Joseph Wright of Derby
A god could easily bring someone home
from a long way off, if he wanted to.
But I’d prefer to go through many hardships
and then see the day when I got back
and reached my home, than to complete my trip
only to be butchered by my own hearth,
the way Agamemnon was cut down,
tricked by his own wife and by Aegisthus.
But the gods cannot protect a man from death
Which comes to all—even ones they love,
once the destroying fate of a harsh doom
has seized him.”
- Book III, lines 312 – 323 (all translations by Ian Johnston unless otherwise noted)
The weary loom, the weary loom,
The task grown sick from morn to night,
From year to year. The treadle’s boom
Made a low thunder in the room.
The woven phantoms mazed her sight.
If she had pushed it to the end,
Followed the shuttle’s cunning song
So far she had no thought to rend
In time the web from end to end,
She would have worked a matchless wrong.
Instead, that jumble of heads and spears,
Forlorn scraps of her treasure trove.
I wet them with my childish tears
Not knowing she wove into her fears
Pride and fidelity and love.
- from “Telemachos Remembers” by Edwin Muir
There are several problematic themes that develop early in The Odyssey. One revolves around Athena’s refusal to reveal Odysseus’ status to Telemachus and Penelope. Another is the lack of support Telemachus receives from his fathers’ friends, especially when compared to what they said they would do for Odysseus. Yet another, which will develop over the work, is the loss of Odysseus’ men. If he is a great leader, why do all of his men under his command perish? The poet takes a stab at it in the opening lines, blaming their deaths on their own stupidity. While his men do make stupid mistakes, to lay the blame completely at their feet isn’t entirely truthful. I mention the problematic themes first because I have heard many complaints about the start of The Odyssey, so I’ll try and look at what the first four books try to accomplish.
The first real scene takes place on Mt. Olympus, where we witness the gods discussing the death of Aegisthus (the first of many references throughout the work on this subject). Athena turns the conversation to Odysseus and recommends steps to help him return home these many years after the Trojan War has ended. Her first recommendation seems clear—send Hermes to notify Calypso that she must allow Odysseus to leave. The second action, prodding Odysseus’ son Telemachus to publicly address the unwanted suitors of Penelope and then sending him on a trip to Sparta and Pylos, is less obvious. Let’s look at what unfolds during these books and what they provide to the story.
Xenia, both good and bad examples, is a central focus of the entire book with this section laying the foundation for much of what is to follow. As an aside, readers of The Iliad will remember that xenia relationship carries over the generations, as seen in the exchange in Book VI when Diomedes realizes an ancestor of his opponent (Glaucus) had a guest/host relationship with his family:
“In that case, you’re an old friend of my father.
For Oeneus once entertained Bellerophon,
that worthy man, for twenty days at home.
The two of them exchanged fine presents.
Oeneus gave a shining purple belt,
Bellerophon a gold two-handled cup,
which I left in my house when I came here.
Telemachus’ hosting Athena (under the guise of Mentes) as well as Nestor’s and Menelaus’ hosting of Telemachus provide examples of good xenia. Menelaus takes offense that his attendant would even suggest that they might send the travelers on to find another host. The suitors provide an example of bad xenia, overstaying their welcome by several years. The suitors present several problems to the household. They threaten to completely consume its resources. Leocritus, one of the suitors, implies that even if Odysseus returns home at this point the suitors will kill him since they have too much invested now to leave empty-handed.
The suitors’ behavior also mirrors the disorder and decline in Ithaca. Telemachus’ call for an assembly is the first time one has been called since Odysseus left almost twenty years ago. In addition, having over 100 men milling around Odysseus’ house for several years provides nothing to the community. There is a need for strong leadership, whether from Odysseus or Telemachus. Mentor, Odysseus’ companion and appointed house steward when he left for war, tells the men of Ithaca that they are not worth of a good ruler anymore since they allow the suitors to continue draining their ruler’s resources. Yet the status of Odysseus complicates things in many ways. If he is dead, then Telemachus should be the ruler but he is not mature enough to lead. Even if Odysseus is alive, there does not seem to be anyone competently overseeing Ithaca as they await his return. This limbo mirrors Penelope’s status. If Odysseus is dead, she is expected to remarry. If alive, her attempts at maintaining the household are failing because of the suitors. Her deceit in unraveling Laertes’ funeral shroud has been uncovered and she finds it difficult to put them off for much longer.
