and neighed as though with jaws no longer theirs,
while blood defiled their meat,
and blurring tears
flooded their eyes, heart-sore with woe to come.
Then said the visionary, Theokl´ymenos:
“O lost sad men, what terror is this you suffer?
Night shrouds you to the knees, your heads, your faces;
dry retch of death runs round like fire in sticks;
your cheeks are streaming; these fair walls and pedestals
are dripping crimson blood. And thick with shades
is the entry way, the courtyard thick with shades
passing athirst toward Érebos, into the dark,
the sun is quenched in heaven, foul mist hems us in . . .”
The young men greeted this with shouts of laughter,
and Eur´ymakhos, the son of Pólybos, crowed:
“The mind of our new guest has gone astray.
Hustle him out of doors, lads, into the sunlight;
he finds it dark as night inside!”
The man of vision looked at him and said:
“When I need help, I’ll ask for it, Eur´ymakhos.
I have my eyes and ears, a pair of legs,
and a straight mind, still with me. These will do
to take me out. Damnation and black night
I see arriving for yourselves: no shelter,
no defence for any in this crowd—
fools and vipers in the king’s own hall.”
With this he left that handsome room and went
home to Peiraios, who received him kindly.
The suitors made wide eyes at one another
and set to work provoking Telémakhos
with jokes about his friends. One said, for instance:
“Telémakhos, no man is a luckier host
when it comes to what the cat dragged in. What burning
eyes your beggar had for bread and wine!
But not for labor, not for a single heave—
he’d be a deadweight on a field. Then comes
this other, with his mumbo-jumbo. Boy,
for your own good, I tell you, toss them both
into a slave ship for the Sikels.10 That would pay you.”
Telémakhos ignored the suitors’ talk.
He kept his eyes in silence on his father,
That is, in the eyes of Odysseus, Telémakhos, and Theokl´ymenos.
/ The Odyssey, Book Twenty
05_273-611_Homer 2/Aesop 7/10/00 1:25 PM Page 545
awaiting the first blow. Meanwhile
the daughter of Ikários, Penélopê,
had placed her chair to look across and down
on father and son at bay; she heard the crowd,
and how they laughed as they resumed their dinner,
a fragrant feast, for many beasts were slain—
but as for supper, men supped never colder
than these, on what the goddess and the warrior
were even then preparing for the suitors,
whose treachery had filled that house with pain.
BOOK TWENTY-ONE: THE TEST OF THE BOW
Upon Penélopê, most worn in love and thought,
Athena cast a glance like a grey sea
lifting her. Now to bring the tough bow out and bring
the iron blades. Now try those dogs at archery
to usher bloody slaughter in.
So moving stairward
the queen took up a fine doorhook of bronze,
ivory-hafted, smooth in her clenched hand,
and led her maids down to a distant room,
a storeroom where the master’s treasure lay:
bronze, bar gold, black iron forged and wrought.
In this place hung the double-torsion bow
and arrows in a quiver, a great sheaf—
quills of groaning.
In the old time in Lakedaimon1
her lord had got these arms from Íphitos,
son. The two met in Messenia
at Ortílokhos’ table, on the day
Odysseus claimed a debt owed by that realm—
sheep stolen by Messenians out of Ithaka
in their long ships, three hundred head, and herdsmen.
Seniors of Ithaka and his father sent him
on that far embassy when he was young.
But Íphitos had come there tracking strays,
twelve shy mares, with mule colts yet unweaned.
And a fatal chase they led him over prairies
into the hands of Heraklês. That massive
son of toil and mortal son of Zeus
1The region of Sparta, in southern Greece.
2A famous archer.
3A region down the coast from Ithaka, in southwestern Greece.
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murdered his guest at wine4 in his own house—
inhuman, shameless in the sight of heaven—
to keep the mares and colts in his own grange.
Now Íphitos, when he knew Odysseus, gave him
the master bowman’s arm; for old Eur´ytos
had left it on his deathbed to his son.
In fellowship Odysseus gave a lance
and a sharp sword. But Heraklês killed Íphitos
before one friend could play host to the other.
And Lord Odysseus would not take the bow
in the black ships to the great war at Troy.
As a keepsake he put it by:
it served him well at home in Ithaka.
Now the queen reached the storeroom door and halted.
Here was an oaken sill, cut long ago
and sanded clean and bedded true. Foursquare
the doorjambs and the shining doors were set
by the careful builder. Penélopê untied the strap
around the curving handle, pushed her hook
into the slit, aimed at the bolts inside
and shot them back. Then came a rasping sound
as those bright doors the key had sprung gave way—
a bellow like a bull’s vaunt in a meadow—
followed by her light footfall entering
over the plank floor. Herb-scented robes
lay there in chests, but the lady’s milkwhite arms
went up to lift the bow down from a peg
in its own polished bowcase.
sank down, holding the weapon on her knees,
and drew her husband’s great bow out, and sobbed
and bit her lip and let the salt tears flow.
