Homer: The Odyssey
So, noble Odysseus remained in the hall, planning with Athene’s aid how to kill the Suitors. At once he spoke to Telemachus winged words: ‘We must hide the weapons away, all of them, Telemachus. 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.”’
Telemachus responded to his brave father’s words, and called for Eurycleia, the nurse, saying: ‘Nurse, I want the women shut in their rooms, while I store my father’s weapons away, fine weapons that have lain around the hall, neglected and darkening with the smoke, ever since he left in my childhood. Now I wish to store them where the draught from the fire won’t reach them.’
‘Yes child,’ Eurycleia, the loyal nurse, replied, ‘and I wish you’d always show such care for the house, and look after its treasures. But who is to fetch and carry a light for you, since you won’t have the maids here who might have done so?’
‘The Stranger, here, will do it,’ wise Telemachus replied, ‘since I’ll not have a man idle who eats from my table, now matter how far he’s travelled.’
Silently then she locked the doors of the great hall. At once, Odysseus and his fine son began carrying away the helmets, the bossed shields, and the sharp spears. Pallas Athene herself, carrying a golden lamp before them, shed a beautiful light. Seeing it, Telemachus, said: ‘Father, what wonder is this I see? The walls, and the fine panelling, the pine-wood beams, and the tall pillars shine to my eyes as if in the light of a blazing fire. One of the gods who rules the wide sky must surely be here.’
Resourceful Odysseus answered him: ‘Silence, and let such thoughts go by without question: this is the way of the gods who rule Olympus. Go and sleep and leave me here to rouse the curiosity of your mother and her maids: in her sorrow she will ask me everything.’
At this, Telemachus went off through the hall and the glow of the blazing torches, to rest in his room where sweet sleep would usually come to him. There he lay now till bright Dawn, while noble Odysseus remained in the hall, planning with Athene’s aid how to kill the Suitors.
Now wise Penelope came down from her chamber, looking like Artemis or golden Aphrodite, and they placed a chair by the fire for her in her usual place, one inlaid with whorls of ivory and silver, that Icmalius the craftsman had created. He had fastened a foot-rest beneath it too, and a thick fleece covered it. Wise Penelope sat down, and the white-armed maids came from their hall to clear away the remains of the meal, the tables and the noblemen’s drinking cups. They raked the ashes from the braziers onto the ground, and heaped them with fresh wood for light and warmth.
But Melantho began to abuse Odysseus again, saying: ‘Stranger, will you stay and plague us all night long, roaming the house, spying on us women? Get out, you wretch, and be glad of what supper you had, or you’ll soon be on your way with a blazing torch behind you.’
Resourceful Odysseus glowered at her, and replied: ‘God-crazed woman, why attack me in your anger? Is it because I’m grimy and dressed in rags, a beggar who wanders the island? Well, needs must: beggars and travelling folk are all like this. I too once had a home of my own, I was a wealthy man with a fine house, and I gave hospitality to every wanderer who came, whoever he was, whatever his needs. I had countless servants too, and everything else that lets men live in comfort, and be called rich. But Zeus, the son of Cronos, brought me down, as he wished to do no doubt. So beware, woman, lest your mistress is angered and disgusted with you or Odysseus returns, of which there is still hope, and you lose all your beauty and pre-eminence among the maids. Even if he is dead, as seems likely, and will never return, he has a son Telemachus like himself, by Apollo’s grace. And the sins of the women in this palace don’t escape his notice: since he’s no longer a child.’
Wise Penelope heard his words, and turned on the handmaid: ‘Bold, and shameless creature, be sure your wild behaviour’s evident to me. Be it on your own head: you yourself will cleanse its stain. You know perfectly well, you heard me say, that I wish to question this Stranger, here in my house, about the husband I sorrow for.’
At this, Eurynome swiftly brought a gleaming chair and set it down, throwing a fleece across it. Noble long-suffering Odysseus sat there, and listened as wise Penelope spoke: ‘Stranger, I must first ask you. Who are you, and where do you come from? What is your city, and who are your parents?’
‘Lady,’ subtle Odysseus replied, ‘there isn’t a mortal being on the wide earth who could find fault with you. Your fame rises to high heaven, like the fame of a peerless king, who, fearing the gods, rules many brave men and upholds the law. The people prosper under his leadership, and the dark soil yields wheat and barley, the trees are heavy with fruit, the ewes never fail to bear, and the sea is full of fish. Question me then in your house about anything, but don’t ask about my people or native country, lest you pain my heart more with thinking of them. I am a man of many sorrows. Nor is it right for me to sit wailing and crying in another’s house, endless grief is wearisome. I don’t want you or your maids to lose patience with me, and say that my tears flow from a mind clouded by wine.’
