On the Odyssey, Book II

Having been put to bed by Eurycleia at the end of Book I of the Odyssey, Telemachus gets up in the morning and has the people summoned to council, at the beginning of Book II.

Three books with beads

There is no mention of a breakfast. Perhaps none is eaten. On the other hand, Telemachus probably relieves his bladder at least, and there is no mention of that either.

Telemachus straps on a ξίφος, but arrives at the assembly with a χάλκεον ἔγχος in hand. Wilson calls it a sword in either case; for Fitzgerald and Lattimore, the first weapon is a sword, but the second a spear and a bronze spear, respectively. Cunliffe’s lexicon supports the men; however, for Liddell and Scott, an ἔγχος can also be a sword, at least in Sophocles. For Beekes, ξίφος is Pre-Greek, and ἔγχος may be so. (The sources are listed in the post on Book I.)

When I was young, my father observed of the boy next door that he ought to get job that required him to carry a stick, because that is what he always did anyway. When I go out, I carry not a stick, but a Swiss army knife, which I call my manhood. I have to remember not to take it, if I am going to the courthouse, because the guards emasculate you at the door. They would probably let me keep my new meershaum worry-beads from Eskişehir though.

After donning the sword, Telemachus may pick up a spear, the better to control his nerves with as he contemplates confronting the suitors. Or perhaps, for the same reason, en route he grasps the sword that he is already wearing. In either case, though he shows up to the assembly with weapon in hand, he will admit to not knowing how to use it. Meanwhile, he also has two dogs with him.

Homer tells us now (lines 12–5):

θεσπεσίην δ᾽ ἄρα τῷ γε χάριν κατέχευεν Ἀθήνη.
τὸν δ᾽ ἄρα πάντες λαοὶ ἐπερχόμενον θηεῦντο:
ἕζετο δ᾽ ἐν πατρὸς θώκῳ, εἶξαν δὲ γέροντες.
τοῖσι δ᾽ ἔπειθ᾽ ἥρως Αἰγύπτιος ἦρχ᾽ ἀγορεύειν,
ὃς δὴ γήραϊ κυφὸς ἔην καὶ μυρία ᾔδη.

Lattimore is quite literal as he writes a line of six beats for each of Homer’s six-footed verses:

Athene drifted an enchantment of grace upon him,
and all the people had their eyes on him as he came forward.
He sat in his father’s seat, and the elders made way before him.
The first now to speak to them was the hero Aigyptios,
who was bent over with age, and had seen things without number.

In four lines of five beats each, and part of another line, Fitzgerald conveys the same basic content more “poetically,” in the sense of subordinating more clauses, to break what to us is monotony:

Athena lavished on him a sunlit grace
that held the eye of the multitude. Old men
made way for him as he took his father’s chair.

Now Lord Aigýptios, bent down and sage with years,
opened the assembly.

Wilson pares things down to four lines:

Athena poured a heavenly grace upon him.
The elders let him join them, and he sat
upon his father’s throne. The first to speak
was wise Aegyptius, a bent old soldier.

Thus Wilson elides the distinction between

  • the people, λαοί, the word being the source of the first element of “laity” and “liturgy,” as I discovered in reading Book IX of the Iliad—for Homer, the people gaze at Telemachus with the verb, θεάομαι, that gives us “theater” and “theorem”; and

  • the old men, γέροντες, who give way to Telemachus with the verb εἴκω, which refers to what you may do before a superior enemy, or a passion; Wilson gives the old men the power to make way or not, and this may strengthen our sense of Telemachus’s diffidence.

Aegyptius’s son Antiphus sailed with Odysseus to Troy, but was killed and eaten by the Cyclops. The father mourns the loss, though it is not said that he knows what happened. Another son, Eurynomous, is among the suitors; still others work the family farm.

Aegyptius wonders aloud who has called the council. Either he has not seen Telemachus or not understood his presence. Or perhaps he wishes not to make his flattery fulsome: he praises whoever has made the call, since it has not happened since Odysseus left.

