Homer: The Odyssey
Odysseus followed a rough track from the harbour, leading through the woods and over the hills, to the place where Athene had said he would find the faithful swineherd, the most loyal of all the servants Odysseus had acquired. He found him indeed, sitting in the yard in front of his hut which was built high up, on a site with a wide view, in a broad yard in the centre of a clearing. The swineherd had constructed it himself to hold his absent master’s swine, without his mistress’ or old Laertes’ knowledge. He had laid huge stones and topped the walls with a hedge of thorn. Beyond them he had set large close-set stakes along each side, oak stakes split to the black heart of the tree, then he had built twelve sties close together inside the yard to hold the pigs, and there were fifty breeding sows penned, wallowing there, in each. The boars slept outside, and there were far fewer of these since the noble Suitors had thinned out their numbers with their feasting, the swineherd sending them the pick of the fatted hogs. There were three hundred and sixty, guarded by four hounds fierce as wolves, reared by the master swineherd.
He himself was trimming a piece of well-tanned ox-hide, and shaping a pair of sandals for his feet while three of his men had gone out in different directions driving the swine and a fourth delivered a boar to the arrogant Suitors so they might slaughter it and enjoy the flesh.
Suddenly the dogs bayed at the sight of Odysseus, and rushed at him barking loudly, but he had the wit to sit down and drop his staff. Even then he might have been badly mauled in his own farmyard if the swineherd had not followed them swiftly, the leather falling from his hand, and hurried to the gateway, calling out to his dogs and scattering them with a shower of stones. Then he addressed his disguised master: ‘Old man, these dogs could have torn your flesh in a moment, and you would have blamed me! As if the gods had not given me pain and grief enough. Here I am, fattening swine for other men to eat, while the godlike master I mourn for may be wandering in hunger through foreign cities and lands: that is if he’s still alive under the sun. But come to the hut with me, old man, and when you have quenched your hunger and thirst you can tell me where you come from, and all the troubles you’ve suffered.’
With this the faithful swineherd led the way to the hut, and ushered Odysseus in, then sat him down after making a pile of thick brushwood and spreading the large and shaggy skin of a wild goat on top, that served him for a bed. Odysseus was glad of his reception, and thanked him, saying: ‘May Zeus and the other gods give you your heart’s desire, sir, since you welcome me so warmly.’
Eumaeus, the swineherd, you it was who answered Odysseus, saying: ‘Stranger, it would be wrong for me to turn a guest away, even one in a worse state than you, since every beggar and stranger is from Zeus, and a gift, though small, from such folk as us is welcome. Small it must be, since that is the servants’ lot, always living in fear of the masters who lord it over them, I mean young masters like ours. The gods have thwarted my old master’s homecoming. He would have cared for me with kindness, and given me things of my own, a hut and a piece of land, and a wife worthy of having been courted by many men, things a kind master grants a servant who has laboured on his behalf and whose efforts the gods favour, just as they further my efforts here. My master would have rewarded me well, indeed, had he grown old here in Ithaca. But he has perished, as I wish Helen and all her race had utterly perished, since she was the death of many a fine warrior. He went to Ilium, famed for its horses, with all the other warriors to fight those Trojans, on Agamemnon’s voyage of vengeance.’
Saying this, he fastened his tunic with a belt, and went off to the sties where the pigs were penned. Picking two, he dragged them in, slaughtered and singed them both, then jointed and spitted them. When all was roasted, he served it to Odysseus piping hot on the skewers, sprinkling the meat with white barley meal. Then he mixed honey-sweet wine in an ivy-wood bowl, and sat down himself opposite Odysseus, saying invitingly: ‘Eat, the food, Stranger, that a servant can provide, sucking pig, since the pitiless Suitors, careless of the gods’ anger, take my fatted hogs. Yet the blessed gods do not approve of such wanton acts: they honour justice and decency. Even men who set foot on hostile soil, owing their enemies nothing, whom Zeus allows to gather spoils, to fill their ships and head for home, even in their hearts the fear of divine anger stirs. But these men here must have heard the voice of some god announcing my master’s sad death, seeing they neither pay genuine court, nor return to their homes, but waste our possessions arrogantly, as they wish, sparing nothing. They slaughter the beasts every night and day that Zeus sends, and not just one or two, and they draw what wine they need and more.
