Homer: The Odyssey
Back at the hut, Odysseus and the noble swineherd had lit a dawn fire, and were making breakfast, after sending the other herdsmen off with the swine. As Telemachus approached, the guard dogs failed to bark, instead they fawned around him. Odysseus, hearing the sound of footsteps and realising the dogs were silent, spoke to Eumaeus with winged words: ‘This must be some friend of yours, Eumaeus, or an old acquaintance. I hear footsteps, but the dogs are quiet, fawning round your visitor.’
He had barely finished speaking when his own brave son stood on the threshold. The swineherd leapt up in amazement, and the bowls he was using to mix the glowing wine fell from his hands. He ran to meet his master, and kissed his forehead, his sparkling eyes, and his hands, while the tears ran down his cheeks. The worthy swineherd clasped godlike Telemachus in his arms and kissed him endlessly as if he were back from the dead, as a loving father greets a son returned from a far-off land after a nine-year absence, a dear and only son for whom he has suffered much pain. And, in tears, he spoke to him with winged words: ‘
‘Telemachus, sweet light of my eyes, you are here! And I thought I would never see you more, after you sailed for Pylos. Come in, dear boy, and let me gladden my heart by gazing at you, home now from distant lands, and here, in my house. You seldom visit the herdsmen and the farm: you are always in town: I think you must enjoy watching that hateful crowd of Suitors.’
Wise Telemachus replied: ‘If you say so, old friend. I came here to see you, though, with my own eyes, and ask you whether my mother is still at home, or whether some man has married her leaving Odysseus’ bed un-slept in, hung with foul cobwebs.’
‘Truly,’ the master swineherd replied, ‘she still suffers patiently in the palace, and while she weeps the nights and days pass by in sadness.’ With this he took the bronze spear from Telemachus, who crossed the stone threshold. His father, Odysseus, rose at his approach to relinquish his chair, but Telemachus stopped him with a sign, and said: ‘Sit down, friend, and I’ll find a seat here elsewhere. Here’s a man who’ll find one for me.’ With this, Odysseus sat down again, while the swineherd threw a fleece over a pile of brushwood so that Odysseus’ steadfast son could be seated. Then the swineherd set out plates of roast meat from the previous day’s meal, and baskets piled with bread, and mixed honeyed wine in an ivy bowl, before sitting down opposite godlike Odysseus.
They stretched out their hands to the good food in front of them, and when they had quenched their hunger and thirst, Telemachus asked the worthy swineherd: ‘Where does this stranger hail from, old friend? What ship brought him to Ithaca and who did the sailors claim to be, since he couldn’t get here on foot?’
Eumaeus, the swineherd, you answered him, saying: ‘I’ll tell you all about it, my boy. He says he was born on Crete’s broad island, and has roamed through all the cities of men: such is the fate a god has spun for him. Now he’s escaped a Thresprotian ship and found his way to the farm. I’ll entrust him to you, to do as you wish, as he is your suppliant.’
Wise Telemachus replied: ‘Eumaeus your words cut me to the quick. How can I welcome a stranger to my house? I am still young, and not strong enough to defend myself against anyone who picks a quarrel at random. And my mother’s mind sways this way and that, whether to stay and keep house for me out of respect for her husband’s bed and for public opinion, or to go with whoever proves best of the Achaean suitors, and offers the finest marriage gifts. In truth, regarding this stranger, since he has come to you I will give him a fine tunic and cloak, a double-edged sword and a pair of sandals, and send him on wherever he’s minded to go. Or you might wish to keep him on at the farm, and take care of him: I’ll send you clothes and sufficient food, so his presence doesn’t ruin you. But I’ll not let him mix with the crowd of Suitors, whose mindless insolence runs to excess, lest they taunt him, and distress me. It’s hard for one man alone to do anything in a crowd, however brave he is. They have the greater strength, in truth.’
‘Friend,’ said noble long-suffering Odysseus, ‘it
is surely right for me to speak. It pains my heart to hear you describe the
outrage these Suitors commit in your house, to spite you, a fine man. Do you
accept it? Do the people here hate you, because of some oracle? Or is it the
fault of some brother, whom a man should trust to fight for him in troubled
times. I wish I had the youth to match my present feelings, or were myself a
son of peerless Odysseus, or even Odysseus himself returned from his travels,
of which there’s always hope. Then some stranger would be welcome to take my
head if I failed to prove their bane when I reached the
‘Stranger,’ wise Telemachus replied, ‘let me confess the truth of the matter. On the whole the people have no hatred for me or grudge against me, nor is it the fault of any brother a man should trust to fight for him in troubled times. Zeus has preserved our house in a strict line. Laertes was Arceisius’ only son, Odysseus in turn was his, and I am Odysseus’. He had little joy of me, leaving me behind, a child, in his palace. As a result the house is full of enemies. All the princes who rule the islands, Dulichium, Same, and wooded Zacynthus, and those here in rocky Ithaca, all of them court my mother, and plunder my house. She neither rejects their wooing outright, nor chooses to accept re-marriage, the idea of which she hates, while they consume my stores in feasting, and will ruin me before long. Yet all that’s in the lap of the gods, old friend: go quickly and tell faithful Penelope that I am safely back from Pylos. I will wait here till you have told her your news, in private, and returned. No one else must hear it, since many of them are hostile to me.’
