When the victorious Greek Fleet put out to sea after the fall of Troy, many a captain, all unknowing, faced troubles as black as those he had brought down on the Trojans. Athena and Poseidon had been the Greeks' greatest allies among the Gods, but when Troy fell all that had changed. They became their bitterest enemies. The Greeks went mad with victory the night they entered the city; they forgot what was due to the Gods; and on their voyage home they were terribly punished.
Cassandra, one of Priam's daughters, was a prophetess. Apollo had loved her and given her the power to foretell the future. Later he turned against her because she refused his love, and although he could not take back his gift - divine favors once bestowed might not be revoked - he made it of no account: no one ever believed her. She told the Trojans each time what would happen; they would never listen to her. She declared that Greeks were hidden in the wooden horse; no one gave her words a thought. It was her fate always to know the disaster that was coming and be unable to avert it. When the Greeks sacked the city she was in Athena's temple clinging to her image, under the Goddess's protection. The Greeks found her there and they dared to lay violent hands on her. Ajax - not the great Ajax, of course, who was dead, but a lesser chieftain of the same name - tore her from the altar and dragged her out of the sanctuary. Not one Greek protested against the sacrilege. Athena's wrath was deep. She went to Poseidon and laid her wrongs before him. "Help me to vengeance," she said. "Give the Greeks a bitter homecoming. Stir up your waters with wild whirlwinds when they sail. Let dead men choke the bays and line the shores and reefs."
Poseidon agreed. Troy was a heap of ashes by now. He could afford to lay aside his anger against the Trojans. In the fearful tempest which struck the Greeks after they left for Greece, Agamemnon came near to losing all his ships; Menelaus was blown to Egypt; and the arch-sinner, sacrilegious Ajax, was drowned. At the height of the storm his boat was shattered and sank, but he succeeded in swimming to shore. He would have been saved if in his mad folly he had not cried out that he was one that the sea could not drown. Such arrogance always aroused the anger of the Gods. Poseidon broke off the jagged bit of rock to which he was clinging. Ajax fell and the waves swept him away to his death.
Ulysses did not lose his life, but if he did not suffer as much as some of the Greeks, he suffered longer than them all. He wandered for ten years before he saw his home. When he reached it, the little son he had left there was grown to manhood. Twenty years had passed since Ulysses sailed for Troy.
On Ithaca, the island where his home was, things had gone from bad to worse. Everyone by now took it for granted that he was dead, except Penelope, his wife, and his son Telemachus. They almost despaired, but not quite. All the people assumed that Penelope was a widow and could and should marry again. From the islands round about and, of course, from Ithaca, men came swarming to Ulysses' house to woo his wife. She would have none of them; the hope that her husband would return was faint, but it never died. Moreover she detested every one of them and so did Telemachus, and with good reason. They were rude, greedy, overbearing men, who spent their days sitting in the great hall of the house devouring Ulysses' store of provisions, slaughtering his cattle, his sheep, his swine, drinking his wine, burning his wood, giving orders to his servants. They would never leave, they declared, until Penelope consented to marry one of them. Telemachus they treated with amused contempt as if he were a mere boy and quite beneath their notice. It was an intolerable state of things to both mother and son, and yet they were helpless, only two and one of them a woman against a great company.
Penelope had at first hoped to tire them out. She told them that she could not marry until she had woven a very fine and exquisitely wrought shroud for Ulysses' father, the aged Laertes, against the day of his death. They had to give in to so pious a purpose, and they agreed to wait until the work was finished. But it never was, inasmuch as Penelope unwove each night what she had woven during the day. But finally the trick failed. One of her handmaidens told the suitors and they discovered her in the very act. Of course after that they were more insistent and unmanageable than ever. So matters stood when the tenth year of Ulysses' wanderings neared its close.
Because of the wicked way they had treated Cassandra, Athena had been angry at all the Greeks indiscriminately, but before that, during the Trojan War, she had especially favored Ulysses. She delighted in his wily mind, his shrewdness and his cunning; she was always forward to help him. After Troy fell she included him with the others in her wrathful displeasure and he too was caught by the storm when he set sail and driven so completely off his course that he never found it again. Year after year he voyaged, hurried from one perilous adventure to another.
Ten years, however, is a long time for anger to last. The Gods had by now grown sorry for Ulysses, with the single exception of Poseidon, and Athena was sorriest of all. Her old feeling for him had returned; she was determined to put an end to his sufferings and bring him home. With these thoughts in her mind, she was delighted to find one day that Poseidon was absent from the gathering in Olympus. He had gone to visit the Ethiopians, who lived on the farther bank of Ocean, to the south, and it was certain he would stay there some time, feasting merrily with them. Instantly she brought the sad case of Ulysses before the others. He was at the moment, she told them, a virtual prisoner on an island ruled over by the nymph Calypso, who loved him and planned never to let him go. In every other way except in giving him his freedom she overwhelmed him with kindness; all that she had was at his disposal. But Ulysses was utterly wretched. He longed for his home, his wife, his son. He spent his days on the seashore, searching the horizon for a sail that never came, sick with longing to see even the smoke curling up from his house.
