Homer’s Odyssey: Book 4

Telemachus and Pisistratus arrive at a double wedding feast for Menelaus son and for his daughter who was heading off to marry the son of Achilles. (Don’t hurt your head trying to understand what on the old soap operas was called RAS — Rapidly Aging Syndrome. More importantly, perhaps we’re supposed to sense a symbolic happy resolution to the Trojan War with this marriage alliance.)

One of Menelaus’ lords, when presenting the news of visitors, is (amusingly) cringey — what with that whole Paris visit a while back. But Menelaus obeys the code of hospitality, acknowledging many welcomes he enjoyed elsewhere. Again, we eat first, then identify ourselves. Menelaus brags about his riches: travel seems to be a matter of acquisition — of experience and wealth. He does lament all those lost in the war. Menelaus recognizes that Telemachus must be Odysseus’ son “but pondered / whether to let him state his father’s name / or probe him first and prompt him step by step” (4.131-133).

Generous gift-giving brings on Helen, who spills the beans: “surely he’s Telemachus! The boy that hero left / a babe in arms at home when all you Achaeans / fought at Troy, launching your headlong battles / just for my sake, shameless whore that I was” (4.159-162). She’s still doing this!

After some more sad talk, Helen comes up with the great idea to drug everyone. She spikes the wine with “heart’s-ease” which dissolves anger and mourning (4.245). Helen has her own Odysseus story, in which she recognized the disguised Odysseus inside the walls of Troy but did not rat him out. She apparently had changed her mind and longed to sail back to her Spartan home. Menelaus tells of being inside the wooden horse. Telemachus politely but mercifully, perhaps impatient with all this recounting of the past, successfully suggests bed.

“When young Dawn with her rose-red fingers shone once more” (4.343), Telemachus finally tries to focus Menelaus on any news of Odysseus. Menelaus is offended by the presumptuousness of the suitors: “That’s the bed / of a brave man of war they’d like to crawl inside” (4.371-372) — a telling way of phrasing it. Menelaus tells a rambling tale about trapping Proteus and seal disguises and the death of “Lesser” Ajax, etc. After hundreds of lines he finally gets to an indirect report about Odysseus: a prophet claims to have seen him stranded on Calypso’s island.

Menelaus invites Telemachus to stay for a dozen more days, but the boy renders a polite no. Also, thanks for the offer of nifty horses, but they are impractical on the rugged islands of Ithaca.

Meanwhile, the suitors continue swaggering around, passing the time playing Frisbee. Antinous learns to his surprise that Telemachus had taken off. He hatches a plot to have Telemachus ambushed.

A herald, Medon, reports to Penelope, “I don’t know if a god inspired your son / or the boy’s own impulse led him down to Pylos, / but he went to learn of his father’s journey home, / or whatever fate he’s met” (4.802-805). Medon tells her of the suitors’ plans to kill Telemachus. Penelope frets and laments. The nurse, Eurycleia, shares the grief. As a band of suitors take to the sea, Athena sends a phantom figure of Penelope’s sister to her in order to comfort her. Interestingly, even in sleep one is aware of one’s troubles. What Penelope really wants to know cannot be told by the phantom.

Odyssey: Book 5
Odyssey Index