Book Four

Telemachus and Nestor's son are welcomed by King Menelaus with great hospitality. Queen Helen immediately recognizes Telemachus as the spitting image of Odysseus.

"You must be the boy he left behind when he took ship for Troy -- all because of me and my mad passion for Trojan Paris. Aphrodite's curse was already wearing off when last I saw your father. What a man! I'll never forget his daring and his guile.

"He had beaten himself black and blue and dressed up in a beggar's rags to sneak into Troy. But I recognized him when he spoke to me there in the house of Paris. I bathed him and gave him a fresh robe, and he made his escape, killing many a Trojan on his way. I rejoiced, for I missed my home and the blameless husband I had forsaken."

"And remember, my dear, how you suspected that we were hiding inside the wooden horse?" asks Menelaus. "Odysseus was in command. It was everything he could do to keep us quiet when you started calling out to us, imitating the voice of each man's wife."

These reminiscences are mixed with tears for fallen comrades, and at length Telemachus seeks respite in sleep. In the morning, Menelaus relates what he can of Odysseus.

"As you know, I was held down for seven long years in Egypt. And when at last the gods relented and sent a homeward breeze, I only made it as far as an island off the mouth of the Nile before I was becalmed. A goddess took pity on me as I paced the beach in desperation.

"'My father is the Old Man of the Sea,' she said. 'You and three picked men of your crew must catch him and pin him down.' She helped us with disguises, the hides of seals which stank to high heaven. She even rubbed ambrosia under our noses against the stench.

"And when the Ancient came for his midday nap amongst the seals, as was his custom, we jumped him and held on for dear life. He had an awesome power, you see, to change his form -- to lion, to snake, to boar, to gushing fountain and towering tree. But when he saw that we weren't about to let go, he reverted to his original shape and began to speak.

"He said that Zeus himself was furious because we had failed to sacrifice before setting sail. We'd have to slog back up the Nile and start all over. And as he was an all-knowing god, I asked which of our comrades had perished on the journey home from Troy.

"'Only two high officers,' he replied. 'And one of them might have lived but for his insolence. Even though he had been the cause of Athena's wrath in the first place, Ajax made it safely ashore on a promontory. At which point he had the audacity to brag that he had beaten the gods. His boast was heard by Poseidon, and the Lord of Earthquakes swung his mighty trident and knocked the earth right out from under Ajax, who fell into the sea and perished.'

"And the other?" we asked, for he had spoken of two high officers.

"'Odysseus lives still, though marooned, without a crew of oarsmen to stroke him home.'

And so Telemachus received the news that he had sought. But meanwhile his situation had become still more perilous. For back at home on Ithaca, the suitors had gotten wind of his departure. Spurred on by Antinous, they plotted to ambush him at sea upon his return.

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NOTES

hospitality Telemachus and Nestor's son are spotted at the castle gate by one of Menelaus' retainers. This man comes running to the king for instructions. Should he admit the strangers or send them on to another estate, since this one is in the midst of preparations for a double wedding?
"Idiot!" says Menelaus. "Do you think I'd have ever made it home from Troy if I'd been refused hospitality?" Before even asking their names or their errand, Menelaus sits the two down at table and places before them the king's own cut of beef.
Such was the sacred obligation of hospitality during the Heroic Age as conceived of by Homer, and such was its practical underpinning. The Greek Dark Age intervened between Homer's time and the era when the Trojan War was thought to have taken place, so Homer can only imagine what it must have been like. But the experience of a court bard, reliant on favor for survival, would have colored his view. (back)

ambrosia In Greek mythology, ambrosia was the sustenance of the gods. Some say that it was made of honey, water, fruit, cheese, olive oil and barley. In The Odyssey ambrosia has other uses, as in the present instance. Hermes' magic sandals, which enable him to fly, are referred to as "ambrosial". (back)

Tantalus, who was condemned to eternal punishment for stealing ambrosia from the gods. (He was tantalized by lucious fruit always just out of reach.) (back)

Book number: 1 - 2 - 3 - 4 - 5 - 6 - 7 - 8 - 9 - 10 - 11 - 12 - 13 - 14 - 15 - 16 - 17 - 18 - 19 - 20 - 21 - 22 - 23 - 24