David Bruce: Homer’s ODYSSEY: A Retelling in Prose — Book 3: Telemachus and King Nestor

Book 3: Telemachus and King Nestor

At dawn, the ship pulled into the harbor of Pylos.

On shore, King Nestor and his people were sacrificing bulls to the gods and preparing a feast. One time that people in ancient Greece could legitimately enjoy a feast was during a sacrifice to the gods. King Nestor, who was both old and wise, understood the rules of feasting and of xenia.

The men on the ship got onto shore, Telemachus last of all. This displeased Athena, who was still disguised as Mentor: “Telemachus, you are the leader of this expedition. Act like it! Don’t bring up the rear! Lead! You undertook this expedition in order to discover news of your father, so now go to King Nestor and seek the information you desire.”

King Nestor was a good person to ask about Odysseus. He had served in the Trojan War with Odysseus and knew him well. Even then, King Nestor was too old to fight, but he shared his wisdom with Agamemnon, leader of the Greek forces.

Telemachus, still timid, still hung back.

“How can I approach King Nestor? I am so young, and he is so worthy of respect.”

“Speak, and the gods will give you the right words,” Athena answered.

Athena led the way to King Nestor, while Telemachus followed her.

King Nestor saw them — strangers — approaching, and so did Pisistratus, his young son. Both King Nestor and his son understood the rules of xenia. Pisistratus reached the strangers first. Having been raised correctly, he welcomed them. He held their hands and led them to the feast and asked them to sit down and refresh themselves. He also gave them wine to pour as a sacrifice to Poseidon, being careful to give wine to the older man first.

“Say a prayer to the sea-god Poseidon,” Pisistratus invited them. “The feast you see is in honor of him. And pour an offering of wine to honor the god.”

Athena was pleased with the actions of Pisistratus. He knew how to treat an older man such as Mentor, and he knew how to welcome strangers and how to respect the gods. Athena also knew how to act correctly. She prayed to Poseidon, “Great sea-god, please grant our prayers. First reward King Nestor and the Pylians for the sacrifice that they have made to you. Then allow Telemachus and myself safe passage home again.”

Telemachus also poured an offering of wine to Poseidon, and then everyone feasted. After everyone had eaten and drunk their fill, King Nestor knew that it was the proper time for conversation, so he asked, “Friends, who are you and why are you travelling?”

Telemachus remembered the encouragement that Athena had given him to speak to King Nestor, so he answered, “We come from Ithaca, and we seek information about my father, Odysseus, with whom you fought at Troy. No one knows where he is buried. Can you tell me how and where he died?”

“Troy was a hardship for all of us,” King Nestor said. “So many people fought and died there. Great Ajax is buried there. So is Achilles. So is Patroclus. So is my own son Antilochus.

“Your father and I never quarreled, never disagreed. Your way of speaking is just like his. Your father, cunning mastermind, conquered Troy, but Zeus and the gods prepared hardships for many Greeks as they attempted to return home. Agamemnon and his brother, Menelaus, quarreled about what to do. Menelaus wished to return home right away, but Agamemnon wished to first offer a sacrifice to Athena. Half of the Greeks followed the advice of Menelaus and left at dawn; half of the Greeks followed the advice of Agamemnon and stayed to offer a sacrifice to Athena.

“Menelaus, Diomedes, and I left at dawn, eager to return home. Diomedes and I made the journey safely, but many of the others did not, as I have learned from the news of travelers to Pylos. True, the Myrmidons of Achilles made it home safely, as did Philoctetes the master archer. So did King Idomeneus of Crete. But Agamemnon was killed by his wife’s lover, Aegisthus, when he left Troy and returned to Mycenae. But Agamemnon’s son, Orestes, won renown throughout the world by killing the murderer of his father.”

“How true,” Telemachus said. “Orestes will always be remembered. I wish that the gods would help me to earn such renown. I wish that the gods would help me to get rid of the suitors who besiege my palace.”

“I have heard news of the suitors,” Nestor replied. “Why is this happening? Do you willingly allow yourself to be bullied? Or are the gods against you? Do they cause the people of Ithaca to despise you?”

Nestor thought, Orestes won renown by killing the murderer of his father. You, Telemachus, can also win great renown by ridding your palace of the suitors, killing them all if necessary.

Nestor continued, “Odysseus may perhaps return someday, either alone or with an army. Let’s hope that Athena is on your side. She helped Odysseus immensely throughout the Trojan War. Goddesses seldom show such favoritism toward a mortal. With her on your side, you could rid your palace of the suitors.”

