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"ἵνα κλέος ἐσθλὸν ἄροιτο κεῖσ’ ἐλθών": Kleos in the Voyage of Telemachus

Joshua Benjamins

Commentators on Homer’s Odyssey have offered several unsatisfactory or incomplete explanations of Athena’s repeated affirmation (Od. 1.93-95; 13.421-424) that kleos will come to Telemachus in the course of his voyage to Pylos and Sparta (Clarke 1967; Rose 1967; Jones 1988; Van Nortwick 2008).  I propose an interpretation of Athena’s statement which takes into account the broad scope, lineal roots, and social character of kleos in the Homeric world.  In Homer’s epics, kleos denotes not only ‘rumor’, ‘news’, or ‘good report’ (its most basic etymological meaning) but also integration into cultural memory and, at the deepest level, a certain social identity based on the ‘news’ or ‘story’ about oneself (Vansina 1985; Redfield 1975).  Kleos, in this sense of social identity, has a lineal structure and flows from father to son (Petropoulos 2011). 

Applying this paradigm of kleos to the Telemacheia, I argue that Telemachus’ indecision and self-doubt at the beginning of the Odyssey stem from the fact that he lacks a proper self-definition in relation to his long-absent father, Odysseus.  In the course of his journey across the Peloponnese, Telemachus gains a proper self-definition as he is educated in the meaning of kleos through the models of Odysseus and Orestes, mediated by Mentor/Athena, Menelaus, and others.  First, Telemachus comes to understand who his father is, and becomes assured that he is indeed Odysseus’ son.  Crucially, in this process, Telemachus discovers his own social identity (the deeper meaning of kleos) as closely bound up with Odysseus’, and begins to adopt his father’s character as a man of both words and deeds (Petropoulos 2011).  Secondly, through the story of Orestes (D’Arms and Hulley 1946; Olson 1990), he receives and actively apprehends an apposite paradigm of the meaning of kleos and of the route to obtaining it.  I argue, finally, that kleos has a spatial dimension in the Homeric world and that, like Odysseus, Telemachus becomes τηλεκλυτὸς (‘far-famed’) through his journey to the Peloponnese as he moves from the house (the world of women) to the world of men and of heroic culture.  This entire process makes possible the slaughter of the suitors later in the Odyssey, by which Telemachus climactically fulfills the Oresteian paradigm.

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The Next Generation: Papers by Undergraduate Classics Students

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