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Telemachos Polymechanos
The character of Telemachos, it is generally agreed by
Homeric Unitarians, undergoes a noticeable change, or a development,
in the course of the Odyssey.Telemachos, when we first see him in Book
1, is a passive daydreamer, but when he returns from hismission abroad,
he is resolute, intelligent, of an independent mind, and courageous
enough to take a stand contrary to the wishes of the suitors who far
outnumber him.1 In the modern discussions of his character the
emphasis is placed primarily on one side of Telemachos' intelligence:
his ability to cope with situations in a sensible way. But little attention
has been given to that added dimension of intelligence which is the
1For discussions of Telemachos' character seeW. J. Woodhouse, The
Compositionof theOdyssey (Oxford 1930) 208-214; a fuller treatment in C. M. H. Miller and
J. W. S. Carmichael, "The Growth of Telemachos," Greeceand Rome 2nd Ser., 1 (1954)
58-64, and H. W. Clark, The Art of theOdyssey(Englewood Cliffs, N.J., 1967) 30-44. See also
W. Jaeger, Paideia, 2nd ed., tr.G. Highet (NewYork 1945) I, 29-34, where there is a good
treatment of Telemachos and his education. These works, where they note Telemachos'
intelligence, generally mean it as good sense, but they neglect the dolosinTelemachos' charac
ter which manifests itself in outright subterfuges or subtle equivocations. For the Analysts
the character of Telemachos is hardly a question for serious consideration, since they are led
to posit at least two, and often three, poets for the Odyssey.A change inTelemachos theymust
attribute to theworkings of different hands, or itmust be denied altogether, as it is by the
Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff, Die HeimkehrdesOdysseus (Berlin 1927) 106.Wilamo
witz is right to this extent, that Telemachos exhibits many of the same characteristics in
Book 1 as he does in later books, but there is a shift in emphasis. Telemachos ismore timid


in Book

1 and vice versa

from Book

15 to the end. The


is such an

enormous obstacle to theAnalysts that thispaper isnot the vehicle to counter their arguments.
For the ablestmodern treatment of the problems of the "Telemachy" from theAnalytic point
of view seeD. L. Page, TheHomericOdyssey(Oxford 1955), especially ch. III and Appendix,
pp. 163-182.

Norman Austin


particularly Odyssean family trait: that ability to see through other

men's actions and words while devising schemes to conceal one's own
intentions. It would be a strange thing indeed if, with Autolykos for
great-grandfather, Odysseus for father, Penelope for mother and
Athena for divine patron, Telemachos should grow to manhood with
not a trace of the congenital proclivity for deception, or if we prefer,
for artful invention. The evidence does not disappoint us. Contrasted
with Odysseus' matured craftsmanship, the strategies of Telemachos
may seem tentative gestures rather than confident assertions. Despite
that, they are sufficient in variety and number to assure us that in this
respect Telemachos will prove himself no illegitimate son.
One factor which has considerable influence on Tele
machos' character, both in its development and in its expression, is the
dilemma in which he is placed. Athena in her first appearance to
Telemachos instructs him to go abroad in search of news of his father.
On the other hand, she has also made him aware that he must now
assume an adult role in Ithaka. Telemachos must now act as the
surrogate for Odysseus at home. He must assume the management of
the affairs of the oikos, and in particular act as Penelope's protector.
Here are two duties, both necessary and yet contradictory to each other.
How is a man to protect his mother and his estate, or what is left of it,
while abroad ?To go abroad is necessary but it would be a disgrace if
the suitors, in his absence, force Penelope into marriage and appro
priate thewhole estate. That would be a sorry event indeed for a young
man to have to explain to his father if his father should return.2
In comparison to the dilemmas with which other charac
ters in Greek literature must cope, Telemachos' situation is quite
singular. Achilleus, for example, faces what for him is a clear-cut issue
in the Iliad. He has been wronged by Agamemnon and he has two
mutually exclusive alternatives. Either he can suffer the insult and
remain with theGreeks or he can deny further allegiance toAgamemnon
by seceding from the army. Fiat iustitiapereatmundus. So too with the
other classic examples of moral dilemma: Antigone, Philoktetes, even
Oedipus. Their sense of justice dictates that one alternative ismorally
more cogent than another, and they are prepared to accept the con
2 Telemachos' predicament was for the Analysts an argument for the
of the "Telemachy." See E. Bethe, Homer:Dichtung undSage (Leipzig and



15, and H. W.






the problem


Telemachos' journey causes when he asks Athena at 13.417: "Did you want Telemachos
too to roam

the seas and

suffer while

other men


his property?"

