I. THE CURSE OF POLYPHEMUS.
Of all the heroes that wandered far and wide before they came to their homes again after the fall of Troy, none suffered so many hardships as Odysseus.
There was, indeed, one other man whose adventures have been likened to his, and this was Aeneas, a Trojan hero. He escaped from the burning city with a band of fugitives, his countrymen; and after years of peril and wandering he came to found a famous race in Italy. On the way, he found one hospitable resting-place in Carthage, where Queen Dido received him with great kindliness; and when he left her she took her own life, out of very grief.
But there were no other hardships such as beset Odysseus, between the burning of Troy and his return to Ithaca, west of the land of Greece. Ten years did he fight against Troy, but it was ten years more before he came to his home and his wife Penelope and his son Telemachus.
Now all these latter years of wandering fell to his lot because of Poseidon’s anger against him. For Poseidon had favored the Grecian cause, and might well have sped home this man who had done so much to win the Grecian victory. But as evil destiny would have it, Odysseus mortally angered the god of the sea by blinding his son, the Cyclops Polyphemus. And thus it came to pass.
Odysseus set out from Troy with twelve good ships. He touched first at Ismarus, where his first misfortune took place, and in a skirmish with the natives he lost a number of men from each ship’s crew. A storm then drove them to the land of the Lotus-Eaters, a wondrous people, kindly and content, who spend their lives in a day-dream and care for nothing else under the sun. No sooner had the sailors eaten of this magical lotus than they lost all their wish to go home, or to see their wives and children again. By main force, Odysseus drove them back to the ships and saved them from the spell.
Thence they came one day to a beautiful strange island, a verdant place to see, deep with soft grass and well watered with springs. Here they ran the ships ashore, and took their rest and feasted for a day. But Odysseus looked across to the mainland, where he saw flocks and herds, and smoke going up softly from the homes of men; and he resolved to go across and find out what manner of people lived there. Accordingly, next morning, he took his own ship’s company and they rowed across to the mainland.
Now, fair as the place was, there dwelt in it a race of giants, the Cyclopes, great rude creatures, having each but one eye, and that in the middle of his forehead. One of them was Polyphemus, the son of Poseidon. He lived by himself as a shepherd, and it was to his cave that Odysseus came, by some evil chance. It was an enormous grotto, big enough to house the giant and all his flocks, and it had a great courtyard without. But Odysseus, knowing nought of all this, chose out twelve men, and with a wallet of corn and a goatskin full of wine they left the ship and made a way to the cave, which they had seen from the water.
Much they wondered who might be the master of this strange house. Polyphemus was away with his sheep, but many lambs and kids were penned there, and the cavern was well stored with goodly cheeses and cream and whey.
Without delay, the wearied men kindled a fire and sat down to eat such things as they found, till a great shadow came dark against the doorway, and they saw the Cyclops near at hand, returning with his flocks. In an instant they fled into the darkest corner of the cavern.
Polyphemus drove his flocks into the place and cast off from his shoulders a load of young trees for firewood. Then he lifted and set in the entrance of the cave a gigantic boulder of a door-stone. Not until he had milked the goats and ewes and stirred up the fire did his terrible one eye light upon the strangers.
“What are ye?” he roared then, “robbers or rovers?” And Odysseus alone had heart to answer.
“We are Achaeans of the army of Agamemnon,” said he. “And by the will of Zeus we have lost our course, and are come to you as strangers. Forget not that Zeus has a care for such as we, strangers and suppliants.”
Loud laughed the Cyclops at this. “You are a witless churl to bid me heed the gods!” said he. “I spare or kill to please myself and none other. But where is your cockle-shell that brought you hither?”
Then Odysseus answered craftily: “Alas, my ship is gone! Only I and my men escaped alive from the sea.”
But Polyphemus, who had been looking them over with his one eye, seized two of the mariners and dashed them against the wall and made his evening meal of them, while their comrades stood by helpless. This done, he stretched himself through the cavern and slept all night long, taking no more heed of them than if they had been flies. No sleep came to the wretched seamen, for, even had they been able to slay him, they were powerless to move away the boulder from the door. So all night long Odysseus took thought how they might possibly escape.
