Homer: The Odyssey

Book XVIII

Translated by A. S. Kline © Copyright 2004 All Rights Reserved

This work may be freely reproduced, stored, and transmitted, electronically or otherwise, for any non-commercial purpose.


Contents


BkXVIII:1-49 Irus the beggar

Now, a common vagrant arrived at the palace, one who was used to begging his way through the Ithacan city, and known for his ravenous belly, eating, drinking but never satisfied. He was bulky to look at, but lacking in power and strength. Arnaeus was the name his mother had honoured him with at birth, but all the young men called him Irus, because he ran errands on demand. Once he arrived he was all for driving Odysseus out of his palace, and began to abuse him with a flight of words: ‘Get away from the threshold, old man, before you have to be dragged away by the feet. See how they all give me the nod, telling me to haul you out? Still, I’m ashamed to stoop to that. So, up with you, before we quarrel and come to blows.’

Then resourceful Odysseus glowered and answered him with a dark look: ‘God-crazed man, I’m not hurting you whatever I do or say. I don’t begrudge what they might give you, however big the portion. This step will hold us both. You’ve no need to be jealous of what others get, since you’re a beggar like me. We must look to the gods for any riches we obtain. But take care how you threaten me with your fists, lest you rouse my anger. Old though I am, I’d drench your mouth and chest with your blood. Then I’d have greater peace and quiet tomorrow. I doubt you’d return, a second time, to the halls of Odysseus, Laertes’ son.’

Irus, the beggar, reacted angrily: ‘Well now! How glibly the filthy swine chatters, like an old woman at her cooking. But I’ll make trouble for him, a right and left that’ll scatter his jaw full of teeth on the ground, like an old sow punished for eating the crop. Gird your loins, and let all these men see us fight: if you dare fight a younger man?’

So, at the gleaming threshold in front of the high doorway they goaded each other mercilessly. And princely Antinous, hearing them both, burst out laughing, and called to the Suitors: ‘Friends, the gods have never brought us such sport as this. Irus and the stranger are rousing for a fight. Quickly let’s set them a prize.’

At this, they all leapt up grinning, and crowded round the ragged beggars. ‘Listen.’ Antinous, Eupeithes’ son, proclaimed, ‘Listen to what I have to say. There are goats’ paunches filled with blood and fat, there by the fire ready for roasting, waiting for our dinner. Now, whichever of the two proves the better man, and conquers, let him come and take his pick of them. And more, he shall always dine with us. And we’ll not let anyone else mingle among us and beg.’

BkXVIII:50-116 Odysseus and Irus fight

They were all pleased at Antinous’ words. Resourceful Odysseus then made a clever request: ‘Friends, there’s no way an old man weakened by suffering can take on a younger. Nevertheless this hungry belly of mine, always creating trouble, prompts me to try and last out his blows. So, come now, swear a binding oath, that none of you will side with Irus, heavy-handedly deal me a foul blow, and by violent means make me lose to this fellow.’

They all took the oath, as he requested, not to strike him, and when they had finished pledging their word, royal Telemachus spoke again: ‘Stranger, if your courage and noble spirit prompt you to defeat this man, have no fear of the Achaeans: whoever strikes you will have to deal with more than just you. I am your host, and the Lords Antinous and Eurymachus, men of judgement, concur.’

They all praised his speech, so Odysseus girded his rags about his loins, baring his solid well-made thighs, showing his broad shoulders, and his muscular chest and arms. Athene herself drew close, and enhanced the limbs of the shepherd of his people. All the Suitors marvelled greatly, and with a glance at their neighbour they commented: ‘Irus will soon reap his own reward, and be un-Irused, given the thighs that old man shows under his rags.’

Irus’ heart was shaken as they spoke, but the servants hitched up his clothes, and pushed him forward, the flesh on his limbs quivering with fear. So much so that Antinous abused him, shouting: ‘You Windbag! It would be better if you were dead or had never been born, if you’re going to tremble like that, and be so afraid of this fellow, an old man with the weight of suffering on him. I’ll tell you straight. It will be like this. If he beats you and proves the better man, I’ll hurl you into a black ship’s hold, and pack you off to King Echetus over on the mainland. That maimer of men will trim your nose and ears with the pitiless bronze, and rip away your genitals too, and throw them raw to the scavenging dogs.’

