Read an Excerpt
THE FIRST BOOK
The Council of the Gods
The Invocation to the Muse, greeting Her and the gods’ meeting.
Athene ordered to start Odysseus Homeward and the visit Of the goddess to Telemachus.
Sing, Muse,1 of that wanderer who sundered
The sacred walls of Troy and traveled
Many sea-lanes while struggling for his
Life and his men’s return. His men, who
In their folly slew and consumed the holy
Cattle of the Sun, Hyperion,2 who
Therefore spurned their journey home.
Now, Muse, begin the tale of that man
Of many masquerades. Sing to us how he,
Bereft of hearth and home, pined for his wife
In hallowed Calypso’s cave, the divine Nymph,
Eager him to wed and bed, but when
The circling seasons ran their wheel, they spun
The thread for his return to Ithaca.
Yet the gods determined that he would not
Find his peace at home until all the gods
Took pity upon him. At last all did,
Save Poseidon, who grimly blocked the noble
Wanderer until the man of masquerades
Finally reached his native land, there to
Find grim designs waiting for his return.
Sing, Muse, of that man of men and tell me
The story of the man whose own wisdom
And trickery wounded him and caused him
To languish far from the loving arms of
His wife. Sing to me the story of that
Wanderer who sacked Troy and sundered her
Heaven-built walls, only to be forced to roam
Uncharted seas and visitstrange lands
Where he faced many grueling trials.
Sing to me of his great adventures among nations
Of all manners, minds, fashions, and traditions.
Sing to me of a man, abandoned by the gods
After his men slew the sun god’s sacred cattle,
Who still proves himself worthy of song and story.
Sing, O Muse, of him in his glory. How after ten
Long years at Troy trying to storm the many-
Towered city of Ilium, the gods
Denied Odysseus3 return passage
Home to his loving wife while other
Comrades were led to safe haven where
They sleep free from the horror of war and
The sea. Tell me how the Nymph Calypso,
Yearning for his love, trapped him by magic
In her caves, making him her lord and spouse.
Sing, Muse, why Poseidon, the god of the sea—
Despite destiny—blocks his passage home.
Explain why Poseidon spurned Zeus’s council
Determining Odysseus’s fate and
Sped to Ethiopia at the end
Of the earth, feasting at his festival
While the other gods obeyed the summons
Of mighty Zeus. Let us listen to Zeus’s words:
“Vain, petulant men! Yes, that’s what they are! All of them! Look at them playing their games, misusing their freedom, and blaming their sins on wicked fate. Fate! And blaming us for their crimes! I tell you that I will not tolerate these floundering fools for long! Look! Look there! Do you see what I mean? Adulterous Aegisthus making love to Agamemnon’s wife and scheming that king’s slaughter!4 Listen to the cry of Agamemnon, ‘Oh, I am killed by a mortal blow!’ Why does man sin knowing he will suffer? I even sent Hermes (who slaughtered Argus—but enough of that waggling tale) to Aegisthus before he struck the mortal blow, telling him to beware of desecrating the marriage bed. Yet he ignored my warning. Orestes, the son of Agamemnon, wreaks vengeance on Aegisthus now. Blood war ensues! Oh, these mortal fools! Oh! My head, my head!” moaned Zeus, rubbing the heels of his hands hard against his temples.
Athene rose, her graceful form and azure eyes drawing covetous glances from the others, and said, “Now, Father, son of the Titan Cronus,5 king of kings, the well of power upon the earth—”
“Yes, yes. Out with it,” Zeus growled, glowering from beneath heavily beetled brows. “Nuts and nails! I know you! Wandering words where one will do! Speak!”
“All right.” Athene drew herself up, her bold beauty hammering pulses. She shrugged. “All right. Aegisthus is fate past. Nothing can be done, and Agamemnon’s land is a blood ground. So be it! Why wail over its fate? The die is cast: Aegisthus deserves his death. But my heart aches for Odysseus’s sorrows. Why should he suffer because proud Poseidon pouts, refusing to lift his yoke and forgive Odysseus for the innocent insult he flung at the sea god? Now Odysseus suffers in Calypso’s arms,6 daughter of Atlas,7 upon her sylvan island, where she has entrapped him with sorcery and beauty—”
“Aye, we should all suffer such pains!” one god broke in. The others roared in mirth while Athene cast a disapproving eye upon the author of the ribald jest.