“I would love for those things to happen,” said Telemachus, “but Odysseus will never return, and I cannot rid my palace of the suitors, even if the gods should help me.”

Insulted, Athena, who was still disguised as Mentor, said sharply, “The gods are much more powerful than you think, Telemachus. Don’t be a fool! It is better for Odysseus to return home years late than to be like Agamemnon, who quickly returned home and quickly was murdered. The gods are very powerful, but even the gods cannot stop a mortal’s fated day of death.”

“Mentor,” Telemachus said, “let us not speak of Odysseus. He has been dead for a long time. But I wish to ask King Nestor, who is so wise, something else: What are the details of Agamemnon’s death? Was Menelaus present? How did Aegisthus manage to murder Agamemnon?”

“Menelaus was not present,” King Nestor replied. “If Menelaus had found Aegisthus alive in the palace of Agamemnon, he — not Orestes — would killed him. He also would have fed Aegisthus’ corpse to the dogs and the birds, not allowing Aegisthus’ soul to travel to the Land of the Dead until a hundred years had passed.

“Aegisthus wooed Agamemnon’s wife, Clytemnestra, and he succeeded in seducing her, even though Agamemnon had left behind a bard to guard her. Aegisthus got rid of the bard, marooning him on an island, and Clytemnestra moved into Aegisthus’ palace.

“Menelaus was delayed during his journey when his pilot, Phrontus, died. He stayed behind at Sounion to bury him, and when he resumed his journey home, he was driven off course. A hurricane split his fleet in two, and Menelaus and five ships landed on Egypt. Away from home he stayed, amassing wealth.

“Aegisthus killed Agamemnon, and then he ruled — badly — as King of Mycenae for seven years before Orestes, having grown up, killed him, avenging the murder of his father. Orestes then buried both Aegisthus and his mother on the same day that Menelaus sailed into the port of Mycenae.

“Telemachus, learn from this story. Don’t stay away from your home too long. Be present so that you can protect your possessions. However, I advise you to visit Menelaus and ask him for news of your father. If you wish, I can lend you a chariot and horses to visit him, and I can send my son with you as a guide.”

Athena praised the old king: “Thank you for a well-told story. Now let us pour wine for Poseidon and then think of sleep.”

They poured the wine, and Nestor, a good host, wanted them to stay with him, not return to their ship: “Stay here with me. It is not right for Telemachus to sleep on the deck of a ship, not when I have plenty of rugs and blankets with which to make beds.”

Athena replied, “That’s a good idea. Let Telemachus stay here, but I will return to the ship and sleep there and make sure that things are OK. I’m the oldest — all the crewmembers are the same age as Telemachus. At dawn, I’ll visit the Cauconians while Telemachus pays a visit to Menelaus, with the loan of your chariot and with your son as his guide.”

Athena then changed herself into a bird and flew away, amazing all who saw her. Gladdened, King Nestor told Telemachus, “The gods are protecting you. This was Athena, the bright-eyed goddess.”

He then prayed to Athena, “Please bless us. Please bless me, my children, and my wife. I will sacrifice to you a heifer whose horns have been wrapped with gold.”

They shared a drink and went to their beds to sleep.

Nestor thought about Telemachus, He has the protection of the gods, but his situation with the suitors is still very bad. I wish I could help him fight the suitors and drive them from his palace. But I am too old, and Pisistratus, my son, is too young and inexperienced to help him. Antilochus, my one son who would be of the proper age and who would have the proper experience to help him, lies buried on the plain before Troy.

The next morning, King Nestor issued orders. He had promised Athena a sacrifice of a heifer whose horns had been wrapped with gold, and he kept his word, ordering the sacrifice, and he requested that most of Telemachus’ crewmembers attend the sacrifice — but two crewmembers needed to stay behind to guard the ship. Athena also attended the sacrifice.

As the heifer was being sacrificed, Polycaste, the youngest daughter of King Nestor, bathed Telemachus in accordance with the ancient custom, making the guest comfortable and showing him proper xenia.

Following the feast, King Nestor ordered that a chariot and a team of horses be brought to them. He also ordered that provisions for the journey of Telemachus and Pisistratus be stowed away in the chariot.

Telemachus and Pisistratus rode all day, stayed with the good host Diocles that night, and rode again in the morning and reached Lacedaemon, home of King Menelaus and of Helen, at dusk.


Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved


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