The Palaces of the Telemakhiad

Since we spent much of our discussion time today talking about the behavior of the gods and the characterization of Telemakhos, I’d like to use this blog post to share some of my early impressions about the role that physical space plays in the Odyssey – after all, the ways in which a collection of mere “places” can be turned into a “world” will be one of our major preoccupations this semester.  Many of the students who encounter the Odyssey in my class for the first time are surprised by the fact that Homer takes so long to introduce us to the titular hero.  Almost 2,500 lines of poetry pass before Odysseus finally appears!  Like his more famous father, however, Telemakhos is undertaking a journey, and the way in which this journey unfolds tells us much about Odysseus’ more arduous travels.

Leaving aside minor variations in scenery, the first four books of the Odyssey take place in three different locations: the palaces of Odysseus, Nestor and Menelaos, located on Ithaca, at Pylos and at Sparta (we skipped the part about Nestor, but I’ll briefly talk about it anyway).  The first thing I find remarkable about this is that even though the journey from Ithaca to Sparta would have been an exceedingly dangerous and difficult one for the ancient Greeks, Homer literally spends less than a handful of lines to cover it (I count one line at the end of Book II and two lines at the beginning of Book IV).  Traveling is clearly not a big focus of the Odyssey, or at least not of the parts that we have read so far.  Where you arrive is what matters.  This seems strange to me, given that most of us are likely to think about this poem as principally a travel narrative.  And it makes me wonder about other similar narratives from world literature.  The story of Sindbad the Sailor, for instance, or the tale of the Argonauts.  Do ships matter much there?

At any rate, we have three palaces, all very different and yet strangely similar.  What’s similar about them is that life seems to be one big party.  At Odysseus’ place, the suitors are constantly drinking and eating.  At Nestor’s, “black bulls were being offered by the people to the blue-maned god who makes the islands tremble” (III, 7-9) and Telemakhos is immediately invited to share in the sacrificial meat.  (The blue-maned god is Poseidon, of course, and Athena has a great deal of fun gate-crashing a feast in her rival’s honor).  Menelaos, finally, is celebrating the wedding of his son Megapenthes, complete with minstrels and acrobats.  (“Megapenthes,” by the way, means “great sorrow.”  I’m guessing the poor kid got beat up on the playground a lot).  Clearly, all these feasts are partly an expression of longing for “the good old days,” but they alert us to the fact that hospitality is a central theme of these early books of the Odyssey.  The reasons the suitors can get away with their constant carousing, for instance, is that they are guests, and guest are to be shown a good time.  This, in turn, tells us something about the relationship between Achaian households and the wider world.  Strangers are to be treated with honor and should, as Telemakhos soon experiences with both Nestor and Menelaos, be asked to report their stories.  These palaces, in other words, invite the world inwards, even if certain rituals are expected to be followed.

There are important differences between these various courts as well, however, and I hope you will have fun exploring them in the comments section.  One thing should be immediately obvious: compared to Menelaos’ urbane manor at Sparta, Odysseus’ homestead is kind of a hovel (it is, after all, located on a rocky island at the fringes of the Greek world).  When Telemakhos steps in to the palace, he exclaims: “My dear friend, can you believe your eyes? – the murmuring hall, how luminous it is with bronze, gold, amber, silver and ivory!  This is the way the court of Zeus must be, inside, upon Olympos.  What a wonder!” (IV, 77-80).  This is spoken like a true country bumpkin, and after all, his daddy keeps the ancient equivalent of a gun rack (a “polished rack (…) where tough spear on spear of the old soldier, his father, stood in order” [I, 158-59]) in his living room.  Fortunately, Menelaos is a gracious host and, overhearing Telemakhos wonderment, immediately downplays his own riches.

Given such opulence abroad (opulence which, one assumes, Kalypso can easily match), the big question for me going into Books V and VI then becomes why Odysseus is so desperate to go home at all!


