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Lesson 5: Seminar #1 on The Odyssey

In this video, St. John’s College tutor Hannah Hintze leads a seminar (with St. John’s students) on an early section of The Odyssey when Helen drops a pharmakon (drug) in the wine.

Outline of Session

Lesson 5: Seminar #1 on The Odyssey with Dr. Hannah Hintze

Notes: 

(0:01) HH:     We begin with Book 4, when Helen adds a little pharmakon to the wine… (p. 71 in Lattimore, around line 220)

What does this medicine do, and is the medicine good or bad for Telemachus?

(2:06) Student 1: Helen starts telling a story of Odysseus as soon as she administers it…The medicine seems to affect the way you feel or react or your ability to respond to a real (and terrible) event.

Is that why she administers it before she tells the story? Are there things that are good not to feel? Was that Helen’s objective?

(3:18) Student 2: Immediately before Helen administers the medicine, they have been telling stories of Odysseus that make them weep. It’s like she descends as if she’s heard them crying and says, “Not in my house!” But why would she want to take away that aspect of the story?

(3:53) Student 3: Right before this, the crying is the thing that makes Menelaus recognize Telemachus as Odysseus’s son, but he doesn’t say anything yet. Helen comes in with fortuitous timing. Is there something about his crying that presents a difficulty for Menelaus?

HH: So presumably, if he hadn’t cried, Menelaus wouldn’t have guessed whose son Telemachus is?

Student 3: Something like that.

(4:55) Student 2: There’s that recognition and then there’s Helen’s recognition of Telemachus from his physical resemblance to Odysseus. These are very different ways of recognizing—physical and emotional resemblance.

(5:32) Student 1: Do the kind of stories told about Odysseus afterwards have something to do with how Helen and Menelaus understood Odysseus? There’s something about not revealing yourself or not showing emotion in both the stories told, but especially Helen’s. The stories are about concealment. Odysseus is the one who prevents the men in the Trojan horse from responding to Helen’s attempts to evoke an emotional response. Is Odysseus someone good at not revealing emotion? Does Helen want to encourage that in this situation as well?

HH:   So this is a drug that would make you like Odysseus? 

(6:45) Student 2: “Like” as in “be like,” not “to have affection for”?

(6:50) HH:     Right. But everything makes me like Odysseus.

But is it that you sense that the warriors in the belly of the horse are feeling all the feelings, but they’re just clapping their hands over their mouths? So perhaps those sitting around the dinner table are feeling the feelings of loss—they haven’t just disappeared—but they’re just not showing it?

(7:36) Student 1: I’m not clear on whether they’re feeling it but not sharing it, or they’re just able to hold the emotions at arm’s length, or removed, in a sense? That way they can talk about what they’re feeling about Odysseus without it being emotionally moving…

(8:15) Student 4: I associate the drug with an opportune time—there is a time for weeping but there is a time for supper. Helen wants them to put aside grief to have a welcoming supper together. Weeping can come later. The ability to suppress strong emotion is essential for any social decorum.

Odysseus told Helen not to yell out his name, and she complied with the strategy. When the bigger picture demands the person not to act on their impulse, then the drug is needed. For military or social property purposes.

(11:11) Student 5: The drug seems to be intended not to suppress all feelings but only negative feelings. Rejoicing—a strong feeling—is allowed. Helen might even be inviting this emotion. Not a cold dampening but perhaps a redirecting of emotional states.

(12:15) Student 2: Does that mean Telemachus will still care about finding and hearing about his father? I can see a certain kind of drug just making him forgetful or numb. Does he need to get to a place where he can enjoy this experience?

(12:51) Student 6: That seems right to me. When they’re all crying, they’re not crying for the same reason. Helen and Menelaus are crying for their own experiences with Odysseus. Their grief pulls them into separate worlds, and they need to be able to engage or interact with each other and experience the stories with clear heads.

(13:48) HH:   Isn’t that generally more true about grieving than rejoicing? Grief is private, but joy is communal? Maybe not.

(14:10) Student 2: That reminds me of the almost last scene in The Iliad, when Priam and Achilles are grieving together but for separate reasons.

(14:28) Student 1: It seems to me though that there’s a tension there. In that scene in The Iliad, the grief is still bringing them together in one sense. And here Menelaus is able to recognize Telemachus because of the grieving. It’s isolating in some personal way, but perhaps it also bridges the disconnect that was there before. But perhaps grieving is powerful and seems to break down the dynamic between host and guest.

(15:39) Student 3: (same passage, line 215 or so) Thoughtfulness—Helen, Menelaus, and Telemachus are described that way. Helen’s act of drugging is thoughtful, we’re told. What do grief and joy have to do with being thoughtful?

 (16:57) Student 5: Is “thoughtful” the word that’s used to describe Telemachus in your translation? Mine uses “level-headed,” which to me describes neither grief nor joy but unfortunately in the middle—unable to move forward.

