The Odyssey: Book 1 lines 252-305 (Part 2)

This post continues the previous, as per the title and so deals with this section of the Odyssey. Again, the conversation between Telemachus and Athena/Mentes continues, while the suitors are in the background commencing their drunken feast. Athena/Mentes continues her reply to Telemachus.

Bust of Athena, type of the “Velletri Pallas” ...

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In the sentence beginning in line 263, Athena/Mentes is speaking purely as Athena– as increasingly she has been doing throughout the conversation. When she refers to “her father” in connection to giving the suitors what they deserve, especially using the verb νεμεσίζετο, the root of which is nemesis (the repaying of wrongs) Athena is effectively telling Telemachus exactly who she is.

The verb γενοίατο in line 267 tells us a number of things. Its usage of the middle voice emphasizes the suitors intend to enter into a bitter marriage with Penelope solely for their own benefit. The optative mood reflects they want such a forced marriage, presumably because the political power it would entail in Ithaca. The usage here of πάντες mean each and every one of the suitors, not all in the sense of the suitors as a group or whole. Central to ancient Greek ethics was concern for the community as a whole, as opposed to the individual. Thus for example a city was a πόλις first and foremost, i.e., the people of that city as a whole, not an ἄστυ which refers to the city in the sense of a physical location. That the suitors are so self-absorbed and seeking their own power for no one else’s benefit but their own is the essence of their hubris. If they genuinely thought one of their own should be king of Ithaca for the benefit of the people of Ithaca, then they might be misguided but they would have a respectable cause in the view of an ancient Greek audience. Instead they are masking self-interest as a worthier cause, but we see in this passage the thinness of that disguise of their motives.

Menelaus and Meriones lifting Patroclus' corps...

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In stark contrast to the suitors’ behavior and motives stands the actions that Athena urges to Telemachus. (Since she is now speaking fully as Athena, in the Greek audience’s minds this is exactly equivalent to Telemachus coming up with the idea himself.) Specifically she counsels Telemachus to begin to take his place among the Greek leaders. Seeking the advice of recognized leaders in the larger community of Greek warriors and leaders, specifically Nestor and Menelaus, is very much part of that process. Yet at the same time, Telemachus by so doing will become part of that community of leaders and hence a leader himself. His actions will earn his the respect of those leaders as peers and hence some level of κλέος; while usually translated as “glory”, here it implies the political clout in ancient Greek society which derives from recognition of past actions by other people regarded as leaders. Whatever practical advice Nestor and Menelaus may or may not give Telemachus, visiting them to seek advice in dealing with the rebellion of the suitors will build recognition of Telemachus’ political authority to take whatever action is needed.

Why Nestor and Menelaus are the people to go to for Telemachus is because, as Athena explains, these were the men with whom Odysseus held counsels in conducting the Trojan war. By going to them, Telemachus is symbolically stepping into the role of his father Odysseus. Claiming that role is pivotal because it is precisely this role which the suitors seek to usurp.

Finally Athena reminds Telemachus that even if he cannot bring Odysseus back alive, he has a moral obligation to at least try to find his father’s body and to bring it home for burial. One way or the other, Telemachus has a duty to go, lest his own actions should be an offense to the gods and thereby he would bring destruction on his family instead of on the suitors. Therefore Athena urges Telemachus to listen to her.

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