At this Irus’ limbs quivered all the more, as they prodded him into the ring, where both raised their fists. Then noble long-suffering Odysseus debated whether to strike him dead on the spot, or deal him a soft blow but still lay him flat on the ground. Throwing a softer punch seemed best, he thought, seeking to deceive the Achaeans. As they stood up to each other, Irus let fly at Odysseus’ right shoulder, but Odysseus struck him on the neck under the ear, crushing the bone, so the blood ran red from his mouth, and he pitched in the dust with a groan, gnashing his teeth and flailing the ground with his feet. At this the noble Suitors threw up their hands and nearly died of laughter. Then Odysseus grabbed him by the foot, and dragged him out of the door, into the courtyard and up to the portico gates. There he propped him, sitting, upright against the wall with his stick in his hands, and spoke to him winged words: ‘Now sit there, you wretch, and scare off pigs and dogs, and stop lording it over strangers and beggars, lest you end in a worse plight.’ So saying, he slung his wretched torn leather pouch over his shoulder by its twisted strap, returned to the threshold and sat down, while the Suitors went past, laughing loudly, and congratulating him: ‘Stranger, may Zeus and the other gods grant you your heart’s dearest wish, your fondest desire, since you’ve ended that greedy fellow’s begging here. We’ll soon pack him off to King Echetus, the maimer of men, over on the mainland.’

The combat between Odysseus and Irus

‘The combat between Odysseus and Irus’

BkXVIII:117-157 Odysseus warns Amphinomus

Odysseus was delighted at these words of good omen. Antinous now presented him with the large paunch swollen with blood and fat, and Amphinomus took two loaves from a basket and placed them before him, pledging him from a golden cup: ‘Health, old Stranger, and may good fortune be yours in future, despite your present sorrows’

Resourceful Odysseus replied: ‘Amphinomus, you seem to be a sensible man, as I have heard your father, Nisus of Dulichium, was too. I have heard him named as a wealthy man and a brave one. You are his son it seems, a man of quiet speech. So mark my words, listen to what I say. Of all the creatures that breathe and move on Earth, there is none as powerless as man. As long as the gods grant him success and strength he thinks he will never know future suffering. Yet when the blessed gods instead bring trouble on him, he must endure the pain with whatever patience he can. Men’s spirits on this Earth depend on the fate the Father of gods and men decrees.

I too once had a measure of prosperity among men, but I was seduced by strength and power to many wanton acts, relying on my father and my brothers to help me. Let me be a lesson to men not to be lawless, but to enjoy the gifts of the gods in peace. Here I see the Suitors wantonly wasting the possessions and demeaning the wife of one who will not be away much longer from his friends and his native land. I tell you, he is near, and may some god prompt you homewards, so you need not face him on his return. He and the Suitors will not part without bloodshed, I think, once he is under his own roof.’

He spoke, and poured a libation, then drank the honeyed wine, and returned the cup to the young nobleman’s hands. But Amphinomus went back through the hall with a heavy heart, with his head bowed, foreseeing trouble. That did not save him from his fate. Athene had already bound him hand and foot, marking him for swift death from a spear at the hands of Telemachus. Now he sat down once more on the chair he had risen from.

BkXVIII:158-205 Penelope prepares to show herself to the Suitors

Now the goddess, bright-eyed Athene, prompted wise Penelope, Icarius’ daughter, to show herself to the Suitors, so she might stir their hearts, and also enhance herself in her husband’s and son’s eyes. With a forced laugh she spoke to her housekeeper: ‘Eurynome, my heart prompts me to show myself to the Suitors, though it has never done so before, and though I detest them. Also I wish to speak to my son for his own good, and tell him not to mix endlessly with those arrogant men, who speak to him respectfully while plotting trouble.’

‘Indeed, Child,’ Eurynome replied, ‘what you say makes sense. Go and speak to your son, be open with him. First wash yourself and smooth your cheeks, since it is wrong to weep endlessly without cease. As you know, your son is of age now and to see him bearded, and a man, was always your dearest prayer.’

‘Eurynome,’ said wise Penelope in answer, ‘Don’t tempt me, out of love for me, to wash my body and smooth my cheeks. The gods who rule Olympus robbed me of all the beauty that was mine the day when he left in the hollow ship. Yet tell Autonoe and Hippodameia to come and attend me in the hall. I will not appear before all those men alone: modesty forbids it.’

At this the old woman went off through the house to summon the maids. Meanwhile the goddess, bright-eyed Athene, had another idea. She shed sweet sleep over Penelope, so that she leaned back, her limbs relaxed, and fell asleep on her couch. Then the lovely goddess endowed her with immortal gifts, so the Achaeans would wonder at her. First she cleansed her lovely face with beauty itself, ambrosial beauty such as Cythereia of the lovely crown anoints herself with when she joins with the Graces in their sweet dance. She made her taller and statelier too, and whiter of skin than new-cut ivory. As the lovely goddess left, the white-armed maids came from the hall, chattering together. Then Penelope woke from sleep, and smoothed her hands over her face, saying: ‘Oh, soft slumber wrapped me round despite my misery. If only chaste Artemis would grant me a death as gentle, and stop me wasting my life on heartfelt sorrow, longing for my dear husband and all his virtues that made him supreme among the Achaeans.’

