Homer: The Odyssey
As soon as rosy-fingered Dawn appeared, royal Alcinous left his bed, and so did Odysseus, scion of Zeus, sacker of cities. Then royal Alcinous led the way to the Phaeacians’ gathering place, laid out there by the ships. There they sat on the polished seats next to each other, and Pallas Athene, planning great-hearted Odysseus’ return, traversed the city, disguised as wise Alcinous’ herald. She approached the nobles, and spoke these words: ‘Leaders and Counsellors of the Phaeacians, come with me to the assembly, and hear of the stranger, driven to wander the sea, who has come to wise Alcinous’ palace, a man like the immortals.’
With her words she roused their hearts and minds, and the gathering place was quickly filled with those arriving. Many wondered at the sight of Laertes’ wise son. Athene invested his head and shoulders with grace, and made him taller and stronger, so that the Phaeacians would all welcome him with awe and respect, and he might perform the many tasks with which they might test him. When they were all together in the assembly Alcinous addressed them:
‘Leader and Counsellors of the Phaeacians, listen while I speak as my feelings prompt me. This stranger, whose name I do not know, has come to my house in his travels from east or west. He asks for his passage home, and seeks our confirmation. Let us further his going, as with others in the past. For no one who comes to my house waits here long, grieving for lack of help. So, let us run a black ship down to the glittering waves for her maiden voyage, and choose fifty-two young men from the town, who have proved themselves before. And when they have duly lashed the oars in place, come ashore quickly to my house and ready a feast: I will provide enough for all. These are my orders for the crew, and you sceptered Princes come on now to the fair palace, and let us entertain the stranger there: let no one refuse. And summon, Demodocus, the divine bard, for a god has given him supreme powers of song, to give delight, in whatever form his spirit prompts him to sing.’
With this he led the way, and the sceptered Princes followed, while a herald went to bring the divine bard. And the chosen fifty-two went, as ordered, to the shore of the barren sea. And when they had reached the ship and the shore, they drew the black vessel down to the deep water, and set up mast and sail in her, and fitted the rows of oars through their leather straps, and raised the white sail. They moored her well out in the roads, then made their way to shore and the great palace of wise Alcinous. The courts and halls and porticoes were full of the gathering, a crowd of young men and old. Alcinous had twelve sheep slaughtered for them, eight white-tusked boars, and two shambling oxen. They flayed the carcasses, dressed them, and prepared a tempting feast.
The herald returned, leading their skilful bard, whom the Muse loved more than other men, though she gave him both good and evil: she robbed him of his sight, but gifted him the power of sweet song. Pontonous, the herald, placed a silver-embossed chair in the midst of them all, with its back against a high pillar, and hung the ringing lyre on a peg above his head, and showed him how to find it with his hands. And he set a handsome table by his side, with a basket of bread, and a cup of wine to drink if he was so minded. Then they all stretched out their hands to the fine feast spread before them.
When they had satisfied their need for food and drink, the Muse inspired her bard to sing of the heroes’ glorious deeds, part of that tale whose fame had risen to high heaven, the quarrel between Achilles, Peleus’ son, and Odysseus, who argued fiercely at the gods’ rich festival, though Agamemnon, king of men, was secretly pleased to see a dispute between the Achaeans’ finest. For Phoebus Apollo had prophesied, at sacred Pytho, where Agamemnon had crossed the stone threshold to consult the oracle, that after a quarrel sorrow would begin to overtake the Trojans, though by Zeus’ will it was the beginning of sorrow for the Greeks as well. This was the bard’s song, and Odysseus clutched at his long purple cloak with his great hands, and dragged it over his head to hide his handsome face, ashamed lest the Phaeacians see the tears pouring from his eyes. Whenever the divine bard stopped singing, Odysseus wiped the tears away, drew the cloak from his head, and reaching for his two-handled cup made libations to the gods. But when the bard began again, prompted by the Phaeacian lords who enjoyed his song, Odysseus covered his head once more and groaned.
