Homer: The Odyssey
Odysseus finished speaking. Spellbound at his words, all had fallen silent in the darkened hall. Then Alcinous addressed him once more, saying: “Odysseus, now you have set foot on the bronze floor of my high hall, I suspect, though you have suffered greatly, you will not be driven back on your course again as you sail home. Now I give this command to every man who drinks the Elders’ glowing wine and listens to the bard. Clothing, and finely wrought gold, and all the other gifts the Phaeacian counsellors brought here for our guest are already laid up in the polished chest. But now let each offer him a cauldron and a large tripod. We in turn will impose a levy on the people to recoup the cost, since it would be hard on any man to give so generously without repayment.”
Alcinous’ words pleased them, and each man went to his house to sleep, but when rosy-fingered Dawn appeared they hastened to bring the articles of bronze that add to a man’s power, to the ship. And royal Alcinous himself went up and down the deck, stowing them carefully under the benches, so they would not hamper the crew when rowing, as they sweated at the oars. Then they went to Alcinous’ halls to ready a feast, and Alcinous sacrificed a bull on their behalf to Zeus, the lord of all, the god of the dark clouds, Cronos’ son.
When they had burned the pieces of thigh, they made a fine and joyful feast, and the divine bard Demodocus, honoured by the people, sang to the sound of his lyre. But Odysseus kept turning his head to see the shining sun, impatient for its setting, more than eager to be on his way. He was as glad to see the light vanish as a ploughman, longing for his supper, whose team of black oxen has pulled the share through unturned soil all day, and whose legs are weary as he goes home to his meal. Then he addressed the Phaeacians, lovers of the sea, Alcinous above all: “Lord Alcinous, famous above all men, and all you other noblemen, pour your libations now, and send me on my way in peace. And farewell, to you all! Now everything I could wish has been achieved: a ship to take me home, and friendly gifts. May the gods in heaven bless them both, and when I reach home let me find my faultless wife and my loved ones safe, and may you I leave behind bring joy to your wives and children, and may the gods grant you every excellence, and may no evil come to your people.”
They all praised his words, and urged the departure of this guest who spoke so eloquently. Then mighty Alcinous called to his herald, saying: ‘Mix the wine, Pontonous, and serve it through the hall, so that once we have prayed to Father Zeus we can send our guest on his way to his own country.”
At this, Pontonous mixed the honey-sweet wine, and served them all in turn, and they poured libations, where they sat, to the gods who are blessed and rule the wide heavens. Then noble Odysseus rose to his feet, and placed his two-handled cup in Arete’s hands, and addressed her with winged words: “Fare well through all the years, Queen, till our mortal fate, old-age and death, shall come. I go my way, now, but may you take joy in your children, your people, and Alcinous, your king.”
So spoke noble Odysseus, and crossed the threshold. And mighty Alcinous sent a herald with him to lead the way to the swift ship and the shore. And Arete sent a serving-woman to carry a fresh tunic and cloak, and another in charge of the stout chest, and another with bread and red wine.
As soon as they reached the ship and the sea, the noble youths who escorted him stowed everything in the hollow ship, down to the food and drink. Then they spread a rug with a linen sheet on deck, at the stern of the hollow ship, so he could sleep sound, and he went on board and quietly lay down. They sat to their benches, each in his place, and the hawser was loosed from the stone mooring ring, and as soon as they leant into the stroke and struck the brine with their blades sweet sleep fell over his eyelids, a deep sweet sleep like death.
Like a team of stallions, a four in hand, that leap forward together over the plain at the lash of a whip, and with heads held high forge their way, so the ship’s stern leapt in the water, and the glittering wave of the breaking sea foamed violently in her wake. Safe and sure she sped on her way, and not even the wheeling falcon, the swiftest winged creature, could have caught her. So she cut quickly through the waves, carrying a man wise as the gods, who had suffered many heartfelt sorrows in war and on the surging waves, but now he slept, at peace, his mind empty of all his troubles.
And now, as the brightest planet rose, the first to herald dawn’s early light, the sea-going vessel approached Ithaca.
