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The Odyssey of Homer

translated from the Greek by T. E. Lawrence



At dawn, after they had sent out the drovers with their pigs, Odysseus was helping the honest swineherd light the fire within their hut and prepare breakfast, when suddenly the restless noisy dogs hushed their baying to fawn about the approaching Telemachus. Odysseus, hearing footfalls, noted this quiet welcome that the dogs were giving, and exclaimed to Eumaeus, "Friend, here comes a mate of yours, or someone so familiar that the dogs instead of barking play round him in friendship. Now I hear his footsteps." With the words yet in his mouth his dear son appeared at the door. The astonished swineherd let drop the jars in which he had been mixing wine and sprang to his feet. With tears of joy he met his lord, to kiss his head, his eyes, his hands, as a good father greets the darling of his heart, his only and beloved son, home after ten long anxious years. Just so the good swineherd clung to the prince and embraced him like one snatched from death, while he cried out: "Your coming, O Telemachus, is sweetness and light. After you had sailed for Pylos I whispered to myself that I had seen you for the last time. Come in, my child, come in to the house, that my heart may be gladdened by the wanderer's return. You keep yourself so closely in the town, to the neglect of your estate and husbandmen, as if you liked to watch that swarm of suitors devouring everything in view."

"Have it your way, father," protested Telemachus. "Yet here I come to see you with my own eyes and hear from your lips if my mother is still at home. Or has she yielded to another, and abandoned the bed of Odysseus for spiders to defoul with their webs?" The swineherd replied, "She abides constantly in the house, though the nights wane for her wearily and her days are wet with tears," and as he spoke he was ushering him over the stone threshold and relieving him of his brazen spear. Odysseus, the father, made to give him place, but Telemachus motioned him back, saying, "No, stranger, rest where you are. This farm is ours and we will find another seat. Here is the man to arrange it." So Odysseus sat still while the swineherd strewed green twigs and covered them with a fleece on which the dear son of Odysseus set himself. Then the swineherd brought out on platters what was left of yesterday's baked meats, busily arranging with them baskets of bread and sweet wine mixed in an ivy-bowl. He sat to face Odysseus and they made play with the cheer till appetite was stayed. Then said Telemachus to Eumaeus, "Father, how did this stranger reach you, in what ship's company and whence their declaration? Surely he has not just tramped in? "

Then you, O swineherd Eumaeus, said, "I will inform you, son. He calls himself a native of the Cretan coast and a wanderer through earth's cities, that being his destiny. Actually he reached the farmstead as runaway from a Thesprotian ship. To you I convey him for disposal: yet he would be your suppliant." Telemachus replied soberly, "This word of yours cuts deep, Eumaeus; for how can I entertain a stranger in my house? I am still young and unversed in defending myself against aggressors. My mother is in two minds, at one time wanting to stay carefully at home keeping true to her husband's bed and public opinion, and another time ready to accept whichever of her Achaean parties shows himself the most generous wooer. Yet now you have received this guest, I will clothe him fairly with robe and tunic, give him a stabbing-sword and shoes, and send him whither he wishes: or if you prefer to look after him here, I will supply you his clothes and full rations, to prevent his being a drain upon you and your fellows. Only amongst the suitors I will not have him come, lest their vile rudeness undo me by offering him insult. It is hard for one man, however eminent, to assert himself against the odds of a crowd."

Odysseus took up the word. "Friend, it is my place to answer that, I think. I am desolated to hear you tell how unconscionably these suitors spite you at home. Explain - do you suffer it, or have the local people heard a God bidding them turn against you? Or perhaps you have been let down by the blood-relations upon whose armed help a man naturally counts in his greatest need? Ah, if only I were your age or as young as I feel, and could be the son of Odysseus or the great man himself back from wandering, as yet might happen! Anybody might cut my head off if I failed to go to the palace of Laertes' son and visit my fury upon every soul within it. And if their numbers prevailed over my solitary self, why I would be happy to die there in my house rather than passively witness such outrages as guests insulted and serving women violated in the stately halls, my wine spilt wantonly and my food wasted, day after day."

