Homer: The Odyssey

Book XX

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

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BkXX:1-55 Athene visits Odysseus

Noble Odysseus lay down to sleep in the hallway of the house. He spread an un-tanned ox-hide on the floor and covered it with a pile of fleeces, from the sheep the Achaeans killed each day. When he had settled down, Eurynome threw a cloak over him. There the sleepless Odysseus lay, planning trouble for the Suitors. Out from the hall poured the women who slept with the Suitors, giggling and joking among themselves. His anger was roused, and he pondered in his mind, whether he should chase them down and kill them, or leave them to sleep with the arrogant Suitors one last time. He growled inside, like a bitch guarding her vulnerable pups, ready to fight on seeing a stranger. He growled inside with anger at their evil ways, but striking his chest he restrained his heart, saying: ‘Patience, my heart. You endured worse than this when the Cyclops, with his huge strength, ate my loyal friends: yet you held firm until your cunning released you from that cave where you faced death.’

Such were his words of self-rebuke, and his heart obediently steeled itself to patience, but he still lay tossing this way and that. Like a paunch filled with fat and blood turning in front of a blazing fire, twisted about by the man who roasts it, eager to see it done, so Odysseus turned from side to side, considering how to tackle the shameless Suitors, one man against many. Then it was that Athene descended from heaven, and approached him in the form of a mortal woman. She stood by his head and spoke to him, saying: ‘Why are you awake still, most ill-fated of men? This is your house, and here is your wife and child, a son such as any man might pray to have.’

‘Goddess,’ resourceful Odysseus answered, ‘all you say is true indeed, but my mind is considering how to tackle the shameless Suitors on my own, if they are crowded together as usual in the palace. And there’s a second more difficult issue I’m thinking of: even if I kill them, with Zeus’ help and yours, how can I escape vengeance? I ask you to think of that.’

Bright-eyed Athene replied: ‘You are never satisfied. Many a man puts his faith in some mere mortal, a weaker ally than me, without my wisdom. I am a goddess, and never cease to protect you in all your labours. I say clearly, if fifty ranks of mere mortals surround us, ready to kill us in battle, you would still drive off their fat sheep and cattle. Now, go to sleep. Staying awake all night will add to your weariness, just when you are about to shake off your troubles.’

With this the lovely goddess closed his eyes in sleep then she herself returned to Olympus.

Athene visits Odysseus in his sleep

‘Athene visits Odysseus in his sleep’

BkXX:56-119 Zeus sends favourable omens

As sleep gripped him, easing his heart’s care, sleep that slackens men’s limbs, his loyal wife woke, and sitting on her soft bed she wept. Then when she had finished crying, her first thought was to pray to Artemis: ‘Artemis, great Goddess, daughter of Zeus, if you would only pierce my breast with an arrow, and take my life this very hour: or let the storm wind snatch me up, carry me over the darkened ways, and abandon me at the mouth of Ocean’s backflow, as the winds once carried off Pandareus’ daughters. The gods had killed their parents, and left them orphans in the palace, but lovely Aphrodite fed them cheese, sweet honey, and mellow wine, while Hera gave them greater beauty and wisdom than other girls, you, chaste Artemis made them tall, and Athene taught them how to create beautiful things. But on the very day when lovely Aphrodite went to high Olympus to ask Zeus the Thunderer, who knows the fate of all things mortal, happy or unhappy, to grant the girls joyful marriages, the Harpies snatched them away, and handed them over to the dread Furies. If only the dwellers on Olympus would hide me from sight like that, or you, Artemis of the lovely tresses, would strike me dead, so I might descend beneath the hateful earth with Odysseus in my thoughts, rather than gladdening a lesser man’s heart. Painful things can be endured if one sleeps at night, even if by day one weeps with an aching heart – sleep makes us forget all things, joy and pain, when it weighs on our eyelids – but a god makes my dreams painful too. This very night it seemed Odysseus lay by my side once more, looking as he did when he left with his army, and my heart leapt thinking it was the truth and no dream.’

As she spoke, golden-throned Dawn appeared, and noble Odysseus heard her voice amidst the tears, and thinking of her it seemed to him as though she stood by his head and recognised him. He swept up the cloak and fleeces from his bed, and dropped them on a chair in the hall, carrying the ox-hide outside and throwing it down. Then he lifted his hands in prayer to Zeus: ‘Father Zeus, if indeed it is with goodwill that you gods have brought me home over land and sea, after persecuting me so harshly, let someone waking in the palace speak a word of good omen for me, and Zeus, show me a sign here as well.’