Then back she went to face the crowded hall
tremendous bow in hand, and on her shoulder hung
the quiver spiked with coughing death. Behind her
maids bore a basket full of axeheads, bronze
and iron implements for the master’s game.
Thus in her beauty she approached the suitors,
and near a pillar of the solid roof
she paused, her shining veil across her cheeks,
her maids on either hand and still,
then spoke to the banqueters:
4Íphitos’ pursuit of his lost mares brought him to Tiryns, the city of the great hero-
adventurer Heraklês, who, according to certain versions of the story, had something to do
with the mares’ disappearance. By some accounts, Heraklês killed Íphitos by throwing him
down from the city walls.
/ The Odyssey, Book Twenty-One
05_273-611_Homer 2/Aesop 7/10/00 1:25 PM Page 547
“My lords, hear me:
suitors indeed, you commandeered this house
to feast and drink in, day and night, my husband
being long gone, long out of mind. You found
no justification for yourselves—none
except your lust to marry me. Stand up, then:
we now declare a contest for that prize.
Here is my lord Odysseus’ hunting bow.
Bend and string it if you can. Who sends an arrow
through iron axe-helve sockets,
twelve in line?
I join my life with his, and leave this place, my home,
my rich and beautiful bridal house, forever
to be remembered, though I dream it only.”
Then to Eumaios:
“Carry the bow forward.
Carry the blades.”
Tears came to the swineherd’s eyes
as he reached out for the big bow. He laid it
down at the suitors’ feet. Across the room
the cowherd sobbed, knowing the master’s weapon.
Antínoös growled, with a glance at both:
They go to pieces over nothing.
You two, there,
why are you sniveling? To upset the woman
even more? Has she not pain enough
over her lost husband? Sit down.
Get on with dinner quietly, or cry about it
outside, if you must. Leave us the bow.
A clean-cut game, it looks to me.
Nobody bends that bowstave easily
in this company. Is there a man here
made like Odysseus? I remember him
from childhood: I can see him even now.”
That was the way he played it, hoping inwardly
to span the great horn bow with corded gut
and drill the iron with his shot—he, Antínoös,
destined to be the first of all to savor
blood from a biting arrow at his throat,
a shaft drawn by the fingers of Odysseus
whom he had mocked and plundered, leading on
5The details of the feat to be performed have been much discussed and are not entirely
clear; in any case, the archer had to send an arrow through twelve openings—notches, holes,
or other apertures—in the handles or blades of the axes.
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the rest, his boon companions. Now they heard
a gay snort of laughter from Telémakhos,
who said then brilliantly:
“A queer thing, that!
Has Zeus almighty made me a half-wit?
For all her spirit, Mother has given in,
promised to go off with someone—and
is that amusing? What am I cackling for?
Step up, my lords, contend now for your prize.
There is no woman like her in Akhaia,
not in old Argos, Pylos, or Mykênê,
neither in Ithaka nor on the mainland,
and you all know it without praise of mine.
Come on, no hanging back, no more delay
in getting the bow bent. Who’s the winner?
I myself should like to try that bow.
Suppose I bend it and bring off the shot,
my heart will be less heavy, seeing the queen my mother
go for the last time from this house and hall,
if I who stay can do my father’s feat.”
He moved out quickly, dropping his crimson cloak,
and lifted sword and sword belt from his shoulders.
His preparation was to dig a trench,
heaping the earth in a long ridge beside it
to hold the blades half-bedded. A taut cord
aligned the socket rings. And no one there
but looked on wondering at his workmanship,
for the boy had never seen it done.
He took his stand then
on the broad door sill to attempt the bow.
Three times he put his back into it and sprang it,
three times he had to slack off. Still he meant
to string that bow and pull for the needle shot.
A fourth try, and he had it all but strung—
when a stiffening in Odysseus made him check.
Abruptly then he stopped and turned and said:
“Blast and damn it, must I be a milksop
all my life? Half-grown, all thumbs,
no strength or knack at arms, to defend myself
if someone picks a fight with me.
O my elders and betters, try the bow,
run off the contest.”
And he stood the weapon
upright against the massy-timbered door
with one arrow across the horn aslant,
/ The Odyssey, Book Twenty-One
05_273-611_Homer 2/Aesop 7/10/00 1:25 PM Page 549
then went back to his chair. Antínoös
gave the word:
“Now one man at a time
rise and go forward. Round the room in order;
left to right from where they dip the wine.”
