Sing to me of the man, Muse, the man of twists and turns
driven time and again off course, once he had plundered the hallowed heights of Troy.
The narrator of the Odyssey invokes the Muse, asking for inspiration as he prepares to tell the story of Odysseus. The story begins ten years after the end of the Trojan War, the subject of the Iliad. All of the Greek heroes except Odysseus have returned home. Odysseus languishes on the remote island Ogygia with the goddess Calypso, who has fallen in love with him and refuses to let him leave. Meanwhile, a mob of suitors is devouring his estate in Ithaca and courting his wife, Penelope, in hopes of taking over his kingdom. His son, Telemachus, an infant when Odysseus left but now a young man, is helpless to stop them. He has resigned himself to the likelihood that his father is dead.
With the consent of Zeus, Athena travels to Ithaca to speak with Telemachus. Assuming the form of Odysseus’s old friend Mentes, Athena predicts that Odysseus is still alive and that he will soon return to Ithaca. She advises Telemachus to call together the suitors and announce their banishment from his father’s estate. She then tells him that he must make a journey to Pylos and Sparta to ask for any news of his father. After this conversation, Telemachus encounters Penelope in the suitors’ quarters, upset over a song that the court bard is singing. Like Homer with the Iliad, the bard sings of the sufferings experienced by the Greeks on their return from Troy, and his song makes the bereaved Penelope more miserable than she already is. To Penelope’s surprise, Telemachus rebukes her. He reminds her that Odysseus isn’t the only Greek to not return from Troy and that, if she doesn’t like the music in the men’s quarters, she should retire to her own chamber and let him look after her interests among the suitors. He then gives the suitors notice that he will hold an assembly the next day at which they will be ordered to leave his father’s estate. Antinous and Eurymachus, two particularly defiant suitors, rebuke Telemachus and ask the identity of the visitor with whom he has just been speaking. Although Telemachus suspects that his visitor was a goddess in disguise, he tells them only that the man was a friend of his father.
When the assembly meets the next day, Aegyptius, a wise Ithacan elder, speaks first. He praises Telemachus for stepping into his father’s shoes, noting that this occasion marks the first time that the assembly has been called since Odysseus left. Telemachus then gives an impassioned speech in which he laments the loss of both his father and his father’s home—his mother’s suitors, the sons of Ithaca’s elders, have taken it over. He rebukes them for consuming his father’s oxen and sheep as they pursue their courtship day in and day out when any decent man would simply go to Penelope’s father, Icarius, and ask him for her hand in marriage.
Antinous blames the impasse on Penelope, who, he says, seduces every suitor but will commit to none of them. He reminds the suitors of a ruse that she concocted to put off remarrying: Penelope maintained that she would choose a husband as soon as she finished weaving a burial shroud for her elderly father-in-law, Laertes. But each night, she carefully undid the knitting that she had completed during the day, so that the shroud would never be finished. If Penelope can make no decision, Antinous declares, then she should be sent back to Icarius so that he can choose a new husband for her. The dutiful Telemachus refuses to throw his mother out and calls upon the gods to punish the suitors. At that moment, a pair of eagles, locked in combat, appears overhead. The soothsayer Halitherses interprets their struggle as a portent of Odysseus’s imminent return and warns the suitors that they will face a massacre if they don’t leave. The suitors balk at such foolishness, and the meeting ends in deadlock.
As Telemachus is preparing for his trip to Pylos and Sparta, Athena visits him again, this time disguised as Mentor, another old friend of Odysseus. She encourages him and predicts that his journey will be fruitful. She then sets out to town and, assuming the disguise of Telemachus himself, collects a loyal crew to man his ship. Telemachus himself tells none of the household servants of his trip for fear that his departure will upset his mother. He tells only Eurycleia, his wise and aged nurse. She pleads with him not to take to the open sea as his father did, but he puts her fears to rest by saying that he knows that a god is at his side.
The Odyssey is an epic journey, but the word journey must be broadly understood. The epic focuses, of course, on Odysseus’s nostos (“return home” or “homeward voyage”), a journey whose details a Greek audience would already know because of their rich oral mythic tradition. But Odysseus’s return is not the only journey in the Odyssey, nor is it the one with which the story begins. After the opening passages, which explain Odysseus’s situation, the focus shifts to the predicament of Odysseus’s son, Telemachus. He finds himself coming of age in a household usurped by his mother’s suitors, and it is he who, with the support of Athena and the other gods, must step into the role of household master that his father left vacant nearly twenty years earlier. Thus, in addition to a physical journey to Pylos and Sparta to learn more about his father’s fate, Telemachus embarks upon a metaphorical journey into manhood to preserve his father’s estate.
Like Homer’s other epic, the Iliad, the Odyssey begins in medias res, or in the middle of things. Rather than open the story with the culmination of the Trojan War, Homer begins midway through Odysseus’s wanderings. This presentation of events out of chronological sequence achieves several different goals: it immediately engages the interest of an audience already familiar with the details of Odysseus’s journey; it provides narrative space for a long and evocative flashback later in the text (Books 9–12), in which Odysseus recounts his earlier travels; and it gives the story a satisfying unity when it ends where it began, at the house of Odysseus, in Book 24.
Most important, the in medias res opening infuses the foreground of the story with a sense of urgency. Were the narrative to begin with the happy victory over Troy and the beginning of Odysseus’s trip back to Greece (a journey the Greeks would have expected to be brief at the time), the story would start at a high point and gradually descend as Odysseus’s misfortunes increased. By commencing with a brief synopsis of Odysseus’s whereabouts and then focusing on Telemachus’s swift maturation, the narrator highlights the tension between Telemachus and the opportunistic suitors as it reaches a climax. Spurred on by the gods, Telemachus must confront the suitors to honor his father.
Telemachus has already begun his own psychological journey by the end of Book 1. Homer highlights his progress by showing how astounded the suitors are to be told so abruptly that they will have to leave the palace after the next day’s assembly. Indeed, calling the assembly is itself a sign of Telemachus’s awakening manhood, as Aegyptius notes at the beginning of Book 2. But even before his confrontation with the suitors, the confrontation between him and his mother reveals his new, surprisingly commanding outlook. When Penelope becomes upset at the bard’s song, Telemachus chooses not to console her but rather to scold her. His unsympathetic treatment of her and his stiff reminder that Odysseus was not the only one who perished are stereotypically masculine responses to tragedy that suit him to the demands of running his father’s household. He supplements these behavioral indications of manhood with the overt declaration, “I hold the reins of power in this house” (1.414).
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Odysseus covered his mens ears with beeswax, because they would never want to go back home listening to the sirens.
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