One of the island’s coves is that of Phorcys, the Old Man of the Sea, with its mouth between two projecting headlands: both are sheer cliffs to seaward, but slope down towards the harbour on the landward side. They restrain the huge breakers raised by strong winds outside, while oared ships can ride unmoored once they have reached their anchorage. A long-leafed olive tree grows at the head of the cove, and nearby is a pleasant, shadowy cave sacred to the Nymphs called Naiads. There are stone mixing-bowls and jars inside, where the bees have their hives. And there are great stone looms in the cave, on which the Nymphs weave wondrous purple fabrics, and also there are never-failing springs. The cave has two mouths, one facing the North Wind by which men enter, while the other facing the South Wind is the immortal gods’ sacred portal that men do not use.
The Phaeacians landed here, knowing the place, and the ship, driven by the muscles of her crew, was running so fast in her swift passage that she beached by half her length. They leapt on shore from the oared vessel, and began by lifting Odysseus from the deck, glossy rug, linen sheet and all, and laying him down on the sand, still fast asleep. Then they lifted out all the gifts that the noble Phaeacians, prompted by great-hearted Athene, had sent with Odysseus. These they stacked by the trunk of an olive-tree, away from the path, in case some passer-by found them and stole them before he woke. Then they turned for home.
But the Earth-Shaker had not forgotten his past threats against godlike Odysseus, and he asked what Zeus intended: “I, even I, Father Zeus, will no longer be honoured by the deathless gods, since mortals honour me not at all, Phaeacians too who, as you well know, are descended from me. I said not long ago that Odysseus should suffer before he reached home, though I never denied he might return once you promised it and confirmed so with a nod. But these men have carried him over the sea in their swift ship, and set him down on Ithaca, and given him countless gifts, gold and bronze and woven fabrics, even more than he would have brought from Troy if he had returned directly with his due share of the spoils.”
Cloud-Gatherer Zeus replied: “Oh, what a thing to say, my powerful Earth-Shaker! The gods never fail to honour you: it would be a wretched thing indeed to lack respect for the oldest and the greatest. But if any man, intoxicated by his strength and power, fails to honour you in any way you are free to take your revenge hereafter. Do what you wish, and as it pleases you.”
Then Poseidon, the Earth-Shaker, answered him: “God of the dark clouds, I would have done as you say already, but I dreaded and sought to avoid your anger, as ever. Now though, I intend to strike the Phaeacians fine ship as she returns from her voyage on the misty deep, to warn them to stop transporting strangers. And I’ll ring their city with a vast mountain chain.”
“Dear brother, listen to what I think is best,” Cloud-Gatherer Zeus replied. “Wait till all the eyes of the city are on her as she sails swiftly to port and turn her to stone close to shore, a reef in the shape of a passing ship, so all of them are amazed, then ring their city with that vast mountain chain.”
Earth-Shaker, heard this, he headed for the Phaeacian
They were gripped by fear, at his words, and swiftly readied the beasts. There all the counsellors and leaders of the Phaeacians stood, close to the altar, praying to Lord Poseidon. Meanwhile in his own country Odysseus woke, and after his long absence failed to recognise where he was. For the goddess Pallas Athene, Zeus’ daughter, had veiled him in mist, so she might make him seem like a stranger, and be his guide, while his wife, his neighbours and his friends still knew him not, till the Suitors had paid the price of their crimes. So everything looked strange to their king, those long ridge-tracks, the safe anchorages, the sheer cliffs and verdant trees.
He leapt to his feet, and stood staring about him at his native land. Then he struck both thighs with the flat of his hands and groaned aloud, speaking sadly to himself: “Alas, what mortal country have I reached? Are they lawless, cruel, uncivilised people here, or are they kind to strangers, minds fearful of the gods? Shall I carry these riches with me, or merely explore? I wished I had stayed with the Phaeacians, and then travelled on to some other great king’s palace, where I might have been a guest, then been helped on my homeward path. Now where can I hide this wealth of things? If I leave it here it will be lost as spoil to others. Oh, those Phaeacian counsellors and leaders were not quite so wise and just as they seemed. They said they would take me to clear-skied Ithaca, but they lied and brought me here to this strange land. May Zeus, the god of suppliants, who watches over us all and punishes transgressors punish them. But I had best check my goods now and tally them, in case they carried some off in their hollow ship.”