Telemachos Polymechanos
sequences of their choice. But for Telemachos, of the two alternatives
both are equally right and yet for him to follow through on A is to
invite catastrophe in B.
Even the story of Orestes, which throughout the poem acts
as the paradigm for Telemachos, is not a helpful parallel.3 For Orestes
the situation was unambiguous. His father had been murdered and his
own place usurped. His duty was clear: to avenge his father's death and
to restore his own estate. Telemachos' situation is, in contrast, highly
ambiguous. He does not know whether his father is alive or not. No
one has appropriated his estate or even seriously threatened to do so
the suitorsmay be squandering it but their action has at least a certain
legitimacy. The morality of their behavior, as in turn the morality
of Telemachos' behavior towards them, ultimately hinges on Odysseus'
present status.What ismorally reprehensible in them if he is alive is
justifiable, or excusable at least, if he is dead.
Telemachos is thus facedwith the need tomake categorical
decisions in a quite non-categorical situation. To act decisively (and in
his case even inaction would be a decisive act), he must take uncer
tainties for certainties. Moreover, he will be judged by his father (if
alive), by the heroic world, and by future generations not on themoral
soundness of his choice but on the success or failure which results from
his actions. Telemachos' problem, therefore, is not the choice of one
of two alternatives but the coordination of both. It is above all amatter
of timing. Telemachos' problem will be to determine at what point to
consider his mission abroad accomplished. After that moment any
further delay would be inexcusable, and even an act of cowardice. If
he misjudges themoment he may involve himself and his house in utter
collapse. Telemachos' education, therefore, is a lesson in Katpos.He
must learn to fulfill conflicting claims simultaneously.
That the psychological dilemma is a reality for Tele
from the time he reaches Pylos, can be shown from the
text.4 Homer, however, does not elaborate on the dilemma at length.
3A good study of the instructive purpose of the allusions to Orestes in the
poem is given by E. F. D'Arms and K. K. Hulley, "The Oresteia-Story in the Odyssey,"
TAPA 77 (1946) 207-213. The story of Orestes teaches Telemachos the important lesson
that he must no longer sit passively but must act to improve his own situation.
4 It

be possible

to see in Telemachos'


to leave



his mother's knowledge his first recognition of the dilemma. If she had pleaded with him to
stay, how could he have justified his journey to her? If this is too conjectural, we must agree
that Telemachos has certainly become aware of his predicament at 3.249-252.


Norman Austin

Our justification, therefore, for insisting upon it must be that it gives

coherence to otherwise confused and apparently illogical events or
statements. Several of the problems raised by earlier Analysts concern
ing the chronology of the "Telemachy", or the behavior of Telemachos
can be seen as resulting from the dilemma itself or from Telemachos'
attempt at a resolution of that dilemma.
The most serious chronological problem is that of Tele
machos' alleged dalliance at Sparta. The studies of the chronology of
the Odysseyhave shown, by correlating the action of the "Telemachy"
with that of Books 5-15, that Telemachos must have lingered on for
twenty-nine or thirty days after his morning's conversation with
Menelaos in Book 4.5And this in spite of his refusal to accept Menelaos'
continued hospitality and his anxiety to be on his way. Faced with this
inconsistency, scholars are forced to hypothecate a reason for Tele
machos' forgetfulness or change of mind. We are given the entertaining
suggestion by Delebecque, for example, that Telemachos, displaying
something of his father's predilection for feminine charms, was so over
come by the beauty of Helen as to forget entirely the threatening
situation at home until brought rudely to his senses by Athena a month
later.6 This adherence to strict chronology, however, fails to take into
account what A. Kirchhoff had observed, that when our attention is
turned back to Telemachos in Book 15 the action picks up where it had
left off in Book 4.7 The gifts which Telemachos receives at his departure
in Book 15 are the very ones which Menelaos had promised in Book 4.
For Kirchhoff this was clear evidence that the original "Telemachy"
had been separated to make room for the tale of theWanderings of
Odysseus. Kirchhoff's observation was correct but his explanation not
the only possible, or even the most plausible one. More recently,
scholars have shown that time simply does not exist for Telemachos
from 4.624 until we return to him at 15.4. There is, saysU. Holscher,
no time lapse between the two scenes at Sparta, but only theWander
5For themost thoroughmodem studies of the chronology of the Odyssey
see B. Hellwig, Raum undZeit im homerischen
Epos ("Spudasmata" 2, Hildesheim 1964) and
]. Delebecque, Telemacheet la structurede l'Odyssee,Publ. des Annales de la Faculte des
Lettres, N.S. 21 (Aix-en-Provence, Universite d'Aix-Marseille, 1958).
6Delebecque, 25.
7A. Kirchhoff, Die homerischeOdyssee (Berlin 1879) 190-192. V. BWrard,
d l'Odyssde(Paris 1925) III, 311ff, also found it difficult to accept Telemachos'
30-day stay in Sparta. He questions the feasibility of a 30-day ambush at sea, and concludes
that in the original "Telemachy" the ambush could have lasted only a few days.

