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The Odyssey of Homer

translated from the Greek by T. E. Lawrence



But it was with a cackle of laughter that the old dame climbed towards the upper room, to warn her mistress of the beloved husband's return. Her knees moved nimbly and her feet tripped along to the lady's bed-head where she stood and spoke her part. "Awake dear child, Penelope: open your eyes upon the sight you have yearned for all these days. Odysseus has appeared, at this end of time. He has reached his home and in it slaughtered the recalcitrant suitors who for so long vexed the house, ate his stored wealth and outfaced his son."

Circumspect Penelope replied to this: "Dear mother, the Gods have driven you frantic. They turn to foolishness the ripest judgements and the flighty into sober ways. From them comes this derangement of your old true understanding:- but why tease with fantasies a heart already brimmed with grief? Why wake me from this sleep whose sweetness 1 held me in thrall and veiled my eyelids; the best sleep I have enjoyed since Odysseus went away to view that ill city never-to-be-named. Off with you below, instantly, to the women's quarters. Had any other of my house-maidens roused me with news of this sort I should have sent her smartingly back into her place. Just for this once your great age shall excuse you."

Eurycleia persisted. "Dear child, I am in very earnest with you. Odysseus, I say, is here. He came back to the house as that stranger who met such scurvy treatment at all hands. Telemachus long since learnt his identity but very properly hid the knowledge, to let his father's revenge take shape against those proud rough men."

This time her word transported Penelope who leaped from the couch and clasped the old woman, crying shrilly through the tears that rained from her eyes: "Ah, dear mother, but tell me, tell me truly - if as you say he is really come home, how has he coped single-handed with the shameless suitors, who mobbed our house continually?" And the good nurse told her, "I did not see, I do not know: but I heard the groans of their slaying. We all shrank trembling into a corner of our safe room - its doors wedged fast - until your son Telemachus came and called me forth at his father's bidding. There in the hall I found Odysseus, stalking amidst the bodies of his slain that littered the beaten floor. Your heart would have glowed to see him so lion-like, all battle-stained and steeped in blood. Now the corpses are piled up outside, by the courtyard gates, while he has had a great fire lighted and purges the lovely house. He sent me to summon you; so come, that at the end of all the sorrow you two may enter your hearts' gladness hand in hand. Surely your lingering hope is now fulfilled. He reaches his fireside alive and finds you and your son still there; while upon each and every one of those suitors who served him ill in the house he has wreaked revenge."

"Hush, mother," said Penelope the decorous. "Do not sing too loud or soon. You know how grateful his reappearance in the house would be to everybody, particularly to me and to his son and mine: but what you proclaim does not ring true. This massacre of the overbearing suitors has been the work of some Immortal, inflamed by their heart-breaking wanton insolence which had regard for no soul they met, neither the bad nor the good: so they have been punished according to their sins. But meantime Odysseus in some far land has lost his way to Achaea - yea, lost himself." Nurse Eurycleia replied: "My child, why let fall that dull word of your husband's never coming home, when he is here already and by his fireside? Your heart was always stubborn in unbelief. Why I can quote you a sure proof, that scar from the boar's white tusk long years ago, which I noted as I washed him. I wanted to tell you upon the instant; but he, careful for his own interests put his hand over my jaw and silenced me. Come with me now - and I pledge my life on it. If I mislead you, then slay me by the meanest death you know."

Penelope responded: "Even your storied wisdom, mother dear, hardly equips you to interpret the designs of the eternal Gods. Howbeit let us away to my son, for I would see the suitors lying in death; and their slayer." She was going down as she spoke, her heart in a turmoil of debate whether to keep her distance while she examined her dear lord, or go straight up at once to kiss his head and clasp his hand. So when at length she came in across the stone threshold it was to take a seat in the firelight facing Odysseus, but over against the further wall. He sat at the base of a tall pillar, waiting with drooping eyelids to hear his stately consort cry out when she caught sight of him. But she sat there in a long silence, with bewildered heart. One moment she would look and see him in his face; and the next moment fail to see him there, by reason of the foul rags he wore - till Telemachus named her in disapproval. "Mother mine," he cried, "unmotherly mother and cruel-hearted, how dare you hold aloof from father, instead of running to sit by his side and ply him with questions? No other woman could in cold blood keep herself apart, when her man got home after twenty years of toil and sorrow. Your heart remains harder than a stone."

But Penelope explained: "Child, my heart is dazed. I have no force to speak, or ask, or even stare upon his face. If this is Odysseus in truth and at last, then shall we soon know each other better than well by certain private signs between us two, hidden from the rest of the world." At which the glorious long-suffering Odysseus smiled and said hastily to Telemachus, "After that, leave your mother alone for the test in her room with me presently. Soon she will come to fuller understanding. The filth of my body, these shabby clothes - such things make her overlook me and deny it can be myself. Meanwhile you and I must discuss our best policy. In a community the slaying of even a single man with few surviving connections to avenge him entails outlawry from home and family; and we have been killing best part of the young men of Ithaca, its pillars of state. I would have you ponder it" - but Telemachus rejoined, "Let that be your business, father dear. They call you the clearest-headed man alive, supreme in your generation. We others will support you whole-heartedly: and I fancy whatever our strength may be, courage at least will not fail us."

