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The Odyssey of Homer

translated from the Greek by T. E. Lawrence


 

BOOK 20

Eventually noble Odysseus made his bed in the entrance hall, by stretching an untanned ox-hide on the floor and piling upon it many fleeces of the sheep sacrificed to Achaean appetite. Eurynome drew a mantle over him after he had lain down. Yet sleep would not come, because his heart was too active in planning evil against the suitors: for whom, besides, after a while those women that nightly played the strumpet poured out with laughter and loud jest from the servants' quarter. His gorge rose then: impulse and reason warred within him, now wanting to charge forth and give each whore her death, now to yield them a latest and last chambering. Over this his secret self snarled like a bitch standing guard over her helpless litter, when she stiffens with a growl to fly at any approaching stranger. So the anger rumbled within Odysseus at their lechery: but he smote his breast in self-rebuke, saying, "Be patient, heart. You stood a grimmer trial, that day the bestial Cyclops devoured my splendid fellows. Steadfastly you bore it, till your cunning had frayed you a path from that cave you thought your death-trap."

He so conjured himself and rated his passions that his soul's patience survived to the end: but the strain tossed his body about, like the basting paunch stuffed with blood and fat that a man who wants it immediately cooked will turn over and over before a blazing fire. In such fashion did Odysseus roll to this side and to that in the throes of wondering how his single self could get the many shameless suitors into his grasp. Upon his perplexity Athene in her woman's shape came down from Heaven, to stand above his head and say, "Why still awake and watchful, O sorriest man of men, now you lie at last in your own house where are your wife and also your son —such a lad as everyone wish his son to be? " And to her Odysseus replied, "Alas, Goddess, your rebuke is justified: but my heart's debate was how one man might lay hands upon these wasters who keep the house in droves. And out of that rises the second and stiffer problem. Supposing the grace of Zeus, with yours, lets me slay them, where afterwards may I find sanctuary? Inspire me, pray.'

"Exigent wretch," said the Goddess, "others trust friends so much feebler than me, creatures all too human and not various: whereas I am very God and your buckler to the end of toil. Let me state you a naked truth. Though fifty troops of humans hemmed us round, all mad to kill out-right, yet should you win through to lift their flocks and herds. So let yourself sleep. Watching all night is very wearying and presently you will be quitted of evil." She spoke, shed a slumbering upon his eyelids and left for Olympus. Odysseus sank into the arms of sleep, a nerve-allaying sleep which ravelled out the tangles of his mind. But his loyal wife awoke and sat up in her soft couch to weep, before praying directly to Artemis:-

"Artemis, Goddess, daughter of Zeus! Only strike me I through now with your dart and take my life utterly away I - or let a whirlwind hurtle me down the darkling ways and I fling me where the under-tow of Ocean joins the main! The whirlwinds thus paid the daughters of Pandareus, who had been orphaned in their home by the Gods' killing their parents. Aphrodite nourished them with goat-milk cheese and sweet honey and wholesome wine, Hera gave them beauty and insight above all women, and Artemis made them buxom; while Athene dowered them with every grace and art. Yet as Aphrodite was journeying to high Olympus to beg their crowning glory of fortunate marriages - and beg it of Zeus the Thunder-lover, who knows what is or is not destined for mankind - even then the Harpies of the storm snatched the girls away and cast them to serve the terrible Furies. O that the dwellers on Olympus would so blot me from human sight, or well-tressed Artemis thrust me through, that as I went to my grave under the hateful earth I might yet carry with me the image of Odysseus unsmirched by dalliance with some baser man! I call that pain endurable if it makes one mourn day-long from the heart's great ache but permits sleep of nights, the sleep which as-soils all good and ill concern, once it has lidded the eyes. But for me even the dreams vouchsafed by the powers are an affliction. Tonight, for example, there lay by me the image of my man as when he left for the war; and my heart leapt up, thinking it no dream, but truth at last."

So ran her complaint till Dawn came, golden-throned: but then her sobbing pierced to the ears of Odysseus and mingled with his waking thoughts, to make him fancy she had discovered him and was there by his side. He rose to fold the cloak, and the sheepskins on which he had slept; then laid them on a hall-throne: but the ox-hide he took out of doors and spread for his praying to Zeus with uplifted hands: "O father Zeus, if heaven's good will has led me safely home across the waters and the wilderness, despite terrible danger, then let the welkin yield some sign thereof from you, and waking humanity confirm it with an important word."

