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Books 3-4

Course Hero’s video study guide provides in-depth summary and analysis of Books 3-4 of Homer’s epic poem The Odyssey.

The Odyssey | Books 3–4 | Summary

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Summary

Book 3

Telemachus and Athena, disguised as Mentor, reach Pylos, King Nestor's land, and witness an enormous ceremony in which 4,500 people are sacrificing dozens of bulls to the god Poseidon. Athena encourages Telemachus to pay close attention to how Nestor acts and to be bold in his questions about Odysseus. Nestor has little information about Odysseus, but he relates the story of Agamemnon. That king had left Aegisthus, a cousin, to rule in his stead when he departed for the Trojan War, but Aegisthus seized the throne and became the lover of Agamemnon's wife, Clytemnestra. When the warrior returned, the usurper and betrayer killed him; the king's death was then avenged by his son, Orestes, and daughter Electra. Nestor advises Telemachus to visit Agamemnon's brother, Menelaus, in Sparta and offers the help of his son Pisistratus. He also refuses to let Telemachus sleep on his ship and insists he spend the night in his own home, an act of hospitality for which Athena compliments him. Then she transforms herself into an eagle and flies off. Nestor, recognizing that Mentor and the eagle were both the bright-eyed goddess, vows to make a sacrifice to honor her.

Book 4

Telemachus and Nestor's son Pisistratus are greeted in Sparta by Menelaus and his queen, Helen, whose abduction caused the Trojan War. Menelaus recounts his return home, delayed at first when he was forced to remain on the island of Pharos as punishment for an inadequate sacrifice to the gods. He and his trusted men had to to find the solution to their predicament by wrestling with the shape-shifting god Proteus, but their perseverance finally forced Proteus to reveal how to leave the island and appease the gods. He also informs Menelaus of the death of his brother, Agamemnon, and the status of other Greek heroes, including Odysseus. Menelaus tells Telemachus that he would give up his riches for the chance to have returned home sooner and avenged his brother.

Menelaus and Helen both tell Telemachus their memories of Odysseus's bravery and cunning, and Telemachus is deeply moved by their fondness for his father. Menelaus, in turn, is upset when he hears about Penelope's suitors. He tells Telemachus that he has heard that Odysseus is alive but trapped by the nymph Calypso on the island of Ogygia.

Back in Ithaca Penelope and the suitors discover Telemachus's departure. The suitors plan to assassinate him upon his return, and Penelope is alarmed when she hears of the plot. Athena assuages her fears by sending her a phantom in the form of Penelope's sister who reassures her that Athena is with Telemachus and protecting him. The phantom does not, however, tell Penelope of Odysseus's whereabouts or condition.

Analysis

Telemachus begins to learn the lessons of what it is to be a man in Book 3, as he begins his journey. Raised fatherless, he needs to see and be told the proper ways to behave. His first lesson is the importance of appeasing the gods, as shown by Nestor's sacrifice to Poseidon. Devotion to the gods is a duty for mortals, and the lesson is reinforced when Nestor makes a sacrifice to Athena after her transformation into an eagle. Menelaus's tale of being stranded on Pharos because of an inadequate sacrifice underscores the lesson further: do not stint on devotions to the gods, or punishment will be sure and swift.

Nestor and Menelaus both reinforce the importance of hospitality as well. Nestor honors Telemachus in insisting that the young man stay in his home and then providing him with a fine chariot and noble horses to undertake his journey to Sparta. That both kings treat him well even when his identity as Odysseus's son is unknown to them shows how deeply hospitality is valued.

The Agamemnon story (which Greek audiences would be familiar with) reflects on the situation back in Ithaca. Penelope's steadfastness contrasts with Clytemnestra's adultery; the loyalty of Orestes and Electra serves as a model for Telemachus. Nestor also gives him a warning: "Don't rove from home too long," he says, "leaving your own holdings unprotected." A man must be ever vigilant.

Helen's and Menelaus's stories about Odysseus tell Telemachus more about his father and the devotion that he inspired in others—Menelaus mentions that he feels keenly sorry for Odysseus for all he has suffered. Helen's story shows Odysseus's steadfastness and strong leadership.

Menelaus's struggle with Proteus is another instance of the theme of deception. The god who changes shapes is difficult to overcome, but Menelaus and his men were able to do so and thus obtain the secret of how to manage their departure from Pharos. Persistence pays; it will lead the way to the truth.

It's also interesting to note that, while Athena sends Penelope reassurance about her son in the form of a phantom omen, she refuses to answer Penelope's questions about Odysseus. This begs the question of just how much the gods believe they should interfere in the lives of mortals.

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