Homer: The Odyssey
So they came to the hill country of Lacedaemon, with its deep gorges, and reached glorious Menelaus’ palace. They found him at home feasting a crowd of his kin, celebrating the coming marriages of his faultless son and daughter. He was sending Hermione as bride to Neoptolemus, son of Achilles, that breaker of ranks of men, for he had promised her to him, and sworn an oath at Troy, and now the gods brought it about. He was to send her with chariots and horses to the Myrmidons’ glorious city, whose king would be her lord. But to his son, the steadfast Megapenthes, he was bringing Alector’s daughter from Sparta: his son the dearly beloved child of a slave, for the gods gave Helen no more issue, once she had borne that lovely girl Hermione, whose beauty was golden Aphrodite’s. They were feasting then, happily, in the vaulted hall, glorious Menelaus’ neighbours and family, while a minstrel, inspired, sang to the lyre, and two acrobats whirled about in dance through the midst of them.
Meanwhile Telemachus the hero, and Nestor’s noble son, reined in their horses at the palace gates. Lord Eteoneus, great Menelaus’ zealous squire, came out to see them, and went off through the halls to carry the news to the shepherd of the people. He approached him and spoke with winged words: ‘Menelaus, favourite of Zeus, two strangers are here, two men of mighty Zeus’ divine seed. Tell me, shall we un-harness their swift horses, or send them on to some other host who will give them hospitality?’
Yellow-haired Menelaus, replied, in intense annoyance: ‘You were never a fool before, Eteoneus, Boethus’ son, but now you are babbling like a child. Both of us ate at other men’s tables on our way home, hoping that Zeus would free us from trouble some day. Un-harness the strangers’ horses, now, and bring them to join our feast.’
At that, Eteoneus ran through the halls, calling the rest of the zealous squires to follow. They lifted the yoke from the sweating horses, and tied them to their stalls, then flung them a mix of wheat and white barley. They tilted the chariot against the gleaming wall of the court, and led the strangers into the goodly palace. They in turn wondered as they passed through the house of this king, favoured by Zeus: since a light like the sun or moon shone on the vaulted halls of noble Menelaus.
When they had feasted their eyes with gazing, they entered the gleaming baths and bathed, and when the maids had washed them and rubbed them with oil, and dressed them in fleece-lined tunics and cloaks, they seated themselves on chairs near Menelaus, son of Atreus. Then a maid brought a golden ewer, and poured water over a silver basin, while they rinsed their hands, and she drew a gleaming table to their side. The faithful housekeeper brought bread, and set it before them with heaps of delicacies, giving freely of her stores. And a carver served choice meats, setting the plates down before them, with gold cups beside.
Then yellow-haired Menelaus greeted the two of them, saying; ‘Eat and be glad, and when you have eaten we will ask who you are, since your fathers’ lineage is evident in you: you are of the race of sceptred kings favoured by Zeus, no common men could get such sons as you.’
So saying he lifted the roasted meat, the same fat chine of ox served to him as a mark of honour, and set it before them. And they stretched out their hands to the good things placed there. When they had quenched their hunger and thirst, Telemachus leant close to Nestor’s son, so that the rest could not hear, saying: ‘Son of Nestor, dear to my heart, see the flashes of bronze in this echoing hall, the gleams of electrum, gold, silver, and ivory. The courts of Olympian Zeus must look like this, filled with such wealth: I am awed at the sight.’
Yellow-haired Menelaus overheard him, and spoke to them winged words: ‘No mortal man can compete with Zeus, my boy, of that you can be sure: his house and possessions endure forever. As for men, maybe someone somewhere can match me, or maybe no. After great suffering and many wanderings, in truth, I returned home with my riches in the eighth year. To Cyprus, Phoenicia, Egypt, I strayed: visited the Ethiopians, Sidonians, and Erembians, and Libya where the newborn lambs have horns. There the ewes lamb thrice a year: master or shepherd never lacks meat, sweet milk, and cheese, for the ewes give milk all year round.