He hid the falling tears from all except Alcinous, who, aware because he sat by him, noticed all, and heard him sighing deeply. And he spoke, quickly, to the sea-faring Phaeacians: ‘Leaders and Counsellors of the Phaeacians, hear me. We have enjoyed sharing our rich feast and the music of the lyre, its companion. Now let us go outside and try our skill in various sports, so this stranger when he is home can tell his friends how much better we are than other men in boxing, wrestling, running, and leaping.’
With this he led the way and all followed. The herald hung the ringing lyre on the peg, and led Demodocus by the hand from the hall along the same path the Phaeacian nobles had taken to see the games. They headed for the gathering place, and a countless throng went with them. Many fine young men rose to compete: Acroneos and Ocyalus, Elatreus, Nauteus, Prymneus, Anchialus and Eretmeus, Ponteus and Proreus, Thoon, Anabesineos, and Amphialus, son of Polyneus, Tecton’s son. Euryalus too, the equal of Ares, destroyer of men, and son of Naubolus who in looks and form was the finest of all the Phaeacians after peerless Laodamas. And flawless Alcinous’ three sons as well, Laodamas, Halius and godlike Clytoneus.
The first trial was a foot race: they all sped from the mark along the course set out, raising the dust from the ground. Faultless Clytoneus was quickest, and taking the lead he reached the crowd, leaving the rest behind by as much as a furrow’s length in mule-ploughed land. Then they tested each other in painful bouts of wrestling, where Euryalus beat the best. Amphialus then leapt furthest, while Elatreus conquered with the discus, and Laodamas, Alcinous’ fine son, won in the boxing. When they were all satisfied with the contest, Laodamas, said: ‘Friends, let’s ask the stranger whether he’s practised in any familiar sport. He’s a fine build in thighs and calves, with two strong arms, a stout neck, plenty of strength. Nor has he lost the power of youth, he is only wearied with suffering. There’s nothing like the sea to sap a man’s strength, however tough he might be.’
Euryalus replied: ‘Laodamas, what you say is right. Go and challenge him yourself, and make the challenge a public one.’
At this Alcinous’ fine son came to the centre, and spoke to Odysseus: ‘Sir stranger, come, enter the contest too, if you have any skill as seems likely, since there is no greater glory for a living man than that which he wins with his own hands and feet. Come, prove yourself, and throw off your cares. Your journey will soon start. The ship is launched now and the crew are ready.’
‘Laodamas’ replied resourceful Odysseus, ‘why provoke me with a challenge? My mind is on trouble not on play, since I have toiled and suffered greatly in the past, and now I long only to return home, and so I sit in your gathering and plead with your king and people.’
Euryalus answered then, mocking him to his face: ‘Indeed, stranger, you look like a man unused to manly sports, more like the captain of a merchant crew, trading to and fro in a sailing ship, careful for his cargo, keeping a greedy eye on freight and profit. You are no athlete.’
With a dark look, resourceful Odysseus replied: ‘Stranger, you speak unwisely, you are a man blinded by foolishness. How true it is that the gods seldom grace men equally with their gifts, of mind, form or speech. One man is meagre in appearance, but the gods crown his words with beauty, and men delight in him as he speaks sweetly in modest eloquence, conspicuous in a crowd, and looked on like a god as he crosses the city. Another seems an immortal, but his words lack grace. You too have exceptional looks a god could not better yet your mind is crippled. You have roused my spirit by speaking rudely. I am no novice in your sports: indeed I was one of the best when I had my youth, and strength lay in my hands. While now I’m constrained by pain and suffering, since I have endured many things in my passage through mortal warfare and hostile seas. And yet, though I’ve suffered deeply, I will join your contest, since your speech has stung me, and your words have riled me to the heart.’
With this he leapt to his feet, still wrapped in his cloak, and seized a discus bigger than the rest, thicker and heavier by some way than those the Phaeacians normally used in competition. Spinning around, he sent it from his huge hand, and it hummed as it flew: the Phaeacians cowered, those lords of the ship and the long oar, beneath the flying stone. Flung smoothly from the hand, it sailed past all their marks, and Athene, in human likeness, pegged the distance, then, spoke to him: ‘Stranger, even a blind man, groping with his hands, could find your mark, by far and away the furthest, and separate from the cluster. You can take heart from this, at any rate: none of the Phaeacians will meet or pass it.’