This prayer Zeus the contriver heard. He pealed from out the mists veiling the radiant peak of Olympus, and made Odysseus glad; while the momentous word was uttered by a woman slaving at her quern near by, in the mill-room attached to the palace of the people's shepherd. There all day twelve women strove their hardest, grinding barley-meal and flour, the marrow of man's strength. They were sleeping now with their stint of grain well ground - all save the feeblest one, who yet laboured: but at the thunder she too let her mill run down, to sigh out the word for which her King was waiting: "O father Zeus, ruler of gods and men, this loud peal from a star-spangled sky without one wisp of cloud —do you thereby show some sign for man? Grant it import, I pray, even for wretched me. Let today's be the final and ultimate easy feast of the suitors in Odysseus' halls. To mill groats for them must my limbs be wrung with this excruciating toil. Make it their last supper, Lord!"

She breathed this out, and great Odysseus rejoiced for its aptness and for the thunder of Zeus. He told himself he had won his revenge upon the wrong-doers. Meantime the other maids of the great palace were stirring. They rebuilt the undying fire upon the hearth. Telemachus rose from his couch, a god-like figure of a man as he put on his clothes, before slinging his sharp sword about his shoulders and binding the handsome sandals to his lissom feet. He picked up his massive bronze-tipped spear and stood by the outer door to ask Eurycleia, "Dear nurse, about our guest - was he honourably entreated as regards bed and food or left anyhow to fend for himself, as is so much my mother's way, woman of the world though she be? She falls over herself to please some worthless fellow and leaves a worthy man in utter neglect." Faithful Eurycleia answered back, "Child, you find fault where no fault is found. The man sat and drank all the wine he wished: but refused food on the plea of no appetite, though she pressed him. She would have had the maids make down a bed against his wanting to sleep: but he seemed so beaten and hopeless that he would not lie between blankets on a couch. Instead he had an undressed ox-hide and fleeces in the entrance hall. We put a cloak over him, too."

After hearing her Telemachus, carrying his spear, left the house with two swift dogs at heel, making for the assembly-ground to meet the warrior Achaeans: while the dame began to hustle her maids, calling out, "Rally round now and fall to work, some of you, on the floor, sweeping till your breath is spent—but first put water down—and then smooth the thrones' purple housings; while you others take sponges and clean down all the tables, swilling out the mixing-bowls and the handsome double-handled cups. All the rest fetch water from the spring, briskly there and briskly back. Very soon this morning will the house see its suitors again, today being the public festival." She rained orders upon them and freely they obeyed. Full twenty set off for the fountain where the dark water flowed, while the others skilfully did out the hall. Then the freedmen began to appear. Some of these adeptly split kindling-wood till the women should return from the spring: but when they did come Eumaeus the swineherd was of the party, with his three fattest hogs. He left these rooting in the precincts, to address Odysseus in all courtesy: "Stranger, have the Achaeans come to look upon you with more favour, or are they yet despiteful as they were?" and Odysseus rejoined, "Ah, Eumaeus, may the Gods punish their outrages and the way these nefarious ruffians misuse another's house."

So far they had got when Melanthius the goat-man appeared with two herders and the finest of their goats for the suitors' table. He tied his beasts under the echoing porch-way and remarked to Odysseus with a sneer, "You still pester the household, stranger, by your begging and refusal to leave? I think our affair will not be closed without you get a taste of fist. Importunity like yours is not decent. This is not the solitary Achaean banquet." Roundly he abused him, but crafty Odysseus made no reply, only hanging his head in silence: yet within him his enmity increased. A third party arrived, Philoetius, a man of mark, who had with him a heifer for the suitors and more prime goats. He had been brought across by the boatmen of the public ferry. After tethering his charges securely in the porch he came over to Eumaeus, asking, " Swineherd, who is this fresh stranger in our house? What race does he claim? Where are his people and their lands? Shabby he may be but his build is royal. A man meshed in the web of the Gods' wrath and made homeless soon shows the strain, even if he have been a King."