Yet while I travelled there, garnering riches, my unsuspecting brother was killed by a murderer’s cunning, and the treachery of an accursed wife. So I take no joy in owning all this wealth, and, as you may have heard from your fathers, whoever they may be, I have had sorrows, and seen the ruin of one noble house already, filled with great treasure. I could be happy to live here with a third of this, if those men who died on the wide plains of Troy, far from the pastures of Argos, were still alive. And though I often sit here mourning and sorrowing for them, now easing my heart by weeping, now ceasing since men grow weary of cold sadness, I grieve for one more than all, nevertheless, thinking of whom makes me lose sleep and appetite: none of the Acheaeans laboured like Odysseus or endured so much. But it seems his only reward was misery, and mine the endless sorrow for him, through his long absence, not knowing if he is alive or dead. Old Laertes must grieve for him, and loyal Penelope, and Telemachus whom he left a newborn baby in his palace.’
His speech prompted Telemachus to weep for his father. Tears from his eyes fell to the ground at his father’s name, and he held his purple cloak before his eyes, in both hands. Menelaus marked him, and debated in his mind whether to let him speak of his father first, or whether to question him closely.
While he deliberated, from her tall, scented room came Helen, like Artemis of the golden spindle: and her companion Adreste placed a finely-wrought chair for her, Alcippe brought a soft wool rug, and Phylo a silver basket, a gift from Alcandre, wife of Polybus in Egyptian Thebes, where men own homes that reveal the greatest wealth. He had given Menelaus two silver baths, two three-legged cauldrons, and ten golden talents. And his wife had also offered beautiful gifts to Helen: a golden spindle, and a silver basket on wheels, with a golden rim. This was what Phylo, her maid, brought, placing it beside her. It was full of fine-spun yarn, and the spindle was laid across it, charged with dark purple wool. Helen was seated on the chair, with a footstool for her feet, and she quickly began to question her husband:
‘Menelaus, favoured by Zeus, do we know who these men, in our house, claim to be? Shall I suppress my thoughts, or speak truly? My heart says speak. For I have never seen such a likeness before in man or woman, it stuns me to look, as the likeness of this man to great-hearted Odysseus: surely this is the son whom he left at home, a newborn babe, when you Achaeans came to the walls of Troy, meditating war, for me to my shame.’
Yellow-haired Menelaus replied: ‘I see the likeness now, wife, as you do: the hands and feet, the cast of his eyes, his head and hair. I swear, just now, when I spoke of Odysseus, and told of what he had done and suffered for me, the young man shed a bitter tear, and held his purple cloak to his brow, to veil his eyes.’
Then Peisistratus, Nestor’s son, spoke to Menelaus: ‘Son of Atreus, favoured by Zeus, leader of armies, this young man is indeed his son, as you have said. But he is modest, and at this first visit is shy of speaking without invitation in the presence of one whose voice, like a god’s, delights us. As he was eager to see you, Gerenian Nestor sent me with him as guide, so that you might help him to word or action. For, as with Telemachus, when his father is absent a son has many sorrows at home, with no one to help him. His father is absent, and among his people there is no one to defend him from ruin.’
Menelaus replied: ‘Well now: here in my house is the son of a man truly loved
indeed, who suffered many troubles for my sake. I had thought, when he came
back, to welcome him more than any other Argive:
if Zeus of the far-reaching voice, that is,
had allowed us to return together in our swift ships over the waves. I would
have given him a city in Argos: I would have
built him a palace, and brought him from
So he spoke, and prompted them to tears. Argive Helen, daughter of Zeus, was weeping, and Telemachus wept, and Menelaus, Atreus’s son, and the son of Nestor could not keep a dry eye, for he remembered faultless Antilochus, whom the Dawn’s glorious son, Memnon, had slain. Thinking of him he spoke with winged words: ‘Son of Atreus, old Nestor used to say you were the wisest of men, when we mentioned you and asked about you in the palace. So now, grant us a respite if you would. I take no delight in tears after eating, and soon the dawn will break: though there is nothing wrong in weeping for any mortal man who dies, and fulfils his fate. There are no greater tributes we can pay the sad dead, than a lock of our hair, and a tear from our eye. My brother too, not least of the Argives, is dead, a man you may well have known. I never saw him or met him, but they say Antilochus was swiftest of all afoot, and the best of warriors.’