Eumaeus, the swineherd, you answered him then, saying: ‘I hear you, and I’ll bear it in mind, you are speaking to one who understands. But tell me, now, shall I visit Laertes at the same time. That man of ill fate continued to manage the estate for a while, and ate and drank with the men, when the spirit took him, though grieving deeply for Odysseus. But since you left in your ship for Pylos they say he no longer eats or drinks, or oversees the work, but sits there groaning and weeping, nothing but skin and bone.’
Wise Telemachus replied: ‘We’re the sadder for that, but nevertheless we will let him alone, regardless of our sorrow. If it were possible for us mortals to have every wish fulfilled, our priority should be my father’s return above all. No, speak your message and hurry back, and don’t wander the fields in search of Laertes. Tell my mother instead to send her maid to him, quickly and secretly: she can take the old man the news.’
He sent the swineherd on his way, then picked up his sandals and bound them to his feet, and headed for town. Athene, aware of Eumaeus’ departure from the farm approached in the form of a tall, beautiful woman, skilled in fine handiwork. She stood by the entrance to the hut and was visible to Odysseus, but Telemachus failed to see or be aware of her: since the gods do not show themselves openly to all. The dogs, as well as Odysseus, saw her though, and slunk away whining, not barking, to the far side of the yard. She raised her eyebrows and seeing her signal Odysseus went out past the wall of the court and stood there, facing her. Then Athene spoke to him: ‘Odysseus of many resources, scion of Zeus, son of Laertes, tell your son who you are no longer hide it, and when you have planned how to kill the Suitors, go on towards town. I will not be far from you, I am eager for the fight.’
Saying this, Athene touched him with her golden wand. She clothed him in a clean tunic and cloak, increased his stature, and restored his youthful complexion. His colour returned, his cheeks filled out, and his beard darkened. Then she departed, leaving Odysseus to return to the hut. There his son was amazed, and troubled, dropping his gaze, fearing he was in the presence of a god. He spoke with winged words: ‘Stranger, you seem different now than you were a moment ago. Your clothes are new, and your complexion has changed. Surely you are one of the gods that rule the wide heavens? Be gracious, and spare us, and let us offer you fitting sacrifice, and fine gifts wrought with gold.’
Noble long-suffering Odysseus replied: ‘I am no god: why compare me with the immortals? I am your father, on whose account you endure many a sorrow that makes you groan, and suffer men’s violence.’ So saying, he kissed his son, and shed the tear he had curbed till then. But Telemachus, unable to believe as yet that it was his father, addressed him again, saying: ‘You cannot be my father, Odysseus. Some god is deceiving me to make me suffer more. No mortal man could achieve all this himself, but only if a god came to him and willed him easily young or old. In truth, a moment ago you were an old man in rags, and now you are like one of those gods who rule the wide heavens.’
‘Telemachus,’ resourceful Odysseus replied, ‘you shouldn’t be so surprised that your father is here, and so astounded. No second Odysseus will ever show himself here, that you can be sure of. Here I am, before your eyes, back in my own country again after nigh on twenty years of wretched wandering. Athene the leader of armies has worked all this, making me appear as she wishes. She it is who has the power to make me look like a beggar one minute, a well-dressed youngster the next. It’s no problem for the gods who rule the wide heavens to glorify a man or to humble him.’
With this he sat down, and Telemachus flung his arms around him and wept, and the longing to express their emotion rose in both their hearts. They keened aloud, and their cries rose, louder and more frequent than those of birds of prey with curved talons, vultures or sea-eagles, whose nests have been robbed of their unfledged chicks by country folk. Tears streamed piteously from their eyes. And sunset would have found them still weeping, if Telemachus had not suddenly asked his father: ‘What ship brought you to Ithaca, dear father, and who did the sailors claim to be, since you can’t have arrived on foot?’
Noble, long-suffering Odysseus answered him: ‘My boy, rest assured I will tell you exactly how it was. Phaeacians brought me here, famous seafarers, who provide passage for any strangers who reach them. While I slept they carried me in their swift ship over the sea, then set me ashore on Ithaca, with the fine gifts they gave me, bronze and gold items, and woven fabrics. That wealth, by the grace of the gods, is hidden in a cave. Now I am here at Athene’s prompting to plan how we will kill our enemies. Run through the list of Suitors for me, and give me the count, so I know who they are and how many, and can judge with a clear mind whether we can handle them alone, or whether to seek for help.’