At dawn the Cyclops woke, and his awakening was like a thunderstorm. Again he kindled the fire, again he milked the goats and ewes, and again he seized two of the king’s comrades and served them up for his terrible repast. Then the savage shepherd drove his flocks out of the cave, only turning back to set the boulder in the doorway and pen up Odysseus and his men in their dismal lodging.
But the wise king had pondered well. In the sheepfold he had seen a mighty club of olive-wood, in size like the mast of a ship. As soon as the Cyclops was gone, Odysseus bade his men cut off a length of this club and sharpen it down to a point. This done, they hid it away under the earth that heaped the floor; and they waited in fear and torment for their chance of escape.
At sundown, home came the Cyclops. Just as he had done before, he drove in his flocks, barred the entrance, milked the goats and ewes, and made his meal of two more hapless men, while their fellows looked on with burning eyes. Then Odysseus stood forth, holding a bowl of the wine that he had brought with him; and, curbing his horror of Polyphemus, he spoke in friendly fashion: “Drink, Cyclops, and prove our wine, such as it was, for all was lost with our ship save this. And no other man will ever bring you more, since you are such an ungentle host.”
The Cyclops tasted the wine and laughed with delight so that the cave shook. “Ho, this is a rare drink!” said he. “I never tasted milk so good, nor whey, nor grape-juice either. Give me the rest, and tell me your name, that I may thank you for it.”
Twice and thrice Odysseus poured the wine and the Cyclops drank it off; then he answered: “Since you ask it, Cyclops, my name is Noman.”
“And I will give you this for your wine, Noman,” said the Cyclops; “you shall be eaten last of all!”
As he spoke his head drooped, for his wits were clouded with drink, and he sank heavily out of his seat and lay prone, stretched along the floor of the cavern. His great eye shut and he fell asleep.
Odysseus thrust the stake under the ashes till it was glowing hot; and his fellows stood by him, ready to venture all. Then together they lifted the club and drove it straight into the eye of Polyphemus and turned it around and about.
The Cyclops gave a horrible cry, and, thrusting away the brand, he called on all his fellow-giants near and far. Odysseus and his men hid in the uttermost corners of the cave, but they heard the resounding steps of the Cyclopes who were roused, and their shouts as they called, “What ails thee, Polyphemus? Art thou slain? Who has done thee any hurt?”
“Noman!” roared the blinded Cyclops; “Noman is here to slay me by treachery.”
“Then if no man hath hurt thee,” they called again, “let us sleep.” And away they went to their homes once more.
But Polyphemus lifted away the boulder from the door and sat there in the entrance, groaning with pain and stretching forth his hands to feel if any one were near. Then, while he sat in double darkness, with the light of his eye gone out, Odysseus bound together the rams of the flock, three by three, in such wise that every three should save one of his comrades. For underneath the mid ram of each group a man clung, grasping his shaggy fleece; and the rams on each side guarded him from discovery. Odysseus himself chose out the greatest ram and laid hold of his fleece and clung beneath his shaggy body, face upward.
Now, when dawn came, the rams hastened out to pasture, and Polyphemus felt of their backs as they huddled along together; but he knew not that every three held a man bound securely. Last of all came the kingly ram that was dearest to his rude heart, and he bore the King of Ithaca. Once free of the cave, Odysseus and his fellows loosed their hold and took flight, driving the rams in haste to the ship, where, without delay, they greeted their comrades and went aboard.
But as they pushed from shore, Odysseus could not refrain from hailing the Cyclops with taunts, and at the sound of that voice Polyphemus came forth from his cave and hurled a great rock after the ship. It missed and upheaved the water like an earthquake. Again Odysseus called, saying: “Cyclops, if any shall ask who blinded thine eye, say that it was Odysseus, son of Laertes of Ithaca.”
Then Polyphemus groaned and cried: “An Oracle foretold it, but I waited for some man of might who should overcome me by his valor,—not a weakling! And now”—he lifted his hands and prayed,—”Father Poseidon, my father, look upon Odysseus, the son of Laertes of Ithaca, and grant me this revenge,—let him never see Ithaca again! Yet, if he must, may he come late, without a friend, after long wandering, to find evil abiding by his hearth!”