Telemachos Polymechanos
ings of Odysseus, i.e., a set of events in a separate time-space con
tinuum.8 This observation, which shows a surer understanding of the
epic convention of chronological continuity, could be further supported
by reference to Telemachos' personal situation.
The most important reason for Telemachos' journey is to
learn of his father's whereabouts. Once Menelaos has told him that,
according to Proteus, Odysseus was being held on an island by Kalypso,
Telemachos' mission has been accomplished.9 There is now not only
no further reason for his staying abroad, but even a distinct danger in
his doing so. Political power was in Homeric times, asM. Finley has
shown, always a precarious possession, acquired and maintained only
by personal initiative, not by the sanctions of a stable and ordered
society.10 Telemachos, while still in Ithaka, is already much concerned
with preserving or recovering his estate and his estate becomes his total
preoccupation after he has learned of Odysseus' whereabouts.l1 Nestor,
furthermore, warns him against leaving his possessions too longwithout
any protection, in the same language that Athena later uses to Tele
machos in Book 15 (3.313-316). As soon as Telemachos has the infor
mation he wanted fromMenelaos, his only thought is to return home
as quickly as possible. Much as he would like to stay and listen to
Menelaos for a whole year, he says, he must be back to his friends at
Pylos (4.595-599). When he asks to be sent on his way in Book 15 he is
equally impatient but more honest. Athena plays on his fear for his
property in themost direct way (15.10-13) and Telemachos is likewise
direct but more discreet when he says toMenelaos (15.88-91): "I left
no guard over my property. May the search formy father not be the
How Telemachos,
cause of my own destruction (ix, .. .aVroS3AAw[Oac)."
in personal danger
being comfortably
he makes clear by the following epexegetic statement: "May I not
lose some precious heir-loom at home."
It would make no sense at all to suppose that the young
man who is so vexed by the erosion of his estate in Books 1 and 2, who
8Uvo Holscher, Untersuchungen
zur Form des Odyssee,HermesEinzelschriften6
(Berlin 1939)
9This is recognized by F. Klinger, Die vier erstenBucher der Odyssee,Ber.
Sachs.Akad. d. Wiss. zu Leipzig, Phil.-hist. Kl. 96 (1944) 41-47. Klinger does not seem to
appreciate that Telemachos' return can no longer be postponed.
10On this point seeM. I. Finley, The World of Odysseus(New York 1954)
74-113 and also Clarke (supra, n. 1) 31-32.
11See Ody. 1.374-380; 397-404 and Finley 74-113.


Norman Austin

is reminded of that danger by Nestor in Book 3, who is impatient to be

home in Book 4, and who shows himself keenly aware of his duty to
protect his home in Book 15 should have blithely exchanged his
anxiety for the pleasures of an extended vacation in Sparta. Nothing
in the text permits us to attribute him with such an anomalous reversal
in his character. In Athena's words to Telemachos in Book 15, there is
no suggestion of a time lapse, and certainly no accusation of dereliction
of duty or forgetfulness. Both topics surely would have served as her
most forceful argument. But all she says is (15.10): "It is no longer
judicious for you (KaAc) to be wandering far from home." Menelaos
likewise makes no reference to an extended visit in his discourse the
next day on the duties of a host. His only point is that do Kapos dictates
that a host must no more think of detaining a guest against his will than
of pushing one on his way. His very next remarks would suggest that
he finds Telemachos' departure premature. Menelaos would very much
like to escort Telemachos personally around Hellas and Argos. This
does not sound as ifTelemachos had already spent thirty days in Sparta.
Telemachos himself makes no reference to a time lapse, though if he
had already stayed a month we might expect him to use this as an
argument for leaving.
For contrast we may note the emphasis on time and
chronological exactitude at Odyssey 10.467-486, when the moment has
come for Odysseus' departure from Kirke's island. We are told ex
plicitly by the poet that a full year has passed. The duration of Odysseus'
stay is further emphasized by his comrades' plea to him to "remember
your fatherland," and by Odysseus' own words that his comrades are
wearing him down with their groans whenever Kirke is not around.
When time is an important consideration Homer is explicit. In Book
15, when neither Athena nor Menalaos nor Telemachos make any
reference to time, an argument from silence is legitimate. Since a time
lapsewould be highly inappropriate here the poet is careful to exclude
anything which could give us an indication of time.12
The chronological continuity between the scenes in Sparta
in Books 4 and 15 is essential. There is no lapse in either time or charac
ter. The impatience which Telemachos exhibits in Book 15 is exactly
12The chronological studies referred to (supra, n. 5) are, of course, correct.
Homer does not portray simultaneous events as such but as consecutive events.Homer seems,
however, to be at pains to gloss over this inconsistency in Book 15. For a good discussion of
this point see Page (supra, n. 1) 77, n. 14 and p. 79.



the same impatience which he exhibited in Book 4. All that has inter
vened is that Athena has appeared to reinforce his fears by making
them concrete and specific.
The somewhat slanderous aspersions which Athena makes
on Penelope's character must be seen in the perspective of Telemachos'
recognition of his adult duties at home. These aspersions made by
Athena in Book 15 on Penelope's character have led to some unfair
aspersions inmodern times on Telemachos' character. It is sometimes
argued from this passage that Telemachos entertained a low opinion
of his mother's marital fidelity and that here surfaces his suspicion that
Penelope has been partial to Eurymachos for some time. The element
of suspicion in his mind is undeniable, but it is also perfectly natural.
Telemachos' attention has now shifted entirely fromOdysseus to Ithaka.
Now that he has news of his father his most serious problem is to post
pone a marriage at home until Odysseus' return. It is natural that the
young man who has been made aware of his responsibilities by Athena
in Book 1 will assume that his mother, left defenseless, will have
surrendered to themost persistent suitor. The fearswhich express them
selves in Athena's apparently cynical reflections on Penelope's fidelity
are psychologically true because they reflect the anxiety and even the
guilt of the young man who fears he may have betrayed both father
and mother by his departure from Ithaka. The only act left to him
which can make his departure from Ithaka defensible is to arrive back
in Ithaka in time to prevent his mother's remarriage.
Though the text attests to Telemachos' recognition of the
predicament which stems from his double loyalty, his recognition is
often highly oblique. It is here that we come upon the particularly
Odyssean aspect of Telemachos' character. Telemachos shows a
preference for keeping silent while others talk for him or, if forced to
make a statement, for giving an outright lie or a discreet circumlocution,
truthful but revealing nothing. This is so consistent a practice that we
may justifiably take it to be a distinguishing trait of his character. One
of the most conspicuous and charming examples of an unequivocal lie
is the excuse Telemachos gives to decline Menelaos' hospitality at
4.595-599: " I could sit and listen to you for a full year with no yearning
for home or parents, so great is the pleasure your stories give me. But
now my friends in Pylos will be concerned about me." The young man
who claims that he could put aside any remembrance of his family
yet asserts that the obligations of friendship demand his speedy return.


