Homer: The Odyssey
Tell me, Muse, of that man of many resources, who wandered far and wide, after sacking the holy citadel of Troy. Many the men whose cities he saw, whose ways he learned. Many the sorrows he suffered at sea, while trying to bring himself and his friends back alive. Yet despite his wishes he failed to save them, because of their own un-wisdom, foolishly eating the cattle of Helios, the Sun, so the god denied them their return. Tell us of these things, beginning where you will, Goddess, Daughter of Zeus.
Now, all the others, who had escaped destruction, had reached their homes, and were free of sea and war. He alone, longing for wife and home, Calypso, the Nymph, kept in her echoing cavern, desiring him for a husband. Not even when the changing seasons brought the year the gods had chosen for his return to Ithaca was he free from danger, and among friends. Yet all the gods pitied him, except Poseidon, who continued his relentless anger against godlike Odysseus until he reached his own land at last.
Now, though, Poseidon was visiting the distant Ethiopians, the most remote of all, a divided people, some of whom live where Hyperion sets the others where he rises, to accept a hetacomb of sacrificial bulls and rams, and there he sat, enjoying the feast: but the rest of the gods had gathered in the halls of Olympian Zeus. The Father of gods and men was first to address them, for he was thinking of flawless Aegisthus, whom far-famed Orestes, Agamemnon’s son had killed. And, thinking of him, he spoke to the immortals.
‘How surprising that men blame the gods, and say their troubles come from us, though they, through their own un-wisdom, find suffering beyond what is fated. Just as Aegisthus, beyond what was fated, took the wife of Agamemnon, son of Atreus, and murdered him when he returned, though he knew the end would be a complete disaster, since we sent Hermes, keen-eyed slayer of Argus, to warn him not to kill the man, or court his wife, as Orestes would avenge Agamemnon, once he reached manhood and longed for his own land. So Hermes told him, but despite his kind intent he could not move Aegisthus’ heart: and Aegisthus has paid the price now for it all.’
Athene, the bright-eyed goddess, answered him at
once: ‘Father of us all, Son of Cronos, Highest King, clearly that man deserved
to be destroyed: so let all be destroyed who act as he did. But my heart aches for Odysseus, wise but ill fated, who suffers far
from his friends on an island deep in the sea. The island is densely wooded and
a goddess lives there, a child of malevolent Atlas,
he who knows the depths of the sea, and supports the great columns that
separate earth and sky. It is his daughter who detains that unlucky, sorrowful
man: she lulls him, always, with soft seductive words, intending him to forget
Cloud-Gathering Zeus answered her then: ‘My child, what words escape your lips? How could I ever forget godlike Odysseus, who exceeds all mortals in wisdom, and also in sacrifice to the deathless gods who inhabit the broad heavens? It is Poseidon, the Earth-Bearer, who is always filled with implacable anger against him, because of godlike Polyphemus, the strongest Cyclops of all, whom Odysseus blinded. The nymph Thoosa bore him, daughter of Phorcys who rules the barren sea: she slept with Poseidon in the hollow caves. Since that blinding, Poseidon, the Earth-Shaker, though he will not kill him, keeps Odysseus far from his native land. Come, let all here plan how he might come home: then Poseidon will relent, since he’ll not be able to contend, alone, against all the deathless gods together.’
The goddess, bright-eyed Athene, answered him: ‘Father of us all, Son of Cronos, Highest King, if it truly pleases the blessed gods for wise Odysseus to return home, let us send Hermes, the Messenger, Slayer of Argus, to the isle of Ogygia, so he can tell the Nymph with the lovely tresses of our unalterable decision, that long-suffering Odysseus may come home. Meanwhile I will go to Ithaca, to stir his son, and encourage him to call the long-haired Achaeans together, and speak his mind to the Suitors who slaughter his flocks of sheep, and his shambling cattle with twisted horns. Then I will lead him to Sparta and sandy Pylos to gain news of his loyal father’s return, if he can, and so win praise.’