‘My friend’, answered yellow-haired Menelaus, ‘you have spoken like a wise man, and one of greater years: and are sprung from just such a father as your thoughtful words reveal. There is no hiding the man for whom the son of Cronos spins a thread of good luck at his marriage, and in his children’s birth, and he has done so for Nestor all his life, granting that he should attain a comfortable old age in his palace, and that his sons should be wise, and brave with the spear. So we will cease weeping, and let them pour water over our hands, while we think of supper. In the morning Telemachus and I will talk more fully.’ So he spoke, and then Asphalion, glorious Menelaus’ zealous squire, poured water over their hands. And they reached for the good things spread before them.
Then Helen, daughter of Zeus, thought to slip a drug into the wine they drank, one that calmed all pain and trouble, and brought forgetfulness of every evil. Whoever tasted it mixed with the wine would shed no tears that day, not though his mother and father lay there dead, not though they put his dear son or his brother to the sword, before his very eyes. The daughter of Zeus had these powerful healing drugs as a gift from Polydamna, Thon’s wife, a woman of Egypt, as the fertile soil there is rich in herbs, many of them curatives when compounded, many of them, also, harmful. Everyone there is the wisest of physicians, since they are of Paeeon’s race.
When she had
mixed the drug, and ordered the wine to be poured, she spoke again, and said: ‘Menelaus, son of Atreus, favourite of Zeus, and all you others,
sons of noblemen, though Zeus brings good or ill to one or another since he can
do all things sit here in the hall and feast for now, and delight in the tales
that are told, and I myself will relate something fitting. I cannot give you,
or even number, enduring Odysseus’
adventures, but what a wonderful thing it was that the great man undertook and
survived at Troy where you Achaeans suffered! Lacerating his body with
fierce blows, and with a miserable rag about his shoulders, he entered the
enemy’s broad flagged streets, looking like a slave. In that beggarly disguise,
he was not the Odysseus of the Achaean ships, and all in the Trojan city were
deceived. I alone recognised and questioned him, and he cunningly tried to
deceive me. But when I had bathed him, anointed and clothed him, and solemnly
sworn not to name him in
Yellow-haired Menelaus continued: ‘Wife, indeed you have told it all as it was. I have known before now the thoughts and judgements of many heroes, as I wandered the wide earth, but I have never seen so great hearted a man as enduring Odysseus. That episode too, of the Wooden Horse, how the great man planned it, carried it through, that carved horse holding the Argive leaders, bringing the Trojans death and ruin! Then, summoned it may be by some god who thought to hand victory to the Trojans, you arrived, with godlike Deiphobus on your heels. You circled our hollow hiding-place, striking the surface, calling out the names of the Danaan captains, in the very voices of each of the Argives’ wives. Diomedes, Tydeus’ son, and I, and Odysseus were there among them, hearing you call, and Diomedes and I were ready to answer within, and leap out, but Odysseus restrained us, despite our eagerness. The rest of the Achaeans kept silent too, though Anticlus wanted to call out, and reply, till Odysseus clapped his strong hands over his mouth, saving all the Achaeans, and he grasped him so till Pallas Athene led you away.’
‘Menelaus, son of Atreus, favourite of Zeus, leader of armies’ said wise Telemachus, ‘it seems so much worse that nothing protected him from sad ruin, not even his iron will. But come, order us to retire, so that we may be lulled by sweet sleep, and delight in rest.’
At this, Argive Helen told her maids to set up two beds in the portico, and cover them with fine purple blankets, with covers on top, and fleecy cloaks for warmth. Torch in hand, the maids went out of the hall. They made up the couches, and a squire led the guests there. So brave Telemachus and Nestor’s glorious son spent the night in the palace forecourt, but Atreus’ son slept in the innermost room of the tall palace, and beside him Helen, in her long robes, loveliest of women.
