The Mystery About the Hidden Killer in the Odyssey

Some twenty unarmed men are trapped in the large hall and are murdered in cold blood at close range with a bow and spears. After that all the maids are hung. Their offense? Eating and partying. Or was there another motive?

By Malena Lagerhorn.

Stone age axes from the Odyssey about Odysseus and Homer
Axes, The Swedish History Museum

In this article I will take a closer look at Homer’s other poem, the Odyssey. The Odyssey is about the hero Odysseus who after the battle of Troy sails astray with his ship, and is involved in adventures for a long time. These adventures probably took place along the Norwegian coast and off the Faroe Islands and the Shetland Islands. Many of the adventures that Odysseus is involved in could namely be explained by the dangers and natural phenomena that characterize the North Atlantic Ocean. The Italian nuclear physicist Felice Vinci, who has put forward a theory of a Nordic Troy, claims that the description of the nasty monsters Scylla and Charybdis fits spot-on with the conditions at the Lofoten Islands in northern Norway. Vinci has presented his theory in his book The Baltic Origins of Homer’s Epic Tales.

There is Something Strange About the Odyssey

While Odysseus is away his wife Penelope and his son Telemachus are at home on the island of Ithaca, which according Vinci’s theory is the Danish island Lyø. Penelope is beset by a bunch of suitors who think that it is time for her to remarry now that Odysseus has been away for so many years and probably is dead.

There is something strange about the Odyssey. When Odysseus finally comes home to Ithaca nobody, really nobody, recognizes him. Now, he has been away for a while. Homer tells us that he has been away for twenty years. Ten years during the battle of Troy and then another ten years during his sailing adventures. Most likely, his absence was not as long as twenty years. The Iliad actually relates that the battle of Troy lasted only one season. In fact, we do not know much about how long Odysseus was away on his adventures. But even if it really was twenty years – how likely is it that no one recognizes him? Apart from his dog Argo, which of course cannot testify. In addition the dog dies right away after he has seen Odysseus. This is a recurring ruse that Homer uses. All witnesses who would be able to recognize Odysseus die.

I think of myself when I meet childhood friends or relatives after ten or twenty years. I have no problem whatsoever in recognizing them. But no one recognizes Odysseus. Who looks very old. After being stranded on his home island of Ithaca, Odysseus limps home to his house as an old beggar. Odysseus, who is considered a good runner and has won numerous running competitions, has suddenly become lame because of an injury in his childhood, we are told, when a wild boar attacked him and ripped off a large piece of flesh on his thigh. It is, to say the least, a bit strange that he has been able to win all those running competitions after that. And the Odyssey makes the whole thing even more confusing when we learn that the injury healed when he was a child. So why is Odysseus limping?

Once at his house, no one recognizes him, neither his wife Penelope nor any of the suitors. Now Penelope announces an archery contest since her husband Odysseus has always been a master archer. This is also something new. Odysseus has never been mentioned as a good archer or competed in the archery competitions described in the Iliad. But now he has apparently, in addition to becoming lame, and old, also become a phenomenal archer.

Odysseus wins the archery contest and then the slaughter begins. Together with his son Telemachus and two swineherds he murders all the suitors. Why one may ask. Why could not Odysseus just go home and introduce himself to everyone and tell the suitors that “now it is high time for you to go home. And you have to pay back for all the food that you have eaten”. Why did he kill them all? Kill all the prominent men of the neighborhood? And now something even stranger happens. One would think that Odysseus finally, after years of hardship and adventures, would settle down and relax and enjoy life with his beloved wife and son. But no, after the mass murder, he sets off again. He sets off from Ithaca, nobody knows whereto, and again leaves Penelope and Telemachus alone.

After Three Thousand Years the Hidden Protagonist in the Odyssey is Revealed

Now, it is not I who have realized how strange the Odyssey is, but an Italian science journalist, photographer, and author named Alberto Majrani. He has written a very entertaining little book called Chi ha ucciso realmente in Proci? Ulisse, Nessuno, Filottete. Scoperto tremila anni dopo il protagonista nascosto dell’Odissea (LoGisma publishers). The book is available only in Italian but translated, the title reads: Who was it really that killed the suitors? Odysseus, No one, Philoctetes. After three thousand years the hidden protagonist in the Odyssey is revealed.

