Telemachus: The Original Greek Coming of Age Story

Telemachus was a young Greek hero whose adventures are seen as the Greek version of the coming-of-age story. Read on to discover his adventures from childhood to adulthood.

Oct 30, 2021By Bethany Williams, BA Classics and English, MA Literature
telemachus returns penelope ulysses revenge suitors

 

The coming-of-age narrative arc is a popular and widely recognized theme for storytelling. Telemachus had a famous father — Odysseus — who traveled most of the known Greek world, generating many fascinating myths. Likewise, Telemachus himself had many adventures on the journey to adulthood. The first four books of the Odyssey are also known as the “Telemachy” as they relate to the story of the young hero’s travels in search of news about his father. Parallels with the modern conception of the coming-of-age narrative are clear. In this story we can see the basis of the genre — its birth lies in Greek myth.

 

Who is Telemachus? 

tiepolo telemachus mentor
Telemachus and Mentor by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, c. 1730-50, via Rijksmuseum, Amsterda

 

Telemachus was the son of Penelope, and Odysseus, who ruled the kingdom of Ithaca in ancient Greece. His name means “far from battle” which alludes to his first appearance in Greek myth as a baby who Odysseus had reluctantly left behind to go to war far away on the plains of Troy. Odysseus did not return home for another twenty years and his story is told in the Odyssey.

 

Telemachus was born to Penelope and Odysseus just before the outbreak of the Trojan War. When recruiters came to summon Odysseus to the war, he pretended to be mad; he attached an ox and a donkey to his plow and began driving up and down the fields in a frenzy. When a man named Palamedes took Telemachus from his crib and placed him in front of the plow, Odysseus immediately ceased the act to protect his son. In another version of the myth, when Odysseus was feigning madness, Palamedes snatched Telemachus from Penelope’s arms and drew his sword as if to kill the baby. Odysseus then confessed his act in order to stop Palamedes from killing his child.

 

Telemachus grew up without his father in the picture. At home, he lived with his mother, Penelope, but their house was soon invaded by suitors who wished to marry Penelope in Odysseus’ absence. As a result, he had to endure the rude behavior of the suitors who insulted him and refused to listen to the young boy in his own house. Coming-of-age stories often begin with a turbulent time — for Telemachus, this was the suitors, who were squandering his home. The protagonist often wishes for a way to change their situation, and so this young man dreams of changing life on the island.

 

Athena: An Immortal Guide

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Bronze Statuette of Athena Flying her Owl, ca. 460 BCE, MET Museum

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Telemachus did have one advantage on his side: the goddess Athena. In Greek mythology, Athena was the goddess of wisdom, skill, and war. She appears in many Greek myths helping heroes (such as Perseus, Achilles, and Odysseus) giving them wise advice.

 

Athena was also the patron goddess of the House of Odysseus due to the family’s propensity for intelligence. Athena particularly favored those with a keen and intelligent mind, and she saw potential in Telemachus. Role models are a key feature of coming-of-age stories. The need for someone to look up to, a trusted advisor, is key for the development of the psychological and social relations of adolescents moving into adulthood. Athena takes this role.

 

Athena disguises herself as a family friend named Mentor, which is where the modern word “mentor”,  comes from. In this form, Athena gives valuable advice and guidance to Telemachus. As a goddess who symbolized wisdom, she often inspires the development of wisdom in mortals. It is apt then that Athena is involved in the life of our young hero, whose youth is of particular importance — he is still developing the wisdom that Athena so admires in his father, Odysseus.

 

Telemachus and the Suitors

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The Sorrow of Telemachus by Angelica Kauffmann, 1783, via the Met Museum

 

In the Odyssey, Telemachus is first introduced as an inexperienced teenager, lost in his own thoughts. He despairs due to his lost father, the grief of his mother, and the disrespect from the suitors, who are plundering his house and hounding his mother with marriage proposals when his father is not even confirmed dead.

 

He was just one young man against 108 suitors, fully-grown men. These men had taken up residence in his house with designs to marry Penelope. Therefore he was in a fragile position: if his father was confirmed dead, he could rightfully claim his title as heir and head of the household. But Telemachus could not confidently claim this, because Odysseus’ whereabouts were unknown, and Penelope’s son was unsure how to get rid of the suitors by himself.

 

In one attempt to disperse the suitors, Telemachus organizes a meeting for the elders of the island to discuss the suitors’ bad behavior.

