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A consistent theme acknowledged by Homer in The Odyssey is the wit, cunning, and the overall cleverness that swirls around characters like Odysseus, the book’s female characters, and the god, Athena. Yet, Athena’s role is perhaps the most manipulative seen throughout the first half of the novel. As a god, Athena holds and can control what is essentially, Odysseus’ fate, and as such, she holds the key to delaying or furthering his journey. Athena, however, seems to also enjoy dabbling in the life of Odysseus’ son, Telemachus—a decision which is surely not without purpose. As the life of Telemachus begins to take a substantial form, uncanny parallels form—in time—with the same events happening in Odysseus’s life far off shore. At Athena’s hand, the formerly distinct pair are molded into an indistinguishable whole, albeit separated by vast seas and hardships.

The quick transformation of Telemachus into a recognizable—in personality and physicality—form of Odysseus is most crucial to the creating of the “whole” of Odysseus and Telemachus. Using a delicate balance of female gentleness, and a father’s bluntness, Athena grooms Telemachus into his father through the fostering of self-confidence by admitting that Telemachus “must not cling to his boyhood any longer” (1.341) and noting “how tall and handsome” he has become (1.346). Taking the form of Mentor and “displaying so much kindness . . . like a father to a son”(1.354), Athena praises Odysseus’s achievements and urges Telemachus to “be brave . . . so men to come will sing [his] praises down the years”(1.347). In a way, Athena’s, and later Helen and Menelaus’s, observations of Telemachus’ physical likeness is of course genealogically related, however, Athena functions as the father Telemachus never had; she offers support, kindness, praise, and a significant knowledge of Odysseus’s adventures and triumphs; she gives Telemachus material in which he can unconsciously mimic. As a fatherless child in a highly patriarchal society, cunningly and quickly thwarted into the life of manhood by the stress posed by the suitors and the urging of Athena, Telemachus would be searching for examples to mimic. Immediately after this advising from Mentor, Telemachus assumes the patriarchal role and orders his mother to “go back to [her] quarters”(1.410), for Telemachus now realizes that he has “the reins of power in this house”(1.414). So while Ithaca seemingly lacks the physical presence of its former leader, we find that Ithaca functions as before Troy now that Telemachus has stepped into his father’s role; Ithaca functions as if Odysseus never left. In addition, it may be that Athena preys on Telemachus’ lack of knowledge and experience—an incompletion if you will—in order to fulfill the deficient characters of both Odysseus and Telemachus into a suitable whole.

With ample support from “Mentor,” Telemachus fulfills Odysseus’s role by calling an assembly on Ithaca—the first since Odysseus left the island—and at the assembly Telemachus displays a fearless, confrontational, and borderline combative disposition, while using his father’s cunning in evoking sympathy. He continues to use this interesting Odysseus-like combination of fearless speech while evoking pity with both Nestor and Menelaus, after Athena provokes him to set sail on a strikingly similar journey as the one Odysseus took before heading to Troy. Yet, it is necessary to note that Telemachus does not need to sail at all, but he goes in search of information, similar to Odysseus journey for poison arrows before heading to Troy. They both look for something of benefit in a time of hardship, but while Odysseus’s journey has pertinence to it, Telemachus’ journey changes nothing for the people he meets. This idea does turn on itself, however, because of the failure and unfortunate luck that befalls Odysseus’s journey. While no trouble seemingly befalls Telemachus on the seas, Telemachus is vowed to be surprised by the unruly suitors that plague his house, which reads exactly like the ‘“mutinous crew that undid [Odysseus]—that and a cruel sleep’”(10.74).

There are some striking parallels as well in the relations between Telemachus and Helen and Odysseus and Helen. Not only does Helen recognize that she has “never seen such a likeness, neither in man nor woman”(4.156-7), but as she flashes back to the day where she “alone . . . spotted [Odysseus] for the man he was”(4.281). Helen then proceeds to drug all the dining guests in a “mixing bowl, forged to perfection—it’s solid silver finished off with a lip of gold”(4.692-3) and later orders “maids to make a bed in the porch’s shelter, lay down some heavy purple throws for the bed itself, and over it spread some blankets, thick woolly robes, a warm covering laid on top”(4.333-6, 7.385-8) as she previously does for Odysseus, so Telemachus can sleep. The exact wording of this scene is important in that it really negates a distinction between father and son; this is also ironic for Helen who is renowned for seeing through disguises, and therefore making a distinction.

