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The Odyssey Reading Club -- Entry 7 -- Thoughts, Questions, and Ideas on Book II

So, Book II. Yeah. It's a bit of a tricky one to write about because it's almost solely focused on the assembly and its aftereffects. Essentially, the book is a series of speeches back and forth with a bit of action at the end. Not to say that it's dull or devoid of content--by no means. Rather, because so much of Book II is speeches, we don't get as much of Homer's direct comment on the story, or forward narrative momentum. That being said, let's dive in--these musings (pun alert!) are purely in the order that they came to me:

It's interesting to watch Telemachus slowly evolve (and mature?) before our very eyes. During Book I, even after being roused by Athena, he was willing to sit with the suitors and listen to bard sing. Here, after making his case in the assembly, he spurns them, even after Atitnous offers him the ship and twenty men he's asked for. Upset by their refusal to accede to his wishes, and spurred by Athena, he simply won't accept "yes" for an answer anymore.

Indeed, it's interesting to compare the suitors against one another. Antinous presents a compelling case (dubious, but compelling) that it is not they who are in the wrong, but Penelope, and by extension, Telemachus. He at least appeals to custom (often indistinguishable from law in Homeric tales--in fact the same word, "nomos" can be used to mean either custom or unwritten law) when he speaks, whether he means it or not. The other two suitors to speak, Eurymachus and Leocritus, appeal essentially to force, threatening not only Telemachus but the soothsayer.

A side note about the laws of hospitality in Ancient Greece, especially as depicted in the Homeric epics and the stories and plays spun out from them. It was custom (there's that word again) for strangers to be offered food, drink, a bath, and a place to sleep if they needed one, as in Book I, when Telemachus offers the disguised Athena refreshment and a chance to wash. Indeed, it was just this sort of case, when a god comes in disguise, that was the underpinning of the importance of the guest-host relationship. One never knew who the stranger really was--he could be Zeus!

In return, guests were expected to offer their hosts some sort of present when they left, or, if they could not, to entertain them during their stay with stories of their travels, or whatever other stories they could tell--again, see in Book I how the traveling bard entertains the suitors and Telemachus. In a pre-literate society, this was a major method of communication and entertainment. Guests, however, were also expected not to outstay their welcome. It's on this last point that the suitors' arguments fall to pieces. Whether or not Antinous is right that Penelope has wronged them all by delaying her remarriage, he and all of the other suitors are certainly wrong in pressing their case by returning every day when they have homes of their own with plenty of food, as Telemachus repeatedly points out. I indulge in this digression because the rules dictating this sort of behavior are very central to the story, both in what we've seen so far and in what is to come later.

Back to the suitors: the only one who comes across with any sense of dignity and virtue is Antinous, and that's only by comparison. As for the others--jeesh, what jerks. Mocking signs from the gods is never a wise thing to do if one doesn't want to meet a pretty unpleasant demise. The incident with the eagles also provides Homer with a nice chance to slip in the prophecy about Odysseus' 20-year absence and his eventual return, even though he won't be recognized. Best to remember that--it just might come up again. It also pretty firmly establishes Telemachus' age as 21, 22 at the most--a nice reminder that adolescence, the stage between childhood and adulthood, isn't entirely a creation of modern societies.

And Athena's really showing how much she cares for Odysseus and his family, isn't she? It's not enough that she spurs Telemachus to action. No, she actually gets him his boat and crew, and then goes on the journey with him--even causing them to have favorable winds. Whose journey into manhood is this, anyway?

Let's also pause here to contemplate how a modern reader should encounter a text that has divine beings in disguise interacting with mortals. Now there are, at a minimum, two main ways of reading it: 1) one can assume that the gods are real within the bounds of the story and do exactly what Homer tells us they do, or 2) one can realize that the Olympians gods aren't real, and never were real (and maybe that Homer knew that, too), and instead read them as personifications of natural forces or traits. The first method is pretty clear, and is probably how the Ancients would have read the text, to one extent or another. The second, however, requires a bit more work, as it does mean glossing over some sections (for example, the council on Olympus in Book I) in order to make others more palatable to the modern reader. In this reading, when we hear that Athena took the guise of Mentor, it would simply mean that, in those moments, Mentor spoke with great wisdom. When Athena appears as Telemachus and gathers a boat and a crew, we would read that as Telemachus displaying some of his father's craft and guile and going himself to prepare his journey by night. For the record, I think both of these readings are valid, but the second does, as I said, make the text more accessible in a world that has all but abandoned the notion of direct involvement of the divine in our day-to-day lives.

