Who Is Irus?

Updated 13 August, 2023
Irus (also Arnaeus) is a secondary character in The Odyssey. He is a suitor of Penelope, a beggar who fights with Odysseus.
Detailed answer:

Irus, sometimes known as Arnaeus, was the actual beggar in the house of Ithaca. He humorously gets jealous of the disguised Odysseus encroaching on his beggar turf amongst the suitors. Irus would relay messages for the suitors so they kept him around.
The Book 18 describes Odysseus’ fight with Irus and, more broadly, his fight against the suitors. By this point in the Odyssey Odysseus has returned to Ithaca and reunited with his son. He now plans to defeat the suitors and enact justice against them for the crimes they have committed against his house. Almost everyone, bar Telemachus, believes that Odysseus is simply a beggar for he has disguised himself as such. Irus reacts to Odysseus’ presence by challenging him to a boxing match as he feels threatened by the man who could potentially replace him. The passage details the events immediately prior to the fight itself: Telemachus declares his support for Odysseus, Athena partially reveals Odysseus’ true strength, and Irus is so shocked by Odysseus’ newly revealed appearance that Antinous threatens him so as to make him fight. One of the key themes of the passage is humour. The fight between Odysseus and Irus acts as a sort of humorous interlude, building up to the confrontation with the suitors that occurs in Book 22. In the passage specifically, the quick turnaround of the attitudes of Irus and the suitors once Odysseus partially reveals himself is fairly amusing. Whilst before Odysseus was referred to as a “pot-bellied pig” and a “tramp”, once he sheds his disguise the suitors note that Irus will be no match for his opponent, stating that he will be “ironed out for good”. Odysseus’ reveal and the shocked reactions that follow acts to emphasise his newly unveiled strength and prowess, as well as the ignorance of the suitors.
Irus abuses the customs of xenia, customs which were considered incredibly important since Zeus was the patron of guest-friendship and hospitality, when he insults and challenges Odysseus, which is once again an example of dramatic irony since he is doing so in Odysseus’ own home. By facing and defeating Irus Odysseus arguably defends xenia, and once more re-establishes himself as the hero.

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