Telemachus now has a free hand, to accept from Pisenor the speaking-stick (σκῆπτρον, “scepter”). He identifies himself as having called the meeting, because he is being eaten out of house and home. The suitors should just go ask Penelope’s father Icarius for a dowry. Telemachus would fight the suitors if he could, but has no training. He speaks in turn to the suitors and the others.

  • Addressing the suitors, Telemachus

    • says they should be ashamed of what the neighbors think—he uses both νεμεσάω and αἰδέομαι in passive voice, subjunctive mood:

      • νεμεσάω is from νέμεσις, Nemesis, righteous anger;

      • αἰδέομαι is from an unattested noun that Beekes writes as *aides-je/o; there is a a related noun αἰδώς, reverence, shame;

    • tells them to fear what the gods will do: ὑποδείδω in imperative mood.

    Homer says this, starting in the middle of line 64, then taking three more lines:

    νεμεσσήθητε καὶ αὐτοί,
    ἄλλους τ᾽ αἰδέσθητε περικτίονας ἀνθρώπους,
    οἳ περιναιετάουσι: θεῶν δ᾽ ὑποδείσατε μῆνιν,
    μή τι μεταστρέψωσιν ἀγασσάμενοι κακὰ ἔργα.

    Lattimore follows along:

    Even you must be scandalized
    and ashamed before the neighboring men about us, the people
    who live around our land; fear also the gods’ anger,
    lest they, astonished by evil actions, turn against you.

    Fitzgerald takes four whole lines, though one is short:

    Where is your indignation? Where is your shame?
    Think of the talk in the islands all around us,
    and fear the wrath of the gods,
    or they may turn, and send you some devilry.

    Wilson takes five lines, starting on 64:

    You suitors should all feel ashamed! Consider
    what others in the neighborhood will think!
    And also be afraid! The angry gods
    will turn on you in rage: they will be shocked
    at all this criminal behavior!
  • Addressing the people, Telemachus wishes it were they eating up his wealth; for then he could go around town, asking for stuff, till he got everything back. I assume the point is that they would be bound by custom to give what was asked.

Telemachus steps down and cries. Others are sympathetic; but Antinous (whom we met in Book I) tells him to blame his troubles on his mother, who told the suitors she first had to weave Laertes’s shroud. She spent three years at this, before a female slave revealed that she was unravelling her work at night. Telemachus should send his mother to her father, who should choose her a new mate.

Antinous cannot conceive that Penelope may just not want any of the suitors. She must have desire for something like what men desire; and even then, if the desire is not for companionship from the opposite sex, it must have been induced by the gods. For Antinous says the suitors will continue to eat up Telemachus’s wealth,

ὄφρα κε κείνη τοῦτον ἔχῃ νόον, ὅν τινά οἱ νῦν
ἐν στήθεσσι τιθεῖσι θεοί. μέγα μὲν κλέος αὐτῇ
ποιεῖτ᾽, αὐτὰρ σοί γε ποθὴν πολέος βιότοιο

—“while she is of this mind [νόος], which the gods put in her breasts [στῆθος as in stethoscope, but in the plural]. She makes

  • for herself, great fame [κλέος, whose lambda corresponds to the ell of our ‘listen’; the kappa appears as the aitch of the Old English hlystan]; but

  • for you, want of much life [βίοτος, stuff associated with βίος, life].”

Those are lines 124–6. Lattimore needs one beat of the first to finish the previous thought, then:

as long as she keeps this purpose, one which the very
gods, I think, put into her heart. She is winning a great name
for herself, but for you she is causing much loss of substance.

Fitzgerald:

as long as she holds out—a plan some god
put in her mind. She makes a name for herself,
but you can feel the loss it means for you.

Wilson, starting in the middle of line 125:

as long as she pursues
this plan the gods have put inside her heart.
For her it may be glory, but for you,
pure loss.

Wilson is the most rhythmic of the translators here, but in her brevity in contrasting what Penelope and Telemachus are getting, at first I missed the point. I saw it in Fitzgerald. That Penelope is holding out is his interpretation; for Homer she just holds a “mind,” albeit in her chest.

