HOMER
ODYSSEY

 

Translated by Ian Johnston, Vancouver Island University, Nanaimo, British Columbia, Canada.
Revised Edition 2019

 

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For a Rich Text Format Version of the entire Odyssey, please use the following link: Odyssey [RTF]

 

BOOK FOUR
TELEMACHUS VISITS MENELAUS IN SPARTA

[Telemachus and Peisistratus arrive at Menelaus’s home in Sparta; Menelaus welcomes them, talks of Agamemnon and Odysseus; Helen questions Menelaus about the guests, drugs the wine, tells the story of Odysseus visiting Troy disguised as a beggar; Menelaus talks about the Trojan Horse; Telemachus asks Menelaus for advice; Menelaus gives a long account of his travels in Egypt, especially his adventures with the Old Man of the Sea, the death of the lesser Ajax, and the death of Agamemnon; Menelaus invites Telemachus to stay, but Telemachus declines; the suitors hatch a plan to kill Telemachus; Penelope hears of their plans and is anxious; Athena sends her a phantom to reassure her; some of the suitors sail off to set an ambush for Telemachus.]

When Telemachus and Peisistratus reached
the Lacedaemon plain and its surrounding hills,
they went straight to splendid Menelaus’s palace.(1)
They found him inside his house, at a marriage feast
he was providing for his many relatives,
a celebration for his noble son and daughter.
He was sending her away to Neoptolemus,
son of man-destroying Achilles—back in Troy
he had first promised he would offer her to him.
He pledged his word, and now the gods were making sure                      10
the marriage would take place. He was seeing her off
with chariots and horses at her departure
for the illustrious city of the Myrmidons,
whom her husband ruled. For his son, Menelaus
was bringing Alector’s daughter home to Sparta.                                         [10]
That son, mighty Megapenthes, born to a slave,
was his favourite, for the gods had granted Helen
no more children after she had given birth
to the lovely girl Hermione, as beautiful
as golden Aphrodite. So they were feasting                                                 20
in the impressive palace with its high-pitched roof—
neighbours and relatives of glorious Menelaus, 
all enjoying themselves. Among them was a singer,
accompanying his godlike song by playing the lyre.
As he began to sing, two tumblers ran and jumped,
moving here and there, through the middle of the crowd.

As the two visitors, heroic Telemachus                                                              [20]
and Nestor’s noble son, stood at the palace gate
with their two horses, lord Eteoneus came out,
a diligent attendant to noble Menelaus.                                                     30
When he noticed them, he went back inside the house,
to tell the shepherd of his people what he had seen.
Standing close to Menelaus, he spoke to him—
his words had wings:

                                     “Menelaus, raised by gods,
there are two strangers here, two men who look
as if they are descended from great Zeus.
So tell me if we should, on their behalf,
take their team of horses out of harness,
or send them off to find some other host
who’ll welcome them as friends.”

                           These words he uttered                                                            40
really irritated fair-haired Menelaus,                                                              [30]
so he replied as follows:

                          “Before today,
Eteoneus, son of Boethous,
you have not been a fool. But now you talk
just like a silly child. For both of us
often feasted on the hospitality
of other men before we got back here,
hoping that Zeus would give us some relief
from later hardship. Unhitch those horses
the strangers brought, and bring the men inside,                            50
so they may dine.”

                                                Menelaus finished.
Then Eteoneus left, hurrying from the hall
and calling out to other diligent attendants
to accompany him. They took the sweating horses
from their harnesses and hitched them in the stables,                                     [40]
scattering wheat for them, mixed with white barley grains,
leaned the chariot against the luminescent wall,
and then led the men into the godlike building.
Telemachus and Peisistratus were amazed
by the things they noticed in the regal palace—                                        60
for the high-roofed home of splendid Menelaus,
a man raised by Zeus, was shimmering in the light,
as if illuminated by the sun or moon.
When their eyes had gazed at it with great delight,
the two men had a bath in well-polished bathing tubs.
After the household slaves had given them a bath,
rubbed them down with oil, and offered them fresh clothing—
thick cloaks and tunics—then they both sat down on chairs                           [50]
right by Menelaus, the son of Atreus.
A servant woman brought a pitcher made of gold.                                     70
It was filled with water for them to clean their hands.
She poured the water out into a silver basin,
so they could wash. Then in front of them she pulled up
a polished table. A valued female servant
carried in the bread and set it down before them,
adding many tasty delicacies, as well,
generous offerings from the food she had in store.
A carver lifted platters with all sorts of meat
and served them, setting down in front of the two men
goblets made of gold. Then fair-haired Menelaus                                       80
welcomed both of them and said:

                                                    “Help yourselves.                               [60]
Enjoy our food. And once you’ve had your meal,
we’ll ask you who you are. For in you two
your parents’ breeding has not been destroyed,
since you are from a royal human stock,
from god-nurtured kings who wield a sceptre.
Worthless men could not father sons like you.”

Menelaus spoke. Then with his own hands he picked up
the roasted meat and set it down in front of them,
the fat back cut of beef they had placed before him,                                 90
a mark of honour. So the two men helped themselves,
eating the fine meal prepared and served out to them.
When they had had their heart’s content of food and drink,
Telemachus leaned his head close to Nestor’s son,
so no one else could overhear, and spoke to him:                                              [70]

“Son of Nestor, who brings my heart such joy,
look at how, throughout this echoing hall,
there’s such a quantity of bronze and gold,
electrum, silver, ivory—to me
it’s the interior of Zeus’s home                                                             100
on Mount Olympus, so much untold wealth—
I’m amazed just looking at it.”(2)

                                                                           As he said this,
fair-haired Menelaus heard what he said and spoke
to both of them—his words had wings:

