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FREE: William Shakespeare’s “Measure for Measure”: A Retelling in Prose


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David Bruce: Homer’s ODYSSEY: A Retelling in Prose — Book 8: Entertainment Among the Phaeacians

Book 8: Entertainment Among the Phaeacians

The next morning, King Alcinous led Odysseus to the meeting-grounds, and Athena, disguised as King Alcinous’ herald, called the mature men to the council: “Come to the meeting-grounds and meet the new arrival, a stranger who has come here after roving the sea — a stranger like a god!” Athena also made Odysseus taller, stronger, and more handsome.

King Alcinous addressed his people: “Hear me! This stranger has come to us to ask us for aid. I don’t know his name, but he is our guest. We are renowned for our hospitality. We show good xenia to all who come to our island. Let us show good xenia to this stranger also. No one who asks me for a journey home will be long gone from home.

“Come, obey my orders. Ready a ship for a voyage. Pick 52 young men of proven strength — the best of the Phaeacians — to row the ship. When the ship is ready, then the young men can come to the palace for a feast.”

I can see why this society works so well, Odysseus thought. First, the king gives clear orders. Perhaps the common Phaeacians would not themselves be kind to strangers, but the king makes it clear that strangers will be respected. Second, the king praises those who respect xenia. The young men who will row me home are, the king says, “the best of the Phaeacians.” Finally, the king rewards those who respect xenia. These young men who will row me home are invited to a feast in the palace.

The king continued, “Now let us entertain our guest. Call the bard Demodocus to sing for us. The gods have given him the gift of song — he can entertain all who listen to him.”

The 52 picked young men of Phaeacia made the ship ready, then went to the king’s palace. There a feast of a dozen sheep, eight boars, and two oxen was prepared for them. The bard arrived. He had the gift of song, but not the gift of sight. The gods don’t give all their gifts to one person. The bard’s lyre was hung within his easy reach, and he enjoyed wine and food.

Then the Muse inspired the bard — now is the time to sing of heroes. He sang of the Quarrel Between Odysseus and Achilles. Normally, a quarrel between heroes is a bad thing, but Agamemnon rejoiced when this quarrel occurred. He recalled a prophecy that when the two best Greeks quarreled, then Troy would soon fall.

Odysseus heard the song and wept, but he covered his face with his clothing so that the Phaeacians would not see him crying. Only King Alcinous noticed that he was crying.

When the song was over, King Alcinous said, “Now that we have enjoyed food and song, let us go to the meeting-ground so that the young men can participate in athletic contests: boxing, wrestling, running, and jumping.”

All, including Demodocus, whom the herald led by the hand, went to the meeting-ground. The young athletes ran a race — Clytoneus won easily. In wrestling, Broadsea distinguished himself with victory. Seagirt out-jumped all the other athletes. Rowhard hurled the discus farther than anyone else. Laodamas, the son of King Alcinous, achieved victory in boxing.

Thrilled with victory, Laodamas said, “Come, let’s ask our guest if he wishes to participate in our games. He’s built strong like an athlete: big arms, broad chest, strong legs. And he’s not so old that he must be a spectator, although his many hardships have taken a toll on him.”

Broadsea agreed, “By all means, invite the guest to compete.”

Laodamas went to Odysseus and said, “Come, guest, join our games. Win victory in the contests. All the world loves a winner.”

Odysseus declined the invitation: “No contests for me. I am a suppliant, beaten down by hardship, hoping for a journey home.”

“I knew that you weren’t an athlete,” Broadsea mocked Odysseus. “You don’t know the skills that athletes and warriors know. Rather, you must be a pirate, trying to steal cargo and gold.”

Odysseus, warrior that he was and had been, was insulted. Many of the skills used in athletic games are the same as the skills used in combat. “You speak nonsense, Broadsea. You are handsome, but you don’t know how to properly speak to a guest and you don’t know how to properly treat a guest. You look impressive, but your brain is lacking. I am an athlete, and I am a warrior, not a pirate. I have been at sea, I have been shipwrecked, and I am beaten down by hardship. But you have insulted me, so I will show you what I am capable of doing.”

Odysseus picked up a discus, whirled, and hurled it far into the distance. Athena, disguised as a man, measured the distance and called out, “You’re the winner. You threw the discus much farther than any of the Phaeacians. No one here can beat you.”

Odysseus laughed with pleasure, and then he said, “I can equal that distance again — or beat it. Anyone who wants to can challenge me in contests — but not Laodamas. He is my host and the son of my host, and I must show respect to him. I would be foolish to challenge him. All the other athletes I challenge. Well I know how to shoot arrows — only Philoctetes was a better archer than me at Troy. Still, the old masters of archery are better than I am: Heracles and Eurytus. I must not over-praise myself and think that I am better than I am. That leads to trouble. Eurytus foolishly challenged Apollo, the god of archery, to a contest and Apollo shot him dead because of his boasting. I am also an expert spear-thrower. But at running I think that you can out-distance me. I have been on board a raft for so long that my legs don’t have the power they used to have.”

All the young men listened to Odysseus, and Odysseus thought, I have taught the young men a lesson today: Don’t insult a guest. I hope that they learn the lesson and that King Antinous will teach them well.

King Antinous said, “Guest, everything you have said here is correct. You spoke well, and you behaved properly. You were insulted, and your response to the insult was admirable. The adolescent who insulted you should not have spoken that way to you. But let’s continue with the entertainment. The Phaeacians are renowned dancers. So, Phaeacians, begin the dance!”

The herald fetched Demodocus’ lyre, Demodocus played, and the young Phaeacian men competed in the dance. Odysseus watched with pleasure.

Then it was time for another song. Demodocus sang a comic song of Aphrodite’s affair with Ares, the god of war. The two had fallen in lust although Aphrodite, the goddess of sexual passion, was married to Hephaestus, the gifted blacksmith god. Hephaestus learned of the affair, so he set a trap for the illicit lovers. He created fine chains that bound tightly, he placed the chains above his bed, and then he pretended to leave his mansion to journey abroad. Ares ran to Aphrodite and invited her to join him in Hephaestus’ bed, and together they ran to bed. Ares and Aphrodite lay down in bed together, and then the fine chains snared them, locked in lust.

Hephaestus returned home, knowing what and who he would see in his bed. He invited all the gods and the goddesses to look, also. He complained to Zeus, “Father, look at how my wife treats me. I am crippled, so she sleeps with Ares because of his handsome looks. Right now, they are in my bed, locked together in the act of lovemaking by chains that only I can loosen. Come, look and laugh at the lovers. I will keep them bound until I receive my bride-gifts back. The goddess I married is a bitch.”

The gods entered Hephaestus’ bedroom and looked at the unhappy and embarrassed Ares and Aphrodite, naked and stuck together. The goddesses, however, were embarrassed and stayed away.

The gods laughed, and one god said to another, “Hephaestus one, adulterers zero. The blacksmith god conquers both the god of war and the goddess of sexual passion.”

Apollo asked Hermes, “Would bedding Aphrodite be worth the embarrassment of being caught by Hephaestus?”

Hermes replied, “Of course! Look how beautiful she is!”

Only Poseidon did not laugh; he was a friend to Ares. He begged Hephaestus to release the lovers, saying, “Ares will pay you whatever you ask for sleeping with your wife.”

Hephaestus replied, “Ares is a worthless god, and a promise from a worthless god is a worthless promise, so don’t ask me to release him from my chains.”

But Poseidon said, “If he won’t pay the fine, I will. My word is good.”

“So it is,” Hephaestus said. He released the two lovers, who ran away in opposite directions to friends who would not laugh at them.

Odysseus listened to the comic song, and he was reminded of Paris and Helen, whose adulterous love affair had caused the Trojan War. He did not want to think about what could possibly be happening on Ithaca.

Now King Antinous asked two Phaeacians, his sons Laodamas and Halius, to dance, as they were the best of the Phaeacians at dancing while tossing a blue ball as the other men pounded out a beat with their feet.

Well entertained, Odysseus praised the dancers: “King Alcinous, I am amazed. Your Phaeacian dancers certainly live up to their reputations.”

Pleased, King Alcinous said, “Phaeacians, let us give our guest the gifts that such a man deserves. Our land has twelve lords. Let each lord, including myself, give our guest a cloak and a shirt and a bar of gold. Bring the gifts to the palace tonight so that our guest may see the gifts and rejoice. And Broadsea must apologize to our guest as well as give gifts. Earlier, he insulted our guest.”

Each noble sent away for the gifts, and Broadway apologized to Odysseus, “King Alcinous, of course I will apologize to our guest. And I will give our guest this sword. I am sure that he will value it. Guest, sir, please accept my apology for what I said earlier. I wish you a swift and safe journey home to your loved ones.”

Odysseus replied, “I accept your apology. May you enjoy good fortune throughout your life.”

I can see why this society works so well, Odysseus thought. Look at the king. He is like a good father to these young men. When they do something wrong, he lets them know it and he lets them know how to make up for the wrong they have done.

The sun set, and all of Odysseus’ gifts from the lords were carried into the palace. King Alcinous then spoke to his queen and requested of her, “Please, queen, give our guest a cloak and a shirt, and I will give him a golden cup so that he will remember us.”

The serving-women prepared a hot bath for Odysseus, and all of Odysseus’ gifts were put in a chest, ready for him to carry away. The queen invited Odysseus, “Tie the lid of the chest with a strong knot. You don’t want to be robbed during your journey home.”

That’s good advice, Odysseus thought. Even with a good king and queen, the common people can go astray. It’s best to keep them away from temptation, to make it difficult for them to rob me.

He tied the chest with a good strong knot. Circe had taught it to him; it was difficult to untie unless you knew how.

Odysseus bathed and dressed, and then he met Nausicaa as he walked to the dining hall to join the Phaeacian nobles. Nausicaa said to him, “Farewell, friend. I know that you are leaving to go to your home soon. Remember me when you are at home. I helped you when you needed help.”

“Yes, Nausicaa,” Odysseus replied. “I will always remember you, and I will pray to you as if you were a goddess. You saved my life.”

He entered the dining hall, and he sat by King Alcinous. The meat was brought to the table, and Odysseus cut a savory portion from the roast boar, tender and tasty, and he sent it to Demodocus, the blind bard, saying, “Herald, take this to Demodocus, and ask him to eat. The gods love a bard — the Muse herself gives bards their gift.”

The bard rejoiced at the honor shown him, and all ate their fill. Odysseus then said to Demodocus, “I respect you and all bards. You have been given a great gift. You have sung of the Greeks’ war against the Trojans. Now sing of the wooden horse filled with warriors — the trap that Odysseus thought up and that Epeus built. Sing that for us, and I will speak to men of your genius for epic song.”