Telemachus replies that he cannot drive his mother from the house where she bore and raised him. Icarius would make him pay for it, and Penelope would call up the Furies. Let the suitors go; otherwise may Zeus give recompense.

Zeus now sends the sign of two eagles, who attack the crowd, or attack above the crowd (line 153),

δρυψαμένω δ᾽ ὀνύχεσσι παρειὰς ἀμφί τε δειρὰς.

That is line 153, “tearing, with talons, cheeks on either side, and throats.” Whose cheeks and throats? For Lattimore, one another’s:

and tore each other by neck and cheek with their talons.

Fitzgerald maintains the ambiguity of Homer:

wielding their talons, tearing cheeks and throats.

Wilson does likewise, while perhaps suggesting more strongly that the crowd are being attacked:

and with their talons ripped each face and neck.

For Homer, the participle for tearing is in the dual number, but the throats, like the cheeks, are plural.

Halitherses, son of Mastor, understands why the eagles have come. He told Odysseus when he left for Troy that he would suffer, and his men would die, but he would come home unrecognized in the twentieth year.

Eurymachus, son of Polybus, responds; we met him too in Book I. Odysseus is dead, and it would be better if Halitherses were dead and thus unable to trouble Telemachus. As it is, the suitors will keep troubling him unless he sends his mother back to her father to get married.

Again it would seem that the suitors do not care whom Penelope marries; they just cannot tolerate a woman’s living independently.

Telemachus will say no more; he wants a ship and twenty men to take him to Sparta and Pylos.

  • He will wait another year, if he hears Odysseus is alive and coming home.

  • Otherwise he will build a tomb, hold a funeral, then give his mother to a new husband.

At marriage, possession of a woman may pass from father to husband; but now, it seems, in lieu of the husband, Telemachus asserts that possession of his mother has passed to him.

Without a telephone, how can Telemachus learn in advance that his father is coming home? In Book I, we learned of Aegisthus, whose story will be dramatized by Aeschylus in the Agamemnon. At the beginning of that play, the watchman on the roof of the palace of Atreus sees the signal-fire showing that Troy has been taken. The chain of fires is described at length later, here in Lattimore’s translation, starting at line 278:

Chorus
How long, then, is it since the citadel was stormed?
Clytaemestra
It is the night, the mother of this dawn I hailed.
Chorus
What kind of messenger could come in speed like this?
Clytaemestra
Hephaestus, who cast forth the shining blaze from Ida.
And beacon after beacon picking up the flare
carried it here; Ida to the Hermaean horn
of Lemnos, where it shone above the isle, and next
the sheer rock face of Zeus on Athos caught it up;

—and so on till line 316. Odysseus has no such system set up to show that he is coming home.

Homer told us in Book I that Helios and Poseidon were giving Odysseus trouble; but can Telemachus learn this sort of thing from his voyage? Perhaps all he can expect to learn is that his father has died or taken a mistress; and we know that the latter is effectively the case.

Still at the council, Mentor speaks up. Odysseus had left him in charge; now he concludes Odysseus was too soft as a king.

  • Mentor blames not the suitors: they know they are risking their lives, if Odysseus comes back;

  • but Mentor does blame the townsfolk for doing nothing about the suitors, though outnumbering them.

Leocritus, son of Euenor, has a peculiar response: you do not outnumber us, and Odysseus alone could not take us on. Or that is how Wilson has it, in ten lines (242–51):

Mentor, for shame! You must have lost your mind!
Fool, telling us to stop our banqueting!
You could not fight us; we outnumber you.
Even if Ithacan Odysseus
came back and found us feasting in his house,
and tried to drive us out, his wife would get
no joy of his return, no matter how
she misses him. If he tried fighting solo
against us, he would die a cruel death.
So what you said was nonsense. Anyway …

These correspond to nine lines of Homer (243–51), according to which,

  • more men [than those present] would have trouble fighting the suitors;

