Book 4: Telemachus, King Menelaus, and Helen
In Lacedaemon, King Menelaus and his people were celebrating a double wedding. One time people in ancient Greece could legitimately enjoy a feast was during the celebration of a wedding.
Menelaus and Helen’s daughter, Hermione, was being sent to Neoptolemus, the son of Achilles. They would be man and wife in the land of the Myrmidons. Menelaus’ son, Megapenthes, whose mother was one of Menelaus’ slaves, was marrying the daughter of Alector of Sparta.
All were enjoying the feast and the music and the dance when Pisistratus and Telemachus drove up in the chariot, then stopped and looked at the palace in awe.
Eteoneus, aide-in-arms to Menelaus, reported to the king, “Strangers are in the courtyard. Should I offer them hospitality, or should I send them on to someone who has leisure to attend to them?”
“Don’t be a fool, Eteoneus,” Menelaus said. “You and I have enjoyed hospitality as we traveled the Mediterranean. Now it is our turn — and our civilized duty — to offer hospitality to other people. Invite the strangers in, make them comfortable, and let them enjoy the feast.”
Eteoneus and servants attended to the strangers, and to the strangers’ team of horses. Telemachus and Pisistratus entered the palace, marveling at all they saw. Women bathed them in accordance with the ancient custom, and Telemachus and Pisistratus sat by Menelaus, who said to them, “Enjoy the feast, and then tell me who you are. No doubt you are the sons of kings. Anyone could tell that by looking at you.”
Menelaus then gave them good cuts of tender meat, the cuts that he himself had been served. As they ate, Telemachus whispered to Pisistratus, “Just look at the palace — lots of gold, amber, silver, ivory, and bronze. The halls of Zeus on Mount Olympus must look like this.”
Menelaus overheard him, and he said, “The palace of no mortal man can rival that of Zeus, but the palaces of few mortal men can rival my palace. I have wandered for eight years around the Mediterranean, visiting Cyprus, Phoenicia, Egypt, Ethiopia, and Libya.
“While traveling, I made a fortune, but at home someone killed Agamemnon, my brother. I have undergone hardships, as have those who fought for me in the Trojan War. I wish that I had stayed here — even after Paris had stolen two-thirds of my wealth — and never had gone to Troy. That way, those who died fighting for me during the Trojan War would still be alive, as would my brother.
“I mourn for many men who died for me, but for no one as much as I do Odysseus. No one labored more mightily for me, and his days ended in suffering. And how much must others suffer who mourn him: Laertes, his father; Penelope, his wife; and Telemachus, who was just an infant when his father left to fight at Troy.”
Hearing this, Telemachus wept, and Menelaus recognized who his visitor must be. He hesitated, not knowing whether to call the prince by name or to let him introduce himself.
Helen entered the room, immediately recognized who Telemachus must be, and did not hesitate, but said, “I have never seen anyone resemble Odysseus more. This young man must be Telemachus, son of the man who fought at Troy to return me, whore that I was then, to you.”
Menelaus replied, “I think you are correct, dear. I too see the resemblance, and just now when I mentioned Odysseus, this young man started crying.”
Pisistratus said, “You are right. He is Telemachus, the son of Odysseus. We are delighted to speak to you, a man who is like a god. Nestor sent me with him to be his escort as he consulted you about his father. With Odysseus gone, he has no man to defend him and his possessions.”
“It’s wonderful to have the son of my friend as a guest,” Menelaus replied. “Odysseus and I spent years fighting together at Troy. We have a bond, and I would give him a city. Unfortunately, the gods have denied him his day of homecoming.”
All grieved. Telemachus grieved for his father. Menelaus grieved for the men who had suffered for him. Helen wept. Pisistratus wept, thinking of Antilochus, his brother who lay buried on the plain of Troy.
Thinking of Antilochus, Pisistratus said, “My father, Nestor, has always spoken highly of you, Menelaus. So now, can we please speak of something else? I prefer not to cry while eating a meal. It’s not that I think we should not grieve over the warriors who fell at Troy. I myself lost a brother there: Antilochus, a fast runner and a mighty warrior.”
“Well spoken,” Menelaus said. “You speak with the wisdom that is normally given only to the old. You are like your father — you have his wisdom in words. Zeus has blessed Nestor, who grows old in comfort at home, surrounded by family. Come, let us finish eating, and let us drink. Tomorrow, Telemachus can talk about his father.”