Telemachus answered: ‘Father, I know of your great fame, as a mighty spearman
and a great strategist, but I am amazed at what you are considering. Two men
cannot fight so many brave opponents. There are not merely ten or twenty
Suitors, but far more. Let me number them for you now. Fifty-two picked men,
with their six servants, from Dulichium.
Twenty-four from Same, and twenty Achaean
youths from Zacynthus. Then from
Noble, long-suffering Odysseus replied: ‘Well: let me tell you: listen and pay attention: don’t you think Athene and Father Zeus will be help enough? Do I really need to think of other allies?’ And wise Telemachus answered: ‘High in the clouds sit those two helpers you speak of, and they are powerful indeed. Between them they rule mankind and the deathless gods.’
‘They won’t hold back from a fierce fight,’ said the noble, long-suffering Odysseus, ‘not when the issue between us and the Suitors is decided in my palace. Firstly however, go to the house at dawn, and mingle with the insolent Suitors. The swineherd will lead me to the city later, disguised as a wretched old beggar. If they mishandle me in the halls, steel your heart to their evil treatment. Endure the sight of it, even if they haul me outside, and hurl things at me. Just try to dissuade them with soothing words, and tell them to stop their foolishness. They’ll not pay any attention, though, for their day of judgement is nigh.
Remember too, what I say next. When Athene, ripe in judgement, tells me, I will nod to you, and when you see my signal, take all the weapons in the hall, and put them away in the darkest corner of the high storeroom. If the Suitors miss them and question you, deceive them with placatory words, and say: “I’ve moved them out of the smoke from the fire, since they no longer look as they did when Odysseus left them behind and sailed for Troy, but are all grimy where the draught from the hearth has reached them. Zeus, son of Cronos, has filled my heart with an even greater fear, that you might start a quarrel amongst yourselves, and wound each other, and so bring shame on the feast and your cause. Iron itself draws a man towards it.”
But leave a couple of swords and spears, and a pair of ox-hide shields, ready for us to run and seize them, while Pallas Athene and Zeus the Wise distract the Suitors. Remember too, what I say next. If you are the son of my blood in truth, let no one know Odysseus is back, not Laertes or the swineherd, nor anyone of the household, not even Penelope herself. We ourselves will judge the mood of the women, and sound out the men, and discover who honours us and fears us, and who gives nothing for us, and scorns your manhood.’
‘Father,’ ‘his splendid son replied, ‘you’ll know I’m not short of spirit, later, and you’ll see no lack of will on my part. But I ask you to re-consider: I don’t see that idea will benefit us. You’ll waste a deal of time sounding out men on the farms, while the insolent Suitors waste your wealth, at their ease, sparing nothing. Yes, find out which of the women are disloyal and which are honest, but forget about proving the men, we can do that later, if you have indeed been shown the will of aegis-bearing Zeus.’
So they debated, while the good ship that carried Telemachus and his friends from Pylos, made Ithaca. When its crew had navigated the deep harbour and drawn the black ship on shore, their squires took their equipment, and carried the fine gifts proudly to Clytius’ house. At the same time they sent a herald to Odysseus’ palace, to give Penelope news of Telemachus’ arrival in the island and his order to sail round to the city, in case the noble queen grew anxious, and took to weeping. And so this herald and the noble swineherd met, as each, on the same errand, carried the news to Odysseus’ wife. When they reached the royal palace the herald spoke in the presence of her handmaids, saying: ‘My queen, your dear son has just returned.’ But Eumaeus approached Penelope and gave her the words of her loyal son, as he had been commanded. When he had relayed the whole message he left the hall and court and returned to his swine.
The Suitors were surprised and troubled, and they went out of the hall, past the high courtyard wall, and sat down in front of the gates. There Eurymachus, Polybus’ son, was first to speak: ‘My friends, Telemachus has accomplished something great in his arrogance, a journey we never thought to see him complete. Come, let us launch a black ship, and crew it with oarsmen, so we can send word to the others to return swiftly,’
His words were hardly out, when Amphinomus, turning round, saw a ship enter the harbour, men at the oars, and others furling sail. He laughed gaily, and addressed his friends: ‘There’s no need for a message, here they are! Either a god told them, or they saw Telemachus’ ship sail by and failed to catch her.’
