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In book 1 of The Odyssey, Athena says to Zeus (in Robert Fagles' translation):

While I myself go down to Ithaca, rouse his son
to a braver pitch, inspire his heart with courage
to summon the flowing-haired Achaeans to full assembly,
speak his mind to all those suitors, slaughtering on and on
his droves of sheep and shambling longhorn cattle
.

Homer. The Odyssey. Trans. Robert Fagles. Intro. Bernard Knox. London: Penguin, 2001. I.285–289, p. 6. Accessed at archive.org 28 June 2024.

Do these sheep and cattle act as a metaphor for the Achaeans, or are they signifying sacrifice to the gods, or something else?

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You are of course correct that the sheep and cattle foreshadow the eventual fate of the Achaeans themselves. But in the first instance, they are literally meant. In Odysseus's absence, over a hundred suitors have encamped in his house. Telemachus being too young to oppose them, Penelope is doubly constrained, by the laws of hospitality on the one hand and a strategic choice for her safety and her son's on the other, to take on the enormous burden of feeding them every day. Telemachus complains to the disguised Athena about this burden:

All the nobles who rule the islands round about,
Dulichion, and Same, and wooded Zacynthus too,
and all who lord it in Ithaca as well—
down to the last man they court my mother,
they lay waste my house!

Homer. The Odyssey. Trans. Robert Fagles. Intro. Bernard Knox. London: Penguin, 2001. I.285–289, p. 11. Accessed at archive.org 28 June 2024.

In the speech you ask about, Athena is anticipating Telemachus's complaint that the suitors are eating Penelope and himself out of house and home. He in turn echoes her words when he is at the court of Menelaus:

My house is being devoured, my rich farms destroyed
my palace crammed with enemies, slaughtering on and on
my droves of sheep and shambling longhorn cattle.
Suitors plague my mother — the insolent, overweening ...

ibid., IV. 356–359. p. 61, ellipses in original.

The droves of sheep and shambling longhorn cattle are thus Odysseus's livestock, endlessly sacrificed for meat to feed these unwelcome guests.

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  • But, of course, to Penelope this throng of near equal guests vying for her are (as stated) her families safety and the heavy tax on the lands output is the price paid, just as she must double labor herself weaving and unravelling day and night. Doesn't this refer back to the siege of Troy when the lands of the Trojans and neighbors were pressed mightily by the thronging Greek forces trying to retrieve their bride or alternatively their king's pride and every other thing available to hand.
    – civitas
    Commented Jun 29 at 5:05
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    The line is doing more than merely foreshadowing. A recent dissertation (Eating People Is Might, 2022) suggest it's intertwined with the improper consumption of food by the sailors in Polyphemus' cave. You get the same outcome with both.
    – cmw
    Commented Jul 1 at 0:23

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