The Odyssey Book 1: lines 156-177

Illustrations of Odyssey

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Here Telemachus leans in close to speak into the ear of Athena/Mentes so that the others (i.e., the suitors) shouldn’t hear. This entire speech, one needs to recall, is being said by Telemachus to Athena/Mentes privately as they are seeing the suitors’ spectacle and being repulsed by it, just as we the audience are expected to be. For us the audience, this speech serves much the same purpose as a Shakespearean soliloquy— an aside we hear to clarify the character’s (here, Telemachus’) perceptions of the situation.

One may notice that Telemachus is if anything more condemning of the herald Phemius who is singing and playing the lyre than of the suitors he is thereby entertaining. After all, Phemius is of the royal household, whereas the suitors remain interlopers in Odysseus‘ house.

We also see here that Telemachus at this point in the story accepts the assumption that his father Odysseus is dead, because he accuses the suitors of eating with recompense the livelihood of a man whose bones lie somewhere rotting under the sun and weather washed up on a beach. (I was mistaken earlier in that I thought Telemachus believed Odysseus to be alive, but I can see that he’s probably going to learn this from Athena/Mentes.) One can almost hear the bitterness in Telemachus’ voice.

The very personal nature of the aside strengthens me in the opinion that Telemachus recognizes Athena/Mentes, at least in the sense of knowing her/him for his father’s friend Mentes. Under those circumstances, the aside makes more sense than talking so intimately to a complete stranger (who one would presume largely unacquainted with events) especially given that as a friend of Odysseus Mentes would be presumed also to mourn Odysseus. Moreover the use here of the dative pronoun μοιcoming as it does in first position in the clause seems to take for granted that Athena/Mentes does know the circumstances and so is already disgusted with the suitors’ behavior and contrasts by Telemachus’ asking if Athena/Mentes (whom he ceremonially addresses as “stranger” since she/he is a guest-friend) will be also disgusted with Telemachus for what he is  saying.

The point here is that one does not normally as a host bad-mouth one’s guests, as Telemachus clearly is. For that reason, Telemachus is apologetic about speaking as he does. Yet we see here that the suitors are aspiring to royalty by wanting to marry Penelope and they are all completely unfit for it in character, manners and lineage.

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