What’s Troubling Telemachus?

When Athena first goes to Ithaca to see Telemachus in the Odyssey, the narrator shifts focus and describes Odysseus’ son witnessing Mentes’ appearance (Athena in disguise, 1.113-120):

“God-like Telemachus saw her first by far.
For he was sitting among the suitors, tortured in his dear heart,
Dreaming about his noble father in his thoughts, if he should come home
From somewhere and scatter the suitors from his home,
And have his own place [honor] and rule over his possessions.
As he say imagining these things, he saw Athena,
And went straight to the entryway, rebuking himself
That a guest should stand in the doorway for so long…”

τὴν δὲ πολὺ πρῶτος ἴδε Τηλέμαχος θεοειδής·
ἧστο γὰρ ἐν μνηστῆρσι φίλον τετιημένος ἦτορ,
ὀσσόμενος πατέρ’ ἐσθλὸν ἐνὶ φρεσίν, εἴ ποθεν ἐλθὼν
μνηστήρων τῶν μὲν σκέδασιν κατὰ δώματα θείη,
τιμὴν δ’ αὐτὸς ἔχοι καὶ κτήμασιν οἷσιν ἀνάσσοι.
τὰ φρονέων μνηστῆρσι μεθήμενος εἴσιδ’ ᾿Αθήνην,
βῆ δ’ ἰθὺς προθύροιο, νεμεσσήθη δ’ ἐνὶ θυμῷ
ξεῖνον δηθὰ θύρῃσιν ἐφεστάμεν·

Telemachus is roused from a reverie by the appearance of a new stranger—and the characterization of his repose intrigues me. He does not appear to me to be a man of action except in the offering of hospitality. His emotional state is withdrawn: he inhabits his own thoughts, he is emotionally distressed, and he fantasizes about things being different from what they are. His first response is to rebuke himself for failing to live up to the very standard of hospitality that has been offered to the suitors, the abuse of which is a source of his frustration, and his daydream that his father will come home and put everything to rights.

telemachusgiovanni-battista-tiepolo-c-1740

By Giovanni Battisa Tiepolo, 18th Century

Although the phrase τετιημένος ἦτορ (“tortured/troubled in the heart”) does not have broad representation in the extant epic tradition, it does appear to have a rather marked one that indicates forced action or unwilling inaction. For instance, in the Iliad Ajax has to retreat from the Achaeans unwillingly (ὣς Αἴας τότ’ ἀπὸ Τρώων τετιημένος ἦτορ / ἤϊε πόλλ’ ἀέκων, 11.556-557). Odysseus describes himself the same way when mentioning the night he spent sleeping alone in the bushes on the shore of Skheria (7.287). The conceptual union between these two instances is that both Ajax and Odysseus are compelled to action by external forces. Later on in the Odyssey, the narrator describes Amphinomos suffering in the same way in book 18 when he feels fear at Odysseus-in-disguise’s prophecy (153-155)

“He went through the dear home, tortured in his heart,
And nodding his head. For he was imagining doom in his mind.
But there was no way to flee his fate….”

αὐτὰρ ὁ βῆ κατὰ δῶμα φίλον τετιημένος ἦτορ,
νευστάζων κεφαλῇ· δὴ γὰρ κακὸν ὄσσετο θυμῷ.
ἀλλ’ οὐδ’ ὧς φύγε κῆρα·…

Here, we have a thematic parallel for Telemachus’ first appearance. Amphinomos is full of dread over what he has just heard and cannot escape the future he is fearing. Note how both Amphinomos and Telemachus are characterized as occupied by their own thoughts, living an internal dream rather than engaging in the outside world.

There are other accounts that strengthen these associations in variations on the standard Homeric texts. When commenting upon Odysseus’ first appearance in book 5, the scholia record Aristonicus’ comment that the language is more fit (οἰκειότερον ἐν ᾿Ιλιάδι) for the Iliad at 2.721 where Philoktetes is described as “he lies there on the island suffering harsh pains” (ἀλλ’ ὃ μὲν ἐν νήσῳ κεῖτο κρατέρ’ ἄλγεα πάσχων, =Od. 5.13). He adds that it would be right for him instead to be “tortured in his heart” (νῦν δὲ ἔδει τετιημένος ἦτορ εἶναι, Schol. H ad Od. 5.13). Similarly Menelaos retreats from Patroklos’ body under force in book 17 of the Iliad, described as “troubled in his mind” (τετιηότι θυμῷ) and unwillingly—a phrase the scholia record appeared in the alternative τετιημένος ἦτορ in some manuscripts (Schol. Ad Il. 17.664b2). Another textual variant offers support: after Hera has been rebuffed by Zeus at the end of Iliad 1, most manuscripts depict Hephaestus as ministering to his mother, “white armed Hera” (λευκωλένῳ ῞Ηρῃ, 1.572) while the scholia report τετιημένῃ ἦτορ as a variant (Schol. bT ad Il. 1.572 Did. (?) λευκωλένῳ ῞Ηρῃ: ἄμεινον γράφειν „τετιημένῃ ἦτορ”). Hera’s ability to affect the action or even know Zeus’ plan has recently been limited—it makes sense that she would be characterized as being upset, unwilling, and trapped.

The description appears again once more with Telemachus and at a rather important juncture. After he has announced his departure at the assembly, Telemachus returns to his home in book two “tortured in his heart” (2.298) before he insults the suitors and declares that he is a grown man with a plan Od. 2.312–317):

“Isn’t it enough that you wasted my many fine possessions before, when I was still just a child [νήπιος], suitors? But now, when I am big, and I have learned by listening to the speech of other men, and the heart within me grows, I will discover some way that I may visit upon you wicked fates either when I go to Pylos or here in this country.”

ἦ οὐχ ἅλις, ὡς τὸ πάροιθεν ἐκείρετε πολλὰ καὶ ἐσθλὰ
κτήματ’ ἐμά, μνηστῆρες, ἐγὼ δ’ ἔτι νήπιος ἦα;
νῦν δ’ ὅτε δὴ μέγας εἰμί, καὶ ἄλλων μῦθον ἀκούων
πυνθάνομαι, καὶ δή μοι ἀέξεται ἔνδοθι θυμός,
πειρήσω, ὥς κ’ ὔμμι κακὰς ἐπὶ κῆρας ἰήλω,
ἠὲ Πύλονδ’ ἐλθὼν ἢ αὐτοῦ τῷδ’ ἐνὶ δήμῳ.

The application of the “tortured in the heart” phrase here troubled ancient readers—a scholion glosses its use as “not because he is sullen, but because he is thinking about how to leave” (φίλον τετιημένος ἦτορ] οὐκ ἐσκυθρωπακὼς, ἀλλὰ καὶ φροντίζων ὡς ἀποδημεῖν μέλλων, Schol ES ad Od. 2.298). The scholiastic adjustment here points both to the ‘typical’ interpretation of the line—that it indicates an isolated rumination—and the sense that something critical has changed here. As Telemachus moves into action and declares himself as an agent and a thinker, he also moves from his state of paralysis and rumination into a different part of his tale.

One thought on “What’s Troubling Telemachus?

  1. Greetings,
    Nice discussion a troubling scene. The part that disturbs me is;

    “For he was sitting among the suitors”

    To some degree these are his age group-peers. They belittle, bully and abuse his hospitality. Laertes his grandfather and the real Mentor seem uninvolved in his life making the slightly older suitors his role models for manhood. What a situation to be in.

    Bill

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