My master was
truly rich: no warrior on
While he spoke, a grateful and ravenous Odysseus ate the meat and drank the wine, planning trouble for the Suitors. When he had sated his hunger and was done with eating, the swineherd filled his own drinking bowl again and offered it brimming with wine, and Odysseus took it gladly, and addressed him with winged words: ‘Who was this rich and powerful man, Friend, who bought you with his wealth? You say he died winning vengeance for Agamemnon: name him, perhaps I might remember him. I may have seen him and have news of him: heaven knows, I’ve wandered far enough.’
The master swineherd replied: ‘Old man, no traveller’s tale will satisfy his wife or his brave son: in fact every beggar in need of a meal invents some lie at random, not caring if it’s true. Whoever reaches Ithaca in his wanderings goes to my mistress and deceives her with his stories. She welcomes them all in her kindness, shows them hospitality, and questions them endlessly, while she weeps as women do when their husband dies far off, the tears streaming from her eyes. You too would invent a tale fast enough, old man, if it brought you a tunic and cloak. As for my master, his spirit has flown by now, and the dogs and birds have stripped the flesh from his limbs, or the fishes have had him, and his bones are veiled in sand on some deep shore. He has perished far off, and left his friends to grieve, I most of all, since however far I travel I’ll never find so good a master, not even if I reached my parent’s house, that place where I was born and where they reared me. Much as I grieve for them, eager though I am to see them, and visit my native land again, longing instead for the lost Odysseus grips me. Even though he is not here, Stranger, I am ashamed to merely name him, so greatly did he love me and care for me. Rather I will call him ‘noble friend’, though he cannot hear me.’
Then noble long-suffering Odysseus replied: ‘Friend, since you deny the fact, and declare he will never return, since your mind refuses to accept it, I will not merely say it I will swear that Odysseus shall come home. And when he does, let me have my reward then for bringing good news, and dress me then in fine clothes, tunic and cloak. But until that day despite my need I will take nothing: for that man is as hateful to my eyes as the Gates of Hades who is driven to tell a lying tale because of poverty’s burden. Now Zeus above all the gods be my witness, and this hospitable table, and this hearth of good Odysseus I have come to, that in truth all this will happen as I say. This very month, between the old moon and the new, Odysseus will be here. He will return, and revenge himself on those who dishonour his wife and his noble son.’
Eumaeus, the swineherd, you answered him then, saying: ‘There’s no way I’ll ever be able to reward you for that good news, old man: Odysseus will never return. Drink in peace, and let’s turn our thoughts to other things instead: stop reminding me of it all. My heart grieves so whenever anyone speaks of my good master. As for your oath, let it rest, and may Odysseus return, as I desire, I and Penelope and Laertes that old man, and divine Telemachus. Telemachus, the son, he is the one I grieve for endlessly now. The gods made him grow like a young sapling, and I thought he’d be like his brave and handsome father in action, but some man or god addled his mind, and foolishly he went to sacred Pylos seeking news. The princely Suitors will ambush him on his way home and godlike Arceisius’ race will vanish from Ithaca, without a trace. Whether he’s taken or escapes there’s nothing we can do though: may Zeus, son of Cronos, reach out a hand to save him.
But tell me
of your own troubles, old man. Tell me in truth, so I may clearly know it, who
you are and where you come from. Who are your parents and where’s your city?
What sort of ship was it that brought you to
Resourceful Odysseus replied: ‘I will tell you the plain truth, and though we had food and sweet wine for a year, so we could feast in your hut while others did the work, I would still not have time to tell all my sorrows, all I have suffered by the gods’ will.
