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A GODDESS INTERVENES
Sing in me, Muse, and through me tell the story of that man skilled in all ways of contending, the wanderer, harried for years on end, after he plundered the stronghold on the proud height of Troy.
He saw the townlands
and learned the minds of many distant men, and weathered many bitter nights and days in his deep heart at sea, while he fought only to save his life, to bring his shipmates home. But not by will nor valor could he save them, for their own recklessness destroyed them allchildren and fools, they killed and feasted on the cattle of Lord Hlios, the Sun, and he who moves all day through heaven took from their eyes the dawn of their return.
Of these adventures, Muse, daughter of Zeus, tell us in our time, lift the great song again. Begin when all the rest who left behind them headlong death in battle or at sea had long ago returned, while he alone still hungered for home and wife. Her ladyship Kalypso clung to him in her sea-hollowed cavesa nymph, immortal and most beautiful, who craved him for her own.
And when long years and seasons
wheeling brought around that point of time ordained for him to make his passage homeward, trials and dangers, even so, attended him even in Ithaka, near those he loved. Yet all the gods had pitied Lord Odysseus, all but Poseidon, raging cold and rough against the brave king till he came ashore at last on his own land.
But now that god
had gone far off among the sunburnt races, most remote of men, at earth's two verges, in sunset lands and lands of the rising sun, to be regaled by smoke of thighbones burning, haunches of rams and bulls, a hundred fold. He lingered delighted at the banquet side.
In the bright hall of Zeus upon Olympos the other gods were all at home, and Zeus, the father of gods and men, made conversation. For he had meditated on Aigsthos, dead by the hand of Agammnon's son, Orests, and spoke his thought aloud before them all:
"My word, how mortals take the gods to task! All their afflictions come from us, we hear. And what of their own failings? Greed and folly double the suffering in the lot of man. See how Aigsthos, for his double portion, stole Agammnon's wife and killed the soldier on his homecoming day. And yet Aigsthos knew that his own doom lay in this. We gods had warned him, sent down Herms Argeiphonts, our most observant courier, to say: 'Don't kill the man, don't touch his wife, or face a reckoning with Orests the day he comes of age and wants his patrimony.' Friendly advicebut would Aigsthos take it? Now he has paid the reckoning in full."
The grey-eyed goddess Athena replied to Zeus:
"O Majesty, O Father of us all, that man is in the dust indeed, and justly. So perish all who do what he had done. But my own heart is broken for Odysseus, the master mind of war, so long a castaway upon an island in the running sea; a wooded island, in the sea's middle, and there's a goddess in the place, the daughter of one whose baleful mind knows all the deeps of the blue seaAtlas, who holds the columns that bear from land the great thrust of the sky. His daughter will not let Odysseus go, poor mournful man; she keeps on coaxing him with her beguiling talk, to turn his mind from Ithaka. But such desire is in him merely to see the hearthsmoke leaping upward from his own island, that he longs to die. Are you not moved by this, Lord of Olympos? Had you no pleasure from Odysseus' offerings beside the Argive ships, on Troy's wide seaboard? O Zeus, what do you hold against him now?"
To this the summoner of cloud replied:
"My child, what strange remarks you let escape you. Could I forget that kingly man, Odysseus? There is no mortal half so wise; no mortal gave so much to the lords of open sky. Only the god who laps the land in water, Poseidon, bears the fighter an old grudge since he poked out the eye of Polyphemos, brawniest of the Kyklopes. Who bore that giant lout? Thosa, daughter of Phorkys, an offshore sea lord: for this nymph had lain with Lord Poseidon in her hollow caves. Naturally, the god, after the blindingmind you, he does not kill the man; he only buffets him away from home. But come now, we are all at leisure here,let us take up this matter of his return, that he may sail. Poseidon must relent for being quarrelsome will get him nowhere, one god, flouting the will of all the gods."
The grey-eyed goddess Athena answered him:
"O Majesty, O Father of us all, if it now please the blissful gods that wise Odysseus reach his home again, let the Wayfinder, Herms, cross the sea to the island of Oggia; let him tell our fixed intent to the nymph with pretty braids, and let the steadfast man depart for home. For my part, I shall visit Ithaka to put more courage in the son, and rouse him to call an assembly of the islanders, Akhaian gentlemen with flowing hair. He must warn off that wolf pack of the suitors who prey upon his flocks and dusky cattle. I'll send him to the mainland then, to Sparta by the sand beach of Pylos; let him find news of his dear father where he may and win his own renown about the world."