So he prayed, and Zeus the All-Knowing heard him. At once the god thundered from shining Olympus out of a cloudless sky, and noble Odysseus rejoiced. Then a woman grinding corn at the mill in a building nearby, that housed all the mills belonging to the shepherd of the people, spoke a word of omen from within. Twelve women laboured at these mills, grinding meal that nourishes men from wheat and barley. The other women were still asleep, having ground their quota, but she, not having their strength had not yet finished. Now she stopped her mill, and uttered words of good omen for her master: ‘Father Zeus, Lord of gods and men, how you thunder from the starry sky, and never a cloud in sight. It must be an omen you send someone. Make even my words come true. Today let the Suitors delight in feasting for the very last time in Odysseus’ palace. Let those who have bowed my limbs in hard labour grinding barley, now eat their last meal.’

Bk XX:120-171 The servants prepare the house

Those were her words, and noble Odysseus was delighted with the omen and that of Zeus’ thunder, as he planned his vengeance on the sinners.

By now the rest of the maids in Odysseus’ glorious palace were about, kindling the dormant fire on the hearth, and Telemachus rose from his bed, looking like a god, and put on his clothes. He slung his sharp sword from one shoulder, fastened a fine pair of sandals on his shining feet, picked up his tough, sharp bronze-tipped spear, took up his stand at the threshold, and spoke to Eurycleia.

‘Nurse, my dear, have you taken proper care with the stranger’s food and bed, or has he had to make the best of it? That is the sort of treatment my mother allows, despite her wisdom: it is sad how she will honour a worse man, and send a better away disregarded.’

‘Child,’ wise Eurycleia replied, ‘you should not blame one who is blameless. The stranger sat drinking wine as long as he wished, but when she asked about food, he said he wasn’t hungry. When he felt it was time to sleep, she told the maids to make up a bed, but he, like the sorry unfortunate he is, chose not to sleep on a bed with blankets, but lay down on an un-tanned ox-hide with sheepskins over him, in the hallway, and we covered him with a cloak.’

At this, Telemachus left the hall, spear in hand, followed by a pair of hounds, and made his way to the gathering place to join the crowd of Achaean nobles. Meanwhile good Eurycleia, the daughter of Ops, Peisenor’s son, called her orders to the maids: ‘Some of you sweep the hall thoroughly, and sprinkle the floors, and spread the purple covers over those good chairs. Others, sponge the tables down, rinse the mixing bowls, and the fine two-handled cups. The rest of you go down to the well for water: bring some back here quickly. The Suitors will soon be back in the palace, earlier than usual, since it’s a feast day for us all.’

The girls paid attention and obeyed her orders. Twenty of them went off to the well of clear black water, while the others exercised their skill in the household tasks.

The Achaeans’ menservants then appeared, and while they were still splitting logs for firewood, neatly and skilfully, the girls returned from the well, followed by the swineherd driving three hogs, the pick of the herd. He left them to feed in the magnificent courtyard, while he spoke warmly to Odysseus: ‘My friend, do these Achaeans treat you any better, here, or do they still behave badly towards you?’

‘Ah, Eumaeus,’ resourceful Odysseus replied, ‘if only the gods some day would take revenge on these insolent and shameless men for the outrage they commit, acting out their evil games in another man’s house.’

BkXX:172-239 Philoetius the loyal cowherd

As they spoke Melanthius the goatherd arrived, bringing in the best she-goats of the herd for the Suitors’ feast, and two herdsmen followed on behind. They tethered the goats under the echoing portico, and Melanthius began taunting Odysseus again.

‘Are you still plaguing us, Stranger, begging in the hall? Isn’t it time you were off and away? Whatever happens, I suspect we won’t part till we’ve had each others’ fists in our faces, since you beg in so vile a manner. There are other places to eat among the Achaeans, for sure.’ Resourceful Odysseus made no reply to this, merely shaking his head in silence, plotting vengeance in his heart.

Then there came a third arrival, Philoetius, the master-cowherd, driving a barren heifer and plump she-goats for the Suitors. They had been brought from the mainland, by the ferrymen who give passage to anyone who appears. He carefully tethered the animals under the echoing portico, then approached the swineherd and questioned him: ‘Who is this new arrival, this stranger, Eumaeus? What ancestry does he claim? Where are his people and his country? An unlucky wretch! He carries himself like a king, but the gods bring trouble on wanderers, kings or no, when they spin the threads of sorrow for them.’