Telemachus has not done much to help, failing to assert himself. Close to 20 years old, he sits around the house wondering how he may get rid of the suitors and also how to “win honor for himself.” During Athena’s dream-like visit to Penelope in Book IV, Penelope recognizes Telemachus has not matured, “with no idea of how men struggle on or conduct themselves in meetings.” Is this one of the reasons Athena has Telemachus has speak in front of an assembly in addition to “appealing to the gods as witnesses”? This Telemachus at the start of the book will be of no use to Odysseus when he returns. “You must no keep on acting like a child—you’re too old for that”, Athena (disguised as Mentes) chides Telemachus. The goddess’ goal in both the speech and the trips to Pylos and Sparta is to speed his maturation. Simply telling him that his father is alive and will be home soon means Odysseus will have the same immature kid that we see in Book I instead of someone to rely on for assistance.
There is some maturation in Telemachus in this section but the foundation is being laid for even more. After Athena (disguised as Mentes) leaves, he shows some backbone in rebuking Penelope when she wanted the singer to change songs. He follows up on this by acknowledging to the suitors that he is bound by xenia to host them, but he calls on Zeus for retribution, noting that if the suitors are destroyed within his house they will not be avenged. He refuses to back down in front of them now. In his trips to see Nestor and Menelaus, Telemachus hears several times about Aegisthus’ murder of Agamemnon and also Orestes’ avenging his father’s death. Each time Orestes is held up as a good example of what a son should do. While the story implies that the suitors may try and kill Odysseus if he returns, Nestor and Menelaus drive home the point that people will speak good things about those as brave as Orestes and how important it is for a murdered man to have a worthy son. They do everything but hand Telemachus a loaded gun and say “you know what to do.”
At the end of this section, the reader gets an inner look at Penelope as she finds out that Telemachus traveled to Pylos and Sparta as well as the suitors plan to kill him on his return. This is almost too much for Penelope, who thinks she has lost both her husband and her son. This is why the book starts where it does. Before you first see Odysseus, the reader understands what is at risk if he does not return to Ithaca immediately. Also, by starting the work with Telemachus, we first see Odysseus through his eyes. He does not know his father except through what others have told him. If "few men are like their fathers" and what he is told of his heritage is true, what does he have to do to make a name for himself? What does it mean to be the son of Odysseus, even if he can't confirm it? When visiting Nestor and Menelaus, the reader can feel the struggle within him when asked "Who are you?" At this point, he isn't sure.
Telemachus’ first stop after leaving Ithaca was Pylos. Nestor gives an overview of what happened after the fall of Troy, while hinting at the difficulty men had in getting home: “They [the Achaeans] had not been wise or righteous, so many met a nasty fate”. Nestor provides details of Agamemnon’s return and death, then recommends Telemachus go visit Menelaus since he has only recently returned home from the Trojan War. Nestor offers the services of his son Peisistratus and a chariot to travel. In reaching Sparta, Telemachus notes the wealth that Menelaus returned with. (It is interesting to see that much of the wealth Menelaus returned with was from Egpyt—is this imposing a Greek tradition on non-Greeks?) Helen drugs the wine to help blunt the pain of talking about Odysseus, Troy and the trip home. We find out Odysseus’ role in the Trojan Horse (and Helen’s attempt to sabotage the ruse). Unable to sail home from Egypt, Nestor gets guidance from Eidothea, the daughter of Proteus (the Old Man of the Sea). She instructs Menelaus how to catch Proteus in order to find out how to get home. The troubles and deaths of those returning from Troy are listed, including more detail on Agamemnon’s death. (A good summary on the return of Achaean leaders from the Trojan War can be found here). Proteus tells Menelaus that Odysseus had been seen “in the palace of the nymph Calypso”, stranded there against his will. But as Menelaus mentions before he knows who his visitors are, he is not sure whether Odysseus is alive or dead now.