As this seemed fair enough, up stood Leódês
the son of Oinops. This man used to find
vision for them in the smoke of sacrifice.
He kept his chair well back, retired by the winebowl,
for he alone could not abide their manners
but sat in shame for all the rest. Now it was he
who had first to confront the bow,
standing up on the broad door sill. He failed.
The bow unbending made his thin hands yield,
no muscle in them. He gave up and said:
“Friends, I cannot. Let the next man handle it.
Here is a bow to break the heart and spirit
of many strong men. Aye. And death is less
bitter than to live on and never have
the beauty that we came here laying siege to
so many days. Resolute, are you still,
to win Odysseus’ lady Penélopê?
Pit yourselves against the bow, and look
among Akhaians for another’s daughter.
Gifts will be enough to court and take her.
Let the best offer win.”
With this Leódês
thrust the bow away from him, and left it
upright against the massy-timbered door,
with one arrow aslant across the horn.
As he went down to his chair he heard Antínoös’
“What is that you say?
It makes me burn. You cannot string the weapon,
so ‘Here is a bow to break the heart and spirit
of many strong men.’ Crushing thought!
You were not born—you never had it in you—
to pull that bow or let an arrow fly.
But here are men who can and will.”
He called out to the goatherd, Melánthios:
“Kindle a fire there, be quick about it,
draw up a big bench with a sheepskin on it,
and bring a cake of lard out of the stores.
Contenders from now on will heat and grease the bow.
We’ll try it limber, and bring off the shot.”
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Melánthios darted out to light a blaze,
drew up a bench, threw a big sheepskin over it,
and brought a cake of lard. So one by one
the young men warmed and greased the bow for bending,
but not a man could string it. They were whipped.
Antínoös held off; so did Eur´ymakhos,
suitors in chief, by far the ablest there.
Two men had meanwhile left the hall:
swineherd and cowherd, in companionship,
one downcast as the other. But Odysseus
followed them outdoors, outside the court,
and coming up said gently:
and you, too, swineherd, I could say a thing to you,
or should I keep it dark?
No, no; speak,
my heart tells me. Would you be men enough
to stand by Odysseus if he came back?
Suppose he dropped out of a clear sky, as I did?
Suppose some god should bring him?
Would you bear arms for him, or for the suitors?”
The cowherd said:
“Ah, let the master come!
Father Zeus, grant our old wish! Some courier
guide him back! Then judge what stuff is in me
and how I manage arms!”
fell to praying all heaven for his return,
so that Odysseus, sure at least of these,
“I am at home, for I am he.
I bore adversities, but in the twentieth year
I am ashore in my own land. I find
the two of you, alone among my people,
longed for my coming. Prayers I never heard
except your own that I might come again.
So now what is in store for you I’ll tell you:
If Zeus brings down the suitors by my hand
I promise marriages to both, and cattle,
and houses built near mine. And you shall be
brothers-in-arms of my Telémakhos.
Here, let me show you something else, a sign
that I am he, that you can trust me, look:
this old scar from the tusk wound that I got
boar hunting on Parnassos—
Autólykos’ sons and I.”
/ The Odyssey, Book Twenty-One
05_273-611_Homer 2/Aesop 7/10/00 1:25 PM Page 551
Shifting his rags
he bared the long gash. Both men looked, and knew,
and threw their arms around the old soldier, weeping,
kissing his head and shoulders. He as well
took each man’s head and hands to kiss, then said—
to cut it short, else they might weep till dark—
“Break off, no more of this.
Anyone at the door could see and tell them.
Drift back in, but separately at intervals
Now listen to your orders:
when the time comes, those gentlemen, to a man,
will be dead against giving me bow or quiver.
Defy them. Eumaios, bring the bow
and put it in my hands there at the door.
Tell the women to lock their own door tight.
Tell them if someone hears the shock of arms
or groans of men, in hall or court, not one
must show her face, but keep still at her weaving.
Philoítios, run to the outer gate and lock it.
Throw the cross bar and lash it.”
He turned back
into the courtyard and the beautiful house
and took the stool he had before. They followed
one by one, the two hands loyal to him.
Eur´ymakhos had now picked up the bow.
He turned it round, and turned it round
before the licking flame to warm it up,
but could not, even so, put stress upon it
to jam the loop over the tip
though his heart groaned to bursting.
Then he said grimly:
“Curse this day.
What gloom I feel, not for myself alone,
and not only because we lose that bride.
Women are not lacking in Akhaia,
in other towns, or on Ithaka. No, the worst
is humiliation—to be shown up for children
measured against Odysseus—we who cannot
even hitch the string over his bow.
What shame to be repeated of us, after us!”
“Come to yourself. You know
that is not the way this business ends.
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