Wise Penelope answered: ‘Stranger, 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. All the princes who rule the islands, Dulichium, Same, and wooded Zacynthus, and those who live round me, on Ithaca open to the view, all court me without my wishing it, and ruin my house. So I neglect strangers and suppliants, and heralds on public business, and waste my heart instead in longing for Odysseus. They urge me to wed, and I weave a web of deceit. For a god first inspired me to set up a great loom in the hall, and begin weaving with long fine thread. Then I said to the Suitors: “My lords, my Suitors, though Odysseus is dead and you are eager for me to marry, have patience till I complete this work, I do not want it wasted, this shroud for noble Laertes, ready for when pitiless death’s cruel end overtakes him: since I fear some Achaean woman of this land would blame me, if he who won great wealth lay there without a shroud.”
So I spoke, and though proud they agreed. Then day after day I wove the great web, but at night, by torchlight, I unmade it. So for three years I cunningly kept the Achaeans from knowing, and so tricked them. But when the fourth year began, as the seasons rolled by, and the months passed, and the endless days ran their course, through the fault of my shameless, irresponsible maids, they caught me at my unravelling, and reproached me angrily. So unwillingly I was forced to finish the web. Now I can neither escape marriage, nor find a reason for delay. My parents urge me to wed, and my son frets as these men openly consume his wealth. He is a man now, and capable of running a house that Zeus honours. But tell me of your family, since you did not spring from a tree or a stone as in the ancient tales.’
Resourceful Odysseus replied: ‘Honoured wife of Odysseus, Laertes’ son, must you ask me of my lineage? Very well, I will tell you, though you only add more pain to that I already suffer, as is ever the case when a man has been as long away from home as I have, roaming sadly from city to city. Nevertheless I will answer your questions.
Out in the wine-dark sea lies a land called Crete,
a rich and lovely island. It is filled with countless people, in ninety cities.
They are not of one language, but speak several tongues. There are Achaeans
there, and brave native Cretans, Cydonians, three races of Dorians,
and noble Pelasgians too. One of the ninety cities is mighty Cnossus,
ruled, and every nine years spoke with mighty Zeus.
He was brave Deucalion’s father, and so my grandfather. Deucalion had
two sons, Lord Idomeneus and me. Idomeneus, my older brother, and a
better man than I, sailed with the sons of Atreus in the curved ships to Ilium,
so I the younger, Aethon is my name, was left behind, there to meet and
entertain Odysseus. The wind had driven him to
He came straight to the city, asking for Idomeneus, calling
him his beloved and honoured friend. But it was now the tenth or eleventh
morning since Idomeneus had sailed for
He made this pack of lies so convincing, that tears ran down Penelope’s cheeks as she listened. As the snow that the West Wind pours on the high mountains melts when the East wind thaws it, and fills the streams with its water till the rivers overflow, so her lovely cheeks were drenched as she sorrowed and wept for her husband, who was even then sitting by her side. But though Odysseus pitied his wife’s distress, he gazed steadily from beneath eyelids that might have been made of horn or iron, and deceitfully repressed his tears.
When she had finished weeping, and could speak, she said in answer: ‘Now Stranger, I am forced to test you, and find out if you really entertained my husband and his godlike friends in your house, as you say. So describe what he was wearing, and what sort of man he seemed, and tell me about the comrades who were with him.’
Resourceful Odysseus replied: ‘My Lady, it is difficult to recall, especially for someone who has been wandering so long. It is twenty years now since he sailed from there, and left my island. But I will picture him to you as far as I can remember. Noble Odysseus wore a purple cloak, fleecy and doubly-folded, and its golden brooch was pinned with double clasps. There was a curiously made device on the face: a hound holding a fawn under its paws, tearing at it as it writhed. Everyone marvelled at how the hound seemed to throttle and tear the fawn, and how the fawn seemed to writhe at its feet trying to escape, though they were only made of gold. I noticed his tunic too, gleaming like the sheen on a dried onion’s skin, smooth and sleek, glistening like the sun. All the women were fascinated. You may know whether Odysseus dressed like this at home, or whether some friend gave him the tunic when he took ship, or whether it was some stranger’s gift, since Odysseus had many friends, and few Achaeans ranked as high. I gave him a bronze sword myself, and a fine purple cloak, doubly-folded, and a fringed tunic, when I saw him off with full honours, aboard his oared ship. Then there was a squire who served him, a little older than himself, and I’ll describe him to you. He was dark-skinned, curly-haired, and round-shouldered. Eurybates was his name, and Odysseus honoured him above the rest, because they were of one mind.’