 

“My distinguished father is lost…
My home and all I have are being ruined.
My mother wanted no suitors but like a pack
They came—
[…] They squander everything…
Expel them, yes, if only I had the power…
My house is being plundered: is this courtesy?
Where is your indignation? Where is your shame?”
(Odyssey 4.49-80)

 

Some of the elders are impressed with Telemachus’ speech, but the suitors rudely mock him for his youth and inexperience. As a result, his speech is unsuccessful, and he is placed in an even worse position; the suitors hate him even more and secretly make plans to kill him. He is encouraged by Mentor-Athena to set out on a journey to discover news about his father. According to Athena’s standards, Telemachus must first gain knowledge, to increase his strength, before finally returning home with the ability to defeat the suitors.

 

Telemachus’ Travels

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Telemachus Arming by Luigi Bienaimé, 1835, via Sotheby’s

 

Telemachus and Mentor-Athena set off on a journey to visit the great kings of Greece, who were old friends and comrades of Odysseus. This is the beginning of the hero’s coming-of-age narrative. His first stop is at the kingdom of Nestor, in Pylos. Just before getting off the ship, he hesitates, doubting his skill at speech and worrying that he will appear rude and uneducated to Nestor.

 

“Mentor, how can I do it? How approach him?
I have no practice in elaborate speeches, and
For a young man to interrogate an old man
Seems disrespectful…”
(Odyssey 3.22-25)

 

This self-doubt is key to the coming-of-age trope; many characters in this narrative begin with doubt and grow in confidence as they learn from new experiences. Mentor-Athena notices his uncertainty and tries to rouse his confidence. Athena assures him that he has the ability: “reason and heart will give you words, Telemachus, and a spirit will counsel others.”

 

And so, Telemachus approaches Nestor and asks about his father. Nestor is very impressed with the young man’s speech — he praises him for having the eloquence of his father. This is a very high compliment as Odysseus was known among the Greeks for his silver-tongue. Among other things, Nestor teaches Telemachus about the importance of loyalty, and faith in the gods. This enhances the young protagonist’s psychological growth as a maturing young man.

 

After this, Telemachus visits King Menelaus and Queen Helen, who live in Sparta. Here he learns that his father is alive but trapped on the island of Calypso. Menelaus also admires the likeness of Odysseus in Telemachus, which helps him gain confidence in his parentage, which he sometimes doubts. Inspired by the news that his father is alive, Telemachus is reinvigorated with hope and self-assurance.

 

Return Home: Reunion with Odysseus

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Reunion of Odysseus and Telemachus by Henri-Lucien Doucet, 1856-95, via Public Art Collection

 

Whilst Telemachus had been traveling, the suitors had been plotting “the death plunge for Telemachus.” (Odyssey 4.897) Telemachus avoids the ambush that he had expected by taking shelter with a swineherd. Unbeknownst to Telemachus, his father Odysseus has also arrived from his twenty-year-long journey and is resting inside the same swineherd’s shelter. Odysseus is disguised as an old man — a magic trick courtesy of Athena.

 

Telemachus is gracious to the “old man” and shows the exemplary behavior of a young prince on the verge of adulthood. He accepts the responsibility of care for the old man but shows concern regarding his ability to keep his guest safe in his own home due to the presence of the violent suitors. During their conversation, Telemachus mentions how much he misses his father, which is heart-warming for Odysseus to hear.

 

“If men could choose, and have their choice, in everything, we’d have my father home.”
(Odyssey 16.172-3)

 

Odysseus, having waited to gauge his son’s character, eventually reveals himself once he is proud of what he has seen. A happy reunion ensues.

 

“Then, throwing his arms around this marvel of a father,
Telemachus began to weep. Salt tears
Rose from the wells of longing in both men,
And cries burst from both”
(Odyssey 16.252-6)

 

Reunited, father and son begin to devise a plan to eradicate the suitors and finally reunite their family.

 

Reuniting with Penelope

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Telemachus Returning to Penelope by Angelica Kauffmann, c.1770-80, via the Chrysler Museum of Art, Virginia

 

Odysseus (once again disguised) and Telemachus, keeping a low profile, return to the palace. Once there, Telemachus secretly creeps into the palace and gathers weapons. He stores them in a hidden but accessible location so that they can arm themselves against the suitors when the time is right.

 

First, Penelope is reunited with Telemachus. He shows personal growth — key to coming-of-age narratives — in his improved attitude towards his mother. At the beginning of the story, he appeared impatient and brusque, chiding her for her laments. However, Telemachus’ attitude towards his mother changes by the time he returns home. He shows newfound respect for her, being courteous and apologetic.