The bard knew the song. He sang of the Greeks’ pretending to return to their homes, leaving behind a wooden horse that was pregnant with warriors. The Trojans debated what to do with — or to — the horse, but their city was fated to fall, and they brought it inside Troy. That night, the Greeks crept out of the wooden horse, opened the gates of the city to let in Agamemnon and the rest of the Greek army, and conquered the city. Odysseus and Menelaus fought side by side, going together to the house of Deiphobus, Helen’s newest Trojan husband.

So the bard sang, and Odysseus wept just like a woman weeps whose husband has died in battle as his city is conquered. She clings to his corpse, but the enemy soldiers force her to leave the body and become a slave.

So Odysseus wept, perhaps out of recognition that the Trojan War had brought grief both to the victors and to the vanquished. Odysseus may also have wept because of the atrocities that the Greeks had committed during the fall of Troy. Little Ajax raped the virgin Cassandra in Athena’s own temple — a place where the virgin should have been respected. The Greeks killed Hector’s son by throwing him from the high walls of Troy. The Greeks sacrificed Polyxena, a daughter of King Priam, following the fall of Troy. Such atrocities should not be committed — even against an enemy.

Only King Alcinous noticed Odysseus crying, and he said, “Let Demodocus stop singing now. His song is not pleasing to all here. Our guest has been crying throughout the song. We must treat a guest the way that we would treat a brother — that is the civilized way. But now, guest, tell us who you are. Who are your parents? From which land are you? We will sail you home. No land bordering the sea is too far for our ships to reach. We return all wanderers to their homes.

“Such has been the case so far, but my father once told me a prophecy. Poseidon is angry at us. He is the god of the sea, and he thinks that we are disrespecting him by returning travelers to their homes in our ships that can cross the sea and never sink. According to the prophecy, someday Poseidon will crush one of our ships as it returns home and he will put a mountain in our harbor to keep us from using the port to send travelers home.

“But guest, friend, tell us your story. Where have you traveled? What have you seen? Why do you cry when you hear a song about Troy? Did a relative of yours die at Troy? Or a friend?”


Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved


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David Bruce: Homer’s ODYSSEY: A Retelling in Prose — Book 6: Odysseus and Nausicaa

Book 6: Odysseus and Nausicaa

Odysseus slept, and Athena made her way to the city of the Phaeacians, who used to live near the Cyclopes, savage creatures that were not civilized and did not show xenia to strangers. Therefore, the King of the Phaeacians, Nausithous, led his people to another home, the island of Scheria. There they built homes and temples and plowed fields and built a wall around the city and formed a civilization. Nausithous died, but he had raised his son, Alcinous, well, and the gods respected them both and gave Alcinous wisdom. Such things happen in a society that has good fathers.

Athena went to the palace of Alcinous and into the bedroom of Nausicaa, the young Phaeacian princess. The goddess appeared in Nausicaa’s dream in the form of the daughter of Dymas, a Phaeacian noble. The goddess appeared to be Nausicaa’s age.

The disguised Athena said to Nausicaa, “Haven’t you things to do, Nausicaa? Look at your clothing, lying here, neglected. Shouldn’t you prepare for your wedding? You are old enough to be married soon, and when you are married, all of your family should be wearing fresh, clean clothing. So tomorrow, go to the river and wash your family’s clothing. Prepare for marriage. The eligible Phaeacian men all want to marry you.”

Her job finished, Athena flew to Olympus.

Morning came, Nausicaa awoke and dressed, and then she went to her parents to tell them what she wanted to do. She said, “Father, will you arrange for me to use a wagon and mules to carry our clothing to the washing-pools? You should have fresh, clean clothing to wear in council, and I have five brothers, three of whom are still unmarried and are always wanting fresh, clean clothing to wear while courting.” So Nausicaa said, neglecting to mention her hoped-for marriage.

But her father, King Alcinous, guessed her real reason for wanting to wash the clothing. He said to her, “Yes, of course. By all means. You will have everything you need.” He ordered men to prepare the wagon and mules. Nausicaa gathered the dirty clothing, and her mother packed a lunch and wine for Nausicaa and for the girls who would help her wash the clothing. King Alcinous did not send men to guard the girls. The Phaeacians were at peace, and they were so remote from the rest of the world that they did not fear pirates who elsewhere would kidnap children and young women and sell them into slavery.

Nausicaa and the other girls reached the washing-pools at the river, unloaded the wagon, washed the clothing, and then spread it out in the sun to dry. They bathed in the river, enjoyed their lunch, and then played ball.

As she played ball, Nausicaa resembled Artemis, the virgin huntress-goddess. Nausicaa was more beautiful than the other girls.

It was almost time for Nausicaa to fold the clothing and load the wagon and return home, but Athena formed a plan. Odysseus must awake and meet Nausicaa, and she must give him xenia. But how to arrange their meeting? Athena came up with the answer: Nausicaa threw the ball to a girl, but it fell into the river with a splash — a splash that woke up Odysseus.

Suddenly awake, Odysseus wondered, Man of misery and son of pain. Where are you? Who lives here? Are they wild and do not follow the rules of xenia? Are they civilized and follow the rules of xenia?

I hear voices, the voices of young women. Be careful. You may be hearing the voices of the immortals. Perhaps you hear the voices of Artemis and her attendants. Artemis can be dangerous to mortal men who offend her. Actaeon went hunting one day, and he had the misfortune to see Artemis naked, bathing in a pool of water. He did not mean to see Artemis naked; he was not spying on her. But that meant nothing to Artemis, who fiercely protects her virginity. She turned his body into that of a stag, but he kept his human mind. His own hunting dogs pursued him, caught him, and tore him to pieces. A mortal man would be insane to offend Artemis.

Odysseus was cautious, but he needed help, and to get help he had to be a suppliant, although he was completely naked and covered with seaweed and dried sea-salt. He tore a branch from a tree, held it in front of him to hide his private parts, and stepped out into the open and thought about what he should do.

Odysseus thought, These are human girls, not immortal goddesses and nymphs, but I am still in danger. I am naked, I look like a wild man, and these girls have no men whom I can ask for help. Instead, I have to be a suppliant before them. What is best for me to do? Should I fall to the ground before the young girl in charge here and grab her knees in the typical suppliant position? No! Definitely not! If I were to do that, she would run away screaming and her father and brothers would come and kill me. I need to stay far from these young girls and speak to them and convince them that I am not a danger to them.

Odysseus stood before the young girls with only a leafy branch to hide his nakedness. Seaweed clung to his body, and sea-salt had dried on him. He looked like a wild man who had never known civilization or followed the rules of xenia.

Seeing him, the girls scattered, putting distance between him and them, all except Nausicaa — Athena gave her courage.

Odysseus spoke to her, “Princess, show me mercy. Are you a mortal, or are you a goddess? If you are a goddess, you must be Artemis, the huntress-goddess who uses weapons well. In you, I see her beauty, her grace. But if you are a mortal, your father and your brothers must rejoice to have you in their family — you are so beautiful. But one man will rejoice even more than these — the man you will marry. I have never seen anyone as beautiful as you.”

Odysseus thought, I have let this young mortal girl know that she has the power here and that she is in no danger from me. Because I have called her Artemis, she knows that she is safe. After all, a mortal man would have to be insane to do anything that would offend Artemis — remember what she did to Actaeon! I have also mentioned that I know that she has male protectors: a father, brothers, and possibly a fiancé. With so many male protectors who wish to take care of her, I would have to be insane to try to harm her. In addition, I have thrown in some pretty good flattery.

Odysseus continued, “Wait, once I saw something beautiful like you — a palm-tree on the island Delos, home of a temple to Apollo. To Delos I had sailed with an army during a campaign that led to my misfortune. I marveled at the Delian palm-tree just like I marvel at you.”

Odysseus thought, I have let this young girl know that I am civilized — I know about gods such as Apollo and about temples such as the one on Delos. I have also let her know that I used to be a man of enough importance that I led an army even though now I am naked and alone.

Odysseus continued, “Yesterday, princess, after many days at sea, I washed ashore. I have suffered misfortune, and I have no doubt that I will suffer more misfortune. Please show me mercy; please give me xenia. You are the first person I have met here. Show me how to get to town, and give me something to hide my nakedness. And may the gods give you everything you desire: a good husband and a happy marriage.”

Odysseus thought, Of course, I know that this young girl is not a goddess. She is simply a young mortal girl who will be married soon. But I have let her know that she is not in danger from me. I have managed to let her know that she is in no danger of being raped by me, something that a man much different from me might attempt. And I have done that without mentioning the word “rape,” a word that might cause these young girls to panic and to run home and to gather their male protectors. Now I will see if my speech has been successful. Will this young girl offer me hospitality, or will she run home and tell her father and brothers that a wild man in the woods tried to attack her? Either I will immediately receive the help I need, or I will soon be killed.

“Stranger,” Nausicaa said, “friend, Zeus has given you troubles, but now that you have reached the island of the Phaeacians, you will receive what you need: clothing and food. I am the daughter of King Alcinous, and he will take care of you.”

Nausicaa called to her serving-girls, “Come closer. Zeus sends strangers and suppliants, and it is our duty — the duty of civilized people — to help them. Bring this guest wine and food and olive oil and clothing, and bathe him in the river.”

Odysseus replied, “Thank you, but allow me to bathe myself in the river. All of you girls stand back a long way from me. I am embarrassed to be naked in front of you girls.”

All is going well, but stay cautious, Odysseus thought. It’s best not to be bathed by these young girls. What would happen if a man were to ride by and see these young girls bathing me and then report what he saw to the king? It’s best to completely avoid anything that might make someone think that I have had any kind of sexual contact with these girls.

Odysseus bathed himself in the river, washing away the seaweed and the sea-salt. He rubbed himself with the olive oil, and then he put on the clothing the girls had laid out for him. Athena transformed him, making him taller and stronger and more handsome, with curly hair.

Nausicaa noticed the transformation in Odysseus, and she said to her serving-girls, “At first this man looked wild and uncivilized, but now he looks like a god. In fact, he looks like a potential husband for me. Give him something to eat and to drink.”

 Odysseus ate, and Nausicaa and the other girls folded the clothing and put it in the wagon, then after Odysseus had finished eating, she said to him, “Let’s go to the town now, but when we reach the town, let me and the others go on ahead while you wait a while before entering town. I don’t want people to talk about us. Someone might see us together and say, ‘Who is the stranger with Nausicaa? He is tall and strong and handsome. Is he a shipwrecked sailor? Is he a god come down from Olympus? Has he come to answer her prayers and to marry her? That’s OK by us. All the eligible Phaeacian men have been courting her, but she has shown little interest in them. Let her marry this stranger.’ So they might say, as they criticize a girl who has made friends with a man her parents do not know — something that I would never do.”