Telemachus gravely replied: "Stranger, I can explain it all. The people do not hate me, nor have I been deserted in extremity by kinsmen on whom I did rely. The son of Cronos made our house single-fruited. Arcesius had the one son, Laertes. Odysseus was the only son of his father, and his sailing to the war left me as sole heir at home - to his loss, for now his house is beset with these innumerable enemies. The pick of all the island gentry from Dulichium and Same and leafy Zacynthus (not to mention rugged Ithaca itself) are courting my mother and eating the estate bare. She cannot either reject the horrid match or get it over. So to the ruin of the house they eat and eat, till soon they will eat me too. However such things lie in the lap of the Gods. Father swineherd, I pray you hurry to Penelope and tell her I am safely arrived out of Pylos for her sake. Till you get back I shall stay here. Be sure you see her apart and let no Achaean overhear you: I have only too many ill-wishers."

And you said, Eumaeus, "I know. I understand. You speak to a man who thinks: but continue and direct me plainly. Shall I push my journey a little further and inform poor Laertes, who till lately through all his griefs for Odysseus kept the supervision of the property, eating and drinking whenever he thought it advisable with the household staff? They tell me now that since you sailed for Pylos he has never once feasted thus nor cared for the farm-work; but sits in grief and lamentation, letting the flesh waste off his bones."

Telemachus replied: "Our misfortunes grow; but very sadly we must let him be: though had mankind the faculty of choice we would plump for my father's return. So just do your errand and come back, without seeking over the country-side for the aged man - yet warn my mother to send her old hand-maiden quickly and secretly across to him with the news." So he despatched the swineherd, who picked up his sandals, put them on and struck out for the city. His departure was watched by Athene who then repaired to the farm herself, in the guise of a tall, splendidly accomplished woman. She stood before the living quarters and revealed herself to Odysseus; but Telemachus saw nothing there, the Gods having the power not to be manifested except at will. However Odysseus perceived her, and the dogs, who instead of barking slunk in whining terror to the back of the yard. She frowned biddingly towards Odysseus. He rose and went past the outer wall to stand before her.

She said, "God-begotten, cease hiding from your son. Open yourself to him and concert a way to slaughter the suitors. Then start together for the famous town. Nor will I lag behind. I am longing for the fray." She touched him with her golden rod and clothed his body anew in laundered robes. She restored his stature and presence. His flesh took on colour, his cheeks filled out. The dark beard bushed once more about his chin. When her work was perfected she went away, leaving Odysseus to re-enter the hut. His son, who took him for a God, was astounded and withdrew his face, saying urgently, "Stranger, you are not what you seemed to me just now. Your clothes are different, even your flesh is changed. Surely you are a God, a denizen of heaven. Be propitious; while we set before you gold offerings beautifully wrought, and sacrifices. Spare us, Lord."

But Odysseus said, "I am no God: liken me not with the Immortals. In very deed I am your father, the Odysseus for whose sake you have grieved and endured adversity and suffered indignities from men." He spoke and kissed the lad, yielding to the tears he had hitherto held back; but Telemachus could not credit that it was his father, so he said, "You are not Odysseus, not my father, but some subtle devil plaguing me worse till I cry with pain. No mortal man can so alter his fashion by taking thought; nor may it be, unless some very God come down and arbitrarily change him between youth and eld. You were aged and degraded: and now you are like the Gods in their wide heaven." Odysseus replied, "My Telemachus, do not let yourself be amazed or shaken beyond measure by your father's return. No other Odysseus than I will ever come to you now. As for my state, that is how I reach my own land after twenty years of woes and wanderings. This changing me to old or young is the whim of Athene the Reiver, who can make me at one time a sorry beggar and at another a youth of fashion. It costs the Gods of high heaven no pains to exalt or to abase plain men."

Upon this he sat down: but Telemachus with a cry folded his father in his arms and burst out weeping. The longing for tears welled up in them both at once so that their cries rose conjoined, longer drawn and more piercing than the din of vultures or hook-taloned sea hawks whose nests have been plundered of their fledgelings by country-folk. So sorrowfully did the tears rain down from their eyelids and so un-staunched that the sun might have set upon their lamentations, only for Telemachus suddenly saying to his father, "But in what manner of ship, father, did your crew bring you to Ithaca, and whence did they avouch themselves? You cannot have come afoot." And Odysseus answered, "My child, in truth they were the famous Phaeacians, those stout seamen who convey all comers. I slept the quick voyage through and was yet sleeping when they landed me in Ithaca with their wonderful rich gifts of bronze and gold and clothing. By the Gods' care all these things are bestowed in caves: and Athene's behest brings me here for us to plan the destruction of our enemies. So recite to me the sum of these suitors and let me know their quality and quantity, that my noble heart may ponder and determine if we two can take them on, alone and unsupported; or must seek allies."

