saw it and recognized it Knowing that it was indeed Odysseus who stood before them, they threw their arms around him and kissed him on the head and shoulders. Odysseus was moved by their tears, and he kissed their heads and their hands.
As they went back to the hall, he told Eumæus to bring the bow to him as he was carrying it through the hall. He told him, too, to order Eurycleia, the faithful nurse, to bar the doors of the women’s apartment at the end of the hall, and to tell the women, even if they heard a groaning and a din, not to come into the hall. Then he told the cattleherd Philœtius to bar the gates of the courtyard.
As he went into the hall, one of the wooers, Eurymachus, was trying to bend the bow. As he struggled to do so he groaned aloud, ‘Not because I may not marry Penelope do I groan, but because we youths of today are shown to be weaklings beside Odysseus, whose bow we cannot bend.’
Then Antinous, the proudest of the suitors said, ‘Why should we try to bend the bow today? No, put the bow aside, Eurymachus, and let the wine bearers pour us out a cupful each. In the morning let us make sacrifice to the Archer god, and pray that the bow be fitted to some of our hands.’
Then Odysseus came forward and said, ‘Sirs, you do well to put the bow aside for today. But will you not let me try to bend it, and judge for myself whether I have any of the strength that once was mine?’
All the suitors were angry that a beggar should attempt to bend the bow that none of them were able to bend. Antinous spoke to him sharply and said, ‘You wretched beggar! Is it not enough that you are allowed into this hall to pick up scraps, but must you also listen to our speech and join in our conversation? If you should bend that bow we would punish you, I promise. We will put you on a ship and send you over to King Echetus, who will cut you to pieces and give your flesh to his dogs.’
Old Eumæus had picked up the bow. As he went with it to Odysseus some of them shouted to him, ‘Where are you going with the bow, you crazy fellow? Put it down,’ Eumæus was confused by their shouts, and he put down the bow.
Then Telemachus spoke to him and said, ‘Eumæus, beware of being the man who served many masters.’ Eumæus, hearing these words, picked it up again and brought it to Odysseus, and put the bow into his hands.
As Odysseus stood in the doorway of the hall, the bow in his hands, and with the arrows scattered at his feet, Eumæus went to Eurycleia, and told her to bar the door of the women’s rooms at the back. Then Philœtius, the cattleherd, went out of the hall and barred the gates leading out of the courtyard.
For a long time Odysseus stood with the bow in his hands, handling it as a minstrel handles a lyre when he stretches a cord or tightens a peg. Then he bent the great bow; he bent it without any effort, and at his touch the bow-string made a sound that was like the cry of a swallow. The suitors seeing him bend that mighty bow felt a sharp pain in the heart. They saw Odysseus take up an arrow and fit it to the string. He held the notch, and he drew the string, and he shot the bronze-weighted arrow straight through the holes in the back of the axe-heads.
Then as Eumæus took up the axes, and took them outside, he said, ‘You see, lord Telemachus, that your guest does not shame you through foolish boasting. I have bent the bow of Odysseus, and I have shot the arrow straight. But now it is time to provide the feast for the lords who woo your mother. While it is yet light, the feast must be served to them, and with the feast they must have music and the dance.’
Saying this he nodded to Telemachus. Telemachus instantly took his sword and his spear in his hands. The thunder of Zeus was heard outside. Then Odysseus had stripped his rags from him and was standing upright, looking like a master of men. The mighty bow was in his hands, and at his feet were scattered many bronze-weighted arrows.