With the name “No one” in the title, Majrani refers to one of Odysseus’s adventures, when he and his men were trapped in a cave by the one-eyed giant Polyphemus. Odysseus deludes the giant into believing that his name is No one. When Odysseus and his men finally manage to escape from the giant, Odysseus has made Polyphemus blind by driving a heated pole into his only eye. Polyphemus cries out to his friends for help: “No one is escaping, No one has taken my sheep.” But none of his friends care to help him because after all no one has done anything evil against Polyphemus. This adventure is not only retold in the Odyssey, but seems to be an ancient tale, which appears in several European myths. A myth in which someone, who claims to be named No one, outwits a giant.

Majrani realized that there was something fishy with the Odyssey and that the lame old man, who is also a master archer and who came to Ithaca, was probably not Odysseus, but an assassin hired by Odysseus’s son Telemachus. Telemachus would be deprived of a large part of his inheritance should his mother Penelope remarry. Therefore, he has a strong motive to kill all suitors. But who is then the hired assassin? Is it possible to figure out, three and a half thousand years later, who it really was that murdered the suitors?

Majrani writes that it is indeed Odysseus himself, who reveals the person who is pretending to be him and who kills all the suitors. It is as if the poet, Homer, or whoever it was who actually wrote the poems the Iliad and the Odyssey, left a lot of clues to the listeners and anyone who is cunning and can figure out how everything actually happened.

In the poem, Odysseus actually says that he is good at archery, but he is surpassed by the master archer Philoctetes. Who is this Philoctetes? Philoctetes is mentioned in Homer’s Iliad and in other ancient writings. He came from the central part of Finland, near the ancient city of Iolcus, today’s Jolkka, and was one of the chieftains who participated in the battle of Troy. On the way to Troy, he was however bitten in the foot by a viper, and suffered a severe infection. He got stuck on Lemnos, today’s Åland Islands, until the end of the war. Philoctetes joins the war at the last moment and kills Paris, the Trojan chieftain son who abducted Helen and thus started the war. Indeed, he kills Paris with bow and arrow. Here we have a master archer with a foot injury, which may explain why the false Odysseus is limping. Moreover, Philoctetes is a few years older than Odysseus, which may explain why the so-called Odysseus, who disembarked on Ithaca, looks so old.

Telemachus Hires the Master Archer Philoctetes to Play the Role of Odysseus

Let us now go back to the poem’s beginning and follow Majrani’s reasoning about what the Odyssey is really about, and who really killed all the suitors in the first documented mass murder in history. Majrani lists a number of details that I will not go into, but I will give you a broad summary of his theory. For those who want to know more, I recommend reading Majrani’s book, which I hope will be translated into more languages.

Odysseus is probably long dead. Most likely, he died on his way home from Troy and his bones are resting on the seabed. This is suggested again and again by different people in the poem. To mask Odysseus’s death and explain why he has been away for so long, Homer tells that Odysseus has been a prisoner of the beautiful and immortal goddess Calypso. Vinci writes in his book that Calypso’s island may have been one of the Faroe Islands. In the Bronze Age, 3,600 years ago, the climate was warmer than today and the Faroe Islands were certainly the lush and magical place that the Odyssey describes. After a couple of years, Calypso decides to release Odysseus and he sails eastwards toward Denmark and the Norwegian coast. On the way he suffers shipwreck and is washed ashore among the Phaeacians who, according to Vinci’s theory, live in southern Norway. He is received by chieftain Alcinous and tells him and his people about his adventures. Or rather, he tells a lot of tall stories. The adventures he claims to have taken part in are a blend of ancient folk myths. Many of them can be recognized from Norwegian skipper’s stories, according Vinci. These stories may have served as a kind of verbal map of the dangerous Norwegian waters and the treacherous coast. To the insider they may have functioned as a navigational aid, but would have scared away the uninitiated and prevented him or her from finding, for example, excellent fishing grounds.

While Odysseus tells his tall stories to the Phaeacians, his son Telemachus is at home on Ithaca, where he frets over his mother’s suitors. Or rather, he is worried that he will lose a large part of his inheritance should his mother remarry. “If my father were here,” Telemachus thinks, “then everything would be different.” Now the goddess of wisdom, Athena, advises Telemachus that he should head off to the neighboring chieftains Nestor and Menelaus and inquire after his father. And, as she says in the Odyssey, book 1: If his father is dead Telemachus must arrange his funeral. And then, secretly or openly, massacre all the suitors in the house. Consequently, already here we learn what Telemachus intends to do, namely, commit mass murder of all the suitors!

