To cite this article:

Jensen, Minna Skafte. "Menelaus in the Odyssey: Introducing the 'Doubled Pattern'." Classics@ 14. Washington, DC: Center for Hellenic Studies, 2016.

Menelaus in the Odyssey: Introducing the “Doubled Pattern”

Minna Skafte Jensen, University of Southern Denmark


In The Singer of Tales, A. B. Lord introduced the term ‘patterned narrative’ for texts composed by formulas and themes. In his introductory discussion of patterns, Lord identified patterning on the level of rhythm, word-boundaries, syntax, sound, and thought, and further on he also spoke of patterns of formulas, themes, groups of themes, and songs. [1] By drawing an analogy with ‘formulas’ he defined ‘themes’ as “the groups of ideas regularly used in telling a tale in the formulaic style of traditional song.” [2] Thus Lord’s themes are less abstract and generalized than Vladimir Propp’s 31 functions that constitute the Russian fairy tale, [3] and, especially, they are not limited to a fixed number. Already in 1963 Patricia Arant in her study of Russian byliny felt the need to distinguish between ‘theme’ = typical scene and ‘story pattern’ = sequence of events, and she arranged the various formulaic units according to size, positing the scale, formula – theme – story pattern – song. [4] The patterns I am concerned with in the present paper are such story patterns as Arant describes.
A possible description of Homeric poetry is that it consists of a surface narrative built on underlying patterns, and in this sense the difference between theme (= typical scene) and story pattern is not only one of size, but also of level: themes belong to the surface narrative and are often expressed with the same words whenever they recur, whereas patterns may work without any such similarities in phrasing. The distinction between the two elements is fluid.
There are general patterns and more particularized ones, and there are patterns within patterns. The Odyssey as such is a return song and follows a pattern known from many parts of the world; a particularly close parallel is to be found in the Turkic Epic of Alpāmïš. [5] Among the songs collected by Parry and Lord in the former Yugoslavia, return songs constitute a subgenre, and John Miles Foley has analyzed them as a parallel to the Odyssey. [6] Recently, Anna Bonifazi has compared ancient non-Greek return stories to the Odyssey, especially some Egyptian prose tales. [7] On a global scale the Odyssey is related to motif no. 974 in Aarne-Thompson-Uther’s index of folklore motifs, the story of the absent lover or husband who returns to his beloved exactly when she is on the point of being wedded to another man. Considered as a more particularized pattern in the complex of stories about the Trojan War, the Odyssey is a nostos, a tale of what happened to the Greek heroes on their journeys home after the sack of Troy. When in Books 3 and 4 of the Odyssey Nestor and Menelaus tell what happened to them and most of the other heroes on their voyages back, these tales are nostoi within the nostos, and when actually the tales Menelaus offers are accounts of what the monstrous sage Proteus told him, these nostoi are part of Menelaus’ nostos which is again part of Odysseus’ nostos.
The Finnish folklorist Lauri Honko introduced the term ‘pool of tradition’ for the sum of patterned narrative common to all singers in a given epic tradition. [8] According to how well-trained and competent singers are, their individual pools of tradition or ‘epic idiolect’ may compare to the common pool or only parts of it.
Most patterns were probably age-old contributions to the rhapsodes’ common pool of tradition. In an epic tradition formulas and themes are analogs to the lexicon of natural languages and the patterns to the syntax, and just as in a natural language new words and phrases are introduced with relative ease while syntax tends to remain stable, new formulas are probably coined more frequently than patterns. An epic singer may activate known patterns endlessly, introducing new actors and building up new narratives, and sometimes this may change a pattern so much that a new pattern is born. Only if such a new pattern is accepted by other singers will it enter the shared pool. In general there is no more sense in investigating the age of a pattern than of discussing the origin of languages.
