The Telemachiad

From Gerald R. Lucas

The first four books of the Odyssey are often referred to as the “Telemachiad,” or the song of Telemechus as they focus on the difficulties of a young hero coming of age in a hostile environment. Odysseus has been absent from Ithaca nearly twenty years; suitors have overrun his house hoping to be chosen to rule Ithaca by Odysseus’ queen, Penelope; the suitors have ransacked Odysseus’ stocks, taking whatever they want for their own pleasure, threatening Telemachus’ inheritance; and Telemachus feels that he is still just a boy who cannot hope to act against such odds. He even questions whether or not Odysseus is his father as he languishes in the company of suitors waiting for any word from passing travelers about the wayward Odysseus. When we first see Telemachus, he is inactive, still very much a boy, but by the end of book four, he has grown out of his despair, discovers that his father may indeed be alive, and has begun to stand up for himself and his familial responsibilities.

Helen Recognizing Telemachus by Jean-Jacques Lagrenée, 1795.

Telemachus must become his own man in order to live up to the hero of the epic, his father Odysseus. Like following a camera panning through the court of Ithaca, we encounter Telemachus “sitting there unhappy among the suitors, / a boy, daydreaming”[2] and thinking about his absent father:

What if his great father
came from the unknown world and drove these men
like dead leaves through the place, recovering
honor and lordship in his own domains?[3]

Still a boy, Telemachus must be encouraged to act — to become a man in his own right and perhaps his own hero like Agamemnon’s son Orestes. The numerous allusions to the filial obligations of the son to the father run throughout the Odyssey’s first four books. Upon his return from Troy, Agamemnon is killed by his wife’s lover, Aigisthos; Orestes takes action and revenges his father by killing both Aigisthos and his unfaithful mother, Clytemnestra. In the many mentions of this event, Telemachus is explicitly compared to Orestes; the latter fulfills his manly duty to his father and family, while the latter has not yet acted, still a boy. Also implied as a parallel in Orestes’ story is a comparison between Clytemnestra and Penelope. The former is unfaithful to her husband (who could blame her, really?), while Penelope has withstood the onslaught of the suitors’ advances for many years, remaining faithful to her absent husband, even though it seems likely that Odysseus will never return.

Part of Telemachus’ indecisiveness comes from his questions of legitimacy. Despite Athena’s, Nestor’s, and Menelaus’ insistence that he looks just like his father, Telemachus has never known his father: Odysseus left for Troy when Telemachus was very young. When Athena, disguised as Mentes, asks “You must be, by your looks, Odysseus’ boy? / The way your head is shaped, the fine eyes — yes, / how like him!”[4] Telemachus answers:

Friend, let me put it in the plainest way
My mother says I am his son: I know not
surely. Who has known his own engendering?
I wish at least I had some happy man
as father, growing old in his own house—
but unknown death and silence are the fate
of him that, since you ask, they call my father.[5]

Not only does Telemachus doubt that he may be Odysseus’ son — who can blame him for feeling down, though? — he questions his mother’s fidelity. Athena knows that she must help the young Telemachus, so she gives him a mission: go to Nestor and ask him if he knows Odysseus’ fate and also tell the suitors, in a public forum, to leave Odysseus’ house, or face the consequences. Her encouragement “put a new spirit in him, / a new dream of his father” that will allow him to act[6].

The Sorrow of Telemachus by Angelica Kauffman, 1783.

Book two shows Telemachus beginning to fulfill his responsibility to his father, and also how much like Odysseus he is. The assembly shows his power of oration — his presence as a leader and tactician. However, the suitors, led by Antinous, Eurymachus, and Leokritos, remain defiant, rude, and eventually threatening, dismissing Telemachus’ new-found display of manhood in front of the whole town. This final chance at diplomacy allows the Ithacans to see that Telemachus means business and justifies the suitors’ final end: death at the hands of father and son. Telemachus takes twenty men in a borrowed boat surreptitiously to Pylos to consult Nestor at the end of book two.

Nestor, the wise counsel of the Iliad, meets Telemachus and his companions with cheerful hospitality. Nestor provides some exposition about what happened after the fall of Troy — the disagreement between Agamemnon and Menalaus which separated the Greek forces — but knows nothing of the fate of Odysseus. Yet, once again, Nestor brings up Agamemnon’s murder, further encouraging Telemachus to act heroically like Orestes. Nestor also offers optimism: “Who knows, your father might come home someday / alone or backed by troops, and have it out with them / [. . .] never have I seen the gods help any man / as openly as Athena did your father.”[7] But Nestor’s words are still not enough to bolster the courage needed for a true hero; Telemachus answers: “I can’t think what you say will ever happen, sir. / It is a dazzling hope. But not for me. / It could not be—even if the gods willed it.”[8] Still doubting, Telemachus follows Nestor’s advice to consult Menelaos, but not to stay too long from Ithaca or the suitors will “squander all you have or take it from you, / and then how will your journey serve?”[9]

Less about Telemachus and more about the marriage dynamics of Menelaus and Helen, book four is just fun. Helen, somewhere between Circe and Clytemnestra, seems to be in control of the court. Witch-like, she creates a surreal atmosphere for the evening, casting spells and feeding the men potions while they tell stories of war-like exploits and honor Odysseus’ ingenuity. Even though Helen’s loyalties remain dubious much to the apparent chagrin and impotence of Menelaus, Telemachus does find what he needs from Menelaus’ encounter with Proteus: “Laertes son, whose home is Ithaca. / I saw him weeping, weeping on an island. / The nymph Calypso has him, in her hall.”[10] With this, Telemachus is ready to act, but he (and Penelope) must first hold out for his father’s return.

By the end of book four, the suitors’ have decided that Telemachus is becoming dangerous, and they plan to kill him upon his return. Telemachus has taken a literal journey, but he has also undergone a psychological journey into manhood. He no longer doubts his patrimony, nor does he doubt that his father will return, and he is ready to do his duty as son and heir of Odysseus when the latter finally does reach Ithaca.


  1. Originally published: 09/03/2003 09:17:50 AM
  2. I.141–142
  3. I.142–145
  4. I.244–46
  5. I.251–57
  6. I.360–61
  7. III.229–30, 234–35
  8. III.239–41
  9. III.339–40
  10. IV.579–81