The Odyssey Book 1: lines 178-212

Now comes Athena/Mentes‘ reply, in which Telemachus learns that his father is alive and on the island of a nymph, although Calypso is not mentioned explicitly by name.

The Head Of A Nymph

Image via Wikipedia

The first part of the reply might seem deeply ironic because the speaker, identified in the poem as the goddess Athena, says that what she is about to say is as true as that she is Mentes son of Anchialos and king of the sea-faring Taphians. Of course, we the audience know that what Athena is telling Telemachus is the truth. What one has to understand is that Athena/Mentes is both very much Athena the goddess and also Mentes the king. As previously discussed, in terms of ancient Greek religion this duality would not be viewed as a contradiction. In human terms, the person Telemachus is entertaining is literally the pirate-king Mentes but at the same time also the goddess Athena. One needs recall that Athema is among other things the goddess of stratagems, and so but casting Mentes as Athena the poet is telling us that Athena/Mentes is going to start events in motion which involve a daring plan.

Odysseus and Calypso

First Athena/Mentes assures Telemachus that he has heard of Telemachus’ plight and he came to Ithaca precisely because he had heard that the suitors were trying to in effect steal away his birthright. Then she/he assures Telemachus that he came to Ithaca because, although Odysseus is alive, his own men have restrained him from facing again the dangers of the sea. Finally, Athena/Mentes, i.e., Athena speaking through the man Mentes, prophesies that Odysseus will becoming home soon but that Telemachus has to go looking for him.

One can and should ask why Telemachus needs such strong urging now that he knows his father Odysseus is alive. Yet Telemachus would otherwise remain in an impossible situation. His authority in Ithaca as the heir apparent is completely ignored by the suitors. Yet he remains the only male member of the royal household and as such is responsible in this male-dominated society to protect as much as possible his mother Penelope. Yet at the same time Telemachus also has a clear duty to his father Odysseus. Without the clear prophecy Telemachus’ conflicting duties would not be resolvable. For the same reason the hints we’ve gotten that Telemachus realizes his guest-friend is Athena gives him a recognizable basis for his decision and the actions that will follow.

One should also notice in line 190 the phrase πήματα πάσχειν. Literally this means “to suffer sufferings”. While in English this kind of phrasing merely sound repetitive, but idiomatically in ancient Greek such combinations are preferred by the native ear. In other words, to the ancient Greeks, a phrase of this sort sounds better than either word separately would.

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