                                                    “Dear lads,
no mortal man can really rival Zeus,
since his possessions and his palaces
last forever. But among mortal men,
some other king might challenge me or not                                             [80]
about our wealth. My ships brought riches back
after we had suffered so much hardship,                                           110
while we were wandering. We made it home—
it took us more than seven years. We roamed
to Cyprus, Egypt, and Phoenicia.
We even reached the Ethiopians,
Sidonians, and Erembi—Lydia, too,
where lambs are born with horns and ewes give birth
three times in one full year. No master there,
nor any shepherd, ever lacks sweet milk
or cheese or meat, and through the entire year
their flocks are ready to produce their milk.                                     120
While I was wandering around these lands,                                        [90]
gathering possessions, another man
slaughtered my own brother unexpectedly,
in secret, thanks to the duplicity
of his murderous wife. So you can see
there is no joy for me in being king
of these possessions. You may have heard this
from your fathers, whoever they may be.
I suffered many troubles and allowed
a really well-established home, endowed                                           130
with many noble riches, to collapse.
I’d prefer to live with one third my wealth
here in my house, if those men could be safe,
the ones who died in the wide land of Troy,
far from Argos, where horses breed. And yet,
although I often sit around at home                                                           [100]
feeling sorry, in mourning for them all,
sometimes groaning to relieve my spirit,
sometimes calling for a end to moaning,
for one can quickly get too much of grief,                                          140
still, for all my pain, I do not lament
all those men as much as I do one man,
who, when I think of him, makes me despise
both sleep and food, for of all Achaeans
no one toiled as hard as did Odysseus,
who took so much upon himself. For him,
it seems, there would be no end of trouble,
and I cannot forget to grieve for him.
He’s been away so long. And we don’t know
if he’s alive or dead. Old Laertes,                                                        150
I would think, is still in mourning for him,                                               [110]
and so is sensible Penelope,
and Telemachus, as well, whom he left
a new-born child at home.”

                                                           Menelaus spoke.
What he said stirred strong feelings in Telemachus,
a yearning for his father. So from his eyelids
he shed a tear onto the ground, as he listened
to what Menelaus said about Odysseus,
and with both his hands he pulled up the purple cloak
to hide his eyes. Noticing this, Menelaus                                                     160
debated in his mind and heart: Should he allow
Telemachus to say something about his father,
or should he first ask him questions and sound him out
on each and every detail? As he thought of this                                                 [120]
in his mind and heart, Helen came into the room,
emerging from her sweet-scented high-roofed chamber.
She looked like golden-arrowed goddess Artemis.
Adreste came in, too. She set in place for Helen
a finely crafted chair. Alcippe carried in
a soft wool rug. Phylo brought a silver basket,                                            170
a gift that Helen had received from Alcandre,
wife to Polybus, who lived in Thebes in Egypt,
where the most stupendous hoards of rich possessions
lie in people’s homes. He had given Menelaus
a pair of tripods and two silver bathing tubs,
as well as ten gold talents. And in addition,                                                      [130]
his wife presented Helen with some lovely gifts,
a golden spinning staff and a silver basket—
it had wheels underneath and rims of plated gold.
The servant woman Phylo brought this basket in                                   180
and placed it by her side, filled with fine-spun yarn.
On it lay the spinning rod full of purple wool.
Helen sat on the chair, a stool beneath her feet.
Right away she started speaking to her husband,
asking him some detailed questions:

                                  “Do we know,
my divinely cherished Menelaus,

who these two men who’ve come into our home
claim to be? Shall I speak up and pretend,
or shall I tell the truth? My heart tells me                                            [140]
I must be frank. I can’t say I’ve ever seen                                            190
someone who looks so much like someone else,
whether man or woman. When I see it,
I’m amazed—this man looks just like the son
of brave Odysseus—I mean Telemachus,
who, when he left home, was a new-born child,
when, because I’d acted so disgracefully,
you Achaeans all sailed away to Troy,
your hearts intent on brutal warfare.”

Fair-haired Menelaus then answered her and said:

“This likeness you’ve just noticed, my dear wife,                              200
I’ve seen, as well. His feet are similar,
as are his hands, the glances from his eyes,                                              [150]
his head, and his hair on top. And just now,
as I was remembering Odysseus,
discussing all the troubles he’d endured
because of me, he let a bitter tear
fall from his eyes and raised the purple cloak
across his eyes.”

                             Then Peisistratus, Nestor’s son,
spoke out and said:

                                  “Menelaus, son of Atreus,
leader of your people, cherished by Zeus,                             
           210
this man here is indeed, as you have said,
Odysseus’ son. But he’s a prudent man—
in his heart he is too ashamed to come
on his first visit and put on a show
with some assertive speech in front of you,
whose voice we listen to with great delight,                                             [160]
as if it were a god’s. I’ve been sent here
by Geranian horseman Nestor as his guide.
He wants to see you and get your advice,
in word or deed. For with his father gone,                                          220
a child has many troubles in his home,
and there is no one there to help him out.
That is what has happened with Telemachus.
His father’s vanished, and now there’s no one
to save his house from ruin.”

                                          Fair-haired Menelaus
then answered Peisistratus, saying:

                                                                           “Well now,
this is strange indeed—to my home has come
the offspring of a man I cherish, someone
who, on my behalf, endured much hardship.                                           [170]
If he’d returned, I thought, of all the Argives,                                   230
I’d welcome him the most, should far-seeing Zeus
on Mount Olympus let the two of us
arrive back home by sea in our swift ships.
I would have offered him an Argive town
and built a home for him, where he could live,
brought him from Ithaca with all his wealth,
his son, and his own people. I’d have emptied
some neighbouring city in the region,
whose people all acknowledge me as king.
Then we could live here and be together,                                           240
and nothing would have separated us.
We could often entertain each other,
getting joy from one another’s company,
until Death’s black cloud came to embrace us.                                        [180]
But god himself must have been envious,
to make that ill-starred man the only one
who did not get back home.”

                                                          Menelaus finished.
What he had said made all of them feel like weeping.
Argive Helen, daughter of Zeus, began to cry,
as did Telemachus and Menelaus, too,                                                        250
son of Atreus. Nestor’s son could not keep the tears
out of his eyes. In his heart he was remembering
brave Antilochus, killed by Dawn’s courageous son.
With him in mind, Peisistratus spoke—his words had wings:

“Son of Atreus, old warrior Nestor                                                               [190]
used to say, when we conversed together
and someone in the house mentioned your name,
that, as far as sound thinking was concerned,
you were preeminent among all men.
So, if it seems somehow appropriate,                                                  260
you should listen to me. I don’t enjoy
weeping at dinner time, and early Dawn
will soon be here. I don’t think it shameful
to cry for any mortal man who’s died
and met his fate. In fact, this ritual
is the only ceremony we give
for these unhappy men—we cut our hair
and let the tears run down our cheeks. I have
a brother who was killed, not the worst man
among the Argives. Perhaps you knew him.                                      270
I never met him, never even saw him,                                                         [200]
but they say Antilochus surpassed all men
in running fast and fighting.”(3)

                                    Fair-haired Menelaus
then answered Peisistratus, saying:

                                                                    My friend,
your words have truly covered everything
a man whose mind is just might say or do,
even someone far older than yourself.
The quality of the man you sprang from
enables you to speak so sensibly.
To recognize someone’s inheritance                                                    280
is easy, when the son of Cronos spins
good fortune’s threads at marriage and at birth,
the way he now has done for noble Nestor,
granting him for all his days continually
to reach a ripe old age in his own home,                                                    [210]
with sons who are, in turn, intelligent
and great spear fighters, too. But we must stop,
let that earlier weeping cease. Let’s have
water poured on our hands, then once again
turn our minds to dinner. In the morning                                          290
there’ll be stories for Telemachus and me
to tell each other to our heart’s content.”

