Nestor’s Epic Success?

Bourdelle, Telemachos at Nestor's Palace in Pylos, Plaster (1883) Bourdelle Museum
Bourdelle, Telemakhos at Nestor’s Palace in Pylos, Plaster (1883) Bourdelle Museum

Nestor in the Odyssey is home in Pylos. He got a safe nostos, he  is surrounded by his beloved wife and his children: six boys and several daughters and  daughters-in-law. He seems ageless. In this passage from the Sourcebook, a wonderful scene with his guests and family is shown. The setting  is perfect. The sacrifice is detailed beautifully. Athena herself is present. The guest of honor is Telemachus. On the picture from Bourdelle Museum, Nestor is sitting down surrounded by two of his sons, Peisistratos and Thrasymedes, and Telemachus is on the left. Above, Athena is disguised to protect Telemachus. The scene seems ideal. Nestor respects the gods, follows tradition and is the guardian of justice.

Then, when they had made their drink-offerings and had drunk each as much as he was minded, the others went home to bed each in his own abode; but Nestor the charioteer of Gerenia put Telemachus the dear son of godlike Odysseus to sleep in the room that was over the gateway along with Peisistratos, who was the only unmarried son now left him. As for himself, he slept in an inner room of the house, with the queen his wife by his side. Now when the child of morning, rosy-fingered Dawn, appeared, Nestor the charioteer of Gerenia left his couch and took his seat on the benches of white and polished marble that stood in front of his house. Here aforetime sat Neleus, peer of gods in counsel, but he was now dead, and had gone to the house of Hadēs; so Nestor of Gerenia sat in his seat, scepter in hand, as guardian of the public weal. His sons as they left their rooms gathered round him, Ekhephron, Stratios, Perseus, Aretos, and Thrasymedes; the sixth son was the hero Peisistratos, and when godlike Telemachus joined them they made him sit with them. Nestor then addressed them. “My sons,” said he, “make haste to do as I shall bid you. I wish first and foremost to propitiate the great goddess Athena, who manifested herself visibly to me during yesterday’s festivities. Go, then, one or other of you to the plain, tell the stockman to look me out a heifer, and come on here with it at once. Another must go to great-hearted Telemachus’ ship, and invite all the crew, leaving two men only in charge of the vessel. Some one else will run and fetch gold Laerkeus the goldsmith to gild the horns of the heifer. The rest, stay all of you where you are; tell the maids in the house to prepare an excellent dinner, and to fetch seats, and logs of wood for a burnt offering. Tell them also to bring me some clear spring water.” Then they hurried off on their several errands. The heifer was brought in from the plain, and great-hearted Telemachus’ crew came from the ship; the goldsmith brought the anvil, hammer, and tongs, with which he worked his gold, and Athena herself came to the sacrifice. Nestor, the old charioteer, gave out the gold, and the smith gilded the horns of the heifer that the goddess might have pleasure in their beauty. Then Stratios and noble Ekhephron brought her in by the horns; Aretos fetched water from the house in a ewer that had a flower pattern on it, and in his other hand he held a basket of barley meal; sturdy Thrasymedes stood by with a sharp axe, ready to strike the heifer, while Perseus held a bucket. Then Nestor began with washing his hands and sprinkling the barley meal, and he offered many a prayer to Athena as he threw a lock from the heifer’s head upon the fire. When they had done praying and sprinkling the barley meal Thrasymedes, the high-hearted son of Nestor dealt his blow, and brought the heifer down with a stroke that cut through the tendons at the base of her neck, whereon the daughters and daughters-in-law of Nestor, and his venerable wife Eurydice (she was eldest daughter to Klymenos) shouted ‘ololu’ in delight. Then they lifted the heifer’s head from off the ground, and Peisistratos, leader of men, cut her throat.When she had done bleeding and was quite dead, they cut her up. They cut out the thigh bones all in due course, wrapped them round in two layers of fat, and set some pieces of raw meat on the top of them; then Nestor laid them upon the wood fire and poured wine over them, while the young men stood near him with five-pronged spits in their hands. When the thighs were burned and they had tasted the innards, they cut the rest of the meat up small, put the pieces on the spits and toasted them over the fire. Meanwhile lovely Polykaste, Nestor’s youngest daughter, washed Telemachus. When she had washed him and anointed him with oil, she brought him a fair mantle and khiton, and he looked like a god as he came from the bath and took his seat by the side of Nestor. When the outer meats were done they drew them off the spits and sat down to dinner where they were waited upon by some worthy henchmen, who kept pouring them out their wine in cups of gold. As soon as they had had enough to eat and drink Nestor the charioteer of Gerenia said, “Sons, put Telemachus’ horses to the chariot that he may start at once.” Thus did he speak, and they did even as he had said, and yoked the fleet horses to the chariot. The housekeeper packed them up a provision of bread, wine, and sweetmeats fit for the sons of princes. Then Telemachus got into the chariot, while Peisistratos leader of men, the son of Nestor gathered up the reins and took his seat beside him. He lashed the horses on and they flew forward nothing loath into the open country, leaving the high citadel of Pylos behind them.