He turned to Odysseus and held out a right hand, saying cordially, "Greeting, sir stranger: may the future bring you happiness; for patently you are now in the toils of misfortune. Father Zeus, you are the deadliest of all Gods, in that you make no allowance for the men you have created, but tangle them in such sad and sorry pains. I sweat only to think of it and my eyes grow moist, remembering Odysseus, who if yet alive and in the sunshine may be ragged and adrift like this. But if he is dead, and gone down to Hades' mansions, then hear me bemoan the excellent Odysseus, who while I was yet a boy promoted me over his herds in Cephallenia. Yes, and these have so increased as to be beyond number, like ears of standing corn for multitude. Never did any man's broad-fronted cattle breed better. But these outsiders, disregarding the son of the house and slighting the Gods, make me bring in my beasts ever and again for their banqueting. Their latest freak is to share out the whole fortune of our missing King. I keep on turning the affair over in my mind, well aware how wrong it would be to go off, beeves and all, to a stranger's service while the heir lives; but certain that it is worse still to sit down here under such iniquities and herd my cattle for the benefit of men who have no claim to them. My position is unbearable. Long since I should have run off and engaged myself with some other mighty King, only that I keep thinking of this unhappy man and of how he might suddenly turn up from nowhere and chase the suitors helter-skelter through his house."

Said Odysseus in crafty reply, "Cow-herd, you display a goodly discretion. My judgement assures me upon the rightness of your instincts: so I shall tell you a thing on my solemn and lawful oath. O Zeus, greatest of the Gods, be my witness, and the hospitable table and hearth of great Odysseus by which I stand! You shall be yet in this place when Odysseus comes home. Your eyes shall see the fate you invoke meted these officious suitors," The cow-man replied, "May the son of Cronos fulfil your word, Stranger, to let you see how my hands should gratify my strength." Eumaeus echoed his prayer to all the Gods that Odysseus might return: while the suitors in their place were again conspiring a death by violence for Telemachus.

But an eagle stooped from the heights of the sky and flew past on their left, bearing off a pitiful dove: whereupon Amphinomus rose and said, "Friends, our plot to assassinate Telemachus is misjudged. Let us feast instead." They accepted his verdict and marched to the palace of Odysseus, where they laid their cloaks aside upon seats before turning to slaughter the sheep, the goats, the swine and the heifer from the stock. They roasted the inwards and passed them round, then mixed wine in the bowls. The swineherd gave out the cups, stately Philoetius helped them to bread from the fair baskets and Melanthius poured wine. All set to and feasted.

With subtile intent Telemachus had brought Odysseus within the hall, arranging him a small table and plain settle by the stone entry. He helped him to the inward meats and poured him wine in a golden cup, pronouncing, "Rest you there and drink your wine among the men. Should abuse or assault follow from the suitors I shall be your defence. This place is not a public house but the palace of Odysseus which he won for me: so you, suitors, must govern your hearts and hands, to prevent breach of the peace." Such bold speech from Telemachus made them bite their lips in amazement; but Antinous rallied them: " What Telemachus says is severe and he threatens us starkly, Achaeans. Yet take it quietly. Zeus was not willing - or already we should have cut off his peevish railing in the hall." However, Telemachus paid no heed to this, for already the heralds were going in procession through the town with the long array of beasts to be slain in the Gods' honour: and the long-haired Achaeans were gathering within the shady grove of Apollo, lord of the bow. There they roasted the flesh and drew it off the spits for division. Nobly they feasted, the servers helping Odysseus to his portion just like their own or another's: for that was the ruling of Telemachus, his dear son.

However Athene did not mean to let the suitors rest from provoking Odysseus, for she wanted their contempt to make his heart ache. Among the suitors was one especial ruffian, Ctesippus of Same, whose enormous wealth had emboldened him to woo the wife of absent Odysseus, and he now bayed forth in their midst: "Hear me, suitor-lords, hear what I suggest! The stranger has had his share like the others, as is fitting. To stint a guest of Telemachus, whatever his sort, would be unjust and indecorous. But it is quite a while since he had it: so now I am adding my guesting-gift which will let him spare his old foot-washing hag a trifle, or tip some other palace servant." Therewith he snatched a cow's foot from the dish before him and hurled it with a strong hand: but Odysseus inclined his head lightly to one side and avoided it, with a wry smile. It crashed harmlessly against the solid wall.