He finished speaking. Then one of his attendants,
faithful Asphalion, poured water on their hands,
and they reached for the rich food spread out before them.

Then Helen, Zeus’s daughter, thought of something else.(4)
She quickly dropped into the wine they were enjoying                                 [220]
a drug that relieved men’s pains and irritations,
making them forget their troubles. A drink of this,
once mixed in with wine, would guarantee no man                                    300
would let a tear fall on his cheek for one whole day,
not even if his mother and his father died,
or if, in his own presence, men brandishing swords
hacked down his brother or his son, as he looked on.
Zeus’s daughter had effective healing potions,
like that drug, which she’d obtained from Polydamna,
wife of Thon, who came from Egypt, where the country,
so rich in grain, produces the greatest crop of drugs,
many of which, once dissolved, are beneficial,
and many poisonous. Each person living there                                            310    [230]
is a physician whose knowledge of these potions  
surpasses that of every other human group,
for through their ancestry they stem from Paeeon.(5)
When Helen had stirred in the drug and ordered them
to serve the wine, she rejoined the conversation
and spoke up once again:

                                         “Menelaus, son of Atreus,
whom gods cherish, and you sons of noble men—
since both good and bad are given by Zeus,
sometimes to one man and, at other times,
to someone else, for he is capable                                                        320
of all things, you should now sit in the hall
and dine. After that, enjoy your stories.
I’ll tell you one I think is suitable.
I will not speak of, nor could I recite,                                                   [240]
everything about steadfast Odysseus,
all hardships he went through. But there’s that time
when you Achaeans were in such distress
and that strong man endured and did so much—
right in homeland of those Trojans, too!
With savage blows he battered his own body,                                   330
threw a ragged garment on his shoulders,
so he looked like a slave, and then snuck in,
along the broad streets of that hostile town.
He hid his own identity, pretending
he was someone else, a beggar—something
he’d never been among Achaean ships—
and then went in the city. No Trojan there
suspected him. I was the only one                                                              [250]
who recognized him, in spite of his disguise.
I questioned him, but his skill in deception                                      340
made him elusive. Still, when I had bathed him,
rubbed him with oil, and helped him to get dressed—
once I’d sworn a solemn oath not to reveal
to any Trojans that he was Odysseus
until he reached the swift ships and the huts—
he told me all about Achaean plans.
Then his long sword slaughtered many Trojans,
and he returned, bringing the Achaeans
a full report on Troy. Trojan women
began to cry aloud, but I was glad.                                                     350
My heart by then had changed—it now desired                                       [260]
to go back. I was sorry for that blindness
Aphrodite brought, when she led me there,
far from my own land, abandoning my child,
my bridal room, and my own husband, too,
who lacked nothing in good looks or wisdom.”

In reply to Helen, fair-haired Menelaus said:

“Yes, indeed, dear wife, everything you say
is true. Before now, I’ve come to understand
the minds and plans of many warriors.                                               360
I’ve roamed many lands. But these eyes of mine
have never seen a man to match Odysseus.
How I loved his steadfast heart! What about                                            [270]
the things that forceful man endured and did
in the wooden horse? Achaea’s finest men—
all of us—were crouching in it, carrying
a lethal fate to Trojans. Then you came,
perhaps instructed by some god who wished
to give a glorious triumph to the Trojans.
And, where you walked, noble Deïphobus                                         370
followed, too.(6) You circled around three times,
feeling that hollow trap. Your voice called out,
naming the best men among Danaans,
and you spoke up exactly like the voice
of each man’s Achaean wife. I was there,
sitting with Odysseus in the middle,                                                         [280]
and with Tydeus’ son. We heard you call.
Two of us—Diomedes and myself—
were eager to get up and charge outside
or else to answer back from where we sat,                                         380
inside the horse. But Odysseus stopped us—
we wished to speak, but he held us in check.
All the other sons of the Achaeans
kept their mouths shut, except for Anticlus,
the only one about to raise his voice
and answer you. Odysseus clapped his hand
firmly on Anticlus’s mouth and held him,
thus rescuing all Achaeans. He kept
his grip on Anticlus until Athena
escorted you away.”

                                  Then shrewd Telemachus replied:                                     390   [290]

“Menelaus, son of Atreus, loved by Zeus,
leader of your people, that incident
is more painful still—it could not save him
from bitter death, not even if the heart
inside his chest had been made of iron.
But come, send us off to bed, so sweet Sleep
can bring us joy, once we lie down to rest.”(7)

Once Telemachus spoke, Helen told her servants
to set up mattresses within the corridor
and spread out lovely purple blankets over them,                                      400
with rugs on top, and over these some woollen cloaks.
The women left the hall with torches in their hands                                        [300]
and arranged the beds. A herald led the guests away.
And so they slept there in the palace vestibule,
prince Telemachus and Nestor’s noble son.
The son of Atreus slept in an inner room,
inside the high-roofed home, with long-robed Helen,
goddess among women, lying there beside him.

As soon as rose-fingered early Dawn appeared,
Menelaus, skilled at war shouts, got out of bed                                         410
and put on his clothes, slinging around his shoulders
a sharp sword. Then he laced up beautiful sandals
over his sleek feet, and, looking just like a god,                                                 [310]
he left his room. He sat beside Telemachus
and then addressed him, saying:

                                                              “Prince Telemachus,
what do you need that’s brought you all this way
on the sea’s broad back to lovely Sparta?
Is it a public or a private matter?
Tell me about it, and be frank.”