Norman Austin

We who are more cognizant of his character know that those nameless
comrades waiting in Pylos are nothing to Telemachos while his family
is everything. We find another circumlocution in his speech toMenelaos
in Book 15.87-91. When Telemachos first arouses Peisistratos he gives
no reason for his sudden nocturnal anxiety. Later, however, when
pressed by Menelaos to stay, he gives a truthful but evasive answer, a
model of decorum. He fears, he says, that in his absence he may have
lost some precious heirloom from his halls (v. 91). Such isTelemachos'
urbane distillation of Athena's raw hints about Penelope's possible
surrender to Eurymachos' blandishments. Has ever truth been more


But Telemachos was not always this way. When we first

see him he is a candid and ingenuous young man. What changed him ?
Athena's first appearance. That was an important moment in his life.
The educational purpose of Athena's mission has been discussed by
others, but what has seldom been noticed is that her technique is as
important as her instructions.13 Her epiphany to Telemachos is in
several respects unique among the many epiphanies in the Iliad and
the Odyssey.By impersonating Mentes, a total stranger to Telemachos,
she guarantees for herself a foolproof disguise. Moreover, she is careful
tomaintain the disguise in all details. She behaves in all respects as a
human guest might behave. She claims no knowledge that an old friend
of Odysseus could not be expected to know; in fact, while prophesying
Odysseus' return she scrupulously deprecates her mantic skill (1.200
205). As if to substantiate her pose of human ignorance parading as
knowledge she had just told the lie that Odysseus was being held
captive on an island by cruel and savage men (1.196-199).
Athena proceeds to educate Telemachos into consciousness
of himself as the son of Odysseus and of the responsibility which that
entails by the Socratic method. Avoiding the customary behavior of
gods when they have instructions to relay to mortals, she chooses the
less coercive but more persuasive method of dialogue. She allows
Telemachos the host's privilege to put his questions first, and only
when those have been answered does she put her own questions. By
posing questions out of a feigned ignorance (though she admits to
having heard rumors) she compels Telemachos to confront his own
situation. Only after she has led him to articulate his position does she
13See, in particular, Jaeger (supra, n. 1) 31, who notes that Athena,
"when she gives advice to Telemachos, expressly describes her advice as education."



begin to give her advice. Athena is the skillful psychotherapist who

forces her patient to verbalize, and thereby creates in him the psycho
logical readiness for action. To be compelled to define his embarrassing
position, to have to admit to another person that he is Odysseus' son
only by repute and not by personal evidence, places as strong a com
pulsion upon Telemachos as any outright command.14
The point of Athena's maieutic method ismade clear at
her departure. After maintaining her disguise throughout the scene
Athena metamorphoses into a bird and flies away. We may take this
as another instance of the whimsicality which she manifests so exu
berantly through the Odyssey, if we understand it as whimiscality in
method only, not in intent. We are told that Telemachos at once
recognized that his visitor had been a deity (1.322-323). Why the neces
sity for the elaborate fictional identity when Athena fully intended
Telemachos to see through the disguise at the end ?The answer is that
Telemachos has been given his first lesson in discernment. During his
conversation Telemachos was being educated to recognize his situation
and to acknowledge his own responsibilities. Athena's self-revelation at
her departure carries his education one step further. His powers of
observation must be educated to penetrate disguises, to distinguish the
genuine from the spurious. Throughout the poem, beginning with
Zeus's opening speech (1.32-43), there is considerable emphasis on
discernment. The family of Odysseus, and certain of their friends and
slaves, are characterized by perspicacity and discretion while the suitors
are characterized by the opposite quality-a psychological and moral
myopia which manifests itself in recklessness and obtuseness of exterior
vision. It is significant that Telemachos' first lesson should be in visual
perception. Athena compels Telemachos to sharpen his inner vision
and then to train a more discerning eye on the external phenomena
around him.
We do not have long towait for the first application of the
lesson. Telemachos acquits himself well by putting his newly-acquired
epiphany ofHermes toPriam in Iliad24 is the only divine appearance
in Homer which is at all similar to Athena's appearance to Telemachos. The significant
difference is that Priam had already been told by Iris that Hermes would escort him (II.
24.183-184), and Priam is quick to recognize that Hermes is his divinely appointed escort
(I. 24.373-377). Perhaps the closest parallel toAthena's method isNestor's dialogue with
Telemachos in Od. 3. Nestor too elicits information from Telemachos first and then admits
to having heard rumors.


Norman Austin

discretion to good use almost immediately after Athena's departure.

