Summary and Analysis
As Telemachus and Athena (still disguised as Mentor) arrive at Pylos, they come upon a huge ceremony in which some 4,500 people offer 81 bulls in sacrifice to Poseidon. Telemachus feels awkward and embarrassed by his youth and inexperience, but under Athena/Mentor's guidance, he makes a favorable impression on King Nestor, oldest of the Greek chieftains. Nestor's situation and, indeed, the whole state of affairs in Pylos stand in stark contrast to Odysseus' and Ithaca. Through these experiences in Pylos and with Athena's guidance, Telemachus learns how to comport himself as the son and heir to a great king.
Nestor talks of the old days and significantly elaborates on the story of Agamemnon's murder. He has little to offer regarding Odysseus, having last seen Ithaca's king shortly after the victory at Troy, but he suggests that Telemachus and Nestor's son Pisistratus proceed to Sparta to visit Menelaus, Agamemnon's brother, who may be of more help to the guests. Athena returns to the ship to instruct the crew before she leaves on other errands. After another sacrificial feast, Nestor provides a chariot and team of steeds for the two princes' journey to Sparta.
The first four books of The Odyssey are known to scholars as the "Telemacheia"; they deal with the young prince's quest for information about his father as well as his own journey toward manhood. In the latter sense, this section of the epic is very much a coming-of-age story. Athena/Mentor is a helpful guide to the prince's decorum and always aware that Telemachus must quickly become a man and a warrior.
In addition to hospitality, two themes dominate the visit with Nestor: loyalty to human comrades and family, and devotion to the gods. Throughout The Odyssey, Homer's characters refer to Agamemnon's story several times. The tale of Agamemnon's death stands in contrast to events in Ithaca but also serves as a warning of what can happen when loyalty goes awry. Telemachus, growing in the social graces and truly wanting to learn, encourages Nestor's account of the murder of Agamemnon.
Agamemnon was a great warrior, commander of the Greek forces, and chief of their largest contingent at Troy. When he went to war, he left his cousin Aegisthus in charge at home in Mycenae. Motivated by greed and lust, Aegisthus betrayed this trust and seduced Agamemnon's wife, Clytemnestra. The two illicit lovers murdered the great warrior upon his return from the Trojan War. Menelaus, Agamemnon's brother, was absent and thus unable to avenge his death.
Later, Agamemnon's children, Orestes (his son) and Electra (his daughter), gained vengeance by killing Aegisthus and the queen. Homer's audience would recognize the widely known story, which later appeared in the works of Sophocles, Aeschylus, Euripides, and the twentieth-century American dramatist Eugene O'Neill, among others. While Penelope's character contrasts with Clytemnestra's in virtue and loyalty, suitors such as Antinous and Eurymachus echo the sinister Aegisthus.
Just as Nestor's tale of Agamemnon's fate underscores the importance of human loyalty, the visit itself illustrates the importance of devotion to the gods. Nestor expresses this devotion through sacrificial feasts. The first thing that Telemachus notices upon arrival at Pylos is the huge celebration in honor of Poseidon. Before the prince leaves with Pisistratus for Sparta, Nestor holds another sacrificial feast in honor of Athena, whom, he realizes, has honored him with a visit. To the Greeks, such displays of devotion were important because the Greeks thought of the gods as being functioning parts of their daily lives in matters both great and small. Pleasing the gods was a practical, as well as a spiritual, endeavor.
King Priam king of Troy, killed when the city fell to the Greeks.
flotilla a small fleet of ships or small boats.
Myrmidons legendary Greek warriors of ancient Thessaly who followed their king, Achilles, into the Trojan War.
Mycenae Agamemnon's capital city, in the northeastern Peloponnesus of ancient Greece.
libations liquids poured in offering to a god or gods as part of a religious ritual.
Cauconians people living to the southwest of Pylos.