This paper discusses the parallels and connections between the slaughter of the Sun God’s Cattle and the killing of Penelope’s suitors in “The Odyssey.” (4+ pages, 1 source; MLA citation style)
If often seems that the characters in Homer’s epic poem “The Odyssey” never learn from experience—particularly Odysseus’s crew. They get into trouble repeatedly, from which Odysseus rescues them, only to have them get into further difficulties. Their slaughter of the Sun God’s cattle is the last, and final, blunder in a series of catastrophes that marks their journey home.
In this brief paper, we’ll explore why, in view of the behavior of Penelope’s suitors, Odysseus’s men’s slaughter of the Cattle of the Sun is significant.
It’s possible to draw many parallels between the killing of Helios’s cattle and the killing of the suitors that ends the poem, but perhaps the most striking is the fact that the slaughter of the cattle directly foreshadows the slaughter of the men.
In many ways, the suitors who have been courting Penelope in her husband’s absence have proven to be no better than animals; we might consider them a “herd.” They seem to follow a herd instinct: they are always together; they have an apparent leader, Antinous, whom they follow, but casually, as cows might meander along after a single individual; and they seem to do the same things at the same time, as if none of them is capable of independent thought.
... her husband Odysseus. While awaiting her husband's return, Penelope endures perpetual insolence and sexual advances from the suitors who invade ... her society and remains faithful to her husband Odysseus. Penelope has tremendous will power and is intensely faithful ... faithfulness, honor, sadness, helplessness and long suffering. Penelope s husband, Odysseus, has been exiled for 20 years, since he left ...
In addition, like a herd, they have taken over Penelope’s home and made it their “territory”; they “graze” as they please there, eating, drinking, stealing, raping the serving women, and trying to get Penelope to agree to marry one of them. Although Antinous is the most active of them, it is difficult to differentiate one from another, since Homer has made them all equally grasping, unprincipled, and vicious. They all resemble each other, and I believe that is intentional: we are meant to see them as a group, and the slaughter of Helios’ cattle is a direct forecast of the deaths of these men.
There are other similarities that are significant. In both cases, there is a taboo against the action being contemplated. The suitors have no concrete evidence that Odysseus is dead, but they are attempting to get his wife to agree to marry one of them anyway. This would make her a bigamist and the marriage illegal, but they have convinced themselves that after such a long time, he must be dead, and are acting on that assumption.
They are also, or were at the beginning of their “invasion” of her home, guests. But they have broken all the laws of hospitality, which were extremely important to the ancient Greeks (you never knew when a god, disguised as a peasant, might drop by to test you).
Instead of behaving in an orderly manner, and leaving after they were told to go, they have instead taken advantage of the fact that Penelope is alone with a houseful of women and old men, and moved in. Further, s mentioned, they are stealing from their hostess, killing her cattle and geese, taking her gold, and abusing her people. This too is taboo, and they know it—but they persist in their behavior.
Similarly, Odysseus has directly forbidden his crew to touch the Cattle, knowing they belong to the Sun God. But the men, who have been trapped by the South Wind in a cave for a month, use up their shipboard provisions and decide to kill Helios’ herd. Homer tells us that the island where the men are stranded is a “good green island” (XII, 284).
We also learn that after they finished their shipboard provisions, the men “… turned to hunting, forced to range for quarry with twisted hooks: for fish, birds…” (XII, 355-356).
... run but the doors are locked the Odysseus and his son kill the rest of the suitors. In summary a major theme in ... his father Poseidon for vengeance on Odysseus. Furthermore Odysseus takes vengeance on the suitors. Odysseus take vengeance on the suitors for talking over his house ... blinding his son Polyphemus. Odysseus gets him self in to this mess by not listening to his men when they told him ...
In other words, there is game on the island; they did not need to kill the cattle to survive, but it was easier than hunting.
Likewise it was easier for Penelope’s suitors to hope to gain a great fortune by marrying her for it, rather than working.
Other similarities exist between the two episodes. First, Odysseus is the only survivor of the shipwreck that results from Helios’ wrath when he discovers his beasts have been killed; he is also the only survivor of the massacre he perpetrates on the suitors when he returns home. He slaughters them all the same way his men slaughtered the cattle.
Then too, a god or goddess is directly involved in the outcome each time. Helios was determined that Odysseus’s men should perish for their crime; in fact, he is willing to despoil the dead in vengeance: “Unless they pay me back in blood for the butchery of my herds, down I go to the House and Death and blaze among the dead!” (XII, 411-412).
In response to his outburst, Zeus calms him and tells him that he (Zeus) will raise a storm to destroy the crew.
When the end comes for the suitors, Athena herself instigates the attack: “When Athena, Queen of Tactics, tells me it is time, I’ll give you a nod…” (XVI, 313-314).
It is she, Odysseus’s patron goddess, who approves, even demands, the murder of the suitors, which of course suits Odysseus to a “T”.
Although there are a number of parallels between the two events, I believe the single most important similarity is that Penelope’s suitors are not humans; their behavior has reduced them to animals. Because of this, they can be killed in the same impersonal way that Odysseus’s crew killed the Cattle of the Sun.
Homer. The Odyssey. Trans. Robert Fagles. New York: Penguin Books USA, Inc., 1996.