‘Match that, you youngsters: I expect I’ll send another along, as far or further, in a moment. As for the rest, since you’ve angered me deeply, if anyone has the courage and the spirit, let him come and prove himself, in boxing, wrestling, running, it matters not: let any of you Phaeacians try, except Laodamas. For he’s my host, and who would quarrel with the one who shows him hospitality? Only a worthless idiot would challenge the man who welcomes him to a foreign land. He would ruin his own good luck. But the rest of you I’ll not deny or disdain, wishing to know your skill and be matched with you. I am no lightweight in any of the sports men practice. I know how to handle a polished bow with skill, and I was always first to pick off a man in the enemy ranks, however many comrades stood with me to shoot at the foe. When we Achaeans fought at Troy only Philoctetes surpassed me. But I count myself the best by far of all the other mortal men on earth, who eat their bread. Still, I would not claim to compete with Hercules, or Oechalian Eurytus, archers who vied with the gods. That’s why great Eurytus died swiftly, and never reached old age in his halls, because Apollo, challenged to an archery contest, killed him in anger. And the spear I hurl further than others can shoot an arrow. Only in running I fear one of you Phaeacians might best me, since I’ve been thrown about by the waves, and on my raft I could not exercise, and my legs are weakened.’
They all stood silent at his words. Only Alcinous answered, saying: Stranger, since you are not ungracious, but wish to emphasise the skills you possess, and were angered because this man taunted you at the games, making light of your powers, in a way that none would who rightly knew how to speak; come, listen to what I say. Then you may recount it to some other hero, as you feast in your home with your wife and children, remembering our skill, the talents Zeus endowed us with from our forefather’s days. We may not be the greatest boxers or wrestlers, but we run fast in the race, and we are the finest sailors: and ever the feast is dear to us, the dancing and the lyre, fresh clothes, warm baths, and bed.
So come, you finest dancers among us Phaeacians, perform for this stranger, so he can tell his friends when he reaches home how we excel not only in swiftness of foot, and seamanship, but in dancing too, and in song. Let someone go quickly, and fetch Demodocus his ringing lyre that is somewhere in the palace.’
The herald rose at godlike Alcinous’ words and brought the hollow lyre from the king’s hall. Then nine elected officials, who organised the games, cleared a space, and marked out a wide arena for the dance. Next, the herald came forward carrying Demodocus’ ringing lyre. The bard stood in the centre and round him a group of dancers, boys in the first flush of youth, skilled in dancing, and Odysseus marvelled as he gazed at their flashing feet, striking the sacred dancing floor.
Then the bard struck the chords that began his sweet song, and told of the love of Ares and Aphrodite of the lovely crown, how they lay together in secret in Hephaestus’ house, and how Ares gave her a host of gifts while dishonouring the Lord Hephaestus’ bed. But Helios, the sun god, who had spied them sleeping together, came to tell him. When Hephaestus had heard the sour tale, he went to his smithy his heart set on evil, and set up his huge anvil on its block, and forged a net of chains, firm and unbreakable. And when, furious with Ares, he had made the snare, he went to his room and marriage bed, and fastened the netting to its posts, and hung its links above from the roof beams, fine as a spider’s web, and so cunningly made it was invisible even to the blessed gods.
When he had
spread his net over the bed, he pretended to leave for Lemnos, that well-ordered citadel, dearest
of all the islands, to his eyes. Nor was Ares of the Golden Reins blind to the
master-craftsman Hephaestus’ going, but went straight to his house, hot for the
love of Cytherea of the lovely crown.