Nausicaa thought, I’ve flattered the stranger by saying that the Phaeacians are likely to think that he is a god. I’ve told him that I am unmarried and that Phaeacian men are courting me but that I have shown little interest in them. I have fairly strongly hinted that I consider him a potential husband for me. I have also said that I know what a good girl should not do — make friends with a man her parents do not know — even though I am doing exactly that. In short, I have hinted that I would like to marry this stranger.

Odysseus thought, Interesting. This princess has shown an interest in me, even hinting that a marriage with me is possible, but she has done it so subtly that I need not reject her outright and embarrass her. I can simply ignore her interest in me. This girl is intelligent.

Nausicaa continued, “We will reach a grove of poplars with a spring. That is part of my father’s estate. Stay there and give us time to walk to my father’s palace, then you may go into town and ask for directions to my father’s palace. Anyone can tell you how to get there. When you gain entrance to the palace, go past my father and go to my mother and supplicate her. If the queen pities and respects you, she will give you a voyage home.”

Nausicaa, the serving-girls, and Odysseus all headed toward town. When they reached the grove of poplars and the stream, Odysseus stayed behind and prayed to Athena, “Help me now, Athena. You did not help me when Poseidon wrecked my raft. Bring it to pass that the Phaeacians give me xenia — that they treat me the way that civilized people should treat a stranger!”

Athena heard his prayer, but she did not appear before him openly. She feared Poseidon, the sea-god, whose anger toward Odysseus still burned.


Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved


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David Bruce: Homer’s ODYSSEY: A Retelling in Prose — Book 5: Odysseus and Calypso

Book 5: Odysseus and Calypso

The next morning, Dawn rose from the bed of her lover, Tithonus, who is both old and immortal. When he, a mortal man, first became her lover, Dawn gave him immortality, but she was unable to make him ageless. Now he grows older and older, and he grows feebler and feebler, but he always sleeps — sleep was a gift that Dawn could give him, a welcome gift to an aged and continually aging man whose every waking moment is filled with pain.

That morning, Athena addressed the Olympian gods in council (all except Poseidon, who was visiting the Ethiopians), saying, “Father Zeus, and all other gods on Olympus, remember Odysseus, held captive on an island by the sea-nymph Calypso. He is unable to leave her; he is unable to see his day of homecoming. And now the suitors who infest his palace and plague his wife plot to murder his son, Telemachus, who has sailed to the mainland to seek news of his father.”

Zeus replied, “You know that Telemachus will not be murdered. You know that you yourself will protect him. You know that the suitors will be unsuccessful. As for Odysseus, we shall help him.”

Zeus turned to the messenger-god Hermes and ordered, “Go to Calypso and order her to release Odysseus. He will build a raft and sail to the island of the Phaeacians, who will shower gifts on him and sail him home. Odysseus shall return home, and he shall see his loved ones.”

Hermes set off at once, flying through the sky — the gods and goddesses have that power — to the sea and then skimming over its surface until he reached Calypso’s island. She was in her home, a cavern, pleasantly furnished and very comfortable. Odysseus was not present. As usual, he was on the shore closest to Ithaca, grieving because he so longed to be home.

Calypso was surprised to see Hermes, and she immediately said, “Why are you here?” But then she remembered her duty as hostess and added, “Your visits are so infrequent. You should visit more often. I am very happy to give you any assistance you need.”

She set the table with ambrosia and nectar, the food and drink of the immortal gods, and Hermes ate and drank. Then it was time for business. Such is the way of xenia.

“You ask why I have come,” Hermes said. “Zeus sent me. Zeus says that you are keeping captive a hero of the Trojan War, that you are preventing his day of homecoming. Zeus commands you to release the hero. He is not fated to die here; he is fated to see his loved ones again. You cannot go against fate.”

Zeus’ command was not pleasing to Calypso: “You gods are angry when a goddess sleeps with a mortal. The goddess Dawn slept with Orion, and so the goddess Artemis shot him with one of her arrows and killed him. Demeter slept with Iasion, and so the god Zeus hurled a thunderbolt at him and killed him. Now you gods are angry at me because I am sleeping with a mortal man. I saved this man’s life. His ship was wrecked, and his men all died, but I welcomed him to my island. I am even willing to make him immortal — and to make him ageless. But no one can withstand Zeus, the most powerful of the gods. Since he orders me to release the man, I will release him and I will give him advice as to how he can best reach his home.”

“Good decision,” Hermes said. “Anyone who disobeys the command of Zeus will regret it.” Hermes left and returned to Olympus.

Calypso walked to the beach and found Odysseus grieving as usual. The two slept together because Calypso made him sleep with her. It is not wise for a mortal to go against the wishes of an immortal — the immortal gods and goddesses can do terrible things to mortals. But Odysseus longed to be with Penelope, his wife.

Calypso told Odysseus, “You don’t need to grieve any longer. You may leave my island. Build yourself a raft, and I will stock it with wine and water and food. You will see your home again, just as you wish — provided the gods don’t interfere.”

A chance to leave Calypso’s island? This was what Odysseus had long wanted, but he was a cautious man. He thought, Is this a trick? Has Calypso tired of me and now wants me dead? I am not going to leave this island unless I know that I have a reasonable chance of reaching land safely again.

Odysseus said to Calypso, “I won’t build a raft and leave, goddess, unless you swear a binding oath that this is not a trick to get me killed.”

This made Calypso smile. One of the things that she liked about Odysseus was his shrewdness. He was a brave man, but he liked to have the odds in his favor. He was willing to take necessary risks, but not unnecessary risks.

Calypso said to Odysseus, “I swear on the River Styx that I am not trying to trick you, that I am not trying to kill you or to get you killed. Swearing on the River Styx is the inviolable oath of the gods — does that satisfy you?”

It did satisfy Odysseus. No god or goddess can go against an oath sworn on the River Styx.

The two returned to Calypso’s cavern, and there they ate and drank. Calypso ate ambrosia and drank nectar, the food and drink of the immortal gods; Odysseus ate food and drank wine for mortals.

Calypso then said to Odysseus, “Are you really so eager to leave me? If you knew the hardships that lie before you if you leave my island, you would not be so eager to leave. I know that you long to see your wife, but why? Is she as beautiful as I am? Does she have a better figure? Why not stay with me and be immortal?”

Be careful, Odysseus thought. Do not make Calypso angry. The gods and goddesses can do terrible things to mortal men they are angry at. Remember what Artemis did to Orion. Remember what Zeus did to Iasion. Do not say anything to Calypso that will make her angry. I must not say that I prefer Penelope to her. Instead, I must give a reason for wanting to leave her island that will not make Calypso angry. As for immortality, it doesn’t work for mortal men. Remember what happened to Tithonus. And if I become immortal and stay here, I will never see my wife and my son and my home again.

Odysseus said to Calypso, “Don’t be angry with me, please. I know that you speak the truth. My wife is not as beautiful as you. My wife’s figure is not better than yours. How can a mortal woman compare to an immortal goddess? The immortal goddess will always be more beautiful.

“But I want to see my home again. I want to see Ithaca again. That is what I have been longing for every day. I have faced many troubles before, and I am willing to face more troubles if only I can see my home again.”

Calypso thought, I can understand that Odysseus wants to see his home again. That is reasonable. I need not be angry at him.

The sun set, and they slept together.

The next day, Odysseus built his raft. Calypso brought him cloth, and he made a sail. It took him four days to build his raft, and on the fifth day he set off, with his raft well provisioned by Calypso.

He sailed for seventeen days, but on the eighteenth day he ran into trouble. All that Zeus and Athena and Hermes had done for him had been done without the knowledge of the sea-god Poseidon. They had acted behind his back while he was away from Mount Olympus, attending a sacrifice held in his honor by the Ethiopians.

But now, returning from Ethiopia to Olympus, Poseidon saw Odysseus on his raft. Poseidon knew that the other gods had acted without consulting him, and he was angry: “Look at Odysseus. He is near the island of the Phaeacians, who are fated to help him return home. I cannot prevent his day of homecoming and I cannot go against fate, but I can still make Odysseus’ life difficult.”

Poseidon then created a storm, and Odysseus knew he was in trouble. Alone on a raft, and with a big storm coming, Odysseus knew that death by drowning could very well await him. He said to himself, “My friends who died at Troy are more fortunate than I am. They were mourned. Burial-mounds were raised for them. Their souls entered the Land of the Dead. I may drown alone, with no one to mourn me and to give my corpse a proper burial. My soul may be prevented from entering the Land of the Dead until a hundred years have passed.”

The storm struck him and his raft. He was washed overboard, and the mast broke. He was underwater for a long time, but finally he surfaced and then clung to his raft.

Help arrived. Ino, the daughter of Cadmus, a mortal woman who had been made an immortal sea-nymph and had changed her name to Leucothea, saw him and knew his fate. She boarded Odysseus’ raft and said to him, “Poor man. Poseidon hates you, but even he cannot alter your fate. You will not drown here. Take my advice. Strip off your clothes so they don’t weigh you down, then swim for shore with my scarf tied around your waist. As long as you have my scarf, you need not fear death. But when you reach land safely, give my scarf back to me.”

Odysseus listened and took her scarf, then Leucothea dived into the sea again. Ever cautious, Odysseus considered his options: Should I jump into the sea right away and begin swimming? No. Better to wait and stay on the raft until it floats closer to land. That will improve my odds of reaching land safely.

As Odysseus thought about what he should do, Poseidon sent a huge wave over the raft that tore it to pieces and plunged Odysseus into the sea. He grabbed a piece of floating wood, tore off his clothing, and tied the scarf of the immortal sea-nymph around his waist.

Poseidon saw him and knew that Odysseus was fated to reach land, but Poseidon was happy that he had made Odysseus’ journey difficult and dangerous. “Go,” Poseidon said. “You will reach a land filled with helpful people, but I do not think that you will have found your journey easy.”

Poseidon headed toward his palace at the port of Aegae. Athena took advantage of his absence and calmed the storm and the sea. She allowed the North wind to blow Odysseus toward land.

For two days, Odysseus stayed afloat by clinging to the wrecked raft. On the morning of the third day, he saw land — a sight that made him joyful, as joyful as children are when their father recovers from an illness that could have killed him.

Land there was, but the water was filled with pounding surf and jagged rocks, a place where swimmers could die. “More danger,” Odysseus said to himself, “and the alternative to this danger is a different danger. If I try to reach land here, I will be cut to pieces on the rocks. If I cling to the wreckage and try to make my way along the island, a storm will spring up and kill me. Or I will die, devoured by sharks.”