For the various songs epic singers have in their repertories, they have ‘mental texts’ that may be expanded, abbreviated, or varied in other ways to meet the expectations of a given audience, and any performance is a multiform of this mental text. [9] Whenever a singer of epic wishes to add volume to his mental text he may multiply his patterns. [10] The method is well known in the two Homeric epics. For instance, in the Odyssey, the pattern of the enchanting woman who places the hero’s return in jeopardy is not only doubled, but tripled. As for the nostos, it is generously multiplied in the Odyssey. In all such cases it is a matter of interpretation whether the purpose is simply to expand, or to achieve also some further aims.
Sometimes the parallelism of patterns is explicitly referred to in the surface narrative. In the Odyssey, that is most conspicuously the case of Agamemnon’s nostos. Agamemnon, Clytemnestra, Aegisthus, and Orestes are in various contexts compared to Odysseus, Penelope, the suitors, and Telemachus, often recommended as a moralistic-rhetorical paradigm for Telemachus. Georg Danek has pointed to the fact that the narrator often gives Agamemnon’s story a special twist in order to make it fit as a model for Odyssean events. [11] Mostly multiplied patterns are just there, without any explicit comment on their function.
In some cases the Odyssey displays two multiforms of a pattern that are particularly close, as in the case of the just mentioned use of Agamemnon’s homecoming as a foil to that of Odysseus. In other respects Menelaus’ nostos is the one most similar to Odysseus’, and particularly in the story of Proteus Menelaus’ nostos activates a pattern that recurs in Books 10–12 as part of Odysseus’ nostos: the hero has troubles in finding his way home – a goddess (Eidothea, Circe) explains to him that he has to ask a sage what to do (Proteus, the dead soul of Teiresias) – the sage is only accessible by means of great efforts (Proteus has to be caught and kept from escaping into other shapes, Teiresias must be raised from Hades) but the goddess explains how to proceed – the advice the sage offers is to give a sacrifice. Among the three enchantresses who pose a risk to Odysseus’ homecoming, two are particularly close: Calypso and Circe. [12] In the wealth of multiforms of the pattern ‘arrival of a guest’, the two activations in which a young host manages to receive an unexpected guest—Telemachus in Book 1 and Nausicaa in Book 6—make a particularly interesting doubling of the pattern.
In all these cases two activations of one and the same pattern are much closer to each other than what is implied in a general multiplying of patterns, and it seems to me that such doubled patterns often serve special purposes in the poem. The doubled pattern is related to one of the “Laws of Folk Narrative” which Axel Olrik once established, “Two to a Scene”: folk narrative “only reluctantly brings more than two characters on stage at the same time.” [13] Just as two protagonists in a scene serve to bring out clearly their contrasting characters and standpoints, two activations of the same pattern may call attention to the elements that distinguish the two. The confrontation of the two calls forth their individuality, a common enough feature in the Iliad and the Odyssey. On the basis of her narratological approach, Irene de Jong speaks of “the technique of juxtaposition.” [14] Compared to the Iliad, however, the use of the doubled pattern as described here seems to belong to the Odyssey poet’s individual pool of tradition.
In what follows I shall argue that the visits Odysseus’ son Telemachus pays to Nestor and Menelaus (Odyssey 3.1–4.623 and 15.1–181) constitute such a doubled pattern, and that this special example works in such a way that its first activation serves as a foil for the second one. I have argued elsewhere for the opinion that the Iliad and the Odyssey are oral poems in the full sense of the term—orally composed, performed, and transmitted—and this will here be taken for granted. [15] Accordingly, just before attending Book 4, the audience has listened to Book 3. What I am concerned with in this paper is the narrative [16] of the Odyssey, this particular multiform of the rhapsode’s mental text, keeping in mind that “all is traditional on the generative level, all original on the level of performance.” [17]

The doubled pattern of Odyssey 3–4

The very similarity of the two passages underlines the individuality of protagonists and behavior. Nestor and Menelaus are both impressive heroes, each in his own way, but the harmony in Pylos is in marked contrast to the tensions in Sparta, and the cheerful atmosphere in Nestor’s palace underlines the melancholy that pervades Menelaus’ surroundings. The fact that the two parallel passages occur in immediate sequel is included as an element of the interpretation: to the audience that was present at the original composition-in-performance of the Odyssey, an understanding of Menelaus on the background of Nestor must have offered itself naturally.