She had scarcely left her father’s presence, that of mighty Cronos’ son, and seated herself on arriving,
when Ares entered and took her hand and spoke to her: ‘Sweetheart, come, let us
to bed, and take delight in mutual love. Hephaestus has left, for
As he spoke
it seemed a pleasant thing to her to lie with him. So they went to the bed and
lay down. Then clever Hephaestus’ cunning net fell all around them, and they
were unable to move or raise themselves. They soon realised there was no
escape. Now the great lame god approached, for Helios had kept watch and
carried the word, and Hephaestus returned before ever reaching
‘Father Zeus, and all you other blessed and immortal gods, come, see something laughable, and intolerable, how Aphrodite, daughter of Zeus, scorning me for my lameness, makes love with hateful Ares because he is straight-limbed and handsome while I was born crooked. My parents alone are to blame for that: I wish they had never made me! Look how these two usurp my bed and sleep together, while I am filled with pain to see it. Yet they won’t want to lie like this much longer, I think: no, not for an instant, however much they are in love. They’ll soon lose their urge for bed, the net and its links will hold them instead till her father repays me all the gifts I gave him while wooing this shameless hussy, a beautiful daughter indeed but faithless.’
At this the gods came crowding the bronze threshold: Poseidon, Earth-Bearer, Hermes the messenger, and Lord Apollo who strikes from afar. The goddesses stayed at home from modesty, but those deathless ones, givers of good, stood in the entrance, and when they saw clever Hephaestus’ snare, unquenchable laughter flowed from the blessed gods. One would glance at his neighbour and say: ‘Ill deeds don’t prosper. The slow catch the swift, as Hephaestus here, slow as he is, has netted Ares the swiftest of all the Olympian gods. He has trapped him by cunning, though lame. Ares must pay the fine for adultery.’
Such were the comments, then Lord Apollo, son of Zeus, said to Hermes: ‘Guide and Giver of Good Things, Hermes, Zeus’ son, would you not care to lie in bed beside golden Aphrodite, even though you were snared by unbreakable chains?’
The Messenger-God, Slayer of Argus, replied: ‘Lord Apollo, Far-Shooter, three times as many inescapable links could hold me, and you gods could be watching, and yes, all the goddesses too, if only I might sleep with golden Aphrodite.’
At this, laughter rose from the group of immortal gods. But Poseidon was unsmiling, and kept begging Hephaestus, the master craftsman, to set Ares free, speaking with winged words: ‘Set him free, and I promise what you ask, that he’ll pay what’s owed in the presence of the deathless gods.’
The illustrious lame god replied: ‘Poseidon, Earth-Bearer, don’t ask this of me. It’s a sad mistake for sure, to stand surety for a sad rogue. Will I bind you with chains, in the presence of the deathless gods, if Ares shrugs off both chains and debt, and escapes?’
But Poseidon, said again: ‘If Ares shrugs off the debt and escapes, Hephaestus, I will pay it myself.’
To this, the illustrious lame god replied: ‘Well, I can’t refuse you, it wouldn’t be right.’ And he loosed the net, and the two of them, free of the chains, leaped up in a trice and fled. Ares headed for Thrace, but laughter-loving Aphrodite to Paphos in Cyprus, where she has a sanctuary and fragrant altar. There the Graces bathed her, and anointed her with such heavenly oil as gleams on the limbs of the gods who live forever. And they dressed her in beautiful clothes, marvellous to behold.
This was the song of the famous bard, that delighted Odysseus and the Phaeacians famed for their long-oared ships. Next Alcinous asked Halius and Laodamas to dance by themselves, since no one else could compete with them. Having taken a lovely purple ball, which clever Polybus had made, one leant back and threw it high towards the shadowy clouds, while the other leapt and caught it again before his feet touched the ground. When they had repeatedly shown their skill at hurling it high, they threw it to and fro as they danced on the rich earth, while the other youths stood round the arena beating time amidst loud applause.
Then noble Odysseus spoke: ‘Lord Alcinous, most renowned of men, you claimed your dancers were best, and see, your word is good: I’m amazed at the sight.’
Royal Alcinous was delighted at this and at once he spoke to the seafaring Phaeacians:
‘Leaders and Counsellors of the Phaeacians, hear me. This stranger seems a man of the highest discernment. Let’s give him a friendly gift as is only right. Twelve illustrious princes rule our land, and I am the thirteenth. Let each of you twelve bring him a fresh tunic and cloak, and a talent of rich gold, and let us all arrange it swiftly, so the stranger may go to his supper with a happy heart having our gifts to hand. And let Euryalus make amends with a gift and an apology, for his unfortunate words.’