A wave washed him toward the rocks, and he grabbed one and hung on to it, although it tore the skin from his hands. When a fisherman grabs an octopus and tears it from its lair, the suckers on its tentacles will cling to pebbles and carry them away. Bits of skin from Odysseus’ hands clung to the rock as a wave carried Odysseus away from it.

Odysseus started swimming — and he saw a river flowing to the sea, a good spot to make landfall. He prayed to the river-god, “Help me, please. I am your suppliant. The gods will give help to mortals when mortals request it.”

The river-god listened to Odysseus’ prayer, and granted his request. Odysseus did not have to fight a strong current. He reached land, and he rested until he could breathe normally and not have to gulp air. Then he remembered the scarf of the immortal sea-nymph Leucothea. If Odysseus had been a different kind of man, he would have been tempted to keep it. It was a treasure — wear it and never fear death! Odysseus was not tempted. He untied the scarf and threw it into the river. It floated downstream to the sea, and Leucothea recovered it. She had shown respect to Odysseus, and now Odysseus had shown respect to her.

Odysseus climbed up the banks of the river, and thought about what he should do: “Man of misery and son of pain. What next? Do I stay here, naked and alone, by the river? Would it be better to leave the river and find a place to sleep? What if a wild beast finds me, naked and defenseless?”

Odysseus walked away from the river, and he found some woods in which two olive trees — which were sacred to Athena — were standing. One olive tree was wild, and the other was cultivated. Odysseus looked at the two olive trees, and he thought, What kind of people will I find here? Will they be wild and not follow the rules of xenia? Will they be civilized and respect xenia? Tomorrow I will find out.

He then piled up dry leaves to make a bed for himself. He lay on the leaves and piled more leaves over himself, and he slept. The leaves kept alive the one small spark of life left in Odysseus the way that a farmer will pour ashes over a fire to keep the embers alive until it is time to build the fire again. No one lives near the farmer, so he cannot easily get a fire again if the embers should die.

Odysseus slept.


Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved


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David Bruce: Homer’s ODYSSEY: A Retelling in Prose — Book 4: Telemachus, King Menelaus, and Helen

Book 4: Telemachus, King Menelaus, and Helen

In Lacedaemon, King Menelaus and his people were celebrating a double wedding. One time people in ancient Greece could legitimately enjoy a feast was during the celebration of a wedding.

Menelaus and Helen’s daughter, Hermione, was being sent to Neoptolemus, the son of Achilles. They would be man and wife in the land of the Myrmidons. Menelaus’ son, Megapenthes, whose mother was one of Menelaus’ slaves, was marrying the daughter of Alector of Sparta.

All were enjoying the feast and the music and the dance when Pisistratus and Telemachus drove up in the chariot, then stopped and looked at the palace in awe.

Eteoneus, aide-in-arms to Menelaus, reported to the king, “Strangers are in the courtyard. Should I offer them hospitality, or should I send them on to someone who has leisure to attend to them?”

“Don’t be a fool, Eteoneus,” Menelaus said. “You and I have enjoyed hospitality as we traveled the Mediterranean. Now it is our turn — and our civilized duty — to offer hospitality to other people. Invite the strangers in, make them comfortable, and let them enjoy the feast.”

Eteoneus and servants attended to the strangers, and to the strangers’ team of horses. Telemachus and Pisistratus entered the palace, marveling at all they saw. Women bathed them in accordance with the ancient custom, and Telemachus and Pisistratus sat by Menelaus, who said to them, “Enjoy the feast, and then tell me who you are. No doubt you are the sons of kings. Anyone could tell that by looking at you.”

Menelaus then gave them good cuts of tender meat, the cuts that he himself had been served. As they ate, Telemachus whispered to Pisistratus, “Just look at the palace — lots of gold, amber, silver, ivory, and bronze. The halls of Zeus on Mount Olympus must look like this.”

Menelaus overheard him, and he said, “The palace of no mortal man can rival that of Zeus, but the palaces of few mortal men can rival my palace. I have wandered for eight years around the Mediterranean, visiting Cyprus, Phoenicia, Egypt, Ethiopia, and Libya.

“While traveling, I made a fortune, but at home someone killed Agamemnon, my brother. I have undergone hardships, as have those who fought for me in the Trojan War. I wish that I had stayed here — even after Paris had stolen two-thirds of my wealth — and never had gone to Troy. That way, those who died fighting for me during the Trojan War would still be alive, as would my brother.

“I mourn for many men who died for me, but for no one as much as I do Odysseus. No one labored more mightily for me, and his days ended in suffering. And how much must others suffer who mourn him: Laertes, his father; Penelope, his wife; and Telemachus, who was just an infant when his father left to fight at Troy.”

Hearing this, Telemachus wept, and Menelaus recognized who his visitor must be. He hesitated, not knowing whether to call the prince by name or to let him introduce himself.

Helen entered the room, immediately recognized who Telemachus must be, and did not hesitate, but said, “I have never seen anyone resemble Odysseus more. This young man must be Telemachus, son of the man who fought at Troy to return me, whore that I was then, to you.”

Menelaus replied, “I think you are correct, dear. I too see the resemblance, and just now when I mentioned Odysseus, this young man started crying.”

Pisistratus said, “You are right. He is Telemachus, the son of Odysseus. We are delighted to speak to you, a man who is like a god. Nestor sent me with him to be his escort as he consulted you about his father. With Odysseus gone, he has no man to defend him and his possessions.”

“It’s wonderful to have the son of my friend as a guest,” Menelaus replied. “Odysseus and I spent years fighting together at Troy. We have a bond, and I would give him a city. Unfortunately, the gods have denied him his day of homecoming.”

All grieved. Telemachus grieved for his father. Menelaus grieved for the men who had suffered for him. Helen wept. Pisistratus wept, thinking of Antilochus, his brother who lay buried on the plain of Troy.

Thinking of Antilochus, Pisistratus said, “My father, Nestor, has always spoken highly of you, Menelaus. So now, can we please speak of something else? I prefer not to cry while eating a meal. It’s not that I think we should not grieve over the warriors who fell at Troy. I myself lost a brother there: Antilochus, a fast runner and a mighty warrior.”

“Well spoken,” Menelaus said. “You speak with the wisdom that is normally given only to the old. You are like your father — you have his wisdom in words. Zeus has blessed Nestor, who grows old in comfort at home, surrounded by family. Come, let us finish eating, and let us drink. Tomorrow, Telemachus can talk about his father.”

So much sorrow was in the house. To dispel the sorrow, Helen mixed a drug in the wine. The drug was called heart’s-ease, and she had learned about it in Egypt. Anyone who drank wine in which the drug had been mixed would feel no sorrow — not even if his family died, not even if an enemy murdered his family in front of him.

It’s good that I know about this drug, Helen thought to herself. It will make this meeting happier. And, of course, it comes in handy to keep my husband under control when he grieves for all the men lost at Troy and wonders if all that suffering and death was worthwhile just to get me back.

Helen brought the wine, they drank, and Helen said, “Menelaus, guests, let us dine and drink and tell old stories to each other. I remember when Odysseus disguised himself and snuck into Troy to spy. He had disguised himself in rags, and he even whipped his own body to make the blood run and make it seem like he had led a hard, abused life. Wearing rags, he came into Troy, and everybody thought that he was just another beggar. He no longer resembled the king and warrior who camped before Troy with all the other Greeks. I was the only one who recognized him. I took him to my apartment, I gave him a bath, and I gave him good clothing to wear and took away the filthy rags that he had used to disguise himself. I also made him tell me the plot of the Greeks. He left my apartment, and he made his way to the gate of Troy, killing Trojans as he went. The Trojan women grieved, but I was glad. By then, I was on the side of the Greeks, and I regretted leaving my husband and infant daughter and coming to Troy with Paris.”

Did you really? Menelaus thought, even though he was under the influence of the drug. Did you take Odysseus to your apartment to keep him from spying among the Trojans? And why did Odysseus kill so many Trojans as he made his way to the gate of Troy? Was he forced to kill them because you bathed him and gave him fine clothing and totally destroyed his disguise? Was he forced to fight for his life because now the Trojan warriors were able to recognize him? Were you trying to get him killed? And what did you do with the information that you say Odysseus told you about the Greeks’ plan?

“Your story is well told, Helen,” Menelaus said. “I also have a story to tell. What a mastermind Odysseus was! What courage he had! He came up with the idea of the Trojan Horse, and he and I were among the warriors who hid in the horse when the Greek army left the horse behind and pretended to sail back home. That night, with the horse inside Troy, you and your newest husband, Deiphobus, whom you married after Paris died, visited the horse. You circled the horse three times, mimicking the voices of the wives of the men inside the horse, trying to get them to call out and reveal themselves to the Trojan warriors. Odysseus is the man who saved us. Odysseus is the man who told us that our wives were not outside, that they were not in Troy. All listened to Odysseus and kept quiet except for Anticlus. When you mimicked his wife’s name, he started to cry out, but Odysseus put his hands over Anticlus’ mouth and saved our lives.”

Menelaus thought, Yes, Helen, you told a good story in which you want us to believe that you helped Odysseus, but I know better. I remember when you tried to get us all killed.

Telemachus was aware of the tension between Menelaus and Helen. Hoping to prevent a fight between husband and wife, he said, “Thank you for the story about my father, Menelaus, but even his great courage could not prevent his death. It’s time for bed. It’s time to enjoy sleep.”

Telemachus’ tactic worked. Helen ordered her serving-women to make up beds for Telemachus and Pisistratus, and all slept.

The next morning, Menelaus asked Telemachus, “How may I help you? Why have you journeyed to see me?”

“I came to seek information about my father,” Telemachus replied. “My palace is overrun by suitors who court my mother against her will and who slaughter my sheep, pigs, cows, and goats, feasting every day while giving nothing in return. I hope that you can give me definitive news about my father, whether the news is good or bad. If you know that he is dead, tell me. Perhaps you even saw him die. Tell me the truth.”

“The suitors don’t know what they are doing,” Menelaus said. “They want to crawl into Odysseus’ bed, but they don’t realize what kind of man he was. Should he return home, he will slaughter them all.

“But let me tell you what I know. I was on an island off the coast of Egypt, still eager to return home but having little luck. The winds were not blowing, and we could not sail. Twenty days had passed, and we were running out of food. Fortunately, Eidothea, the immortal daughter of the Old Man of the Sea, pitied me, and told me how I could get home, and how I could get information.”

“She said to me, ‘My father always takes a nap among the seals each day. He counts each seal, and then he lies down and sleeps. You and three men grab him while he is asleep and hold on to him. He is a shape-shifter extraordinaire and will transform himself into many shapes, but hold on to him. When he stops shape-shifting and has assumed his own true shape, then he will answer any questions you have.’

