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How Heroism Originates: Telemachus in the Odyssey

The first four books of Homer’s The Odyssey depict Telemachus’ transformation from an immature, frightened child into an intelligent adult as he comes to encompass qualities that the ancient Greeks sought in heroes: an adherence to the rules of xenia, a loyalty to one’s family, and wisdom gained from travelling. First, the young prince offers food, shelter, and gifts to Mentes, whom he encounters in his kingdom, displaying his understanding of the guest-host relationship. Next, Telemachus acquires a vengeful attitude towards the suitors after talking to Mentes, the form that Athena takes when she visits Ithaca, who inspires him to defend his father’s reputation. Finally, the young prince gains some knowledge from his voyages to Sparta, where King Menelaus offers him advice and tells him where Odysseus is.

Because the Achaeans frequently travelled the sea and stayed at foreign ports, they frequently hosted strangers in their homes on short notice, sometimes for extended periods of time. Thus, they felt the need to reciprocate after having been treated so well in foreign lands. Therefore, a good king or lord is expected to treat a stranger with care and compassion, and this devotion to common courtesy is valued in the Achaean society. When Eteoneus asks Menelaus what to do as strangers arrive in the kingdom, the king tells him to “think of all the hospitality we enjoyed at the hands of other men before we made it home” (4.38-39) and commands Eteoneus to accommodate the guests. Similarly, upon hearing of Mentes’ arrival in Ithaca, Telemachus rushes outside, “mortified that a guest might still be standing at the doors” (1.140-41). He treats the stranger like a god—ironically, Athena has actually visited him in disguise as Mentes—and proceeds to take Mentes’ weapon and offer him food and shelter; after the two dine, Mentes explains that he must leave, and Telemachus tells him to “stay longer, keen as you are to sail, so you can bathe and rest and lift your spirits” (1.356-57). By catering to his guest’s every need and providing him with anything he desires, Telemachus adheres to the rules of xenia and exhibits a comprehension of their importance to a Greek hero.

The bright-eyed Athena, visiting Ithaca as Mentes, accepts Telemachus’ instant hospitality, and only after dinner does she attempt her plan to inspire the prince; Mentes asks him if he’s “heard what glory Prince Orestes won throughout the world when he killed that cunning, murderous Aegisthus, who’d killed his famous father” (1.342-45). King Nestor of Pylos and King Menelaus of Sparta also narrate this story to the young Telemachus later in The Odyssey, and the repetition of this tale suggests that the Achaeans valued family loyalty: in particular, they believed that it is the duty of a son to defend the name of his father and that a son’s actions in the times of his father’s disappearance define his manhood and courage. In addition, the frequent retelling of the story indicates to Telemachus the importance in avenging his father by taking action against the suitors who invade Ithaca. Telemachus, now “charged with his father’s memory more than ever now,” (1.370) tells Mentes that he will take his advice “to kill these suitors in your house” (1.339) to heart. By drawing inspiration from Mentes and eagerly learning about what actions he must perform to avenge Odysseus, Prince Telemachus begins to display loyalty to his family and father and comes to embody the second quality of a quintessential Greek hero.

As a result of their long voyages to faraway lands, the Argives gained experience and learned much about culture and society, as they observed the customs of different areas and followed the events occurring throughout Greece. Menelaus, expressing his admiration for Odysseus, explains that he has “traveled over a good part of the world but never once have I laid eyes on a man like him—what a heart that fearless Odysseus had inside him!” (4.301-03). While the red-haired king has met new people on his countless journeys, young Telemachus has not travelled much. On the prince’s journey to Sparta, his most important ideas are simply reinforced; Telemachus once more hears the story of Orestes and Agamemnon from Menelaus, which only serves to emphasize that he must avenge his father, Odysseus. Pisistratus also explains that “when a father’s gone, his son takes much abuse in a house where no one comes to his defense” (4.181-82). To transform from a young, frightened boy to a true Greek hero, Telemachus must voyage to foreign lands to gain more experience and learn more about right and wrong behavior.

As The Odyssey progresses, Telemachus learns to embody heroic qualities and becomes like his well-known father, Odysseus, in the process. To a certain extent, Telemachus transforms into a strong man; he understands what is expected of him as a host and exhibits an undying loyalty to his family. To become a true heroic figure and a leader, however, he will need to travel to other kingdoms—only then will he possess enough wisdom.

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