The Odyssey

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The Odyssey Book 4 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Telemachus and Pisistratus arrive at Menelaus's palace, where the king is celebrating the two separate marriages of his son and his daughter. Menelaus tells his aide Eteoneus to invite the strangers to feast with them; that way, he says, he can honor the hospitality he received from strangers during his travels. Maids wash, oil, and clothe the travelers and present them with food and wine. Telemachus says to Pisistratus that the splendor of Menelaus's mansion must resemble Olympus, but Menelaus notes that no mortal man could compare with Zeus. He describes his eight years of travels, the wealth he amassed, and his bitterness about the death of his brother. He would rather have stayed home with only a fraction of this wealth, he says, if it could reverse the deaths of the soldiers in Troy.
Menelaus displays piety when he insists that mortals are always inferior to gods, instead of emphasizing his unequalled treasures. In this way, he chooses piety over glory. It is glorious to die in battle and to win great wealth from enemies; Menelaus rejects glory once again when he speaks of the deaths of his comrades with regret and of his plunder with indifference. His experience teaches him that it is better to stay home and live honorably than to seek adventure, risking death and dishonor for himself and his loved ones.
Themes
Piety, Customs, and Justice Theme Icon
Glory and Honor Theme Icon
He grieves for all his comrades, Menelaus says, but he grieves for Odysseus the most, because he worked the hardest but suffered the most. Telemachus cries to hear his father mentioned so tenderly, and Menelaus understands then that he's speaking to Odysseus's son. Menelaus's wife Helen comes out of her room and asks about the visitors; she guesses that one of them is Telemachus. They agree that the young man resembles Odysseus in many respects, and Pisistratus confirms their identities.
Menelaus grieves especially for Odysseus, because it is particularly unjust that such a clever and hardworking man should suffer such a harsh punishment from the gods. Menelaus and Helen both display cunning in guessing Telemachus's identity: tears and grief often serve to break through anonymity and disguise.
Themes
Piety, Customs, and Justice Theme Icon
Cunning, Disguise, and Self-Restraint Theme Icon
Memory and Grief Theme Icon
Helen slips a drug into the wine that makes the men forget their sorrows. She tells the guests about Odysseus's conquest of Troy: he stole into the city disguised as a beggar, killed many Trojans, and returned to his army with useful information about the enemy. Only Helen recognized him, but she didn't give away his secret, because by then she had repented of her infidelity and dreamed of coming home to her husband and child. Menelaus praises her storytelling and recounts how Helen tried to lure Odysseus's comrades from the wooden horse in which they had penetrated Troy by imitating the voices of the soldiers' wives. Odysseus held the soldiers back and saved their lives. After Menelaus finishes the story, everyone retires to different rooms and goes to sleep.
Helen displays her cunning both in guessing Telemachus's identity and in tricking the men into pleasant forgetfulness. The forgetfulness is not dangerous only because it is a company of friends. She had been cunning in Troy as well by taking on the identities of other women, just as Odysseus had been cunning by taking on the identity of a beggar. In both stories, Odysseus's cunning is pitted against Helen's cunning, but in both cases he comes out on top; perhaps Helen damaged her luck by betraying her husband and dishonoring herself.
Themes
Cunning, Disguise, and Self-Restraint Theme Icon
Memory and Grief Theme Icon
Glory and Honor Theme Icon
In the morning, Menelaus asks Telemachus whether he has come to discuss a public or a private problem. Telemachus describes the suitors' disgraceful behavior and begs Menelaus to tell him all he knows about Odysseus. The king tells Telemachus that the gods trapped him in still waters by the island Pharos in punishment for an inadequate sacrifice. When the crew's provisions had run out, Menelaus encountered Eidothea, Proteus's daughter, who decided to help him. She advised him to surprise Proteus by disguising himself and three other men as seals, hiding in the cave in which Proteus slept, and ambushing him when he lay down to rest. Proteus will take many different shapes, she told him, but if they hold on to him until he speaks he will tell them how to cross the sea and return home.
Telemachus does not give Menelaus a clear answer because the problem is both public and private: the honor of the realm and Telemachus's honor are both at stake. The king's story implies that he did not always respect the gods, and that his trials have taught him modesty and piety. A goddess helps him escape his predicament by using trickery and disguise. The gods respect tactics of this kind – Zeus himself often took other shapes for various reasons.
Themes
Piety, Customs, and Justice Theme Icon
Cunning, Disguise, and Self-Restraint Theme Icon
Glory and Honor Theme Icon
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At dawn, Eidothea led Menelaus and three other men to Proteus's resting place and covered them with sealskins. Proteus soon appeared, the men ambushed him, and Proteus then took the shape of a lion, a serpent, a panther, a boar, a stream of water, and a tree. Yet the men held on to him until he began to speak. Menelaus asked how he could escape Pharos and return home. Proteus advised that Menelaus return to Egypt and offer grand sacrifices to the gods. Proteus also told him that Ajax died at the hands of Poseidon, and Agamemnon at the hands of Aegisthus. Odysseus, Proteus said, was trapped on Calypso's island. The next dawn Menelaus and his men set out for Egypt, where they made glorious sacrifices to the gods. The gods then allowed them to return home safely.
Proteus tries to fight Menelaus's cunning with his own cunning, but the king eventually gets his way. Though the gods are very powerful, they must sometimes yield to mortals – especially if mortals employ god-like cunning. Cunning is a quality that narrows the gap between the mortal and the divine. Though Menelaus must feel powerful to have defeated a god, he also learns to show piety and respect toward the gods. Power and humility go hand in hand.
Themes
Piety, Customs, and Justice Theme Icon
Cunning, Disguise, and Self-Restraint Theme Icon
As Telemachus and Menelaus feast at the king's palace, the suitors feast and amuse themselves in Odysseus's palace. Antinous and Eurymachus find out from a citizen that Telemachus has sailed to Pylos with a strong crew and a god on board. The suitors are outraged and plot to murder the prince on his way back home. The court herald Medon overhears their plans and describes them to Penelope. The queen is grieved to learn of Telemachus's absence; she prays to Athena to save her son, and Athena hears her prayers.
Menelaus's piety and hospitality contrast sharply with the callous impiety of the suitors. The suitors are impious to plot against a man that is loved by the gods (not to mention whose hospitality they are abusing), because they are pitting their wills against the wills of the gods. Penelope, on the other hand, respects divine will by asking for Athena's help.
Themes
Fate, the Gods, and Free Will Theme Icon
Piety, Customs, and Justice Theme Icon
Meanwhile, the suitors gather a crew of twenty men and prepare a ship. Penelope lies in bed tormented; when she falls asleep, Athena sends a phantom in the shape of Penelope's sister to reassure her that her son is under Athena's protection. Penelope questions the phantom about Odysseus, but the phantom refuses to speak. The suitors sail to the island Asteris, and lie in wait to catch the prince on his way home.
Athena responds to Penelope's prayer by giving her rest and comfort. Though Athena assures Penelope of Telemachus's safety, she cannot say anything about Odysseus: perhaps there is a limit to the knowledge permitted to mortals, because certain kinds of knowledge interfere with fate.
Themes
Fate, the Gods, and Free Will Theme Icon
Piety, Customs, and Justice Theme Icon
Cunning, Disguise, and Self-Restraint Theme Icon