So saying, she bound to her feet her beautiful sandals of imperishable gold that would carry her over the waves, over the wide lands, as swiftly as the wind. And she took her heavy spear, great and strong, with its tip of sharpened bronze, with which she destroys the ranks of men, and heroes, when that daughter of a mighty father is angered. Then she flew down from the heights of Olympus, and reaching Ithaca stood at Odysseus’ gate, at the threshold of the court. She appeared as a visitor, Mentes, chief of the Taphians, bronze spear in hand. There she found the insolent suitors, sitting in front of the doors, on ox hides from beasts they had slaughtered themselves, playing at counters: their pages and squires were busy mixing water and wine in bowls, others were wiping tables with sponges then laying them, while others were setting out plentiful servings of meat.
Godlike Telemachus, sitting troubled among the suitors, imagining how his noble father might arrive from somewhere, throw the suitors from the palace, win honour and rule his own again, was first to see her. Thinking of it, sitting among the suitors, he saw Athene, and went straight to the doorway, ashamed a stranger should wait so long at the gates. Approaching her, he clasped her right hand, took her spear of bronze, and spoke to her winged words: ‘Welcome, stranger, here you will find hospitality, and after you have eaten you may tell us why you are here.’
At this, he led the way, and Pallas Athene followed. Once inside the high hall, he took the spear and set it in a polished rack by a tall pillar, with other spears that belonged to loyal Odysseus. He led Athene herself to a handsome, richly carved chair, spread a linen cloth over it, and seated her there with a footstool for her feet. He drew up on ornate stool for himself, as well, away from the Suitors, lest the stranger should shun the food, annoyed by the din, finding himself in a crowd of insolent men: and so he might ask news of his absent father. Next a maid brought water in a fine gold jug, and poured it over a silver basin, so they could rinse their hands: then drew up a polished table. The housekeeper silently brought them bread, and various delicacies, drawing liberally on her store. And a carver lifted plates of different meats, and set them down with gold cups beside them, while a steward, constantly walking by, poured the wine.
The insolent Suitors entered and sat in rows on stools and chairs. Squires poured water over their hands, while maids piled bread in baskets beside them, and pages filled bowls with wine: and they reached for the good things spread before them. Then when the Suitors had satisfied hunger and thirst, their thoughts turned elsewhere, to song and dance, since these things crown a feast. A herald placed a fine lyre in the hands of Phemius, whom the Suitors had forced to sing for them: and he struck the chords to begin his pleasant song.
Then Telemachus spoke to bright-eyed Athene, his head close to hers, so the others
could not hear: ‘My friend, will you be angered at what I say? These men amuse
themselves with music and song, freely, since they consume another’s wealth
without repayment, one whose white bones are tumbling in the waves, or rotting
in the rain on some far shore. If they saw him here in
Then the goddess, bright-eyed Athene,
answered: ‘Well I will tell you all, openly. I am Mentes, wise Anchialus’ son, lord of the sea-going Taphians. Now, as you see, with my ship
and crew I beach here, in my journey over the wine-dark sea to foreign-speaking
Temese, trading for copper and carrying
glittering iron. My ship lies over there, away from the city, next to open
land, in Rheithron
Wise Telemachus answered: ‘I will speak honestly. My mother says I am his son, but I do not know, for none can be certain of his own parentage. If only I had been the son of some lucky man who spent old age among his own possessions! As it is, they say, since you ask, that I am born of the unluckiest of mortal men.’
Then the goddess, bright-eyed Athene, replied: ‘Yet with Penelope for your mother the gods have ensured your line will not be unknown. But tell me, in truth, what is this feast, these folk? Why is this needed? Is it a banquet or a wedding celebration? It’s clearly not one where each brings his own provisions, since imperiously, insolently, they feast in your house. Any man of sense who mixed with them would be angered at the sight of these shameful actions.’