                                        Shrewd Telemachus
then said in reply:

                             “Menelaus, son of Atreus,                                        420
cherished by Zeus, leader of your people,
I’ve come to see if you could give me news
about my father. My home’s being eaten up,
my rich estates destroyed. My house is full
of enemies who keep on butchering
flocks of sheep and shambling bent-horned cattle.                             [320]
They are suitors for my mother—their pride
makes them supremely arrogant. That’s why
I’ve now come to your knee, to see if you
perhaps can tell me of his mournful death,                                       430
in case your own eyes witnessed it somewhere,
or else you’ve found out from some other man
the tale of where he’s gone. For his mother
delivered him into a life of sorrow,
more so than other men. And do not speak
from pity, or console me with your words,
but tell me truly how you chanced to see him.
I beg you, if ever in word or deed
my father, brave Odysseus, over there,
on Trojan soil, where you Achaean men                                             440   [330]
bore so much hardship, made you a promise
and later kept his word, speak to me now,
and give me the truth.”

                                               Fair-haired Menelaus,
annoyed by what he’d heard, replied:

                                           “It’s disgraceful
how despicable cowards want to lie
in that brave warrior’s bed, as if a deer
had lulled her new-born suckling fawns to sleep
in a lion’s den and then gone roaming
through mountain fields and grassy valleys
in search of forage—then the lion comes                                      450
back to his lair and brings to both of them
a shameful death. That just how Odysseus                                              [340]
will bring those suitors their disgraceful doom.
O Father Zeus, Athena, and Apollo,
how I wish Odysseus would make it back
and meet the suitors with the strength he had
when he stood up in well-built Lesbos once
in a wrestling match with Philomeleides.
Using his great power, he threw him down,
and all Achaean men rejoiced. Those suitors                                     460
would soon enough see their bitter courtship
end in a swift death. As for what you ask,
what you’ve begged me to tell—I’ll not digress
to speak of other things, nor will I lie.
No. What the Old Man of the Sea told me—
and did so truthfully—I will not hide.
I won’t conceal a single word.

                                                       In Egypt,                                                [350]
though I was eager to get home, the gods
prevented me—I had not offered them
a full and proper sacrifice, and gods                                                   470 
always demand obedience to their will.
Now, just in front of Egypt is an island,
right in the crashing sea—it’s called Pharos—
as far from shore as hollow ships can sail
in one whole day, when a favouring breeze
blows up behind them. There’s a harbour there
with excellent moorage, and from that spot
men launch well-balanced ships into the sea,
once they have taken on supplies of water.
For twenty days the gods detained me there.                                     480   [360]
Not once was there a favourable wind,
the sort of offshore breeze which makes men’s ships
race out across the broad back of the sea.
Then my provisions would have all been spent,
together with the spirit in my crew,
if a goddess had not taken pity
and rescued us—goddess Eidothea,
a daughter of the Old Man of the Sea,
great Proteus. For I had moved her heart,
more so than other men. When she met me,                                      490
I was by myself and had wandered off,
away from my companions, who’d gone out,
as they always did, to scour the island,
fishing with bent hooks, their stomachs cramped
from hunger. She came close to me and said:                                           [370]

‘Stranger, are you a slow-witted idiot,
or are you happy just to let things go
and find delight in your own suffering?
You’ve been stranded so long on this island,
unable to discover signs of help,                                               500
while your companions’ spirits waste away.’

That’s what she said. So then I answered her:

‘Whoever you may be among the gods,
I’ll tell you I have not been pent up here
with my consent. Something must have happened
to make me act against immortal gods,
who occupy wide heaven. Tell me this—
for gods know all things—which immortal one
keeps my feet shackled here and blocks my way?                      [380]
Tell me how I can find my way back home,                               510
how I may sail across the fish-filled seas.’

I finished speaking. The lovely goddess
gave me her answer right away. She said:

‘All right, stranger, I’ll be truthful with you.
The Old Man of the Sea comes here from Egypt,
infallible and immortal Proteus,
a god who knows the depths of every sea,
Poseidon’s servant and, so people say,
my father, too, the one who sired me.
If somehow you men could set an ambush                               520
and catch hold of him, he’d tell you the way.
He’d chart the course for your return and map
how you could sail across the fish-filled seas.                                [390]
And, Zeus-fostered man, if you were willing,
he’d tell you all the good and evil things
which have been taking place in your own house
while you’ve been travelling away from home
on such a long and arduous journey.’

When she told me this, I replied and said:

‘Could you yourself produce a strategy                                    530
to ambush this divine old man, in case
he sees me first and, knowing all my plans,
escapes me. It’s difficult for mortal men
to overcome a god.’

                                                                  Once I said this,
the lovely goddess answered me and said:

‘Stranger, I’ll be quite frank—tell you the truth
in all things. When the sun has made its way                            [400]
up into the middle of the heavens,
that infallible Old Man of the Sea
emerges from the brine, where he’s concealed                        540
by murky waves stirred up by West Wind’s breath.
Once he gets here, he stretches out to rest
in these hollow caves, and around him sleeps
a herd of seals—they are the offspring born
to the daughter of the sea and swim up,
out of the grey water. Their breath gives off
the sharp salt smell of the deep sea. At dawn,
I’ll take you there and arrange an ambush.
You must carefully select three comrades,
the best men in those well-decked ships of yours.                 550
Now I’ll describe for you all the sly tricks                                        [410]
that old man has. First, he’ll inspect the seals.
He’ll count them, numbering them off by fives.
Once he has checked on them, he will lie down
in their midst, like a shepherd with his sheep.
As soon as you see him stretched out to sleep,
then you must use all your strength and courage
to hold him there for all his desperate moves,
as he struggles to escape. For he’ll attempt
to change himself into all sorts of shapes                                560
of everything that crawls across the earth,
or into water or a sacred flame.
You must not flinch—keep up your grip on him—
make it even tighter. And finally,
when he begins to speak and questions you                                   [420]
in the same shape you saw him go to sleep,
then, warrior king, you can relax your grip
and let the old man go. Ask him which god
is angry at you and how you’ll get back,
charting a course across the fish-filled seas.’                          570

She spoke and plunged back in the crashing sea.
I went to where my ships were on the beach,
my dark heart weighted down with many things.
After I’d reached our ships along the shore,
we prepared a meal and ate our dinner.
When immortal night arrived, we lay down                                              [430]
beside the breaking surf. Then, as the light
of rose-fingered early Dawn streaked the sky,
I walked along the shores of that wide sea
praying in earnest to the gods. I took                                                 580
three companions, the ones I trusted most
in any enterprise. That sea goddess,
who’d plunged into the bosom of the sea,
brought up four seal skins from the ocean depths,
each one freshly skinned, then set up the plot
against her father. She scooped out in the sand
some pits to hide in, and then waited there.
Once we’d come up really close beside her,
she made us lie down in a row and threw                                            [440]
a seal skin over each of us. That ambush                                            590
could well have been too horrible to bear,
for the atrocious stench of sea-born seals
was dreadful. Who would let himself lie down
with creatures from the sea? But Eidothea
personally helped us by thinking up
a remedy—she got ambrosia,
sweet-smelling oil of the immortal gods,
and put it under each man’s nose. That killed
the foul stink coming from those animals.
With patient hearts we waited there all morning.                            600
Crowds of seals emerged and then lay down
in rows along the shoreline of the sea.
At noon the old man came up from the waves,                                         [450]
discovered the plump seals, looked at each one,
and made his count, beginning first with us,
whom he included with the animals.
His heart did not suspect there was a trick.
Then he lay down. We charged up with a shout
and grabbed him in our arms. But the old man
did not forget his skilful tricks. At first,                                              610
he turned himself into a hairy lion,
and then into a serpent and a leopard,
then a huge wild boar. He transformed himself
to flowing water and a towering tree.
We did not flinch but kept our grip on him.
Our hearts were resolute. When the old man,                                         [460]
for all his evasive skills, got tired out,
he spoke up and started questioning me:

‘Son of Atreus, which god helped your plan
and forged a scheme so you could lie in wait                           620
and ambush me against my will? And why?
What do you need?’

                            When he’d said this to me,
I answered him and said:

                                ‘You know that, old man,
so why mislead me with such questioning?
I’ve been stranded too long on this island
and can’t discover any sign of help.
The heart is growing faint inside my chest.
So tell me, for you gods know everything,
which one of the immortals chains my feet
and blocks my way. And speak to me as well                          630
about my journey back, how I may sail                                            [470]
across the fish-filled seas.’

                                     When I’d said that,
he answered me at once:

                                          ‘Before you left,
you should have offered a fine sacrifice
to Zeus and other gods, so you could sail
across the wine-dark sea and then arrive
in your own land as fast as possible.
Your fate decrees you will not see your friends
or reach your homeland or your well-built house,
till you have gone back once more to Egypt,                       640
to the waters of that Zeus-fed river,
and offered sacrifices to the gods,
the immortal ones who hold wide heaven.
The gods will then give you that journey home                         [480]
which you so yearn for.’

                                           As the old man spoke,
my fond heart was breaking up inside me,
because he’d told me I must go once more
across the misty seas, on that long trip
to Egypt, a painful journey. But still,
I answered him and spoke these words:

                                                            ‘Old man,                               650
I will carry out what you have told me.
But come now, tell me—and speak truthfully—
did Argives and their ships get safely back,
all those men Nestor and myself left there
when we set out from Troy? Did any die
a bitter death on board, or in the arms
of those who loved them, after they’d tied up                            [490]
the loose threads of the war?’

                                                     That’s what I asked,
and he gave me his answer right away:

‘Son of Atreus, why question me on this?                                660
You don’t need to know or to read my mind.
For once you’ve learned the details of all this,
you’ll not hold back your tears for very long.
Many Achaean warriors were destroyed,
and many men survived. Among the Argives
armed in bronze, only two leading warriors
were killed on their way home. As for the fights,
you were there yourself. There is one leader
held back by the sea, still alive somewhere.
Ajax perished among his long-oared ships—                           670
at Gyrae Poseidon first drove his boat                                               [500]
against huge rocks, then saved him from the sea.(8)
For all Athena’s hate, he’d have been saved,
if he had not been insanely foolish—
he stated he had managed to escape
the sea’s huge depths, in spite of all the gods.
Poseidon heard him make this boastful claim.
Immediately those mighty hands of his
picked up his trident and then brought it down
on that rock at Gyrae, splitting it apart.                                   680
One piece stayed in place—but the other one
sheared off and fell into the sea, the part
where Ajax was sitting when he became
so utterly deluded. He fell down
into the endless surging waves and died,                                        [510]
swallowing salt water. But your brother
escaped that fate—he and his hollow ships
made it home, for queen Hera rescued him.
And then, when he was just about to reach
the steep height at Malea, winds caught him.                        690
As he groaned in distress, they carried him
across the fish-filled seas to distant lands
where Thyestes used to live, now the home
of Thyestes’ son Aegisthus.(9) But then,
once the gods had changed the wind’s direction,                          [520]
it seemed that he could make it safely back.
So he got home. And he was full of joy
to set foot on his native land once more.
He embraced the earth and kissed it—shedding
numerous warm tears. He was delighted                                700
at the sight. But a watchman spied him out,
someone Aegisthus had placed as lookout,
to promote his plot, promising the man,
as his reward, two gold talents. He’d been there
watching the shore for one whole year, in case
Agamemnon managed to make it home
without being noticed and remind them all
of his fearsome power. The watchman went
straight to the palace to report the news
to Aegisthus, shepherd of the people,                                       710
who then arranged a treacherous attack.
He picked out twenty of the finest men                                           [530]
in the whole town and set up an ambush.
Then, in another section of the house,
he had a feast made ready and went off
with chariot and horses to lead back
Agamemnon, shepherd of his people,
all the while intending to destroy him.
Aegisthus then accompanied him home—
he suspected nothing of the murder—                                     720
and then, after the feast, he butchered him,
just as one slays an ox in its own stall.
Of those comrades of the son of Atreus
who followed him, not one was left alive.
Nor were any of Aegisthus’ comrades—
all of them were slaughtered in the palace.’