They praised his speech, and endorsed his thought, and each sent a squire to fetch the gifts. Then it came to Euryalus to reply, saying: ‘Lord Alcinous, most renowned of men, I will make amends as you command. I will give him this bronze sword with a silver hilt, and a scabbard for it of fresh-cut ivory: it will be of great value to him.’
With this he placed the silver-embossed sword in Odysseus hands, and spoke to him winged words: ‘Sir stranger, I salute you, and if harsh words have been said, may the storm winds take them and blow them away. As for yourself may the gods grant you see your wife once more, and your native land, since you’ve suffered endless trouble, far from your friends.’
Resourceful Odysseus replied: ‘I salute you, too, my friend, and may the gods give you joy, and may you never have cause to miss the sword you give me with these words, which indeed make amends.’ So saying he hung the silver-embossed sword from his shoulder.
As the sun set the splendid gifts arrived. The noble squires carried these to Alcinous’ palace. There, the sons of faultless Alcinous took them and placed them before their beloved mother. And royal Alcinous leading the way they all entered and sat on raised seats. Then mighty Alcinous said to Arete: ‘Wife, have a fine coffer, the best you have, brought here, and place a fresh tunic and cloak in it yourself, and heat a cauldron of water over the fire, so that when he has bathed, and seen stored away all these gifts the noble Phaeacians have brought, he can take pleasure in the feast and the singing. And I will give him this fine gold cup, so he may remember me forever when he pours libations, at home, to Zeus and the other gods.’
At this, Arete ordered her maids to place a large cauldron on the fire, for the bathwater. They filled it then piled firewood underneath. Flames licked around the cauldron’s belly, and the water was heated. Meanwhile Arete had a strong coffer from the treasure chamber brought for the stranger, and filled it with the Phaeacians’ fine gifts of clothes and gold. She added a lovely tunic and cloak herself then spoke to Odysseus winged words: ‘See to its lid, and knot the cord yourself, now, lest someone rob you on the journey as you lie in sweet sleep aboard the black ship.’
Attending to her words, noble long-suffering Odysseus quickly closed the lid, and tied its cords with a subtle knot that Lady Circe had taught him. Then the housekeeper invited him to take his bath, and the sight of it delighted him, since comforts like these had been scarce once he’d left the home of Calypso of the lovely tresses, where he’d been cared for like a god. When the maids had bathed him, and rubbed him with oil, and had clothed him in a fine tunic and cloak, he left the bath and joined the men at their wine.
Nausicaa, graced by the gods with beauty, was standing by a door-post of the well-built hall, and when her eyes fell on him she marvelled, and she spoke to him with winged words: ‘Joy to you, stranger, and may you remember me sometimes even in your own country, since you owe your life indeed to me.’
And resourceful Odysseus replied, saying: ‘Nausicaa, daughter of brave Alcinous, by this token may Zeus the Thunderer, Hera’s husband, grant me my homecoming, and may I see that day. Then I will pray to you there too, as a divinity, all my days, since you, girl, have given me life.’
With that he seated himself next to King Alcinous, since they were already serving the food and mixing the wine. Then the herald approached leading good Demodocus the bard, whom all honoured, and seated him in the midst of the throng, on a chair that leant against a tall pillar. Resourceful Odysseus, first cutting slices from the chine of a white-tusked boar rich with fat on either side, of which there was plenty left, spoke to the herald: ‘Take this portion of food to Demodocus, Herald, and let me welcome him, despite my grief. Bards are honoured and revered by every man on earth, for the Muse has shown them the path to poetry, and loves the tribe of poets.’
