Illustration of Odysseus tied to a ship's mast

The Odyssey

by Homer

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In the Odyssey, why does Telemachus welcome Athena, disguised as a strange man, into his home?

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The reason why Telemachus welcomes Athena, disguised as a strange man, into his home has to do with the traditions of ancient Greek hospitality. This event takes place in book I of the Odyssey. Athena has a conversation with her father, Zeus, on behalf of Odysseus, who still needs to make his way home. They agree that Hermes will visit Calypso to let her know that that time has come for Odysseus to leave. In the meantime, Athena will go out to comfort and encourage Telemachus, who hopes desperately that his father might still be alive, and who is stuck in an awful situation: his mother’s many brazen and rude suitors have taken over the house and are eating all of the sheep and oxen. Penelope doesn’t want them there, but no one has figured out how to get them to leave.

Athena dons her golden sandals (which give her flying powers), grabs her spear, and heads out to Ithaca to visit Telemachus. She changes form, however, and takes on the appearance of Mentes, an old friend of Odysseus, whom Telemachus would not have known personally and could not have been able to recognize.

Athena arrives at a scene of extravagant outdoor feasting on the part of the suitors. Telemachus is outside—overwhelmed and moping—when he catches sight of a strange man waiting at the gates. The text reads, “He was vexed that a stranger should be kept waiting for admittance.” Telemachus graciously takes the “man’s” right hand into his own, relieves him of the spear, and says, “Welcome to our house, and when you have partaken of food you shall tell us what you have come for.” Telemachus acts in accordance with the hospitality customs of his time and place.

Athena introduces herself as his father’s old friend Mentes, King of the Taphians. Young Telemachus is eager to hear anything at all about his father, and disguised Athena gives him hope that Odysseus is still alive. She also emboldens and encourages Telemachus and suggests possible solutions for dealing with the exasperating suitors, speaking to the young man as a beloved and caring elder.

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