Telemachus soberly replied, "Father, I know your reputation as a man of your hands, but shrewd. Surely you have said too much. It appals me. Two men cannot fight a company of champions. These suitors are not just ten men or twenty even, but a crowd. Listen while I count them off. From Dulichium fifty-two men of standing with six varlets. From Same twenty-four. From Zacynthus twenty noble Achaeans; while from our Ithaca there are twelve of the best men, besides Medon the usher, the inspired bard and two skilled waiters and carvers. If we come upon all these in the house, beware lest your vengeance recoil altogether too bitterly. Rack your wits for the name of some doughty one who would stand by us manfully."

Dauntless Odysseus replied, "Indeed I can give you a name. Heed me and mark it carefully. Will Athene, supported by Father Zeus, do for us two, or must I think of another helper?"

Telemachus said gently, "This pair rule all mankind, with the Immortals to boot, and are indeed mighty helpers; but their seat is very far away amongst the clouds." "It may be," said Odysseus, "yet when the ordeal by Ares is staged between us and the suitors in the hall, those two will not hold back from the din and press. Our first move is for you to go home at daybreak and rejoin the haughty suitors, whither the swineherd a little later will conduct me in my beggarly guise, seeming old and broken. Should they insult me in the house, harden your heart's love for me against my pains, even if they hurl at me or drag me feet-first across the floor to cast me out. Endure all such scenes, only reasoning sweetly with them to moderate their wildness - which they will not do.

Their fateful day looms near. Now remember my next words carefully. When the wisdom of Athene prompts me I will nod to you. Watch me closely for this and when you see it, carry off all the deadly weapons within reach to that recess in the solar upstairs; and when they miss them put the suitors off with some such likely excuse as 'I took them away out of the smoke, for they have become so tarnished by fire-reek as hardly to look like the same things Odysseus left here when he went to Troy. Also the son of Cronos prompted me with this deeper reason, that iron of itself tempts man's frailty. In wine you might quarrel and a scandal of wounds follow to mar this junketing and courtship.' Just leave for the pair of us where we can snatch them suddenly, two swords, two spears and two hide shields. Pallas and deep-planning Zeus will do the rest, to confound them. Only I tell you - and again pay attention - if you are my own true-blood son let no one know Odysseus is back, not Laertes nor the swineherd nor any servant; not Penelope herself. We will study the women, you and I alone: and test the serfs also, to divide those with some respect for discipline from the fro ward who disparage even your dignity."

His famous son spoke up and said, "My father, you will prove my courage by and by, I know, and find me steadfastness itself. But I would have you reconsider this plan, in which I see nothing to our joint advantage. If you run round the properties to test each serf, you will spend ever so much time during which those others sitting in our house will go on using up our wealth with the coolness of effrontery. The women I would indeed have you prove, to see which have disgraced you and which are innocent; but the men in the farms I would postpone till later; if you can truly pin your reliance on aegis-bearing Zeus."

While they discussed their plans the staunch ship and company of Telemachus were putting in to Ithaca. Deep within the harbour they beached her and drew up the dark hull. Pages carried their arms proudly homeward, and took the splendid gifts to Clytius' house. They sent a herald to the palace of Odysseus to tell careful Penelope (lest the proud queen's fears set her weeping) how Telemachus had sent the ship round to the port, while he struck overland. This herald and the honest swineherd ran into one another on the same errand to their lady: but the herald, from amongst the serving-women in the room, proclaimed aloud, "Your dear son, O Queen, has just come back to you," while the swineherd went near to Penelope herself and privily imparted her son's message. As soon as he had said his say he quitted the house and its precincts, to regain his swine.

The news vexed and depressed the suitors who flocked out from the hall through the high-walled court to its gate where they sat in conclave; Eurymachus opening thus: "My friends, Telemachus has made an insolent success of his difficult task, this voyage, which we decided he must not complete. Now our job is to launch as good a vessel as there is, with deep-sea oarsmen for crew, to bid our others homeward at their best speed." Even while he spoke Amphinomus looked aside and saw their ship in the deep harbour, with its crew striking sail and gathering up their oars. So he laughed shortly and proclaimed, "We will send no such message. Here they are. Either some God warned them or they saw the other ship go by and could not catch her." All rose and trooped to the sea-front where the crew were drawing the black hull quickly up the foreshore while haughty lackeys took their weapons home. Then the united body of suitors moved to the assembly-place, strictly excluding old and young from their number, for Antinous, son of Eupeithes, to make this speech:-