So he spoke and hurled another rock after them, but the ship outstripped it, and sped by to the island where the other good ships waited for Odysseus. Together they put out from land and hastened on their homeward voyage.
But Poseidon, who is lord of the sea, had heard the prayer of his son, and that homeward voyage was to wear through ten years more, with storm and irksome calms and misadventure.
II. THE WANDERING OF ODYSSEUS.
Now Odysseus and his men sailed on and on till they came to Aeolia, where dwells the king of the winds, and here they came nigh to good fortune.
Aeolus received them kindly, and at their going he secretly gave to Odysseus a leathern bag in which all contrary winds were tied up securely, that only the favoring west wind might speed them to Ithaca. Nine days the ships went gladly before the wind, and on the tenth day they had sight of Ithaca, lying like a low cloud in the west. Then, so near his haven, the happy Odysseus gave up to his weariness and fell asleep, for he had never left the helm. But while he slept his men saw the leathern bag that he kept by him, and, in the belief that it was full of treasure, they opened it. Out rushed the ill-winds!
In an instant the sea was covered with white caps; the waves rose mountain high; the poor ships struggled against the tyranny of the gale and gave way. Back they were driven,—back, farther and farther; and when Odysseus woke, Ithaca was gone from sight, as if it had indeed been only a low cloud in the west!
Straight to the island of Aeolus they were driven once more. But when the king learned what greed and treachery had wasted his good gift, he would give them nothing more. “Surely thou must be a man hated of the gods, Odysseus,” he said, “for misfortune bears thee company. Depart now; I may not help thee.”
So, with a heavy heart, Odysseus and his men departed. For many days they rowed against a dead calm, until at length they came to the land of the Laestrygonians. And, to cut a piteous tale short, these giants destroyed all their fleet save one ship,—that of Odysseus himself, and in this he made escape to the island of Circe. What befell there, how the greedy seamen were turned into swine and turned back into men, and how the sorceress came to befriend Odysseus,—all this has been related.
There in Aeaea the voyagers stayed a year before Circe would let them go. But at length she bade Odysseus seek the region of Hades, and ask of the sage Tiresias how he might ever return to Ithaca. How Odysseus followed this counsel, none may know; but by some mysterious journey, and with the aid of a spell, he came to the borders of Hades. There he saw and spoke with many renowned Shades, old and young, even his own friends who had fallen on the plain of Troy. Achilles he saw, Patroclus and Ajax and Agamemnon, still grieving over the treachery of his wife. He saw, too, the phantom of Heracles, who lives with honor among the gods, and has for his wife Hebe, the daughter of Zeus and Juno. But though he would have talked with the heroes for a year and more, he sought out Tiresias.
“The anger of Poseidon follows thee,” said the sage. “Wherefore, Odysseus, thy return is yet far off. But take heed when thou art come to Thrinacia, where the sacred kine of the Sun have their pastures. Do them no hurt, and thou shalt yet come home. But if they be harmed in any wise, ruin shall come upon thy men; and even if thou escape, thou shalt come home to find strange men devouring thy substance and wooing thy wife.”
With this word in his mind, Odysseus departed and came once more to Aeaea. There he tarried but a little time, till Circe had told him all the dangers that beset his way. Many a good counsel and crafty warning did she give him against the Sirens that charm with their singing, and against the monster Scylla and the whirlpool Charybdis, and the Clashing Rocks, and the cattle of the Sun. So the king and his men set out from the island of Aeaea.
Now very soon they came to the Sirens who sing so sweetly that they lure to death every man who listens. For straightway he is mad to be with them where they sing; and alas for the man that would fly without wings!
But when the ship drew near the Sirens’ island, Odysseus did as Circe had taught him. He bade all his shipmates stop up their ears with moulded wax, so that they could not hear. He alone kept his hearing: but he had himself lashed to the mast so that he could in no wise move, and he forbade them to loose him, however he might plead, under the spell of the Sirens.