“We did as she advised. That morning, three trusted men and I went to the place where the seals gathered. Eidothea was waiting for us with four sealskins. The stench was overwhelming, but she daubed sweet-smelling ambrosia — the food of the gods — under our noses, and so we did not smell the stench. Just as she said, the Old Man of the Sea came on shore, counted the seals, and lay down for a nap.

“We grabbed him, and we hung on although he turned himself into a snake, a panther, a boar, and even moving water. Tired, the Old Man of the Sea resumed his real shape and asked me, ‘What do you want, Menelaus?’

“I replied, ‘I want to know how to return home. Apparently, one of the gods is against me and prevents my homecoming. Tell me what I have to do to return home again.’

“The Old Man of the Sea told me, ‘You left Egypt without first making a sacrifice to Zeus and the other gods. You will never make it home until you return to Egypt and make a sacrifice.’

“Bad news for me: another delay before I returned home. But at least I would return home. I then asked him, ‘What about the other Greeks? Did they make it home safely? Or have some of them died — did any drown on their way home, or did any die after reaching home?’

“The Old Man of the Sea replied, ‘Do you really want to know such bad news? You know who died while fighting at Troy. Two more died while returning home or after reaching home. And one more has not returned home, but is being held captive.

“‘Little Ajax died while journeying home. A storm arose, his ship broke into pieces, but he made it to a rock, hanging onto it and boasting that he had survived despite the fury of the gods that had been directed against him. Poseidon heard that boast, and he used his trident to split the rock that Little Ajax was clinging to. Little Ajax fell into the sea and drowned.

“‘And what about your brother? Agamemnon did not drown on his way home, but he met his death nevertheless. Agamemnon reached home and rejoiced, but a watchman saw him and sent news of his return to Aegisthus. Aegisthus had planned ahead. Knowing that Agamemnon would return home, he gave a watchman two bars of gold to look for Agamemnon. Now, after an entire year of staying alert, the watchman saw Agamemnon’s day of homecoming.

“‘Alerted by the watchman, Aegisthus set a trap for Agamemnon. Aegisthus hid twenty armed men in his palace and he ordered a feast to be prepared for the returning king. Agamemnon sat down to eat, and Aegisthus and his twenty armed men slaughtered him and all of Agamemnon’s men.’

“So the Old Man of the Sea told me how my brother had died. I wept,” Menelaus said. “The Old Man of the Sea then said, ‘No more weeping, Menelaus. Go to Egypt, make the sacrifice, and then hurry home! You may be able to avenge Agamemnon’s murder — if his son, Orestes, has not already done that. At the least, you will be able to attend the funeral of Aegisthus.’

“I then asked the Old Man of the Sea about the hero who was being held captive, unable to see his day of homecoming.

“‘That man is Odysseus,’ the Old Man of the Sea told me. ‘I saw him on the island of the sea-nymph Calypso, crying and longing for his day of homecoming. Calypso keeps him captive and will not allow him to leave. He has no ships, no men. He has no way to return home.

“‘But you, Menelaus, have no such fate. You will return home, and when it is time for you to cease living in your country, you will go to the Elysium Fields, where life after death is easy. You are married to Helen, and so you are Zeus’ son-in-law; therefore, ease awaits you.’

“I followed the advice of the Old Man of the Sea,” Menelaus said. “I returned to Egypt, and I sacrificed to the gods. There I made a burial-mound for Agamemnon. After stopping at Mycenae and seeing Orestes, I returned home with Helen.

“But, Telemachus, stay here for ten or twelve days. When you leave, I will give you gifts: three stallions, a chariot, and a precious cup for you to use in pouring offerings to the gods.”

Tactfully, Telemachus replied, “I would be willing to stay with you — even an entire year! — to hear your stories, but I must return home. I left my crewmembers in Pylos, and they will wonder about me. As for the gifts, simply give me a keepsake to remember you by. I can’t use those horses. Here the land is level, but Ithaca is hilly. It’s much better land for goats than for horses.”

Menelaus thought, Yes, I can understand why you wish to leave early. The suitors are ruining your possessions, and you need to return to keep an eye on them. I wish I could help you, but I have not been home long after years of warfare and of wandering, and there is no way in Hell that I am leaving Helen alone.

“You speak well,” Menelaus said. “I can understand that horses are of no use on Ithaca, so I will change the gifts. I will give you a mixing-bowl that is a work of art. It is silver with a rim of gold, and Hephaestus, the blacksmith god, created it himself.”

As they talked, Menelaus’ servants prepared dinner, and back at Odysseus’ palace on Ithaca, the suitors played games, throwing spears and a discus, and enjoyed themselves. But the ringleaders of the suitors, Eurymachus and Antinous, strongest of the bunch, sat by themselves and did not participate in the games.

Noëmon, one of the young men on Ithaca, walked up to Eurymachus and Antinous and asked, “Do you know when Telemachus will return? I lent him my ship, but now I want to go to the mainland, where I have some horses suckling young mules. I want to bring a mule home and break him for work on the farm.”

Eurymachus and Antinous were shocked. True, Telemachus had not been around for a few days, but they had assumed that he was visiting his grandfather or one of his farms. They had not dreamed that Telemachus would have enough initiative to go to the mainland.

Antinous asked Noëmon, “When did Telemachus go, and who went with him?”

Noëmon replied, “He left days ago, and the best young men of Ithaca went with him as his crew. Mentor also went with him. At least he looked like Mentor. But I saw Mentor recently, so he can’t have gone to the mainland. A god must have gone with Telemachus.”

Noëmon left, and the suitors gathered together. Antinous, furious, said, “Telemachus is becoming a danger to us. Why did he go to the mainland? Is he trying to gather armed men to force us out of his palace? We must kill him before he kills us. Give me a ship and twenty armed men, and when he returns home, we will sail out to meet him and kill him and his crew. His father is dead, and soon he will be dead.”

All of the suitors — no exceptions — approved the plan.

Medon the herald overheard the plot. Loyal to Penelope and Telemachus, he hurried to tell Penelope what he had heard.

Seeing him come toward her, Penelope said to him, “Why are you coming to see me? Have the suitors ordered you to tell me to order the serving-women to prepare their feast? How I hate the suitors! I wish that this would be the last meal that they will ever eat!”

Medon replied, “My news is worse than that. The suitors are plotting to murder Telemachus, who sailed to the mainland to seek news of his father.”

“Why did he feel that he had to go to the mainland?” Penelope asked. “Is he trying to get himself killed?”

“Perhaps a god encouraged him, or perhaps it was his own idea,” Medon replied, “but he wanted to discover news of his father. He wanted to learn whether his father is alive or dead.”

Penelope sank to the floor, cried, and said to her serving-women, “Zeus has given me more torment than I can bear. My beloved husband is dead, and my son may soon be dead. If only I had known that he was planning to travel to the mainland, I would have kept him here. Send someone to Dolius, my old servant, who can tell Laertes about Telemachus. Maybe Laertes will know what to do.”

Her old servant Eurycleia told her, “I knew that Telemachus went to the mainland, but he ordered me not to tell you until at least ten or twelve days had passed. He didn’t want you to worry about him. Right now, bathe and put on fresh clothing, and then you may pray to Athena to protect your son. But please don’t make Laertes, an old man, worry about his grandson. He already has too much grief to bear.”

Penelope took her advice. Refreshed, she prayed to Athena, “Hear my prayer, bright-eyed goddess. If Odysseus has ever favored you, has ever sacrificed to you, save his and my son, Telemachus, from these suitors.” She then cried out in grief.

One of the suitors in the Great Hall heard the cry of sorrow and said, “Penelope is preparing for her day of marriage. She knows that it is inevitable, and she does not know that we are going to kill her son.”

Antinous told him, “Shut up! Keep your mouth closed so that no one can learn about our ambush!”

Antinous then chose twenty men. They armed themselves, boarded ship, and sailed out to set an ambush for Telemachus.

In her rooms, Penelope mourned and then slept. Athena saw her, and she thought of a way to help her. She created a phantom in the form of Iphthime, Penelope’s sister, to appear to Penelope in a dream.

The phantom said in the dream, “You need not mourn, Penelope. The gods have heard your prayer. Your son will return safe from his journey. The suitors’ ambush will not succeed. Telemachus has never offended the gods.”

In the dream, Penelope replied, “My life is troubled. My husband has been absent for twenty years, and now my son is in danger. The suitors plot to kill him.”

“Be strong and have courage,” the phantom replied. “Nothing will happen to Telemachus. He has a protector. The goddess Athena sails with him. She will take care of him. Athena knows what you are going through, and she sent me here to reassure you.”

“Can you tell me whether Odysseus is alive or dead?” Penelope asked.

“The gods do not tell all,” the phantom said and then departed.

Penelope felt much better after the dream, but Antinous and twenty armed men sailed to set up an ambush to kill Telemachus. They landed on a rocky island, and they waited for Telemachus to sail near so they could kill him.

So ends the Telemachy: a mini-epic starring Telemachus.


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David Bruce: Homer’s ODYSSEY: A Retelling in Prose — Book 3: Telemachus and King Nestor

Book 3: Telemachus and King Nestor

At dawn, the ship pulled into the harbor of Pylos.

On shore, King Nestor and his people were sacrificing bulls to the gods and preparing a feast. One time that people in ancient Greece could legitimately enjoy a feast was during a sacrifice to the gods. King Nestor, who was both old and wise, understood the rules of feasting and of xenia.

The men on the ship got onto shore, Telemachus last of all. This displeased Athena, who was still disguised as Mentor: “Telemachus, you are the leader of this expedition. Act like it! Don’t bring up the rear! Lead! You undertook this expedition in order to discover news of your father, so now go to King Nestor and seek the information you desire.”

King Nestor was a good person to ask about Odysseus. He had served in the Trojan War with Odysseus and knew him well. Even then, King Nestor was too old to fight, but he shared his wisdom with Agamemnon, leader of the Greek forces.

Telemachus, still timid, still hung back.

“How can I approach King Nestor? I am so young, and he is so worthy of respect.”

“Speak, and the gods will give you the right words,” Athena answered.

Athena led the way to King Nestor, while Telemachus followed her.

King Nestor saw them — strangers — approaching, and so did Pisistratus, his young son. Both King Nestor and his son understood the rules of xenia. Pisistratus reached the strangers first. Having been raised correctly, he welcomed them. He held their hands and led them to the feast and asked them to sit down and refresh themselves. He also gave them wine to pour as a sacrifice to Poseidon, being careful to give wine to the older man first.

“Say a prayer to the sea-god Poseidon,” Pisistratus invited them. “The feast you see is in honor of him. And pour an offering of wine to honor the god.”