The Olympians were moved by her words. They felt that Ulysses had deserved better at their hands and Zeus spoke for them all when he said they must put their heads together and contrive a way for him to return. If they were agreed Poseidon could not stand alone against them. For his part, Zeus said, he would send Hermes to Calypso to tell her that she must start Ulysses on his voyage back. Athena well-pleased left Olympus and glided down to Ithaca. She had already made her plans.
She was exceedingly fond of Telemachus, not only because he was her dear Ulysses' son, but because he was a sober, discreet young man, steady and prudent and dependable. She thought it would do him good to take a journey while Ulysses was sailing home, instead of perpetually watching in silent fury the outrageous behavior of the suitors. Also it would advance him in the opinion of men everywhere if the object of his journey was to seek for some news of his father. They would think him, as indeed he was, a pious youth with the most admirable filial sentiments. Accordingly, she disguised herself to look like a seafaring man and went to the house. Telemachus saw her waiting by the threshold and was vexed to the heart that a guest should not find instant welcome. He hastened to greet the stranger, take his spear, and seat him on a chair of honor. The attendants also horned to show the hospitality of the great house, setting food and wine before him and stinting him in nothing. Then the two talked together. Athena began by asking gently was this some sort of drinking-bout she had happened upon? She did not wish to offend, but a well-mannered man might be excused for showing disgust at the way the people around them were acting. Then Telemachus told her all, the fear that Ulysses must surely by now be dead; how every man from far and near had come wooing his mother who could not reject their offers out-and-out, but would not accept any of them, and how the suitors were ruining them, eating up their substance and making havoc of the house. Athena showed great indignation. It was a shameful tale, she said. If once Ulysses got home those evil men would have a short shrift and a bitter end. Then she advised him strongly to try to find out something about his father's fate. The men most likely to be able to give the news, she said, were Nestor and Menelaus. With that she departed, leaving the young man full of ardor and decision, all his former uncertainty and hesitation gone. He felt the change with amazement and the belief took hold of him that his visitor had been divine.
The next day he summoned the assembly and told them what he purposed to do and asked them for a well-built ship and twenty rowers to man her, but he got no answer except jeers and taunts. Let him sit at home and get his news there, the suitors bade him. They would see to it that he went on no voyage. With mocking laughter they swaggered off Ulysses' palace. Telemachus in despair went far away along the seashore and as he walked he prayed to Athena. She heard him and came. She had put on the appearance of Mentor, whom of all the Ithacans Ulysses had most trusted, and she spoke good words of comfort and courage to him. She promised him that a fast ship should be made ready for him, and that she herself would sail with him. Telemachus of course had no idea except. that it was Mentor himself speaking to him, but with this help he was ready to defy the suitors and he hurried home to get all ready for the voyage. He waited prudently until night to leave. Then, when all in the house were asleep, he went down to the ship where Mentor (Athena) was waiting, embarked and put out to sea toward Pylos, old Nestor's home.
They found him and his sons on the shore offering a sacrifice to Poseidon. Nestor made them heartily welcome, but about the object of their coming he could give them little help. He knew nothing of Ulysses; they had not left Troy together and no word of him had reached Nestor since. In his opinion the man most likely to have news would be Menelaus, who had voyaged all the way to Egypt before coming home. If Telemachus wished he would send him to Sparta in a chariot with one of his sons who knew the way, which would be much quicker than by sea. Telemachus accepted gratefully and leaving Mentor (Athena) in charge of the ship he started the next day for Menelaus' palace with Nestor's son.
They drew rein in Sparta before the lordly dwelling, a house far more splendid than either young man had ever seen. A princely welcome awaited them. The house-maidens led them to the bath place where they bathed them in silver bathtubs and rubbed them with sweet-smelling oil. Then they wrapped them in warm purple mantles over fine tunics, and conducted them to the banquet hall. There a servant hastened to them with water in a golden ewer which she poured over their fingers into a silver bowl. A shining table was set beside them and covered with rich food in profusion, and a golden goblet full of wine was placed for each. Menelaus gave them a courteous greeting and bade them eat their fill. The young men were happy, but a little abashed by all the magnificence. Telemachus whispered to his friend, very softly for fear someone might hear, "Zeus's hall in Olympus must be like this. It takes my breath away." But a moment later he had forgotten his shyness, for Menelaus began to speak of Ulysses - of his greatness and his long sorrows. As the young man listened tears gathered in his eyes and he held his cloak before his face to hide his agitation. But Menelaus had remarked it and he guessed who he must be.
Just then, however, came an interruption which distracted the thoughts of every man there. Helen the beautiful came down from her fragrant chamber attended by her women, one carrying her chair, another a soft carpet for her feet, and a third her silver work-basket filled with violet wool. She recognized Telemachus instantly from his likeness to his father and she called him by name. Nestor's son answered and said that she was right. His friend was Ulysses' son and he had come to them for help and advice. Then Telemachus spoke and told them of the wretchedness at home from which only his father's return could deliver them, and asked Menelaus if he could give him any news about him, whether good or bad.
