The Ancient World (HUM 124 - UNC Asheville)/Texts/Odyssey/Book 4

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Summary of Book 4[edit | edit source]

Telemachus and Pisistratus arrive in Sparta where a celebration of a wedding is being held at Menelaus's palace. They are invited inside to eat with Menelaus and his wife Helen, when they recognize Telemachus to be the son of Odysseus and begin recounting stories of Odysseus' heroic acts in the battle with Troy including the Trojan Horse. After the stories of Odysseus are told, Menelaus begins to talk about his own journey home from Troy and how difficult it was to get back. He had been stranded on an island on the coast on Egypt and the gods would not send any wind to help guide his ship back home. Menelaus then comes in contact with the goddess Eidothea, who pities him and explains that if he can catch the sea god Proteus and hold him down until he becomes too tired to fight back, Proteus will tell him how he can appease the gods in order to return home. Menelaus is instructed to kill 100 cows at the river of Egypt and after he does so he is able to return back home. While Menelaus had Proteus captured, Proteus revealed to him the fate of some of the other people who also had difficulty returning home from Troy. Menelaus then begins to tell the story of Agamemnon and Ajax, who both met deadly fates on their journey home. Ajax's ship struck a rock and he drowned in the ocean, while Agamemnon was able to make it all the way home despite minor struggles. However, Agamemnon was killed by Aegisthus over dinner, and all of Agamemnon's men were also killed. After hearing about the deaths of Agamemnon and Ajax, Menelaus then reveals that he knows where Odysseus is, and that he is trapped on an island with Calypso. After hearing about his fathers whereabouts, Telemachus thanks Menelaus and leaves to sail back to Ithaca. It is then revealed that while Telemachus was gone, the suitors at his house have devised a plot to murder Telemachus as he returns to Ithaca, saying they will cut off his ships route and carry out the murder there. Medon overhears the suitors plot and informs Penelope of their plot. Penelope breaks down as she now fears losing both her husband and her son, but she is visited by a phantom in the form of Iphtime, Penelopes sister, who informs her that the gods will keep Telemachus safe on his journey home.

Characters[edit | edit source]

Telemachus- He is the son of Odysseus, and is on a quest to find out what happened to his father.

Pisistratus- He is the son of Nestor, and is accompanying Telemachus on his journey.

Menelaus- He is the King of Sparta who also fought alongside Odysseus in the city of Troy.

Helen- She is the Queen of Sparta, and is married to Menelaus. She is also a child of Zeus, who is a powerful god in Greek mythology.

Asphalion- A house slave of Menelaus.

Eidothea- The goddess who pitied Menelaus and told him how he could work to get home.

Proteus- He is described as a "deathless old sea god" who holds the answers to how Menelaus could get home. He had to be pinned down by Menelaus until he got tired and stopped shapeshifting.

Calypso- A goddess who kept Odysseus imprisoned on her island.

The suitors- A group of single men who are competing to marry Penelope and gain Odysseus wealth.

Penelope-The wife of Odysseus and mother of Telemachus.

Ancient Worldview[edit | edit source]

Host and party etiquette:[edit | edit source]

The larger portion of book 4 takes place at Menelaus' palace, where Telemachus and Pisistratus are invited in to feast. Throughout this encounter, the importance of being a gracious and generous host is revealed as servants wash their guests hands with "water in a golden jug" (154) and get them whatever food or specific thing they request. Before Menelaus even knows who his guests are, he tells them that they can eat whatever they want and share the meal with them. Although it is subtle, the fact that Menelaus did not know even know who his guest were but still showed generous hospitality towards them reinforces just how important being a gracious host was in this ancient worldview. Further on in the book, when everyone is crying at dinner over their lost friends and family, Helen steps in to "mix the wine with drugs to take all the pain and rage away"(159). This is an unnecessary but very gracious thing that Helen did especially to Telemachus who has been devastated about his father Odysseus for a long time. Helens actions show us that in this period of time it was very important to meet the needs of your guests and take care of them as well as you can, even if that means going out of your way to help them. By the end of the book Telemachus is eager to leave after learning that his father is still alive, and still Menelaus continues his gracious hosting by offering to shower Telemachus with expensive gifts of horses, but when Telemachus declines he still gives him a "finely crafted bowl of purest silver" (171). In todays world we do not say goodbye to our guests by giving them gifts, but the ancient worldview of host and party etiquette made this a necessity in order to be considered a hospitable host.

Family legacy:[edit | edit source]

In the entire book of the Odyssey, a lot of characters are identified by who they are related to, including in book 4 where Pisistratus is referred to as "Nestors son" more than he is called by his real name. The way that these characters are identified show how important family legacy was in these ancient times. Even when Menelaus brings Telemachus and Pisistratus into his home, he was even more ecstatic when he realized who his guests were and that one of them was the son of the great Odysseus. Menelaus says he "always thought that I would greet that friend with warmth beyond all other"(157), which shows that even though he has never met Telemachus, he is greeting him with the upmost respect because of who his father is. Another story in this book that shows how important family legacy is in ancient world-views is the story that Menelaus tells of Aegisthus killing Agamemnon after taking his wife. After Aegisthus killed Agamemnon, Agamemnons son Orestes then took revenge on Aegisthus and killed him, to which Menelaus says his "heart was warmed inside" (169) after hearing that news. Menelaus and all of the gods were proud of Orestes because he had avenged his fathers death and essentially brought honor back to his family. Even in murder and death, family legacy is still a huge factor of the ancient worldview that effects how you and your actions are perceived.

Diminution of women in the Odyssey:[edit | edit source]

Throughout the Odyssey, the role of women is often subservient to the men around them. Most striking, is the moment when Helen describes her reason for running off to Troy with her lover, Paris. In the translation we are reading by Emily Wilson, Helen describes meeting Odysseus in the streets of Troy. After their meeting, Odysseus leaves, slaughtering Trojans as he goes. Helen says that "The Trojan women keened in grief, but I was glad - by then I wanted to go home. I wished that Aphrodite had not made me go crazy, when she took me from my country [...]" (italics added for emphasis) In an older translation, (E.V. Rieu 1946, revised Peter V. Jones 1991) Helen describes herself as 'suffering a change of heart' and "repenting the blindness Aphrodite sent me."

Both translations see Helen shirking responsibility for the destruction of Troy by blaming Aphrodite. However, the more recent translation paints Helen's tryst as an act committed by a trophy wife who had been elevated beyond her station. The idea that the gods made her "go crazy" sounds like the excuse of a tertiary character in a daytime soap opera. Throughout many translations, Helen never seems to be worthy of the epithet: "the face that launched a thousand ships."