5 responses to “The Palaces of the Telemakhiad

  1. I’ll take a stab at it.

    Reading the the fourth book, I also am struck by the theme of hospitality as well as the strange relationship that Homer creates between the various settings and their related characters. Telemakhos, Menelaos, and Odysseus all seem to represent various phases similar journeys: Telemakhos, the son beginning his voyage, Odysseus, the famed warrior still lost at sea, and Meneloas, the victor finally returned home. Interestingly, their current homes each represent a stimulating environment. Telemakhos rushes to leave when his fury concerning his mothers’ suitors reaches peak frustration. Meneloas delights in his luxurious mansion, entertaining guests and wishing to spoil others with his wealth. When Telemakhos arrives, Meneloas happily receives him, offering gifts and begging him to postpone his departure. Odysseus, on the other hand, waits trapped in his cavernous prison with Kalypso. “His own heart groaning, with eyes wet scanning the bare horizon of the sea.” (Book V, Line 88-89) His environment acts as a stimulus for his desperation and constant vigilance for escape.

    We see these three situations in quick succession, so their differences make an impact. Telemakhos’ repulsion next to Meneloas’ apparent ease and Odysseus’ turmoil impresses the importance of a stable home. Each lives in a habitable place, but only Meneloas possesses a key companion. While separated from each other Odysseus and Telemakhos will be miserable. No amount of hospitality or degree of comfort in an environment will do until they reach the same stage in their journeys: home together. And, I guess that reveals a fundamental of human nature and companionship.

  2. In class, we talked about how the Odyssey was told as a form of entertainment. The audience would be much more interested in what happened at each location than of the long voyages on the boat. Talking too much of the sailing could lose the audience’s interest, counteracting the point of telling the story in the first place. In my opinion, hearing of lavish palaces and odd adventures is much more interesting.

  3. Concerning why Odysseus wants to go home:

    Odysseus is portrayed as the idealized hero, perpetually brave, courageous, and pious. He is referred to by Menelaos as “that rugged man” (IV, 259), who possesses “steadiness and a stout heart”(IV, 291). Surely a man of Odysseus’s caliber would not fall prey to Kalypso’s seductions. He wants to return home to his wife and son, like a hero should do. Yes, his home is little more than a “hovel”–at least when compared to Menaloas’s elegant palace–but it is where his family resides, and that is what matters to Odysseus.

    The other warriors, Nestor and Menelaos, only wish to be held in the same reverence as Odysseus. Nestor gives advice to Telemakhos, and sends his son to travel with the young warrior. Menelaos, wanting to make a good impression, bestows a treasure trove of gifts to Telemakhos, “I’ll send you on your way with gifts, and fine ones…so that all your days…you will remember me.” (IV, 629-633) He wants to be remembered as a great man, like Odysseus. These men, heroes in their own right, are still inferior to Odysseus, the “perfect” man.

  4. Yes, Odysseus is mighty, felling trees at great speed, “when he paused twenty tall trees were down,” (V 252-253) but even with his strength and cunning, he is by no means perfect. Even he, the hero of Ithaka, at times fell to Kalypso. “He lay with her each night, for she compelled him” (V 163). On the contrary, by day he wished for his home, wanting to leave this island, yet he had no means of escape.

  5. Christina Mondi

    Odysseus’ heartache while trapped on Kalypso’s island speaks to the fact that his homesickness cannot be cured by luxury or beauty alone. The island which he finds himself on boasts a “deep wood”, “ornate birds”, bubbling springs, and “beds of violets”; it is so breathtakingly beautiful that “even a god who found this place would gaze, and feel his heart beat with delight” (V, 69, 71, 78-80). Odysseus divine hostess—and imprisoner—is a “beautiful nymph” who grants him eternal youth (V, 191).

    Still, none of these fineries are enough to cure Odysseus’ homesickness. His only desire is “to see his friends again under his own roof, in his father’s country” (V 45-48). The journey he must undertake to get there may be dangerous; his home there may be more modest; his wife there may be less beautiful. Indeed, Kalypso asks him, “Can mortals compare with goddesses?” (V, 221-222). In terms of “grace and form”, Odysseus assures her, they cannot (V, 221-222). But in his heart of hearts, Odysseus belongs in the mortal world with his friends and family. His body is on Kalypso’s island, but his heart resides at home. Until he returns there, he will never be content.

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