She bent to tie her beautiful sandals on, ambrosial, golden, that carry her over water or over endless land on the wings of the wind, and took the great haft of her spear in handthat bronzeshod spear this child of Power can use to break in wrath long battle lines of fighters.
Flashing down from Olympos' height she went to stand in Ithaka, before the Manor, just at the doorsill of the court. She seemed a family friend, the Taphian captain, Mentes, waiting, with a light hand on her spear. Before her eyes she found the lusty suitors casting dice inside the gate, at ease on hides of oxenoxen they had killed.
Their own retainers made a busy sight with houseboys mixing bowls of water and wine, or sopping water up in sponges, wiping tables to be placed about in hall, or butchering whole carcasses for roasting.
Long before anyone else, the prince Telmakhos now caught sight of Athenafor he, too, was sitting there unhappy among the suitors, a boy, daydreaming. What if his great father came from the unknown world and drove these men like dead leaves through the place, recovering honor and lordship in his own domains? Then he who dreamed in the crowd gazed out at Athena.
Straight to the door he came, irked with himself to think a visitor had been kept there waiting, and took her right hand, grasping with his left her tall bronze-bladed spear. Then he said warmly:
"Greetings, stranger! Welcome to our feast. There will be time to tell your errand later."
He led the way, and Pallas Athena followed into the lofty hall. The boy reached up and thrust her spear high in a polished rack against a pillar where tough spear on spear of the old soldier, his father, stood in order. Then, shaking out a splendid coverlet, he seated her on a throne with footrestall finely carvedand drew his painted armchair near her, at a distance from the rest. To be amid the din, the suitors' riot, would ruin his guest's appetite, he thought, and he wished privacy to ask for news about his father, gone for years.
brought them a silver finger bowl and filled it out of a beautiful spouting golden jug, then drew a polished table to their side.
The larder mistress with her tray came by and served them generously. A carver lifted cuts of each roast meat to put on trenchers before the two. He gave them cups of gold, and these the steward as he went his rounds filled and filled again.
Now came the suitors,
young bloods trooping in to their own seats on thrones or easy chairs. Attendants poured water over their fingers, while the maids piled baskets full of brown loaves near at hand, and houseboys brimmed the bowls with wine. Now they laid hands upon the ready feast and thought of nothing more. Not till desire for food and drink had left them were they mindful of dance and song, that are the grace of feasting. A herald gave a shapely cithern harp to Phmios, whom they compelled to singand what a storm he plucked upon the strings for prelude! High and clear the song arose.
Telmakhos now spoke to grey-eyed Athena, his head bent close, so no one else might hear:
"Dear guest, will this offend you, if I speak? It is easy for these men to like these things, harping and song; they have an easy life, scot free, eating the livestock of anothera man whose bones are rotting somewhere now, white in the rain on dark earth where they lie, or tumbling in the groundswell of the sea. If he returned, if these men ever saw him, faster legs they'd pray for, to a man, and not more wealth in handsome robes or gold. But he is lost; he came to grief and perished, and there's no help for us in someone's hoping he still may come; that sun has long gone down. But tell me now, and put it for me clearlywho are you? Where do you come from? Where's your home and family? What kind of ship is yours,and what course brought you here? Who are your sailors? I don't suppose you walked here on the sea. Another thingthis too I ought to knowis Ithaka new to you, or were you ever a guest here in the old days? Far and near friends knew this house; for he whose home it was had much acquaintance in the world."
the grey-eyed goddess answered:
"As you ask,
I can account most clearly for myself. Ments I'm called, son of the veteran Ankhalos; I rule seafaring Taphos. I came by ship, with a ship's company, sailing the winedark sea for ports of call on alien shoresto Tmes, for copper, bringing bright bars of iron in exchange. My ship is moored on a wild strip of coast in Reithron Bight, under the wooded mountain. Years back, my family and yours were friends, as Lord Larts knows; ask when you see him. I hear the old man comes to town no longer, stays up country, ailing, with only one old woman to prepare his meat and drink when pain and stiffness take him in the legs from working on his terraced plot, his vineyard. As for my sailing herethe tale was that your father had come home, therefore I came. I see the gods delay him. But never in this world is Odysseus deadonly detained somewhere on the wide sea, upon some island, with wild islanders; savages, they must be, to hold him captive. Well, I will forecast for you, as the gods put the strong feeling in meI see it all, and I'm no prophet, no adept in bird-signs. He will not, now, be long away from Ithaka,his father's dear land; though he be in chains he'll scheme a way to come; he can do anything.