Telemachus follows Athena’s advice and visits Nestor and Menelaus. Or rather, he goes off to hire an assassin. Actually, the suitors worry that that it is exactly what he is going to do when he leaves Ithaca, that he will hire a bunch of warriors.

Back to Odysseus. When he has told about his adventures, the Phaeacians help Odysseus sail back to Ithaca. When they come ashore on the beach, Odysseus is sleeping so the Phaeacians who followed him leave him asleep and head for home. On the way home, their ship is turned into stone and sinks. The Phaeacians are caught in some sort of landslide and their city is buried under a mountain. In the Swedish translation, the city is confined behind a mountain ridge. That is, now there are no Phaeacians left who can testify that Odysseus visited them and tell about the gifts they gave him. Very practical indeed. Away with all the witnesses!

The man who wakes up on Ithaca’s beach is, according to Majrani, not Odysseus, but the assassin and master archer Philoctetes. By mere chance, Telemachus comes back to Ithaca almost simultaneously, the very same day. In fact, what must have happened is that they came back with the same ship.

Homer tells us, however, that Odysseus wakes up alone on the beach. Now Athena pops up again and makes Odysseus unrecognizable. She makes him older and she takes away his long, blond hair. It is not only Odysseus himself who becomes unrecognizable. Homer tells that Odysseus does not recognize the island he has landed on. And that is not so strange, because he is not Odysseus but Philoctetes. Now Odysseus/Philoctetes limps to his old swineherd Eumaeus who, of course, does not recognize him. Eumaeus dislikes the suitors and says that they eat all his pigs. And that if Odysseus would return, he would certainly have a much better life, because Odysseus would give him a house, some land, and a wife. Here, Majrani argues, we are told what Eumaeus requests from Telemachus and Philoctetes if he is to help them murder the suitors. This is what he wants as payment: a house, some land, and a wife.

Of course also Telemachus visits the swineherd Eumaeus. And of course he does not recognize his father, because Athena has made him unrecognizable. Now Odysseus/Philoctetes suggests how they should proceed to kill the suitors. He suggests that they disarm them with the excuse that they will clean all the weapons available in the large hall. And with the excuse that it is safer when people are partying and are drunk if they do not have weapons; an accident may easily occur when everyone is drunk.

Now they go home to Odysseus’s house. Philoctetes is of course limping. Once there, he pretends to be an old beggar and no one, naturally, recognizes him. Except for the dog Argo mentioned earlier, which however dies immediately thereafter. Penelope does of course not recognize her returning husband either. The only proof that he really is Odysseus, we get from the old wet-nurse Eurycleia. She recognizes Odysseus from the old scar on his leg that he got from the wild boar in his childhood. A scar that Odysseus probably never had; if so, he would not have been able to win all the running competitions. But Homer must naturally give us an explanation for Odysseus’s limping. This time it is not Athena who fixes things; now he solves it with the old wet-nurse’s story.

Now we may ask, does Penelope know of the planned mass murder? One thought is that she actually recognizes Philoctetes as Philoctetes. Penelope’s sister Iphthime is namely married to Eumelus in Finland near the area Philoctetes comes from. In addition, both Odysseus and Philoctetes competed once for Helen’s hand, the Helen who was abducted by Paris, the event that started the battle of Troy. Helen and Penelope are cousins since their fathers Tyndareus and Icarius were brothers. It is very possible that even the wet-nurse Eurycleia recognizes Philoctetes. But they pretend to know nothing.

Penelope now announces an archery contest among the suitors. Whoever wins, and manages to shoot an arrow through twelve axes, gets her hand in marriage. Interpreters have disagreed on exactly how someone can shoot an arrow through twelve axes. The arrow may have passed through the cavity where the blade is attached to the handle. What is clear, however, is that the suitors were not able to use the axes to defend themselves during the mass murder.

It is uncertain how many the suitors were. Homer tells that 108 men proposed to Penelope, but he only tells us the names of fourteen suitors who are murdered in Odysseus’s house, and then he mentions that a few other (unnamed) suitors were murdered as well. Penelope also tells about a dream she had, where twenty geese ate a lot of grain. Suddenly, an eagle appears in the dream and kills all twenty geese. Likely the geese represent the suitors who are murdered. If so, the suitors were in fact twenty. Back to the story: When Penelope has announced the archery contest, everyone goes to sleep for the night.

