Image Description

The Odyssey: Coming of Age

This lesson is a part of an audio course Why Read Homer's "Odyssey" by Robert Garland

As I've mentioned, after Homer has introduced us to his hero, pictured pining for his home, he removes him, and we don't see him again until four books later. In the interim, we encounter Odysseus' son Telemachus. Telemachus is a hero in waiting, so to speak. We don't know his exact age, but it's clear that he is on the cusp of adulthood. Like all young men, he's flexing his muscles. When Penelope tells the resident bard Phemius not to sing a song about the Trojan War because the subject is so upsetting, Telemachus sternly reprimands her. "I'm in charge now," he says. "I'm the head of the household." From our perspective, this seems like extreme rudeness, but we need to bear in mind the following. This was a strictly patriarchal society. Men were in charge, no question. The fact that Telemachus declares himself to be head of the household indicates that he's ready to challenge the suitors. In effect, he is saying, "I'm an adult now." And that's going to be very important because it means that Odysseus will have an ally when he returns.

It's at this point that Athena turns up disguised as a mortal, as a trader. She's there to "stir him up," as she says; to put some lead in his pencil, as we might say. She tells Telemachus that it's high time he found out what's happened to his father. Making inquiries about his father's whereabouts is important, not only for its own sake. It's also a way of him proving himself. This is a world where everything hinges upon your reputation, upon what the Greeks call your kleos or reputation. As a hero, you want to be talked about. Telemachus will gain a reputation by establishing himself as a man who stands up and does all he can to prove he's the loyal son of his father.

Homer achieves this goal by having Telemachus take on more and more challenging social roles. We've just seen him stand up to his mother. That might not seem to amount to much, but any young person has to take a stand against his parents at some time in order to individuate, as psychologists say. That's to say, to become fully independent. The next thing he does is to reprimand the suitors, who are squatting in his home. Up to this point, they've had a free hand. Now they have Telemachus to deal with. The third thing he does, in Book 2, is to call an assembly of the people. No-one has called an assembly of the islanders since Odysseus' departure. Telemachus now does. Homer is composing this poem around 700 BCE, and already the Greeks are practicing democracy. It's probably just aristocrats who are summoned. But still, that's impressive. Telemachus is the first to address the assembly, and when he holds the floor, he denounces the suitors for wasting his father's property and harassing his mother. He also reprimands those present for allowing the suitors to get away scot-free when his father was such a good king to his people. As he ends his speech, he bursts into tears. That's not because he's a cry baby. On the contrary, he's deeply moved. The Greeks didn't regard men crying as a sign of weakness but of passion. Everyone is silent. Telemachus hasn't achieved anything tangible, but he's made his point. He's called the suitors out, and he's shamed the lords of Ithaca for failing to come to his support.

Telemachus has thus established his standing in his own home and on Ithaca at large. His next task will be to establish himself abroad in the courts of kings. Accordingly, he fits out a ship, musters his companions and heads to the mainland to see if he can find out anything from Odysseus' comrades in arms, Nestor and Menelaus. This is the subject of Books 3 and 4. It's a sign of his maturity that he doesn't tell his mum that he's leaving. He knows that if he did, she would do everything she could to stop him. This is another way of demonstrating he's an adult. He proves he can hold himself in conversation with the greatest in the land.

The first four books of the Odyssey are called the Telemachy because they deal almost exclusively with Telemachus' coming of age. But it isn't only Telemachus who comes of age in the poem. So, too, does Nausikaa, the Phaeacian princess, who has an encounter with Odysseus in Book 6 when he wakes up on the island of Scheria after his departure from Calypso's isle, having survived the tempest brought on by Poseidon.

The night before the encounter takes place, Nausikaa has had a dream. She dreamt that one of her girlfriends was urging her to take note of the fact that she was now of marriageable years and should dress accordingly. The dream was sent by Athena, who is again moving the plot along. Next morning Nausikaa goes down to the beach with her girlfriends to do some washing so she'll have something smart to wear. And who should she encounter but a begrimed and naked man, who emerges from the undergrowth. Her companions are horrified and take to their heels. Nausikaa, however, takes her stand, and a polite exchange takes place between her and the stranger. Odysseus formally supplicates her; that's to say, he appeals to her for help. In response, the princess urges him to petition her parents, the king, and queen of the island. In other words, she shows an adult understanding of the rules of etiquette and the norms of hospitality. She doesn't want to excite gossip, however, so she tells him to make his own way to the palace. If they were seen together, the Phaeacians would be bound to tittle-tattle.

Odysseus is much, much older than Nausikaa. He's got to be in his 40's, whereas Nausikaa is probably in her mid-teens. But there's sexual tension in the air. When Odysseus approaches her, he grasps a branch to cover his nakedness. He compliments her not by saying, "You look gorgeous." That wouldn't go down well. It would only scare her off. Instead he likens her – wait for it – to a young palm tree that he once saw on the island of Delos. What a compliment! But we get the point. She's beautiful. When Odysseus arrives at the palace and is hospitably received, her father Alcinoüs goes so far as to express the desire that he might marry his daughter. Homer doesn't indicate what Nausicaä's reaction is to this, but we almost hear her intake of breath. We only meet her once again, just before Odysseus leaves the island. "Goodbye, stranger," she says. "Remember me from time to time. I saved your life." Homer never states explicitly that the princess became emotionally attached to Odysseus. But we sense it. We sense that she has experienced the pain of unrequited love and is now, because of her encounter with Odysseus, a mature woman.

I always find myself wishing that Telemachus and Nausikaa had met. They'd make the ideal couple. But life's not like that. The meeting that takes place between them on the beach has its comic side, and it's comedy that I'll talk about in the next lesson.

Image Description
Written by

Robert Garland