With this he began checking the fine tripods, the cauldrons, the gold and the lovely woven fabrics, and found nothing missing: then he dragged himself along beside the sounding waves, groaning deeply, longing for his native land. Soon Athene appeared, disguised as a young shepherd, yet as refined as a prince’s son. A fine cloak hung in a double fold from her shoulders, and she wore shining sandals on her feet, and held a spear in her hand. She was a welcome sight to Odysseus and he approached her and spoke with winged words: “Hail to you, Friend, the first person I have come across, and I hope you have no malicious intent against me, but will help protect me and this treasure, since I beg you as I would a god, and kneel at your knees in friendship. Tell me clearly so I can be certain what country this is, what race, what kind of men live here. Is this some offshore island or a fertile headland sloping to the sea?”
The goddess, bright-eyed Athene, replied: “Stranger, you must be from some far-off place, or else be stupid, if you have to ask its name. It is by no means unknown. Many have heard of it, many of those who live toward the rising sun, and those who live toward the dark of evening. It is a rugged place, yes, unfit for herding horses yet narrow as it is, not destitute. It carries crops in plenty and good vineyards too, and it never lacks copious dew and rain. A fine land it is for grazing goats and cattle as well, with every kind of tree, and never-failing springs. So Ithaca’s name has spread even as far as Troy, Stranger, and they say that is a long way from our Achaea.”
Noble long-suffering Odysseus was overjoyed at her words, delighting in being back on his native soil, and he answered Pallas Athene, daughter of aegis-bearing Zeus, with winged words. But he concealed the truth, smothering certain words before they were spoken, choosing what he said artfully.
“Even in spacious Crete,
over the water, I heard of Ithaca, and
now I have brought myself and my wealth here. As much again I left behind with
my children, fleeing that land after killing Orsilochus
the swift-footed, the brave son of Idomeneus.
But the power
of the winds sent them off course, against their will since they had no wish to
cheat me and, driven from there, at night we reached this land. We rowed
swiftly for the harbour, and not thinking of supper though we needed food, we
all leapt ashore and lay there, just as we were. Then I slept out of weariness,
but while I was asleep they brought my goods from the hollow ship and set them
down on the sand where I lay. Then they embarked and sailed for the thriving
The goddess, bright-eyed Athene, smiled at his words, and touching him with her hand altered her form as she did so to that of a tall and lovely woman, accomplished in every glorious art. And she addressed him with winged words: “Even if a god encountered you he would need to be wily and devious to outdo you in cunning. Resolute man, subtle in counsel, never tiring of intrigue, even in you own country you will always be full of guile and the lying tales you love so much. But let us talk of other things. We are well-matched in these arts, you being the most eloquent and practical of men, and I known among the gods for my wisdom and subtlety. Still you failed to know me, Pallas Athene, Zeus’ daughter: she who is ever by your side to protect you in all your adventures. It was I who made the Phaeacians kind to you. And once again I’m here to help you plan ahead, and before you start for home to hide the treasure the noble Phaeacians gave you since I wanted it so and prompted them, and to tell you all the tale of woe you are fated to enact in your fine palace. Be strong, for you must bear it. Tell no one, man or woman, that it is you, back from your wanderings, but suffer your troubles in silence, and endure the insults some will offer.”
Then wily Odysseus replied: “Goddess, it is hard for a man to recognise you when he meets you no matter how clever he is, since you take what shape you will. But this I do know, you were kind to me, back then when we Achaeans fought on the plains of Troy, but once we’d sacked the high citadel of Priam and our ships had sailed away, only to be scattered by a god, I never saw you again, Zeus’ daughter: I never caught sight of you there, on the deck of my vessel, helping to shield me from danger. No, I had to travel on, heart labouring in my breast, till the gods rescued me from trouble. Only there in the comfortable land of the Phaeacians did you appear, it’s true, to encourage me with words, and lead me to their city. Still, I ask you now in your Father’s name to tell me – since no, I don’t believe I’ve reached clear-skied Ithaca, and this is some foreign land I travel, and you are making mock of me trying to confuse my mind – tell me whether I’m truly back in my own country.”