As they sailed near, his soul gave way. He heard a wild sweetness coaxing the air, as a minstrel coaxes the harp; and there, close by, were the Sirens sitting in a blooming meadow that hid the bones of men. Beautiful, winning maidens they looked; and they sang, entreating Odysseus by name to listen and abide and rest. Their voices were golden-sweet above the sound of wind and wave, like drops of amber floating on the tide; and for all his wisdom, Odysseus strained at his bonds and begged his men to let him go free. But they, deaf alike to the song and the sorcery, rowed harder than ever. At length, song and island faded in the distance. Odysseus came to his wits once more, and his men loosed his bonds and set him free.
But they were close upon new dangers. No sooner had they avoided the Clashing Rocks (by a device of Circe’s) than they came to a perilous strait. On one hand they saw the whirlpool where, beneath a hollow fig-tree, Charybdis sucks down the sea horribly. And, while they sought to escape her, on the other hand monstrous Scylla upreared from the cave, snatched six of their company with her six long necks, and devoured them even while they called upon Odysseus to save them.
So, with bitter peril, the ship passed by and came to the island of Thrinacia; and here are goodly pastures for the flocks and herds of the Sun. Odysseus, who feared lest his men might forget the warning of Tiresias, was very loath to land. But the sailors were weary and worn to the verge of mutiny, and they swore, moreover, that they would never lay hands on the sacred kine. So they landed, thinking to depart next day. But with the next day came a tempest that blew for a month without ceasing, so that they were forced to beach the ship and live on the island with their store of corn and wine. When that was gone they had to hunt and fish, and it happened that, while Odysseus was absent in the woods one day, his shipmates broke their oath. “For,” said they, “when we are once more in Ithaca we will make amends to Helios with sacrifice. But let us rather drown than waste to death with hunger.” So they drove off the best of the cattle of the Sun and slew them. When the king returned, he found them at their fateful banquet; but it was too late to save them from the wrath of the gods.
As soon as they were fairly embarked once more, the Sun ceased to shine. The sea rose high, the thunderbolt of Zeus struck that ship, and all its company was scattered abroad upon the waters. Not one was left save Odysseus. He clung to a fragment of his last ship, and so he drifted, borne here and there, and lashed by wind and wave, until he was washed up on the strand of the island Ogygia, the home of the nymph Calypso. He was not to leave this haven for seven years.
Here, after ten years of war and two of wandering, he found a kindly welcome. The enchanted island was full of wonders, and the nymph Calypso was more than mortal fair, and would have been glad to marry the hero; yet he pined for Ithaca. Nothing could win his heart away from his own country and his own wife Penelope, nothing but Lethe itself, and that no man may drink till he dies.
So for seven years Calypso strove to make him forget his longing with ease and pleasant living and soft raiment. Day by day she sang to him while she broidered her web with gold; and her voice was like a golden strand that twines in and out of silence, making it beautiful. She even promised that she would make him immortal, if he would stay and be content; but he was heartsick for home.
At last his sorrow touched even the heart of Athena in heaven, for she loved his wisdom and his many devices. So she besought Zeus and all the other gods until they consented to shield Odysseus from the anger of Poseidon. Hermes himself bound on his winged sandals and flew down to Ogygia, where he found Calypso at her spinning. After many words, the nymph consented to give up her captive, for she was kind of heart, and all her graces had not availed to make him forget his home. With her help, Odysseus built a raft and set out upon his lonely voyage,—the only man remaining out of twelve good ships that had left Troy nigh unto ten years before.
The sea roughened against him, but (to shorten a tale of great peril) after many days, sore spent and tempest-tossed, he came to the land of the Phaeacians, a land dear to the immortal gods, abounding in gifts of harvest and vintage, in godlike men and lovely women.
Here the shipwrecked king met the princess Nausicaa by the seaside, as she played ball with her maidens; and she, when she had heard of his plight, gave him food and raiment, and bade him follow her home. So he followed her to the palace of King Alcinous and Queen Arete, and abode with them, kindly refreshed, and honored with feasting and games and song. But it came to pass, as the minstrel sang before them of the Trojan War and the Wooden Horse, that Odysseus wept over the story, it was written so deep in his own heart. Then for the first time he told them his true name and all his trials.