The old man finished speaking. My fond heart
was shattered, and, as I sat in the sand,
I wept—my spirit had no wish to live                                                         [540]
or gaze upon the daylight anymore.                                                    730
When I’d had my fill of rolling in the sand
and shedding tears, the Old Man of the Sea
spoke frankly to me, saying,

                                                                    ‘Son of Atreus,
you must not squander so much time like this,
in constant weeping. That’s no help to us.
No. You must strive, as quickly as you can,
to get back to your home. For it may be
you’ll find Aegisthus is still living there,
or else Orestes has preceded you
and killed the man. If so, then there’s a chance                      740
you’ll get back for Aegisthus’ funeral feast.’

The old man finished speaking. In my chest
my heart and spirit, for all my grieving,
felt strong once again. So I answered him—                                              [550]
my words had wings:

                                                   ‘Now I understand
what has happened to these men. But tell me
about the third one—whether he still lives,
held back by the wide sea, or has been killed.
I wish to hear that, for all my sorrow.’

I spoke. He immediately replied:                                                         750

‘You mean Laertes’ son, from Ithaca.
I saw him on an island. He was weeping
in the palace of the nymph Calypso,
who keeps him there by force. He has no way
of getting back to his own land—he lacks
companions. He has no ships equipped with oars,
to carry him across the sea’s broad back.                                        [560]
As for you, Zeus-fostered Menelaus,
it’s not ordained that you will meet your fate
and die in horse-rich Argos. No. The gods                               760
will send you off to the Elysian fields,
and to the outer limits of the earth—
the place where fair-haired Rhadamanthus lives
and for human beings life is easy—
there’s no snow or bad storms or even rain,
and Oceanus sends a steady breeze,
as West Wind blows to keep men cool and fresh.
They’ll do this because Helen is your wife—
for they’ll treat you as the man who married
Zeus’s daughter.’

                              After saying these words,                                        770   [570]
the old man plunged back in the surging sea.
I went to my ships and godlike shipmates.
As I walked, my heart was darkly troubled,
but once I’d reached my ships beside the sea
and we’d prepared a meal, immortal night
descended, and we slept there on the shore.

As soon as rose-fingered early Dawn appeared,
we dragged our boats into the sacred sea,
then fitted masts and sails on our trim ships.
The men climbed in, went to their rowing seats,                              780
and, sitting well in order, raised their oars                                           [580]
and struck the grey salt sea. So I sailed back
once more to Egypt’s heaven-fed river,
and there I offered a full sacrifice.
Once I’d appeased the anger of those gods
who live forever, I made a funeral mound
for Agamemnon, to make sure his fame
would never die, and when I’d finished that,
I set off on my journey home. The gods
gave me fair winds and brought me with all speed                           790
back to the native land I love.

                                             But come now,
you must stay with me in my palace here
ten or eleven days, and after that
I’ll send you off with honour. I’ll give you
lovely gifts—a finely polished chariot
and three horses, too, and, as well as these,                                             [590]
a gorgeous cup. You can pour libations
to eternal gods and remember me
for all your days to come.”

                                          Shrewd Telemachus
then answered Menelaus:

                                    “Son of Atreus,                                                    800
you must not hold me up for very long.
To tell the truth, I’d like to stay right here,
sitting in your palace an entire year,
and I’d not miss my parents or my home,
for I get such astonishing delight
from what you say and from the tales you tell.
But my comrades are already restless
back in sacred Pylos, and time has passed
while you’ve detained me here. As for presents,
give me whatever you wish. Let it be                                                   810    [600]
something you treasure. But I will not take
those horses back with me to Ithaca.
I’ll leave them in Sparta to bring you joy.
For you are king of an extensive plain
in which huge quantities of lotus grow,
with sedge, broad-eared white barley, wheat, and rye.
But there are no wide plains in Ithaca,
no meadows. It has grazing land for goats,
something I prefer to lush horse pasture.
No island sloping down into the sea                                                    820
has land suitable for raising horses,
and that’s especially true of Ithaca.”

At that, the great war-shouter Menelaus smiled,
patted Telemachus with his hand, and said to him:                                      [610]

“My lad, the way you’ve spoken out proclaims
your noble blood. So I’ll exchange those gifts.
That I can do. Of all the things stored up
here in my home, I’ll give you the finest,
the most expensive one. I’ll offer you
a beautifully crafted mixing bowl.                                                       830
It’s all silver, with rims of hammered gold.
Hephaestus made it. Warrior Phaedimus,
the Sidonian king, offered it to me
when I went there and his home sheltered me.
I’d like to give that mixing bowl to you.”

So these men kept conversing with each other.                                                 [620]

Meanwhile, back in Telemachus’s Ithaca,
the banqueters had reached the royal palace,
driving sheep before them and carrying strong wine.
Their splendidly dressed wives were sending bread for them.                  840
As these men were in the hall preparing dinner,
the suitors gathered outside Odysseus’s home,
enjoying themselves by throwing spears and discus
on level ground in front—with all the arrogance
they usually displayed. The two men who led them,
Antinous and Eurymachus, a handsome man,
were sitting there—by far the noblest of the suitors.                                        [630]
Noemon, Phronius’s son, came up to them
to question Antinous. He said:

                                                          “Antinous,
in our hearts do we truly know or not                                                 850
the day Telemachus is coming back
from sandy Pylos? He left Ithaca,
taking a ship of mine which I now need
to make the trip across to spacious Elis,
where I have twelve mares and sturdy mules
still sucking on the teat, not yet broken.
I want to fetch and break in one of them.”

He finished. In their hearts the suitors were amazed.
They had no inkling that Telemachus had gone
to Pylos, land of Neleus, and still believed                                                   860
he was visiting the flocks on his estates
or the swineherd. So in answer to Noemon,                                                        [640]
Antinous, Eupeithes’ son, replied:

                                                                      “Tell me the truth—
when did he leave? What young men went with him?
Did he take citizens of Ithaca,
or were his shipmates his slaves and servants?
That’s something he could do. And tell me this—
I want the truth, so I know what happened—
did he take that black ship against your will,
by force, or did you volunteer to give it,                                             870
because he begged you?”

                               Noemon, son of Phronius,
then answered Antinous:

                                      “I agreed to give it.
Would anyone have acted otherwise,
when a man like him, with a grieving heart,                                             [650]
makes a request? It would be difficult
to deny him what he asked. The young men—
the ones who went with him—are excellent,
except for us, the best this land affords.
As they embarked, I observed their leader,
Mentor, or some god who looks just like him.                                   880
I’m surprised at that—at dawn yesterday
I saw noble Mentor, though by that time
he’d already gone on board for Pylos.”

Once he finished speaking, Noemon went away,
back to his father’s house. But those two suitors,
Antinous and Eurymachus, had angry hearts.
They quickly got the suitors to give up their games
and had them sit down all together in a group.
Antinous, son of Eupeithes, then spoke to them.                                               [660]
He was extremely angry, black heart filled with rage,                               890
his flashing eyes a fiery blaze:

                                           “Here’s trouble.
In his overbearing way Telemachus,
with this voyage of his, has now achieved
significant success. And we believed
he would never see it through. Against our will,
this mere youngster has simply gone away,
launching a ship and choosing our best men,
the finest in the land. He’ll soon begin
creating problems for us. I hope Zeus
will sap his strength before he comes of age                                      900
and reaches full maturity. Come now,
give me a swift ship and twenty comrades,
so I can watch for him and set an ambush,                                               [670]
as he navigates his passage through the strait
dividing Ithaca from rugged Samos,
and bring this trip searching for his father
to a dismal end.”

                                When Antinous had finished,
the suitors all agreed, and they instructed him
to carry out what he proposed. Then they got up
and went back inside the palace of Odysseus.                                            910

Now, Penelope was not ignorant for long
of the schemes those suitors were hatching in their hearts.
For the herald Medon told her. He’d been listening
outside the hall, as they were making plans inside,
weaving their plot. Medon proceeded through the house
to tell Penelope the news. As he came out
just across the threshold, Penelope called him:                                             [680]

“Herald, why have these distinguished suitors
sent you out here? Are you supposed to tell
the female household slaves of lord Odysseus                                  920
to stop their work and then make them a feast?
After this whole courtship, I hope those men
never gather somewhere else. And today,
may they make the banquet in this palace
their latest and their last, all those of you
who by collecting here consume so much,
the wealth of wise Telemachus. It seems,
when you were children all those years ago,
you did not pay attention to your fathers,
as they discussed the kind of noble man                                            930
Odysseus was among their generation—
in Ithaca he never did or said                                                                      [690]
a hurtful thing to anyone, unlike
the usual habits of our godlike kings,
who hate one man and love another one.
He never did the slightest injury
to any man. But your heart and wicked acts
are plain to see—you show no gratitude
for kindness shown to you in earlier days.”

 Then Medon, an intelligent man, said to her:                                            940

“My queen, I wish that what you’ve just described
were the worst of it. But now these suitors
are planning something much more dangerous
and troubling—I hope the son of Cronos
never permits them to succeed. They mean
to kill Telemachus with their sharp swords,                                             [700]
as he comes home. He’s sailed off to Pylos
and then to sacred Sparta, seeking news
about his father.”

                                                         As Medon spoke, Penelope
felt her heart and knees give way where she was standing.                       950
For a long time she could not speak a word to him—
both her eyes were full of tears, and she lost her voice.
But finally she spoke to him and said:

                                                                       “Herald,
why did my son leave? There was no need
for him to go on board swift-moving ships,
men’s salt-water horses, to sail across
enormous seas. Did he do it to make sure
he’d never leave a name among all men?”                                                  [710]

Wise Medon then answered Penelope and said:

“I don’t know if some god was urging him                                           960
or if his own heart prompted him to sail

for Pylos, to learn about his father—
whether he was ever returning home
or had met his fate.”

                                                                           After saying this,
Medon went away, down through Odysseus’s home.
Clouds of heart-destroying grief fell on Penelope.
She had no strength and could not sit down on a chair—
and there were several in the room. She collapsed,
crouching on the threshold of that splendid chamber,
moaning in distress. Around her, all her servants                                       970
cried out, too, all those inside the house, young and old.                                [720]
Still weeping with that group, Penelope spoke out:

“Friends, listen. For Zeus has given me
more sorrows than any other woman
born and raised with me. Many years ago
I lost my noble husband—a fine man
who had a lion’s heart and qualities
which made him stand out among Danaans
in all sorts of ways, a courageous man,
whose famous name is well known far and wide                               980
throughout all Hellas and middle Argos.(10)
And now, without a word, the storm winds sweep
my son, whom I so love, away from home,
and I don’t even hear about his trip.
You are too cruel. In your minds, no one
thought to rouse me from my bed, though you knew,                             [730]
deep in your hearts, the moment he embarked
in his black hollow ship. If I had known
he was going to undertake this journey,
he would have stayed at home. He truly would,                               990
for all his eagerness to make the trip.
Or else I would have perished in these rooms
before he left me. But now one of you
must quickly summon old man Dolius,
my servant, whom my father gave to me
before I ever came to Ithaca,
the one who tends my orchard full of trees,
so he may go as quickly as he can,
to sit beside Laertes and tell him
this disastrous news. Perhaps Laertes                                                 1000
in his thinking can somehow weave a plan,
then go and weep his case before those men
intent on wiping out his family,                                                                 [740]
the whole race of heavenly Odysseus.”

The good nurse Eurycleia answered Penelope:

“Dear lady, you may kill me with a sword
or keep me in the house, but I’ll not hide
a word from you. I knew all about this.
I gave him everything he asked me to,
including bread and wine. He made me swear                                   1010
a powerful oath I would not tell you,
until he’d been away eleven days
or you yourself should miss him and find out,
in case you harmed that lovely skin of yours                                             [750]
with your laments. But you should have a bath,
put clean clothing on your body, then go—
take your attendants to your room upstairs
and make your prayers there to Athena,
daughter of great Zeus who bears the aegis.
She may rescue him from death. Don’t bother                             1020
old man Laertes with still more troubles.
I don’t think the family of Arcesius
is so completely hated by the gods,
that one of them is unable somehow
to guard this high-roofed home and its estates,
so rich and far away.”

                                                Eurycleia spoke.
What she said eased the sorrow in Penelope,
whose eyes stopped weeping. She left to bathe herself,
put fresh clothing on her body, and went away,
taking her female servants to her room upstairs.                                        1030   [760]
She scattered some grains of barley in a basket
and then prayed to Athena:

                                             “O untiring child
of aegis-bearing Zeus, hear my prayer.
If resourceful Odysseus in his home
ever offered a sacrifice to you—
plump cattle thighs or sheep—recall that now,
I pray. Save my dear son and keep him safe
from those suitors and their murderous pride.”