(17:29) Student 3: Nestor and Menelaus are both described as level-headed? Is this what Telemachus is seeking or does he possess it already?

(18:06) HH:   We’ve had a lot of “mindedness,” which is thematic, at least from the beginning, in Odysseus’s mind. We have Athena showing up both as mentess and Mentor—thoughtful.

(18:28) Student 2: Helen says Aphrodite took her “mind” away, she lost her “mind.” Then she wanted to go back. If she’s thoughtful or “minded”—“I once was ‘unminded,’ but now I’m perfectly minded—level-headed—and I can make other people mindful and not thinking about maddening things like family.”

What do joy and sorrow have to do with being minded or wise or level-headedness? Does that mean no attachments? Just forget all about his attachments?

(20:05) HH:   Telemachus does say to Menelaus, towards the end of the visit, “I could just stay here forever and listen with you and forget that I have a home.” Is that the pharmakon talking? It was the next day.

What is Telemachus supposed to do? Does the drug help him to do that? More attached to home, or less? More incited to joy? More level-headed?

(20:55) Student 3: Athena tells him two significant things. She chides him for being young—“you’re not a child anymore.” This journey will not be futile. Both of these play into what he has to fulfill—it won’t be futile.

(21:56) Student 1: Athena thinks it will be helpful to be level-headed. You can’t hesitate or be afraid. You have to be clever and know what to say. Maybe Telemachus needs to see those qualities are present in himself and that he can develop them. Affirmation that those are qualities he shares with his father.

(23:08) Student 3: Does Telemachus already know how to speak? When he asks how to speak, Athena says not to worry, the gods will put it in your head. This doesn’t seem level-headed—it seems spontaneous. Is knowing how to speak “level-headed”?

(23:49) Student 1: The reactions to what Telemachus says are often in admiration of his speech. Does that mean Athena is giving him the words, or is it a quality innate to him as Odysseus’s son?

Sometimes it seems Telemachus talks too much, like to the suitors. Why does he tell them his plan, even if it is calmly? It doesn’t make sense, because then they’re able to act against him. He doesn’t quite seem to know what to say or when or with whom.

(25:40) HH:   I somehow want the journeys to be an education of the still unruly Telemachus. Does he change from journey to journey?

(26:02) Student 2: I was surprised that he’s not able to speak at first for weeping. After the pharmakon (and after Menelaus’s catty stories about Helen and Odysseus), Telemachus very strongly says, “I’m happy to be here but it’s time to go to bed.” It doesn’t strike me as his style. He’s either very tired or he’s gotten the gumption to demand a place to sleep.

(27:14) HH:   I wonder if the medicine is working there as Helen tells her story. Telemachus says, “Well, fat lot of good that endurance did him in the horse. Because he’s not here now.” So he’s left with the same anxiety and sorrow he had in Book 1. “My father is probably bones rolling in the surf, so why are you, Helen, telling me this story about his endurance at Troy? Let’s go to bed.”

(28:35) Student 2:  So now I want to know why he says, “Let’s go to bed.” Is it hopelessness? A “heart of iron”? The other way to characterize the education of Telemachus is that he is revisiting the events of the Trojan War: Nestor the grand strategist, Helen and Menelaus the cause of the war. Is he saying after he sees Helen, the daughter of Zeus, “Meh. I gotta go to bed”? It would seem right to say we’re not in the world of The Iliad anymore.

(29:45) Student 1: Thinking again of the effect of the medicine on Telemachus… What drives Telemachus on the journey? Is it grief? His need to know what happened? He seems pretty adamant that Odysseus is dead, but seems to need to know what happened. But is the journey emotionally driven? If the medicine takes that away, what drives him? He doesn’t even know Odysseus, so he has no attachment to him beyond grief. Without that, he’s “done.”

(31:22) Student 4: So you’re thinking Telemachus didn’t go on this journey with the hope to find out where his father is or if he’s alive? Is the hope put into him by Athena?

(31:42) Student 1: Yeah. There may be more than these two ways of reading it, but either Telemachus really sincerely believes Odysseus is dead, or he keeps saying it over and over to convince himself to squash his hope. This seems a very natural response—it’s easier if he’s dead. “I don’t want to be clinging to this hope if it’s just going to disappoint me.”

(32:38) HH:   So the pharmakon would maybe allow him to think objectively for the first time about the man who is his father?

(32:52) Student 3: The conversation that’s happening after the pharmakon isn’t giving him pleasure related to the hope of his father coming home. He says at the end that he could be happy listening to the stories all year. If he’s just looking for a place where suitors aren’t devouring everything and he’s recognized as his father’s son, then he’s found it.