In his reply to Eurymachos' questions on the identity of the visitor,
Telemachos tells his first lie and in so doing puts himself firmly on the
path of Odyssean cunning. More precisely, he tells not one but three
lies in quick succession (1.413-419): "My father will never return,"
he says. "I no longer am swayed by messengers who may chance by
or by the pronouncements of seers whom my mother may invite in.
The stranger you ask about was Mentes, an old friend of my father's."
The last is a lie of Athena's making, second-hand material lying con
veniently to hand for the occasion. But the first two, which spring from
Telemachos' own quick intelligence, show him as much capable of
personal initiative in mendacity as in other activities of life. Now, as
never before, Telemachos has reason to think his father alive and to
respect the words of messengers or seers. It is the suitors who cannot
recognize a messenger and mock at prophecies. Telemachos is an apt
pupil inAthena's school.15
For the rest of the poem Telemachos is never again so
he was in his first conversation with Athena, except when
talking to his father. Whether it be with friends or enemies, or even
with Penelope, Telemachos is always cautious never completely candid.
Where it is so characteristic of Homeric heroes to verbalize their situa
tion in detail, Telemachos distinguishes himself by his restraint or by
his equivocal statements. Where other Homeric characters repeat
verbatim the instructions brought to them in dreams or in divine
epiphanies, Telemachos either makes no allusion to them or abbrevi
ates and paraphrases them as in Book 15. His laconic style may be
attributed in part to his youthful modesty. He is hesitant and deferen
tial before his elders most of the time (though far from deferential
towards his mother, towards Nestor andMentor/Athena at 3.240, and
15 It is common to interpret all Telemachos' denials of the
possibility of
his father's return as the expression of genuine despair. A. J. Podlecki, "Omens in the
Odyssey,"GreeceandRome2nd Ser., 14 (1967) 17, admits that Telemachos' answer to Eury
machos may be a shrewd attempt to throw the suitors off their guard but thinks itmore
likely that Telemachos has relapsed into his state of habitual discouragement. Telemachos
may at times be discouraged and ambivalent, but this is not such an occasion. The whole
point of this scene is that Telemachos is no longer in despair but must deliberately maintain
the facade of despair, as v. 420 makes clear: "So spoke Telemachos, but in his heart he
recognized (an) immortal god." When Eurymachos the next day boasts that he pays no
attention to omens (2.178-182, 200-201) he is being truthful, and his very truthfulness
incriminates him.

Telemachos Polymechanos
towards his Spartan hosts at 4.291-295). But deference is only partly
the answer. Even when he is among friends Telemachos is evasive,
when there is no need for evasion.
His dialogue with Nestor gives a good example of this
kind of reticence. At first he is completely candid. He has come, he
says, for news of his father (3.79-101). Nestor's reply leads around to
an allusion to Orestes, and Nestor concludes his recital of the nostoi
with a direct comparison between Orestes and Telemachos. In reply
to this Telemachos shifts from candor to what we must call a good
imitation of candor (w. 202-209): "Would that the gods would give
me such strength to wreak vengeance on the suitors for their outrage.
But the gods allotted me no such good fortune-not tome or my father.
Instead we must endure." Telemachos denies the possibility of Odysseus'
return even more strenuously a few lines later (w. 226-228): "I
don't think this will come to pass. Such things would not happen for
me, not even if the gods should will it." This scepticism is toomuch for
Athena. She sharply rebukes him (w. 230-238): "What a thing to say,
Telemachos! It would be an easy thing for a god, if he should so choose,
to bring a man back safely from a far distance." Telemachos' next
speech is significant, for it reveals that his words do not at all correspond
to his real thoughts (vv. 240-252): "Mentor, let us not talk of that.
Odysseus' return is no longer real. The gods have already allotted him
his death. But letme askNestor one other thing, for he has a knowledge
beyond other men's of counsel and of what is right (&Sc'asjsie podvv).
Nestor, how did Agamemnon die? Where was Menelaos? What kind
of death did that schemer Aigisthos plot for Agamemnon? Menelaos
must have been absent and that was why Aigisthos had the audacity
to commit the deed." The whole speech deserves detailed analysis, but
This is what Telemachos
perhaps the key words are aS'ca '8e cbpd'vtv.
wants to know, but not somuch with reference toAigisthos as toOrestes,
the one person whose name he has not mentioned here. Far from dis
missing the parallel between himself and Orestes and steeling himself
to passive endurance, as he had claimed earlier, his only thought is of
the parallel. His real question is the unspoken one: How did Orestes
kill Aigisthos? The death of Agamemnon is not as relevant for Tele
machos as the death of Aigisthos, but Telemachos is careful not to
betray his true interest.We may note, furthermore, that in assuming
that Aigisthos had been emboldened by the absence of Menelaos,
Telemachos gives his first overt recognition of the dangers of his own