He finished, and the herald took the food and handed it to noble Demodocus, who was delighted. So they stretched out their hands to the good things before them, and when they had sated their desire for food and drink, resourceful Odysseus spoke to the bard, saying: ‘Demodocus, I praise you above all mortal men, one taught by the Muse, Zeus’ daughter, or perhaps by Apollo, for you sang the Achaeans’ fate with truth and feeling, all of their actions and their suffering, all the efforts they exerted, as if you had been there, or heard it from one who was. Now, come, change your theme, and sing of the making of the Wooden Horse, that Epeius fashioned with Athene’s help, that noble Odysseus contrived to have dragged inside the citadel, filled by cunning with warriors who then sacked Troy. Tell the tale as it happened, and I will say to all mankind that the god has given you freely of the power of divine song.’
At his words the bard, inspired by the god, began, and raising his voice picked up the tale at the point where the Argives had burned their camp, boarded their oared ships, and sailed some way off, leaving glorious Odysseus and the rest sitting inside the Horse, at the Trojan’s meeting place. The Trojans themselves had dragged it into the citadel. There it stood, while the people sat round it, discussing it endlessly to no conclusion. Three suggestions found favour: to cut through the hollow timber with pitiless bronze, or drag it to the edge of the rock and over the cliff, or let it stand there, as a grand offering to the gods, in propitiation, which is what happened in the end. For it was their destiny to be destroyed when the city accepted that huge horse of wood, where the best of the Argives lay hidden, bringing death and ruin to Troy.
Then he sang how the Achaeans left their hollow hiding place, and poured from the horse, to sack the city. He sang how the other warriors dispersing through the streets, laid waste high Troy, but Odysseus, the image of Ares, together with godlike Menelaus, sought Deiphobus’ house. There, said the tale, Odysseus fought the most terrible of fights, but conquered in the end, with the help of great-hearted Athene.
So sang the famous bard. And Odysseus’ heart melted, and tears poured from his eyes. He wept pitifully, as a woman weeps who throws herself on her husband’s dying body, fallen in front of his city and people, trying to ward off that evil moment from the city and his own children: watching him gasping for breath in dying, she clings to him and screams aloud, while behind her the enemy beat her back and shoulders with their spears: then she is led into captivity to endure a life of toil and suffering, her cheeks wasted pitifully with grief. He hid the falling tears from all except Alcinous, who, aware because he sat by him, noticed all, and heard him sighing deeply. At one he addressed the sea-faring Phaeacians:
‘Leaders and Counsellors of the Phaeacians, hear me, and let Demodocus still his ringing lyre, since his song fails to give pleasure to all alike. From the moment of our feast when our divine bard was inspired to sing, this stranger has never stopped his sad grieving, his heart must surely be overflowing with sorrow. Let the bard refrain, and let us enjoy ourselves, hosts and guest alike: that would be better. We prepared all this for the sake of a sacred stranger after all, this farewell and the gifts of friendship we give with love. To a man of any intelligence, a stranger, a suppliant, is dear as a brother.
Now, sir, for your part: don’t mask the answer to what I ask with clever subterfuge: plain speaking serves us best. Tell us the name you go by at home, the name your mother and father, and the rest, in the town and countryside, give you. No one who’s born into this world, whether high or low, goes nameless: our parents give us all a name once we are born. Name your country, your people and your city, so our ships may take you home, steering a course by means of their own intelligence. Phaeacian ships have no helmsman or steering oar, for the ships themselves know our thoughts and wishes, and the cities of men, every fertile country, and hidden by mist and cloud they speed over the sea’s wide gulf, and never fear damage or shipwreck. Though I heard a story once from my father Nausithous, who used to say that Poseidon was angry with us because we conveyed all men, in safety. He claimed that some day, when a well-built Phaeacian ship was crossing the misty sea, returning from such a journey, Poseidon would strike her, and then ring our city with a mountain chain. That is what the old king claimed, and the god can do it, or leave it undone, as he wishes.
But tell me
this, and speak true, where have your wanderings taken you, what countries of
men have you seen? Tell me of those peoples, and their crowded cities, the
cruel, savage and lawless races, and those who are good to strangers, and in
their hearts fear the gods. And tell me why you weep, and sorrow in spirit,
when you hear of the Argives’ fate, of Troy and the Danaans. The gods engineered it, weaving the
web of mortal ruin, to make a song for those as yet unborn. Perhaps some
kinsman died at
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