(33:57) Student 2: Doesn’t Menelaus say he wanted to resettle him here? Remove one of his own villages? It now seems a real possibility with Telemachus. Forget kingship, forget island life. Just be absorbed into this world with Helen and Menelaus. It seems a real danger for Telemachus here.

(34:26) HH:   And if this is the healthiest household he’s ever seen, it’s…a little bit frightening. I hadn’t thought of that. He’s heard from Phemius stories of the Nostoi, the Returners, but everything else that’s happened in his household is so violent and frightening. And here for the first time he’s in a household where at least the hostess wants to allay grieving. She wants an actual community around the table.

(35:30) Student 3: At the end, it almost feels like a recognition: “No, I’m not staying here.” He can’t take the gift of horses from Menelaus because there’s nowhere to keep them in Ithaca and he’s going back to Ithaca. But what’s waiting for him there? There’s no kingship, no way to kick the suitors out. Why was it important that he go back, and so quickly?

(36:30) Student 2: He asks for something moveable as a gift that he can carry with him in the boat. It seems right—Odyssean—that Menelaus thinks of the mixing bowl. “Don’t forget us and what happened here.”

(37:00) Student 1: The reason Telemachus offers for having to leave is his shipmates—he has to return to them, which seems also very Odyssean, and is a reminder of Odysseus’s inability to help them from the first lines. Is Telemachus unreasonable? Does he feel there’s something beyond him that compels his return? If it were up to his own inclination, he would stay…

(38:08) Student 4: Before Telemachus says he could forget home, he says, “Delay me not.” I take his saying that he could stay to listen to stories as a polite compliment but to ask for something different from Menelaus’s plan. He doesn’t really mean wholeheartedly that he wants to stay for a year, because of the sentence’s position.

The mention of the shipmates: the ship is a symbol of his mission. Athena had urged him to arrange the ship and the suitors were doubting him. Now that it’s come into being, it elicits Telemachus’s inner desire to become a man and get out of Ithaca to seek out news of his father. The ship is the milestone or something like that. He wouldn’t just set that aside for Menelaus’s tales. He feels a responsibility for his mission. He will wait for Odysseus, who will slay the suitors, or Odysseus is dead and Telemachus himself will return Penelope to her parents and arrange another marriage. Either way, Telemachus is taking on the responsibility and making decisions.

(41:43) HH:   Does he know enough to decide either way? That his father is dead or that he’s coming home and Telemachus should wait one year? I like the idea of the draw of the ship itself, but does he have enough of an answer to go home?

(42:15) Student 4: Not yet.

(42:19) Student 5: I wonder if it’s a matter of knowing or a matter of feeling? It has to do with the pharmakon. Grief will cause him to veer toward thinking his father is dead. It’s an anchor that keeps him in one place. He has to have some kind of faith or belief [to continue the journey] that’s not based on true knowledge.

In a similar way, perhaps that Odysseus is in the long run directed home maybe not by knowledge but by something else, by feeling. It would be a very different story if Odysseus was anchored by grief and despairing because he hasn’t been able to get home.

(43:48) Student 1: Or if he was sure home would be very different when he got there. To me that seems more reasonable to assume that Penelope would be remarried, Telemachus doesn’t know who I am—it’s been 19 years! But there’s something beyond the normal knowledge you’d have of a situation that seems to be drawing Odysseus back.

(44:18) Student 4: I think that feeling is related to the mindedness of Telemachus. Because the sense of being composed and self-assured without having a solid answer to whether his father is alive is important to keeping him pursuing the journey instead of breaking down into weeping all the time.

The son of Nestor said once, “Heavy griefs fall to the lot of the homekeeping son whose father is absent, if so it be that he can find no guardian to champion him.” But Athena is championing him. Athena wants Telemachus to realize a goddess is rooting for him and he should not be overcome by destructive or debilitating impulses. “But be strong and don’t act like a child anymore.”

It is something verging on faith or hope or a strange, self-assured feeling that contributes to being level-headed amidst chaotic and turbulent circumstances.

(46:50) Student 6: That seems right to me. I wonder if it could be any different, though, considering how much time has passed. You wouldn’t be able to make yourself move anywhere if you were acting on anything other than faith or belief.

If Telemachus was told yes, your father was alive, he’d say, “Where is he then? I don’t believe you.” And if Telemachus was told he was dead, he would be full of sadness and he’d go home again. No other answer would work for this mission than “He might be alive.”

I guess the same thing happened with Menelaus too originally—he tried to get home too fast and didn’t do his sacrifices correctly. He has to go back and take the long way around. He was too intent on one of two options and it steered him off course.

(48:52) Student 2: So Menelaus learns that to get home you have to go back to the thing you came from—you can’t just go straight home in a certain sense. That may be an important lesson for Telemachus to learn about what his father is going through.