Norman Austin

absence. He hints that he fears that he may be a secondMenelaos who

is absent from home at a critical moment.
The circuitous line of argument and questioning which
Telemachos adopts in this scene illustrates a fact which becomes even
more evident in Books 4 and 15. Telemachos will talk of the situation at
home if pressed, but he prefers not to divulge the full particulars or to
give any hint of what action he may take on his arrival back home. He
gives a patently false pretext for his departure in Book 4 and even when
he talks in Book 15 of guarding his property this is elegant euphemism.
Like Odysseus in the Iliad, Telemachos maintains a distance between
himself and others.16Not that he doesn't impress his hosts at Pylos and
Sparta as being a well-spoken young man, friendly, polite and honest.
But we, who see him from the author's perspective rather than from
theirs, recognize that Telemachos' candor died after Athena's first
visit in Book 1. The candor which impressesMenelaos in Book 4 is the
kind which is achieved by artifice.
The journey of Telemachos is his education. In his journey
he is introduced for the first time to the manners of a civilized world.
Through the stories which his hosts tell him he is introduced to the
models of the heroic life. From these models and from his hosts' com
ments he learnswhat the heroic code is and what that code expects of
him in particular (the &8Kas).Of all the paradigms held up before him,
by far the most important, the one to which most attention is given, is
that of his father. Odysseus is presented as the heroic man, favored by
Athena, who fought bravely, but he is also presented as the supremely
cunning strategist. Of the two aspects it is his cunning which receives
greater recognition than his heroic conduct.17When we recall thatmost
of the allusions to Odysseus in Books 3 and 4 have his cunning as their
theme we can understand that for Telemachos cunning was the pre
16On this aspect of Odysseus' character seeW. B. Stanford, The
Theme (Oxford 1954) ch. IV. A fine poetic representation of the growing likeness of son to
father is given when Telemachos retiresbehind his cloak to hide his feelings from his Spartan
hosts (4.114-116), just as Odysseus does at Alkinoos' court (8.83-95). It is a nice irony that
Helen and Menelaos should recognize Telemachos by the identical gesture of concealment
which Odysseus is at thatmoment using at the Phaeacian court.
17The studies which emphasize the educational
purpose of Telemachos'
journey, even when they recognize that Odysseus isTelemachos' most important paradigm,
do not attach sufficientweight to the fact that it isOdysseus' doloswhich is his most highly
praised characteristic. The poem, by structural and linguistic repetitions, draws many
similarities between Odysseus and Telemachos. These I have not attempted tomention in
detail since they form the substance of an unpublished paper by Anne Amory Parry.

Telemachos Polymechanos
eminent characteristic of his father's which he should emulate. Tele
machos has, therefore, three most persuasive models of cunning to
instruct him: Athena, whose disguise he witnessed personally, Orestes
and Odysseus, who are expressly presented to him as paradigms.
With cunning as the predominant theme of his education
should expect that Telemachos should on his return to
Ithaka give clear evidence that he has profited from his models. While
abroad he had demonstrated some capacity for disguising his true feel
ings and keeping his own counsel, but there had been little scope for
his talents. He had been a passive, albeit a receptive, audience, observ
ing, questioning, listening. When he arouses Peisistratos in Book 15
he starts to act for himself; it is from this point, therefore, thatwe should
look for themore conspicuous examples of his dexterity in disguise.
Here Telemachos is prevented from fully exercising his
independent intelligence by the reappearance of Odysseus on the scene.
With Odysseus in control, Telemachos is left little opportunity to show
his own talent for inventive deceits; he must play the part assigned to
him. This subordinate role, however, is a continuing part of his educa
tion. It is only Odysseus in person, preeminently the man of disguises,
the Proteus among mortals, who can present the final educative
paradigm. It is essential that Telemachos should enter on the higher
rites only in the company of his father. Telemachos' journey had been
the largely theoretical side of his education; in Ithaka comes the chance
for practical education, in Telemachos' observation and imitation of
ii maestro,Odysseus himself.
Telemachos, as we should expect, enjoys the game of
immensely and plays it with great zest. Largely it is
a game dictated by Odysseus, but Telemachos adds his personal touches
wherever he can.When Odysseus gives him his instructions in Eumaios'
hut, for example, he says that Telemachos is to return to the palace
alone the next morning, while Eumaios will later bring Odysseus dis
guised as a beggar (16.270-273). The next morning Telemachos has
changed, entirely on his own initiative, from the solicitous host to the
contemptuous aristocrat who tells Eumaios, with considerable sarcasm,
that Odysseus can beg for himself in town, and if he doesn't like it, so
much the worse for him. He concludes this first rehearsal in his new
personawith the gem of Odyssean irony (17.15): "You may be sure
that I am a man who prefers to tell the truth."
Many other instances could be listed to show his aptitude



for the actor's role. We need think only of Telemachos' account to

Penelope of his travels, which is so studious of truth, while avoiding the
only significant piece of information, that Odysseus is in Ithaka
(17.107-149). We think also of those ironic remarks in which he so
obviously delights. As, for example, when he says in reference to
Odysseus, who is already at work scheming in the palace (17.347):
"Modesty ill suits a man in need." Or his parting words to Eumaios
that same evening (17.601): "These things shall be my concern and the
concern of the immortal gods." Or his remark to Eurykleia (19.27-28),
that Odysseus must help him carry the arms out of the hall, "for I will
not tolerate an idleman if he is to sharemy board, no matter how great
a distance he has travelled." Or his supercilious reference to his mother,
when he asks Eurykleia whether Odysseus had been suitably provided
for, a reference which is all too often taken literally (20.131-133):
"You know, that's the way my mother is, for all her shrewdness. She
can be indiscriminate. She'll honor a worse man, while dismissing the
better completely without consideration."
There are two examples of Telemachos' shrewd disguise
which are far more important than the occasional ironic remark. The
first is his action vis-a-vis Theoklymenos on the shore of Ithaka (15.508
543). Theoklymenos has particularly vexed the Analysts and itmust be
agreed that he presents certain problems. Homer insists on his presence,
however, and gives him a rolewhich is significant and highly dramatic.
Of the scenes in which Theoklymenos plays a part, perhaps the most
curious is that inwhich Telemachos entrusts him to Eurymachos, only
to reverse his decision immediately after Theoklymenos' interpretation
of the omen and to entrust him instead to Peiraios. The scholiast's
comment that Telemachos changes his mind does not solve the problem
of why Telemachos should think of entrusting a man to whom he has
promised asylum to his arch-enemy. Even ifEurymachos were now lord
in Ithaka, it would make no sense to send Theoklymenos to him for
protection. Telemachos may be anxious but he is not hysterical. Given
the repeated hints in the earlier books of his thoughtfulness and per
spicacity, and the reminder that Telemachos remained alert through
the night of that homeward journey, "wondering whether he should
escape death or be captured" (15.300), we must take his conduct to
wards Theoklymenos as deliberate and sensible.
We are compelled to accept C. H. Whitman's interpreta
tion that Telemachos has here attempted to solicit an omen; i.e., to