“Now,” she said softly, “Calypso’s wizard father, the author of many jests himself, shoulders the colossal columns that separate heaven and earth.” The offender averted his eyes, reddened, gulping nectar to conceal his chagrin. “Yes, great Odysseus languishes on a rocky isle amid the thunder of great Poseidon’s roaring waves. A lesser man—thrall to Calypso’s charms—would be content, but Odysseus remembers his chimney smoke, the bleat of his sheep, and the warmth of Penelope’s arms.8 For seven years Calypso has sought to soothe his troubled mind, vanquish memory, and smother in his breast all thoughts of Ithaca. For seven years he is lost to hearth and home because he has angered one of us. Yet many times in Troy he honored you, Father, with burnt sacrifices. Still, he is denied Ithaca.”
The cloud-trembler glowered, but she boldly stared him down. He sighed and said, “All right. What words fly so boldly from your lips! Pale daughter, how can I not recall Odysseus? No more resourceful man treads the earth or has so enriched the Immortals enthroned on high. His gifts are vast, but remember he is bold. It is he who stole the Cyclops’s glaring eye. This same Polyphemus, I might add, who is the son of Poseidon from the sea Nymph Thoosa, daughter to the sea king Phorcys, who lay with Poseidon in his hollow caves and bore this wheel-eyed Cyclops to the god of storms. This is why Poseidon torments the great Odysseus. But”—he raised his hands, stifling Athene’s lips—“let us reason and seek to ease the torment of Odysseus since no one god can prevail against a man despite his vaunted powers.”
The gray-eyed maid laughed and cried, “Father and adored king! Let all who reside on Olympus make the wandering Greek their public care and succor his misery. Let Hermes carry our message to the golden-tressed Nymph on Ogygia that it is our will that she no longer hold him fast. I will travel to Ithaca and seek out his son who, despite his green, unpracticed years, shows spirit—although he is hot-blooded and headstrong when caution should work its way through his words. I will advise him to assemble Ithaca’s Greeks and denounce his mother’s suitors who devour their sheep and oxen and desire her for their pride.” She gave a short, ugly laugh. “The suitors will, of course, like foxes whose noses are filled with a vixen’s scent, scorn the words of Telemachus.9 I will counsel him to sail to Sparta and to Pylos to gather news of his wandering father. His search for his father far from Ithaca will draw its people to him. This I will do! You do your part!”10
And she placed her glittering golden sandals upon her alabaster feet, those sandals fledged with ambrosial plumes with which she flies like the wind, and wielding her army-slaughtering spear, she soared from the halls of Olympus to the rocky shores of Ithaca. There, close at Odysseus’s gates, she shape-shifted her lovely form into the lumpy muscled form of Anchialus’s son Mentes, the king of Taphia. She leaned upon her spear, disdaining the suitors lounging on oxhides. They slew those beasts before the gates, diced, drank, roared, and laughed. Serving wenches moved about them, sponging tables, dodging the drunken hands that groped for their breasts and buttocks.
Amid all this sat Telemachus, scorning their drunkenness. His heart ached for his father’s return to scourge these beasts from his palace door. Now, in his mind, he imagines that violent return of Odysseus and hears the thunder of heaven. But in the middle of his daydreams, he sees Athene, disguised, standing alone at the gate and, rising, hastens to her.
“I beg your pardon,” he said hastily. “Whoever you are, please forgive this…this…”He cast about him for words and at a loss shook his head. “Enter. Please. You are most welcome. Join our feasting and tell us why you have come to my home.”
Saying so, he took her spear and placed it against a column where stood many of Odysseus’s spears, dusty with disuse. He led her to a richly embroidered seat far from the boasting suitors. Placing a footstool for her feet, he signaled a maidservant to bring them water in a gorgeous golden pitcher. He took the pitcher from the maidservant and filled a silver basin for her to wash her hands. Another servant brought fresh bread and clear wine for them, and the meat carver sliced the meat free from fat and placed it on a platter before them.11
Some of the rude suitors saw how this newcomer was being treated and sauntered over to take their places on rough-hewn oaken benches near to them, sprawled, legs akimbo, and eyed the newcomer blearily while dribbling wine through gnarled and twisted beards.