As soon as rosy-fingered Dawn appeared, Menelaus of the loud war cry rose from his bed and dressed. He slung a sharp sword from his shoulder, bound fine sandals on his shining feet, and went out of the room looking like a god. He seated himself by Telemachus, and addressed him: ‘Brave Telemachus, what brings you to lovely Lacedaemon, over the sea’s broad path? Is it public or private business? Tell me now.’
And wise Telemachus replied: ‘Menelaus, son of Atreus, favourite of Zeus, leader of armies, I came hoping for news of my father. My house is being ruined, and my rich lands destroyed: my home is filled with enemies, who kill my herds of sheep and shambling cattle with spiral horns: men who are my mother’s Suitors, proud in their insolence. So I come to clasp your knees, and ask you to speak, if you can and will, of his sad death, a death you may have seen yourself, or heard tell of from other travellers: for he was a man whom his mother bore to sorrow beyond all men. And do not speak soothing words out of concern for me, or pity, but tell me, in truth, what news you have. If ever my father, good Odysseus, promised you word or action, and fulfilled it on that field of Troy where Achaeans suffered, I beg you, remember it now: tell me the whole truth.’
Yellow-haired Menelaus expressed his deep indignation: ‘Rogues, men without courage, they are, who wish to creep into a brave man’s bed. Odysseus will bring them to a cruel end, just as if a doe had left twin newborn fawns asleep in some great lion’s lair in the bush, and gone for food on the mountain slopes, and in the grassy valleys, and the lion returned to its den and brought them to a cruel end. By Father Zeus, Athene, and Apollo, I wish he would come among those Suitors with that strength he showed in well-ordered Lesbos, when he rose to wrestle with Philomeleides, and threw him mightily, to all the Achaeans’ delight. They would meet death swiftly, and a dark wedding. But concerning what you ask of me, I will not evade you, or mislead you: on the contrary, I will not hide a single fact of all that the infallible Old Man of the Sea told me.’
‘Though I was anxious to return, the gods kept me in Egypt, because I failed to offer the right
sacrifice, and they want men ever to remember their commandments. Now there is
an isle in the sea-surge off the mouth of the
She approached me, saying: “Stranger, are you a fool and slow-witted, or willingly trapped, and happy to suffer? You have been penned here so long you can see no end to it, and your men are losing heart.” So she spoke and I replied: “Whichever of the goddesses you are, I assure you I am not willingly trapped here, but it seems I have sinned against the deathless ones who hold the wide heavens. Tell me, since you gods know everything, which of the immortals holds me here, hindering my path, and tell me how to return over the teeming sea.”
I spoke, and the lovely goddess quickly answered: “Stranger, I will tell you truthfully all you ask. This is the haunt of the Old Man of the Sea, Proteus of Egypt, immortal seer, who knows all the ocean depths, and serves Poseidon. They say he is my true father. If you could lie in wait and trap him somehow, he will give you the course, and duration, and say how you may return over the teeming sea. And if you wish it so, favoured of Zeus, he will tell you the good and evil done in your house while you have been on your long and troubled passage.”
At this, I said: “Find me a way to lie in wait for this ancient god in case he sees me first, and avoids me. It is hard for a mortal man to defeat a god.”’
‘She replied: “Stranger, I will tell you truthfully all you ask. When the sun is at the zenith, the wise Old Man of the Sea emerges from the brine, masked by the dark wave, while the west wind blows. Once risen, he lies down and sleeps in an echoing cave, and the seals, the daughter of the sea’s children, slithering from the grey water, lie down around him in a slumbering herd, breathing out the pungent odour of the deep. Choose three of your friends, the best you have in the oared ships, and at dawn I’ll lead you there and place you among their ranks. Let me tell you the old sorcerer’s tricks. First he will go round counting the seals, and when he has looked them over, and tallied them in fives, he will lie down among them like a shepherd with his flock. When you see him settled, summon your strength and courage, and grasp him, however hard he struggles and tries to escape. Try he will, taking on the forms of everything on earth, of water and glorious blazing fire. But hold him bravely and grip him all the tighter. When he is finally willing to speak, and assumes the original shape in which you saw him resting, and questions you, then cease your violence, set the old man free, brave hero, and ask what god it is you have angered, and how you might return over the teeming waves.”