Single elements in the chain of events may themselves be analyzed as patterns and themes, more or less generalized. For instance, the themes of the bath, the greeting, and the feast have been analyzed by Foley, [18] and they lend themselves to analysis as potential parts of an often recurring arrival pattern.
Menelaus and Helen are, of course, among the absolute protagonists of the Trojan War, with detailed stories in the pool of tradition shared by all Homeric rhapsodes, and Nestor is a figure with a history that goes back to Indo-European prehistory. [19] This means that the poet’s narrative was conditioned and restricted by fixed elements of their stories. There was a ‘Faktenkanon’ (in Wolfgang Kullmann’s sense) [20] that could not be significantly changed, and it seems to have contained at least the following details: they all survived the war, but Nestor lost his son Antilochus there – Menelaus took his wife back – they returned safely to their homes, Nestor by direct voyage, Menelaus and Helen after many years of adventurous roaming.
Such stories constituted the very material with which the poet built his narrative, and which at the same time restricted his creativity and compelled him to remain within a fixed framework. What he was free to decide, however, was how he would describe the characters and the events in which they were involved, what kind of interest he would make his audience take in them, and especially, whether he would make his listeners sympathize with them. The great Athenian tragedians handled the myths in a similar way.
In comparison, Peisistratus seems to have had little or no existence in myth—no stories are known of him, and in Hesiod’s list of Nestor’s offspring he is not included. [21] This impression may, of course, be misguided. Most of Greek epic and storytelling has been lost, and we cannot say with any certainty whether this young man also had a place in the Faktenkanon. But this does not seem to have been the case, and the suspicion is reinforced by the fact that he is relatively pale and uninteresting as a character. To an oral poet the traditional stories are the very thread of which the fabric of his narrative is woven, and the richer the material is in the pool of tradition, the more detailed and nuanced the narrative becomes.
The course of events in the two narratives is closely similar: Telemachus arrives accompanied by a friend. In Book 3 the friend is the goddess Athena disguised as an elderly man, in Book 4, Nestor’s youngest son, Peisistratus. The guests arrive just as the host is engaged in a great celebration: Nestor is making a sacrifice to Poseidon surrounded by his sons and subjects, and Menelaus is celebrating a wedding. The arrival of the newcomers is reported to the host, and he acts with the utmost correctness, caring for the wellbeing of his guests before asking them about their identity. In both cases, Telemachus is the inexperienced young man from a relatively humble court at the margins of the Greek world, who visits a rich and famous man, a protagonist from the War of Troy. During their stay, the host tells the guests of the adventures of the various Greek heroes on their voyages back from Troy after the sack of the city. The guests stay overnight, and are sent off with caring solicitude.
In her commentary, Stephanie West points to the melancholic atmosphere of Menelaus’ household as compared to that of Nestor, and Irene de Jong states her impression that “underneath the glitter and glamour of the palace, much sorrow lies hidden.” [22] I agree with both of them. But I think that this observation can be carried much further, and that when the two books are read as a doubled activation of the same pattern the components of the sorrow and melancholy come out especially clearly.