His words only made her want to weep the more, recognising as she did the truthfulness of what he said. When she had finished crying, she turned to him: ‘In truth, my Friend, though I pitied you before, now you shall be loved and honoured in my house. I myself gave him those clothes you described. I took them folded from the store-room, and pinned the golden brooch there to delight him. Now I will never welcome him home to his own country. It was an evil fate that sent him off in the hollow ship to Ilium the Evil, that it would be better not to name.’
‘Honoured Lady, wife of Odysseus, Laertes’ son, do not spoil those lovely cheeks now, or pain your heart weeping for your husband. Not that anyone should blame you: any woman would weep at losing her man, whom, wedded to, she has lain with, and whose children she conceived, though he be a lesser man than Odysseus, whom they liken to the gods. But dry your tears, and hear me, because I speak the truth, without concealment.
Not long ago I heard that Odysseus is alive, and has returned. He is nearby, in the rich Thesprotian land, and is bringing back great treasures, gifts to him as a guest wherever he goes. His faithful friends and his hollow ship were lost on the wine-dark sea, as he sailed from Thrinacia. Zeus and Helios wished him harm because his men killed Helios’ cattle, and so they drowned his friends in the raging sea, though he clung to the keel of his ship and was thrown on-shore by the waves in the land of the Phaeacians, who are kin to the gods. The Phaeacians honoured him like a god, and showered him with gifts, and they themselves were glad to be sending him home unharmed. Odysseus would have been home long ago indeed, but it seemed to him wiser to roam the wide world and gather riches, and who knows better how to do that than him. Pheidon, the Thesprotian king, told me all this. And as he poured libations in the palace, he swore to me the ship was launched, and the crew ready to bring him home. But he sent me on ahead, because a Thresprotian vessel happened to be heading for Dulichium’s wheat country. He showed me the treasures Odysseus had garnered too, enough in truth to feed his descendants to the tenth generation, all that great wealth heaped up there in the King’s house. But he said Odysseus had gone to Dodona, to hear Zeus’ will from the god’s high-crowned oak-tree, as to how he should return to his own country after such an absence, openly or in secret.
So he is safe, as I say, and will soon be here: he is close by, and won’t be far from friends and his native land much longer. Even so, I’ll swear it on oath as well. Zeus, the greatest and best of gods, be my witness, and peerless Odysseus’ hearth to which I have come: all I have said shall truly come to pass. Odysseus will be here this month, between this moon’s wane and next moon’s waxing.’
‘My friend,’ wise Penelope replied, ‘How I wish your words might prove true! Then you would have kindness and many a gift from me, so that everyone you meet would call you blessed. But my heart is filled with foreboding that in truth Odysseus will not return, and you will not gain your passage from here, for there are no leaders of men like Odysseus, as was, to welcome strangers and help them travel onwards. But, come, my maids, wash the strangers’ feet and make his bed, with blankets and bright rugs over the bedstead, so he may rest till golden-throned Dawn in warmth and comfort. In the morning early, bathe and oil him, so he is ready to breakfast in the hall, sitting by Telemachus’ side. And if any man vexes him and pains his spirit, so much the worse for that man’s prospects: he’ll gain nothing here, rage as he might. How can you know, Stranger, whether I truly surpass other women in intellect and careful judgement, if you’re forced to sit and eat in my house bedraggled, and clothed in rags? Man’s life is short. To him who is harsh, and hard-hearted, all living men wish suffering till he dies, and mock him when he’s dead. But the fame of a good man, with a kind heart, his guests spread far and wide among men, and people sing his praise.’
Then resourceful Odysseus answered her, saying: ‘Honoured
wife of Odysseus, Laertes’ son, bright rugs and blankets have been hateful
to me since I first left
To this wise Penelope replied: ‘Dear Friend, of all the strangers from afar, never has my house welcomed a more discerning guest, so wise and thoughtful are your words. I have just such a servant here, an old woman of great discretion, my poor husband’s nurse, who held him in her arms as a new-born babe, and nursed him tenderly and reared him. Weak with age though she is, she shall wash your feet. Come now, wise Eurycleia, kneel here and wash the feet of a man of your master’s age. No doubt Odysseus’ hands and feet look like his now, since men age quickly when times are hard.’
At this, the old woman hid her face in her hands and shed hot tears, voicing her grief: ‘Oh, Odysseus my child, I can be no help to you. Zeus must have hated you more than other men, though you were pious. No mortal ever offered the Thunderer so many fat thigh-pieces, such choice sacrifices, praying that you might reach a ripe old age and rear a noble son. Yet you alone he denies a homecoming!