With that she plunged beneath the surge, and I went to where my ship lay on the shore, and my mind was filled with dark thoughts as I went. Then, when I had reached the ships and the waves, and we had prepared our supper, and deathless night descended, we lay down to sleep at the water’s edge. And as soon as rosy-fingered Dawn appeared, I walked along the shore of the wide seaway, praying devoutly to the gods: and three of my friends, on whom I could most rely, went with me.
She, meanwhile, plunging beneath the sea’s wide back, brought four sealskins up from the deep, freshly flayed, and plotted her father’s capture. She scooped out hiding places for us in the dunes, and sat there waiting: then, when we arrived, she made us lie in a row, and threw a seal skin over each. Our waiting would have been dreadful, so dreadful was the stench of the briny seals. Who would want to sleep with a beast from the sea? But her gift saved us: she applied ambrosia to each man’s nostrils, and its sublime fragrance killed the stench. There we waited, patiently, all morning, and herds of seals came up from the sea. They lay down in rows along the beach, and at the old man emerged and found the sleek ranks. He looked them over, and tallied them, and not expecting our deceit, counted us among the first. Then he lay down to sleep. With a shout we rushed at him, and grappled him, but he forgot none of his crafty tricks. First he turned to a bearded lion, then a snake, and a leopard: then a giant boar: then he became rushing water, then a vast leafy tree: but we held tight with unyielding courage. When at last that old man, expert in magic arts, grew tired, he spoke to me, saying: “Son of Atreus, which of the gods told you to lie in wait for me, and hold me against my will? What is it you wish?”’
‘At this, I answered: “Old man, why prevaricate, you know how long I have been penned in this isle, with no sign of an end to it, and how I lose heart. Tell me, since you gods know everything, which of the immortals holds me here, hindering my passage, and tell me how to return over the teeming sea.”
He replied at
once: “Surely you should have made rich sacrifice to Zeus and the other gods before you left, so as
to return home faster, crossing the wine-dark sea. It is not your fate to reach
your native land, and see your fine house and friends again, until you have
sailed the waters of the
At this my spirits fell, since he directed me to sail the long and weary way over the misty deep to Aegyptus. Even so I answered: “I will do all this, old man, as you suggest. But tell me this, in truth. Have all the Achaeans whom Nestor and I left behind, as we sailed from Troy, reached home in safety with their ships? Or have any died a wretched death at sea, or in the arms of friends, though the war was over?”
“Son of Atreus”, he replied swiftly, “why do you ask me this? There is no benefit to you in knowing what I know, and when you have heard the truth, your tears will not be long in flowing. Many were killed, many were spared: yet only two of the bronze-clad Achaeans were lost on the homeward journey, and as for the fighting you were there. And a third I think is alive still, but a prisoner somewhere on the wide seas.
Ajax the Lesser, first, was lost, with his
long-oared ships. Poseidon wrecked him on
the great cliffs of Gyrae, but rescued
him from the waves. He would have avoided death, regardless of Athene’s hatred, if he had not boasted blindly.
He claimed he had escaped the sea’s vast gulf despite the gods, and Poseidon
heard his boast. Seizing his trident in his mighty hands the god struck the
rock of Gyrae and split it apart. One part stood firm, but the shattered half,
‘“But your brother escaped that fate, and
slipped by with his hollow ships, protected by Lady Hera. Yet, as he neared the heights of
At this my heart was broken, and I fell to the sands and wept. I no longer wished to live, to see the sun. But when I was weary of weeping and clutching the ground, the wise Old Man of the Sea said: “Son of Atreus, enough of this endless grieving that gains you nothing. Better to head for your native land as fast as you can, and you will either find Aegisthus still alive, or Orestes will have killed him ahead of you, and you can join the funeral rites.”’
‘My spirits rose and my heart was comforted by this, despite my sorrow, and I spoke to him with winged words: “I know now about these two, but what of the third? Name the man who still lives somewhere in the wide sea: or is he too dead? Despite the pain, I wish to know.”
I spoke, and he at once replied, saying: “He is Odysseus, Laertes’ son, whose home is on Ithaca. I saw him shedding great tears in the island haunt of the Nymph Calypso, who keeps him captive there, far from his native land, since he has no oared ship, no crew, to carry him over the wide waters. But because you are Helen’s husband, and therefore the son-in-law of Zeus, it is not ordained that you, Menelaus, favoured by Zeus, should meet your end in Argos, the horse-pasture. Instead the immortals will bear you to the Elysian Fields, at the world’s end, where yellow-haired Rhadamanthus dwells, and existence is best for men. There is no snow there, no rain, or fierce storms: rather Ocean brings singing breaths of the West Wind, to refresh them.”
With this, he sank into the billowing sea, and I returned to my ships with my brave friends, thinking dark thoughts as I went. Then, when I had reached the ships and the waves, and we had prepared our supper, and immortal night descended, we lay down to sleep at the water’s edge. And as soon as rosy-fingered Dawn appeared, we dragged our ships to the glittering water, and set up masts and sails in the trim craft, and the crews went to their oars, and sitting in rows struck the grey sea with their blades. So I sailed again to the heaven-fed waters of Nile, and moored the ships, and offered true sacrifice. Then, when I had appeased the wrath of the ever-living gods, I heaped up a mound to Agamemnon, so his fame might endure. When all was done I headed home, and the immortals sent me a following wind, and brought me quickly to my own beloved country.
But stay here in the palace, till the eleventh or the twelfth day, and I will send you off with honours, and fine gifts, a shining chariot with a trio of horses, and a glorious cup with which to pour libations to the deathless gods, while remembering me all your days.’
Then wise Telemachus
replied: ‘Son of Atreus, do not delay
me here. Truly I could be happy to stay a year in your palace, without desiring
home or parents, so great is the pleasure I take listening to your speech, your
tales. But my friends will be anxious in sacred Pylos
while you detain me. If you make me a gift, let it be something precious. But I
will not accept horses for Ithaca, I
will leave them here for you to enjoy, since you are lord of a wide land, where
lotus and sedge, and wheat and rye, and broad-eared white barley grow, while in
So saying, Menelaus of the loud war cry smiled, and patted him with his hand, and answered: ‘Dear boy, you are of noble blood, to speak so. Well, I will alter the gifts, as I may. I will give you one of the richest and loveliest treasures of my house, a finely fashioned mixing bowl. It is solid silver with a rim of gold, the work of Hephaestus himself. Phaedimus, the hero, King of Sidon, made me a present of it, when his house gave me shelter on my way home, and now I wish to present it to you.’
While they conversed, the guests were arriving at the sacred king’s palace. They drove in their sheep, and brought unmixed wine, and their elegantly veiled wives sent bread. So they prepared the feast in the hall.
But in front of Odysseus’ palace the Suitors, insolent as ever, were amusing themselves hurling the discus and javelin across the level space. Antinous and noble Eurymachus, their leaders, were there, the most able of them all. Noemon, Phronius’ son, approached with a question for Antinous:
‘Do we know or not when Telemachus is due back from sandy Pylos? He has taken a ship of mine, and gone, and I need her to cross to the wide plains of Elis, where I have twelve brood mares, and sturdy mules that are not yet weaned or broken. I need to cut one out, and train him.’
They were amazed at this, not thinking Telemachus had gone to Neleian Pylos, but that he was in the field, among the flocks perhaps, or with the swineherd.
Then Antinous, Eupeithes’ son, said: ‘Tell me the truth
now, when did he go, and who went with him? Were they picked men of
‘I gave it
him freely.’ said Noemon, ‘What else can one do when a man like him, burdened
with care, makes a request? It would be hard to refuse the gift. And the best
of the island’s young men, next to us, went with him. I saw Mentor take command of them on board, or a
god perhaps who looked like
With that Noemon left for his father’s house, leaving the two proud lords enraged. They insisted the Suitors leave their games, at once, and sit down together, while Antinous, Eupeithes’ son, vented his anger. His dark spirit was filled with fury, and his eyes blazed with fire.