So much sorrow was in the house. To dispel the sorrow, Helen mixed a drug in the wine. The drug was called heart’s-ease, and she had learned about it in Egypt. Anyone who drank wine in which the drug had been mixed would feel no sorrow — not even if his family died, not even if an enemy murdered his family in front of him.
It’s good that I know about this drug, Helen thought to herself. It will make this meeting happier. And, of course, it comes in handy to keep my husband under control when he grieves for all the men lost at Troy and wonders if all that suffering and death was worthwhile just to get me back.
Helen brought the wine, they drank, and Helen said, “Menelaus, guests, let us dine and drink and tell old stories to each other. I remember when Odysseus disguised himself and snuck into Troy to spy. He had disguised himself in rags, and he even whipped his own body to make the blood run and make it seem like he had led a hard, abused life. Wearing rags, he came into Troy, and everybody thought that he was just another beggar. He no longer resembled the king and warrior who camped before Troy with all the other Greeks. I was the only one who recognized him. I took him to my apartment, I gave him a bath, and I gave him good clothing to wear and took away the filthy rags that he had used to disguise himself. I also made him tell me the plot of the Greeks. He left my apartment, and he made his way to the gate of Troy, killing Trojans as he went. The Trojan women grieved, but I was glad. By then, I was on the side of the Greeks, and I regretted leaving my husband and infant daughter and coming to Troy with Paris.”
Did you really? Menelaus thought, even though he was under the influence of the drug. Did you take Odysseus to your apartment to keep him from spying among the Trojans? And why did Odysseus kill so many Trojans as he made his way to the gate of Troy? Was he forced to kill them because you bathed him and gave him fine clothing and totally destroyed his disguise? Was he forced to fight for his life because now the Trojan warriors were able to recognize him? Were you trying to get him killed? And what did you do with the information that you say Odysseus told you about the Greeks’ plan?
“Your story is well told, Helen,” Menelaus said. “I also have a story to tell. What a mastermind Odysseus was! What courage he had! He came up with the idea of the Trojan Horse, and he and I were among the warriors who hid in the horse when the Greek army left the horse behind and pretended to sail back home. That night, with the horse inside Troy, you and your newest husband, Deiphobus, whom you married after Paris died, visited the horse. You circled the horse three times, mimicking the voices of the wives of the men inside the horse, trying to get them to call out and reveal themselves to the Trojan warriors. Odysseus is the man who saved us. Odysseus is the man who told us that our wives were not outside, that they were not in Troy. All listened to Odysseus and kept quiet except for Anticlus. When you mimicked his wife’s name, he started to cry out, but Odysseus put his hands over Anticlus’ mouth and saved our lives.”
Menelaus thought, Yes, Helen, you told a good story in which you want us to believe that you helped Odysseus, but I know better. I remember when you tried to get us all killed.
Telemachus was aware of the tension between Menelaus and Helen. Hoping to prevent a fight between husband and wife, he said, “Thank you for the story about my father, Menelaus, but even his great courage could not prevent his death. It’s time for bed. It’s time to enjoy sleep.”
Telemachus’ tactic worked. Helen ordered her serving-women to make up beds for Telemachus and Pisistratus, and all slept.
The next morning, Menelaus asked Telemachus, “How may I help you? Why have you journeyed to see me?”
“I came to seek information about my father,” Telemachus replied. “My palace is overrun by suitors who court my mother against her will and who slaughter my sheep, pigs, cows, and goats, feasting every day while giving nothing in return. I hope that you can give me definitive news about my father, whether the news is good or bad. If you know that he is dead, tell me. Perhaps you even saw him die. Tell me the truth.”
“The suitors don’t know what they are doing,” Menelaus said. “They want to crawl into Odysseus’ bed, but they don’t realize what kind of man he was. Should he return home, he will slaughter them all.
“But let me tell you what I know. I was on an island off the coast of Egypt, still eager to return home but having little luck. The winds were not blowing, and we could not sail. Twenty days had passed, and we were running out of food. Fortunately, Eidothea, the immortal daughter of the Old Man of the Sea, pitied me, and told me how I could get home, and how I could get information.”
“She said to me, ‘My father always takes a nap among the seals each day. He counts each seal, and then he lies down and sleeps. You and three men grab him while he is asleep and hold on to him. He is a shape-shifter extraordinaire and will transform himself into many shapes, but hold on to him. When he stops shape-shifting and has assumed his own true shape, then he will answer any questions you have.’