  • Odysseus would have trouble too, but the doing it solo is only implied:

Μέντορ ἀταρτηρέ, φρένας ἠλεέ, ποῖον ἔειπες
ἡμέας ὀτρύνων καταπαυέμεν. ἀργαλέον δὲ
ἀνδράσι καὶ πλεόνεσσι μαχήσασθαι περὶ δαιτί.
εἴ περ γάρ κ᾽ Ὀδυσεὺς Ἰθακήσιος αὐτὸς ἐπελθὼν
δαινυμένους κατὰ δῶμα ἑὸν μνηστῆρας ἀγαυοὺς
ἐξελάσαι μεγάροιο μενοινήσει᾽ ἐνὶ θυμῷ,
οὔ κέν οἱ κεχάροιτο γυνή, μάλα περ χατέουσα,
ἐλθόντ᾽, ἀλλά κεν αὐτοῦ ἀεικέα πότμον ἐπίσποι,
εἰ πλεόνεσσι μάχοιτο: σὺ δ᾽ οὐ κατὰ μοῖραν ἔειπες.

Lattimore as usual is the best guide to the Greek:

Mentor, reckless in words, wild in your wits, what a thing
you have said, urging them to stop us. It would be difficult
even with more men than these to fight us over our feasting.
For even if Odysseus of Ithaka himself were to
come back, and find the haughty suitors feasting in his house,
and be urgent in his mind to drive them out of his palace,
his wife would have no joy of his coming, though she longs for it
greatly, but rather he would meet an unworthy destiny
if he fought against too many. You have spoken to no purpose.

I note that “reckless in words” is Lattimore’s speculation: ἀταρτηρός is of uncertain meaning and unknown etymology.

Fitzgerald takes his own license:

Mentor, what mischief are you raking up?
Will this crowd risk the sword’s edge over a dinner?
Suppose Odysseus himself indeed
came in and found the suitors at his table:
he might be hot to drive them out. What then?
Never would he enjoy his wife again—
the wife who loves him well; he’d only bring down
abject death on himself against those odds.
Madness, to talk of fighting in either case.

From explaining the situation, Leocritus turns to directing it. He declares that Mentor and Halitherses should guide Telemachus on his journey, if he manages to take it, which is doubtful.

The council breaks up. Telemachus goes to the seaside and prays to Athena. At least we know she is Athena, because Homer tells us so; Telemachus does not. This is line 262:

κλῦθί μευ, ὃ χθιζὸς θεὸς ἤλυθες ἡμέτερον δῶ.

That’s “Hear me, who—yesterday’s god—came to our house.” Lattimore is similar:

Hear me, you who came yesterday, a god, into our house.

The Greek θεός can be masculine or feminine: god or goddess. I think the gender is shown by χθιζός “of yesterday,” an adjective used here in the masculine form. According to Cunliffe, the neuter form χθιζόν can be used adverbally.

The pronoun ὅ seems to be a rarity: a relative pronoun in the vocative case. In the nominative it would be ὅς, if its gender is indeed masculine. It should not be neuter, and the feminine would be ἥ. (There was some discussion of relative pronouns in the context of Book I.)

I would parse the whole verse thus:

κλῦθί
hear (second person singular; being imperative, the verb has no subject, though in school one may be taught that there is an “implied” subject);
μευ
me (first person singular pronoun, in the genitive case, designating who is to be heard; the accusative would be used for what is to be heard);
who (relative pronoun; being in the vocative case, it takes no antecedent, or else the antecedent is the “implied” subject of the imperative verb);
χθιζὸς
of yesterday (masculine nominative; the adjective is derived from an adverb χθές, which seems to be cognate with our “yester-” as well as the French hier);
θεὸς
god (nominative, used appositively);
ἤλυθες
came (second person singular);
ἡμέτερον
our (first-person plural adjective in accusative case);
δῶ
house (accusative).

The first stanza of A. A. Milne’s “Vespers” has a similar construction:

Little Boy kneels at the foot of the bed,
Droops on the little hands little gold head.
Hush! Hush! Whisper who dares!
Christopher Robin is saying his prayers.