Then wise Telemachus answered: ‘Stranger, since you ask the question, our house once seemed made for wealth and honour, when Odysseus was with his people. But the gods have willed otherwise since then, with their dark designs, for unlike other men they have made him vanish. If he had been killed among his friends at Troy, or died in the arms of friends with the war ended, his death itself would grieve me less. Then the Achaean host would have built his tomb, and he would have won a fine name for his son to inherit. In fact the Harpies have snatched him, without trace: he is beyond sight and hearing, and leaves me in sorrow and tears: nor do I sigh and groan for him alone, for the gods have granted me other painful troubles. All the princes who rule the islands, Dulichium, Same, and wooded Zacynthus, and all the lords of rocky Ithaca court my mother and consume my wealth with their feasts: soon they will destroy me, too.’
Moved to anger, Pallas Athene spoke: ‘Ah, you have dire need of lost Odysseus, to set hands on these shameless Suitors. If only he were standing at the palace gates now, with his helmet and shield and twin spears, just as when I first saw him at my house, drinking joyously, on his way home from Ephyre, after his visit to Ilus, Mermerus’ son. Odysseus went there as well, in his swift ship, in search of a deadly poison to smear on the tips of his bronze-headed arrows. Ilus was in awe of the deathless gods and refused him, but my father who loved him dearly did not. If only Odysseus, I say, as he was, could confront the Suitors: they would meet death swiftly, and a dark wedding. But, indeed, it lies in the lap of the gods whether he will return and take vengeance in his palace, or not: but I urge you yourself to plan how to drive these Suitors from the house.
Come, listen, and note my words. Call the Achaean lords together tomorrow: speak to them all, with the gods for witness. Tell the Suitors to disperse, each to his home: and if your mother’s heart urges her to marry, let her go back to her great father’s house, where they will ready a wedding feast, and a wealth of gifts, fitting for a well-beloved daughter. And I will give you good advice, if you will hear me. Man the best ship you have with twenty oarsmen, go and seek news of your absent father. Some mortal may tell you, or perhaps a rumour sent by Zeus to bring news to men. Go to Pylos first, and question the noble Nestor: then to Sparta to yellow-haired Menelaus, last of the bronze-clad Achaeans to reach home. If you hear your father is living, and sailing home, then however troubled you are, endure for another year. But if you hear he is dead, return to your own land, build a mound, with all the funeral rites, generous ones as is fitting, and give your mother away to a new husband. When you have settled and done all this, use heart and mind to plan how to kill the Suitors in your palace, openly or by guile: since it is not right for you to follow childish ways, being no more a child. Perhaps you have not heard what fame Orestes won among men, destroying his father’s murderer, cunning Aegisthus, for killing his noble father? You too take courage, my friend, since I see you are tall and fine, so that many a man unborn will praise you. But now I must go to my swift ship, and my crew who will be weary of waiting. Take note yourself of my words, and consider them.
Wise Telemachus replied: ‘Stranger, truly, you speak kindly like a father to his son, and I will never forget your words. But stay a while, though you are eager to be gone, so that when you have bathed and eased your heart, you can go to your ship in good spirits, taking a rich and beautiful gift from me as a keepsake, such as stranger gives to stranger in friendship.’ Then the goddess, bright-eyed Athene, answered him: ‘Do not detain me longer, since I am eager to go, but whatever gift your heart prompts you to send home with me, give it to me when I return, choosing one of the loveliest, and it will bring you good value in exchange.’
So the goddess, bright-eyed Athene, spoke, and vanished, soaring upwards like a bird. In his heart she had stirred fortitude and daring, and made him think of his father even more. He felt what had passed in his spirit, and was awed, realising a god had been with him, and godlike himself he at once rejoined the Suitors.