The Massacre Can Begin

The next day is the day of the murder. The suitors are inside Odysseus’s house. They are disarmed with the excuse that all weapons will be cleaned. Philoctetes is also in the same hall as the suitors, where he pretends to be an old beggar. No one recognizes him as Odysseus, of course. Telemachus is also there, as well as Penelope and the swineherd Eumaeus, who has been promised a house, some land, and wife as payment by Telemachus. Another swineherd is there as well, Philetius, who also complains about the suitors and tells how much Odysseus would pay him, if he would come back to Ithaca.

Now Penelope announces the archery contest. Odysseus’s beautiful old bow is brought to the hall. Everyone is amazed at the bow. It is as if no one has seen anything like it before. None of the suitors even knows how to draw the bow. Perhaps it is not so surprising. Denmark was almost entirely cultivated during the Bronze Age. People subsisted on agriculture and livestock husbandry. It is therefore perhaps not surprising that the suitors do not have much knowledge about a weapon that is used for hunting. Especially not the composite bow that Homer describes. Philoctetes however comes from central Finland, far more northward than the Danish island of Ithaca. Majrani does not bring up the subject, but likely people in central and northern Finland subsisted on hunting and fishing rather than on agriculture and livestock husbandry. It is then perhaps not surprising that the most skilled archer of the time, the master archer Philoctetes, came from Finland.

While the suitors marvel at the bow and try to draw it, the beggar, that is Philoctetes, signals to the two swineherds Eumaeus and Philetius to come with him out of the hall. Now he reveals to them that he is Odysseus who has come back to take revenge, and that they will be rewarded if they help him. But we should probably rather interpret this as him telling the swineherds how the mass murder will be done and what they will get paid. Namely exactly what they have already told Telemachus and Philoctetes that they wanted: a house, some land, and a wife. They then go into the hall again. The suitors have now given up drawing the bow, and they suggest that they should postpone the contest until the next day. Now the poor old beggar, Philoctetes, asks if he could have a try at the bow. The suitors mock him, but Penelope says that he can certainly have a try. Philoctetes takes the bow.

Now, Telemachus tells his mother Penelope that she should go away and she leaves them. The swineherds barricade all the doors. Now all the suitors are disarmed and locked up in the hall. The massacre can begin.

Philoctetes, like the master archer he is, has no problems drawing the bow. Then he shoots an arrow through all the axes.

He then takes a new arrow and shoots it through the neck of the foremost suitor, Antinous. At first everyone thinks it is an accident. But then Telemachus and the swineherds Eumaeus and Philetius, together with Philoctetes, start killing the rest of the suitors. The bloodbath is terrible. To make sure that there are no witnesses, Telemachus hangs the maids who have been friends of the suitors.

When the slaughter is over, they fetch Penelope who, amazingly, has been asleep. Of course, Penelope still does not recognize Odysseus. The last thing they have to do now is to visit Odysseus’s old father Laertes. Laertes naturally does not recognize Odysseus. Now Odysseus/Philoctetes says that he must leave. Many will of course be angry after the massacre and may want to revenge. The best thing is if the murderer in charge leaves. Penelope does not seem to mind that. One might think that she would want her husband to stay with her, now that he has finally come back, but obviously it does not matter to her that he sets off again.

Consequently the assassin, Philoctetes, leaves. Left on Ithaca is Telemachus, unchallenged, who has killed the foremost men of the neighborhood, and thus can maintain power on the island, given that he is able to withstand angered relatives who want to avenge. Left on Itacha are also two happy swineherds who will now be rewarded with farms and wives. All other witnesses have been killed, besides a herald, who has not had anything to do with the suitors, and – ta da – a bard named Phemios. Is Phemios possibly Homer himself? Who has been instructed to compose the Odyssey to hide the first documented mass murder in history? Who concocted a story and blended it together with old skipper’s stories and myths? But who left a long line of small details in the poem so that the wise and cunning listener, who is perhaps as resourceful as Odysseus himself, is able to figure out the riddle of who it really was that killed all the suitors – Odysseus, No one, or Philoctetes.

Copyright Malena Lagerhorn.

Read the books:
Heracles – A Psychopath’s Tale
Ilion – the day will come when sacred Troy must die

%d bloggers like this: