Homer: The Odyssey
As soon as rosy-fingered Dawn appeared, Odysseus’ steadfast son rose from his bed and dressed. He slung his sharp sword from his shoulder, bound fine sandals on his gleaming feet, and strode from his room like a god. Immediately he commanded the clear-voiced heralds to call the longhaired Achaeans to assemble. The heralds gave their cry and the Achaeans soon gathered. When the assembly had convened Telemachus walked there, bronze spear in hand, followed by two hunting dogs, and Athene endowed him with such grace that all marvelled at him as he arrived. The elders gave way, and he took his father’s seat.
Noble Aegyptius was the first to speak, a man bent with age, but profoundly wise. He spoke because his dear son, Antiphus, a spearman, had sailed in the hollow ships with godlike Odysseus, to Ilium, famous for its horses. The savage Cyclops killed Antiphus in his echoing cave, and made a meal of him. He had three more sons: Eurynomus had joined the Suitors, while two of them worked their father’s estate. Yet, sad and grieving, he could not forget the other: and on his account he spoke to the assembly:
‘Listen to my words, men of
So he spoke, and Odysseus’ steadfast son was delighted by his auspicious words: eager to speak he rose from his seat. Taking his stand in the middle of the assembly, he received the staff from Peisenor, the wise herald. Then he addressed old Aegyptius:
‘Venerable man, he who called this meeting is here: I did so, since on me above all trouble falls. I have no news of the returning army, nor am first to hear, nor can give a firm report. Nor is it an issue of public concern I want to discuss. The need is personal: twin evils have befallen my house. Firstly I have lost my noble father, who was once your king, kindly as a father. And then, there is a far greater evil that robs me of my estate, and will utterly destroy my house. My mother has attracted Suitors, without wishing to do so, sons of the noblest men here. They shun the house of Icarius her father, where he himself might give her away as he wishes, to whoever meets his favour, and arrange her dowry. Instead they frequent our house day after day, slaughter our oxen, sheep and goats, feast themselves, and drink wildly of our glowing wine: most of our stores are already gone. There is no one like Odysseus here to prevent the ruin of our house. We are not strong enough: we could only prove how weak we are, inexperienced in a fight. Yet I would honestly defend myself if I had the power: since things are done that cannot be endured, and the destruction of my house reveals injustice.
You should be ashamed yourselves, feel shame before our neighbours too, and fear the gods’ anger, lest they turn on you in fury at evil actions. By Olympian Zeus, and by that Themis who joins and dissolves the councils of men, prevent it, my friends, and let me nurse my bitter grief alone, unless you think my father, good Odysseus, was so hostile to the bronze-greaved Achaeans and did them evil, that you, hostile to me, repay it with evil, by encouraging these Suitors. I had rather you yourselves consumed my wealth, my herds. If it were you, there might some day be compensation: we could go up and down the island pressing our claim, asking for our goods till all was repaid. But the sorrows you trouble my heart with are past cure.’
Weeping with anger, he hurled the staff to the ground: and they were seized with compassion. Everyone was silent, and none of them had the desire to answer Telemachus with angry words, until the lone voice of Antinous replied:
‘Telemachus, great orator and bold spirit, how you put us to shame, pinning the blame on us! Yet it is not the Achaean Suitors who are at fault, but your own mother, cleverest of women. Three years, almost four, she has misled our Achaean hearts. She holds out hope to all, sends messages of promise to every man, but her mind is fixed on other things. She contrived this piece of cunning, too, in her mind: she set up a great web in her hall, and began weaving with long fine thread. She said to us: ‘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 she said, and though proud we agreed. Then day after day she wove the great web, but at night, by torchlight, she unmade it. So for three years she cunningly kept the Achaeans from knowing, and so tricked them. But when the fourth year began, as the seasons rolled by, one of her women, knowing all, told us, and we caught her unravelling its fineness. Then she was forced, unwillingly, to complete it.
Here is the Suitors’ answer, for you and the Achaeans to keep clearly in mind: order your mother to marry whomever her father dictates, or whoever pleases her, but send her away. As long as she continues to frustrate the young Achaeans – given her mental powers that Athene granted her above other women, her knowledge in skilful work, sound sense, and intelligence such as we never heard of women of old, Tyro, Alcmene, or Mycene, of the lovely crown, none of them equal to Penelope in clever schemes, though this one was wrongly devised – so long will men consume your goods and livelihood, as long in other words as she keeps to this plan the gods suggest. She is winning great fame for herself, but brings to you regret for your vanishing wealth. And we will not go to our own estates, or anywhere else, until she marries whichever of the Achaeans she chooses.’
Wise Telemachus replied: ‘Antinous, there is no way I would drive the mother that bore me, and reared me, from my house against her will, while my father perhaps still lives in some far land. It would be wrong for me to repay the bride price to Icarius, as I must if I choose to send my mother away. I would suffer at her father’s hands, and the gods would send other sufferings, since my mother would call to the avenging Furies on leaving, and men would blame me. I will never command it. If you are angered about all this then leave the palace, and feast elsewhere, move from house to house, and eat your own provisions. If it seems preferable, more profitable to you, to waste one man’s estate without restitution, then do so, but I meanwhile will call on the eternal gods hoping that Zeus might grant a day of reckoning. Then you will be wasted in my halls, without restitution.’
So Telemachus spoke, and Far-Seeing Zeus sent out two eagles from a high mountain peak. They flew for a while with outspread wings, side by side in the currents of air, but when they were above the voice-filled assembly they swiftly slanted their wings, circling round, gazing down on the heads below, and death was in their gaze. Then they clawed at each other’s head and neck with their talons, and soared away eastward over the roofs of the town. The people saw them and wondered, and considered what this might foreshadow. Then the old hero Halitherses, Mastor’s son, spoke out, for he was the wisest man of his day in bird-lore and prophecy. With goodwill in his heart he addressed the assembly:
‘Men of Ithaca, listen to me: and I say these
words to the Suitors especially, since
disaster approaches them. Odysseus will
not be far from his friends much longer, and I believe even now he is near,
sowing the seeds of dark death for all these men. Yes, and he will bring
trouble to many another of us, who live in clear-skied
Eurymachus, Polybus’ son, replied: ‘Go home, old man, and prophesy to your children, in case they suffer harm in days to come. I am better at prophecies than you. Many birds fly here and there in the sunlight, and not all are fateful. As for Odysseus he has died far off, as you should have died. Then you would have less to say about omens, and not be fuelling Telemachus’ anger, in hopes of him making a gift to your house. Now I will prophesy to you, and this will happen. If you, with the wisdom of old-age, seduce a younger man to anger with your chatter, it will be all the worse for him, for one thing, and for another these men here will obstruct him, while we will impose a fine on you, old man, that it will break your heart to pay, that will fill you with bitter pain. Here, among you all, I offer Telemachus my advice. Let him send his mother home to her father’s house, where they will ready a wedding feast, and a wealth of gifts, fitting for a well-beloved daughter. Till then, I think, the Achaean youth will not end their constant wooing, since we fear no man, certainly not Telemachus despite his many words, nor do we listen to any prophecy of yours, old man. It will disappoint, and you will be the more hated. And his goods will be ruthlessly wasted, without restitution, so long as Penelope denies herself to the Achaeans in marriage. For our part, we remain, day after day, in rivalry for that excellence, and we will not seek other women whom we might wed.’
Telemachus answered: ‘Eurymachus, and all you noble Suitors, I will ask no longer, nor speak of it, since the gods and the Achaeans now know. Instead, give me a fast ship and twenty friends to further my travels here and there. I shall go to Sparta and sandy Pylos, to search for news of my long-lost father’s return, in hope some mortal man may know, or of a rumour perhaps sent by Zeus that often brings news to men. If I hear he is alive, and on his way, then troubled though I am I could suffer one more year. But if I hear that he is dead and gone, I will return to my own land, build a mound, with all the funeral rites, generous ones as is fitting, and give my mother away to a new husband.’
Having spoken he sat down again, and Mentor, a friend of faultless Odysseus, rose to speak. On leaving, Odysseus had entrusted his whole house to him: they to obey the old man, he to keep all things safe. With goodwill in his heart he now addressed the assembly:
‘Men of Ithaca, hear my words. From now on let the king who wields the sceptre never show goodwill by being kind and gentle, or take justice to heart: let him instead be unjust and harsh forever, since none of the people whose king he was remember divine Odysseus, though he was kind as a father to them. In truth, it is not so much that I condemn the acts of violence the proud Suitors contrive in their dark minds, since they risk their own lives if their rapaciousness wastes the house of a man they say will never return. Rather the rest of you stir my indignation, sitting there silently, speaking no word of rebuke to make them stop, even though they are few and you are many.’
However many you are,
it would be hard to justify fighting over a meal. And if Odysseus himself
So speaking, he concluded the assembly, brief though it had been. The people dispersed to their homes, while the Suitors returned to divine Odysseus’ palace.
But Telemachus walked to the shore, alone, and washing his hands in the grey salt water prayed to Athene: ‘You, Divine One, who yesterday came to my home, and suggested I sail over the misty sea to search for news of my long-lost father’s return, hear me. The Achaeans obstruct me, the evil and insolent Suitors most of all.’
He prayed, and Athene approached him, in the form and with the voice of Mentor: and she spoke to him winged words: ‘Telemachus, if your father’s fine spirit is found in you, you will be neither a fool nor a coward in the time to come, and this journey of yours will be no idle failure. But if you are not Odysseus’ and Penelope’s son, then I have no hopes of you achieving your end. There are not many sons, indeed, who resemble their fathers: most are worse, and only a few are better. But since you will be neither a fool nor a coward in the time to come, nor are you wholly lacking in Odysseus’ wisdom, there is every hope of you achieving your goal. So forget the Suitor’s plans and intentions, they are fools, neither sensible nor just, nor are they thinking of death and the dark fate that is truly near, and will one day strike them. Nor will the journey you set your heart on be delayed, since I a true friend of your father’s house will ready a swift ship and sail with you. Go home now, and join the crowd of Suitors: then assemble provisions: the wine in jars, the barley meal, that nourishes men’s marrows, in tough skins. Meanwhile I will gather a volunteer crew in town. And there are plenty of ships, old and new, in sea-faring Ithaca. I will choose one of the best for you, and we will prepare her swiftly, and launch her in open water.’
Athene, daughter of Zeus, spoke, and Telemachus did not linger when he had heard the goddess’ voice, but with a troubled heart set off for home. There he found the palace full of insolent Suitors, some skinning goats and singeing hogs in the courtyard. Antinous, laughing, came and clasped his hand straight away, saying: ‘Telemachus, noble orator, high in courage, empty your heart of violent words and deeds. Rather, eat and drink as before, I urge you. A ship and a choice crew, all those things, the Achaeans will certainly provide, so you can sail swiftly to sacred Pylos, to search for news of your noble father.’
But wise Telemachus answered him: ‘Antinous there is no way I can savour the feast quietly, or enjoy myself with an easy mind, among this arrogant crowd. Is it not enough that you Suitors once robbed me of many fine possessions, when I was a child? Now I am older, and have learned from other men’s words, now my powers grow, I will find a way to hasten your fates of dark death, whether by going to Pylos or staying here. But go I will, and the journey will be not wasted, even if I sail in another man’s ship, since I know it suits you better not to allow me ship or crew.’
He spoke, and easily freed himself from Antinous’ hand, while the Suitors were busy feasting throughout the hall. Talking, they mocked and jeered him, and some insolent youth said: ‘Telemachus plans to murder us, for sure. Perhaps he will gather men from Sparta or sandy Pylos to help him in his deadly intent. Or perhaps he will head for Ephyre’s fertile land, to bring back fatal drugs to drop in the wine bowl, and end us all.’
Again, another of the insolent youths, said: ‘Who knows? He might vanish himself in his hollow ship, far from friends, wandering as Odysseus did. That would make more trouble for us, since we would have to divide his goods ourselves, give his mother the palace as hers, and his who marries her.’
These were their words, but Telemachus went down to his father’s storeroom, a wide tall chamber piled high with gold and bronze, with chests full of clothing, and jars of fragrant oil. There too in rows along the wall, waiting for Odysseus to return, if ever, after his many sufferings stood huge jars of sweet unmixed wine, of pure vintage. The double doors were tightly closed: and a clear-minded stewardess guarded it all, Eurycleia, daughter of Ops the son of Peisenor. When Telemachus had summoned her to the storeroom, he said: ‘Draw me wine in jars, Nurse, sweet wine of the choicest, only bettered by that which you save in case divine Odysseus, that man of ill fortune, escapes from death and fate and returns from who knows where. Fill twelve jars and stopper them, and pour barley-meal into tightly sewn skins, twenty measures from the grinding mill. Keep it to yourself. Get all this together and I will come for it this evening, when my mother has gone to her bedchamber. I am going to Sparta and sandy Pylos, to seek for news, in case I may hear something of my loyal father’s return.’
At this, faithful Eurycleia gave a loud cry, and spoke winged words of lament to him: ‘Dear child, what thought has entered your mind? Where are you off to, over the wide earth, you an only and a well-beloved son? Divine Odysseus has died far from his country, in a foreign land: and as soon as you are gone these men will plot evil towards you: you will be killed by cunning, and they will divide what is yours. Stay here, and rule your own: there is no call for you to go wandering, suffering sorrow on the barren waves.’
Wise Telemachus answered her: ‘Courage, Nurse, for this the gods intend. But swear not to tell my mother of it, till eleven or twelve days hence, or till she misses me, and hears I have gone, so she does not spoil her beauty with weeping.’
At this, the old woman swore by all the gods to say nothing. When she had sworn her oath, she drew the wine in jars for him, and poured barley meal into tightly sewn skins, while Telemachus strode to the hall, and joined the crowd of Suitors.
Now the goddess, bright-eyed Athene, had another idea. Disguised as Telemachus she went through the town telling the men she chose to gather by the swift ship that evening. The ship itself she asked of Noemon, the famed son of Phronius, and he promised it to her willingly.
At sunset, when the tracks were darkened, she drew the swift ship down to the sea, and stowed in her all the gear that large ships carry. Then she moored her at the harbour mouth, and the noble crew gathered round, and she encouraged each man.
Now, the goddess, bright-eyed Athene, had another idea. She made her way to divine Odysseus’ home, and poured sweet drowsiness over the Suitors, clouding their minds as they drank, striking the cups from their hands. Eyelids heavy with sleep, they did not linger, but rose and went to their beds in town. But bright-eyed Athene, disguised as Mentor in voice and form, called Telemachus out of the noble palace, and spoke to him:
‘Telemachus, your bronze-greaved friends will be waiting for you, at their oars. Come now, so we no longer delay our journey.’
With this, Pallas Athene quickly led the way, and he followed the goddess’ footsteps. When they came down to the sea and the ship, they found their longhaired crew ashore, and royal Telemachus spoke to them:
‘Friends, let us bring the stores, collected at the palace. My mother and her maids know nothing: there is only one I have told.’
So saying, he led the way, and they followed. They brought down and stowed everything in the large ship, as Odysseus’ steadfast son commanded. Then Telemachus boarded the ship, Athene going before him. She took her seat at the stern, and he beside her, while the crew loosed the hawsers, and climbed on board, and took their place at the oars, along the benches. And bright-eyed Athene called up a strong and favourable westerly breeze that went singing over the wine-dark sea. And Telemachus shouted to his crew to lay hold of the tackle and, obeying, they raised the pine mast, set it in its hollow box and rigged the stays, and with plaited ox-hide ropes they hoisted the white sail. It bellied in the wind, and the dark wave hissed loud at the keel, as she gathered way over the water. When all was made fast in the swift black ship, they prepared brimming bowls of wine, and poured libations to the deathless gods, above all the bright-eyed daughter of Zeus. And all night long and into the dawn the ship ploughed her way.
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