A special sophistication in the narrative is the fact that the narrator does not comment upon the proceedings but lets them speak for themselves. Nestor is presented almost as in a painting, surrounded by sons and companions as he presides over the sacrifice to Poseidon. He is the epitome of an old and venerable king, head of a flourishing community and a large and respected family. Besides Antilochus, who was killed fighting courageously in the war, he has six sons and at least one daughter. The atmosphere is peaceful and uncomplicated: when the guests arrive, people flock around them, and Nestor’s youngest son, Peisistratus, spontaneously invites them to approach the king. Nestor’s behavior is respectful and considerate, and after suitable hospitality, when he begins to ask the guests about their names and errand, he does so in a simple and direct fashion. Besides that, his piety is underlined both in the sacrificial procedure in which he is engaged on their arrival and in his reaction, toward the end of the day, when he understands that one of his guests was the goddess Athena herself in disguise. That he is also well-to-do is clear from the impressive number of cattle being sacrificed the first morning, as well as from the detail that, when a heifer is sacrificed to the goddess the next day, a goldsmith is fetched to cover her horns with gold.
From beginning to end Nestor’s every act is completely natural and satisfactory. On the morning before Telemachus departs for Sparta accompanied by Peisistratus, the king is, again, depicted as on a canvas, but this time in more detail. He is described seated in his father’s official seat and surrounded by his many sons, whose names are listed. In this way he stands out as the quintessence of human perfection, a man who has had a life in harmony with gods and men, the son of a hero and himself the father of a prosperous lineage.
The festivities at Menelaus’ court are occasioned by a double wedding: Menelaus is celebrating that his daughter with Helen is being wedded to Achilles’ son, and that his son with a slave woman is being wedded to a local bride. This is briefly stated at the beginning of the poem, and commentators have been bewildered by the fact that, as the evening develops, the double wedding seems to be forgotten while the narrative concentrates on Telemachus and Peisistratus and their conversation with Menelaus and Helen. Instead of asking: why is the wedding forgotten? I prefer to ask: why is it there? The answer, I submit, is that it underlines an important difference between Nestor and Menelaus.
At the arrival in Pylos, Nestor’s youngest son observed the newcomers and went to inform his father. At the arrival in Sparta, one of Menelaus’ attendants, a certain Eteoneus, goes to inform the king and asks how the two young guests should be treated, and Menelaus gives him a small lecture on the rules of hospitality. What is a simple, natural process in Pylos, is a question of rules and forms in Sparta. At the root of this difference is the fact that Nestor is the proud father of a large family. In Sparta there is no young son to point out the arrival. Menelaus has a daughter, as beautiful as Aphrodite herself, and her wedding to the son of the foremost fighter from Troy is the best possible match. High society if ever there was one! Except for her, his only child is an illegitimate son whose name is Megapenthes (‘Whose sorrow is great’), a name which might have been an epithet of his father [23] The narrator does not comment on this, but compared with Nestor Menelaus lacks what is most important of all, sons to continue his lineage, and in Sparta the wedding, however noble, makes this fact painfully evident.

The silent Telemachus

Readers have focused on the stories that Helen and Menelaus tell as evening entertainment, and these certainly constitute a significant element that distinguishes between the two multiforms of the pattern. Another important difference is to be found in the nature of the dialogues that develop between host and guest. Whereas Telemachus approaches Nestor with a short, dignified speech, he does not utter a word to Menelaus until the end of the evening, when he asks to be allowed to go to bed. In striking contrast to his young guest (but with reminiscences of Nestor as he is represented in the Iliad) Menelaus talks and talks. Why is Telemachus so silent and Menelaus so talkative?
In Pylos the guests were asked their names and errand in so many words, and when Nestor heard that Telemachus was Odysseus’ son he recognized in him an intellectual similarity to his father. In Sparta things are less simple. In his first address to his guests, Menelaus mentions that he will ask them questions when they have had their meal, but the conversation develops differently. Telemachus, who is overwhelmed by the richness and elegance of Menelaus’ hall, whispers to Peisistratus that this must be how the gods live on Olympus. Menelaus hears this and, while he assures them that mortals should not compete with gods, he allows that he may be perhaps the richest man in the world. However, he states that he would be content with a third of his riches if it would bring back to life his dead companions (4.97–103). This is the only passage in which it is stated directly that Menelaus, for all his riches and his elegant court, is not a very happy man.
