The Odyssey‎ > ‎

Book 1

The Odyssey – Book 1: Athene Visits Telemachus (Context)


The narrator of the Odyssey invokes the Muse, asking for inspiration as he prepares to tell the story of Odysseus. The story begins ten years after the end of the Trojan War, the subject of the Iliad. All of the Greek heroes except Odysseus have returned home. Odysseus languishes on the remote island Ogygia with the goddess Calypso, who has fallen in love with him and refuses to let him leave. Meanwhile, a mob of Suitors is devouring his estate in Ithaca and courting his wife, Penelope, in hopes of taking over his kingdom. His son, Telemachus, an infant when Odysseus left but now a young man, is helpless to stop them. He has resigned himself to the likelihood that his father is dead.

With the consent of Zeus, Athena travels to Ithaca to speak with Telemachus. Assuming the form of Odysseus’s old friend Mentes, Athena predicts that Odysseus is still alive and that he will soon return to Ithaca. She advises Telemachus to call together the Suitors and announce their banishment from his father’s estate. She then tells him that he must make a journey to Pylos and Sparta to ask for any news of his father. After this conversation, Telemachus encounters Penelope in the Suitors’ quarters, upset over a song that the court bard is singing. Like Homer with the Iliad, the bard sings of the sufferings experienced by the Greeks on their return from Troy, and his song makes the bereaved Penelope more miserable than she already is. To Penelope’s surprise, Telemachus rebukes her. He reminds her that Odysseus isn’t the only Greek to not return from Troy and that, if she doesn’t like the music in the men’s quarters, she should retire to her own chamber and let him look after her interests among the Suitors. He then gives the Suitors notice that he will hold an assembly the next day at which they will be ordered to leave his father’s estate. Antinous and Eurymachus, two particularly defiant Suitors, rebuke Telemachus and ask the identity of the visitor with whom he has just been speaking. Although Telemachus suspects that his visitor was a goddess in disguise, he tells them only that the man was a friend of his father.

Technical Notes

1.      The proem (lines 1-21) provides an introduction to the poem. It absolves 0dysseus of any responsibility for his companions’ deaths, as it was their own recklessness (in eating the sun god’s cattle) that killed them.

Modern readers may feel that the proem gives away too much of the plot, as we are told that Odysseus will arrive home alone; that he has been kept in a virtual prisoner by Calypso; and that the only god who obstructs him is Poseidon. Homer’s audience would not have felt that Homer was running the plot, as they would all have been familiar with the basic outline of the story anyway. The element of suspense, for them, lay in finding out how the poet would embroider this basic outline.

2.      Odysseus himself isn’t mentioned by name until line 12, and he does not appear as a character in this book, although people like Athene and Telemachus talk about him.

3.      Note that Homer does not take a linear approach to the story of Odysseus – he does not start with the fall of Troy and chronical Odysseus’ adventures in their chronological order. He starts near the end of the story, just as Odysseus is on the brink of returning home; the events of the past ten years will be told in flashback.

4.      Lines 125-144, when Telemachus offers xenia to his guests, are a good example of a “stock scene” that would be part of the poet’s repertoire and which he knew would be ready-made to fit the metre of the poem (dactylic hexameters).

Major Themes

Odysseus & Agamemnon / Telemachus & Orestes

Odysseus’ family and their situation is repeatedly contrasted with Agamemnon’s family (this contrast also occurs elsewhere in the poem, particularly in Book 11 when Odysseus meets Agamemnon in the Underworld). During the council of the gods, Zeus discusses Aegisthus’ behaviour – his seduction of Clytaemnestra and his murder of Agamemnon – and comments that Aegisthus still went ahead and disobeyed the gods – just as the Suitors are disobeying the gods by their abuse of Telemachus’ hospitality, and just as Odysseus’ men disobeyed the instruction not to touch Hyperion’s’ cattle. Athene recommends to Telemachus that he should take Orestes AS his role model – Orestes successfully avenged his father’s murder, just as Telemachus can successfully avenge the damage that the Suitors have done to his father’s property.


