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Book 4

The Odyssey – Book 4: Telemachus with Nestor


Telemachus and Peisistratus arrive at Sparta to find a double wedding in progress. Menelaus’ daughter Hermione (his only child by Helen) is marrying Achilles’ son Neoptolemos; Menelaus’ only son (by a slave girl and therefor illegitimate), Megapenthes, is marrying the daughter of a Spartan nobleman, Alector.

When Menelaus’ steward Eteoneus eventually invites them in, Telemachus is awestruck at the sumptuous luxury of Menelaus’ home, which is clearly more splendid than the palace of Ithaca: “it seemed to him that the lofty hall of illustrious Menelaus Was lit by something of the sun’s or the moon’s splendour”. Later on, Telemachus compares Menelaus’ house to Zeus’ palace on Olympus.

The guests are given baths, fresh clothes, chairs, a hand wash, bread, delicacies, meet and wine; Menelaus serves them himself. He also tells them about the source of his immense wealth, obtained by xenia, on his travels through Cyprus, Phoenicia, Egypt, Ethiopia & Libya. He says that he would readily exchange his wealth if he could have his fallen comrades back. However the person he misses most is Odysseus. This causes Telemachus to weep, and Menelaus then realises his guest’s true identity.

At this point Helen appears, her entrance carefully stage-managed. Homer compares her to Artemis (who may seem an unlikely comparison, being the virgin goddess; but this is to emphasise Helen’s new role as a chaste wife). A train of maids bring top-class wool-working equipment – a silver workbasket, a soft rug, and golden spindle. Helen doesn’t seem to do any actual wool-working, which implies this is all for show (how a respectable wife should behave).

Helen is concerned at the maudlin turn the conversation is taking, and the fact that everyone (herself included) keeps bursting into tears when they think of the loved ones they have lost. She puts a drug into the wine-krater, which has the power of “robbing grief and anger of their sting and banishing all painful memories”? Homer tells us that she acquired this drug when she was staying in Egypt on the way home from Troy.

Helen tells a story about her time living in Troy, when Odysseus came in disguise as a beggar, to spy. Helen realised who he really was but did not give him away to the Trojans.

Menelaus himself then tells a story which does not put Helen in such favourable light. He says that when he and the other Greek captains were waiting inside the Wooden Horse Helen came out to look at the horse with her new husband. She circled round the horse, calling out the names of all the leading Greeks, mimicking the voices of their wives. Some men nearly responded, implying that Helen wanted to give the Greek’s hiding place away.

Telemachus and Peisistratus spend the night at Menelaus’ palace. Menelaus only asks them the following morning why they have come. Telemachus tells Menelaus about the Suitors and asks if he has any information about Odysseus. Menelaus is disgusted by the Suitor’s behaviour but doesn’t offer any practical help to get rid of the Suitors.

Menelaus then tells Telemachus the story of how he met the immortal prophet, Proteus, who lived in the island of Pharos. Eidothee, Proteus’ daughter, advised Menelaus to lie in wait for her father and seek information from him about his journey home and the events in Sparta during his absence. Menelaus and his men disguised themselves as seals to hide from Proteus.

When Proteus came out to herd his seals, and fell asleep, Menelaus and his men grabbed him – but being a protean sea-creature Proteus tried to evade them by turning himself into different animals. Eventually he agreed to give Menelaus the information he wanted.

After finishing his story, Menelaus invites Telemachus to stay for another twelve days. He also gives xenia gifts of a chariot and three horses which Telemachus refuses. Menelaus then offers a silver wine-krater made by Hephaestus.

Meanwhile on ITHACA, Medon The herald eavesdrops on the Suitors and goes to tell Penelope of their plan to kill Telemachus. Penelope is upset that Telemachus has left but is consoled by Eurycleia. Penelope prays to Athene, while Antinous takes out a ship and prepares for ambush. Athene appears to Penelope in a dream in the form of her sister Iphthime, reassuring her about Telemachus.