Finally, he speaks of Odysseus, whose life remains in question. When he mentions how hard the situation must be for his wife and son, Telemachus breaks into tears. In this passage, another pattern is activated with the following sequence: X mentions Y, who is present – Y cries and hides his head – Z notices and reacts. This sequence recurs in Book 8.521–534, when Odysseus asks the Phaeacian bard to perform the song of the Wooden Horse. In that passage the incident leads Odysseus to reveal his identity, which had until then been unknown to the others.
In Sparta the pattern also triggers the identification of the guest, but in a strangely muddled way. It is stated that Menelaus has not yet decided how to react when his gorgeous wife makes her grand appearance. She immediately steals the show, and looking at the guests recognizes Telemachus as Odysseus’ son. When she mentions this, her husband admits that he had thought so himself. The reader may well speculate: if Menelaus realizes all along who the young man is, why then does he not say so? Instead he provokes the guest to reveal himself by mentioning his father and how much he has worried about him and his family. The suspicion that Menelaus postpones his question on purpose is reinforced by the strange wording of his thoughts at Telemachus’ crying: should he let the young man himself mention his father or rather ask him first and investigate everything (4.117–119)?
Telemachus remains silent, but Peisistratus speaks for them both, and Menelaus continues, stating in rather exaggerated terms how dear a friend Odysseus was to him, which makes everybody cry. Menelaus does not, however, answer Peisistratus’ questions. Instead, Menelaus seems to have his mind focused upon something different. The conversation ends with Menelaus asserting that he and Telemachus will speak to each other the next morning. Again the reader may ask: why not now?
Except for the whispered remark to his friend, Telemachus is silent throughout the evening. Peisistratus is the one to confirm that his friend is actually Odysseus’ son, and to state that he has come to ask for Menelaus’ help in words or deed (4.163). Now, this was not actually the purpose of Telemachus’ journey. He was to gather information about his father, not ask for help. In my understanding, this detail reveals that Peisistratus, on hearing that Menelaus does not know where Odysseus is, changes the errand accordingly, [24] and I take Telemachus’ silence as an opposite reaction to the same remark. Peisistratus reacts to what is said: Menelaus has no information to give, but may be helpful in other ways. Telemachus, instead, reacts to what is not said and suspects that there is something fishy about Menelaus’ remark: perhaps he knows something that he does not want to tell. In this detail, then, we have the two friends, Peisistratus and Telemachus, compared according to Olrik’s law.
Menelaus in his speech and Telemachus in his silence both show a similar kind of empathy: on seeing the young man, Menelaus guesses not only his identity but also his errand, and Telemachus understands that Menelaus has understood, but that the information he asks for will be unpleasant to him. [25]
The conversation goes back to the Trojan War, and host and hostess each tell of a famous incident in which Odysseus was the protagonist. Helen recalls his dangerous expedition when he entered Troy in disguise, and Menelaus tells of his stratagem, the Trojan Horse. They are strange stories to tell as entertainment to this small, intimate audience, for Helen actually asserts that Odysseus revealed the Greek plan to her, and Menelaus, for his part, describes how Helen did her best to betray the Greek warriors—Menelaus himself and Odysseus among them—while they were hiding in the horse. In short, the stories tell how Odysseus and Helen respectively acted as traitors to the Greeks. Menelaus’ story is insulting to Helen, as has often been pointed out, but it might be maintained that Helen’s story is just as insulting to Odysseus’ son: his father was clever enough to enter Troy in disguise but not clever enough to deceive Helen, and not principled enough not to talk. The scholiast on verse 4.256 understands the plan Odysseus revealed to be the stratagem of the horse, which is an attractive interpretation that links the two parallel speeches together and explains how Helen could betray the warriors in the horse. [26] However, before the storytelling Helen has doctored the wine, inserting a drug that protects the drinkers against any form of sadness—the adjective is nēpenthes ‘without sorrow’. Gregory Nagy has underlined its effect: it makes storytellers and audience forget their personal involvement in what is told. [27]
After the storytelling Telemachus—not the host—suggests that it is time for going to bed. Drug or not, the entertainment seems not to have pleased him.