Perhaps the women of some great house mocked at him in a far-off foreign land, just as these shameless hussies here mock you, sir. You will not let them wash your feet, for fear of their insults, but wise Penelope, Icarius’ daughter, knowing my willingness, has asked me to wash them. So I shall wash your feet for Penelope’s sake and yours, while my heart is stirred with sadness. But listen to one thing I must say. Many a long-suffering traveller have we welcomed here, but never a man resembling another as you resemble Odysseus in looks and voice – even your feet.’
Then resourceful Odysseus answered her, saying: ‘That is what everyone says who has met us both, old woman, that we are very alike, as you remark.’
With this, the old woman, preparing to wash his feet, poured cold water into the shining basin then added hot. Odysseus swiftly sat down by the hearth, and turned towards the shadows, though he had a sudden premonition that as she handled him she would notice his scar and the truth would be out. As she approached and began to wash him, so it was: she immediately knew the scar Odysseus had received from a white-tusked boar, while hunting on Parnassus, when visiting his mother’s father, noble Autolycus, the greatest of all in thievery and oath-making. This Autolycus owed to the god Hermes himself, to whom he made favourable offerings, the thighs of lambs and kids, so that Hermes acted as his willing friend.
Now Autolycus once visited wealthy Ithaca, to find that his daughter had just produced a son. Eurycleia placed the baby on his knees as he was finishing supper, and said to him: ‘Autolycus, you must give a name to your grandchild: he has been long desired and prayed for.’
‘My son-in-law, my daughter,’
Autolycus replied, ‘here’s a name for you. Since I am one who’s wished
suffering to many men and women on this fertile earth, then let the child be
named Odysseus, man of suffering. And for my part, when he is a man and comes
to the great house of his mother’s kin on
So Odysseus went there, to receive Autolycus’ promised gift. And Autolycus and his sons grasped his hands, and welcomed him with warm words. Amphithea, his maternal grandmother, clasped him in her arms, kissing his brow and gleaming eyes. Then Autolycus called on his fine sons to prepare a meal, and they responded. In they brought a five-year old bull, which they slaughtered, and flayed, butchered and dressed. They pierced the neatly jointed meat with spits, roasted it carefully, and served the portions. Then they feasted all day long till sunset, sharing everything and delighted by it all. And when the sun vanished and darkness fell, they lay down and received the gift of sleep.
As soon as rosy-fingered Dawn appeared, Autolycus and his sons went
hunting with hounds, and noble Odysseus went too. They climbed the
thickly-wooded slopes of
Then the sound of the men and dogs as they urged the chase reached the boar, and he stormed from his lair, back bristling and eyes aflame, then stood at bay facing them. Odysseus was first to attack, his long spear raised in his great hand, eager to strike, but the boar was too swift for him, charging sidelong, catching him above the knee, and tearing a long gash in the flesh with its tusk, though it failed to reach the bone. Odysseus’ blow stabbed it deep in the right shoulder, and the point of the gleaming spear went clean through, bringing the boar to earth with a grunt, and ending its life. Autolycus’ brave sons bound up peerless, godlike Odysseus’ wound, staunching the flow of dark blood with an incantation, then busied themselves over the carcass, and headed straight back to their noble father’s house.
When Autolycus and his sons had
ensured Odysseus’ recovery, and loaded him with fine presents, they sent him
back joyful to
It was this scar the old woman felt as she passed her hands over his leg, and recognising it she let his leg fall. The bronze rang as his foot struck the basin, upsetting it, and spilling the water on the ground. Joy and pain filled her heart at the same moment, her eyes filled with tears and her voice caught in her throat. She touched Odysseus’ face and said: ‘It is Odysseus, it must be. Child, I did not know you, until my hands had touched my master’s limbs.’
As she spoke, she glanced towards Penelope, ready to tell her that her dear husband was home. But Penelope failed to meet her look with recognition, because Athene had distracted her attention. At the same instant Odysseus’ felt for the woman’s throat and gripped it with his right hand, while he drew her closer with the other, and whispered: ‘Nurse, will you destroy me, you who suckled me at your breast? I am home indeed after twenty years of toil and sorrow, but now a god has inspired you and you have found me out be quiet and keep it from all the rest of the house. Otherwise I say, and it shall be so, that if a god delivers the noble Suitors into my hands, I will not spare you, though you nursed me, when I kill the other serving women in the palace.’