"It is a long story," answered Menelaus, "but I did learn something about him and in a very strange way. It was in Egypt. I was weather-bound for many days on an island there called Pharos. Our provisions were giving out and I was in despair when a sea-Goddess had pity on me. She let me know that her father, the sea-God Proteus, could tell me how to leave the hateful island and get safely home if only I could make him do so. For that I must manage to catch him and hold him until I learned from him what I wanted. The plan she made was an excellent one. Each day Proteus came up from the sea with a number of seals and lay down with them on the sand, always in the same place. There I dug four holes in which I and three of my men hid, each under a sealskin the Goddess gave us. When the old God lay down not far from me it was no task at all for us to spring up out of our holes and seize him. But to hold him - that was another matter. He had the power of changing his shape at will, and there in our hands he became a lion and a dragon and many other animals, and finally even a high-branched tree. But we held him firmly throughout, and at last he gave in and told me all I wished to know. Of your father he said that he was on an island, pining away from homesickness, kept there by a nymph, Calypso. Except for that, I know nothing of him since we left Troy, ten years ago." When he finished speaking, silence fell upon the company. They all thought of Troy and what had happened since, and they wept - Telemachus for his father; Nestor's son for his brother, swift-footed Antilochus, dead before the walls of Troy; Menelaus for many a brave comrade fallen on the Trojan plain, and Helen - but who could say for whom Helen's tears fell? Was she thinking of Paris as she sat in her husband's splendid hall?
That night the young men spent in Sparta. Helen ordered her house-maidens to arrange beds for them in the entry porch, soft and warm with thick purple blankets covered by smoothly woven rugs and on top of all woolen cloaks. A servant, torch in hand, showed them out and they slept there in comfort until the dawn appeared.
Meantime Hermes had gone to carry Zeus's command to Calypso. He laced to his feet the sandals of imperishable gold which bore him swift as a breath of air over sea and earth. He took his wand with which he could charm men's eyes to slumber, and springing into the air he flew down to sea-level. Skimming the wave-crests he reached at last the lovely island which had become for Ulysses a hateful prison. He found the divine nymph alone; Ulysses as usual was on the sandy shore letting his salt tears flow while he gazed at the empty sea. Calypso took Zeus's orders in very ill part. She had saved the man's life, she said, when his ship was wrecked near the island, and cared for him ever since. Of course everyone must give in to Zeus, but it was very unfair. And how was she to manage the voyage back? She had no ships and crews at command. But Hermes felt this was not his affair. "Just take care not to make Zeus angry," he said and went gaily off.
Calypso gloomily set about the necessary preparations. She told Ulysses, who was at first inclined to think it all a trick on her part to do something detestable to him, - drown him, very likely, - but she finally convinced him. She would help him build a splendidly strong raft, she promised him, and send him away on it equipped with everything necessary. Never did any man do work more joyfully than Ulysses made his raft. Twenty great trees furnished the wood, all very dry so that they would float high. On the raft Calypso put food and drink in abundance, even a sack of the dainties Ulysses specially liked. The fifth morning after Hermes visit found Ulysses putting out to sea before a fair wind over quiet waters.
Seventeen days he journeyed without change of weather, always steering, never letting sleep close his eyes. On the eighteenth day a cloudy mountain top rose up across the sea. He believed that he was saved.
At that very moment, however, Poseidon, on his way back from Ethiopia, caught sight of him. He knew at once what the Gods had done. "But," he muttered to himself, "I think I can give him even yet a long journey into sorrow before he reaches land." With that he summoned all the violent winds and let them loose, blinding sea and land with storm-clouds. The East Wind fought with the South, and the ill-blowing West with the North, and the waves rose up mightily. Ulysses saw death before him. "Oh, happy the men who fell gloriously on the plain of Troy!" he thought. "For me to die thus ignobly!" It seemed indeed that he could not escape. The raft was tossed as a dried thistle goes rolling over a field in autumn days.
But a kindly Goddess was at hand, Ino of the slim ankles, who had once been a Theban princess. She pitied him and rising lightly from the water like a sea-gull she told him his one chance was to abandon the raft and swim to shore. She gave him her veil, which would keep him from harm as long as he was in the sea. Then she disappeared beneath the billows.
Ulysses had no choice but to follow her advice. Poseidon sent a wave of waves to him, a terror of the sea. It tore the logs of the raft apart as a great wind scatters a heap of dried chaff; it flung Ulysses into the wild waters. But, if he had only known it, bad as things seemed the worst was over. Poseidon felt satisfied and went off contentedly to plan some other storm somewhere, and Athena, left free to act, calmed the waves. Even so, Ulysses had to swim for two days and nights before he reached land and could find a safe landing-place. He came out of the surf exhausted and starving and naked. It was evening; not a house, not a living creature, was to be seen. But Ulysses was not only a hero, he was a man of great resourcefulness. He found a place where a few trees grew so thick and close to the ground, no moisture could penetrate them. Beneath were heaps of dry leaves, enough to cover many men. He scooped out a hollow and lying down piled the leaves over him like a thick coverlet. Then, warm and still at last, with the sweet land odors blowing to him, he slept in peace.