I find it interesting that neither Nestor nor Menelaus are willing to help Telemachus regarding the problem of the suitors. Nestor says, in effect, “Ah, I’ve heard about your problems with the suitors. Hopefully Athena will help you like she helped your father.” Menelaus talks about how much he cherished Odysseus and the hopes he had for the two of them upon their return. He notes how disgraceful it is for the cowardly suitors to “want to lie in that brave warrior’s bed”. Both hosts give him gifts out of their obligation under xenia, but no additional help. Why is it that? Part of the answer may be that they do not see it as their problem. They have returned from a long, arduous war and journey and they may not want to sign up for additional efforts away from home. But the easier answer is that Telemachus does not ask for their help, nor did Athena instruct him to. The only thing he explicitly asks for is news about his father. Asking others for assistance would be a key step in his maturation (but undermines the direction Homer wants the story to go). While his father’s status has been in limbo for a long time, up until these visits Telemachus has been content to let others do things for him as well as moan and complain about his situation.The reader sees Telemachus again until Book XV, so the key will be to see if he has changed after completing these tasks set by Athena. Will he live up to the adjectives, such as “shrewd” and “prudent”, used to describe him?
Another point to keep in mind while reading The Odyssey is Zeus’ opening comment (I, lines 41 – 45):
"It's disgraceful how these humans blame the gods.
They say their tribulations come from us,
when they themselves, through their own foolishness,
bring hardships which are not decreed by Fate.”
Everyone seems to pass the blame in this work, gods and humans alike. The suitors blame Penelope for extending their stay, for example. Telemachus blames “the gods with their malicious plans” for the problems they are seeing at his house. As Zeus points out, not everything is set by Fate. The gods warned Aegisthus not to kill Agamemnon or seduce his wife, letting him know that Orestes would avenge the murder. The suitors are warned several times about their behavior but they consistently ignore the advice. Halitherses’ interpretations of recent signs as well as his prophecy to Odysseus are waved off (in a very rude manner). Noemon, when revealing he lent Telemachus a ship to sail to Pylos, all but spells out for the suitors that a god was helping Telemachus.
The interaction between the gods and Fate, explicitly addressed in The Iliad, may help explain the gods’ varied approach (direct versus indirect) in counseling mortals. Aegisthus and the suitors are warned (directly and through strong warnings) not to commit crimes. Yet Telemachus, Penelope, and Odysseus receive mostly indirect assistance from the gods. Athena (as Mentes) informs Telemachus about the status of his father, but it is couched as prophecy. She sends him on his trip in order to strengthen him, both in maturation and spirit, in order that he can better control his own destiny. When she does help Telemachus, it is indirect in the sense that her assistance enables him to achieve other things. For example, Athena puts courage in his heart or provides him with “god-like poise” to help him in his tasks. Athena appears to Penelope in a dream (as her sister) to instill hope about Telemachus’ safe return, yet refuses to say anything about Odysseus. For someone needing a topic for a paper, analyzing Athena’s interaction with mortals would provide plenty of material. One direct interaction between the gods and men is mentioned when Zeus summarizes Poseidon’s anger at Odysseus, the details of which will be provided later in the work. Poseidon’s anger at the Achaeans goes back to The Iliad with the defensive wall built on the beach to protect their ships.
A few loose points on this section:
- Nestor’s son Peisistratus, in his toast to Athena, declares “All men need the gods.” Athena, disguised as Mentor, in her toast wishes the gods to “give Nestor and his sons a glorious name.” Is that what gods view as the highest achievement for mortals? In this worldview (with limited exceptions), granting kleos is the closest thing to immortality for humans.
- Athena (disguised as Mentor) tells Telemachus, after one of his outbursts, the problem with the suitors is “they have no idea of death, the dark fate closing in on them.”
- Mentioned several times, when visitors declare who they are, is doubt and the possibility the guests are lying. Menelaus asks if it is known who the visitors “claim to be”, recognizing there may be deception.
This is my son, mine own Telemachus,
To whom I leave the sceptre and the isle,--
Well-loved of me, discerning to fulfil
This labour, by slow prudence to make mild
A rugged people, and thro' soft degrees
Subdue them to the useful and the good.
Most blameless is he, centred in the sphere
Of common duties, decent not to fail
In offices of tenderness, and pay
Meet adoration to my household gods,
When I am gone. He works his work, I mine.
- from “Ulysses” by Alfred Lord Tennyson
More on the character Eucharis (who does not appear in Homer)