BkXVIII:206-283 Penelope speaks to Telemachus and Eurymachus

With this she left the bright room upstairs, not alone but with her two maids. When the lovely lady neared the Suitors, she drew her shining veil across her face, and stood by a pillar of the great hall with a faithful maid on either side. The Suitors limbs trembled, their minds were intoxicated with desire, and every one of them prayed he might bed her. But she turned to her brave son Telemachus, saying: ‘Your ideas and judgement are not as sound as they were, Telemachus. Even as a child you showed more wisdom than now. Though mature and on the verge of manhood, so tall and handsome any stranger from abroad would judge you a rich man’s son, your ideas and judgement are not as they were. How can you let such a thing happen, a stranger abused in our house! If a stranger, seated in our home, comes to harm through their violence, public shame and disgrace would fall on you.’

‘Mother,’ wise Telemachus answered, ‘I cannot blame you for being angered. I am aware of it all myself, and do know right from wrong. My childishness is of the past. But I cannot always plan as I wish, without help, troubled by these men who surround me with their evil thoughts. But the fight between Irus and the stranger, I tell you, did not go as the Suitors intended, and the stranger proved the better man. Father Zeus, Athene, Apollo, oh, how I wish the Suitors were beaten too, scattered around the courtyard and halls, limbs slack and heads lolling, like Irus who sits out there by the yard gate, head rolling like a drunkard, unable to get to his feet and find his way to wherever he lives with those slackened limbs.’

So they conversed, and Eurymachus spoke to Penelope, saying: ‘Wise Penelope, Icarius’ daughter, if all the Achaeans in Iasian Argos had sight of you, even more Suitors would feast in your halls tomorrow. In beauty, form and intellect you exceed all other women.’

‘Eurymachus’, wise Penelope replied, ‘all my excellence of form and beauty the gods robbed me of that day when the Argives sailed for Ilium, my husband Odysseus with them. If only he might return and cherish this life of mine, I might deserve a greater and more glorious fame. But so many are the troubles a god has heaped upon me, I only grieve. When he sailed away, forsaking his own land, did he not take me by the wrist of my right hand and say: “My wife I think not all the bronze-greaved Achaeans will get home safe and unharmed from Troy. They say the Trojans are true warriors, good with both spear and bow, charioteers whose swift horses soon tip the balance in the thick of a fight. So I cannot tell if the god will bring me home, or whether I’ll die on the plains of Troy. Therefore you must take charge here. Look after my father and mother in the palace as at present, or more so as I am far away. But when my son reaches manhood, marry whoever you wish, and leave home.”

Now all is happening as he foresaw. A hateful wedding night will be my cursed fate, I whose happiness Zeus has destroyed. And in all of this, bitter trouble fills my heart and soul: Suitors like you have never been known before. Those who desire to wed a noble lady, a rich man’s daughter, compete to bring cattle and fine sheep to make a feast for the lady’s friends, and they give her splendid gifts. They do not consume another man’s wealth without payment.’

Those were her words, and noble long-suffering Odysseus was pleased, because she elicited gifts from them, deceiving them with subtle words while her mind was fixed elsewhere.

BkXVIII:284-339 The Suitors bring gifts

Antinous, Eupeithes’ son, it was who replied, saying: ‘Wise Penelope Icarius’ daughter, accept the gifts we Achaeans may wish to bring you. It would be wrong to deny you gifts. As for us, we will not leave for home or elsewhere until you wed the best Achaean here.’

Antinous’ speech pleased the rest, and they each sent a squire to fetch gifts. Antinous’ squire presented a fine long richly-embroidered robe, pinned by a dozen golden brooches, with curved clasps. Eurymachus’ squire brought a cleverly made golden chain, strung with amber beads that shone like the sun. His two squires brought Eurydamas a pair of earrings, each earring a triple cluster of mulberry-shaped drops, gracefully glowing. And from the house of Lord Peisander, Polyctor’s son, his squire carried a necklace, an adornment of great beauty. So the Achaeans offered her gift after gift, and the lovely lady withdrew to her room above, her maids carrying the charming gifts for her.

Then till dusk the Suitors delighted themselves with dances and songs to stir the heart, and they were still enjoying themselves when darkness fell. Swiftly they set up three braziers in the hall to shed some light, and stacked dry kindling beside them, hard and seasoned and freshly split, and set up torches in the gaps between them, and enduring Odysseus’ maidservants fed the fires. Then it was that resourceful Odysseus, scion of Zeus, spoke to them, saying: ‘Servants of Odysseus, your long-absent master, go to the room of your beloved Queen, sit there and cheer her spirit, carding wool by her or spinning yarn. I will shed light on all these men. If they choose to lie in wait for Dawn of the lovely throne they’ll not outdo me. I am a man who can take a great deal.’