“We did as she advised. That morning, three trusted men and I went to the place where the seals gathered. Eidothea was waiting for us with four sealskins. The stench was overwhelming, but she daubed sweet-smelling ambrosia — the food of the gods — under our noses, and so we did not smell the stench. Just as she said, the Old Man of the Sea came on shore, counted the seals, and lay down for a nap.
“We grabbed him, and we hung on although he turned himself into a snake, a panther, a boar, and even moving water. Tired, the Old Man of the Sea resumed his real shape and asked me, ‘What do you want, Menelaus?’
“I replied, ‘I want to know how to return home. Apparently, one of the gods is against me and prevents my homecoming. Tell me what I have to do to return home again.’
“The Old Man of the Sea told me, ‘You left Egypt without first making a sacrifice to Zeus and the other gods. You will never make it home until you return to Egypt and make a sacrifice.’
“Bad news for me: another delay before I returned home. But at least I would return home. I then asked him, ‘What about the other Greeks? Did they make it home safely? Or have some of them died — did any drown on their way home, or did any die after reaching home?’
“The Old Man of the Sea replied, ‘Do you really want to know such bad news? You know who died while fighting at Troy. Two more died while returning home or after reaching home. And one more has not returned home, but is being held captive.
“‘Little Ajax died while journeying home. A storm arose, his ship broke into pieces, but he made it to a rock, hanging onto it and boasting that he had survived despite the fury of the gods that had been directed against him. Poseidon heard that boast, and he used his trident to split the rock that Little Ajax was clinging to. Little Ajax fell into the sea and drowned.
“‘And what about your brother? Agamemnon did not drown on his way home, but he met his death nevertheless. Agamemnon reached home and rejoiced, but a watchman saw him and sent news of his return to Aegisthus. Aegisthus had planned ahead. Knowing that Agamemnon would return home, he gave a watchman two bars of gold to look for Agamemnon. Now, after an entire year of staying alert, the watchman saw Agamemnon’s day of homecoming.
“‘Alerted by the watchman, Aegisthus set a trap for Agamemnon. Aegisthus hid twenty armed men in his palace and he ordered a feast to be prepared for the returning king. Agamemnon sat down to eat, and Aegisthus and his twenty armed men slaughtered him and all of Agamemnon’s men.’
“So the Old Man of the Sea told me how my brother had died. I wept,” Menelaus said. “The Old Man of the Sea then said, ‘No more weeping, Menelaus. Go to Egypt, make the sacrifice, and then hurry home! You may be able to avenge Agamemnon’s murder — if his son, Orestes, has not already done that. At the least, you will be able to attend the funeral of Aegisthus.’
“I then asked the Old Man of the Sea about the hero who was being held captive, unable to see his day of homecoming.
“‘That man is Odysseus,’ the Old Man of the Sea told me. ‘I saw him on the island of the sea-nymph Calypso, crying and longing for his day of homecoming. Calypso keeps him captive and will not allow him to leave. He has no ships, no men. He has no way to return home.
“‘But you, Menelaus, have no such fate. You will return home, and when it is time for you to cease living in your country, you will go to the Elysium Fields, where life after death is easy. You are married to Helen, and so you are Zeus’ son-in-law; therefore, ease awaits you.’
“I followed the advice of the Old Man of the Sea,” Menelaus said. “I returned to Egypt, and I sacrificed to the gods. There I made a burial-mound for Agamemnon. After stopping at Mycenae and seeing Orestes, I returned home with Helen.
“But, Telemachus, stay here for ten or twelve days. When you leave, I will give you gifts: three stallions, a chariot, and a precious cup for you to use in pouring offerings to the gods.”
Tactfully, Telemachus replied, “I would be willing to stay with you — even an entire year! — to hear your stories, but I must return home. I left my crewmembers in Pylos, and they will wonder about me. As for the gifts, simply give me a keepsake to remember you by. I can’t use those horses. Here the land is level, but Ithaca is hilly. It’s much better land for goats than for horses.”
Menelaus thought, Yes, I can understand why you wish to leave early. The suitors are ruining your possessions, and you need to return to keep an eye on them. I wish I could help you, but I have not been home long after years of warfare and of wandering, and there is no way in Hell that I am leaving Helen alone.
“You speak well,” Menelaus said. “I can understand that horses are of no use on Ithaca, so I will change the gifts. I will give you a mixing-bowl that is a work of art. It is silver with a rim of gold, and Hephaestus, the blacksmith god, created it himself.”
As they talked, Menelaus’ servants prepared dinner, and back at Odysseus’ palace on Ithaca, the suitors played games, throwing spears and a discus, and enjoyed themselves. But the ringleaders of the suitors, Eurymachus and Antinous, strongest of the bunch, sat by themselves and did not participate in the games.
