The second seminar of the second seminar series of the year (on Homer’s Odyssey) is also the last seminar of the first semester. So, we are half-way through our year long goal of recording, documenting, and sharing the thoughts of the students on the Great Books of the Western Canon. This week, we focused on the Telemachy (first four books of Homer’s Odyssey) as a whole with special focus on Books 3 and 4, and we considered not only Telemachos, and his struggle to become a man, but made comparisons between Penelope and Odysseus, and considered the examples of Nestor and Menelaos too–considering whether they were models of hospitality/xenia.

First and foremost, the students considered what the importance to Telemachos’ transformation the fact of his friendship with Nestor’s son Peisistratos is. All through Books 1-3, Telemachos is receiving help from Athene. In Book I Athene comes to tell him to take the initiative to call an assembly to turn public opinion against the suitors and to seek after information on his father in the guise of the stranger Mentes (1.114-320). In Book 2, after the assembly is rudely disassembled by haughty Leokritos, Athene appears to Telemachos as kindly Mentor and outfits a ship and rounds up a crew for Telemachos (2.266-295). Then in Book 3, Athene, still in the guise of Mentor, not only advises Telemachos on how to speak to Nestor (3.26-28), speaks/prays alongside Telemachos to Nestor in demonstration (3.55-62), but she even puts courage into Telemachos’ heart (to win a good reputation) (3.75-78), and then, reveals herself as a god in order to demonstrate Telemachos’ divine favor to Nestor (3.370-384) (to create a good reputation among men for Telemachos–part and parcel of being perceived as not only a man, but a man of great kleos). The point is is that Athene is essentially guiding Telemachos every step of the way–both internally and externally, like both a father and a mother might. She even, in typically devious and clever fashion, advises him on the proper perception of the gods in all their power:

“Telemachos, what sort of word escaped your teeth’s barrier? Lightly a god, if he wishes, can save a man, even from far off. I myself would rather first have gone through many hardships and then come home, and look upon my day of returning, than come home and be killed at my own hearth, as Agamemnon was killed, by the treacherous plot of his wife, and by Aigisthos. But death is a thing that comes to all alike. Not even the gods can fend it away from a man they love, when once the destructive doom of leveling death has fastened upon him.” (3.230-238)

Not only does Athene here quickly remind Telemachos of the difference between the will of a god and the will of man (and give some serious foreshadowing about the return of Odysseus):precisely that gods can easily make things happen, even if it takes some doing, in the case of Odysseus. But she also reminds us of a theme that was constant in Homer’s Iliad, the inevitable death of all mortals, and the importance that a man die in a proper way if he wishes to be remembered and honored. But back to the point–Athene, until she flies away as a vulture, makes sure that Telemachos  cannot possibly fail to make it to Pylos, say the right things, and be recognized as a fine young man and son of Odysseus. After she flies away, though, Telemachos is on his own, and Nestor grants him his son, Peisistratos, as a companion. This brought up an interesting question to the students: to what extent is friendship, beyond simple guidance (from Athene), necessary to a child becoming an adult?

This question was a little beyond us, but the general feeling was that friendship, for a child, is the first autonomous attempt of a young person to create and maintain the fabric of society. That is, a friendship, as the basis of society, is something for which the two participants alone are responsible for maintaining–so, in a way, Telemachos’ relationship to Peisistratos is the first thing in his life that he can call solely his–and is a major step towards him being an autonomous decision maker, or adult. This segues nicely to Telemachos’ adventure, across land, to shining Sparta.

As mentioned earlier, a major theme we are keeping in mind this time through Homer’s Odyssey is how a people greet strangers and whether they honor the xenia or not. So, in the first book, when Mentes first enters the house of Odysseus, the suitors pay him no mind and continue drinking and eating as if nobody at all has entered–only Telemachos honors the guest/host relationship and feeds and converses with Mentes. In Pylos, Nestor is making a grand sacrifice to Poseidon, and he invites the traveleres (Mentor(Athene) and Telemachos) to do the same. When Telemachos and Peisistratos then arrive at Sparta, they view a wedding feast occurring for two of Menelaos’ children: Megapenthes (his illegitimate son by a slave girl who is heir to his throne due to Helen now being barren) and Alektor’s daughter and Hermione (daughter of Helen and Menelaos from before the Trojan War) and Neoptolemos. There is really just so much to consider here. First off, Menelaos’ henchman, Eteoneus, messes up and suggests to Menelaos that these “god-like” men either have their horses unharnessed or “send them on to someone else, who can entertain them.” (4.29-30) Menelaos is none to happy about this suggestion; he is a mighty king, and no one far or wide could possibly entertain these men in the manner that he could. He rebukes Eteoneus violently. But, why, in the first place would Eteoneus even suggest this? Is there some shame to be observed in this public ceremony? Sparta is full of such ambiguities, painful reminders, and “all that glitters not being golden”, as it were.

Let us consider what could be potentially embarrassing or unseemly about the wedding feast for the two children of Menelaos. On the first hand, it brings up the issue of Menelaos’ faithlessness right alongside Helen’s barrenness and faithlessness herself. Megapenthes is not the son of Helen, and given his age, ostensibly he was conceived before Helen left for Troy. Awkward. Second, since Helen can longer have children: “but the gods gave no more children to Helen once she had borne her first and only child, the lovely Hermione, with the beauty of Aphrodite the golden.” (4.12-14) Hermione is herself an interesting case because she was left alone by her parents for years and years growing up–and she is now being shipped off to Phthia with Neoptolemos. Spoiler alert, too, her husband Neoptolemos will be killed by resident Achaian stud Orestes in a dispute over who has first right to her. But that is getting a bit ahead of ourselves.