The maids laughed outright at his words, exchanging glances. Melantho of the lovely cheeks upbraided him mercilessly, Melantho, Dolius’ child, whom Penelope had reared and loved as her own, giving her every plaything she desired. Nevertheless she had no sympathy for Penelope. Instead she slept with Eurymachus whom she loved. She it was who jeered at Odysseus, with shameful words: ‘You must be mad, you wretch, to stand here, talking shamelessly, in the company of great men, and not feel afraid, when you should be off to sleep in the smithy, or some other place where common people go. The wine must have addled your brain, Stranger, or else your mind is always like this, making you babble endless nonsense. Have you got above yourself, because you thrashed that beggar Irus? Take care that some better man than Irus doesn’t stand against you, thump your head with heavy fists, cover you in blood, and send you packing.’

Resourceful Odysseus glowered at her, and answered angrily: ‘I’ll be off soon, but only to Telemachus, to let him know what kind of words you bitches use, and then he’ll flay you to pieces where you stand.’

BkXVIII:340-393 Eurymachus taunts Odysseus

His words sent the women scattering through the hall, their limbs trembling in terror, believing he meant it. But Odysseus took up his stand by the burning braziers, to tend the lights while watching the Suitors. His mind was full of other plans that would not fail to come to fruition.

Athene, meanwhile, would not allow the arrogant Suitors to curb their bitter insults: that the pain might sink deeper to the heart of Odysseus, Laertes’ son. Eurymachus, son of Polybus, began to taunt Odysseus, rousing his friends’ laughter:

‘Listen, you Suitors of the glorious Queen, let me speak as my heart prompts me. This man must come to Odysseus’ palace as a gift of the gods: the torch glare shines from his head at any rate, since there’s never a trace of hair.’ Then he called out to Odysseus, the sacker of cities: ‘Stranger, how would you like me to hire you. You could collect walling stone and plant tall trees on a remote farm of mine – all for a fixed wage? I’d provide food all year too, and clothes and sandals. But I doubt you’d care for hard work, since you’ve learned bad ways. You’d rather skulk about, begging to feed your greedy belly.’

‘Eurymachus,’ resourceful Odysseus answered, ‘I wish the two of us could compete as reapers in the hayfields, in late Spring when the days are longer, I with a curved scythe in my hand, you with the same, and a rich crop of grass to make us labour, without pause for food, till evening. Or in a four-acre field with teams of oxen, big and tawny, the best there are, well-fed on grass and matched in age and strength under the yoke, powerful beasts, and loam nice and yielding under the plough. Then you’d see if I could cut a straight furrow’s length. Or I wish Zeus, the son of Cronos, would start a war somewhere, for us, I with a shield and twin spears and a bronze helmet clapped on my head. Then you’d find me in the front rank, and you’d not make speeches about this belly of mine. But you’re arrogant at heart and mean-spirited, thinking you’re a great and powerful man because you mingle with a few weaklings. Ah, if Odysseus came back to his own land, those doors, wide though they are, would prove all too narrow for you as you fled the threshold.’

At this, Eurymachus flared up even more, and with a lowering glance, spoke winged words at him: ‘I’ll soon punish you, you wretch, for talking shamelessly, in the company of great men, and not even looking scared. The wine must have addled your brain, Stranger, or else your mind is always like this, making you babble endless nonsense. Have you got above yourself, because you thrashed that beggar Irus?’

BkXVIII:394-428 Telemachus quiets the Suitors

With this he grabbed a stool, But Odysseus, fearing attack, squatted at the knees of Amphinomus of Dulichium, and Eurymachus’ missile struck a cup-bearer on the right hand, so that his wine jug fell to the floor with a clang, and he fell back in the dust. The shadowy halls broke out in uproar, and the Suitors looked at each other, saying: ‘Better this stranger had died elsewhere on his travels, before he got to us, then we would have been spared all this annoyance. Here we are, fighting over beggars, and the pleasure of our rich feast will be spoiled by all this trouble.’

Now royal Telemachus called out: ‘Sirs, you are touched by the gods with madness, and show the extent of your drinking: surely a god has stirred you. You have dined well, so go to your homes and rest: as the spirit takes you, since I’ll drive no one away.’

They could only bite their lips at this, and wonder at Telemachus’ boldness. Then Amphinomus, son of noble Nisus, Aretias’ son, addressed them: ‘Friends, anger and carping words are a poor answer to a fair speech. No more abuse of the Stranger, or any of the servants of noble Odysseus’ house. Come, let the steward fill each man’s cup so we can pour a libation, then go home and rest. As for the Stranger, leave him to Telemachus’ care in Odysseus’ hall, since it is to his house he came.’

His words pleased them all, and noble Mulius, Amphinomus’ squire, of Dulichium, mixed wine in a bowl, and served each man in turn. They poured libations to the blessed gods, and drank the honeyed wine, and when they had all made their offering, and drunk to their heart’s content, they went off, each to his own house, to take their rest.