The Odyssey By Homer Summary and Analysis Book 2 - Telemachus Sets Sail

Summary

When the assembly gathers the next day, wise old Aegyptius points out that the group has not met in session since King Odysseus left for the Trojan War some 20 years before. He commends the citizen who was bold enough to call for the meeting. Encouraged, Telemachus effectively makes his case against the suitors and asks them to desist. Silence falls across the gathering as most of the men seem moved by the prince's plea.

Insolently, Antinous, the leading suitor, denies responsibility and puts the blame on that "queen of cunning," Penelope (2.95). He tells the legendary tale of the shroud that Penelope wove for the eventual funeral of Odysseus' father, Laertes, the former king now living on a farm where he grieves his son's absence.

Considering the attack on his mother, Telemachus remains surprisingly calm in his rebuttal. But he foreshadows later events by appealing to Zeus for assistance in vengeance. Dueling eagles suddenly swoop near the assembly, which the seer Halitherses interprets as a sign of Odysseus' return. Eurymachus, the other leading suitor, rudely interrupts the aging prophet and threatens Telemachus. Mentor speaks for Telemachus, but the assembly reaches no clear decision and dissolves. With the aid of Athena, who poses as Mentor and sometimes as Telemachus himself, the prince secretly prepares and sets sail for Pylos.

Analysis

Homer effectively uses the content and style of the speeches at the assembly to reveal the types and natures of the characters in the action. Bolstered by Athena, Telemachus takes the speaker's staff and demonstrates that he is quickly becoming a man capable of speaking up to the suitors. The speech moves most of the assembly to silence as the prince presents his case. His initial appeal is emotional as well as informative. Men frequently are moved to tears in the epic, and Telemachus ends his oration by dashing the speaker's scepter and weeping with passion.

Antinous, however, shockingly insults the queen, whom he obviously wants to marry for mainly political reasons. Penelope, he says, has misguided the suitors for nearly four years now, leading on each man with hints and promises but choosing no one. Antinous demands that Telemachus must send his mother back to her father's home so that the old man might choose a husband for her.

The story of the loom symbolizes the queen's cunning as well as the suitors' density. For three full years, Penelope worked at weaving a shroud for her father-in-law's eventual funeral. She claimed that she would make a decision as soon as the shroud was finished. By day, the renowned weaver worked on a great loom in the royal halls. At night, she secretly unraveled what she had done, amazingly deceiving the young suitors who apparently were too slow of wit or too drunk to discover the ruse. The plot failed only when one of Penelope's servants betrayed her and told the suitors what was happening.

Despite the insults, Telemachus remains calm and counters the leading suitor with logic. He argues that Penelope's father and the public at large would condemn him if he kicked his own mother out of her home. The gods would never tolerate such behavior. Besides, Icarius, the queen's father, lives much too far away. Speaking like an experienced veteran, the prince builds to a passionate peroration, again demanding that the suitors leave. He sarcastically suggests that they might stay if the food and drink are so much better at the royal house of Odysseus; but if they do, he will call on Zeus for vengeance. As if on cue, the king of gods sends eagles as an omen.

Eurymachus, the other leading suitor, is not convinced. Although he later will prove to be a sly manipulator when cornered, here, Eurymachus has no fear and insolently dismisses omens, Odysseus, and the prince. He and the suitors will do whatever they want. It is for others to adjust to them.

In the end, the meeting serves to reveal the suitors to the public, but nothing is done about them. The assembly is an early, somewhat weak example of representative government. It anticipates the later democracies of Athens and other Greek city-states. Despite ruling by power, kings are not absolute monarchs. Their peers influence and sometimes approve or disapprove of policy. Nor is the crown necessarily hereditary. It is won by strength, wealth, and conquest. Thus Antinous and Eurymachus think they might rule, especially if either can wed Penelope. She, on the other hand, stalls for three reasons: a hope for Odysseus' return, a desire to avoid civil war, and a real concern for her son's safety. Her marriage would force a showdown for the crown, and Telemachus' position is considerably weaker, at this point, than that of the top suitors.

Athena continues to support Telemachus. She inspired the assembly meeting, and she plans his secret departure for Pylos, recognizing that the suitors are becoming dangerous and might attempt to assassinate him. She disguises herself as Telemachus to gather 20 fine young men and procure a ship. At other times, she appears as Mentor, a trusted counsel whose name inspired our current use of the word. Under the guise of Mentor, she accompanies the prince to Pylos.

Glossary

Achaeans here, a collective name for all Greeks, including Ithacans.

suitors here, the men attempting to court Penelope.

Argive another term for Greek.

Pylos a seaport in the southwestern Peloponnesus in southern Greece, capital city of King Nestor.

Sparta inland city in southern Peloponnesus, located in Laconia, home of King Menelaus and Queen Helen.

pernicious deadly, destructive.

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