Getting over Odysseus

2016.09.28, updated 2021.09.28 | By Keith DeStone

Why does the epic narrative allow Telemakhos, whom it shows on a quest to connect with his father, to remain emotionally unaffected by the stories about Odysseus that he hears from Helen and Menelaos in Odyssey 4?

Athena appearing to Telemakhos
Athena appearing to Telemakhos. Tako Hajo Jelgersma (Dutch, 1717–1795).
Image via The British Museum.

§1. With this posting I go back to the original mission of Classical Inquiries, which was to keep track of addenda and supplements to Gregory Nagy’s book The Ancient Greek Hero in 24 Hours (= H24H).[1] There are two points of departure in the text of the Homeric Odyssey for the supplementary thought that I offer here, the first of which is in Rhapsody 1:

|320 . . . Into his heart [thūmos] |321 she [= Athena] had placed power [menos] and daring, and she had mentally connected [hupo-mnē-] him with his father |322 even more than before.

Odyssey 1.320–322 [= H24H Hour 9 Text C][2]

In this text we hear of Athena initiating the mental connection of Telemakhos to his father’s identity. According to Nagy’s analysis, at this point it becomes the quest of Telemakhos, in the rest of the Odyssey, to strengthen that mental connection (H24H 9§16).

§2. The second point of departure is in Rhapsody 4 of the Odyssey:

|220 She [= Helen] put a drug into the wine from which they drank. |221 It [= the drug] was against penthos [nē-penthes] and against anger [a-kholon]. It made one forget all bad things. |222 Whoever swallowed it, once it was mixed with the wine into the mixing bowl, |223 could not shed a tear from his cheeks for that day, |224 even if his mother and father died |225 or if he had earlier lost a brother or his own dear son, |226 killed by bronze weapons—even if he saw it all happen with his own eyes.

Odyssey 4.220–226 [= H24H Hour 9 Text J][3]

What follows immediately hereafter is that first Helen and then Menelaos each tell a story of an adventure of Odysseus at Troy, and, true to the announced qualities of the drug, none of the hearers, not even Telemakhos, sheds a tear.

§3. For me, the juxtaposition of these two texts raises a question: if it is the quest of Telemakhos to strengthen his connection with his father, then why in Odyssey 4 is Telemakhos numb to a story about his father? Is this a failure, perhaps an instance of Telemakhos making a mistake as he attempts to connect with his father? Or is it perhaps a failure on the part of his hosts, Menelaos and particularly Helen, who added the drug that is keeping Telemakhos from connecting with the emotional content of the story about his father?

§4. I would propose that it is not a failure on any character’s part and that the answer to my question has to do with Odysseus’s own quest in the Odyssey. That quest, as defined by Nagy in H24H 9§14, is for Odysseus to get over his relationship to the story of Troy, the Iliad, so that he can move on to his nostos ‘homecoming; song about homecoming’. If the connection of Telemakhos with his father is to be successful, he must not try to connect with an identity that his father is leaving behind. And the two accounts told by Helen and Menelaos in Odyssey 4.235–289 have to do with Odysseus at Troy, not with Odysseus returning home from Troy. Said another way, accounts of Odysseus at Troy should not properly form part of his song-of-homecoming or nostos, and so the plot finds a way for Telemakhos to avoid connecting with those accounts. (I have to note, however, the ironic fact that ultimately these accounts do form part of the authoritative nostos of Odysseus, which is to say, the Odyssey as we have it.)

§5. Earlier in Odyssey 4, when Menelaos recounts a story not about Troy but about homecoming—first his own homecoming and then Odysseus’s lack of a homecoming—it is telling what results:

|113 Thus he [= Menelaos] spoke, right away rousing in him [= Telemakhos] a yearning to lament for his father. |114 He wiped a tear to the ground as he heard of his father, |115 and he raised his purple cloak in front of his eyes |116 with both hands.

Odyssey 4.113–116[4]

In this case Telemakhos does connect emotionally with the story of Odysseus, his father whose nostos is still taking shape.


Nagy, G. 2013. The Ancient Greek Hero in 24 Hours. Cambridge, MA.


[1] Nagy 2013. It should be obvious that my thinking has been influenced in every way by Greg’s thinking as represented in H24H. I am very honored to be able to consider Greg a teacher, colleague, and friend, and it is in the spirit of these connections that I propose this additional thought about Telemakhos.

[2] |320 . . . τῷ δ᾽ ἐνὶ θυμῷ |321 θῆκε μένος καὶ θάρσος, ὑπέμνησέν τέ ἑ πατρὸς |322 μᾶλλον ἔτ᾽ ἢ τὸ πάροιθεν.

[3] |221 αὐτίκ’ ἄρ’ εἰς οἶνον βάλε φάρμακον, ἔνθεν ἔπινον, |221 νηπενθές τ’ ἄχολόν τε, κακῶν ἐπίληθον ἁπάντων. |222 ὃς τὸ καταβρόξειεν, ἐπὴν κρητῆρι μιγείη, |223 οὔ κεν ἐφημέριός γε βάλοι κατὰ δάκρυ παρειῶν, |224 οὐδ’ εἴ οἱ κατατεθναίη μήτηρ τε πατήρ τε, |225 οὐδ’ εἴ οἱ προπάροιθεν ἀδελφεὸν ἢ φίλον υἱὸν |226 χαλκῷ δηϊόῳεν, ὁ δ’ ὀφθαλμοῖσιν ὁρῷτο.

[4] |113 ὣς φάτο, τῷ δ’ ἄρα πατρὸς ὑφ’ ἵμερον ὦρσε γόοιο· |114 δάκρυ δ’ ἀπὸ βλεφάρων χαμάδις βάλε πατρὸς ἀκούσας, |115 χλαῖναν πορφυρέην ἄντ’ ὀφθαλμοῖιν ἀνασχὼν |116 ἀμφοτέρῃσιν χερσί.