David Bruce: Homer’s ODYSSEY: A Retelling in Prose — Book 2: Telemachus and King Nestor

Book 2: Telemachus Calls a Council and Sets Sail

In the morning, Telemachus arose and sent out heralds to summon the men of Ithaca to a council — the first called since Odysseus had left to fight at Troy twenty years ago.

The men arrived quickly — and so did the suitors.

The people at the council could easily be divided into two groups. One group consisted of the aged: men who had been too old to fight in the Trojan War twenty years ago, and who were very old now. The other group consisted of young men: Telemachus, and the suitors, many of whom were a few years older than he.

No middle-aged men were here. The men who would have been middle-aged now had gone to Troy with Odysseus, and they had perished either fighting there or trying to return home after the war. In addition, few fathers were present. Mostly, sons and grandfathers were present. Most of the fathers had left Ithaca to go with Odysseus to Troy and had died.

A generation of very old men, and a generation of very young men who had grown up without fathers to teach them the correct way to behave, attended the council.

Telemachus looked like a magnificent young man. Even now, Athena was looking after him. In the guise of a mature father figure named Mentes, she had encouraged Telemachus to take steps to grow up. He had taken the first step and called the council, so Athena, shape-shifter extraordinaire, rewarded him by making taller, stronger, and more handsome.

But first to speak was an old man named Aegyptius. Old men should always be respected and listened to. He had four sons. One had gone to Troy with Odysseus and had died, two worked hard on their father’s farm, and one, despite his father’s best efforts, ran wild with the other suitors.

Aegyptius spoke up: “Who has called the council, and for what purpose? Is an attack imminent? Is a crisis underway? Let the man speak, and may Zeus be with him.”

May Zeus be with him — these are lucky words, Telemachus thought.

Telemachus spoke up, addressing his first words to Aegyptius to show respect: “I called the council. No attack is imminent. No public crisis is underway. Instead, the crisis is in my palace. My father — my protector — is dead. And now my palace is besieged with suitors who take and take and never give. They claim to woo my mother, but they do it against her will, and not in the proper way. They should go to her father and talk to him, making a case for being a good husband and a good son-in-law. They should give gifts to Penelope. Penelope’s father should choose the best man for her to marry. But the suitors don’t do that. Instead, they infest my palace. They drink my wine, and they slaughter my sheep, pigs, cows, and goats to fuel their feasts. Tell the suitors to leave my palace. They are not respecting xenia, and they are not respecting the gods who wish xenia to be properly observed. I am just a boy, and my father is dead. I have never been a warrior, and I cannot fight off over one hundred suitors.”

Telemachus was so angry that he started crying. Heroes of the ancient world sometimes cried. Even Achilles, the greatest warrior of the Trojan War, cried. The old men of the council pitied Telemachus, but Antinous, one of the leaders of the suitors, spoke up first:

“Don’t blame the suitors for your problems, Telemachus. Instead, blame your mother. For nearly four years, I and the other suitors have been courting her, and she has been lying to us, leading us on. Her most recent trick was to set up a loom and say that she intended to weave a shroud for her father-in-law, old Laertes, in preparation for the day he dies. For three years, she led us on, promising to marry one of us once the weaving was done. By day, she would weave the shroud. By night, she would unweave what she had woven. Finally, one of her serving-women told us what she was doing. We caught her in the act of unweaving the shroud. We forced her to finish it.

“So, Telemachus, let us give you advice. Tell her to marry one of us, whomever she chooses. Until she does, we will continue to court her, to drink your wine, and to slaughter your animals to fuel the feasts we eat in your palace. If she refuses to marry us, her good reputation for remaining faithful to Odysseus will grow, but your possessions will diminish. We suitors have no intention of leaving your palace until Penelope remarries.”

“What you ask is unreasonable,” Telemachus replied. “I will not make my mother remarry. To do that I would have to force her out of the palace and give her back to her father. I am not going to do that to the mother who raised me. Instead, you and the other suitors must leave my palace. Find somewhere else to feast! Devour your own animals! Respect the gods who decree that xenia should be followed! I pray to Zeus that you be punished for all you have done!”

Zeus, the god of xenia, heard Telemachus, and sent him a bird-sign: Two eagles glided down to just above the council, they fought, and they flew away to the right — the lucky side.

A bird-sign is an omen, yes, but a seer must interpret omens.

Just such a seer was present in the council. Halitherses, old warrior and reliable seer, spoke up, “Men of Ithaca, listen to me. Suitors of Penelope, this especially concerns you. Odysseus is not dead. He is somewhere near, and he is plotting bloody vengeance against the suitors. It’s best for us old men to find a way to stop the suitors from besieging Odysseus’ palace — or for the suitors to stop on their own. When Odysseus left for Troy, I prophesized that twenty years would pass before he returned home. The twenty years are over, and now, just as I predicted, he is returning home.”

Now Eurymachus, the other leader of the suitors, spoke up, making clear his intentions and the intentions of all the suitors: “Shut up, old man, old seer, old prophet. Birds are common, and not every bird bears a message from Zeus. I know more than you do. What do I know? I know that Odysseus is dead and that he will never return to Ithaca — and I wish that you were dead, too. Unless you keep your ‘prophecies’ to yourself and stop trying to incite the boy against us, we suitors will force you to pay for your actions with a heavy fine.

“And let me say this in public to Telemachus. Force your mother to return to her father so that he can marry her off. Unless she does, we will continue to act as we have always acted, taking and taking and never giving. And why shouldn’t we? Is there anyone for us suitors to be afraid of? We certainly are not afraid of Telemachus, a whiny little mama’s boy! We also are not afraid of prophecies, of seers, and dare I say it — I do! — of the gods who put prophecies in the seers’ mouths. We will continue to woo Penelope and to feast in Odysseus’ palace.”

