The first Book of the Odyssey begins and ends in medias res. One ought not be surprised at this fact, since although the Odyssey itself became a main source for material on the myths it discusses, the ancient Greek audience knew the stories it retells very well– even in the days that the Odyssey was still emerging from the milieu of the ancient Greek bardic oral tradition.
The story begins with a scene between Athena and Zeus on Mt. Olympus (i.e., the ancient Greek equivalent of the heavens). Here again, Athena is the goddess of stratagems and hence favors Odysseus, who is known for his stratagems, while Zeus is god of justice both generally and in matters of the laws of guest-friendship which govern the obligations of a host to his guest and vice-versa. Poseidon does not appear in this scene himself but is referred to, especially in connection to his son the demigod and cyclops Polyphemus. This scene painted the larger issues to be dealt with in the story to come, some more obviously than others. For example, no explicit reference is made to the suitors’ abuse of their status as guests, but this hubris certainly would in the ancient Greek audience’s mind garner the sympathies of Zeus.
Here again the gods of the ancient Greeks ought not be dismissed as either literal or silly– however they may differ from the more modern religious notions with which the reader may be familiar. As discussed in the introduction to the Odyssey on this blog, the ancient Greeks thought of their gods as major forces in the world and thus people who acted themselves as the movers and shakers were often regarded as demigods. The concern of Athena with Telemachus tells us the audience that he, like his father Odysseus and his mother Penelope, will also be such a person.
Thus when Athena appears to Telemachus in the form of Mentes the sea king of the Taphians,an old friend of Odysseus, whether or not Mentes would been considered literally there in Ithaca by the Greek audience does not entirely matter. What matters is that we the audience know because Athena is involved that great events are being set into motion through Telemachus.
In some ways, all that happened in Book 1 of the Odysseus was that Telemachus learned that his father Odysseus was alive and stranded on the island of Calypso and so determined to go there to find his father. Yet we see from the suitors’ reactions that the importance of such a thing would be to yield a devastating blow to the ambitions of the suitors, who are after all rebels and would-be usurpers of the kingship.
- The Odyssey: Book 1 from line 420 (originalliterature.wordpress.com)
- The Odyssey: Book 1 lines 412-419 (originalliterature.wordpress.com)
- The Odyssey: Book 1 lines 388-398 (originalliterature.wordpress.com)
- The Odyssey: Book 1 lines 399-411 (originalliterature.wordpress.com)
- The Odyssey: Book 1 lines 381-387 (originalliterature.wordpress.com)