He had of course no idea where he was, but Athena had arranged matters well for him. The country belonged to the Phaeacians, a kind people and splendid sailors. Their king, Alcinous, was a good, sensible man who knew that his wife Arete was a great deal wiser than he and always let her decide anything important for him. They had a fair daughter as yet unmarried.
Nausicaa, for so the girl was called, never imagined the next morning that she was to play the part of rescuer to a hero. When she woke up she thought only about doing the family washing. She was a princess, indeed, but in those days highborn ladies were expected to be useful, and the household linen was in Nausicaa's charge. Washing clothes was then a very agreeable occupation. She had the servants make ready an easy-running mule-cart and pack it with the soiled clothes. Her mother filled a box for her with all sorts of good things to eat and drink; she gave her too a golden flask of limpid olive oil to use if she and her maids went bathing. Then they started, Nausicaa driving. They were bound for the very place where Ulysses had landed. A lovely river flowed into the sea there which had excellent washing pools with an abundance of clear bubbling water. What the girls did was to lay the clothes in the water and dance on them until all the dirt was worked out. The pools were cool and shadowy; it was very pleasant work. Afterwards they stretched the linen smooth to dry on the shore where the sea had washed it clean.
Then they could take their ease. They bathed and anointed themselves with the sleek oil, and had their lunch, and amused themselves with a ball which they threw to one another, dancing all the while. But at last the setting sun warned them the delightful day was over. They gathered up the linen, yoked in the mules, and were about to start home when they saw a wild-looking naked man suddenly step out of the bushes. Ulysses had been awakened by the girls' voices. In terror they ran away, all except Nausicaa. She faced him fearlessly and he spoke to her as persuasively as his eloquent tongue could. "I am a suppliant at your knees, O Queen," he said. "But whether you are mortal or divine I cannot tell. Never anywhere have I set eyes on such a one. I wonder as I look at you. Be gracious to your suppliant, a shipwrecked man, friendless and helpless, without a rag to cover him."
Nausicaa answered him kindly. She told him where he was and that the people of the country were kind to luckless wanderers. The King, her father, would receive him with all courteous hospitality. She summoned the frightened maids and bade them give the stranger the oil so that he could cleanse himself and find for him a mantle and a tunic. They waited while he bathed and dressed, then all set forth for the city. Before they reached Nausicaa's home, however, that discreet maiden directed Ulysses to fall back and let her and the girls go on alone. "People's tongues are so ill-natured," she said. "If they saw a handsome man like you with me, they would be hinting at all sorts of things. And you can easily find my father's house, it is so much the most splendid. Enter boldly and go straight to my mother, who will be spinning at the hearth. What my mother says my father will do."
Ulysses agreed at once. He admired her good sense, and he followed her directions exactly. Entering the house he strode through the hall to the hearth and sank down before the Queen, clasping her knees and praying her for help. The King quickly raised him and bade him sit at table and take his fill of food and drink without fear. Whoever he was and wherever his home, he could rest assured that they would arrange to send him there in one of their ships. It was now the time for sleep, but in the morning he could tell them his name and how he had made his way to them. So they slept through the night, Ulysses blissfully, on a couch soft and warm as he had not known since he left Calypso's isle.
The next day in the presence of all the Phaeacian chiefs he told the story of his ten years' wandering. He began with the departure from Troy and the storm that struck the Fleet. He and his ships were driven across the sea for nine days. On the tenth they made the land of the Lotus-eaters and put in there. But weary though they were and in need of refreshment they were forced to leave quickly. The inhabitants met them with kindness and gave them their flower-food to eat, but those who tasted it, only a few fortunately, lost their longing for home. They wanted only to dwell in the Lotus Land, and let the memory of all that had been fade from their minds. Ulysses had to drag them on shipboard and chain them there. They wept, so great was their desire to stay, tasting forever the honey-sweet flowers.
Their next adventure was with the Cyclops Polyphemus. Not far from the spot where his crew had made the vessel fast was a cave, open toward the sea and very lofty. It looked inhabited; there was a strong fence before the entrance. Ulysses started off to explore it with twelve of his men. They were in need of food and he took with him a goatskin full of very potent and mellow wine to give whoever lived there in return for hospitality. The gate in the fence was not closed and they made their way into the cave. No one was there, but it was clearly the dwelling of some very prosperous person. Along the sides of the cave were many crowded pens of lambs and kids. Also there were racks full of cheeses and pails brimming with milk, delightful to the sea-worn travelers who ate and drank as they waited for the master.