Athena was pleased with the actions of Pisistratus. He knew how to treat an older man such as Mentor, and he knew how to welcome strangers and how to respect the gods. Athena also knew how to act correctly. She prayed to Poseidon, “Great sea-god, please grant our prayers. First reward King Nestor and the Pylians for the sacrifice that they have made to you. Then allow Telemachus and myself safe passage home again.”

Telemachus also poured an offering of wine to Poseidon, and then everyone feasted. After everyone had eaten and drunk their fill, King Nestor knew that it was the proper time for conversation, so he asked, “Friends, who are you and why are you travelling?”

Telemachus remembered the encouragement that Athena had given him to speak to King Nestor, so he answered, “We come from Ithaca, and we seek information about my father, Odysseus, with whom you fought at Troy. No one knows where he is buried. Can you tell me how and where he died?”

“Troy was a hardship for all of us,” King Nestor said. “So many people fought and died there. Great Ajax is buried there. So is Achilles. So is Patroclus. So is my own son Antilochus.

“Your father and I never quarreled, never disagreed. Your way of speaking is just like his. Your father, cunning mastermind, conquered Troy, but Zeus and the gods prepared hardships for many Greeks as they attempted to return home. Agamemnon and his brother, Menelaus, quarreled about what to do. Menelaus wished to return home right away, but Agamemnon wished to first offer a sacrifice to Athena. Half of the Greeks followed the advice of Menelaus and left at dawn; half of the Greeks followed the advice of Agamemnon and stayed to offer a sacrifice to Athena.

“Menelaus, Diomedes, and I left at dawn, eager to return home. Diomedes and I made the journey safely, but many of the others did not, as I have learned from the news of travelers to Pylos. True, the Myrmidons of Achilles made it home safely, as did Philoctetes the master archer. So did King Idomeneus of Crete. But Agamemnon was killed by his wife’s lover, Aegisthus, when he left Troy and returned to Mycenae. But Agamemnon’s son, Orestes, won renown throughout the world by killing the murderer of his father.”

“How true,” Telemachus said. “Orestes will always be remembered. I wish that the gods would help me to earn such renown. I wish that the gods would help me to get rid of the suitors who besiege my palace.”

“I have heard news of the suitors,” Nestor replied. “Why is this happening? Do you willingly allow yourself to be bullied? Or are the gods against you? Do they cause the people of Ithaca to despise you?”

Nestor thought, Orestes won renown by killing the murderer of his father. You, Telemachus, can also win great renown by ridding your palace of the suitors, killing them all if necessary.

Nestor continued, “Odysseus may perhaps return someday, either alone or with an army. Let’s hope that Athena is on your side. She helped Odysseus immensely throughout the Trojan War. Goddesses seldom show such favoritism toward a mortal. With her on your side, you could rid your palace of the suitors.”

“I would love for those things to happen,” said Telemachus, “but Odysseus will never return, and I cannot rid my palace of the suitors, even if the gods should help me.”

Insulted, Athena, who was still disguised as Mentor, said sharply, “The gods are much more powerful than you think, Telemachus. Don’t be a fool! It is better for Odysseus to return home years late than to be like Agamemnon, who quickly returned home and quickly was murdered. The gods are very powerful, but even the gods cannot stop a mortal’s fated day of death.”

“Mentor,” Telemachus said, “let us not speak of Odysseus. He has been dead for a long time. But I wish to ask King Nestor, who is so wise, something else: What are the details of Agamemnon’s death? Was Menelaus present? How did Aegisthus manage to murder Agamemnon?”

“Menelaus was not present,” King Nestor replied. “If Menelaus had found Aegisthus alive in the palace of Agamemnon, he — not Orestes — would killed him. He also would have fed Aegisthus’ corpse to the dogs and the birds, not allowing Aegisthus’ soul to travel to the Land of the Dead until a hundred years had passed.

“Aegisthus wooed Agamemnon’s wife, Clytemnestra, and he succeeded in seducing her, even though Agamemnon had left behind a bard to guard her. Aegisthus got rid of the bard, marooning him on an island, and Clytemnestra moved into Aegisthus’ palace.

“Menelaus was delayed during his journey when his pilot, Phrontus, died. He stayed behind at Sounion to bury him, and when he resumed his journey home, he was driven off course. A hurricane split his fleet in two, and Menelaus and five ships landed on Egypt. Away from home he stayed, amassing wealth.

“Aegisthus killed Agamemnon, and then he ruled — badly — as King of Mycenae for seven years before Orestes, having grown up, killed him, avenging the murder of his father. Orestes then buried both Aegisthus and his mother on the same day that Menelaus sailed into the port of Mycenae.

“Telemachus, learn from this story. Don’t stay away from your home too long. Be present so that you can protect your possessions. However, I advise you to visit Menelaus and ask him for news of your father. If you wish, I can lend you a chariot and horses to visit him, and I can send my son with you as a guide.”

Athena praised the old king: “Thank you for a well-told story. Now let us pour wine for Poseidon and then think of sleep.”

They poured the wine, and Nestor, a good host, wanted them to stay with him, not return to their ship: “Stay here with me. It is not right for Telemachus to sleep on the deck of a ship, not when I have plenty of rugs and blankets with which to make beds.”

Athena replied, “That’s a good idea. Let Telemachus stay here, but I will return to the ship and sleep there and make sure that things are OK. I’m the oldest — all the crewmembers are the same age as Telemachus. At dawn, I’ll visit the Cauconians while Telemachus pays a visit to Menelaus, with the loan of your chariot and with your son as his guide.”

Athena then changed herself into a bird and flew away, amazing all who saw her. Gladdened, King Nestor told Telemachus, “The gods are protecting you. This was Athena, the bright-eyed goddess.”

He then prayed to Athena, “Please bless us. Please bless me, my children, and my wife. I will sacrifice to you a heifer whose horns have been wrapped with gold.”

They shared a drink and went to their beds to sleep.

Nestor thought about Telemachus, He has the protection of the gods, but his situation with the suitors is still very bad. I wish I could help him fight the suitors and drive them from his palace. But I am too old, and Pisistratus, my son, is too young and inexperienced to help him. Antilochus, my one son who would be of the proper age and who would have the proper experience to help him, lies buried on the plain before Troy.

The next morning, King Nestor issued orders. He had promised Athena a sacrifice of a heifer whose horns had been wrapped with gold, and he kept his word, ordering the sacrifice, and he requested that most of Telemachus’ crewmembers attend the sacrifice — but two crewmembers needed to stay behind to guard the ship. Athena also attended the sacrifice.

As the heifer was being sacrificed, Polycaste, the youngest daughter of King Nestor, bathed Telemachus in accordance with the ancient custom, making the guest comfortable and showing him proper xenia.

Following the feast, King Nestor ordered that a chariot and a team of horses be brought to them. He also ordered that provisions for the journey of Telemachus and Pisistratus be stowed away in the chariot.

Telemachus and Pisistratus rode all day, stayed with the good host Diocles that night, and rode again in the morning and reached Lacedaemon, home of King Menelaus and of Helen, at dusk.


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David Bruce: Homer’s ODYSSEY: A Retelling in Prose — Book 2: Telemachus and King Nestor

Book 2: Telemachus Calls a Council and Sets Sail

In the morning, Telemachus arose and sent out heralds to summon the men of Ithaca to a council — the first called since Odysseus had left to fight at Troy twenty years ago.

The men arrived quickly — and so did the suitors.

The people at the council could easily be divided into two groups. One group consisted of the aged: men who had been too old to fight in the Trojan War twenty years ago, and who were very old now. The other group consisted of young men: Telemachus, and the suitors, many of whom were a few years older than he.

No middle-aged men were here. The men who would have been middle-aged now had gone to Troy with Odysseus, and they had perished either fighting there or trying to return home after the war. In addition, few fathers were present. Mostly, sons and grandfathers were present. Most of the fathers had left Ithaca to go with Odysseus to Troy and had died.

A generation of very old men, and a generation of very young men who had grown up without fathers to teach them the correct way to behave, attended the council.

Telemachus looked like a magnificent young man. Even now, Athena was looking after him. In the guise of a mature father figure named Mentes, she had encouraged Telemachus to take steps to grow up. He had taken the first step and called the council, so Athena, shape-shifter extraordinaire, rewarded him by making taller, stronger, and more handsome.

But first to speak was an old man named Aegyptius. Old men should always be respected and listened to. He had four sons. One had gone to Troy with Odysseus and had died, two worked hard on their father’s farm, and one, despite his father’s best efforts, ran wild with the other suitors.

Aegyptius spoke up: “Who has called the council, and for what purpose? Is an attack imminent? Is a crisis underway? Let the man speak, and may Zeus be with him.”

May Zeus be with him — these are lucky words, Telemachus thought.

Telemachus spoke up, addressing his first words to Aegyptius to show respect: “I called the council. No attack is imminent. No public crisis is underway. Instead, the crisis is in my palace. My father — my protector — is dead. And now my palace is besieged with suitors who take and take and never give. They claim to woo my mother, but they do it against her will, and not in the proper way. They should go to her father and talk to him, making a case for being a good husband and a good son-in-law. They should give gifts to Penelope. Penelope’s father should choose the best man for her to marry. But the suitors don’t do that. Instead, they infest my palace. They drink my wine, and they slaughter my sheep, pigs, cows, and goats to fuel their feasts. Tell the suitors to leave my palace. They are not respecting xenia, and they are not respecting the gods who wish xenia to be properly observed. I am just a boy, and my father is dead. I have never been a warrior, and I cannot fight off over one hundred suitors.”

Telemachus was so angry that he started crying. Heroes of the ancient world sometimes cried. Even Achilles, the greatest warrior of the Trojan War, cried. The old men of the council pitied Telemachus, but Antinous, one of the leaders of the suitors, spoke up first:

“Don’t blame the suitors for your problems, Telemachus. Instead, blame your mother. For nearly four years, I and the other suitors have been courting her, and she has been lying to us, leading us on. Her most recent trick was to set up a loom and say that she intended to weave a shroud for her father-in-law, old Laertes, in preparation for the day he dies. For three years, she led us on, promising to marry one of us once the weaving was done. By day, she would weave the shroud. By night, she would unweave what she had woven. Finally, one of her serving-women told us what she was doing. We caught her in the act of unweaving the shroud. We forced her to finish it.

“So, Telemachus, let us give you advice. Tell her to marry one of us, whomever she chooses. Until she does, we will continue to court her, to drink your wine, and to slaughter your animals to fuel the feasts we eat in your palace. If she refuses to marry us, her good reputation for remaining faithful to Odysseus will grow, but your possessions will diminish. We suitors have no intention of leaving your palace until Penelope remarries.”

“What you ask is unreasonable,” Telemachus replied. “I will not make my mother remarry. To do that I would have to force her out of the palace and give her back to her father. I am not going to do that to the mother who raised me. Instead, you and the other suitors must leave my palace. Find somewhere else to feast! Devour your own animals! Respect the gods who decree that xenia should be followed! I pray to Zeus that you be punished for all you have done!”