With a gesture of distaste, Telemachus motioned for them to be served too, and serving wenches swinging saucy hips hastily brought in baskets filled with coarse-ground bread and set them before the bold wooers, who quickly stuffed their mouths with rich and greasy meat, wiping their hands and fingers on soiled tunics.
“Bring more wine!” one bawled drunkenly and closed one eye in an obscene wink. “And bring in the girls and let us have a bit of wiggle and giggle, eh, boys? What do you say?”
Shouts of agreement followed his words, and a servant brought a harp finely tuned and thrust it into the hands of Phemius. Reluctantly, the famed singer touched his fingers lightly to the warbling wires and began to sing.
“Blustering braggarts!” Telemachus growled, then quickly apologized to Athene. “Forgive me. That was most unmannerly. I am afraid that I have behaved most boorishly.” He could not help but cast a disapproving eye at the revels beginning before them. “But I hope that you will not be offended by these…others,” he finished lamely. “I’m afraid that singing comes cheaply enough for those who do not have to pay the harpist. They forget that this feast has been paid for by one whose white bones lie wasting in some unknown land. And,” he muttered beneath his breath, “if he were here, he would put their fat buttocks to flight sorely enough.” Then, raising his voice and forcing a smile to his young lips, he said, “But enough of my troubles. Please tell me where you are from and what brings you to Ithaca. Are you a stranger to my father’s house or have you been here before?” Then a thought dabbed at him. His eyes narrowed. “You are not a would-be contender for my mother’s hand, are you?”
Athene smiled and dabbled her fingers daintly in the silver finger bowl placed before her and carefully cleaned them with a white damask cloth. “I am Mentes, son of Anchialus, king of the Taphians. I have come with my ship and men across the wine-dark seas on a voyage bound for Temesa with a cargo of iron I wish to trade for copper. My ship rests at anchor in the harbor of Rheithron under Neius’s wooded slopes. Our fathers were friends, as old Laertes, your grandfather, will tell you if you should seek him out. But I understand he seldom comes to town these days, preferring to live by himself in the country with only an old woman to care for him when he comes in from the day’s heat after pottering around in his vineyard. I came because I was told your father had returned home, but”—she looked around the hall with contempt—“I can see that was only the scuttlebutt of wayward rowers more limber with tongue than hands. Mind”—she raised her hands warningly—“I am no prophet, but I have heard from the tongues of those who are that he languishes in some wood somewhere, bearing the inflictions of the gods. I thought he might have made his way here, but he has not. That doesn’t mean he won’t. No iron fetters have been forged that could keep him away! Mark my words upon that, my young friend! Patience! Patience!”
Telemachus blinked away bright tears and said, “I thank you for your words, Mentes. But I wonder about my father and think that he must be dead, or else why has he not returned?”
“Stuff and nonsense!” Athene said hotly. “Dead? Your father?” She frowned. “You are Telemachus, the son of Odysseus, correct?”
“Yes,” Telemachus sighed. “So my mother tells me. I am the son of that star-crossed man.”
“Well, then,” Athene beamed and clapped him on the shoulder so heartily that he caught himself upon the edge of the table to keep from landing face first in the meat sauce. “Fear not your line’s demise while Penelope has a fine lad like you, what? Now, what”—she gestured disdainfully at the drunken disorder about them—“is this chaos about? Hm? Do you celebrate some feast? A wedding in the family? A banquet? No one seems to have brought any food of his own. Most unseemly even for the poorest of guests. And”—she leaned close to the ear of Telemachus—“I must say that they behave like pigs.”
Telemachus sighed and shook his head. “Ah, well! I am afraid, sir, that bad times have fallen upon us. The gods in their displeasure have hidden my father from us, and so these…these ‘fellows’ have come to woo my mother into believing he is dead and to accept one of them in his place. I almost wish my father had fallen gloriously upon the field of Troy, for then the Greeks would have built a mound over his ashes and I would have inherited his fame. But the storm winds have blown that away from me, and now I inherit nothing but shame and this drunken revelry. If this wasn’t enough, the gods have caused me further grief and headache with my father’s absence, for all the chiefs of our islands—Dulichium, Samos, and the forested island of Zacynthus—along with certain headmen from Ithaca itself are eating up our flocks and herds while pretending to court my mother.”
