The Odyssey: Dominant Themes of Book III
THE ODYSSEY BOOK III: THE LORD OF THE WESTERN APPROACHES
Book Three illustrates a number of important ongoing themes of The Odyssey. Books One through Four are called “The Telemacheia.” They relay the tale of Odysseus’ son, Telemachus, and his coming of age as he searches for information about the fate of his father and advice as to what he should do about his mother’s greedy suitors. Book Three in particular sees Telemachus coming into power in his first attempts at diplomacy outside of his home city, as he deals with King Nestor of Pylos. When Telemachus and Athena (still in her guise as Mentor) arrive at Pylos at line 3.15, Telemachus hangs back, too shy to come forward and address the king directly. Athena encourages him, reminding him that his life has not gone unnoticed by the gods–that he is blessed. Then she leads by example in pouring libations and offering prayer (lines 3.60-75), so when it is finally Telemachus’ turn to speak, he is able to do so with enough conviction and skill that he impresses the king. Nestor goes so far as to say that he can see Odysseus’ gift of speech in Telemachus–a high compliment.
But there are larger themes at work in this chapter which are central to the entire Odyssey: specifically, the importance of loyalty and prudence in those left at home during uncertain times and the importance of devotion to the gods. The story of Agamemnon’s murder is not only a morality tale illustrating what can happen when people you trust betray you, but offers an interesting contrast to the situation as it stands in Ithaca. It also ends with an admonition to Telemachus not to dally too long away from home in search of his answers. This trio of meanings of the tragedy of Agamemnon is illustrated best in the passage 3.353-363. After telling Telemachus the story of Agamemnon’s treachery by his cousin and wife, he admonishes that Telemachus not stay away from home too long, lest the same or worse happen to his father’s kingdom. Indeed, Nestor says, Telemachus might not want to let too much time pass before he seeks revenge for the treatment of his father’s house, even if there is no good news as to whether Odysseus will ever return home. He warns that if Telemachus isn’t quick enough, the suitors will devour his entire legacy, and his journey for answers will come to nothing. It is notable that when telling the tale of Agamemnon’s betrayal, Nestor points out that Clytemnestra was loyal at first and spurned Aegisthus’ advances but eventually gave in to his seduction and played her fatal part in the murder of her husband. This is a striking contrast to the character of Penelope, who stoops to deception in deference to her loyalty to her husband, rather than ending the conflict by betraying him and taking another husband. It is also important to note that any one of Penelope’s suitors could easily take on the role of Aegisthus in plotting the downfall of the house, which eventually the suitors do en masse in their conspiracy against Telemachus while he is gone on his quest.
A second overarching theme of The Odyssey emphasized in this book is the importance of devotion to the gods practiced by the Greeks. This section is book-ended by examples of such devotion. When Athena and Telemachus arrive at Pylos, there is a huge ritual taking place on the beach, with thousands of people (4500, precisely) sacrificing 81 black bulls to Poseidon. At the end of the chapter, when King Nestor realizes that Mentor was really Athena in disguise, he throws another feast with a sacrifice in honor of the blessing of her presence. The Greeks saw the gods as being directly involved in their daily lives, and as such they took pains to honor them as much at every opportunity, hoping to gain their favor in even the smallest things. The final feast for Athena, which ends with Telemachus and Nestor’s son Pisistratus departing by chariot to visit Agamemnon’s brother Menelaus in Sparta, is detailed in section 3.415-529.
Considering how deeply involved the gods are in the unfolding of the events in the Odyssey, it seems this kind of devotion by the players isn’t misplaced, although it can be argued whether or not it was really effective in changing the humans’ fate. The Greek gods were fickle–it’s no small irony that it was Athena’s fault that Odysseus didn’t get home in a timely manner in the first place, and now she stands as the pivotal supporter on behalf of him and his son.
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THE ODYSSEY BOOK III: THE LORD OF THE WESTERN APPROACHES Book Three illustrates a number of important ongoing themes of The Odyssey. Books One through Four are called “The Telemacheia.” […]