Next, during the delightful dinner shared between Peisistratos, Telemachos, and Menelaos, Menelaos has decided that Telemachos must be the son of Odysseus, but it is Helen, just after she descends from the staircase, who points it out explicity. In a touch of bitter irony not unknown to the Homer of the Odyssey, Helen is compared to chaste Artemis in her initial description (4.121-122). Ouch. Helen then blurts out that Telemachos must be the son of Odysseus, and of course she is right. She does have a gift for seeing through ruses–and in fact in Book 3 of Homer’s Iliad she even effectively saw through a disguise that Aphrodite had as an attendant woman. There is, however, one time Helen tells us, that a very cunning man did manage to fool her–Odysseus, during a spy mission in Troy. Her description of what happens during the mission quickly gets awkward:

“[Odysseus] flagellated himself with degrading strokes, then threw on a worthless sheet about his shoulders. He looked like a servant. So he crept into the wide-wayed city of the men he was fighting, disguising himself in the likeness of somebody else, a beggar, one who was unlike himself in the likeness of somebody else [note: how like all things in this book! One thing appearing as something it is not] beside the ships of the Achaians, but in his likeness crept into the Trojans’ city, and they all were taken in. I alone recognized him even in this form, and I questioned him, but he in his craftiness eluded me.” (4.243-251)

So, we should revise our above opinion that Helen was fooled by Odysseus, because she did recognize him, but he was simply too crafty for her to prove that he was who she recognized him to be. Here, though, is where yet again in Sparta does the awkwardness of Helen and Menelaos’ tarnished relationship rear its head:

“but after I bathed him and anointed him with olive oil and put some clothing upon him, after I had sworn a great oath [note: keep this in mind during the Circe episode] not to disclose before the Trojans that this was Odysseus until he made his way back to the fast ships and the shelters, then at last he told me all the purpose of the Achaians, and after striking many Trojans down with the thin bronze edge, he went back to the Argives and brought back much information. The rest of the Trojan women cried out shrill, but my heart was happy, my heart had changed by now and was for going back home again, and I grieved for the madness that Aphrodite bestowed when she led me there away from my own dear country, forsaking my own daughter, my bedchamber, and my husband, a man who lacked no endowment either of brains of beauty.” (4.252-264)

Zeus only knows what Helen and Odysseus did before she bathed and anointed him, but Menelaos, who is sitting there listening, likely has some idea, just as everyone else there does. Even if it were nothing, the awkwardness looms. Another, small note Helen adds is that he heart had changed and that she longed for Menelaos. Whether it was the case that she truly loved Paris when she ran from Sparta or it was truly the “madness of Aphrodite” is a difficult question, and one the students continue to debate. What is slightly easier to debate, however, is that Menelaos’ immediate response to Helen about her involvement in an attempt to destroy the Trojan Horse seems to directly contradict her claim that she both loved and wanted to return to her husband, whom she almost had a direct hand in killing. Observe:

“Then in answer fair-haired Menelaos said to her: ‘Yes, my wife, all this that you said is fair and orderly. In my time I have studied the wit and counsel of many men who were heroes, and I have been over much of the world, yet nowhere have I seen with my own eyes anyone like him, nor known an inward heart like the heart of enduring Odysseus. Here is the way that strong man acted and the way he endured action, inside the wooden horse, where we who were greatest of the Argives all were sitting and bringing death and destruction to the Trojans. Then you came here, Helen; you will have been moved by some divine spirit who wished to grant glory to the Trojans, and Deiphobos, a godlike man, was with you when you came. Three times you walked around the hollow ambush, feeling it, and you called out, naming them by name, to the best of the Danaans, and made your voice sound like the voice of the wife of each of the Argives.” (4.265-279)

Burn. Not only does Menelaos bring up the fact that Helen directly acted against her expressed will in her previous statement by attempting to “out” the Achaians in the Trojan Horse through nefarious means, but he also cleverly and pointedly suggests that perhaps this action to was the result of some “divine spirit” like when she abandoned Sparta with Paris in the first place. This relationship looks uglier and uglier. Not only earlier did Helen show her lack of “one-mindedness” with Menelaos by blurting out that she thought Telemachos was the son of Odysseus, but she also had to place “heartsease”, an Egyptian drug, which eases even the deepest hurts (4.221-232) into the drinks of all the men because they were all crying so hard for those they had lost during Troy, which of course was the result of Helen’s absconding. Everything seems to remind Menelaos and Helen of the fact that she is responsible for all Menelaos’ suffering–and we have not even gotten to how Menelaos learns of his brother’s death from Proteus, and his inability to do anything to prevent it, because of course he was detained in Egypt after finishing the war to win back his truant wife. The quote then ends emphasizing Odysseus’ clever nature by detaining the foolish Antiklos who fell for Helen’s ruse, and mentioning, perhaps slyly, that Athene must have led Helen off (4.280-289). If Helen is going to rely on the gods as an excuse for her indiscretions, Menelaos is certainly laying it on thick that she is apparently beyond choice and influenced in all she does by them.

There is so much more to consider in this book, but we have run long, and not even considered all we set out to–we should end by mentioning the potential significance of Menelaos’ encounter with the Old Man of the Sea, Proteus. The students wondered why exactly it was that Menelaos had to wrestle with and hold Proteus, Old Man of the Sea, and a shapeshifter. He shifts into a lion, serpent, leopard, boar, water, and even a tree. All I could suggest to them is that the truth takes many forms, and that in life, it often requires real perseverance and wrestling with the truth in all its many forms in order to pin down and finally grasp the essence of its apparently evanescent nature.

 

 

 

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