At last he came, hideous and huge, tall as a great mountain crag. Driving his flock before him he entered and closed the cave's mouth with a ponderous slab of stone. Then looking around he caught sight of the strangers, and cried out in a dreadful booming voice, "Who are you who enter unbidden the house of Polyphemus? Traders or thieving pirates?" They were terror-stricken at the sight and sound of him, but Ulysses made shift to answer, and firmly, too: "Shipwrecked warriors from Troy are we, and your suppliants, under the protection of Zeus, the suppliants' God." But Polyphemus roared out that he cared not for Zeus. He was bigger than any God and feared none of them. With that, he stretched out his mighty arms and in each great hand he seized one of the men and dashed his brains out on the ground. Slowly he feasted off them to the last shred, and then, satisfied, stretched himself out across the cavern and slept. He was safe from attack. No one but he could roll back the huge stone before the door, and if the horrified men had been able to summon courage and strength enough to kill him they would have been imprisoned there forever.
During that long terrible night Ulysses
faced the awful thing that had happened and would happen to every one of
them if he could not think out some way of escape. But by the time day
had dawned and the flock gathering at the entrance woke the Cyclops up,
no idea at all had come to him. He had to watch two more of his company
die, for Polyphemus breakfasted as he had supped. Then he drove out his
flock, moving back the big block at the door and pushing it into place
again as easily as a man opens and shuts the lid to his quiver. Throughout
the day, shut in the cave, Ulysses thought and thought. Four of his men
had perished hide-ously. Must they all go the same dreadful way? At last
a plan shaped itself in his mind. An enormous timber lay near the pens,
as long and as thick as the mast of a twenty-oared ship. From this he cut
off a good piece, and then he and his men sharpened it and hardened the
point by turning it round and
At last he pushed aside the stone at the entrance and sat down there, stretching his arms across, thinking thus to catch them when they tried to get away. But Ulysses had made a plan for this, too. He bade each man choose out three thick-fleeced rams and bind them together with strong, pliant strips of bark; then to wait for day, when the flock would be sent out to pasture. At last the dawn came and as the beasts crowding through the entrance passed out Polyphemus felt them over to be sure no one carried a man on his back. He never thought to feel underneath, but that was where the men were, each tucked under the middle ram, holding on to the great fleece. Once out of that fearful place they dropped to the ground and, hurrying to the ship, in no time launched it and were aboard. But Ulysses was too angry to leave in prudent silence. He sent a great shout over the water to the blind giant at the cave's mouth. "So, Cyclops, you were not quite strong enough to eat all of the puny men? You are rightly punished for what you did to those who were guests in your house."
The words stung Polyphemus to the heart. Up he sprang and tore a great crag from the mountain and flung it at the ship. It came within a hair's breadth of crushing the prow, and with the backwash the boat was borne landward. The crew put all their strength into their oars and just succeeded in pulling out to sea. When Ulysses saw that they were safely away, he cried again tauntingly, "Cyclops, Ulysses, wrecker of cities, put out your eye, and do you so tell anyone who asks." But they were too far off by then; the giant could do nothing. He sat blinded on the shore.
They lost a number of their comrades at his hands, and what was even worse, made Poseidon, who was Polyphemus' father, so angry that he swore Ulysses should reach his own country again only after long misery and when he had lost all his men. For these ten years his anger had followed him over the sea.
From the Cyclops' island they came to the country of the Winds, ruled over by King Aeolus. Zeus had made him keeper of the Winds, to still them or arouse them at his will. Aeolus received them hospitably and when they left gave Ulysses as a parting gift a leather sack, into which he had put all the Storm Winds. It was so tightly fastened that not the very least puff of any Wind that spells danger for a ship could leak out. In this excellent situation for sailors Ulysses' crew managed to bring them all near to death. They thought the carefully stored bag was probably full of gold; at any rate, they wanted to see what was in it. They opened it, with the result, of course, that all the Winds rushed out at once and swept them away in a terrific tempest. Finally, after days of danger, they saw land, but they had better have stayed on the stormy sea for it was the country of the Laestrygons, a people of gigantic size and cannibals too. These horrible folk destroyed all Ulysses' ships except the one he himself was in - which had not yet entered the harbor when the attack was made.
This was by far the worst disaster yet, and it was with despairing hearts that they put in at the next island they reached. Never would they have landed if they had known what lay before them. They had come to Aeaea, the realm of Circe, a most beautiful and most dangerous witch. Every man who approached her she turned into a beast. Only his reason remained as before: he knew what had happened to him. She enticed into her house the party Ulysses dispatched to spy out the land, and there she changed them into swine. She penned them in a sty and gave them acorns to eat. They ate them; they were swine. Yet inside they were men, aware of their vile state, but completely in her power.