"It is a sad blow, the Gods' letting this man escape his predicament. Our scouts in quick reliefs crowned the windy headlands, on the look-out all day; nor did we pass one night ashore. With sunset we ever put out in the ship and lay at sea in wait for Telemachus till dawn, to catch and kill him. Yet some power has brought him home. So here and now let us determine his bloody end, and prevent his slipping through our hands: for I think we shall never achieve our purpose while he lives. The crowd grow less partial to us as he shows himself persuasive and resourceful. We must act before he can gather the Achaeans into council; for I feel sure he will not spare us or mince matters. He will get up and blurt out how we meant to murder him, but under-reached: and they will not support us when they hear our treachery. They may even turn on us and banish us to find our living in some land of strangers. Let us anticipate, by catching him somewhere apart from the city or on his way thither. Then shall we possess his livelihood and wealth for even division amongst ourselves, leaving the house itself to his mother for him who marries her. If you will not have this course, but decide to let him live and have all his father had, then must we leave off devouring his riches and disperse to our own houses, thence to woo the woman and tempt her with gifts until she weds the designated best payer."

After his word came a stillness till Amphinomus rose amongst them and spoke - Amphinomus, the famed son of royal Nisus son of Aretias, chief suitor from grassy and granaried Dulichium. His company was specially agreeable to Penelope because of his poise and judgement, which expressed themselves as he said, "Friends, I would not kill Telemachus. It is heinous to spill royal blood. Let us first consult the Gods. If the oracles of great Zeus commend it, then will I be the executioner myself, and halloo you on: but if not, I will bid you hold." His saying pleased them. They rose and returned to the palace and resumed their polished thrones.

The notion came to wise Penelope that she must face the suitors in all their brutal pride, for Medon the usher who knew their plans had told her of the plot to kill her son in the house. So down to the hall-full of suitors went the stately lady with her two tiring-women and stood by a pillar of the mighty roof. She held the thin head-veil before her face and by his name rebuked Antinous, saying, "Ill-mannered trickster, do they call you prime amongst your peers of Ithaca in eloquence and resource? You show it not. Crazy, I call you, for daring to flout those who have petitioned great Zeus to have Telemachus in his care. And you would kill him? Plotting murder is a deadly sin. Have you forgotten your father's taking refuge in this house from the people who rose against him when he joined the Taphian pirates to harry our Thesprotian friends? They were set upon killing him and plundering his great wealth; but Odysseus beat down their fury. And now you rudely devour his home and court his wife and would murder his son, all to my sore hurt. I bid you hold; and hold back the rest."

Eurymachus, son of Polybus, intervened: "Penelope, wise daughter of Icarius, take heart. Be not so distressed. The man who would lift hand against Telemachus is not, shall not be, cannot be, while I exist in the light of day! So I proclaim and ensure it, for quickly would such a fellow's blood drip down my spear. How often has Odysseus, that breaker of cities, dandled me on his knees and put scraps of roast meat into my fingers and made me taste the ruddy wine! Wherefore to me is Telemachus particularly dear, and I bid him have no thought of death at the wooers' hands. From the Gods, of course, there is no avoiding fate." He spoke to calm her, with death hidden in his heart: and the queen turned back to her glorious upper room where she bewailed Odysseus, her loved husband, till Athene of the grey eyes shed merciful sleep upon her.

At dusk the good swineherd rejoined Odysseus and his son, to find them contriving supper from a yearling pig they had sacrificed. Again had Athene come to the son of Laertes, and with a stroke of her wand aged him anew before wrapping in his body-rags, for fear of the swineherd's recognizing him and running to Penelope to betray his news. Said Telemachus, "You have come, dear Eumaeus. What news in town? Are the suitor-lords back from ambush, or still waiting for me?" And to him you replied, O swineherd, "To wander down town and gossip was no part of my duty. I thought to deliver my message and come straight home, only there met me a herald coming from your crew in haste, and he forestalled me with your mother. Yet this I do know, for I saw it from the head of Hermes' ridge above the city, on my way back - a fast ship entering our harbour, crowded, and bristling with shields and double-edged spears. I think it was them, though I cannot be sure." His saying made great Telemachus smile and glance aside to catch his father's eye. Now their preparations were ended and the meal was ready. So they feasted to their common content. When hunger and thirst were put away they remembered their beds and took the boon of sleep.

Book 17 >>

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