Odyssey 3. 395–485 Sourcebook

Is Pylos a legendary place? Pausanias (110–180 CE) wrote in his Description of Greece about Nestor and Pylos, which he visited.

When Neleus became king, he raised Pylos to such renown that Homer in his epics calls it the city of Neleus.

[2] It contains a sanctuary of Athena with the title Coryphasia, and a house called the house of Nestor, in which there is a painting of him. His tomb is inside the city; the tomb at a little distance from Pylos is said to be the tomb of Thrasymedes. There is a cave inside the town, in which it is said that the cattle belonging to Nestor and to Neleus before him were kept.

(Pausanias Description of Greece 4.36.1–2, Perseus)

After leaving Pylos, Telemachus goes to see Menelaos to know more about his father’s nostos.  He still does not know why his father was not granted a safe return like Nestor who was granted a safe nostos. Was Nestor granted one because he never acted badly, but always with moderation? He certainly seems to sacrifice the right way, and to be respectful of the gods. Later in the Odyssey, he is shown to be blessed by Zeus from the first day of his life to the last day, as Menelaos tells Telemachus.

One can soon see when a man is son to one whom Zeus grants blessedness [olbos] both as regards wife and offspring—and he has blessed Nestor from first to last all his days, giving him a green old age in his own house, with sons about him who are both well disposed and valiant. We will put an end therefore to all this weeping, and attend to our supper again. Let water be poured over our hands. Telemachus and I can talk with one another fully

Odyssey 4.205–215, Sourcebook

Is the answer in his name? Nestor’s name tells us about who he seems to be. He is the one “who brings home.” Douglas Frame in his impressive book Hippota Nestor writes about the complexity of Nestor.

What must also be kept in mind, however, is the meaning of Nestor’s name, for this is central to his role in the Odyssey. Néstōr is “he who brings home,” and when he parts company from Odysseus at the very moment of the Achaeans’ homecoming from Troy, he reenacts his own myth, for just as he did not save his brother, he does not bring Odysseus home.

Douglas Frame, Hippota Nestor, Chapter 6.

In an interview from Kleos@, Frame talks about the irony “sous-jacente ”

Homer’s Hidden Muse and Related Questions: a conversation with classicist Douglas Frame

CHS: Let’s return to Hippota Nestor. In that book you argue that irony is a key aspect of Nestor’s function in Homeric epic. What do you mean by that and why do you think irony came to be so crucial?

Frame: The irony that manifests itself in Nestor’s case is extensive, in fact pervasive. As a result there are two levels to his role, each of which is whole and complete in itself, on its own terms. We can take the old man simply at face value in both poems, and his role on that level is clear and consistent. But when Nestor starts talking about the past the floor drops out. By that I mean that his oldest traditions come into play, and silences then become signifiers.

In spite of the meaning of his name, Nestor did not bring home Odysseus. He brought Diomedes home in Argo, then he went safely to his own home in Pylos. Why didn’t he tell the truth about Odysseus to Telemachus? Why was he unsuccessful in bringing Odysseus home safely ? Also, Nestor was not able to bring back from Troy one of his sons, Antilokhos:

 “My friend,” answered Nestor, “you recall a time of much sorrow to my mind, for the brave Achaeans suffered much both at sea, while privateering under Achilles, and when fighting before the great city of king Priam. Our best men all of them fell there—Ajax, Achilles, Patroklos peer of gods in counsel, and my own dear son Antilokhos, a man singularly fleet of foot and in fight valiant. But we suffered much more than this; what mortal tongue indeed could tell the whole story?

Odyssey 3.104–113, Sourcebook

Is there more to Nestor than just the old, wise and respectful man, who gives good counsels and speaks sweet words? Join me in the Forums to pursue the discussion on Nestor.

Hélène Emeriaud is a retired teacher. She holds a BA in Education from Montreal University, and a Master of Education from McGill University. A Community TA for HeroesX in v3, v4, and v5, she enjoys being a participant in Hour 25.

Image credits

H. Emeriaud (photo): Bourdelle, Telemakhos at Nestor’s Palace in Pylos
Detail from Marie-Lan Nguyen (photo): Meleager Painter: Nestor and his sons sacrifice to Poseidon on the beach at Pylos, Creative Commons CC BY 2.5