It also strikes me about the ambiguity of what Menelaus tells him. If you really want to know where your father is, you might have to do something as difficult as hold on to Proteus as he turns from tree to fire to water. That knowledge is not easy to come by.

(49:45) Student 1: I like the idea of there being some kind of connection between belief or hope and level-headedness, because it’s not immediately clear to me that it would be the case. But I’m struck by the contrast between the people of the assembly in Ithaca who say, “Look, we’re not going to rise up and fight these guys—it’s not good odds and even if your father came back, he wouldn’t have good odds either.”

That strikes me as a kind of level-headedness—you don’t have hope and don’t have a reason to challenge the status quo. That’s a kind of levelness. Yet having a mission and hope maybe “brings out” true level-headedness. Is there something about hope—about not having all the information that is more significant? Some combination of the two seems to be present in Telemachus and he must maintain it to carry out his mission.

(51:39) HH:   The force that’s pressing against the complacency of the townfolk is time, which is relentlessly ticking away. Grief or despair could make a whole city shut down. But as everyone gets older and the suitors get more pressing, they will have to act at some point.

(52:25) Student 1: There’s something really unsustainable about the situation in Ithaca—even the fact that Telemachus has gotten old enough how to do something, yet Penelope isn’t old enough that the suitors aren’t interested in her… It’s interesting the way time is “participating” in the story. There’s no resisting that force (time).

(53:09) Student 2: I’m curious about what Penelope thinks she’s doing—she’s sort of become famous in her intelligent way of resisting the suitors. But that can only go on for so long. She’s been raising Telemachus to survive. Is that level-headedness? Cleverness?

(53:57) Student 6: Penelope is interesting—is it clear-headedness that Telemachus asks that she not be told what he’s doing for a while? I assume this means her reaction to the news would not be clear-headed.

But in a way Penelope seems to be living outside all the time that’s passed—weaving and unweaving is kind of static. Unlike Telemachus, if Penelope found out Odysseus was definitely alive, she would wait longer than a year, probably as long as she could. 

(54:58) Student 3: The shroud she’s weaving for Laertes is a cyclical image of nothing happening. Yet Laertes will die, and Odysseus’s house will be depleted.

(55:29) Student 4: In a way, the suitors feasting at Odysseus’s house every day and Penelope resisting them silently—it’s kind of a powder keg, but without a spark. The suitors are not good-willed toward Odysseus’s family. Yet they think it’s not that bad. We need them to do something explicit like plot to kill Telemachus to stir the pot and force change.

(57:18) HH:   Is the catalyst divine, or is it a natural thing to blossom into their worst evil? Does something have to come from the outside?

(57:43) Student 3: There’s a very strange line about Odysseus’s imagined return… It would be a shame if he came home and met his end by challenging so many people, since he’s such a worthy man. It doesn’t matter how great he is if the evil grows large enough.

(58:33) Student 1: It seems important that we begin with the story of Telemachus. It’s his journey. The way time is affecting him is the only hope to get out of this static situation. Odysseus is locked in with Calypso and he can do nothing to get home. Penelope’s situation is decaying and she is just holding it off. But Telemachus is given the opportunity to grow. Does he need Athena for this? It seems there’s hope in just his youthfulness. Even as a society decays, the new and the young seem to offer hope. We begin with seeing him change somehow—even moving locations and speaking to people means something is happening for him that makes the rest possible.

(1:00:46) HH:     I also like the idea that his development is as uncertain as his father’s situation. He doesn’t know if his father is alive, and we can’t tell what Telemachus’s development is. Change of location is a start, at least.

(1:01:15) Student 2: I love the detail of getting the ship together. We talked earlier about the symbolism of the ship—but there’s so much information given.

(1:02:04) HH:     That’s an hour. Thank you very much.

Recommended Resources

The Odyssey and The Iliad by Homer: Dr. Hintze recommends the original Greek, but the T.E. Lawrence English translation, while not strictly literal, is a good entry edition.

Discussion Questions
  • What do you note about the ways in which Hannah Hintze leads this seminar?
  • Why do you think she chose the opening question that she did?
  • What do you note about the ways in which students treat the text?
  • If this is your first experience of a college-level seminar, what did you think? If it is not, how does this one compare to others you have attended or led? Does rarely getting a clear answer to the main question frustrate or intrigue you?
  • How would you describe the way Dr. Hintze led the discussion? Do you think she got the discussion she was hoping for? How would you have led differently? What do you think of the question she chose to discuss?
  • How did the students interact with one another? Did you notice a particular point that got them thinking in a different direction, and if so, what was it?
  • What do you note about the ways in which students interact with one another? Based on the students’ conversation, what was the pharmakon for, and did it help or hinder Telemachus? (If there are multiple likely options, name them.) If you have done your own reading, does the conversation line up with your own ideas on the topic?
The Odyssey by Homer (Lattimore translation)

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