Telemachos Polymechanos
put the gods to the test by uttering the opposite of what he believes or
hopes to be true.18 The concluding lines of Telemachos' speech to
Theoklymenos make it clear that his thoughts and his utterances are
entirely at variance. After his extravagant praise of Eurymachos as a
noble son of a noble father, the best of men, a veritable god, he reveals
his irony (15.523-524): "But Olympian Zeus knows whether Eury
machos will realize his marriage first or his death." Theoklymenos'
interpretation of the subsequent bird omen is really a refutation of
Telemachos' ostensible praise of Eurymachos (w. 532-533): "No,
Telemachos, there is no family in Ithaka which threatens your royal
prerogatives. You have the greater power."
This is an uncommon method of soliciting omens, but the
kind of attitude which lies behind Telemachos' action here runs through
the whole Odyssey. Frequently characters make utterances which are
contrary to their true beliefs. The suitors expose their blindness by their
sarcastic hopes that Odysseus will return. Penelope and Telemachos,
on the other hand, express the opposite belief, that Odysseus will never
return. They speak not out of despair but precisely because their hope
is still alive. When Odysseus interprets her dream by saying that
Odysseus is still alive and will return, Penelope reacts by dismissing
his interpretation and talking instead of the difficulty of distinguishing
between true and false dreams. An utterance which coincides too closely
with her deepest wishes becomes almost a bad omen. Penelope protects
herself against the fates by retreating behind her camouflage: she
disclaims any credence in her dreams. Her decision to proceed with the
18C. H. Whitman, Homer and theHeroic Tradition (Cambridge,Mass., 1958)
341, n. 13. The studies on ancient divination, such as W. R. Halliday, GreekDivination
(London 1913), A. Bouche-Leclercq, Histoire de la divinationdans l'antiquite(Paris 1879), do
not mention such a solicitation by opposites in their discussions of inductive divination. The
more specialized studies of omens and prophecies inHomer, such as Podlecki, (supra, n. 15)
12-23, and C. H. Moore, "Prophecies in the Ancient Epic," HSCP 32 (1921) 99-175,
likewisemake no mention of such a form of divination, although Agamemnon's decision to
test the troops in Iliad 2 is certainly of this kind, asWhitman notes. G. S. Kirk, The Songsof
Homer (Cambridge 1962) 241, thinks it reasonable that Telemachos should decide to let
one of the suitors entertain Theoklymenos since itwould be a problem for Telemachos to
entertain him when the suitors "virtually control the palace." But ifTelemachos could not
compel the suitors to betake themselves to their own houses, how could he possibly have
expected them to entertain a friend of his, when they were much more intent on enjoying
his involuntary hospitality? Why should Telemachos think of Eurymachos at all when he
had a loyal friend right beside him? Whitman's interpretation seems necessary to make
sense of thewhole scene.



Norman Austin

test of the bow shows the same psychological process.19 Outwardly, it

is the pretense of accepting facts, particularly the fact of Odysseus'
death, but inwardly it is a cry to the fates to intervene to produce a
result contrary to general expectation. Telemachos, too, shows the
same mental attitude, the same ambivalence of fear and hope, when he
bluntly states in Pylos that his father is dead. He too disguises his real
hopes behind the protective facade of resignation.
The difference between Telemachos' expression of resigna
tion in Pylos and his action in Ithaka is that ambivalence has given way
to confidence. Telemachos has become more conscious of what he is
doing. His earlier expressions were self-protective mechanisms, but
now the wish uttered as its opposite has become action rather than
reaction. In a bold gamble he asserts what he does not believe, that
Eurymachos is Prince par excellenceamong the Ithakans, and also
what he does not intend, that Theoklymenos should stay with Eury
machos. This act marks a further stage in Telemachos' developing
percipience. It is his firstwholly independent act.Without any advisers,
Telemachos performs a gesture at once spontaneous, forthright and
shrewd. The scene marks a significant moment in Telemachos' life.
On his return home, after his successful evasion of the ambush at sea,
Telemachos performs this gesture which is emblematic of successful
completion of his rite of passage tomanhood. We know that he is now
emotionally and intellectually prepared to face the suitors.
The other high point of Telemachos' life, the culmination,
in fact, of his education in the art of disguise, occurs when Penelope
proposes the test of the bow to the suitors. Telemachos comes, at this
crisis, to his fullmaturity. When Penelope publicly proposes the contest,
Telemachos, immediately foreseeing the outcome, is so captivated by
his knowledge of the ironies of the situation, a knowledge which not
even Penelope shares, that he cannot resist participating in the scheme.
On the other hand, as the dutiful son he should protest the contest and
persuade Penelope to postpone it, lest some suitor should be successful.
Telemachos solves this new dilemma by resorting to a highly professional
ruse. He plays the role of the young man whose mind has become un
hinged. He giggles, and then, pretending embarrassment at this inap
19Penelope's decision to hold the contest of the bow is a form of divination,
as Anne Amory, "The Reunion of Odysseus and Penelope," Essays on theOdyssey,ed. C. H.
Taylor, Jr. (Bloomington, Ind., 1963) 100-121 points out, and is very close to divination by
opposites, for she can only hope that ifOdysseus does not appear something will intervene to
prevent the contest.