Luckily for Ulysses, one of the party had been too cautious to enter the house. He watched what happened and fled in horror back to the ship. The news drove any thought of caution out of Ulysses. He started off, all alone - not one of the crew would go with him - to try to do something, bring some help to his men. On his way Hermes met him. He seemed a young man, of that age when youth looks its loveliest. He told Ulysses he knew an herb which could save him from Circe's deadly art. With it he could taste anything she gave him and suffer no harm. When he had drunk the cup she offered him, Hermes said, he must threaten to run her through with his sword unless she freed his followers. Ulysses took the herb and went thankfully on his way. All turned out even better than Hermes had predicted. When Circe had used on Ulysses the magic which had always hitherto been successful and to her amazement saw him stand unchanged before her, she so marveled at the man who could resist her enchantment that she loved him. She was ready to do whatever he asked and she turned his companions at once back into men again. She treated them all with such kindness, feasting them sumptuously in her house, that for a whole year they stayed happily with her.
When at last they felt that the time had come to depart she used her magical knowledge for them. She found out what they must do next in order to reach home safely. It was a fearful undertaking she put before them. They must cross the river Ocean and beach the ship on Persephone's shore where there was an entrance to the dark realm of Hades. Ulysses then must go down and find the spirit of the prophet Teiresias who had been the holy man of Thebes. He would tell Ulysses how to get back home. There was only one way to induce his ghost to come to him, by killing sheep and filling a pit with their blood. All ghosts had an irresistible craving to drink blood. Every one of them would come rushing to the pit, but Ulysses must draw his sword and keep them away until Teiresias spoke to him.
This was bad news, indeed, and all were weeping when they left Circe's isle and turned their prow toward Erebus where Hades rules with awesome Persephone. It was terrible indeed when the trench was dug and filled with blood and the spirits of the dead flocked to it. But Ulysses kept his courage. He held them off with his sharp weapon until he saw the ghost of Teiresias. He let him approach and drink of the black blood, then put his question to him. The seer was ready with his answer. The chief danger that threatened them, he said, was that they might do some injury to the oxen of the Sun when they reached the island where they lived. The doom of all who harmed them was certain. They were the most beautiful oxen in the world and very much prized by the Sun. But in any event Ulysses himself would reach home and although he would find trouble waiting for him, in the end he would prevail.
After the prophet ceased speaking, a long procession of the dead came up to drink the blood and speak to Ulysses and pass on, great heroes and fair women of old; warriors, too, who had fallen at Troy. Achilles came and Ajax, still wrathful because of the armor of Achilles which the Greek captains had given to Ulysses and not to him. Many others came, all eager to speak to him. Too many, in the end. Terror at the thronging numbers took hold of Ulysses. He hastened back to the ship and bade his crew set sail.
From Circe he had learned that they must pass the island of the Sirens. These were marvelous singers whose voices would make a man forget all else, and at last their song would steal his life away. Moldering skeletons of those they had lured to their death lay banked high up around them where they sat singing on the shore. Ulysses told his men about them and that the only way to pass them safely was for each man to stop his ears with wax. He himself, however, was determined to hear them, and he proposed that the crew should tie him to the mast so strongly that he could not get away however much he tried. This they did and drew near the island, all except Ulysses deaf to the enchanting song. He heard it and the words were even more enticing than the melody, at least to a Greek. They would give knowledge to each man who came to them, they said, ripe wisdom and a quickening of the spirit. "We know all things which shall be hereafter upon the earth." So rang their song in lovely cadences, and Ulysses' heart ached with longing.
But the ropes held him and that danger was safely passed. A sea peril next awaited them - the passage between Scylla and Charybdis. The Argonauts had got through it; Aeneas, who just about that time had sailed for Italy, had been able to avoid it because of a prophet's warning; of course Ulysses with Athena looking after him succeeded in passing it. But it was a frightful ordeal and six of the crew lost their lives there. However, they would not in any case have lived much longer, for at their next stopping place, the Island of the Sun, the men acted with incredible folly. They were hungry and they killed the sacred oxen. Ulysses was away. He had gone into the island alone by himself to pray. He was in despair when he returned, but the beasts had been roasted and eaten and nothing could be done. The vengeance of the Sun was swift. As soon as the men left the island a thunderbolt shattered the ship. All were drowned except Ulysses. He clung to the keel and was able to ride out the storm. Then he drifted for days, until finally he was cast ashore on Calypso's island, where he had to stay for many years. At last he started home, but a tempest shipwrecked him and only after many and great dangers had he succeeded in reaching the Phaeacian land, a helpless, destitute man.