Telemachus said to Eurymachus, “The gods and the men of Ithaca know how you and the other suitors are acting. Now I intend to sail to the mainland with a ship and twenty crewmembers. I sail in search of news of my father. If I hear that Odysseus is still alive, then I will wait for one more year for him to return. If I hear definitively that he is dead, then I will return home, build a burial-mound for him, and mourn him. I will also find a husband for my mother.”

Mentor, another old man of Ithaca, spoke up against the suitors: “Men of Ithaca, we remember Odysseus as a good and a wise king. His son and his possessions should be treated with respect. I do not envy the suitors with all their partying. They do not think that Odysseus will ever return home. They do not think that they will ever have to face justice and pay for the crimes they have committed. But can’t we do something? We are old, and we are few. The suitors are young, and they are many. Still, must we old men be silent?”

A third suitor, Leocritus, spoke out: “Mentor and you other old men of Ithaca, don’t try to fight us. You would lose. Even if Odysseus with all of his armed men were to return to Ithaca, Penelope would get no joy from him. Instead, we suitors would quickly kill Odysseus and all of his armed men. Let the council end now. You can do nothing to stop us.”

The council ended. The old men went to their homes, and the suitors went to Telemachus’ palace.

Calling the council had failed to remove the suitors from the palace. The mature men of Ithaca were too old to help Telemachus remove them.

Still, Telemachus had succeeded in making known his objections to how the suitors were acting. No one could now say that he had never objected to the suitors’ actions. The old men of Ithaca now knew how bad things were in Odysseus’ palace. They had heard rumors, yes, but rumors can be false. Now they knew that the worst rumors were true.

Telemachus walked along the beach and prayed, “Athena, thank you for appearing to me and giving me advice, but look at what is happening! The suitors ignore my wishes!”

Athena heard the prayer and appeared. This time she assumed the shape of wise old Mentor, and again she advised Telemachus: “You have good blood in you, and I think you have your father’s spirit. Your father was a brave man, and you can be a brave man as well. The suitors are running wild, and they will pay with their blood for what they have done and are doing. But you have a journey to make. Go back to the palace and keep an eye on the suitors. But quietly get ready provisions for your journey: wine and barley-meal. I will arrange for you to use a ship with twenty crewmembers.”

Telemachus returned to the palace, and the suitors, as usual, were slaughtering his sheep, pigs, cows, and goats, preparing to feast and to party.

Antinous, hoping that Telemachus was now the boy of old after his brief rebellion of calling and speaking out at the council, grabbed his hand and did not let go, saying to him, “Telemachus, young person, feast with us and drink with us. We will give you whatever you need. You say that you want a ship with twenty crewmembers? We’ll arrange that for you.”

Indeed we will, Antinous thought. That way, the twenty crewmembers can keep an eye on you so that you don’t become a danger to us.

“How can I enjoy the feast now that I have grown up?” Telemachus asked. “When I was young, you moved into the palace. I was too young to realize what you were doing and how badly you were acting. But now I have grown up. How can I enjoy you wasting my possessions and giving nothing in return? But yes, I will go in a ship to the mainland — as a passenger. Obviously, you are not going to allow me to be the master of the ship.”

Let him think that I will allow the suitors to provide me with a ship, Telemachus thought. I will be gone before they discover that they have been deceived.

Telemachus withdrew his hand from Antinous’ grasp and walked away.

The suitors began to talk about him.

One suitor said, “He’s starting to think deep, dark thoughts about us. Why does he want to go to the mainland? Perhaps he wants to hire mercenaries to kill us. Or maybe he wants to get poison to slip into the wine we drink.”

“This can work to our advantage,” another suitor said. “His father drowned while on a voyage, so why can’t Telemachus drown while he is on his voyage? That way, when one of us marries Penelope, we can also divide Telemachus’ goods — he won’t be needing them!”

Meanwhile, Telemachus and Eurycleia, an aged and loyal servant, went to Odysseus’ storeroom, and Telemachus told her his plan to visit the mainland and ordered her to prepare wine and barley-meal for him to take on his journey.

His plan shocked Eurycleia: “Why must you go to the mainland to seek news of your father? Won’t the suitors seize their opportunity and kill you? Shouldn’t you stay here to guard your possessions?”

“I have the help of the gods,” Telemachus replied, “but promise me that you won’t tell my mother that I am gone — at least not until ten or twelve days have passed. She won’t miss me. She will think that I have gone to visit one of the farms. Perhaps she will think that I have gone to visit old Laertes, my grandfather.”

Eurycleia promised, making a vow to the gods that she would not tell Penelope. The provisions having been prepared, Telemachus returned to the Great Hall and the suitors.

Meanwhile, Athena — disguised this time as Telemachus himself — arranged for twenty crewmembers, and she borrowed the use of a ship from Noëmon. Telling all the crewmembers to go to the ship at nightfall, she made sure that all was prepared. She then went to Odysseus’ palace and — as the gods can do — made the suitors sleepy. The suitors left the palace to find their beds, and Athena, who now appeared in the form of Mentor, told Telemachus, “The ship is ready.”

They went to the ship, and Telemachus assumed command, giving orders to his friends, “Let’s load the ship with provisions from my storeroom. No one except for one servant knows of the journey we will make. Not even my mother knows.”

They loaded up the ship and set sail. With the sails filled with wind, they drank wine, but first they poured out an offering to honor Athena. All night the ship sailed.

***

Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved

***

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