Telemachos Polymechanos
propriate reaction, attempts to be shocked at his behavior. "My
mother tells us that she will leave this house for a new marriage, and
here I am, laughing and enjoying myself. What a witless idiot I am
(4pov&^Ov , 21.105).20
The only way to give any semblance of plausibility to his
most implausible outburst of laughter is to act as if the idea of the test
were a wonderfully absurd joke, and as if Penelope had no other in
tention in proposing it. This renders him harmless while permitting
him the pleasure of directing the action. He practically auctions
Penelope off the block: "You will not find her like anywhere else
not in Pylos, not in Argos, not inMykenai, not even in Ithaka. So,
up now, no delay; let's see you take your turns at the bow." With great
vigor he sets about arranging the axes, and then gives himself the privil
ege of having the first try in the bride-contest, while assuring the suitors
that they need not consider him serious competition. All this too active
cooperation in selling off his mother is obviously the behavior of a
slightly pathetic child who has no conception of the serious decisions
which are being made by the adults in their eyries far above him. To
the child the whole procedure is an amusing game. This is exactly the
impression which Telemachos intends to give. Now that he has become
an adult he can afford to play the silly child whom the suitors still con
sider him to be. It is an ingenious ploy, for it enables him to display his
true feelings by disguising them as the motivations of an entirely con
trary persona.This is Telemachos' most masterful disguise.
It is important to note the effect which Telemachos'
participation has on the action at this point. Since he is unaware that
Odysseus has already encouraged Penelope to proceed with the test
of the bow, when he jumps up to put Penelope's plan into action he is
actually forcing Odysseus' hand. He must also be delighting in the
alarm with which Penelope must be reacting to his cooperation. He is
forcing her hand too by making her stand by her decision. The test of
the bow can have only one result: Odysseus must emerge from his
disguise. By encouraging Penelope in her plan, Telemachos has per

B. Stanford

in his edition


the Odyssey





21.102ff, that Telemachos has inadvertently betrayed himself by his laugh and tries to pass
off his amusement "as being inanely connected with Penelope's approaching departure."
What Stanford does not sufficiently note is Telemachos' expert dexterity which allows him
to assume a major role in precipitating the crisiswhile behaving in a most unfilial manner,
and all thiswithout creating any suspicion among the suitors.


Norman Austin

sonally chosen this to be the moment of peripety. The boy who had
been keeping his eyes on his father for the signal has now given the
signal to his father instead.
This interpretation of Telemachos' behavior runs counter
to that offered by Woodhouse.21 For Woodhouse, Odysseus does not
conceive of using the bow until he sees it in Telemachos' hand, and
Telemachos begins to perceive Odysseus' scheme only when Odysseus
signals to him to put down the bow. Woodhouse is forced to conclude
that since Telemachos is still wating for the signal from Odysseus and
can have no idea of what is to happen, he must be completely hysterical.
This view does Telemachos little credit, for it supposes that he so forgets
his education as to give way to panic at the one critical moment in the
poem. It is,moreover, a disparaging commentary on the whole family,
for it supposes that Penelope acts out of female foolishness, Telemachos
out of hysteria and Odysseus out of desperation to salvage the unfor
tunate event begun by his thoughtless relatives. It suggests that the
contest is really a monstrous accident which is rescued from catastrophe
only by Odysseus' quick thinking. That the moment of vengeance
should be the result of bungling and mere chance hardly squares with
the development of the structure of the whole poem up to this point.
It makes more sense, surely, to read this scene as the reunion of the
family in the psychological sense.At thismoment the threemembers of
the family are, inHomer's vocabulary, "knowing the same thoughts."
Proceeding from their separate perspectives, with separate motivations,
and not yet fully conscious of the other's thoughts, the three think in
such harmony that they produce a single act in unison. Penelope gives
the challenge to Telemachos, or to both Telemachos and the beggar;
Telemachos in turn gives the challenge to the beggar, and the
beggar then steps into the part prepared for him by his family.
With each thinking in isolation, the three come together in perfect
It is no accident that Telemachos, at themoment when he
precipitate the action which will reveal theman of disguises,
should himself adopt themost artful of disguises. Nor can it be accident
that the son of the level-headed, shrewd, discreet, intelligent Odysseus,
at thismoment of climax, should pay his tribute to his father's pedagogic
skill by adopting as his disguise the polar opposite: the persona of a

(supra, n. 1) 112-115.

Telemachos Polymechanos
childish and hysterical idiot. No more appropriate irony could be found
to mark Telemachos' coming-of-age in the house of Odysseus. Tele
machos has become at last polymechanos.
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