We had left off in Book I with Telemachus (Odysseus’ son) being challenged by Athena to leave his childhood behind and grow into a hero worthy of his father. So, appropriately, Book II is titled, “A Hero’s Son Awakens.” Telemachus carries out a well-intentioned but doomed attempt to intimidate the suitors who are literally eating his family out of house and home. Lacking their respect and having no “bite” to his “bark” they are not scared by his threats but instead pity his childish outburst of temper. Athena intervenes again and counsels Telemachus to go on a trip to visit some of his father’s friends. She arranges for supplies and a crew to accompany him.
Book III opens with Telemachus reaching Nestor’s home and asking him about news of his father. Nestor tells the story of Orestes, the son of Agamemnon who avenges his father’s death, which seems to be a strong hint to Telemachus that he is not to sit back and let outrages happen. A hero takes action and does his best to end a bad situation.
In Book IV Telemachus travels on to see Menelaos and Helen. Menelaos tells the story of his return from the war, and tells Telemachus the latest news he had of Odyssey from the gods,
“Laertes’ son, whose home is Ithaca.
I saw him weeping, weeping on an island.
The nymph Kalypso has him, in her hall.
No means of faring home are left him now;
no ship with oars, and no ship’s company
to pull him on the broad back of the sea.”
While Telemachus is being entertained by Menelaos and Helen—the most beautiful woman on earth—back in Ithaca the suitors discovered that Telemachus has struck out on his own. And they are not happy.
“A bad business. Telemachus had the gall
to make that crossing, though we said he could not.
So the young cub rounds up a first rate crew
in spite of all our crow, and puts to sea.
What devilment will he be up to next time?—
Zeus blast the life out of him before he’s grown!”
They concoct a plot to intercept Telemachus on his way home and kill him before he reaches Ithaca’s shore again. But, of course, Athena is aware of their plans and won’t let the evil schemes come to fruition.
It isn’t until Book V that we actually hear directly about Odysseus. This book opens with Athena before Zeus. She tells him of all the obstacles in Odysseus’ path. Zeus then orders Hermes to visit Calypso, the nymph who is keeping Odysseus on her island, and tell her that Odysseus must be freed. Calypso reluctantly agrees—who can argue with Zeus? And there’s this amusing exchange between Calypso and Odysseus. She tells Odysseus that he is now free to go home, but questions his unfailing devotion to his wife waiting at home for him.
“‘Can I be less desirable than she is?
Less interesting? Less beautiful? Can mortals
compare with goddesses in grace and form?’
To this the strategist Odysseus answered:
‘My lady goddess, here is no cause for anger.
My quiet Penelope—how well I know—
would seem a shade before your majesty,
death and old age being unknown to you,
while she must die. Yet, it is true, each day
I long for home, long for the sight of home.'”
Odysseus is often praised for his cleverness, and this is one of the first examples. He loves Penelope and wants to leave the island of Calypso, but he doesn’t dare anger this sea nymph. So he nimbly answers her questions by saying that though Penelope is not as beautiful, she is his wife and he is homesick. Some Greek heroes, such as Agamemnon, were known for their physical skill, but while Odysseus has great strength, he has a quick mind and a talent for subterfuge that allows him to scheme his way out of many difficult situations. So, Calypso’s jealousy is placated, and she gives him an axe. Now, it is interesting to note that she doesn’t provide a boat for him, but simply a tool. With this axe, he is able to fell enough trees to build himself a raft. This is also a characteristic of a hero. He is very handy with any materials at hand. With a simple tool he has the knowledge and skill to construct a way of escape for himself.
After his raft is finished, he sets off across the seas. Not long into his journey, he finds himself in the midst of a brutal sea storm. A sea goddess, Ino, notices his plight, and gives him her veil, saying that he should wrap the veil around himself and swim to the nearest island. She says the veil will protect him and bring him safely to shore. He hesitates, but as his raft is pulled apart by the waves, he decides it is his only chance. Book V ends with Odysseus crawling onto the beach of an unknown island.