They would gladly have kept so great a man with them forever, but they had no heart to keep him longer from his home; so they bade him farewell and set him upon one of their magical ships, with many gifts of gold and silver, and sent him on his way.
Wonderful seamen are the Phaeacians. The ocean is to them as air to the bird,—the best path for a swift journey! Odysseus was glad enough to trust the way to them, and no sooner had they set out than a sweet sleep fell upon his eyelids. But the good ship sped like any bee that knows the way home. In a marvellous short time they came even to the shore of the kingdom of Ithaca.
While Odysseus was still sleeping, unconscious of his good fortune, the Phaeacians lifted him from the ship with kindly joy and laid him upon his own shore; and beside him they set the gifts of gold and silver and fair work of the loom. So they departed; and thus it was that Odysseus came to Ithaca after twenty years.
III. THE HOME-COMING.
Now all these twenty years, in the island of Ithaca, Penelope had watched for her husband’s return. At first with high hopes and then in doubt and sorrow (when news of the great war came by some traveller), she had waited, eager and constant as a young bride. But now the war was long past; her young son Telemachus had come to manhood; and as for Odysseus, she knew not whether he was alive or dead.
For years there had been trouble in Ithaca. It was left a kingdom without a king, and Penelope was fair and wise. So suitors came from all the islands round about to beg her hand in marriage, since many loved the queen and as many more loved her possessions, and desired to rule over them. Moreover, every one thought or said that King Odysseus must be dead. Neither Penelope nor her aged father-in-law Laertes could rid the place of these troublesome suitors. Some were nobles and some were adventurers, but they all thronged the palace like a pest of crickets, and devoured the wealth of the kingdom with feasts in honor of Penelope and themselves and everybody else; and they besought the queen to choose a husband from their number.
For a long time she would hear none of this; but they grew so clamorous in their suit that she had to put them off with craft. For she saw that there would be danger to her country, and her son, and herself, unless Odysseus came home some day and turned the suitors out of doors. She therefore spoke them fair, and gave them some hope of her marriage, to make peace.
“Ye princely wooers,” she said, “now I believe that the king Odysseus, my husband, must long since have perished in a strange land; and I have bethought me once more of marriage. Have patience, therefore, till I shall have finished the web that I am weaving. For it is a royal shroud that I must make against the day that Laertes may die (the father of my lord and husband). This is the way of my people,” said she; “and when the web is done, I will choose another king for Ithaca.”
She had set up in the hall a great loom, and day by day she wrought there at the web, for she was a marvellous spinner, patient as Arachne, but dear to Athena. All day long she would weave, but every night in secret she would unravel what she had wrought in the daytime, so that the web might never be done. For although she believed her dear husband to be dead, yet her hope would put forth buds again and again, just as spring, that seems to die each year, will come again. So she ever looked to see Odysseus coming.
Three years and more she held off the suitors with this wile, and they never perceived it. For, being men, they knew nothing of women’s handicraft. It was all alike a marvel to them, both the beauty of the web and this endless toil in the making! As for Penelope, all day long she wove; but at night she would unravel her work and weep bitterly, because she had another web to weave and another day to watch, all for nothing, since Odysseus never came. In the fourth year, though, a faithless servant betrayed this secret to the wooers, and there came an end to peace and the web, too!
Matters grew worse and worse. Telemachus set out to find his father, and the poor queen was left without husband or son. But the suitors continued to live about the palace like so many princes, and to make merry on the wealth of Odysseus, while he was being driven from land to land and wreck to wreck. So it came true, that prophecy that, if the herds of the Sun were harmed, Odysseus should reach his home alone in evil plight to find Sorrow in his own household. But in the end he was to drive her forth.
Now, when Odysseus woke, he did not know his own country. Gone were the Phaeacians and their ship; only the gifts beside him told him that he had not dreamed. While he looked about, bewildered, Athena, in the guise of a young countryman, came to his aid, and told him where he was. Then, smiling upon his amazement and joy, she shone forth in her own form, and warned him not to hasten home, since the palace was filled with the insolent suitors of Penelope, whose heart waited empty for him as the nest for the bird.