Xenia is established as a major theme in the poem. The behaviour of the Suitors (as bad guests) is described in detail, so that we can see the damage they are causing to Telemachus’ household, and their lack of respect for the gods. Telemachus, by contrast, is the perfect host – he removes his guests’ weapons; gives him the best seat in the house; has his hands washed; offers good-quality food and drink; provides entertainment (in the form of a bard singing poetry); and offers his guest a bath. He does not ask his guest’s identity until he has satisfied all his physical needs and made him comfortable. When his guest leaves, he offers him a leaving present (a xenia gift).

The Situation in Ithaca

During Athene’s conversation with Telemachus, we learn that Laertes, Odysseus’ father, isn’t living like a retired king, in the palace – nor has he take over the kingship of Ithaca in his son’s absence (as Tyndareus appears to have done in Sparta, in the absence of his son-in-law Menelaus). Instead, he is living like a peasant – “a miserable existence on his distant farm”. Odysseus’ palace, in his absence, has become a dysfunctional oikos, not a normal household in which a Greek prince might grow up. There is no head of the household – Telemachus’ father is absent, his grandfather has rejected the responsibility of head of the oikos, living in squalor on his farm, and Telemachus lacks the self-confidence to lead the oikos himself.

The Suitors are destroying Telemachus’ wealth – his material possessions – but they also threaten his relationship with his mother Penelope. Should he send her back to her father Icarius, to remarry? What will happen to him if she leaves the oikos? Later in the poem, Eumaeus tells us that the arrival of the Suitors 3 years ago has already altered the relationships with the estate-workers – communications have started to break down and she spends a lot more time alone, or talking to the Suitors. In Odysseus’ absence, Ithaca has no king, and Telemachus himself does not appear to be concerned about claiming the kingship– he just wants to be master of his own house.

Telemachus’ Character Development

Athene tells Zeus that she is going to Ithaca for several reasons:

a)     To instil more spirit into Odysseus’ son

b)     To encourage Telemachus to call an assembly of the Ithacan nobles, so that he can stand up to the Suitors

c)     To persuade Telemachus to visit Nestor (in Pylos) and Menelaus (in Sparta) in order to seek news of his father

d)     By going to Pylos and Sparta, Telemachus will start to acquire kleos

 During Athene’s conversation with Telemachus, it becomes apparent that he is lacking in self-esteem and lacks any real sense of his own identity. When Athene tells him how much he looks like his father, he says that he actually doubts if he really is Odysseus’ son, despite the assurances of his mother Penelope. He lacks direction and sees no way out of his situation.

However, by the end of this book Athene has already worked wonders for his self-confidence. When Penelope comes down to complain about Phemius’ song, Telemachus actually argues with her and shows her who is boss. He tells her to go back to the women’s quarters and get on with her weaving – “making decisions must be men’s concern, especially mine; for I am master in this house.” Telemachus has even acquired the courage to tackle the Suitors – he tells them that tomorrow he will call an assembly and will issue a demand that they leave his house. He warns them that Zeus will bring a “day of reckoning” (as a god of xenia).

The Correct Xenia “Hospitality” Sequence

1.      Host grasps guest’s hand at entrance. Guest should wait at entrance to be acknowledged,

2.      Weapons are removed from the guest.

3.      The host greets the guest.

4.      The host offers the guest the best seat – Example Telemachus seats Mentes away from Suitors.

5.      Host offers water for the guest to wash hands.

6.      Host offers food and wine to the guest.

7.      Entertainment is provides – Telemachus brings Phemius the bard to sing.

8.      Once the guest has rested, the host may begin to question them,


Omnibus “Homeric Hospitality Questions”

1.      What does the Greek word “Xenios” mean?

a.       Guest, stranger, host.

2.      Which event from Homer’s Iliad is used to demonstrate the strength of a relationship created by hospitality i.e. the xenia bond?

a.      Diomedes refused to fight the Lycian glaucus because his grandfather had once entertained him.

3.      At what point in the proper Xenia procedure is the host allowed to question their guest?

a.      After the guest has rested. 

4.      At whose magnificent palace does Telemachus not immediately find a ready welcome extended to him?

a.      Menelaus’ palace in Sparta. His steward questions whether he should be greeted. 

5.      Who is the god of Xenia?

a.      Zeus Xenios 

6.      Give two examples of bad xenia from a guest.

a.      Paris’ abduction of his host’s wife.

b.      The Suitor’s outstaying their welcome. 

7.      Give an example of bad xenia from a host.

a.      Polyphemus eating his guests. 

8.      Which Greek King demonstrates faultless xenia?

a.      Nestor, King of Pylos 

9.      Give reasons why xenia was important to Homeric Society.

a.      Travellers bring news of the wider world.

b.      No inns/places for travellers to stay.

c.      Building a strong bond between families.

d.      Pride in being able to make guests welcome.

e.      Shows respect for Zeus Xenios.

f.       Source of wealth.

g.      Reciprocal – expect good hospitality back.

h.      Universal – xenia given to kings in the same way as it is given to beggars.

Xenia: Key Passages From The Odyssey


1.      Odyssey 1. Pp 6-11:

a.      Athene (disguised as Mentes) receives hospitality from Telemachus in Ithaca. 

2.      Odyssey 3. Pp 26-29:

a.      Telemachus & Athene (disguised as Mentor) are welcomed to Pylos by Peisistratus and Nestor, who are sacrificing to Poseidon.

3.      Odyssey 3. Pp 36-37:

a.      Nestor invites Telemachus to stay overnight in his palace. 

4.      Odyssey 4. Pp 41-42:

a.      Telemachus & Peisistratus arrive at Menelaus’ palace; Eteoneus the steward nearly turns them away, but Menelaus and Helen are good hosts. 

5.      Odyssey 5. Pp 65:

a.      Calypso gives hospitality to Hermes (inter-god xenia). 

6.      Odyssey 5. Pp 68-69:

a.      Calypso gives Odysseus all the assistance he needs to leave Ogygia and progress to his next destination. 

7.      Odyssey 7. Pp 88-90:

a.      Odysseus comes as a suppliant to Queen Arete of Phaeacia, and is entertained in Alcinous’ palace. 

8.      Odyssey 8. (whole book):

a.      Alcinous hold an assembly, offers Odysseus Safe passage home, summons his bard Demodocus to sing for him & holds games, dancing and feasting in honour of his guests.

9.      Odyssey 10. Pp 225-124:

a.      Odysseus is a bad guest (raiding the cheese) but Polyphemus is a bad host (imprisoning & eating his guests).

10.  Odyssey 10. Pp 125-127:

a.      Aeolus gives Odysseus a xenia gift a bag in which all the winds are imprisoned; note that when Odysseus returns after the bag has been opened by his men, Aeolus refuses to help him; if a guest abuses a xenia gift, then the host is under no obligation to replace it or to offer further help.

11.  Odyssey 10. Pp 130-131:

a.      Circe shows bad xenia by inviting her guests in & offering them a drugged drink, which enables her to turn them into pigs.

12.  Odyssey 11. Pp 148-149:

a.      Alcinous offers Odysseus some xenia gifts before he leaves; Odysseus says he would stay in Phaeacia another year if he could increase his wealth this way.

13.  Odyssey 12. Pp 159-160:

a.      Circe displays good xenia by giving Odysseus directions and advice about reaching his destination.

14.  Odyssey 12. Pp 164-168:

a.      Odysseus’ men show bad xenia by eating Hyperion’s cattle (when they are technically “guests” on his island).

15.  Odyssey 14. Pp 181-183:

a.      Eumaeus shows hospitality to the “beggar” (who is really Odysseus in disguise), showing that xenia extends to all social classes and occupations.

16.  Odyssey 15. Pp 196-198:

a.      Telemachus leaves Sparta, with gifts from Menelaus, including a bridal dress made by Helen & a krater made by Hephaestus.

17.  Odyssey 17. Pp 232-234; 237:

a.      Melanthius and the Suitors show bad xenia to Eumaeus’ guest (Odysseus) – guests should treat other guests with respect. Antinous even throws a stool at the “beggar”, and refuses to give him any food (even though the food doesn’t belong to Antinous, but to Telemachus).

18.  Odyssey 18. Pp 240-241:

a.      The Suitors show bad xenia to the old beggar (a guest in the palace) by forcing him to fight another beggar, just for their entertainment.

19.  Odyssey 21. Pp 285:

a.      Penelope states what xenia gifts (including safe conduct to his next destination) she will give to the beggar, if he succeeds in stringing Odysseus’ bow.