They all rose at this, and went down to the shore. The crew quickly dragged the black ship on land, and their proud squires removed the equipment. Then the Suitors went in a crowd to the meeting place, and prevented anyone else attending, young or old. Antinous, Eupeithes’ son spoke: ‘Alas, the gods have rescued that man from destruction. Day after day, men were at watch on the windy heights, and at sunset we headed offshore for the night, and waited out at sea for gleaming Dawn, hoping to catch and kill Telemachus: meanwhile some god has seen him home. Don’t let him slip through our hands: let us plan a sad death for him here, since I say while he lives our business will fail. He is wise and shrewd, and the people no longer support us. Let us act before he calls on the Achaeans to assemble. I don’t believe he’ll wait a moment, but he’ll tell them all in his anger how we planned his utter ruin, then failed. We’ll get no praise for it when they hear of the evil we plotted: take care they don’t offer us harm, and drive us into exile in some foreign land. No: we must act first: take him in the fields outside the city, or on the road, then divide his wealth and possessions fairly between us, leaving his mother and whoever marries her with the palace. If this idea displeases you, and you decide to let him live and allow him to keep his ancestral wealth, then I suggest we disperse, and stop consuming his store of luxuries, and let each man woo her and try to win her from his own house: then she can marry the one that offers most, and is fated to be her husband.’
They were all silent when his speech ended. Then Amphinomus, the glorious son of prince Nisus, Aretias’ son, addressed the gathering. He was the leader of the suitors from Dulichium’s wheat and grasslands, whose conversation pleased Penelope, because of his understanding heart. He spoke to the meeting, with good intent, saying: ‘Friends, I would not be one to decide on killing Telemachus: it is a fearful thing to murder a king’s son. No, let us first consult the will of the gods. If Zeus’ oracle approves it, I will urge it on others, and destroy him myself. But if the gods advise against the action, I ask you to hold off.’
So said Amphinomus, and the idea pleased them. They rose at once and went to Odysseus’ palace, and once across the threshold sat at their gleaming benches.
It was then a thought occurred to wise Penelope, to show herself to the Suitors in all their arrogance. She knew of the death threats to her son, since Medon the herald had overheard the plans and warned her. Now she led her handmaids to the hall, and drawing her shining veil across her face, placed herself by a door pillar of the splendid room, near to the Suitors. From there she aimed her rebuke at Antinous: ‘Filled with violence, Antinous, you plan your wickedness! Yet they call you the most eloquent and intelligent man in Ithaca. That seems wrong to me. A madman, you are, plotting Telemachus’ death, and trampling on suppliants Zeus vouches for! It’s impious to plot against others. Are you ignorant of that occasion when your father fled to this house, in terror of the mob? They were wild with anger against him because he was in league with the Taphian pirates, harrying the Thesprotians, our allies. They meant to offer him violence, kill him and seize the whole of his vast and delightful property. Odysseus it was who restrained them, and turned them away despite the passion they were in. Now you waste his wealth without compensation, court his wife, and plan to murder his son. I, who am in great distress, beg you, and all the rest of you: desist.’
It was Eurymachus, Polybus’ son, who answered her: ‘Wise Penelope, Icarius’ daughter, let me reassure you, and don’t be anxious about these things. No man lives or shall live, no man shall ever be born, who dare lay hands on Telemachus, your son, while I exist to gaze on the light of day. I say it to you, and time will prove it so. That man’s black blood will coat my spear. For when I was a child Odysseus, sacker of cities, often set me on his knee, and fed me roast meat, and wetted my lips with wine. So, Telemachus is dearest of all men to me, and he need not fear death at the Suitors’ hands: as for the gods, none can escape them.’
His words were designed to placate her, yet in his heart he plotted Telemachus’ death. Then Penelope climbed the stairs to her shining chamber, and there she wept for Odysseus her dear husband, till bright-eyed Athene sealed her eyelids in sweet sleep.
That evening the worthy swineherd returned, while Odysseus and his son were busy making supper, having killed a yearling pig. Athene approached Odysseus, Laertes’ son, once more and touched him with her wand, disguising him again as an old man, clothing him in foul rags, to prevent the swineherd recognising him on sight and running to loyal Penelope with the news, instead of keeping it secret.
Eumaeus, the swineherd, you answered then, saying: ‘I didn’t have time to enquire about it, in the city: my heart was urging me to hurry back here after delivering my message. But I met a herald, a speedy messenger sent by your friends, who broke the news to your mother. And one thing more I did see with my own eyes. From high above the city, on Hermes’ Hill as I came back, I saw a swift ship making harbour, filled with men, glittering with shields and two-edged spears. I thought that might be them, but I’m not sure.’
At this, royal Telemachus glanced towards his father with a smile, while avoiding the swineherd’s eye.
When they had finished preparing the meal, they sat and ate, and were not disappointed by their shared supper. Then, having quenched hunger and thirst, they thought of their beds, and sought the gift of sleep.
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