The Odyssey, Book IV

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Telemachus visits Menelaus

When Telemachus and Pisistratus arrived at Menelaus’ palace they found him and a large gathering celebrating with a banquet the impending weddings of his daughter, Hermione, to Achilles’ son and his son, Megapenthes, to Alecto’s daughter. Telemachus and Pisistratus were welcomed and offered hospitality and Menelaus perceptively remarked they must be the sons of kings. As Telemachus was in awe of the riches of the palace, Menelaus told him he had amassed this great wealth over seven years of hardship but his pleasure in it had been diminished by the news of his brother’s murder and the deaths of many friends in the Trojan War. Most of all he grieved for Odysseus, not knowing whether he was dead or alive, when he had achieved so much at Troy.

Detail of the Mykonos Vase showing the oldest known depiction of the Trojan Horse. (c) Travelling Runes

Telemachus wept at the mention of his father and Menelaus realised who Telemachus was, as did his wife, Helen, when she joined them. Pisistratus explained they had come seeking advice about the situation at home in Odysseus’ absence. Menelaus said that, if Odysseus had returned home, he had planned to give him and his people a town in Argos to live in so they could have been close neighbours. To relieve their sorrow Helen added to their wine a drug which she had been given by an Egyptian woman for this very purpose. She then described one of Odysseus’ exploits at Troy: disguised as a beggar Odysseus had secretly entered Troy and told Helen details of the Greeks’ plans; he in turn learned valuable information about the Trojans; Helen swore not to disclose his presence because she said she had had a change of heart about coming to Troy and abandoning her home and family. Menelaus praised Odysseus for his self control when hearing Helen when he was in the Wooden Horse.

On the next morning when Menelaus asked him the reason for his visit, Telemachus said he sought news of his father, describing the situation with the suitors on Ithaca. Menelaus was outraged when he heard and hoped Odysseus would return to punish them; he told Telemachus what he had heard from the Old Man of the Sea when he had been delayed in Egypt; the Old Man’s daughter had told Menelaus how to extract the information he wanted from her father: he and three companions should lie in wait for her father in a cave where he went every day to count his seals; they should hold him down, even though he would change shape into a number of frightening animals, and Menelaus should then ask him what he needed to do to be allowed to return home; and she gave him four seal skins to disguise themselves and ambrosia to disguise the smell of fish.

Reading Helen in Egypt – in Egypt – THE SHIELD OF ACHILLES
Detail of the Palestrina Nile Mosaic.

All happened as she had described and Menelaus learned that he had upset Zeus and the other gods by not making rich sacrifices and that he had to return to the Nile to do so, after which he would be allowed to return home; when Menelaus asked him if all the other Greeks had returned home, he was told that Ajax had drowned when his ship was wrecked by Poseidon because of his arrogant boasting and Agamemnon had been murdered by Aegisthus when he returned home; a third man, Odysseus, was being kept prisoner on Calypso’s island; Menelaus was also told that, when he died, he would go to the Elysian Fields because, being married to Helen, he was a son in law of Zeus. Menelaus told Telemachus he had done as instructed and then returned home.

Menelaus urged Telemachus to stay for twelve days and offered to give him three horses and a chariot but Telemachus said that, much as he would like to stay for a much longer time, he needed to return to his companions in Pylos; also, he had no use for horses in Ithaca where there were no meadows for them. Instead he accepted a mixing bowl said to have been made by Hephaestus.

Kauffman, Angelica: Penelope Awakened by Eurycleia
Penelope Awakened by Eurycleia, painting by Angelica Kauffman, 18th–19th century.

Meanwhile in Ithaca, the chief suitors, Antinous and Eurymachus, became aware that Telemachus had gone to Pylos. They plotted to ambush Telemachus in the sea straits near Ithaca on his return. A herald heard what they were plotting and told Penelope who did not know that Telemachus had left the island and she berated her servants for not telling her. Eurycleia told her she had provided Telemachus with provisions for the journey and been sworn to secrecy not to tell Penelope immediately; Penelope should pray to Athena for his safe return, which she did. While Penelope slept that night, Athena sent a ghost of Penelope’s sister, Iphthime, who reassured Penelope that Telemachus would return home safely as Athena was protecting him and had sent her to tell Penelope this. Penelope derived some comfort from this as the suitors set out to ambush Telemachus.

Book III Book V