I am the son of a wealthy man, and a native of Crete’s broad island. He had many other sons, born and bred in his house, legitimate sons of his lawful wife, while my mother was his bought concubine. But Castor son of Hylax, my father, treated me the same as his other sons. He was honoured like a god by the Cretans for his wealth, position, and splendid children, but fate took him, death carried him off to Hades’ House, and his proud sons cast lots for their portions of his estate. They granted me a tiny share, with a hut to match. But by my courage I won a wife from a wealthy house, since I was no coward or weakling in battle. All that strength has gone, now, for truly I have met with my full measure of sorrows, but maybe you can judge the harvest from the stubble. Ares and Athene gave me courage then, and power to break the enemy ranks, and whenever I sowed trouble, picking the best of my men for an ambush, my proud spirit never thought of death. I was ever the first to attack, and kill with my spear whichever of the enemy ran from me. I was a fighting man. A life of labour on the land would never have suited me, nor would a house, even if it was full of handsome children. I loved war, and the oared ships, shining spears and arrows, fateful things that make others shudder. But I suppose a god set the love of all that in my heart, since different men take delight in different occupations.
I had led men and swift ships nine times in foreign expeditions, before ever the Sons of Achaea set foot on the soil of Troy, and always treasure came to my hands. I would take what pleased me: and more still fell to me by lot. So my wealth grew, and I was honoured and feared by the Cretans.’
‘But when far-thundering Zeus plotted the fatal voyage that meant the death of so many fighting men, they asked glorious Idomeneus and myself to lead their ships to Troy, and the people clamoured so, there was no way to refuse. For nine years we Sons of Achaea fought there, and sacked the city of Priam in the tenth, then we sailed for home but a god scattered the fleet. Wretch that I am, Zeus the counsellor planned trouble for me. I only had a month to enjoy my children, wife, and wealth, before the idea took me to fit out my ships in full, and sail to Egypt with noble friends. I readied nine vessels, and the company soon gathered. Then I offered my comrades suitable victims so they could sacrifice to the gods, and feast, and the feasting lasted six days. On the seventh we boarded and sailed from broad Crete, with a fresh and fair North Wind behind, and ran on swiftly like boats sliding downstream. Our ships came to no harm, and unscathed, untouched by illness, we sat on deck while the wind and the helmsman guided them.
On the fifth
day we reached the great Egyptian river, and there in the
I swiftly doffed my fine helmet, and shield, and let the spear drop from my hand, and ran towards the King’s chariot. There I clasped his knees and kissed them, and he took pity on me and saved me, taking me weeping into his chariot and driving off. As you might imagine, many men lunged at me with their ash-wood spears, eager to kill me in their great anger, but he kept them away, for fear of the wrath of Zeus the god of strangers, who is most indignant of all the gods at cruel deeds.
there seven years and became wealthy, since the Egyptians were generous in
their gifts. But during the eighth year I met a wily Phoenician, a greedy rogue, who had already
caused much trouble in the world. His cunning deceived me, and he took me with
‘But when days and months had passed, and the year had rolled round with its seasons, he took me aboard a seagoing ship bound for Libya, on the pretext that I was needed to help him with the cargo, but in reality to sell me for a good price when he arrived. Though suspecting his evil intent, I had no choice but to embark.
before a fine fresh northerly, over the wide seas south of Crete, while Zeus
planned our destruction. When we had left
It was there I heard of Odysseus. The King said he had welcomed him and shown him hospitality as he headed for home. And he showed me the wealth Odysseus had garnered, gold and bronze and forged iron, so great a pile that what was stored in the King’s treasury would feed a man and his heirs to the tenth generation. Odysseus, he said, had left for Dodona, to learn Zeus’ will from the great oak tree sacred to the god, as to how he should return, openly or in secret, to Ithaca’s rich isle, after his long absence. Moreover as he poured libations in his house, in my presence, he swore that a ship and crew were standing by to carry Odysseus to his native land. But he sent me off first since a Thesprotian vessel was setting out for corn-rich Dulichium. He ordered the crew to treat me with kindness, and take me to Acastus, its king.