The talkative Menelaus

The next morning Menelaus wakes up, goes straight to where Telemachus and Peisistratus are sleeping, and asks Telemachus what his errand is. In the long ensuing bedside conversation Peisistratus is not mentioned, and we must assume that he is asleep, so that now, finally, Telemachus and Menelaus are alone and can speak freely. Telemachus puts his question exactly as he did to Nestor (3.91–101 = 4.322–331), in both cases underlining that he wants to be told the truth even if it is unpleasant, and Menelaus embarks upon the long tale of his many adventures during the eight years after the fall of Troy before he reached his home. The most exciting is the tale of how he succeeded in finding Proteus—the sea-monster who knows all but escapes into ever-shifting forms—and made him tell what he knew of the nostoi of Ajax, Agamemnon, and Odysseus. It is a long and colorful speech, 260 verses in all, of which merely 10 contain the information sought by Telemachus (4.551–560). After that extremely brief passage Menelaus proceeds immediately to what Proteus said about Menelaus himself, how he would never die but live in eternity in Elysium because he was the son-in-law of Zeus. So the information about Odysseus almost disappears in the wealth of tales told by Menelaus.
However, it reveals that Menelaus does actually know, and that when on the young men’s arrival he stated that Odysseus’ fate was unknown, he was lying. Here, then, the question is: why does Menelaus postpone his story until the two are alone, and why does he talk and talk of things about which Telemachus does not ask, while answering his question so briefly?
At the end of the speech Menelaus invites Telemachus to stay in Sparta. Telemachus’ reaction is remarkable: he praises Menelaus for being a great storyteller, but declines his invitation, and he comments not a single word about the sensational information he at long last has of his father (4.594–599). Menelaus accepts the young man’s wish to return, and just as at the arrival of the guests he gives a small lecture on the duties of a host. [28] Here this action is interrupted, only to resume at the beginning of Book 15.
Other readers have emphasized other aspects of the proceedings, but it seems to me that the story of Telemachus and Menelaus is that of a kind older man who keeps beating about the bush in order to avoid having to tell a young guest the unpleasant news that, when his lost father has not returned to his mother, the reason is that he is spending his time on a distant island with a lady.
When much later Telemachus tells his mother of his journey, his report of the visit to Menelaus reduces the hero’s long speech to the few verses about Odysseus, including a direct quote of the crucial words about Odysseus and Calypso, but leaving out the detail of his father’s crying (4.557–560 = 17.143–146). Unlike Menelaus, the young man shows no regard for the feelings of his addressee.
At the beginning of his long speech, Menelaus had expressed his wish that Odysseus would soon return, strong and powerful as he had known him in former days, and take revenge on the suitors (4.341–346). How different was the description Proteus gave! The image of the returning father with which Menelaus opened his speech must have met the son’s every wish, but the passive, crying Odysseus, who perhaps makes the audience feel compassion, would to his son appear simply pathetic.
However much Menelaus lets Proteus state that Odysseus stays with Calypso against his will, the son may have his doubts. The listeners have been told by Athena herself at the beginning of the poem that Odysseus does as a matter of fact wish to get away, which builds up the expectation he is the goddess’s sex prisoner. But in Book 4 Telemachus has only Menelaus’ word for it and may well suspect that his host is trying to veil unpleasant facts. When in Book 5 the tale of Calypso’s relations to Odysseus is told, it actually turns out that the hero has not always been so eager to get away. The notion that the mention of Calypso must have been shocking to Telemachus is reinforced when we compare what Athena/Mentes said to him to begin with, that his father was probably retained on some far-away island by hostile men (1.197–199). The father Telemachus wishes for is the returning, powerful avenger. A dead father would also be acceptable. A father who is alive but does not return, whether against his will or not, is a catastrophe.