Zeus, the god of xenia, heard Telemachus, and sent him a bird-sign: Two eagles glided down to just above the council, they fought, and they flew away to the right — the lucky side.

A bird-sign is an omen, yes, but a seer must interpret omens.

Just such a seer was present in the council. Halitherses, old warrior and reliable seer, spoke up, “Men of Ithaca, listen to me. Suitors of Penelope, this especially concerns you. Odysseus is not dead. He is somewhere near, and he is plotting bloody vengeance against the suitors. It’s best for us old men to find a way to stop the suitors from besieging Odysseus’ palace — or for the suitors to stop on their own. When Odysseus left for Troy, I prophesized that twenty years would pass before he returned home. The twenty years are over, and now, just as I predicted, he is returning home.”

Now Eurymachus, the other leader of the suitors, spoke up, making clear his intentions and the intentions of all the suitors: “Shut up, old man, old seer, old prophet. Birds are common, and not every bird bears a message from Zeus. I know more than you do. What do I know? I know that Odysseus is dead and that he will never return to Ithaca — and I wish that you were dead, too. Unless you keep your ‘prophecies’ to yourself and stop trying to incite the boy against us, we suitors will force you to pay for your actions with a heavy fine.

“And let me say this in public to Telemachus. Force your mother to return to her father so that he can marry her off. Unless she does, we will continue to act as we have always acted, taking and taking and never giving. And why shouldn’t we? Is there anyone for us suitors to be afraid of? We certainly are not afraid of Telemachus, a whiny little mama’s boy! We also are not afraid of prophecies, of seers, and dare I say it — I do! — of the gods who put prophecies in the seers’ mouths. We will continue to woo Penelope and to feast in Odysseus’ palace.”

Telemachus said to Eurymachus, “The gods and the men of Ithaca know how you and the other suitors are acting. Now I intend to sail to the mainland with a ship and twenty crewmembers. I sail in search of news of my father. If I hear that Odysseus is still alive, then I will wait for one more year for him to return. If I hear definitively that he is dead, then I will return home, build a burial-mound for him, and mourn him. I will also find a husband for my mother.”

Mentor, another old man of Ithaca, spoke up against the suitors: “Men of Ithaca, we remember Odysseus as a good and a wise king. His son and his possessions should be treated with respect. I do not envy the suitors with all their partying. They do not think that Odysseus will ever return home. They do not think that they will ever have to face justice and pay for the crimes they have committed. But can’t we do something? We are old, and we are few. The suitors are young, and they are many. Still, must we old men be silent?”

A third suitor, Leocritus, spoke out: “Mentor and you other old men of Ithaca, don’t try to fight us. You would lose. Even if Odysseus with all of his armed men were to return to Ithaca, Penelope would get no joy from him. Instead, we suitors would quickly kill Odysseus and all of his armed men. Let the council end now. You can do nothing to stop us.”

The council ended. The old men went to their homes, and the suitors went to Telemachus’ palace.

Calling the council had failed to remove the suitors from the palace. The mature men of Ithaca were too old to help Telemachus remove them.

Still, Telemachus had succeeded in making known his objections to how the suitors were acting. No one could now say that he had never objected to the suitors’ actions. The old men of Ithaca now knew how bad things were in Odysseus’ palace. They had heard rumors, yes, but rumors can be false. Now they knew that the worst rumors were true.

Telemachus walked along the beach and prayed, “Athena, thank you for appearing to me and giving me advice, but look at what is happening! The suitors ignore my wishes!”

Athena heard the prayer and appeared. This time she assumed the shape of wise old Mentor, and again she advised Telemachus: “You have good blood in you, and I think you have your father’s spirit. Your father was a brave man, and you can be a brave man as well. The suitors are running wild, and they will pay with their blood for what they have done and are doing. But you have a journey to make. Go back to the palace and keep an eye on the suitors. But quietly get ready provisions for your journey: wine and barley-meal. I will arrange for you to use a ship with twenty crewmembers.”

Telemachus returned to the palace, and the suitors, as usual, were slaughtering his sheep, pigs, cows, and goats, preparing to feast and to party.

Antinous, hoping that Telemachus was now the boy of old after his brief rebellion of calling and speaking out at the council, grabbed his hand and did not let go, saying to him, “Telemachus, young person, feast with us and drink with us. We will give you whatever you need. You say that you want a ship with twenty crewmembers? We’ll arrange that for you.”

Indeed we will, Antinous thought. That way, the twenty crewmembers can keep an eye on you so that you don’t become a danger to us.

“How can I enjoy the feast now that I have grown up?” Telemachus asked. “When I was young, you moved into the palace. I was too young to realize what you were doing and how badly you were acting. But now I have grown up. How can I enjoy you wasting my possessions and giving nothing in return? But yes, I will go in a ship to the mainland — as a passenger. Obviously, you are not going to allow me to be the master of the ship.”

Let him think that I will allow the suitors to provide me with a ship, Telemachus thought. I will be gone before they discover that they have been deceived.

Telemachus withdrew his hand from Antinous’ grasp and walked away.

The suitors began to talk about him.

One suitor said, “He’s starting to think deep, dark thoughts about us. Why does he want to go to the mainland? Perhaps he wants to hire mercenaries to kill us. Or maybe he wants to get poison to slip into the wine we drink.”

“This can work to our advantage,” another suitor said. “His father drowned while on a voyage, so why can’t Telemachus drown while he is on his voyage? That way, when one of us marries Penelope, we can also divide Telemachus’ goods — he won’t be needing them!”

Meanwhile, Telemachus and Eurycleia, an aged and loyal servant, went to Odysseus’ storeroom, and Telemachus told her his plan to visit the mainland and ordered her to prepare wine and barley-meal for him to take on his journey.

His plan shocked Eurycleia: “Why must you go to the mainland to seek news of your father? Won’t the suitors seize their opportunity and kill you? Shouldn’t you stay here to guard your possessions?”

“I have the help of the gods,” Telemachus replied, “but promise me that you won’t tell my mother that I am gone — at least not until ten or twelve days have passed. She won’t miss me. She will think that I have gone to visit one of the farms. Perhaps she will think that I have gone to visit old Laertes, my grandfather.”

Eurycleia promised, making a vow to the gods that she would not tell Penelope. The provisions having been prepared, Telemachus returned to the Great Hall and the suitors.

Meanwhile, Athena — disguised this time as Telemachus himself — arranged for twenty crewmembers, and she borrowed the use of a ship from Noëmon. Telling all the crewmembers to go to the ship at nightfall, she made sure that all was prepared. She then went to Odysseus’ palace and — as the gods can do — made the suitors sleepy. The suitors left the palace to find their beds, and Athena, who now appeared in the form of Mentor, told Telemachus, “The ship is ready.”

They went to the ship, and Telemachus assumed command, giving orders to his friends, “Let’s load the ship with provisions from my storeroom. No one except for one servant knows of the journey we will make. Not even my mother knows.”

They loaded up the ship and set sail. With the sails filled with wind, they drank wine, but first they poured out an offering to honor Athena. All night the ship sailed.


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David Bruce: Homer’s ODYSSEY: A Retelling in Prose — Book 1: Athena and Telemachus

Book 1: Athena and Telemachus

Muse, goddess of inspiration, please help me. I have an important story to tell, and I need help to tell it. Please use me to tell the story.

Help me to tell the story of a man of twists and turns. His mind twists and turns to seek solutions to problems. His journey twists and turns in the Mediterranean — and beyond. His strategy conquered Troy. He is a man who tried mightily — but failed — to bring his companions home, fools though they sometimes were.

Help me to tell the story of Odysseus, the great individualist and mastermind and man who feels pain deeply.

All other heroes of the Trojan War were home by now — or dead. Only Odysseus remained away from his home. Odysseus was kept captive by Calypso the sea-goddess.

Still, most gods and goddesses pitied Odysseus now, so long absent from his island kingdom: Ithaca. But Poseidon, the great ruler of the seas, did not pity Odysseus. No, Poseidon was still angry. Poseidon still wanted Odysseus to suffer, to stay away from home, to long to see his day of homecoming. But Poseidon was now absent, away on a visit to the Ethiopians.

Zeus, the king of gods and men, at home on Olympus among the gods and goddesses, spoke his mind about another homecoming: “Mortals have no shame, blaming the gods as they so often do for their own problems. Look at Aegisthus. Paris, Prince of Troy, visited Menelaus, King of Lacedaemon, and then ran away with his lawful wife, Helen, taking her to Troy. Angry, Menelaus and his older brother, Agamemnon, took hundreds of ships loaded with soldiers and fought a ten-year war to get Helen back. Clearly, pursuing another man’s wife is destructive, and Aegisthus should have realized that. But he didn’t, and he looked with desire at Clytemnestra, the lawful wife of Agamemnon. I even sent the messenger-god Hermes to tell him to leave Clytemnestra alone. Did he listen? No. Did he pay the penalty? Yes. Aegisthus killed Agamemnon when he returned home, and Agamemnon’s son, Orestes, kept anger in his heart. When Orestes became a young man, he exacted proper revenge and killed Aegisthus and avenged his father, exactly as a man ought to do.”

Athena, goddess of wisdom, sensing an opportunity to act and to help her favorite mortal, spoke to her father, Zeus, “Father, all you say is true. Aegisthus deserved what he got. He did the wrong thing, and he paid the proper penalty.

“But what about Odysseus? He has been cursed by fate. He is far from home, held captive on an island by Calypso. He longs to see his day of homecoming. He longs to see even the smoke of cooking fires rising from Ithaca. Is Odysseus your enemy? Has Odysseus shown you disrespect?”

Zeus replied to his favorite daughter, “No, Athena. Odysseus is not my enemy. Odysseus has never shown me disrespect. But Poseidon, the earth-shaking god of earthquakes and of the sea, hates Odysseus, who hurt his son, the one-eyed Cyclops Polyphemus. Poseidon knows that he cannot kill Odysseus — Odysseus is not fated to die just yet — but Poseidon knows that he can cause Odysseus great trouble and delay his day of homecoming.

“Still, Poseidon is gone now. So let us think together how we can help Odysseus to return home.”

“If you mean what you say,” Athena replied, “then send Hermes to Calypso to tell her that she must let Odysseus go free so he can attempt to return to Ithaca. I, meanwhile, will go to Ithaca, to see his son, Telemachus, and help him to grow up.

“I will put courage in Prince Telemachus’ heart. I will advise him to call an assembly and speak out against the suitors who are courting his mother — Odysseus’ wife, Penelope — even though Odysseus is still alive. I will advise him to speak out against the suitors who are treating him and his household badly, slaughtering his sheep, pigs, cows, and goats, partying on his property while showing him disrespect. I will also advise him to visit the mainland, to go to Pylos and Lacedaemon to seek news of his father.