Said Odysseus, "Then hear what I think best. Wash now and dress, and have the house-women deck themselves. Then let the inspired minstrel with his resounding lyre lead off for us in a dance so merry that all hearing it from outside the walls, neighbours or passers-by, will say, 'There is a wedding toward.' Thus rumour of the suitors' deaths will not spread across the city before we have got away to our tree-clad country place, there to weigh what means of advantage the Olympian may offer to our hands." They had all listened intently and moved to do his bidding. They washed and put on tunics: the women were arrayed: the revered musician took his hollow lyre and awoke their appetite for rhythm and the gay dance, till the great house around them rang with the measured foot-falls of men and well-gowned women. Outside the house one and another hearing the harmony did say, "I swear someone has wedded the much-courted queen! Callous she was, and lacked the fortitude and constancy to keep the house of her lawful husband until he came." Such was the gossip, in ignorance of the real event.

Meanwhile, within, old Eurynome washed and anointed Odysseus, draping upon him a fair tunic and cloak, while Athene crowned him with an especial splendour that filled the eye; she made the hair of his head curl downward floridly, like bloom of hyacinth. As a craftsman lavishly endowed with skill by Hephaestus and Pallas washes his silver-work with fine gold until its mastery shines out, so the grace from Athene glorified his head and shoulders and made his figure, when he left the bath-chamber, seem divine. He retook his former throne opposite his wife and declared, "Proud lady, the heart that the lords of Olympus gave you is harder than any true woman's. None but you would pitilessly repulse the husband who had won his way home after twenty years of toil. Old dame, favour me now by arranging my bed somewhere apart, that I may lie solitary: for the heart in her breast has turned to iron."

Said Penelope with reserve, "Proud lord, I neither set myself too high nor esteem you too low: nor am I confused out of mind. It is that I remember only too well how you were when you sailed from Ithaca in your long-oared ship. So Eurycleia, when you make up his great bed for him, move it outside the bridal chamber that he built so firmly. Have forth the heavy bed-frame and pile it high with fleeces and rugs and glossy blankets." This she said to draw her husband out; and indeed Odysseus was ruffled into protesting to his wife, " Woman, this order pains my heart. Who has changed my bed? It would task the cunningest man - forbye no God happened to shift it in whim - for not the stoutest might alive could heave it up directly. That bed's design held a marvellous feature of my own contriving. Within our court had sprung a stem of olive, bushy, long in the leaf, vigorous; the bole of it column-thick. Round it I plotted my bed-chamber, walled entire with fine-jointed ashlar and soundly roofed. After adding joinery doors, fitting very close, I then polled the olive's spreading top and trimmed its stump from the root up, dressing it so smooth with my tools and so knowingly that I got it plumb, to serve for bed-post just as it stood. With this for main member (boring it with my auger wherever required) I went on to frame up the bed, complete; inlaying it with gold, silver and ivory and lacing it across with ox-hide thongs, dyed blood-purple. That was the style of it, woman, as I explain: but of course I do not know whether the bed stands as it did; or has someone sawn through the olive stem and altered it? "

As Odysseus had run on, furnishing her with proof too solid for rejection, her knees trembled, and her heart. She burst into tears, she ran to him, she flung her arms about his neck and kissed his head and cried, "My Odysseus, forgive me this time too, you who were of old more comprehending than any man of men. The Gods gave us sorrow for our portion, and in envy denied us the happiness of being together throughout our days, from the heat of youth to the shadow of old age. Be not angry with me, therefore, nor resentful, because at first sight I failed to fondle you thus. The heart within me ever shook for terror of being cheated by some man's lie, so innumerable are those who plot to serve greedy ends. See, it was that way our life's sorrow first began. Argive Helen, the daughter of Zeus, did not in her own imagination invent the ruinous folly that let a strange man lie with her in love and intercourse. A God it was that tempted her astray. Never would she have done it had she known how the warrior sons of the Achaeans would fetch her back once more to her native land. But now with those authentic details of our bed, seen by no human eye but yours, mine and my maid's (Actor's daughter, given me by my father before I came here and ever the sole keeper of our closed bedchamber-door) you have convinced my heart, slow though you may think it to believe."

