What is the function of Homer Od. 2-4?
These opening books of the Odyssey, perhaps somewhat surprisingly, do not deal with the main protagonist of the story, Odysseus, but rather with his son Telemachus and so have collectively become known as the Telemachy. Homer choose not to tell his story in a straightforward chronological way beginning with the departure of Odysseus from Troy, as a lesser poet might have chosen to do, but rather with a depiction of the state of affairs in the home the hero is always striving for along with a characterisation of his son, his loyal wife and the suitors. It is interesting to consider why Homer does this and more broadly what function these books serve in the wider context of the work. Firstly it is important to note that the heroism portrayed in the Odyssey is utterly different from that depicted and glorified in the other work attributed to Homer, the Iliad. The typical daring Iliadic fighter chooses a glorious death in battle rather than long life; Sarpedon summed up the code of this sort of heroism when he said that because he would die at some point anyway he must fight in the foremost ranks and earn his immortality through the glory he won. Achilles, of course, is the greatest example of this and he shows what happens when an obsession with personal honour means nothing, not even his personal safety, is of any worth to him in life except accumulating fame. Odysseus, on the other hand, is willing to cheat, lie and trick by any and all means possible just to prolong his own life and preserve himself so that he can return home to the son he has not seen grow up and his always loyal wife Penelope. These three books highlight this shift in focus; no longer will the main focus be on what happens on the battlefield at Troy but rather what is happening in Ithaca, a small, comparatively peaceful island, which is the home of Odysseus. By depicting his home under siege and the pressure on his wife and child Homer gives the audience an insight into this new sort of heroism, it helps them to appreciate why Odysseus goes through the physical dangers and mental traumas that he does in order to reach home. This is entirely necessary given the nature of the Iliad which is centred so much on the individual and so this new work needs a new context and this is provided by setting these books in Ithaca and shifting the focus away from Odysseus for a short while. It also serves to provide the audience with an insight into the events in Ithaca, a knowledge which the hero himself does not possess, and this adds extra poignancy and urgency to everything he does in the first half of the poem while still trying to reach home. It provides an added sense of danger because the audience knows that even after he defeats the Cyclopes and the Laestragonians he will still have to face the suitors, perhaps his greatest danger and his greatest triumph of ingenuity and strength. This gives them further reasons to root for the protagonist despite his somewhat un-heroic, at least in Iliadic terms, behaviour at times; it is honourable to lie and cheat if it serves the greater purpose of getting home to save your home and family from the dastardly suitors. Therefore, in this sense too, these books provide context and justification for this new sort of heroism which will lead Odysseus on the path to a quiet death in his own bed at an old age; a stark contrast to the youthful and bloody death of Achilles, but all the same no less celebrated and remembered.
Buy the full version of these notes or essay plans and more in our Early Greek Hexameter Poetry Notes.