“And your mother?” Athene asked delicately. Telemachus shrugged and spread his hands in dismay.
“What can she do? She does not offer her hand. Night after night these suitors take what they will. Soon I’m afraid, there will be nothing left. And then”—he shrugged—“I’m afraid they will kill me as well.”
Athene sighed and shook her head, sipping from her wine. “I can see that you do need your father about. Give Odysseus a helmet, sword, spear, and shield, and he’d quickly set these oafs on their ears, mark my words! I remember when I saw him in our house. He was coming from Ephyra where he had traveled to visit Ilus, son of the Centaur Mermerus,12 to learn the art of poison for his arrows. Ilus wouldn’t give him any because he feared the wrath of the gods—even then, we knew he had angered the gods somehow, Odysseus, I mean—but my father liked Odysseus and gave him some poison to help him out in his troubles. Now, if Odysseus is half the man he was then, the dust would quickly fly from the heels of these would-be wooers.” She sighed again. “But such is in the hands of the gods.” She pursed her lips and smiled at Telemachus. “A word of advice, my young friend! Call a council tomorrow and lay your case before them. Tell this rabble to shake the dust from your threshold and be away. Then tell your mother that if she is thinking about marrying again, to go back to her royal father who will attend to all the proprieties and find her a worthy gentleman with rich gifts to sustain her.
“After you have done this, take a good ship and trusty men with you and travel first to Pylos where your father’s friend Nestor rules and then to Sparta where golden-haired Menelaus, the last to sail away from the shores of Troy, rules. See if any of them has any word of your father. If you hear he is dead, then return home here and prepare the proper funeral games and feast and erect a mighty tomb in his memory—it doesn’t matter if it harbors only dust and not his bones; it is the thought that counts.” She leaned closer, seeking his ear and whispering gently into it. “Then—and only then, mark you!—make your plans—foul or fair, it doesn’t matter, these rogues haven’t earned any better—how to rid your house of this vermin. You are old enough to be done with the sniveling and whining of youth. Why, haven’t you heard how the people are singing the praises of Orestes who, fired with revenge, killed his father’s murderer, Aegisthus? You have a finely muscled and finely balanced frame. Could you do no less than Orestes? But”—she winked solemnly and held a forefinger in caution against her lips—“mind what I say. Mum’s the word until you make the plan right.”
Telemachus smiled and said, “Thank you for your advice, my friend. I can sense the heart of a friend in your speech, and I can see the soundness of your words. Now, let me call my manservant and have your bath prepared, and while you bathe, I shall select a present for you in gratitude—a keepsake, if you will, of the sort that one friend would give to another.”
Athene shook her head. “Don’t keep me from my trip. As for any present you would wish to give me, why, keep it until I return this way again. I will accept it then and bear it home with me at that time. I will do likewise and leave you with one as worthy as the gift you would have selected for me.”
And like a lark mounting to the sky, she flew away, leaving Telemachus to ponder her words. Strengthened and emboldened, he considered his father’s life and courage. After which his thoughts returned to his guest, and he stood, amazed, wondering if it had not been one of the gods who had traveled from Olympus to bring him the courage to do what needed to be done.
He strode bravely to where Phemius was still singing his sad tale of Odysseus’s return from Troy. His song traveled up the stairs to the room of Penelope who, hearing the sweet trilling of his voice, descended the stairs winding to the courtyard, attended by only two handmaidens. And when the queen entered and stood by a column, holding a veil across her face and weeping bitter tears, all grew silent, waiting for her words.
“Phemius,” she cried, “you have a great many stories about the deeds of the gods and men. Stop this sad song and sing a tale of arms and men. I don’t need to be reminded about my wandering husband even though his fame has spread throughout Greece and Argos.”
Inspired by her bold words, Telemachus said, “Mother, let the poet sing what he wishes, for he isn’t responsible for the song. Music is conjured by mighty Zeus who imparts it to men to make them sad. This man means us no harm by singing of the Danaans’ ill-fated return. It’s the latest of many, and everyone wants to hear the latest song. It’s only human, you know.”