But they were
possessed of an evil thought, and the result to me was utter misery. When the
seagoing ship was far from land, they set about reducing me to slavery. They
stripped me of my tunic and cloak, and gave me a ragged shirt, all the tattered
garments you see before you. At evening we reached the cultivated fields of
Eumaeus, the swineherd, you answered him, saying: ‘My poor man, you have moved my heart deeply with this tale of your hardships and travels. But I don’t think what you say of Odysseus can be true, and it won’t convince me. Why, given your circumstances, do you lie, pointlessly? As far as my master’s homecoming is concerned I know the gods hated my master utterly, not letting him die fighting the Trojans, or in the arms of his friends when the war had ended. Leaving his son a famous name the whole Achaean army would have built his tomb. But the powers of the tempest have swept him ingloriously away.
I live far-off here with the swine and never go near the city, unless news comes to wise Penelope, and she asks me there. Then a crowd gathers round the news-bearer, questioning him closely, all who grieve for their long-absent lord, and all who joy in consuming his wealth un-punished. But I have ceased to probe and enquire, ever since an Aetolian who wandered the wide world came to my hut one day. I showed him hospitality and he deceived me with tales. He said he had seen Odysseus among those same Cretans, in Idomeneus’ palace, while his storm-beaten ships were being repaired. He claimed Odysseus would be here by summer harvest, along with his comrades, weighed-down with treasure. So don’t you try to reassure me and get round me with your lies too my long-suffering friend, whom some god has brought here to my house. That won’t make me show you respect and kindness, while fear of Zeus the god of strangers, and pity for you, will.’
Subtle Odysseus replied: ‘That heart in your breast is hard to convince, that’s for certain, seeing not even my oath could sway or persuade you. But now, let us strike a bargain, and let the Olympian gods be our witness in time to come. If your master returns home clothe me in tunic and cloak, and send me on to Dulichium, my destination. But if he should not return despite my prophecy, set your men on me and hurl me from the cliffs, so the next beggar takes care not to try and deceive.’
‘Oh yes, Stranger,’ the honest swineherd said in answer: ‘that would be a fine way indeed to win everlasting fame and honour among men, to turn murderer, and rob you of your precious life, after I’ve taken you into my house and played the host! I could pray to Zeus, son of Cronos, with a light heart after that! Come, it is time to eat, and I trust my friends will be here soon, so we can make a pleasant meal of it in my hut.’
As they spoke to each other, the herdsmen arrived with their swine. They drove the sows, grunting loudly, into their sties to sleep, as usual, and the honest swineherd shouted to his men: ‘Bring the best hog, so I can slaughter it for a guest who has come from afar. We can enjoy it too, we who have toiled long and hard for the sake of these white-tusked boars, while others consume the results of our efforts for free.’
Saying this, he began to split wood with his sharp bronze axe, while the rest dragged a fat five year old hog up to the hearth and held it there. The good-hearted swineherd remembered the gods, and threw bristles from the white-tusked boar’s head into the fire as a first offering, while he prayed that wise Odysseus might return home in safety. Then he drew himself up and struck the boar with an un-split billet of oak to kill it. Then the others slit its throat, singed it, and swiftly butchered the carcass. The swineherd cut flesh from each of the limbs as first offerings, and wrapped the pieces in rich fat, sprinkled them with barley meal, and threw them into the flames. The rest they jointed, and roasted carefully on spits, drew the meat from the skewers and piled it on great platters. The swineherd, a stickler for fairness, stood up and divided it into seven portions, setting one aside with a prayer for the Nymphs, and for Hermes, Maia’s son, and distributing the rest, honouring Odysseus with the white-tusked boar’s long chine.
Eumaeus, the swineherd, you replied: ‘Eat, my pious guest, and enjoy whatever is here. The god it is who gives us one thing, and holds back another, since he has the power to do as he wishes.’