Book 15 begins early in the morning, before daybreak (and here another pattern makes itself felt, that a book of the Odyssey normally begins in the morning). Commentators have disagreed about how to understand the link to Book 4. Formally, Telemachus has now spent many days in Sparta while the parallel storyline has brought his father from Calypso’s island back to Ithaca: “while one storyline is in the foreground, the others usually remain stationary, i.e. time ticks on, but nothing important happens.” [29] The narrator leaves Telemachus after his morning talk with Menelaus, and when he finally resumes this storyline at the beginning of Book 15, he concentrates on the essence of the development in Book 4, that Telemachus was told that his father was living with Calypso on her island, just as if nothing had happened in the meantime. To me, Telemachus lying awake at the beginning of Book 15 has just had his shocking conversation with Menelaus.
While his friend Peisistratus is still asleep, Telemachus receives a visit from Athena, who urges him to return home to Ithaca as soon as possible. His mother, she argues, is on the point of remarrying, and that might lead to a total loss of livelihood on his part. Further, she informs him of the fact that the suitors plan to waylay him on his way back and gives him advice on how to evade the ambush.
Epiphanies have their patterns, too, and when gods interfere they may be helpful, as Athena is at the beginning of the poem, adverse, as Hermes is to Calypso in Book 5, or even deceitful, as when Zeus sends Agamemnon a misleading dream at the beginning of Iliad 2. When gods are helpful, their advice often resembles what in modern times would be understood as a mental process: a person has a good idea or is developing a passion. To a modern mind, Hera making Achilles convene the assembly in Book 1 of the Iliad (1.55–56) would be understood as the hero’s independent reaction to the fact that his comrades were dying without the supreme leader taking action; and, when later on Athena restrains him from drawing his sword and attacking Agamemnon (1.193–196), her arguments against the impulsive act are such as Achilles himself might have had on second thought. [30] Similarly, the first half of Athena’s speech to Telemachus in Odyssey 15 may be interpreted as the kind of thoughts the young man would naturally have, lying in bed in the early morning and trying to cope with the unpleasant piece of information he just received. His father will never return, his mother will accept a new husband, and he must necessarily reach home before she has emptied the house of its valuables.
In what follows, Telemachus is all the time intent on precipitating his departure, whereas Menelaus tries to keep him back, even suggesting that the two of them could go on a sightseeing tour around the region, meeting people and receiving gifts. It seems that Menelaus is convinced that Odysseus will never return, and as the kind and caring man he is, he makes a constructive first effort to help his young guest set up a life of his own. When on Telemachus’ departure an omen occurs, Menelaus cannot decide how it should be interpreted. Helen, however, who is Zeus’ daughter, feels no restraint against assuring the guest that his father will actually return and do away with the suitors—as will eventually happen. However, with the knowledge accessible to them at the beginning of Book 15, it seems to me that the two men’s reactions, Telemachus’ eagerness to depart as well as Menelaus’ procrastination and hesitation, demonstrate that they have both lost the hope of Odysseus’ return. Based on the information Menelaus had been given from Proteus there is no reason for them to expect that Odysseus will ever come back to Ithaca.


Analyzed as a doubled pattern, the visits to Nestor and Menelaus handle the hosts’ storytelling in a way that underlines the difference between the messages of the two nostos-stories, which on the surface are so very similar and together tell a continued story of the homecomings. Whereas Nestor simply informs Telemachus of what he knows, Menelaus’ story is full of twists and turns that serve to veil an unpleasant fact.
Furthermore, the doubled pattern reveals the sad fate of Menelaus. He may be immensely rich and have the most beautiful woman in the world as his wedded wife, but he is not at home in his palace and cannot speak freely as he pleases. His relations with Helen seem happy enough but require potent drugs when the past is mentioned.