The long story was ended, but the audience sat silent, entranced by the tale. At last the King spoke. His troubles were over, he assured Ulysses. They would send him home that very day and every man present would give him a parting gift to enrich him. All agreed. The ship was made ready, the presents were stowed within, and Ulysses embarked after taking a grateful leave of his kind hosts. He stretched himself on the deck and a sweet sleep closed his eyes. When he woke he was on dry land, lying on a beach. The sailors had set him ashore just as he was, ranged his belongings beside him, and departed. He started up and stood staring around him. He did not recognize his own country. A young man approached him, seemingly a shepherd lad, but fine and well-mannered like the sons of kings when they tend sheep. So he seemed to Ulysses, but really it was Athena in his semblance. She answered his eager question and told him he was in Ithaca. Even in his joy at the news Ulysses kept his caution. He spun her a long tale about who he was and why he had come, with not a word of truth in it, at the end of which the Goddess smiled and patted him. Then she appeared in her own form, divinely tall and beautiful. "You crooked, shifty rogue!" she laughed. "Anyone who would keep pace with your craftiness must be a canny dealer." Ulysses greeted her with rapture, but she bade him remember how much there was to do and the two settled down to work out a plan. Athena told him how things were in his house and promised she would help him clear it of the suitors. For the present she would change him into an old beggar so that he could go everywhere unrecognized. That night he must spend with his swineherd, Eumaeus, a man faithful and trustworthy beyond praise. When they had hidden the treasures in a near-by cave they separated, she to summon Telemachus home, he, whom her art had turned into a shambling ragged old man, to seek the swineherd. Eumaeus welcomed the poor stranger, fed him well and lodged him for the night, giving him his own thick mantle to cover him.
Meanwhile, at Pallas Athena's prompting, Telemachus took leave of Helen and Menelaus, and as soon as he reached his ship embarked, eager to get home with all speed. He planned - and again Athena had put the thought in his mind - not to go directly to the house on landing, but first to the swineherd to learn if anything had happened in his absence. Ulysses was helping prepare breakfast when the young man appeared at the door. Eumaeus greeted him with tears of joy and begged him to sit and eat. Before he would do so, however, he dispatched the swineherd to inform Penelope of his return. Then father and son were alone together. At that moment Ulysses perceived Athena just beyond the door beckoning to him. He went out to her and in a flash she turned him back into his own form and bade him tell Telemachus who he was. That young man had noticed nothing until instead of the old beggar a majestic-looking person returned to him. He started up amazed, believing he saw a God. "I am your father," Ulysses said, and the two embraced each other and wept. But the time was short and there was much to plan. An anxious talk followed. Ulysses was determined to drive the suitors away by force, but how could two men take on a whole company? At last it was decided that the next morning they should go to the house, Ulysses disguised, of course, and that Telemachus should hide all the weapons of war, leaving only enough for the two of them where they could easily get at them. Athena was quick to aid. When Eumaeus came back he found the old beggar he had left.
Next day Telemachus went on alone, leaving the other two to follow. They reached the town, they came to the palace, and at last after twenty years Ulysses entered his dear dwelling. As he did so an old dog lying there lifted his head and pricked his ears. It was Argos, whom Ulysses had bred before he went to Troy. Yet the moment his master appeared he knew him and wagged his tail, but he had no strength to drag himself even a little toward him. Ulysses knew him too and brushed away a tear. He dared not go to him for fear of arousing suspicion in the swineherd, and as he turned away that moment the old dog died.
Within the hall the suitors, idly loafing after their meal, were in a mood to make fun of the miserable old beggar who entered, and Ulysses listened to all their mocking words with submissive patience. At last one of them, an evil-tempered man, became irritated and gave him a blow. He dared to strike a stranger who was asking for hospitality. Penelope heard of the outrage and declared that she would herself speak with the ill-treated man, but she decided first to pay a visit to the banqueting hall. She wanted to see Telemachus and also it seemed wise to her to show herself to the suitors. She was as prudent as her son. If Ulysses was dead, it would certainly be well for her to marry the richest of these men and the most liberal. She must not discourage them too much. Besides, she had an idea which seemed to promise very well. So she went down from her room into the hall, attended by two maids and holding a veil before her face, looking so lovely her courtiers trembled to see her. One and another arose to compliment her, but the discreet lady answered she knew very well that she had lost all her looks by now, what with her grieving and her many cares. Her purpose in coming to speak to them was a serious one. No doubt her husband would never come back. Why then did they not court her in the proper way for a lady of family and fortune by giving her costly gifts? The suggestion was acted upon at once. All had their pages bring and present her with most lovely things, robes and jewels and golden chains. Her maids carried them upstairs and demure Penelope retired with great contentment in her heart.
Then she sent for the stranger who had been ill-used. She spoke graciously to him and Ulysses told her a tale of meeting her husband on his way to Troy which made her weep until he pitied her. Still he did not reveal himself, but kept his face hard as iron. By and by Penelope remembered her duties as hostess. She summoned an old nurse, Eurycleia, who had cared for Ulysses from babyhood, and bade her wash the stranger's feet. Ulysses was frightened, for on one foot was a scar made in boyhood days by a wild boar he had hunted, and he thought she would recognize it. She did, and she let the foot fall so that the tub was upset. Ulysses caught her hand and muttered, "Dear nurse, you know. But not a word to another soul." She whispered her promise, and Ulysses took his leave. He found a bed in the entrance hall, but he could not sleep for wondering how he could overcome so many shameless fellows. At last he reminded himself that his state in the Cyclops' cave had been still worse and that with Athena's help he could hope here too to be successful, and then he slept.
Morning brought the suitors back, more insolent even than before. Carelessly and at ease they sat down to the rich feast spread for them, not knowing that the Goddess and the much enduring Ulysses were preparing a ghastly banquet for them.