“The son of a hero should also be a hero. It is time for Telemachus to stop being a boy and start being a man. Perhaps he will do a deed that will be remembered.”

Zeus agreed with her plan.

Athena armed herself with a spear and disguised herself as a mortal man: Mentes, lord of the Taphians. Then she flew — the gods and goddesses have that power — down to Odysseus’ palace on Ithaca to see Telemachus and the swaggering suitors for herself.

The suitors were behaving exactly as she had known they would. They were playing dice and drinking wine while servants heaped tables in Odysseus’ Great Hall with huge platters of meat — meat butchered from Telemachus’ own animals. Athena stood in the doorway, waiting to be noticed and hoping to be welcomed.

As all know, although not all act on their knowledge, strangers ought to be noticed and welcomed. What is the difference between a civilized society and an uncivilized society? A civilized society feeds the hungry. A civilized society takes care of the needs of guests. A civilized society treats strangers as guests. An uncivilized society does not do these things.

Of course, both host and guest must be civilized. The host must not rob or murder his guest. A guest must not rob or murder his host. A host must feed his guest, give the guest water to wash with, and give the guest a place to sleep. A guest must not run away with his host’s wife, as Paris, prince of Troy, did, and a guest must not stay too long, must not waste the property of his host, and must not treat his host with disrespect, as the suitors were doing to Telemachus.

The proper relationship between guest and host has a name: xenia. A civilized society is a society that observes xenia. An uncivilized society is a society that does not observe xenia.

Telemachus saw Athena, disguised as Mentes, first. She, of course, appeared as a mortal man and not as a goddess to him. Having been raised correctly, he went immediately to her, horrified that perhaps that she had been waiting a long time at the doorway for someone to notice her and to greet her. He shook her right hand, and then he took her spear, both to relieve her of her burden and to disarm her. Always, it is a good idea to disarm a guest until you are sure that the guest knows and observes xenia properly.

He led Athena into the Great Hall, put her spear on a rack filled with other spears, and then led her to a high seat of honor among the tables laden with platters piled high with meat. They sat together, a servant brought them water so they could wash their hands, and they ate. Only after they had eaten did Telemachus, who had been raised properly, ask her who she was. He hoped to learn, if he could, news of his father. The suitors, having feasted while ignoring Telemachus’ guest, danced to the music of the bard Phemius, a man who, like many of the other servants in the palace, was forced to serve the suitors. Unfortunately, some servants were loyal to the suitors, not to Telemachus.

Telemachus unburdened himself to Athena: “Look at these young men! They party every day, eating food that does not belong to them and drinking wine that does not belong to them. Their days are filled with games and feasts and music. They take and take, and they give nothing in return. If only my father, Odysseus, were alive, they would run away from the palace as fast as they can. But my father is dead. He will never return to Ithaca. But tell me about yourself. What is your story?”

“My name is Mentes,” Athena said. “I had heard that my friend of long ago, Odysseus, had returned to Ithaca, but I see that I was wrong. The gods must be preventing his return. I will tell you that you are wrong about the death of your father. I know that Odysseus is alive. No, I am not a prophet, but the gods sometimes speak to people who are not prophets. Your father will return to Ithaca soon. But tell me about yourself. What is your story? You certainly resemble your father.”

“Odysseus is said to be my father,” Telemachus said, “but sometimes I wonder if that is true. We can know for certain who our mother is, but does anyone truly know who is his father? I wish that my father were here, and yes, people say that Odysseus is my father.”

“All will be well in the end,” Athena said. “Penelope has given birth to a fine son. But what is going on in the palace? Anyone would think from all the food and wine that this is a wedding-feast, but the young men are not acting like guests at a wedding. Anyone would think that they are uncivilized delinquents rather than guests.”

“They are courting my mother — against her will! She is the wife of a man whose white bones lie unburied somewhere,” Telemachus replied. “I wish my father had died among friends. If he had died at Troy, his friends would have raised a burial-mound for him and have properly mourned his death. If he had returned home to Ithaca and died, we would have raised a burial-mound for him and have properly mourned his death. But no, he died friendless and alone, far from home.

“The suitors are uncivilized. They waste all my possessions. They party all day. My mother does not know what to do. She does not know whether her husband is alive or dead, and therefore she does not know whether to remain faithful to a living husband or to seek a new husband because she is a widow. If Odysseus is alive, Penelope has a duty to remain faithful to him. If Odysseus is dead, Penelope ought to remarry. In the meantime, as we wait for reliable news about whether Odysseus is alive or dead, the suitors run wild. Someday, they will try to kill me to get me out of the way. There are over a hundred suitors. What can I do against so many?”

“The suitors are behaving shamefully,” Athena said, “but if they knew Odysseus, they would leave the palace quickly. I know Odysseus, and he would not allow the suitors to run wild. The last time I saw Odysseus, he was on a mission to get poison to put on the heads of his arrows. If that Odysseus were to return to Ithaca, the suitors would soon be dead.

“But Odysseus is not here. You, Telemachus, are here. Think. What can you do to rid your palace of the suitors? You are your father’s son, and you know your father would not permit such outrageous actions in his own palace.

“Listen to me. In the morning, call an assembly of the men on Ithaca. Speak out against the suitors. Let the other men know what the suitors are doing. They are running wild. They are uncivilized. They do not respect xenia. They take and take, and they give nothing in return. They produce nothing of value. They live only to eat and to produce human excrement.

“In the assembly, tell the suitors to leave your palace and to return to their own homes. Tell them that with the lords of Ithaca and the gods as your witnesses.

“As for your mother, let her act as she thinks best. If she thinks that she ought to remarry, let her return to the house of her father so that he can arrange a suitable marriage for her. A marriage with one of the suitors is not a suitable marriage — not when they act like this!

“Also, Telemachus, get a ship ready and journey to the mainland to seek news of your father. Perhaps you will hear something of value. First go to Pylos to consult Nestor, the wise old man of the Greek forces during the Trojan War. Then visit Lacedaemon, where Menelaus is king. See what, if anything, they know of your father.

“If you hear that Odysseus is still alive, then wait one more year for him to return.

“But if you hear definitively that he is dead, then return home, raise a burial-mound for him, and mourn him. Find a husband for your mother. And then take thought of how to kill the suitors. They will not leave willingly — not when they can party at no cost to themselves here. You are not a boy any longer, so it is time for you to grow up. A beard is on your face, yet you are clinging to the ways of boyhood.

“Think of Orestes, a young man of your own age. Aegisthus killed Orestes’ father, so Orestes killed Aegisthus. For this righteous killing, Orestes has achieved renown throughout the world. If you succeed in killing the suitors, you also will achieve renown throughout the world.

“Telemachus, you are tall and handsome. Be brave, too. I must leave now and return to my ship, but think about and remember everything that I have advised you.”

A proper host, Telemachus replied, “I will. You have advised me the way a father would advise a son. But stay a while. Bathe, and then return to your ship bearing a gift from me to you. This is the way that xenia works.”

Athena, pleased with Telemachus, replied, “No, I must be going now. But I will return. Keep the gift until I return.”

Then Athena, shape-shifter extraordinaire, turned herself into a bird and flew away, letting Telemachus know that he had been honored with a visit from the goddess Athena.

Meanwhile, in the Great Hall, Phemius the bard sang of the Homecomings of Heroes from the Trojan War, a song that did not include the homecoming of Odysseus, whom Calypso was holding captive on an island.

In her quarters, Penelope heard the song of the bard and wondered whether she was a widow or a wife. If she was a widow, her society demanded that she remarry and go to live with her new husband, turning over the palace to Telemachus. But if she was a wife with a living husband, her society demanded that she remain faithful to Odysseus and stay on Ithaca to preserve his property as much as she was able to.

Upset by the bard’s song, Penelope went to the Great Hall, accompanied by two serving-women. Ever-prudent Penelope would never appear before men she was not related to without serving-women to accompany her.

“Phemius!” she cried. “Stop singing that song! It breaks my heart, knowing that Odysseus has not returned home although twenty years have passed. I need my husband here — now.”

Telemachus spoke up, “Don’t blame the bard for Odysseus’ absence. So many warriors failed to return home from Troy. Let the bard sing. Go back to your quarters and attend to your work. I will look after things here.”

Telemachus disliked his mother’s appearing before the suitors, although she never appeared before them alone. Wild young men who drink and party are dangerous.

Penelope obeyed her son. She wanted him to grow up, become a man, and take command. In ancient Greece, women obeyed men. She left the Great Hall, and in her quarters, she wept for Odysseus.

In the Great Hall, the suitors spoke — loudly — about Penelope’s beauty, and about how they wanted to go to bed with her.

Telemachus spoke to the suitors, “In the morning, I will call a council of all the men of Ithaca. You suitors who wish to marry my mother — although she is unwilling to remarry — must leave my palace and return to your own homes. You take and take, but you never give. Go to your own homes and devour your own possessions! Enough! I pray to Zeus that all of you will receive justice — justice of a kind that will make you regret what you have done to my possessions.”

The suitors were shocked. Telemachus had never spoken to them with such daring before.

Antinous, one of the leaders of the suitors, spoke up: “Telemachus, you must have received encouragement from a god, if such a thing were possible. Otherwise, you would not dare to talk to us in such a way. Still, I doubt that you will ever be crowned King of Ithaca.”

“If the crown ever comes to me, so be it,” Telemachus replied. “Father Zeus can award the crown to whomever he desires. Still, many princes are on Ithaca, and one of them may hold the crown, now that Odysseus is dead. But whether I ever become King of Ithaca, I intend to be king of my own palace. Odysseus won this property for me, and I intend to keep it.”

Eurymachus, the other leader of the suitors, countered, “All of this lies in the hands of the gods, but yes, of course, by all means you are the ruler here. I would be a hypocrite if I were to say anything but the truth. But who was your guest just now, the one who left so quickly? Did he bring news of your father?”

“My father will never return to Ithaca,” Telemachus said. “I no longer listen to the rumors that are spread by strangers, although my mother insists on questioning them. But the guest was Mentes, a man who is a friend to my family from long ago.” However, Telemachus knew that his guest had been the goddess Athena, not a mortal man.

The suitors resumed their partying, and then, late at night, they left the palace until the following morning.

Telemachus prepared for bed. An aged servant named Eurycleia, whom Laertes, Telemachus’ grandfather, had bought when she was young and pretty, but had never bedded because he did not want to upset his wife, lit his way with a torch. That night, Telemachus did not sleep, but lay awake, thinking over everything that Athena had said to him.


Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved


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