Enough literary theory and semiotics--let's get to the quotes!


"rumor that carries news to men like nothing else" line 242, Fagles translation.

Ain't that the truth?

"Let no man holding scepter as a king / be thoughtful, mild, kindly, or virtuous; / let him be cruel, and practice evil ways" lines 242-5, Fitzgerald translation.

This caustic comment from Mentor would be echoed, as I mentioned, by Machiavelli several millennia later. Machiavelli gets a bad rap for a lot of reasons, especially since, as with so many other things, Homer said it first. It's also worth noting that Machiavelli intended The Prince, which outlines this scheme, to be a satirical tract--much like Mentor's speech.

"The son is rare who measures with his father, / and one in a thousand is a better man" lines 292-3 , Fitzgerald

In all three translations I'm going through, this line just echoes as the thematic heart of Telemachus' story. Can he be the man his father is? Can any of us? And more broadly, is the past always better than the present? Can things ever be as good as they were? Are we slowly sinking into the future?

"Stay with your own, dear, do. Why should you suffer / hardship and homelessness on the wild sea?" lines 392-3, Fitzgerald

Perhaps because, until we venture out and see the world, home has no meaning? Or am I getting silly? In any case, I love how succinctly the old nurse puts the case for staying home.

And I love the closing of the section so much I'm going to quote it from all three translations.

"they set up the mixing bowls, filling them brimful / with wine, and poured to the gods immortal and everlasting / but beyond all other gods they poured to Zeus' gray-eyed daughter. / All night long and into the dawn she ran on her journey." lines 431-4 Lattimore translation

"they set up bowls and brimmed them high with wine / and poured libations out to the everlasting gods / who never die--to Athena first of all, / the daughter of Zeus with flashing sea-grey eyes-- / and the ship went plunging all night long and through the dawn." lines 473-7, Fagles

"setting out the winebowls all a-brim, / they made libation to the gods, / the undying the ever-new, / most of all to the grey-eyed daughter of Zeus. / And the prow sheared through the night into the dawn." lines 457-61, Fitzgerald

Which is your favorite? I confess I like the Fitzgerald rendering of the last line the best, but I think Lattimore has the advantage on the other lines.

Anyway, tomorrow starts Book III--hoo-ray!


  1. Hey Erik:

    Great post about Book II. Not the most exciting chapter, but I guess Telemachos had to get on his way, right?

    I agree with you about the thematic heart of his story. This passage was indeed lovely:

    "For few are the children who turn out to be equals of their fathers,/ and the greater number are worse; few are better than their father is." - 276-277 (Lattimore)

    Very cool about the origin of the word "Mentor." Had no idea. Also never made the connection with Machiavelli. And had never thought that the appearances by Gods could be read metaphorically, but yeah, that is valid.

    And I agree with you about the book's ending. Thanks for reprinting all three translations. The Fagles has that fantastic poetic final line.

    I'm also glad you cleared up the question of Telemachos's age...

    Still, what I've been wondering is: how old are the suitors? Randy 20-somethings? I'm thinking somewhere between Telemachos and Odysseus... And do they want Penelope because she's attractive or because she's wealthy/has a dowry? Are they sincere about marriage, or are they all simply freeloaders who have no intention of marrying her?

    I love that Penelope is almost as crafty and resourceful as her husband – concocting that shroud story. But really – three years? How dumb ARE these guys? Or is it just that they've been drinking?

    I also found it interesting that near the beginning of Book II we met an old man whose son was killed by the Cyclops (with Odysseus's party). This makes me curious about the time span of the work, and how we'll get back to that episode. Through flashbacks? Someone recounting the story?

    Finally, I like the detail near the end about gathering provisions before the voyage. Of course these sailors are going to have to eat and drink, so it makes perfect sense. But it would have been easy enough to overlook this banal detail given all the fantastical things that have been happening (Gods pretending to be people, symbolic birds swooping in)...

    Anyhow, those are my quick thoughts! On to Book III!

    1. I think the age of the suitors might be somewhat variable. At the start of their "courtship," I imagine them to be in their late 20's-early 30's, perhaps. But given that they've literally been hanging around for years, some of them surely must have bailed to, y'know, get married and have a real life. The ones who remain, (barring new recruits to their ranks), must be well past the prime of youth and either very desperate for Penelope, or more likely, merely keen to live a life of total leisure. I hadn't thought of it until just now, literally, but their daily routine of merely seeking contentment and gratification nearby instead of striving for something more will be echoed more than once as the book progresses.

    2. Thanks! Oh, you mean the "lotus eaters" ? Good point.


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