April 27, 2019
Sooooo, I was thinking about the Odyssey, like I do, and it occurred to me that very little is said in academic or pop-culture circles about Telemachus, his son. Then I remembered, THE BOOK ACTUALLY STARTS WITH HIM. So, I wrote a few ideas down...
Telemachus is one of those characters that is easily dismissed and forgotten but in some ways we all inhabit his role, looking for the stories of our parents in order to complete our own stories (I know many people with an addiction to Ancestry.com). This glorious epic poem, however, really begins with his story. Why not begin with the guy at the center of it all, Odysseus? The truth is the whole narrative is centered on the journey back to wholeness, and while Odysseus and Penelope are fractured due to the war, they have experienced wholeness; theirs is a journey back. Telemachus on the other hand has never experienced wholeness, he is part of a sacred trinity, but has never actually experienced it. His mom, for example, is fully and archetypally feminine while her active partner is missing from the shores of the kingdom. She is completely passive. When confronted with options, her choice is to not choose and do everything she can to maintain the status quo. Only when Odysseus is back in Ithaca does she make a decision (there is an unconscious recognition that the masculine active is back in town even before he is announced to her).
Telemachus, as he grows up, is struggling to be active but he does not know exactly how to go about it. He may have had some tutelage from his grandfather, but the text doesn’t even talk about that. He has to figure out how to be active on his own, based partly on the imperfect models before him, the suitors. Fortunately, Penelope is a good mother and teaches her son to be a good person and this keeps him from becoming a jerk like the idiots who inhabit his home. He sees them as a role model of what NOT to do. He also learns from the stories about his dad, but at one point in the story he even doubts that Odysseus is his father. Nevertheless, the father’s absence does not entirely preclude Odysseus from being a role model in a sort of idealized form in the young man’s imagination.
Fortunately, he is open to suggestions from the people he trusts, Mentes and Mentor (AKA Athena in disguise). Athena urges him to go find out what happened. This does not happen early in Odysseus’ journey home, but just before he will arrive back in Ithaca. Before he can meet his father, he needs to hear about him from people who actually knew him (ok, beyond his mom, grandma, and grandpa). As a boy coming of age, wanting to take on bigger responsibilities he needs to know about the man Odysseus is beyond the role of husband and king. He needs, to the extent that it’s possible, to find out who his dad was as a friend, warrior, and political ally. How did other people experience him?
Our family’s stories are our own stories. Even the relatives we never met are part of our own narrative. Behaviors, just like biology, are handed down through generations: priorities, habits, and attitudes are all learned–at least in part. These lessons may be questioned and changed over the generations but even those changes that you didn’t decide on are part of your own story, whether you know it or not.
Sometimes, you have to get out of town to really learn the stories of your own family. Telemachus leaves his mother’s protective eye and heads out to hear about the stories first-hand. He has to leave the home of his childhood and physically see the people who knew his dad. He needs to see their eyes and faces when they talk about him. It needs this to be a visceral experience, not removed through writing or second-hand accounts. Likewise, he needs to tell his own story, and fill in the gaps for some of Odysseus’ friends. Just as your family is part of your story, you are part of your family’s (and teachers’, and friends’) stories. Of course, none of us know our own stories ENTIRELY, but the more we know, the more complete we are and the more we can live, consciously deciding who we are and who we want to be.
While Telemachus is out chatting with his dad’s old friends, he also learns another part of the story, the story behind dad’s crime: his absence. An absent parent (or any loved one, really) is its own crime. In the absence of a genuine story, we fill in the gaps with all kinds of things created in our imaginations. We create scenarios that explain the abandonment, either criminalizing the absent party or idealizing them. In the case of Telemachus, guided by the stories from his mom and grandparents, he has idealized his father and he doubts his own ability to live up that idealization leading to that line that is almost just thrown away in the text ‘if I really am Odysseus’ son.’ The journey to see Nestor and Menelaus is crucial because at 19 or 20, he is old enough to hear the tales, and young enough to adjust his own story to understand himself.