‘My child’, wise Eurycleia replied, ‘what are you saying? You know how strong and steady my spirit is. I will be silent as solid stone or iron. And I will say this, and do you remember. If a god delivers the noble Suitors into your hands, I will pick out the women in the palace who have been disloyal from those who are innocent.’
Resourceful Odysseus answered: ‘Nurse, why speak of that? There is no need for your involvement. I will find out about each one, and take good note. Keep all this to yourself, and leave the outcome to the gods.’
At this, the old woman went off through the palace to fetch water for his feet, since what was there had been spilt. When she had washed them, and rubbed them with oil, Odysseus pulled his stool to the fire to warm himself again, covering the scar with his rags.
Wise Penelope was first to break the silence: ‘Friend, I have one more thing to ask you, a little thing since it will soon be time for soothing sleep, at least for those who can find rest despite their grief. Some god brings me instead measureless sorrow. My only pastime day after day is weeping and sighing, while I tend to my household chores and those of my maids, and when night comes and others sleep, I lie awake, and bitter cares crowd thick upon my beating heart, troubling my sadness.
As Pandareus’ daughter, the nightingale in the greenwood, sings sweetly in early spring, perching in the dense leaves, pouring out her intricate trills, in sorrow for her child Itylus, King Zethus’ son, whom she mistakenly killed with a sword: so my heart quivers, with uncertainty. Should I stay with my son and protect my servants, my belongings, and this great high-roofed house of ours, respecting my husband’s bed, deferring to popular feeling, or should I go with the best of the Achaeans, one of the Suitors in the palace who offer countless wedding gifts? So long as my son was too young to take on responsibility, I could not leave my husband’s house and marry: but now my child has reached manhood, he himself urges me to leave the palace, concerned at how the Achaeans squander his inheritance.
But hear this dream of mine, and interpret it to me. A great eagle with curving beak flew down from the mountain and broke the necks of twenty geese I keep, whom it warms my heart to see, who leave their pond to eat the grain. There they lay dead, piled in the yard, while he was carried up through the clear sky. Though it was a dream, I wept and cried out, and the lovely-tressed Achaean women gathered, to find me sobbing piteously because the eagle had killed my geese. But the bird returned and perched on a jutting roof-beam, and checked my tears with mortal speech. “Be happy, daughter of famous Icarius: this was no dream, but a true vision of justice that is to come. The geese are the Suitors, and I, your husband, the eagle, have returned once more now to prepare a dark fate for them all.”
With his words sweet sleep left me, and gazing round I saw the geese feeding on grain, by the trough in the yard, as ever.’
‘Lady,’ resourceful Odysseus replied, ‘there is no way of twisting this dream to give some other meaning. Odysseus himself has told you how he will bring it about, for sure. The Suitors’ destruction is plainly intended. All of them will be killed: none of them shall escape the death which is their fate.’
Wise Penelope replied: ‘My friend, dreams are puzzling things whose meaning is obscure, and what is in them does not always happen to us mortals. There are two gates that open for shadowy dreams: one is made of horn, the other of ivory. Dreams that come through the gate of carved ivory deceive us with promises that are unfulfilled. But those that come through the gate of gleaming horn tell the dreamer of what will come to pass. I fear my strange dream did not come that way. If it had, how welcome it would be to me and my son!
Let me tell you something else for you to note. The day of evil is drawing near that will sever me from the house of Odysseus. I will declare a contest. Odysseus used to set up a line of axes in the hall, a row of twelve like the props under a ship being built. Standing some way off he would shoot an arrow through them all. That can provide a test for the Suitors. Whoever makes the best attempt at stringing Odysseus’ bow, and shooting an arrow through the twelve axes, is the one I will go with, leaving this house where I was first a wife, this lovely house filled with riches, a house I know I will always remember in my dreams.’
‘Honoured wife of Odysseus, Laertes’ son,’ resourceful Odysseus replied, ‘don’t delay this contest in the palace, since Odysseus will be here, full of resource, before these men can string the polished bow in their hands, or shoot an arrow through the iron.’
‘My friend,’ said wise Penelope, ‘if you were to sit here and speak such words of joy forever, sleep would never touch my eyelids. But no man can do without sleep, and the deathless ones appointed a time for everything on the fertile earth. For myself, I must go to my room, and lie down on that bed which has become a bed of tears to me, always damp with my weeping, since the day Odysseus left for Ilium the Evil, that it would be better not to name. I will lie there, and you shall lie here in the hall. Spread bedding on the floor, or let the maids set up a proper bed for you.’
With this she went to her brightly-lit room, and not alone but with her maids. When she and her maids had gone to that upper chamber, she wept there for Odysseus, her dear husband, till bright-eyed Athene closed her eyes in sleep.
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