Telemachus was up to rate Ctesippus soundly. He cried, "Very profitable for your peace of mind, Ctesippus, that you missed the stranger! Had he not dodged your shot I should have thrust you through the midriff with my war-spear and given your father the pains of your funeral, not your marriage, here. Let me finally warn you all against displaying violence in my house. I used to be a child; but have now come to the knowledge of good and evil. Necessity may lead us to stand impotently by while our sheep are butchered and our wine and food wasted, for one man can scarcely make head against many. Only make sure your enmity stops short of actual crime - otherwise, if you must persist in your murderous intent against me, hear my deliberate conviction; that death is better than longer looking upon your villainies - this outraging my guests and man-handling my servant-women all through the stately palace, to their shame."

His outburst stilled them for a while. At last Agelaus, son of Damastor, said, "My friends, when there has been plain speaking it is not a man's part to lose temper or complain. Let be the stranger and the servants of Odysseus' household. I would offer Telemachus a soft answer - meant for his mother too - hoping it may move them. So long as your hearts kept a vestige of hope for the return of Odysseus, your delaying and excusing the suitors vexed nobody. Clearly it was expedient, while a chance remained of his survival and return. But now it is plain that he is gone. So sit down beside your mother and put it to her that she must wed the best man and highest bidder. Then she will take over that other's house and let you comfortably assume your whole inheritance in free enjoyment of your food and drink."

Telemachus protested, "Indeed, Agelaus, I swear to you by Zeus and by all the pains my father suffered in dying or straying far from Ithaca, that the obstacle to my mother's marrying lies not in me. I implore her to choose whom she prefers and take him. I go so far as to offer countless presents if but she will. Only I shrink from ordering her unwillingly from the house. God forbid it should come to that." Upon these words of Telemachus, Pallas Athene fired the suitors to a laughter that ran on and on till it crazed them out of their wits. Now they were laughing with mouths that were not their own, while blood oozed from the flesh they ate. Their eyes filled with tears and their souls were racked in agony. Godlike Theoclymenus wailed aloud, "O unhappy men, what is this horror come upon you? A night shrouds your heads, your faces: it creeps down to your knees. Weeping and wailing flash back and forth. Cheeks stream with tears and a dew of blood beads over the smooth wall-panels. Ghostly forms throng the entrance and pack the hall itself, shuffling in long file through the murk towards hell. The sun is lost out of heaven and a dire gloom prevails."

Laughter rang loud from the company as he unburdened himself, and Eurymachus son of Polybus rose to say, "Our new-come visitor from alien parts has lost his senses. Quick, young men, escort him out and to the market-place. He fancies it is black night here." Theoclymenus retorted, "Eurymachus, I want none of your guiding. Eyes I have and ears, my two feet and a spirit not of the meanest. In their power will I pass the threshold, for I feel that evil - evil not to be shunned or avoided - looms over each single one of you suitors whose brutal and perverse imaginings pollute the house of Odysseus." He quitted the hall, to receive honest welcome from Peiraeus in his house; while the suitors after an interchange of stares began to tease Telemachus by poking fun at his guests, repeating despitefully, "Indeed, Telemachus, there can be no unluckier host. First you take in this lousy unknown tramp without profession and without prowess but insatiably bellied for eating and drinking, a perfect cumberer of the earth: and then your second guest stands up to play the prophet! Have my advice and make something by them. Let us pack them for sale aboard some many-oared galley bound for Sicily. You would get a good price that way." Thus the suitors: but he ignored them, in the intensity of his silent gaze upon his father, awaiting the moment to lift hand against his tormentors.

Decorous Penelope had put her state chair just over against them and so heard all that passed. Not that their laughter had hindered the slaughter of many victims to furnish their juicy abundant meal. Though what ghastlier banquet could be dreamed of than this which the Goddess and the valiant man - trapping them after their own villainous example - were now about to provide?

 
Book 21 >>



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