With these words, Penelope raised a sacred cry,
and the goddess heard her prayer.

                                                    But the suitors                                              1040
were still carousing down in those shadowy halls.
One overbearing youth would say something like this:

“Ah ha, the lady with so many suitors                                                        [770]
is making preparations for the marriage,
knowing nothing of the plans we’re hatching
for the killing of her son.”

                                           That’s the sort of thing
any one of them would say, in his ignorance
of how things finally would end. Then Antinous
addressed them all and said:

                                                       “Noble lords,
you must not speak out so intemperately—                                      1050
no more such talk. Someone may report it,
especially to those inside the house.
Come now, let’s get up quietly and work
to carry out that scheme which all our hearts
responded to with such delightful joy.”

After saying this, Antinous picked out his men,
twenty of the best. They went down to the shore
and dragged a swift black ship out into deep water.                                     [780]
They set the mast in place, carried sails on board,
and fitted oars into their leather rowing loops,                                            1060
all in proper order, then spread out the white sail.
Their proud attendants brought their weapons on the ship.
They moored the ship quite near the shore, then disembarked
and ate a meal there, waiting until evening fell.

Wise Penelope lay there in her upstairs room,
taking no food at all—she would not eat or drink—
worrying if her fine son could avoid being killed,
or if those arrogant suitors would slaughter him.                                          [790]
Just as a lion grows tense, overcome with fear,
when encircled by a crowd of crafty hunters,                                              1070
that’s how her mind was working then, as sweet sleep
came over her. Then she lay back and got some rest,
and all her limbs relaxed.

                                                                        But then Athena,
goddess with the glittering eyes, thought of something else.
She made a phantom shape, exactly like a woman,
Iphthime, daughter of the brave Icarius
and wife to Eumelus, who lived in Pherae.(11)
Athena sent this shape to lord Odysseus’ home,
while Penelope was in distress and grieving,                                                       [800]
to advise her she should end her tears and sorrow.                                    1080
The phantom shape passed through the thong which held the bolt
and went into Penelope’s room. Standing there
above her head, it spoke to her:

                                                            “Penelope,
is your heart anxious as you lie asleep?
It shouldn’t be. The gods who live at ease
will not bring you distress and suffering—
your son will still get home. For he’s someone
who’s never been offensive to the gods.”

Wise Penelope remained deep in her sweet sleep
beside the gate of dreams. But she replied and said:                                  1090

“Sister, why are you now here? Up to now                                                 [810]
you haven’t come—your home’s so far away.
You tell me to end my cries and grieving,
all the pain afflicting my mind and heart.
But I’ve already lost my noble husband,
that lion-hearted man, whose qualities
made him preeminent among Danaans
in all sorts of ways—a brave warrior,
whose glory is widely known in Hellas
and middle Argos. Now the son I love                                                  1100
has set off in a hollow ship—poor child—
with no idea of how men struggle on
or conduct themselves in meetings. That’s why
I grieve for him much more than for Odysseus.
He makes me tremble—I am so afraid                                                        [820]
he’ll run into troubles with those people
in the land he’s visiting or at sea.
Many enemies are now planning schemes,
in their eagerness to hurt or kill him,
before he gets back to his native land.”                                               1110

The dim phantom form then answered Penelope:

“Be brave. And do not let your mind and heart
succumb to fear too much. He has with him
the sort of guide whom other men have prayed
to stand beside them, and she has power—
yes, Pallas Athena. While you’ve been grieving,
she’s taken pity on you. She’s the one
who sent me here to tell you this.”

                                                      Wise Penelope                                                              [830]
then spoke out in reply:

                                               “If you’re indeed a god
and have listened to Athena when she speaks,                                 1120
then tell me news of that ill-fated man.
I’m begging you. Is Odysseus still alive
and looking at the light, or is he dead,
already down in the realm of Hades?”

The faint image then answered Penelope and said:

“No, no. I cannot talk of him in detail
and tell you whether he’s alive or dead.
It’s a bad thing to chatter like the wind.”

After saying these words, the phantom slipped away,
vanishing through the door bolt in a breath of wind.                                 1130
The daughter of Icarius woke from her sleep,
her heart encouraged that such a vivid dream                                                    [840]
had raced towards her in the middle of the night.

The suitors climbed aboard their ship and sailed away
on their voyage across the sea, minds fully bent
on slaughtering Telemachus. Well out to sea,
half way between Ithaca and rugged Samos,
lies rocky Asteris. The island is not large,
but ships can moor there in a place with openings
in both directions. The Achaeans waited there                                            1140
and organized their ambush for Telemachus.

ENDNOTES

(1) Sparta is the name of the city in the district of Lacedaemon in the Peloponnese. The two names, Sparta and Lacedaemon, are generally used interchangeably. [Back to Text]

(2) Electrum: a naturally occurring alloy of gold and silver with other trace mineral elements. [Back to Text]

(3) Antilochus: Peisistratus’s brother (mentioned in Book 3), who was killed at Troy by Memnon, son of Dawn. He was buried with Achilles and Patroclus at Troy. [Back to Text]

(4) Helen is the daughter of Zeus and the mortal Leda. [Back to Text]

(5) Paeeon is the god of healing who knows all the remedies available for human ills. [Back to Text]

(6) Deïphobus was a prince of Troy, son of king Priam. After Paris was killed in the war, Helen became the wife of Deïphobus. He was killed in the sack of Troy by Menelaus or, in some accounts, by Helen herself. [Back to Text]

(7) The word sleep is capitalized when it refers to the god of sleep and has a lower-case first letter when it refers to the act of sleeping. [Back to Text]

(8) This is a reference to Oïlean Ajax, king of Locris (or the “Lesser” Ajax), not to Ajax, king of Salamis, the greatest Achaean warrior after Achilles, who had died and was buried at Troy (as Nestor has pointed out in Book 3). [Back to Text]

(9) Thyestes was the brother of Atreus (father of Agamemnon and Menelaus). Atreus had killed Thyestes’s small sons and fed them to him at dinner. Aegisthus, the remaining son, took his revenge on Agamemnon and killed him, in collaboration with Agamemnon’s wife. [Back to Text]

(10) Hellas is a name for the geographical totality of the numerous Greek-speaking states. [Back to Text]

(11) In other words, Athena takes on the form of Penelope’s sister. [Back to Text]

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