‘Well now, Telemachus has carried this out, insolently indeed, a journey we thought he would never manage. The lad went swiftly, in spite of us, and launched his ship, with a hand picked crew. Given time he will start to cause us problems: may Zeus humble him though, and destroy him before he reaches manhood. But come, grant me a fast ship and a crew of twenty, and I’ll lie in wait for him in the straits as he makes his solitary passage between Ithaca and rocky Samos, and his voyage in search of his father will end sadly.’
They praised his speech, and seconded his plan. Then they quickly rose and went off towards Odysseus’ palace.
Now Penelope was not long in ignorance of what the Suitors were secretly plotting, for Medon, the herald told her, having heard their plans as he stood outside the court where they were weaving their mischief. He set off through the palace, to carry the news to Penelope, and she spoke to him as he crossed her threshold:
‘Why have the noble Suitors sent you, Herald? Is it to tell divine Odysseus’ maids to forgo their tasks, and prepare them a feast? May this be their latest feast and their last, so they will never woo or gather anywhere else again. They are always crowding in here, wasting our stores, and wise Telemachus’ inheritance. They could never have listened when they were children, and their fathers talked of how Odysseus treated them, never unjust to any man in word or action, as sacred kings often are: disliking one man, while favouring another. He never dealt unfairly with anyone. But their thoughts and shameful actions are evident, and gratitude for past goodness is now forgotten.’
Then thoughtful Medon replied: ‘My Queen, I wish that was the worst of it. But the Suitors are planning a greater evil, one I pray the Son of Cronos may never allow. They plan to put Telemachus to the sword as he returns from his journey to sacred Pylos and noble Lacadaemon, seeking news of his father.’
At this her knee-joints slackened, and her heart melted. For a while she could not speak: her eyes filled with tears, her voice was stilled. At last she could reply: ‘Why did my son go there, Herald? He had no need to sail the swift ships, those chariots of the deep, and cross the wide ocean waves. Is not even his name to be left among men?’
Thoughtful Medon answered her: ‘I do not know whether a god drove him, or whether his own heart sent him to Pylos to learn of his father’s death or return.’ So saying he walked off through Odysseus’ palace, while a cloud of all-consuming anxiety cloaked her, such that she had no strength to seat herself on one of the many chairs in the room, but sank down on the threshold of her well-made chamber, grieving pitifully, while all the maids of the household, young and old, wept around her.
Sobbing with grief, Penelope spoke to them: ‘Listen, my friends, for Zeus has charged me with sorrow beyond all the women of my generation. Long ago I lost my great and glorious, lion-hearted husband, first among the Danaans in every virtue, whose fame resounds through Hellas to the heart of Argos. Now the storm wind has swept my beloved son from our door without trace, and I never even knew he had gone. Cruel ones! None of you thought to wake me from sleep, though you must have known he was boarding his hollow black ship! If I had known he planned this voyage, every means would have been used to keep him here, however ready he was to be off, or he would have left me here dead. So now one of you run and call old Dolius, my servant. My father offered his service to me, when I came here, and he tends my well-stocked orchard. He can go and sit with Laertes, and tell him of this. Perhaps Laertes may think of some scheme, and show himself to the people, and beg them with tears not to destroy his and Odysseus’ sacred line.’
Then Eurycleia, the loyal nurse, replied: ‘Odysseus’ bride, dear lady, whether you let me live on in this house, or kill me with a pitiless knife, I cannot hide the truth from you. I knew all, and I gave him whatever he asked for, bread and pure wine. But he made me swear solemnly not to tell you, till eleven or twelve days hence, or till you missed him and heard he was gone, so as not to spoil your beauty with weeping. Go and bathe, and dress in fresh clothes, then go to your high chamber with your maids, and pray to Athene, daughter of Zeus, who wears the aegis: even now she may save your son from death. And don’t add to the old man’s troubles, since I hardly think the blessed gods hate the sons of Arceisius’ line, and they will surely leave one to rule the vaulted halls, and all the rich far-flung land.’