 

“Mother… I know the meaning of these actions now, both good and bad. I had been young and blind.”
(Odyssey 18.283-6)

 

Telemachus also shows concern for her mental health; one of his first thoughts when reaching the island is a desire to let Penelope know that he and Odysseus are alive so that she will not despair. He later shows a protective attitude concerning his mother. In one scene, he commands Penelope to leave the courtyard and return to her room to continue her weaving. He then has her locked in the room. This appears to the onlookers as if Telemachus is being rude, however, Telemachus knows that a battle is about to commence, and so his actions ensure that Penelope is out of danger, and as safe as possible.

 

Reclaiming Home

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Ulysses’ Revenge on Penelope’s Suitors (with Telemachus) by Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg, 1814, via the Hirschsprung Collection, Denmark.

 

In the courtyard, Telemachus sets up the trial of the bow: Penelope had announced to the suitors that whoever could shoot an arrow through twelve ax-heads with Odysseus’ old bow, would become her new husband.

 

There is symbolism in Telemachus’ own attempt to fire the arrow. He fails three times to string the bow, but on the fourth attempt, it appears that he could have been successful. However, upon a secret signal from Odysseus, he retreats from the challenge. The plan was for the suitors to fail at the challenge, and for Odysseus to step up last and reveal his identity. Telemachus’ almost-victory shooting the arrow conveys how he has almost completed his passage from childhood to adulthood, and that he is undeniably the heir of Odysseus.

 

Once Odysseus completes the challenge, Telemachus and his father begin the purging of the suitors. It soon becomes apparent that the door to the room with the weapons has been left open, and the suitors are able to arm themselves. Without hesitation, Telemachus owns up to this mistake.

 

“It is my own fault, Father, mine alone. The storeroom door — I left it open. They were more alert than I.”
(Odyssey 22.171-3)

 

His humble acceptance of his own mistake shows maturity, and his responsible nature speaks to his growth into adulthood. Nevertheless, with the magical aid of Athena, Odysseus and Telemachus are able to kill all the suitors in a violent battle.

 

Parallels with Other Coming-of-Age Narratives

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Minerva (Athena) in the Clouds Above Telemachus by Abraham Raimbach, via the British Museum

 

A vital part of the coming-of-age storyline is the personal growth the protagonist experiences on the way to becoming an adult. In particular, Telemachus’ example highlights Homeric Greek society’s expectations of what psychological changes an adolescent may experience when growing up: self-doubt to confidence, arrogance to humility. Telemachus learns responsibility and respect.

 

Telemachus’ journey across the sea, from his hometown to mainland Greece, is considered dangerous. As such, the journey proves that he has grown in bravery. The physical journey reflects the psychological journey. A major part of Telemachus’ growth is about confidence. He begins the journey unsure of himself because he had been unable to send away the suitors, as they had overpowered him in the meeting. When first arriving at Pylos, this self-doubt almost stops him at the beginning of his journey.

 

With the support and encouragement of a role model (Athena in the disguise of Mentor) Telemachus is slowly able to overcome his insecurities. On his return, he is able to confidently assume his place in the household and rid his property of the suitors. Doubt does not hold him back this time.

 

Emotional responses are a huge part of growing up. Telemachus gets angry at his mother and the suitors at the beginning of the Telemachy — this is manifest frustration at an inability to claim independence and power in his own home on the brink of adulthood. However, on his return, his naive lack of appreciation for his mother has become humble respect. With regards to the suitors, Telemachus is able to calmly deal with them and claim his power in the house as the rightful heir of Odysseus.

 

A Hero’s Growth

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Pallas Athena appearing to Telemachus by Tako Hajo Jelgersma, via the British Museum

 

By the end of the Odyssey, Telemachus has grown into a responsible young man who is accepting of his flaws and yet wise in his efforts to improve himself. The end of the Odyssey is by no means the end of Telemachus’ story, but the conclusion to his coming-of-age arc, and the beginning of his life as an adult.



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By Bethany WilliamsBA Classics and English, MA LiteratureBethany is a Masters student, currently studying the adaptation of Greek myth in modern literature. She is a graduate of Classics and English (BA), during which she studied Ancient Greek language, classical reception within its own time and throughout history, as well as Greek and Roman history. Apart from her studies, she has an appreciation for art, philosophy, and travel. She may be based in England, but her heart is in Greece.