Noëmon, one of the young men on Ithaca, walked up to Eurymachus and Antinous and asked, “Do you know when Telemachus will return? I lent him my ship, but now I want to go to the mainland, where I have some horses suckling young mules. I want to bring a mule home and break him for work on the farm.”
Eurymachus and Antinous were shocked. True, Telemachus had not been around for a few days, but they had assumed that he was visiting his grandfather or one of his farms. They had not dreamed that Telemachus would have enough initiative to go to the mainland.
Antinous asked Noëmon, “When did Telemachus go, and who went with him?”
Noëmon replied, “He left days ago, and the best young men of Ithaca went with him as his crew. Mentor also went with him. At least he looked like Mentor. But I saw Mentor recently, so he can’t have gone to the mainland. A god must have gone with Telemachus.”
Noëmon left, and the suitors gathered together. Antinous, furious, said, “Telemachus is becoming a danger to us. Why did he go to the mainland? Is he trying to gather armed men to force us out of his palace? We must kill him before he kills us. Give me a ship and twenty armed men, and when he returns home, we will sail out to meet him and kill him and his crew. His father is dead, and soon he will be dead.”
All of the suitors — no exceptions — approved the plan.
Medon the herald overheard the plot. Loyal to Penelope and Telemachus, he hurried to tell Penelope what he had heard.
Seeing him come toward her, Penelope said to him, “Why are you coming to see me? Have the suitors ordered you to tell me to order the serving-women to prepare their feast? How I hate the suitors! I wish that this would be the last meal that they will ever eat!”
Medon replied, “My news is worse than that. The suitors are plotting to murder Telemachus, who sailed to the mainland to seek news of his father.”
“Why did he feel that he had to go to the mainland?” Penelope asked. “Is he trying to get himself killed?”
“Perhaps a god encouraged him, or perhaps it was his own idea,” Medon replied, “but he wanted to discover news of his father. He wanted to learn whether his father is alive or dead.”
Penelope sank to the floor, cried, and said to her serving-women, “Zeus has given me more torment than I can bear. My beloved husband is dead, and my son may soon be dead. If only I had known that he was planning to travel to the mainland, I would have kept him here. Send someone to Dolius, my old servant, who can tell Laertes about Telemachus. Maybe Laertes will know what to do.”
Her old servant Eurycleia told her, “I knew that Telemachus went to the mainland, but he ordered me not to tell you until at least ten or twelve days had passed. He didn’t want you to worry about him. Right now, bathe and put on fresh clothing, and then you may pray to Athena to protect your son. But please don’t make Laertes, an old man, worry about his grandson. He already has too much grief to bear.”
Penelope took her advice. Refreshed, she prayed to Athena, “Hear my prayer, bright-eyed goddess. If Odysseus has ever favored you, has ever sacrificed to you, save his and my son, Telemachus, from these suitors.” She then cried out in grief.
One of the suitors in the Great Hall heard the cry of sorrow and said, “Penelope is preparing for her day of marriage. She knows that it is inevitable, and she does not know that we are going to kill her son.”
Antinous told him, “Shut up! Keep your mouth closed so that no one can learn about our ambush!”
Antinous then chose twenty men. They armed themselves, boarded ship, and sailed out to set an ambush for Telemachus.
In her rooms, Penelope mourned and then slept. Athena saw her, and she thought of a way to help her. She created a phantom in the form of Iphthime, Penelope’s sister, to appear to Penelope in a dream.
The phantom said in the dream, “You need not mourn, Penelope. The gods have heard your prayer. Your son will return safe from his journey. The suitors’ ambush will not succeed. Telemachus has never offended the gods.”
In the dream, Penelope replied, “My life is troubled. My husband has been absent for twenty years, and now my son is in danger. The suitors plot to kill him.”
“Be strong and have courage,” the phantom replied. “Nothing will happen to Telemachus. He has a protector. The goddess Athena sails with him. She will take care of him. Athena knows what you are going through, and she sent me here to reassure you.”
“Can you tell me whether Odysseus is alive or dead?” Penelope asked.
“The gods do not tell all,” the phantom said and then departed.
Penelope felt much better after the dream, but Antinous and twenty armed men sailed to set up an ambush to kill Telemachus. They landed on a rocky island, and they waited for Telemachus to sail near so they could kill him.
So ends the Telemachy: a mini-epic starring Telemachus.
Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved