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Book 2

The Odyssey – Book 2: The Debate in Ithaca

Summary

At the start of Book 2, Telemachus gets up and asks the heralds to summon the people of Ithaca to an assembly; he himself makes his way to the meeting place (the agora). The speakers in the assembly are as follows:

       I.          Aegyptius (an old nobleman): He comments that no assembly has been called in Ithaca for 20 years (since Odysseus sailed for Troy), and asks who has called an assembly and for what purpose.

     II.          Telemachus: Describes the damage that the Suitors are doing to his household, “pestering my mother with their unwanted attentions” and asks the members of the assembly to help him remove the Suitors from his house. He reminds them that many of the Suitors are the sons of the people present at the assembly. He also reminds them that the gods – especially Zeus – will punish the Suitors and that by condoning their actions the people of Ithaca also risk retribution. At the end of his speech, Telemachus bursts into tears and throws down the speaker’s staff.

   III.          Antinous (the ruthless suitor):  Says that the Suitors are not to blame for Telemachus’ current situation but Penelope herself. He says that she has been leading them on and playing them off against each other for nearly four years. He describes the “shroud trick” and how Penelope was “grassed up” by a disloyal maid. Antinous says that Telemachus should send Penelope back to the house of her father (Icarius) and let her family choose a new husband for her. He says that the Suitors have no intention of returning to their own estates until Penelope has made a choice.

   IV.          Telemachus: Replies that he cannot ask his mother to leave her home against her will. If he were to send her back to Icarius, he would have to repay her dowry and would also be regarded as having ill-treated his own mother. He prays that Zeus will bring “a day of reckoning” upon the Suitors.

     V.          Halistherses (an old soothsayer): Interprets the two eagles. He says that Odysseus is close at hand, and that disaster will soon befall the Suitors and those who associate with them. He reminds everyone present of the prophecy he made when Odysseus embarked for Troy – that he would arrive home “in the twentieth year, after much suffering, having lost all his comrades and that no one would know him when he came”.

   VI.          Eurymachus (the sleazy suitor):  Tries to belittle Halistherses’ knowledge. He says that Odysseus is dead and that Halistherses should not be inciting Telemachus to violence. He repeats Antinous’ advice that Telemachus should send his mother back to her father’s house.

 VII.          Telemachus: Says that he requires a ship to take him to Pylos and Sparta, so that he may inquire after his long-lost father. He repeats Athene’s advice that she gave him in Book 1 – if his father is dead, he will give him a proper funeral; if he is still alive, then he will put up with his current situation for one more year.

VIII.          Mentor (Odysseus’ steward): Says that law and order have broken down since Odysseus left. He expresses his disgust that the members of the assembly do nothing to control the Suitors or prevent their despoiling of Odysseus’ estate.

    IX.          Leocritus (a suitor): Says that even if Odysseus were to return, Penelope would have no joy of him, as the Suitors would kill him –he would be “fighting alone against many”.

Main Themes

1.      Athene’s help to Telemachus

a.      Athene was Odysseus’ patron god during the Trojan War, and she now extends her help to Odysseus’ family, giving Telemachus plenty of direct help.

b.      Athene gives Telemachus a “makeover” so that he will appear a more impressive figure.

c.      After the unsatisfactory outcome of the assembly, she gives him words of encouragement in the form of Mentor.

d.      Later, disguised as Telemachus, she rounds up a ship and crew for his journey.

e.      She herself, disguised as Mentor (someone who Telemachus trusts completely) accompanies him to Pylos.

 

2.      The Assembly

a.      Anyone can call an assembly in theory but that in practice it is usually the king.

b.      Meeting is regulated by the use of the speaker’s staff – only the person holding the staff is allowed to speak.

c.      Its function seems to have been to act as a debating forum, to discuss the arguments for and against a given course of action.

d.      Used as a hallmark of a civilised society.

e.      Cyclopes don’t hold assemblies, which show they are barbaric and uncivilised.

f.       This begs the question – if Ithaca is civilised, why has no assembly been held in twenty years?

 

3.      The Situation in Ithaca

a.      Aegyptius tells us that no one has called an assembly in Ithaca for 20 years.

b.      Implication that Ithaca has descended into a state of anarchy.

c.      Mentor says that Odysseus has been forgotten by his subjects.

d.      Mentor has been told to refer to Laertes in household matters, it is clear that Laertes has not taken over the kingship in Odysseus’ absence – the kingship is essentially vacant.

 

4.      Loyal/Disloyal Servants

a.      We gradually become aware that not all the servants in Odysseus’ oikos have remained loyal.

b.      Antinous says that one of the maids gave away Penelope’s “shroud trick”.

c.      Some members of the oikos, however, have remained loyal to Odysseus over the whole twenty years, including Mentor and Eurycleia, and they play an important part in protecting Telemachus and helping Odysseus to recover control of his oikos.

 

5.      Penelope’s Behaviour & Remarriage

a.      Issue of Penelope’s remarriage is discussed at length in the assembly.

b.      Homer makes it clear that it is a complex issue with no clear answer.

c.      Antinous raises doubts about Penelope’s own behaviour – she has been cunning enough to delay her marriage by using the “shroud trick” but has she also been leading the Suitors on, and communicating with them individually? 

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