Penelope all unknowing forwarded their plan. During the night she had made one of her own. When morning came she went to her store-chamber where among many treasures was a great bow and a quiver full of arrows. They belonged to Ulysses and no hand but his had ever strung the bow or used it. Carrying them herself she descended to where the suitors were gathered. "Hear me, my lords," she said. "I set before you the bow of godlike Ulysses. He who strings the bow and shoots an arrow straight through twelve rings in a line, I will take as my husband." Telemachus instantly saw how this could be turned to their advantage and he was quick to play up to her. "Come on, suitors all," he cried. "No holding back or excuses. But stay. I will try first and see if I am man enough to bear my father's arms." With this he set the rings in order, placing them exactly in line. Then he took the bow and did his utmost to string it. Perhaps he might in the end have succeeded if Ulysses had not signed to him to give up. After him the others, one by one, took their turn, but the bow was too stiff; the strongest could not bend it even a little.
Certain that no one would be successful Ulysses left the contest and stepped out into the courtyard where the swineherd was talking to the keeper of the cattle, a fellow as trustworthy as himself. He needed their help and he told them who he was. As proof he showed them the scar on his foot which in other years they had both seen many a time. They recognized it and burst out weeping for joy. But Ulysses hushed them quickly. "None of that now," he said. "Listen to what I want of you. Do you, Eumaeus, find some way to put the bow and arrows into my hands; then see that the women's quarters are closed so that no one can enter. And you, O herder of cattle, must shut and bar the gates of the court here." He turned back to the hall, the two following him. When they entered the last suitor to make the trial had just failed. Ulysses said, "Pass me the bow and let me see if the strength I once had is still mine." An angry clamor broke out at the words. A beggarly foreigner should never touch the bow, they cried. But Telemachus spoke sternly to them. It was for him, not them, to say who should handle the bow, and he bade Eumaeus give it to Ulysses.
All watched intently as he took it and examined it. Then, with effortless ease, as a skilled musician fits a bit of catgut to his lyre, he bent the bow and strung it. He notched an arrow to the string and drew, and not moving from his seat he sent it straight through the twelve rings. The next instant with one leap he was at the door and Telemachus was beside him. "At last, at last," he cried in a great voice and he shot an arrow. It found its mark; one of the suitors fell dying to the floor. The others sprang up in horror. Their weapons - where were they? None were to be seen. And Ulysses was shooting steadily. As each arrow whistled through the hall a man fell dead. Telemachus on guard with his long spear kept the crowd back so that they could not rush out through the door either to escape or to attack Ulysses from the rear. They made an easy target, gathered there together, and as long as the supply of arrows held out they were slaughtered without a chance to defend themselves. Even with the arrows gone they fared little better, for Athena had now come to take a part in the great deeds being done and she made each attempt to reach Ulysses miscarry. But his flashing spear never missed its stroke and the dreadful sound of cracking skulls was heard and the floor flowed with blood.
At last only two of that roistering, impudent band were left, the priest of the suitors and their bard. Both of them cried for mercy, but the priest, clasping Ulysses' knees in his agony of supplication, met with none. The hero's sword ran him through and he died in the midst of his prayer. The bard was fortunate. Ulysses shrank from killing such a man, taught by the Gods to sing divinely, and he spared him for further song.
The battle - slaughter, rather - was ended. The old nurse Eurycleia and her maids were summoned to cleanse the place and restore all to order. They surrounded Ulysses, weeping and laughing and welcoming him home until they stirred within his own heart the desire to weep. At last they set to work, but Eurycleia climbed the stairs to her mistress's chamber. She stood by her bed. "Awake, my dear," she said, "for Ulysses has come home and all the suitors are dead." "O crazy old woman," Penelope complained. "And I was sleeping so sweetly. Off with you and be glad you are not smartly slapped as anyone else would have been who waked me." But Eurycleia persisted, "Indeed, indeed Ulysses is here. He showed me the scar. It is his very self." Still Penelope could not believe her. She hurried down to the hall to see with her own eyes.
A man tall and princely-looking was sitting by the hearth where the firelight fell full on him. She sat down opposite him and looked at him in silence. She was bewildered. At one moment she seemed to recognize him, the next, he was a stranger to her. Telemachus cried out at her: "Mother, Mother, oh, cruel! What other woman would hold herself aloof when her man came home after twenty years?" "My son," she answered, "I have no strength to move. If this is in truth Ulysses, then we two have ways of knowing each other." At this Ulysses smiled and bade Telemachus leave her alone. "We will find each other out presently," he said.
Then the well-ordered hall was filled
with rejoicing. The minstrel drew sweet sounds from his lyre and waked
in all the longing for the dance. Gaily they trod a measure, men and fair-robed
women, till the great house around them rang with their footfalls. For
Ulysses at last after long wandering had come home and every heart was
Adapted from Mythology,
Copyright ©1998-2001 Roy George