Moreover, Athena changed his shape into that of an aged pilgrim, and led him to the hut of a certain swineherd, Eumaeus, his old and faithful servant. This man received the king kindly, taking him for a travel-worn wayfarer, and told him all the news of the palace, and the suitors and the poor queen, who was ever ready to hear the idle tales of any traveller if he had aught to tell of King Odysseus.
Now who should come to the hut at this time but the prince Telemachus, whom Athena had hastened safely home from his quest! Eumaeus received his young master with great joy, but the heart of Odysseus was nigh to bursting, for he had never seen his son since he left him, an infant, for the Trojan War. When Eumaeus left them together, he made himself known; and for that moment Athena gave him back his kingly looks, so that Telemachus saw him with exultation, and they two wept over each other for joy.
By this time news of her son’s return had come to Penelope, and she was almost happy, not knowing that the suitors were plotting to kill Telemachus. Home he came, and he hastened to assure his mother that he had heard good news of Odysseus; though, for the safety of all, he did not tell her that Odysseus was in Ithaca.
Meanwhile Eumaeus and his aged pilgrim came to the city and the palace gates. They were talking to a goatherd there, when an old hound that lay in the dust-heap near by pricked up his ears and stirred his tail feebly as at a well-known voice. He was the faithful Argus, named after a monster of many eyes that once served Juno as a watchman. Indeed, when the creature was slain, Juno had his eyes set in the feathers of her pet peacocks, and there they glisten to this day. But the end of this Argus was very different. Once the pride of the king’s heart, he was now so old and infirm that he could barely move; but though his master had come home in the guise of a strange beggar, he knew the voice, and he alone, after twenty years. Odysseus, seeing him, could barely restrain his tears; but the poor old hound, as if he had lived but to welcome his master home, died that very same day.
Into the palace hall went the swineherd and the pilgrim, among the suitors who were feasting there. Now how Odysseus begged a portion of meat and was shamefully insulted by these men, how he saw his own wife and hid his joy and sorrow, but told her news of himself as any beggar might,—all these things are better sung than spoken. It is a long story.
But the end was near. The suitors had demanded the queen’s choice, and once more the constant Penelope tried to put it off. She took from her safe treasure-chamber the great bow of Odysseus, and she promised that she would marry that one of the suitors who should send his arrow through twelve rings ranged in a line. All other weapons were taken away by the care of Telemachus; there was nothing but the great bow and quiver. And when all was ready, Penelope went away to her chamber to weep.
But, first of all, no one could string the bow. Suitor after suitor tried and failed. The sturdy wood stood unbent against the strongest. Last of all, Odysseus begged leave to try, and was laughed to scorn. Telemachus, however, as if for courtesy’s sake, gave him the bow; and the strange beggar bent it easily, adjusted the cord, and before any could stay his hand he sped the arrow from the string. Singing with triumph, it flew straight through the twelve rings and quivered in the mark!
“Now for another mark!” cried Odysseus in the king’s own voice. He turned upon the most evil-hearted suitor. Another arrow hissed and struck, and the man fell pierced.
Telemachus sprang to his father’s side, Eumaeus stood by him, and the fighting was short and bitter. One by one they slew those insolent suitors; for the right was theirs, and Athena stood by them, and the time was come. Every one of the false-hearted wooers they laid low, and every corrupt servant in that house; then they made the place clean and fair again.
But the old nurse Eurycleia hastened up to Queen Penelope, where she sat in fear and wonder, crying, “Odysseus is returned! Come and see with thine own eyes!”
After twenty years of false tales, the poor queen could not believe her ears. She came down into the hall bewildered, and looked at the stranger as one walking in a dream. Even when Athena had given him back his youth and kingly looks, she stood in doubt, so that her own son reproached her and Odysseus was grieved in spirit.
But when he drew near and called her by her name, entreating her by all the tokens that she alone knew, her heart woke up and sang like a brook set free in spring! She knew him then for her husband Odysseus, come home at last.
Surely that was happiness enough to last them ever after.