Since “dares” is third person, “whisper” may be a third-person subjunctive used imperatively (like “bless” in “God bless you”).

Fitzgerald’s rendition of the Homeric verse is spread over parts of two lines:

O god of yesterday, / guest in our house.

Likewise is Wilson’s:

Goddess, hear my prayer! / Just yesterday you came …

I think “Goddess” is misleading. We saw in Book I that Homer used a feminine adjective for the god who had visited Telemachus as Mentes; but now Homer has put a masculine adjective into Telemachus’s own mouth. It is true that this does not mean Telemachus feels the god as male.

The boy’s prayer makes no explicit request, but only reminds the goddess that she told him to go find news of his father. I’m afraid this reminds me of another seaside prayer, albeit in the Dutch East Indies in Maugham’s 1931 story “The Vessel of Wrath”:

She flung herself down on her knees and prayed to God to save her. She prayed long and earnestly. She reminded God that she was a virgin and just mentioned, in case it had slipped the divine memory, how much St. Paul had valued that excellent state. And then she peeped around the rock again. The three men appeared to be smoking and the fire was dying down. Now was the time that Ginger Ted’s lewd thoughts might be expected to turn to the woman who was at his mercy.

Spoiler: they didn’t.

Athena comes to Telemachus as Mentor and tells him his journey will succeed, if he is his father’s son. Even at that, most sons are worse than their fathers. Now a recommendation:

Forget about those foolish suitors’ plans.
They have no brains and no morality.
τῶ νῦν μνηστήρων μὲν ἔα βουλήν τε νόον τε
ἀφραδέων, ἐπεὶ οὔ τι νοήμονες οὐδὲ δίκαιοι.

Those are lines 281–2 of Wilson and Homer; literally, “Let go of the council and counsel of the foolish suitors, since they are neither wise nor just.” As Lattimore has it,

So now, let be the purpose and the planning of these senseless
suitors, since they are neither thoughtful men nor just men.

Fitzgerald abbreviates:

So never mind the suitors and their ways,
there is no judgment in them …

Athena, as Mentor, will find a ship and crew; Telemachus should get provisions of wine and grain.

Telemachus goes home, where the suitors are preparing goats and pigs for the day’s feast. Antinous addresses, on line 303,

Τηλέμαχ᾽ ὑψαγόρη, μένος ἄσχετε.

  • For Lattimore, this is “High-spoken, intemperate Telemakhos.”

  • Fitzgerald makes it a command: “High-handed Telémakhos, control your temper!”

  • Wilson, an observation: “Telemachus, you are being so pig-headed!” I was startled by the metaphor in context.

The same phrase appears in line 85, where

  • Lattimore translates it as above;

  • Fitzgerald, “What high and mighty / talk, Telémakhos! No holding you!”

  • Wilson, “Telemachus, you stuck-up, wilful little boy!”

Antinous invites Telemachus to come eat and drink, as the Greeks will prepare the ship.

Telemachus refuses, and unnamed suitors mock him:

  • He may bring supporters back from Pylos or Sparta, or even poison from Ephyra (which in Book I was where Odysseus had sought it for his arrows, by the account of Athena in the guise of Mentes).

  • What a shame if Telemachus were to die: the suitors would have to divide up his wealth and give his house to Penelope and her new husband!

The storeroom downstairs is locked and guarded by Eurycleia, whom Telemachus tells to prepare secretly for him barley and the second-best wine (the best will be for Odysseus). He reassures his nurse that his journey is blessed by the gods. Eurycleia should tell his mother nothing for twelve days, unless she notices his absence.

In town, Athena in the guise of Telemachus asks Noëmon son of Phronius for his ship, drags it into the sea, assembles a crew, returns to Odysseus’s house, puts the suitors to sleep, and calls Telemachus.

At the seaside, Telemachus tells his crew to come fetch the rations quietly.

Putting to sea, they pour out libations to the gods, especially the daughter of Zeus.

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