So speaking, she soothed Penelope’s grief, and stemmed her tears. And the Queen bathed, and dressed in fresh clothes, and went to her high chamber with her maids, and filling a basket with barley grains she prayed to Athene. ‘Hear me, Atrytone, daughter of aegis-bearing Zeus! If ever resourceful Odysseus burnt the fat thigh joints of ewe or heifer here in his palace for you, remember it now, I beg, and rescue my dear son, and prevent the Suitors in their insolent wickedness from harming him.’
She cried it aloud, and the goddess heard her prayer, but the Suitors caused uproar in the shadowy halls, and one of the arrogant youths called out: ‘The much-courted Queen is surely preparing herself for marriage, without knowing the death that awaits her son.’ So he spoke, yet none of them foresaw the outcome. Then Antinous addressed them: ‘What possesses you? Avoid these boastful words, lest your speech is reported elsewhere in the palace. Rise silently, and execute the plan we all agreed on.’
He chose the twenty best men and they went down to the shore and a swift vessel. They drew it out into deep water, set up the mast and sails in that black ship, fixed the oars in their leather straps, in their rows, and raised the white sail. Noble squires brought them their weapons. Then they moored the vessel well out in the channel, and returned on shore. There they ate supper and waited for evening.
But wise Penelope lay in her high chamber, without touching food, tasting neither meat nor drink, wondering whether her faultless son would escape death, or be killed by the insolent Suitors. Like a lioness, seized by fear, troubled by the tightening ring of cunning men around her, so she was troubled till sweet slumber captured her. She sank back, as all her limbs relaxed, and fell asleep.
Then the goddess, bright-eyed Athene, had an idea. She created a phantom, in the likeness of Penelope’s sister, Iphthime, that other daughter of great-hearted Icarius. Eumelus had married her, and she was living at Pherae. Athene sent the phantom to noble Odysseus’ palace, to the weeping, grieving Penelope, to tell her to stop her crying, her tear-filled lament. It entered her room past the strap of the bolt, stood by her head, and spoke to her: ‘Anxious Penelope, are you asleep? The gods, themselves untroubled, do not wish you to weep with distress, since your son will return: in their eyes he has done no wrong.’
Wise Penelope answered her from her sweet sleep at the Gate of Dreams: ‘Sister, why are you here? You are not used to visiting us, living so far away. Do you tell me to dry my tears, and forget the pain in my mind and heart? Long ago I lost my great and glorious, lion-hearted husband, first among the Danaans in every virtue, whose fame resounds through Hellas to the heart of Argos. Now my beloved son, a mere child, untried in action and debate, has left in a hollow ship. I grieve for him more than the other, and tremble with fear lest anything harms him in the land he travels to or at sea. So many enemies plot against him, eager to kill him as he returns to his native isle.’
The shadowy phantom replied: ‘Be brave and do not fear overmuch, since he is guided by one whose power men pray to have at their side: it is Pallas Athene herself, who pities you in your grief, and has sent me with this message.’
Then wise Penelope answered once more: ‘If you are truly divine, and have heard her divine voice, tell me also whether his father, that man of sorrows, is still alive and sees the sun, or is dead in the House of Hades.’
But the shadowy phantom said to her: ‘No, I will speak no word of him, alive or dead: it is wrong to utter words idle as the wind.’ With this, it slipped away past the bolt, into the breeze. And Icarius’ daughter woke from sleep with a start, her heart comforted by the bright vision that had come to her in the dark of night.
The Suitors though had embarked, and were sailing the paths of the sea, intending secretly to murder Telemachus. In the open sea, midway between Ithaca and rugged Samos, there is a rocky islet, Asteris, where, despite its size, lies a good harbour with twin entrances. And there the Achaeans waited in ambush for Telemachus.
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