Wednesday, 5 October 2011

Blogging the Odyssey - Book 2

Again, let's start with the Sparknotes summary:

When the assembly meets the next day, Aegyptius, a wise Ithacan elder, speaks first. He praises Telemachus for stepping into his father’s shoes, noting that this occasion marks the first time that the assembly has been called since Odysseus left. Telemachus then gives an impassioned speech in which he laments the loss of both his father and his father’s home—his mother’s suitors, the sons of Ithaca’s elders, have taken it over. He rebukes them for consuming his father’s oxen and sheep as they pursue their courtship day in and day out when any decent man would simply go to Penelope’s father, Icarius, and ask him for her hand in marriage.

Antinous blames the impasse on Penelope, who, he says, seduces every suitor but will commit to none of them. He reminds the suitors of a ruse that she concocted to put off remarrying: Penelope maintained that she would choose a husband as soon as she finished weaving a burial shroud for her elderly father-in-law, Laertes. But each night, she carefully undid the knitting that she had completed during the day, so that the shroud would never be finished. If Penelope can make no decision, Antinous declares, then she should be sent back to Icarius so that he can choose a new husband for her. The dutiful Telemachus refuses to throw his mother out and calls upon the gods to punish the suitors. At that moment, a pair of eagles, locked in combat, appears overhead. The soothsayer Halitherses interprets their struggle as a portent of Odysseus’s imminent return and warns the suitors that they will face a massacre if they don’t leave. The suitors balk at such foolishness, and the meeting ends in deadlock.

As Telemachus is preparing for his trip to Pylos and Sparta, Athena visits him again, this time disguised as Mentor, another old friend of Odysseus. She encourages him and predicts that his journey will be fruitful. She then sets out to town and, assuming the disguise of Telemachus himself, collects a loyal crew to man his ship. Telemachus himself tells none of the household servants of his trip for fear that his departure will upset his mother. He tells only Eurycleia, his wise and aged nurse. She pleads with him not to take to the open sea as his father did, but he puts her fears to rest by saying that he knows that a god is at his side.


This Book sees Telemakhos stepping into his father's shoes by beginning to take up the public role of leader of the community.  The importance of the father/son relationship is again noted, and it looks like Telemakhos is a chip off the old block:
Telemakhos, you will not be small or foolish
if indeed your father's strength is planted in you,
such a man was he to fulfil both deeds and words....
But if you are not the son of him and his wife,
I have no hope that you will fulfil what you intend....
But yet, since you will not now be small or foolish,
and Odysseus' cleverness has not quite failed you,
I have hope indeed that you will fulfil these things.
Telemakhos is sometimes referred to simply as 'the dear son of Odysseus' (Odysséos philos huios) rather than by name.  When the assembly meets, he literally takes his father's place.

Like Odysseus, Telemakhos now has to leave his fatherland (patris gaia - he uses the term himself) - but in his case it is a temporary journey, aimed at finding news of his father.  We don't feel much anxiety about his chances of success.  In fact, there isn't much suspense in the Book generally.  We get the sense that Odysseus' return is imminent and that the suitors are going to come to a sticky end.  What we don't know at this point is exactly how this is going to happen.

This Book deals with public space, which isn't the place for women, but female characters do come into the narrative.  For one thing, we meet the loyal maidservant Eurykleia again.  For another, we hear the well-known story of Penelope unpicking the shroud.  We are also told expressly that she isn't a woman to be underestimated:
But if she still irks for long the sons of the Greeks,
using those gifts of mind which Athene gave her,
knowledge of beautiful handiwork, and good sense,
and cleverness, like no woman of old possessed,
none of the lovely-haired Greek women of old times,
Tyro or Alkmene or fair-crowned Mykene -
not one of them had a mind like Penelope...
This is not a conventional depiction of femininity.  Nonetheless, it is made clear that Penelope is at the disposal of Telemakhos, the master of the household, and that she would otherwise be under the tutelage of her father, Ikarios.

On the divine level, Athene is continuing to work as the patron of Odysseus and his family.  Zeus sends a favourable omen as well, in the form of two eagles - only for the suitor Eurymakhos to reject it.  The latter manages to speak harshly to an old man in the process, thereby violating another norm of traditional Greek society.