Saying this, he went over to Odysseus and stretched out his hand in greeting, speaking winged words as he did so: ‘Well met, old man! You’re in the grip of misery now, but good luck to you in future. Father Zeus, you are the most pitiless of gods, without compassion for men who owe their existence to you, bringing us wretchedness and fierce suffering. When I saw you, Stranger, I broke into a sweat, and my eyes filled with tears, thinking of Odysseus, who must be dressed in rags like yours, a wanderer too among men, if he still lives at all and sees the sunlight. If he’s already dead, and in Hades’ House, then alas for peerless Odysseus who put me in charge of his cattle in Cephallenian country, when I was just a lad. And now the herd’s increased past counting. Never have broad-browed cattle swelled their numbers more readily for any mortal man. But now strangers order me to bring them for their feast, indifferent to the son of the house, fearless of the gods’ anger, ready to parcel out our long-absent master’s possessions. I keep turning the thing over and over in my mind: it would seem wrong for me to take my own cattle and go abroad, among an alien people, yet it’s worse still to stay here and suffer, in charge of cattle others appropriate. It’s so bad here, I’d have been off ages ago, off to some other powerful prince, if it wasn’t for thinking still about that unfortunate man, wondering if he might still return from who knows where, and drive the Suitors from his house.’

‘Cowherd,’ resourceful Odysseus answered, ‘since you seem a good and intelligent soul, and I see your heart is full of understanding, I will speak plainly, and swear a binding oath I speak true. By Zeus above all, and by this hospitable table, and by faultless Odysseus’ hearth I have reached, I swear Odysseus will return while you are here, and if you choose to do so, you will see clearly with your own eyes the slaughter of these Suitors who play the master here.’

‘Ah, Stranger,’ the master herdsman replied, ‘if only Zeus, the son of Cronos, would make your words come true! Then you would see the strength I can still show in my hands.’ And likewise Eumaeus added a prayer to all the gods for wise Odysseus’ safe return.

BkXX:240-298 Odysseus among the Suitors

So they talked. Now, as the assembled Suitors were once more plotting Telemachus’ death, a bird appeared on their left, an eagle high in the air grasping a dove numb with fear. Amphinomus rose and addressed them: ‘Friends, this plan of ours to kill Telemachus isn’t workable. We should think for now about feasting instead.’ They all agreed, and entering godlike Odysseus’ palace they threw their cloaks over stools and chairs, and began slaughtering well-fed sheep, fat goats, and swine, and a heifer from the herd. They roasted and served the innards, and mixed wine bowls, and the swineherd handed round the cups. Philoetius, the master cowherd, served bread in a well-crafted basket, while Melanthius poured the wine. Then they helped themselves to the good food in front of them.

But Telemachus, cleverly, placed a shabby stool and a small table for Odysseus near the stone threshold inside the great hall. He served him a portion of the innards, and poured him some wine in a gold cup, saying: ‘Sit here, among the noble Suitors, and drink your wine, and I will protect you from any insults and violence. This is no common house, but Odysseus’ palace, and destined to be my inheritance. And you Suitors can keep words of abuse and blows from your thoughts, and make sure there’s no sign of a quarrel or a brawl.’

They all bit their lips at this, amazed at Telemachus’ boldness, and Antinous, Eupeithes’ son, called out: ‘Achaeans, let us do as Telemachus says, hard though it is to take when he threatens us so aggressively. Zeus son of Cronus forbade it, or we would have silenced him before now, loud as he is.’ But Telemachus paid no attention to what Antinous said.

Heralds were leading a hecatomb of sacrificial victims through the town, as the long-haired Achaean townsfolk gathered in Apollo the Archer’s shadowy grove, while in the palace the roast meat drawn from the spit was served, and fuelled a noble feast. The serving men gave Odysseus the same-sized portion as those the Suitors themselves received, so Telemachus decreed, godlike Odysseus’ own son. But Athene had no intention of preventing the arrogant Suitors from hurling bitter insults, so that Odysseus, Laertes’ son, might experience deeper heart-ache.

One of the Suitors, named Ctesippus, who came from Same, a man who cared nothing for the law, was courting the wife of the long-absent Odysseus, trusting in the power of his own vast wealth. He it was who now addressed the insolent Suitors. ‘Pay attention to me, you noble Suitors, and hear what I have to say. The Stranger has received a fair share, as is fitting, since it is right not to fail in hospitality to Telemachus’ house-guests, whoever they may be. Come, I too will give him a guest-gift, and he can give it as a present to a bath-girl or one of godlike Odysseus’ other slaves.’