But tell me this now, make it clear to me: You must be, by your looks, Odysseus' boy? The way your head is shaped, the fine eyesyes, how like him! We took meals like this together many a time, before he sailed for Troy with all the lords of Argos in the ships. I have not seen him since, nor has he seen me."
And thoughtfully Telmakhos replied:
"Friend, let me put it in the plainest way. My mother says I am his son; I know not surely. Who has known his own engendering? I wish at least I had some happy man as father, growing old in his own housebut unknown death and silence are the fate of him that, since you ask, they call my father."
Then grey-eyed Athena said:
"The gods decreed
no lack of honor in this generation: such is the son Penelope bore in you. But tell me now, and make this clear to me: what gathering, what feast is this? Why here? A wedding? Revel? At the expense of all? Not that, I think. How arrogant they seem, these gluttons, making free here in your house! A sensible man would blush to be among them."
To this Telmakhos answered:
"Friend, now that you ask about these matters, our house was always princely, a great house, as long as he of whom we speak remained here. But evil days the gods have brought upon it, making him vanish, as they have, so strangely.
Were his death known, I could not feel such painif he had died of wounds in Trojan country or in the arms of friends, after the war. They would have made a tomb for him, the Akhaians, and I should have all honor as his son. Instead, the whirlwinds got him, and no glory. He's gone, no sign, no word of him; and I inherit trouble and tearsand not for him alone, the gods have laid such other burdens on me. For now the lords of the islands, Doulkhion and Sam, wooded Zaknthos, and rocky Ithaka's young lords as well, are here courting my mother; and they use our house as if it were a house to plunder. Spurn them she dare not, though she hates that marriage, nor can she bring herself to choose among them. Meanwhile they eat their way through all we have, and when they will, they can demolish me."
Pallas Athena was disturbed, and said:
"Ah, bitterly you need Odysseus, then! High time he came back to engage these upstarts. I wish we saw him standing helmeted there in the doorway, holding shield and spear, looking the way he did when I first knew him. That was at our house, where he drank and feasted after he left Ephyra, homeward bound from a visit to the son of Mrmeris, Ilos. He took his fast ship down the gulf that time for a fatal drug to dip his arrows in and poison the bronze points; but young Ilos turned him away, fearing the gods' wrath. My father gave it, for he loved him well. I wish these men could meet the man of those days! They'd know their fortune quickly: a cold bed. Aye! but it lies upon the gods' great knees whether he can return and force a reckoning in his own house, or not.
If I were you,
I should take steps to make these men disperse. Listen, now, and attend to what I say: at daybreak call the islanders to assembly, and speak your will, and call the gods to witness: the suitors must go scattering to their homes. Then here's a course for you, if you agree: get a sound craft afloat with twenty oars and go abroad for news of your lost fatherperhaps a traveller's tale, or rumored fame issued from Zeus abroad in the world of men. Talk to that noble sage at Pylos, Nestor, then go to Menelos, the red-haired king at Sparta, last man home of all the Akhaians. If you should learn your father is alive and coming home, you could hold out a year. Or if you learn that he is dead and gone, then you can come back to your own dear country and raise a mound for him, and burn his gear, with all the funeral honors due the man, and give your mother to another husband.
When you have done all this, or seen it done, it will be time to ponder concerning these contenders in your househow you should kill them, outright or by guile. You need not bear this insolence of theirs, you are a child no longer. Have you heard what glory young Orests won when he cut down that two-faced man, Aigsthos, for killing his illustrious father? Dear friend, you are tall and well set-up, I see; be braveyou, tooand men in times to come will speak of you respectfully.
Now I must join my ship;
my crew will grumble if I keep them waiting. Look to yourself; remember what I told you."Telmakhos replied:
"Friend, you have done me
kindness, like a father to his son, and I shall not forget your counsel ever. You must get back to sea, I know, but come take a hot bath, and rest; accept a gift to make your heart lift up when you embarksome precious thing, and beautiful, from me, a keepsake, such as dear friends give their friends."
But the grey-eyed goddess Athena answered him:
"Do not delay me, for I love the sea ways. As for the gift your heart is set on giving, let me accept it on my passage home, and you shall have a choice gift in exchange."
With this Athena left him as a bird rustles upward, off and gone. But as she went she put new spirit in him, a new dream of his father, clearer now, so that he marvelled to himself divining that a god had been his guest. Then godlike in his turn he joined the suitors.