When Telemachus finally heads back home, the suitors are poised to kill him. They are, as noted above, quintessential a$$holes. They are not interested in building, but would rather tear everything down for their own gain, taking away spoils rather than creating prosperity. When you are not sure of your own narrative there are always critical forces trying to tear at your core self. There is a central insecurity, especially in youth–young people have not lived long enough to create a long self-narrative and therefore rely more heavily on the narratives of their family to complete their own. In this case, Telemachus had good friends/teachers in the form of a goddess and a remarkable, strong mother to help him avoid these pitfalls. Being surrounding by strong elders is especially important for young people who are missing parts of their own story (or who are not strong enough yet to change the stories passed down by their ancestors).
When he finally gets back home, the young man goes first to the swineherd (as does Odysseus). The swineherd is incredibly loyal, and makes very sure that his master’s pigs are well kept. The pigs, like most animals, tend to represent instinct, self-interest, or over indulgence. But in the ancient world, they were important to the worship of several goddess, including Aphrodite, the goddess of beauty and “love,” but perhaps more accurately the goddess of lust (which may or may not include love, but is incredibly important to fertility). It is the swineherd’s job to make sure that kingdom’s herd is preserved and that fertility remains in the house of Odysseus, and not just in bellies of the lusty suitors. This makes his hut the perfect meeting ground for returned king and his son, the embodiment of his own and Penelope’s fertility.
Telemachus meets his father, who has been disguised by Athena. This first meeting provides Odysseus with a good sense of who his son is now in a real way, without pretense. Odysseus is just another stranger to the boy. It also allows Telemachus to genuinely tell his story without prejudice. Your story may be different depending on whose company your in at the time you tell it. The real question is, what is your story when you’re alone. Now that he has spoken to the people who know his dad, Telemachus has a much better sense of his own story, and his frustrations. Finally, Odysseus finally reveals who he really is when the two have some time alone, and Telemachus has the next piece of own story.
When they return to the palace, dad is in disguise again, still trying to get the lay of the land. Telemachus is put to the test, being forced to allow his father to be abused by the suitors, but he also gets to see his father’s patience, fortitude, and cleverness. He gets to know his father in a new way, by observing him in action. He also gets to show his dad what he is capable of: keeping secrets, self-control, and loyalty. Though he is apprehensive at first, each is confident in the other and they will face the suitors together–with a little help from their favorite goddess, Athena.
When it comes time to apply Penelope’s test to the suitors–the stringing of Odysseus’ bow and shooting an arrow through axe heads–Telemachus shows his support for his father by preparing the grounds for the test, proving himself to be capable and strong as he digs the trench, straight and true for the axes to be planted in a perfect row. He also shows himself to be as strong as the mighty Odysseus when he almost strings the bow, but relents at a sign from dad–Odysseus must be the one to string the bow and begin the battle.
Finally, after multiple suitors fail to string the bow, Odysseus takes his chance and strings it for himself, sends an arrow through the line of bronze axes (presumably, they have a hole in them). This begins the blood shed.
While it may seem as if they had no help (beyond a couple servants who weren’t exactly warriors), the truth is, Athena was there. She is usually in disguise, but present nonetheless. She never creates big miracles that are obvious but is always nudging, tipping, and arranging things so everything goes according to plan in the end. She is the friend of Heroes, not the master of the universe. She never helps people who don’t bother trying to help themselves. While Odysseus and Telemachus fight the suitors, she mostly sits it out. But, when spears head towards them, they are somehow always off target, nudged a bit from their intended mark. She has always been present in the form of friends, Mentor and Mentes, rarely appearing as herself. Ya know, luck and fate always wear a disguise.
Once the battle is over, Telemachus helps clean the great hall of the bodies and blood. He kills the disloyal maids at his father’s orders–a sacrifice not unlike Odysseus made several times over when he lost his own crew.
Once Penelope and Odysseus are united again, there is wholeness in the kingdom, including within the characters themselves. They are all balanced between passivity and activity, aggression and peace, and we have a compete story…at least for now. But, you know there's always another adventure just around the corner that will lead you back to the wine-black sea.