As they sat listening in silence, the famous minstrel sang to them of the Achaeans’ troubled return from Troy, inflicted by Pallas Athene. Wise Penelope, Icarius’ daughter, heard his marvellous song from her chamber, and descended the stairs, accompanied by her two maids. As she neared the Suitors she drew her shining veil across her face, and stopped by the doorpost of the well-made hall, a loyal handmaid on either side. Then, with tear-filled eyes, she spoke to the divine bard:
‘Phemius, you know many another tale of men and gods, that the bards made famous, with which to charm us mortals. Sing one of those while you sit here, as they drink their wine in silence, but end this sad song that always troubles the heart in my breast, since above all women I bear a sadness not to be forgotten. I ever remember my husband’s dear face, he whose fame resounds through Hellas to the heart of Argos.’
Wise Telemachus answered her: ‘Mother, why
grudge the good bard his right to please us as the spirit stirs him? Bards are
not to blame, surely: it is Zeus we must
blame, who deals with each eater of bread as he wishes. No one can be angry if
this man sings the Danaans’ dark fate:
since men always praise the most the newest song they hear. Suffer you heart
and mind to listen, for Odysseus was not
alone in failing to return from
Seized with wonder she retired to her own room, taking her son’s wise words to heart. Up to her high chamber she went, accompanied by her maids, and there she wept for Odysseus, her dear husband, till bright-eyed Athene veiled her eyelids with sweet sleep.
But throughout the shadowy hall the Suitors created uproar, with each man praying he might bed her. Wise Telemachus was then the first to speak: ‘My mother’s Suitors, proud in your insolence, let us enjoy the feast for now, but without disturbance, since it is a lovely thing to listen to such a bard as this, with his godlike voice. Then, in the morning, let us take our seats in the assembly, so I can declare to you all you must leave the palace. Feast elsewhere, move from house to house, and eat your own provisions. If it seems preferable, more profitable to you, to waste one man’s estate without restitution, then do so, but I meanwhile will call on the eternal gods hoping that Zeus might grant a day of reckoning. Then you will be wasted in my halls, without restitution.’
So he spoke, and they bit their lips, amazed at Telemachus’ bold speech. Then Antinous, Eupeithes’ son, replied: ‘Telemachus, the gods themselves must have taught you this bold, high style. May the son of Cronos never make you king of Ithaca’s isle, though it is your heritage by birth.’
Then wise Telemachus answered him:
‘Will it anger you, Antinous, if I say that I should be pleased to accept it
from Zeus’ hand. Do you think, in truth, it is the worst fate for a man? It is
no bad thing to be a king. At once your house grows rich, and you are held in
higher honour. But there are many other kings for the Achaeans, young and old, in
Then Eurymachus, Polybus’ son, replied: ‘Surely,
Telemachus, the question of who will be king, in
Wise Telemachus answered him, saying: ‘Eurymachus, surely my father has lost his chance to return. I no longer put my faith in rumours, wherever they come from, nor do I note the prophecies my mother may hear, from some diviner she has called to the palace. The stranger is a friend of my father’s from Taphos. He announced he is Mentes, the son of wise Anchialus, lord of the sea-going Taphians.’
So Telemachus spoke, yet in his heart he knew it was the deathless goddess.
Now they turned to dancing, heart-felt song, and enjoyment, till nightfall. Then each went to his house to rest. But Telemachus went to his bed with his mind full of thoughts, to his room high above the fine courtyard, with its clear view: and faithful Eurycleia, daughter of Ops, Peisenor’s son, carrying a blazing torch, waited on him. Laertes had bought her himself long ago, when she was still quite young, at the cost of twenty oxen, and honoured her in his palace as he honoured his loyal wife, never lying with her for fear of his wife’s anger. Now she carried the blazing torches for Telemachus, since of all the women it was she who loved him most, having nursed him as a child. He opened the door to the well-made room, and sitting on the bed took off his soft tunic, and placed it in the wise old woman’s hands. Folding and smoothing the tunic, she hung it on a peg by the wooden bedstead, and went out of the room, closing the door by its silver handle, shooting the bolt by means of its leather thong. There, all night long, wrapped in a woollen fleece, Telemachus planned in his mind the journey Athene proposed.