The famous minstrel still sang on before them, and they sat still and listened, while he sang that bitter song, the Homecoming of Akhaianshow by Athena's will they fared from Troy; and in her high room careful Penlop, Ikarios' daughter, heeded the holy song. She came, then, down the long stairs of her house, this beautiful lady, with two maids in train attending her as she approached the suitors; and near a pillar of the roof she paused, her shining veil drawn over across her cheeks, the two girls close to her and still, and through her tears spoke to the noble minstrel:
"Phmios, other spells you know, high deeds of gods and heroes, as the poets tell them; let these men hear some other; let them sit silent and drink their wine. But sing no more this bitter tale that wears my heart away. It opens in me again the wound of longing for one incomparable, ever in my mindhis fame all Hellas knows, and midland Argos."
But Telmakhos intervened and said to her:
"Mother, why do you grudge our own dear minstrel joy of song, wherever his thought may lead? Poets are not to blame, but Zeus who gives what fate he pleases to adventurous men. Here is no reason for reproof: to sing the news of the Danaans! Men like best a song that rings like morning on the ear. But you must nerve yourself and try to listen. Odysseus was not the only one at Troy never to know the day of his homecoming. Others, how many others, lost their lives!"
The lady gazed in wonder and withdrew, her son's clear wisdom echoing in her mind. But when she had mounted to her rooms again with her two handmaids, then she fell to weeping for Odysseus, her husband. Grey-eyed Athena presently cast a sweet sleep on her eyes.
Meanwhile the din grew loud in the shadowy hall as every suitor swore to lie beside her, but Telmakhos turned now and spoke to them:
"You suitors of my mother! Insolent men, now we have dined, let us have entertainment and no more shouting. There can be no pleasure so fair as giving heed to a great minstrel like ours, whose voice itself is pure delight. At daybreak we shall sit down in assembly and I shall tell youtake it as you willyou are to leave this hall. Go feasting elsewhere, consume your own stores. Turn and turn about, use one another's houses. If you choose to slaughter one man's livestock and pay nothing, this is rapine; and by the eternal gods I beg Zeus you shall get what you deserve: a slaughter here, and nothing paid for it!"
By now their teeth seemed fixed in their under-lips, Telmakhos' bold speaking stunned them so. Antnos, Eupeithes' son, made answer:
"Telmakhos, no doubt the gods themselves are teaching you this high and mighty manner. Zeus forbid you should be king in Ithaka, though you are eligible as your father's son."
Telmakhos kept his head and answered him:
"Antnos, you may not like my answer, but I would happily be king, if Zeus conferred the prize. Or do you think it wretched? I shouldn't call it bad at all. A king will be respected, and his house will flourish. But there are eligible men enough, heaven knows, on the island, young and old, and one of them perhaps may come to power after the death of King Odysseus. All I insist on is that I rule our house and rule the slaves my father won for me."
Eurymakhos, Plybos' son, replied:
"Telmakhos, it is on the gods' great knees who will be king in sea-girt Ithaka. But keep your property, and rule your house, and let no man, against your will, make havoc of your possessions, while there's life on Ithaka. But now, my brave young friend, a question or two about the stranger. Where did your guest come from? Of what country?
Where does he say his home is, and his family? Has he some message of your father's coming, or business of his own, asking a favor? He left so quickly that one hadn't time to meet him, but he seemed a gentleman."
Telmakhos made answer, cool enough:
"Eurmakhos, there's no hope for my father. I would not trust a message, if one came, nor any forecaster my mother invites to tell by divination of time to come. My guest, however, was a family friend, Ments, son of Ankhialos. He rules the Taphian people of the sea."
So said Telmakhos, though in his heart he knew his visitor had been immortal. But now the suitors turned to play again with dance and haunting song. They stayed till nightfall, indeed black night came on them at their pleasure, and half asleep they left, each for his home.
Telmakhos' bedroom was above the court, a kind of tower, with a view all round; here he retired to ponder in the silence, while carrying brands of pine alight beside him Eurkleia went padding, sage and old. Her father had been Ops, Peisnor's son, and she had been a purchase of Larts when she was still a blossoming girl. He gave the price of twenty oxen for her, kept her as kindly in his house as his own wife, though, for the sake of peace, he never touched her. No servant loved Telmakhos as she did, she who had nursed him in his infancy. So now she held the light, as he swung open the door of his neat freshly painted chamber. There he sat down, pulling his tunic off, and tossed it into the wise old woman's hands.
She folded it and smoothed it, and then hung it beside the inlaid bed upon a bar; then, drawing the door shut by its silver handle she slid the catch in place and went away. And all night long, wrapped in the finest fleece, he took in thought the course Athena gave him.
Introduction copyright 1998 by D. S. Carne-Ross