HOMER: The Odyssey [Book XV]

In Book XV of Homer’s Odyssey, Minerva appears to Telemachus in a dream and tells him to immediately leave Sparta and return to Ithaca. When he arises the next morning, Telemachus takes his leave of Menelaus and sets out for Pylos, where his ship is anchored. He arrives at his ship and begins to load his possessions onto the ship. While Telemachus is offering sacrifices to the gods, Theoclymenus, a prophet from Argos who was exiled because he murdered his kinsman, begs Telemachus to take him to Ithaca and protect him from his pursuers. Telemachus agrees to do so, and they disembark from Pylos.

Telemachus’ treatment of a confessed murderer is shocking to a modern audience in the West. However, in the Homeric era of Ancient Greece, Telemachus’ hospitality would not have surprised anyone. At that time, criminals were often exiled for committing crimes. During their exile, criminals would perform specific acts to atone for their sins. Naturally, the family members of a murdered person would not feel that exile was a severe enough punishment and would consequently avenge the murder with their own hands. This type of justice system is the main theme of Aeschylus’ Oresteia. In that trilogy of plays, the goddess Athena intervenes to stop the endless cycle of blood revenge, and establishes the Athenian court system.

While Telemachus is sailing home to Ithaca, Homer moves the story back to the house of Eumaeus. Odysseus asks the swineherd Eumaeus about his past. Eumaeus relates to Odysseus the story of how he came to Ithaca. He explains that he was the son of a king and when he was very young, he was kidnapped by his nurse and placed on a Phoenician merchant ship. When they landed in Ithaca, the Phoenicians sold Eumaeus to Odysseus’ father Laertes. Odysseus expresses sorrow for his misfortune, but also notes his good fortune of having a good master, having enough to eat and drink, and not having to beg in the streets.

Meantime, Telemachus arrives in Ithaca. After disembarking from his ship, he spies a hawk in the sky with a dove in its talons. The murderer prophet Theoclymenus remarks on the omen. “Telemachus, that bird did not fly on your right hand without having been sent there by some god. As soon as I saw it I knew it was an omen; it means that you will remain powerful and that there will be no house in Ithaca more royal than your own.” Homer frequently uses prophecies to emphasize that righteous men – such as Telemachus and Odysseus – will triumph in the end over the impious, despite the hardships and misfortunes that they may endure.

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