way you always think,” bright-eyed Athene replied, “that must be why I don’t
abandon you to your sorrows: you are always so courteous, so intelligent, and so
cautious! Any other man back from his wanderings would have rushed to his
palace to see his wife and children, but you don’t care to know a thing until
you’ve tested your wife further. She is still there in the palace, weeping,
while the sad days and nights wane. As for me, I knew beyond doubt you would
reach home, losing all companions. But know this. I was not prepared to fight
my own uncle Poseidon, whose heart was filled with anger when you blinded his
son. Come then, I’ll show you the
With this the goddess dispersed the mist, and revealed the island. Noble, long-suffering Odysseus was overjoyed, delighted to see his own country, and he kissed the fertile ground. Then he prayed swiftly with outstretched arms, to the Nymphs: “Naiads, daughters of Zeus, I never thought to see all this again, but I greet you now with loving prayer. And I will offer gifts, as before, if this daughter of Zeus, who guides armies, will let me live and help my brave son reach manhood.”
Then the goddess, bright-eyed Athene, answered him in turn: “Be reassured, let nothing trouble your heart. We must go now and pile your goods in the innermost angle of the cave, where they can stay secure. And let’s think how to make certain everything turns out for the best.”
With this the goddess entered the shadowy cave, and searched for its hidden angles, while Odysseus carried all his goods inside, the gold the enduring bronze, and the finely woven clothes the Phaeacians had given him. He hid them away carefully, and Pallas Athene, daughter of aegis-bearing Zeus, closed the cave-mouth with a rock.
Then they both sat down by the trunk of the sacred olive-tree to plan the insolent Suitors’ deaths. Bright-eyed Athene was first to speak: “Odysseus of many resources, scion of Zeus, son of Laertes, think about how you can come to grips with those shameless Suitors, who have been lording it in your halls for three whole years, paying court to your goddess of a wife, and offering marriage-gifts. She, while she longs for your return, never fails to nurse their hopes, and send each of them promising messages, her mind elsewhere.”
Resourceful Odysseus replied: “Oh, goddess, if you had not revealed all this clearly to me, I might have met the same evil fate in my palace, as Agamemnon, Atreus’ son, did in his. Come now, weave some plot by which I might repay them, and be with me, and fill me with indomitable courage, as you did when we loosed Troy’s shining crown. If you with your glittering eyes are with me, inspiring me as you did then, helping me with a ready heart, you and I, great goddess, could tackle three hundred men.”
bright-eyed Athene, answered: “Of course I will be with you. I shall not forget
you in the thick of the action, and I think more than one of those Suitors who
swallow your possessions will stain the wide earth with his blood and brains.
But come now, and I will make you unrecognisable to them all. I will wrinkle
the smooth skin on your supple limbs, and thin the fine hair on your scalp, and
clothe you in rags to make a man shudder.
And I will dim the beauty of your eyes, till you seem repulsive to all
the Suitors, and to the wife and son you left behind. Then go first and find
the swineherd, who may be only a keeper
of your pigs but feels well-disposed towards you, and loves your son and loyal Penelope. You will find him with the swine that
feed their rich flesh by Raven’s
Crag, near the Spring of Arethusa, eating
their fill of fattening acorns, and drinking the clear black water. Sit with
him, there, Odysseus, and question him fully, while I go to Sparta, the country of lovely women, to
summon your brave son Telemachus who journeyed to wide Lacedaemon, to the
Resourceful Odysseus replied: “Why did you not inform him, then, you whose mind is all-knowing? Did you want him too to suffer dangers, wandering the restless waves while others consumed his inheritance?”
Then Athene, of the flashing eyes, answered: “Don’t trouble your heart too greatly over him. I guided him, so he would win fame for travelling there, and he has no problems, sitting at ease in Menelaus’ palace, with all the luxuries he needs before him. Yes, those young men in their black ship wait to ambush him, keen to murder him before he reaches home, but that will not happen I think. The earth will close over those Suitors who steal your possessions, long before then.”
So saying, Athene touched him with her wand. She wrinkled the smooth skin on his supple limbs, and thinned the fine hair on his scalp, and gave him the body of an old man. She dimmed the beauty of his eyes, and dressed him differently, in a wretched cloak and ragged tunic, of tattered filthy smoke-grimed cloth. Then she flung a large deerskin, devoid of hair, over his shoulders, and handed him a staff, and a sorry-looking leather pouch, punctured here and there, hanging from a piece of braided cord.
When the two of them had made their mutual plans, they parted: and the goddess left for glorious Lacedaemon, to bring back Odysseus’ son.
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