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The Odyssey


Books 3–4

Summary Books 3–4

The stories that Telemachus now hears may have once coexisted with the Iliad and the Odyssey in the constellation of oral poetry that existed before either poem became a written work. A bard, much like the one depicted in Odysseus’s palace, might sing of the exploits of Odysseus, Ajax, Agamemnon, or any of the other heroes whose stories circulated through early Greek culture in the form of oral poems. Like the Iliad and Odyssey, some of these poems may even have been written down at some point, though, if they were, they obviously didn’t survive as long as Homer’s two great epics. Still, Greek audiences would have been familiar with these stories, which were perhaps not just smaller stories embedded within the Odyssey but rather epics of their own. In any case, these stories were immediately and powerfully evocative, and by rehashing them Homer tethers his written rendition of the Odyssey to the tradition of epic narratives from which his work draws its inspiration.

Not surprisingly, the story that both Nestor and Menelaus recount—the cycle of murder in which Aegisthus killed Agamemnon and then Agamemnon’s son, Orestes, killed Aegisthus—is clearly relevant to Telemachus. Just as Aegisthus took advantage of Agamemnon’s absence to consort with his wife, so too have Penelope’s suitors exploited Odysseus’s presumed death to gorge themselves on his provisions and pursue his grieving wife. Telemachus’s mission thus parallels that of Orestes: he must avenge his father by driving out the interlopers who have taken over his father’s house. Nestor finds in the story of Agamemnon’s fate a warning for Telemachus—that he shouldn’t leave his home unguarded for too long, lest he return to find it stolen from him. The discovery, at the end of Book 4, that the suitors are plotting against Telemachus bears this lesson out.

Telemachus’s meetings with the two kings also allow Homer to explore the idea of xenia, or hospitality. The social code of ancient Greece demanded that one show kindness to strangers in unfamiliar regions by welcoming them into one’s home. This social expectation of hospitality was so culturally important that it was believed to be enforced by Zeus, the king of the gods. Here, both Nestor and Menelaus offer their guest a warm welcome even before they learn Telemachus’s identity. Homer also emphasizes how impressed Menelaus is with his guest’s discretion and tact (“Not even an older man could speak and do as well” [4.228]). This piety and respect for the social norms enforced by the gods contrasts sharply with the suitors’ careless plundering of Telemachus’s home in Ithaca in Books 1 and 2. While Telemachus strictly observes every divine law, the suitors carouse with wanton abandon, uninvited, in his home. While Telemachus impresses his hosts, the suitors plot to murder theirs. This exploration of the idea of hospitality thus provides a background against which the contrast between the suitors and Telemachus is sharpened, a contrast already emphasized by the frequent repetition of the story of Agamemnon.