Ah how fine it is, when a man is brought down,
to leave a son behind! Orestes took revenge,
he killed that cunning, murderous Aegisthus,
who’d killed his famous father.
Home and family motivate Odysseus and drive the narrative toward its goal. The first four books focus on the disintegration of the hero’s house through the eyes of his son, Telemachus. He goes to seek information about his missing father and encounters Nestor, who tells him the story of Agamemnon, who was murdered by his wife and her paramour upon returning from Troy. Orestes, the son of Agamemnon, subsequently avenged his father’s death by killing Aegisthus. The story has a clear lesson for Telemachus, who must play his part in preserving his home and family.
But about your destiny, Menelaus, dear to Zeus,
it’s not for you to die
and meet your fate in the stallion-land of Argos,
no, the deathless ones will sweep you off to the world’s end,
the Elysian Fields, where gold-haired Rhadamanthys waits
where life glides on in immortal ease for mortal men.
In his travels, Telemachus meets Menelaus and Helen in Sparta. Menelaus tells him what he learned of Odysseus from the prophetic ocean god, Proteus, in Egypt. The reader also learns that Menelaus will not die but will live on eternally with his wife, Helen, in Elysion. In Book 4, however, we see that Menelaus and Helen are not happily married but live uncomfortably in the wake of her infidelity against him. Immortality thus seems more like a punishment than a reward. Odysseus, we will see, rejects eternal life with Calypso to return to his beloved—but mortal—wife, Penelope.
Nevertheless I long—I pine, all my days—
to travel home and see the dawn of my return.
And if a god will wreck me yet again on the wine-dark sea,
I can bear that too, with a spirit tempered to endure.
Much have I suffered, labored long and hard by now
in the waves and wars. Add this to the total—
bring the trial on!
We first find Odysseus in a kind of sexual captivity to the goddess Calypso, who rescued him five years earlier and nursed him back to health after being shipwrecked. Zeus sends Hermes to Calypso’s island, located in the far west, to order her to send Odysseus home. She begrudgingly agrees, but she has neither a ship nor crew to escort Odysseus on his journey. In this quote, Odysseus expresses his willingness to face enormous dangers and risks to gain his homecoming.
Then she mixed them a potion—cheese, barley
and pale honey mulled in Pramnian wine—
but into the brew she stirred her wicked drugs
to wipe from their memories any thought of home.
Several times Odysseus and his men face the temptation to give up their efforts to return home to their families and country. For instance, in the land of the lotus eaters, some of his men taste the lotus plant, which contains a powerful drug that destroys one’s motivations and sense of responsibility. Odysseus has to physically convey his men back onto their ship to continue the voyage. Here Odysseus describes how the sorceress Circe drugs the food she served his companions, which not only destroyed their will but turned them into swine. This episode suggests that the desire for homecoming is part of being human and that to live without home and family makes one less than human.
As a father, brimming with love, welcomes home
his darling only son in a warm embrace—
what pain he’s borne for him and him alone!—
home now, in the tenth year from far abroad,
so the loyal swineherd hugged the beaming prince,
he clung for dear life, covering him with kisses, yes,
like one escaped from death.
In Book 16, Telemachus returns home from Sparta and finds a strange beggar at the hut of the swineherd, Eumaeus. This simile describes the joy of Eumaeus, a faithful slave of the family, at seeing Telemachus safely back from his travels. Since Odysseus must remain disguised for the time being, he cannot express the powerful emotions he feels at seeing his grown son, whom he left as an infant twenty years ago. The simile allows the narrator to hint at these emotions indirectly.