Nestor’s name is cognate with nostos. Douglas Frame, who underscores the derivative -tor and translates the name as ‘Homebringer’ rather than ‘Homecomer,’ argues that the name was still so understood in “the Homeric era.” [31] However, in the specific narrative of the Odyssey I cannot find traces of the active sense. In my reading of Odyssey 3, Nestor is the homecomer, the hero of the Trojan cycle who really comes home, in all senses of the word. He survives the war and escapes the dangers of the sea on his homeward journey. In general, he steers his voyage through life so that on reaching old age he arrives safely and happily at his proper destination. Compared to that, Menelaus remains unsettled, however much he returns to his Spartan kingdom and regains his famous wife.
The comparison with Nestor makes clear the tragedy of Menelaus. In the Homeric world there are two kinds of afterlife available to mortals. One is the continuation of the family line, the other the fame bestowed by epic songs. Nestor will have both: he has always been a respected warrior and has generated a wealth of stories. In addition, he is the father to many sons. Menelaus has his daughter Hermione, but her offspring will continue Achilles’ line, not his. While he has been an adequate as a warrior, his main story will be that he was the husband from whom Helen ran away. He may look forward to eternal bliss in Elysium, but through no merit of his own. Even in the afterlife, Helen steals the show.


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[ back ] 1. Lord 1960:38–45 (patterning on many levels), 44 (patterning of formulas), 68 (of themes), 112 (of groups of themes), 120 (of songs).
[ back ] 2. Lord1960:68.
[ back ] 3. Propp [1928] 1968:25–65.
[ back ] 4. Arant [1963] 1990:10, 65, 118.
[ back ] 5. For a modern edition, see Reichl 2001. See also the essay by O. Levaniouk in this volume.
[ back ] 6. Foley 1990:12–13 (and passim).
[ back ] 7. Bonifazi 2009:481–484.
[ back ] 8. Honko 1998:70–73, with a reference to Ruth Finnegan.
[ back ] 9. Honko 1998:92–99.
[ back ] 10. Singers of epic tend to be male, and as far as our sources go, Greek rhapsodes were men.
[ back ] 11. Danek 1998:40, 42, 78.
[ back ] 12. Cf. Jensen 1994.
[ back ] 13. Olrik [1921] 1992:43.
[ back ] 14. de Jong 2001:68.
[ back ] 15. Jensen 1980; cf. Jensen 2011.
[ back ] 16. For the distinction between story and narrative (histoire/récit), see Genette [1972] 1980:25–27.
[ back ] 17. Nagler 1974:26.
[ back ] 18. Foley 1990:247–277.
[ back ] 19. Frame 1978 and 2009.
[ back ] 20. Kullmann 1960:12–13.
[ back ] 21. Aloni 2006:73–75.
[ back ] 22. West 1988:158, 192–195, 200; Jong 2001:91; cf. Danek 1998:96.
[ back ] 23. Nagy 1979:146n2.
[ back ] 24. In this I follow the scholiast on verse 163.
[ back ] 25. At a conference in Hamburg, October 2010, Ruth Scodel drew attention to a series of examples of such empathy between Homeric actors.
[ back ] 26. West 1988:210 also follows the scholiast. Ann Bergren’s sophisticated interpretation of the two speeches is thought-provoking, but I remain unconvinced by her reading of Helen’s story, especially when she suggests that with the bathing scene Helen may be trying “to seduce her young guest with glimpses of a sexual scene with his father” (Bergren [1981] 2009:326). Compare 3.464–465 (Telemachus bathed by Nestor’s daughter).
[ back ] 27. Nagy 1979:100.
[ back ] 28. The brevity of the crucial passage and the fact that Telemachus does not comment upon it are my main arguments for not seeing Menelaus’ postponement as just a “series of retardations,” as stated by de Jong 2001:89.
[ back ] 29. de Jong 2001:590.
[ back ] 30. Snell [1946] 1975:35–36.
[ back ] 31. Frame 2009:182n78.