This word increased by so much his inclination to tears that he wept, even with his arms about his faithful, lovely wife. So at sea when Poseidon has swamped a good ship by making her the target of his winds and mighty waves, the sight of land appears wonderfully kind to the few men of her crew who have escaped by swimming. How they swarm ashore from the grey sea, their bodies all crusted with salt spume, but happy, happy, for the evil over-passed! Just so was she happy to have her husband once more in sight and clasped in her white arms which lingered round his neck, unable to let him go. Rosy dawn might have found them thus, still weeping, only that grey-eyed Athene otherwise ordained. She retarded the night a long while in transit and made Dawn, the golden-throned, tarry by the eastern Ocean's edge; not harnessing Lampus and Phaethon, the sharp-hooved young horses that carry her and bring daylight to the world.

At last provident Odysseus said to his wife: "My dear one, we have not yet reached the issue of our trials. In store for us is immeasurable toil prescribed, and needs must I fulfil it to the end. The day I went down into Hades' realm, the ghost of Teiresias warned me of everything when I asked after my home-coming and my company's. Wherefore let us to bed, dear wife, there at long last to renew ourselves with the sweet meed of sleep." To which Penelope answered, "Bed is yours the instant your heart wills, for have not the Gods restored you to your own great house and native land? But now that Heaven has put it in your mind, tell me of this ordeal remaining. Later I must know; and forewarned is forearmed."

Odysseus in reply assured her, "Brave spirit, I shall tell you, hiding nothing: but why press me insistently for knowledge that will no more please you than me ? He gave me word that I must take my shapely oar and wander through many places of men, until I find a people that know not the sea and have no salt to season their food, a people for whom purple-prowed ships are unknown things, as too the shaped oars which wing their flight. An infallible token of them he told me, and I make you wise to it. When another wayfarer passes me and says I have a winnowing fan on my stout shoulder, even there am I to strike my oar into the ground and offer for rich sacrifice to King Poseidon a ram, a bull and a ramping boar. Thence I may turn homeward, to celebrate the Gods of high heaven with hecatombs of victims, and all things else in order due. While death shall come for me from the sea, very mildly, ending me amidst a contented people after failing years have brought me low. He assured me all this would be fulfilled." And Penelope's wise comment was, "If the Gods will make old age your happier time, then there is prospect of your ill-luck passing."

Thus they chatted while Eurynome and the nurse under the flaring torchlight arranged the soft coverlets upon the bed. When they had busily made it comfortable and deep, the old nurse returned to her sleeping-place, while Eurynome the chambermaid conducted them bedward with her torch. She ushered them to their chamber and withdrew; and gladsomely they performed their bed-rites in the old fashion: Telemachus and the herdsmen staying their feet from the dance and staying the women, so that all slept in the darkling halls.

After the first thrill of love had passed, the pair began to exchange histories for mutual entertainment, the fairest of women telling what she had put up with in the house, watching the suitors' greedy swarming, and the multitudinous sheep and cattle they slew for sake of her, and all the broached jars of wine: while heaven-born Odysseus told of every hurt he had done to others and the woes himself had suffered, detailing thing by thing; and eagerly she heard him, slumber never weighing down her eyelids until all was told. He began with the conquest of the Cicones, thence to Lotos-land, and of what Cyclops did and the price exacted for his cruelly-devoured friends: then how he got welcome and help from Aeolus, but unavailingly, for further storms drove him sadly adrift: also of Telepylus, where the Laestrygonians destroyed all the ships and crews except his own: next of Circe's wiles and of his ship's voyaging to Hades to consult Teiresias, where he saw all his dead company and the mother who had cherished him when young: then of the Sirens' song, the dashers, Scylla and Charybdis those fatal ones: of his crew's killing the cattle of the Sun wherefore Zeus's lightning destroyed the ship and all aboard but himself: of Ogygia and his kindly durance in the cave with Calypso whose promised immortality did not seduce his love: of his pains to reach Phaeacia where he got worshipful hospitality, gifts and transport home: —and as the tale ended sleep fell gently upon him, relaxing his limbs and delivering his mind from care.

Athene was not at the end of her plans: the instant she judged Odysseus satisfied with love and sleeping she let golden Dawn rise from the Ocean to light mankind. With her rose Odysseus and held forth to his wife: "Lady mine, hitherto we have both travailed exhaustively, you in lamenting the hindrances to my return, I in the sorrows wherewith Zeus and the other Gods afflicted me, homesick, far away: but now that we have both reached the bed of our desire, do you take my indoor interests under your especial care. As for the sheep butchered by the impudent suitors, I shall go raid a-many, and more will the Achaeans give me till the sheep-folds are full. But my first journey must be to the plantations of our farm where I shall see the good father who has been in grief for me. One prior consideration, however, I would put to your most subtle mind, Lady. Upon the sunrise rumour will run abroad of the suitors I slew within. So get above stairs with all your women and sit there, seeing and questioning none."

He braced the splendid arms about his shoulders, called Telemachus, the neatherd and the swineherd, and had them all take weapons of war in their hands - not that they required urging. They did on their brazen breast-pieces, opened the doors and marched out, Odysseus in the van. Day lay wide upon the face of the earth, but Athene hid them in obscurity and led them swiftly from the town.

Book 24 >>

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