BkXX:299-344 Telemachus rebukes Ctesippus

With this, he laid his strong hand on an ox’s hoof in the basket, and hurled it at Odysseus, who avoided it with a swift movement of his head, stifling a grim sardonic smile as the hoof struck the wall with a thud. Telemachus turned on Ctesippus, saying: ‘Lucky for you indeed Ctesippus that the stranger dodged your missile and you failed to hit him. If you had I would have run you through with my sharp spear, and your father would have been planning a funeral, not a wedding feast. I warn you I’ll have no displays of violence in my house, I am aware of everything now, the good and the bad, and am no longer a child. I am forced nonetheless to view these things, the slaughtered sheep, the wine and bread consumed, because it is hard for one man to set himself against a crowd. Hostile you may be, but do me no harm, or if you are so keen to murder me with your bronze blade, even that would be better, dying would be preferable than to look on endlessly at disgraceful actions, guests maltreated and maids handled shamefully in this great palace.’

They all fell silent at his words, until at last Agelaus, Damastor’s son, spoke out. ‘My friends, no man should show anger or reply with carping words to what has been fairly said. No more violence against the stranger, or any servant of godlike Odysseus’ house. And I would say this, gently, to Telemachus and his mother, hoping it might seem good to them. So long as you had hope in your hearts that wise Odysseus would return home, no one could blame you for waiting, and discouraging Suitors. It would have proved the right thing if Odysseus had indeed come home. But now it is clear he won’t be back, sit by your mother, Telemachus, and explain that she should marry the best of us, the one who offers her most, and you can enjoy your inheritance from your father, in peace, the food and wine, while she tends another man’s house.’

‘Not so, Agelaus,’ subtle Telemachus replied, ‘I swear by Zeus and my father’s sufferings, he being dead or wandering, far from Ithaca, that I pose no obstacle to my mother’s marrying. I rather urge her to wed whoever she wishes, and with countless gifts from me. But I’d be ashamed to drive her from the palace against her will and at my command. May the gods always prevent such actions.’

BkXX:345-394 Theoclymenus’ vision

Pallas Athene now provoked the Suitors to uncontrollable laughter at Telemachus’ words, and addled their wits. They laughed with strained expressions, and as blood spattered their food their eyes filled with tears, and they seemed to themselves to be grieving. Then it was that godlike Theoclymenus called out: ‘Oh, you luckless men, what evil is this you suffer? From head to toe you are shrouded in darkness. The sound of weeping rises and your cheeks are bathed in tears, while the walls and panelling are soaked with blood. And the porch and the court are filled with ghosts, ghosts hurrying to Erebus by night: the sun has vanished from the sky, and a foul mist blankets all.’

The whole crowd roared with delight at his words, and Eurymachus, Polybus’ son, spoke out: ‘Our new arrival from overseas is mad. Quick boys, pack him off to the gathering place outside, since he finds it so dark in here.’

But godlike Theoclymenus answered: ‘I need no helpers of yours to show me the way, Eurymachus. I have ears and eyes and feet enough, and a sound head on my shoulders. They will guide me past the doors, since I foresee evil coming to you, that none of you Suitors can evade or escape, not one of you who display violence, and plan your mindless wickedness in godlike Odysseus’ house.’ With this he left the great palace, and sought out Peiraeus who gave him a fine welcome.

The Suitors meanwhile, egging each other on, tried to provoke Telemachus by mocking his guests. Such were the proud youths’ comments: ‘No one is more unlucky with guests than you, Telemachus, seeing you are host to such a lousy beggar as this, always after the bread and wine, and without a job in peace or war, an encumbrance on the earth. And now this other leaps up to prophesy. You’d be better to take my advice, and clap these strangers aboard an oared ship heading for Sicily, and make a worthwhile profit from them.’

Telemachus paid no attention to the Suitor’s gibes, but kept his silence and an eye on his father, waiting for the moment when Odysseus would attack those shameless men.

Wise Penelope, Icarius’ daughter, seated opposite in her lovely chair, was obliged to listen to everything that was said. The Suitors had slaughtered cattle in large numbers, and prepared their meal amid gales of laughter, a fine banquet to ease the heart. But no dinner could be less appetising than the one a goddess and a mighty hero would soon set before them. Yet it was the Suitors who had begun it all, with their unacceptable actions.