“But—” Penelope began, but her son interrupted her.
“But, nothing. Odysseus isn’t the only one who didn’t return home. Many another wife and mother cries over her losses as well. Go back to your room and your loom and other business. Making speeches is the job for men, and I number among them. Go, now, for I am master here and have a thing or two to say to these jackals.”
She stood for a moment, wondering at her son’s sudden spirit, then turned soundlessly and slipped like a shade back into the house and into her room where she cried and wept her loneliness until Athene took pity upon her and dusted her eyelids with the sands of sleep.
“Ah, now!” cried one suitor drunkenly. “Let one of us come with you and comfort you in your bed. Gods’ balls, but we can make you forget your husband. Our spear is as stiff as his!”
Laughter followed his words. Telemachus turned slowly to the feasters and stared until their laughter broke into hiccoughs and chuckles, then spoke, saying, “You drunken scum! It’s a rare thing to hear a voice as sweet as Phemius has, and I wouldn’t deny you this. So enjoy it for the rest of the night. But in the morning, when the rosy fingers of Dawn13 flicker from the east, be awake and in full assembly, for I intend to give you formal notice at that time to leave my house immediately. You bear yourselves too proudly to suit me. If you wish to continue your feasting, then do it at somebody else’s house, not mine. If you refuse this warning of mine, I’ll add your name to my list, and then you will suffer all that your pride brings upon you.”
The revelers bit their lips to keep from smiling at the youth’s rash words (although some did secretly admire the fire in them), then Antinous, the son of Eupeithes, cried out, “Telemachus! The gods have given you courage, I see. You speak most bravely, although I think there is a bit of cream to your words. May Zeus never give you the throne of Ithaca as he did your father!”
Telemachus eyed him coolly, then answered, “Antinous, don’t be offended when I say that I will be king here, god willing, and it would be no shame to be a king as my father before me. Is that the worst you can wish upon me? If so, your words are written upon water and not the pages of time. Mark me well, loudmouth! I will be king in my own house and will rule those chosen for me to rule.”
“Ah, now, Telemachus! What are these words?” asked Eurymachus, the son of Polybus. “Don’t don the garland before it is draped around you. Only Zeus can decide if you are to be the king here. You may be master in your house and of your possessions. None of us will take them from you. Now, where is this stranger who walked among us? Did he bring word of your father that makes you speak so bravely now?” He chuckled wickedly at his taunt, and others near him snickered in reply.
“My father,” Telemachus said slowly, “is dead and gone, and should rude fame send a flattering messenger with words of his safe return, I wouldn’t give a fig for them. Sometimes my mother sends for a prophet, and I listen to his stories with half an ear, for I no longer believe in divine reckoning. As for the stranger who was among us, he was Mentes, son of Anchialus, king of the Taphians, an old friend of my father.” But, he added silently to himself, also the goddess his father held most highly.
The suitors laughed at his words, commented rudely, gestured obscenely, and returned to their drinking and their brawling. Slapping the serving wenches upon their saucy hips, they pawed their full breasts bouncing bountifully beneath their loose blouses. And when they had drunk enough, they staggered off to their own homes and their own beds.
Telemachus slowly climbed the stairs to his own room high in the tower facing the inner courtyard, thinking weighty thoughts over the words of Antinous and Eurymachus. Eurycleia, daughter of Ops, the son of Peisenor, an old woman who had nursed him through his youth, went before him, bearing a blazing torch in each hand to light the way. Laertes had bought her when she was young, paying twenty oxen for her rare beauty, although he did not bed her, out of respect for his wife.
Telemachus opened the door to his room and sat upon the bed to remove his sandals and tunic. He handed the tunic to her, and she folded it carefully for him and placed it over a beam pin near the bed. She left, pulling the door to with a silver catch, and drew the iron bolt firmly home. Long after her footsteps had faded upon the stairs, Telemachus lay, covered by a blanket of woolen fleece, thinking about his voyage and the counsel that Athene had designed for him.
Here ends the First Book of Homer’s Odyssey.
*All line references are to the Greek text in the W. B. Stanford edition.
Copyright © 2001 by R. L. Eickhoff, Ph.D.