The mixing bowls come back into play as Menelaus gives Telemachus a mixing bowl—an odd parting gift—and somewhere near in time, Odysseus is given “a mixing bowl of solid silver”(9.226) along with wine that produced “an aroma that wafted from the bowl—what magic, what godsend—no joy in holding back when that was poured”(9.233-5)! Interestingly enough, Helen drugging her dining guests had similar inhibition reducing effects with Telemachus, as it does when Odysseus poisons the Cyclops with an extraordinary wine, and the same when Odysseus is warned that Circe will “mix [him] a potion, lace the brew with drugs”(10.321) and when she gives him a “heady, heart-warming wine in a silver bowl”(10.394-5). Although mixing-bowls are a common object found in nearly every household, it cannot be mere chance that these mixing bowls, both made of solid silver, are being manipulated, by powerful, influential women, with drugs in the same way to both Telemachus and Odysseus.

With all these strange and significant parallels in mind, we should now return to Athena’s role within the lives of Telemachus and Odysseus. With their personalities separated, and their identities uniquely personalized, Ithaca and Odysseus’ household would struggle under the pressure of the suitors and the devastations of war. Without Telemachus existence, Odysseus would have even less to live for without and would have been much closer to “leap[ing] over the side and drown[ing] at once [so as not to] stay among the living”(10.56-7). Penelope alone would have not been enough to save him from this near fate, as she does not hold the ability for kingship. So as such, the characters of Odysseus and Telemachus are left incomplete and essentially unable to fulfill Athena’s goal of murdering the suitors without the other. Instead, Athena combines their fates; she parallels their lives to make Telemachus mature at a quicker rate and to get Odysseus home. Athena’s ultimate kindness towards both of them must also be considered, as it is her kindness—or perceived kindness—that propels Telemachus on his journey, and consistently disguises Odysseus, so as to help him receive a warm welcome, as with the Phaeacians. Athena acts as a puppeteer, if you will, of their fates; she is the ultimate controller of their journeys and the receptions they receive. Without her, the Odyssey may not have progressed beyond Telemachus resigning to their suitors within the first book. So outplaying everyone else’s cleverness with her cunning, Athena manipulates the lives of Odysseus and Telemachus into an indistinguishable whole.

19 Responses to “At Athena’s Hand: Creating the “Whole” of Odysseus and Telemachus”

  1. khoneycutt says:

    Kendall,

    I like the idea that this is Athena’s doing; Zeus seems to back this up on several occasions (5.24ff and 24.525ff), though Athena herself seems to think Zeus is always up to something (5.8ff and especially 24.521ff). Does Athena tweak the plan of Zeus in the end? I think that is an important question.

    You do a solid job of laying out a lot the synchronic nature of Telemachus’ journey and Odyssey’s journey (post-Ogygia). The stuff about mixing bowls, etc. is all very suggestive. One minor correction is that it is Arete, not Helen, who offers bedding to Odysseus in the passage you cite at the end of 7 (7.385-388). However, since this appears to be happening about the same time that Telemachus is bedding down in Sparta, this just backs up your timeline point, in the end.

    Your essay raises in the background one of the key questions of the Odyssey. Why does Odysseus have to spend a year on Circe’s island and, especially, seven years on Calypso’s island? Perhaps part of the answer is that Telemachus would not be old enough, otherwise, upon Odysseus’ return.

    And yet–had Odysseus returned sooner, he would have arrived before the suitors ever courted Penelope. So maybe the suitors had to grow up, too; otherwise, the end of the book would have never happened, and none of the three generations of the house (Laertes, Odysseus, and Telemachus) would have (re)gained their manhood.

    Who will be king by the end of the book? I think that is not easy to answer, ultimately. And what a price is paid for it: 600 men who went to the war, and 108 of the young men who are left. Two generations–but is that what is necessary for a new king?

    KH

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