With this, he offered the first portion to the eternal gods, and making a libation of glowing wine, placed the cup in the hands of that sacker of cities, Odysseus, and sat down to his own meal. Bread was served out by Mesaulius, a slave the swineherd had acquired himself in Odysseus’ absence, without Penelope’s or old Laertes’ knowledge. He had bought him from the Taphians with his own assets. Then they all reached for the good food set before them. When they had quenched their hunger and thirst, Mesaulius removed what was left, and having eaten and drunk their fill they readied themselves for sleep.
Night came on, moonless and stormy. Zeus sent a strong, rain-bearing West Wind, and it poured the whole night through. Odysseus thought to test the swineherd, and see, since he showed such care for his guest, whether he would give him his cloak, or ask one of his men to do so. ‘Eumaeus,’ he said, ‘and all you men, listen while I tell you a brave tale: the wine it is that prompts me, wine that makes a fool of the wise and sets a man to singing or laughing stupidly, drags him to his feet for a dance, or makes him blurt out words that are better left unspoken. Well, I’ve started to speak, so I’ll not stifle them.
How I wish I were young and strong as I was when we set out to spring an ambush under the walls of Troy. We were led by Odysseus, and Menelaus, Atreus’s son, and I was ordered to be the third in command. We crouched there behind our weapons in thick brush among swamps and reeds, near to the high-walled city. The North Wind dropped and the night grew fiercely cold, and snow like hoar-frost settled on us, with a bitter chill so the ice formed thick on our shields. Now, all the others had tunics and cloaks, and slept easily with their shields protecting their shoulders, but I’d stupidly left my cloak behind when I set out with my men, taking only my gleaming metal belt and my shield, not thinking then I would be cold.
But in the third watch of night, when the stars had passed the zenith, I nudged Odysseus who lay next to me, with my elbow, and he listened while I spoke: ‘Odysseus of many resources, scion of Zeus, son of Laertes, I am not long for this life: I’ve no cloak, and the cold is killing me. Some god persuaded me to wear a tunic only, and there’s no escaping this frost.’
Hearing this, and being a great schemer as well as fighter, he hit on an idea, and speaking softly said: ‘Quiet now, lest one of our Achaeans realises you are awake.’ And with this he raised himself on his elbow, and called out: ‘Friends, I have had a dream that the gods sent in my sleep. They warned me we are dangerously far from the shore. We need someone to alert Agamemnon, Atreus’ son and our commander, in the hope he will order more men here from the ships.’
At this, Thoas, Andraemon’s son, leapt up, flung off his purple cloak, and ran for the camp. I lay there, snugly wrapped in his garment, till golden-throned Dawn appeared! Oh, I wish I were young and strong as I once was: then perhaps some swineherd would present me with a cloak, out of kindness and respect for a fine man. As it is they scorn me and my rags.’
Eumaus, the swineherd, you answered him then, saying: ‘A good tale, old man, and there’s nothing wrong with its message: it wasn’t lost on us. You won’t lack clothing, or anything else a weary suppliant deserves from those he meets, tonight at least. But in the morning you’ll have to engage with those rags of yours. We’ve no spare cloaks here or changes of tunic: each has just the one. But when Odysseus’ brave son returns he’ll give you a tunic and cloak to wear, and send you on wherever your heart and mind desire.’
With this he leapt up and made a bed for Odysseus nearer the fire, throwing sheep and goatskins over it. Then Odysseus lay down again, and the swineherd covered him with a big thick blanket, that he kept there for a dry covering after a fierce storm.
There Odysseus could sleep, next to the younger men. But the swineherd was averse to staying there away from his hogs, and prepared to go outside. Odysseus was delighted to see him take such care of his master’s herd in his absence. He watched Eumaeus sling a sharp sword over his sturdy shoulders, wrap himself in his thick cloak against the wind, pick up the fleece of a well-fed full-grown goat, and a spear to drive off dogs and men, and go out to sleep where the white-tusked boars slept, under an overhanging rock, sheltered from northerly winds.