Today the islanders held holiday, a holy day,6
no day to sweat over a bowstring.
Keep your head.
Postpone the bow. I say we leave the axes
planted where they are. No one will take them.
No one comes to Odysseus’ hall tonight.
Break out good wine and brim our cups again,
we’ll keep the crooked bow safe overnight,
order the fattest goats Melánthios has
brought down tomorrow noon, and offer thighbones burning
to Apollo, god of archers,
while we try out the bow and make the shot.”
As this appealed to everyone, heralds came
pouring fresh water for their hands, and boys
filled up the winebowls. Joints of meat went round,
fresh cuts for all, while each man made his offering,
tilting the red wine to the gods, and drank his fill.
Then spoke Odysseus, all craft and gall:
“My lords, contenders for the queen, permit me:
a passion in me moves me to speak out.
I put it to Eur´ymakhos above all
and to that brilliant prince, Antínoös. Just now
how wise his counsel was, to leave the trial
and turn your thoughts to the immortal gods! Apollo
will give power tomorrow to whom he wills.
But let me try my hand at the smooth bow!
Let me test my fingers and my pull
to see if any of the oldtime kick is there,
or if thin fare and roving took it out of me.”
Now irritation beyond reason swept them all,
since they were nagged by fear that he could string it.
Antínoös answered, coldly and at length:
“You bleary vagabond, no rag of sense is left you.
Are you not coddled here enough, at table
taking meat with gentlemen, your betters,
denied nothing, and listening to our talk?
When have we let a tramp hear all our talk?
The sweet goad of wine has made you rave!
Here is the evil wine can do
to those who swig it down. Even the centaur
in Peiríthoös’ hall
With ironic appropriateness, a feast day of Apollo, god of archery; Antínoös makes this
an excuse for putting off the present challenge.
The centaurs were an uncivilized tribe (often represented in myth as having horses’ trunks
and legs and human torsos and heads), inhabitants of Thessaly, in northeastern Greece. They
were invited to the wedding of Peiríthoös, king of the Lapíthai, a neighboring people, and at
the wedding tried to carry off the bride; the present version tells the story in the singular, of
Eur´ytion. In the ensuing battle the centaurs were defeated.
/ The Odyssey, Book Twenty-One
05_273-611_Homer 2/Aesop 7/10/00 1:25 PM Page 553
among the Lapíthai, came to a bloody end
because of wine; wine ruined him: it crazed him,
drove him wild for rape in that great house.
The princes cornered him in fury, leaping on him
to drag him out and crop his ears and nose.
Drink had destroyed his mind, and so he ended
in that mutilation—fool that he was.
Centaurs and men made war for this,
but the drunkard first brought hurt upon himself.
The tale applies to you: I promise you
great trouble if you touch that bow. You’ll come by
no indulgence in our house; kicked down
into a ship’s bilge, out to sea you go,
and nothing saves you. Drink, but hold your tongue.
Make no contention here with younger men.”
At this the watchful queen Penélopê
to a guest of Telémakhos—whatever guest—
that is not handsome. What are you afraid of?
Suppose this exile put his back into it
and drew the great bow of Odysseus—
could he then take me home to be his bride?
You know he does not imagine that! No one
need let that prospect weigh upon his dinner!
How very, very improbable it seems.”
It was Eur´ymakhos who answered her:
“Penélopê, O daughter of Ikários,
most subtle queen, we are not given to fantasy.
No, but our ears burn at what men might say
and women, too. We hear some jackal whispering:
‘How far inferior to the great husband
her suitors are! Can’t even budge his bow!
Think of it; and a beggar, out of nowhere,
strung it quick and made the needle shot!’
That kind of disrepute we would not care for.”
Penélopê replied, steadfast and wary:
“Eur´ymakhos, you have no good repute
in this realm, nor the faintest hope of it—
men who abused a prince’s house for years,
consumed his wine and cattle. Shame enough.
Why hang your heads over a trifle now?
The stranger is a big man, well-compacted,
and claims to be of noble blood.
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Give him the bow, and let us have it out!
What I can promise him I will:
if by the kindness of Apollo he prevails
he shall be clothed well and equipped.
A fine shirt and a cloak I promise him;
a lance for keeping dogs at bay, or men;
a broadsword; sandals to protect his feet;
escort, and freedom to go where he will.”
Telémakhos now faced her and said sharply:
“Mother, as to the bow and who may handle it
or not handle it, no man here
has more authority than I do—not one lord
of our own stony Ithaka nor the islands lying
east toward Elis: no one stops me if I choose
to give these weapons outright to my guest.
Return to your own hall. Tend your spindle.
Tend your loom. Direct your maids at work.
This question of the bow will be for men to settle,
most of all for me. I am master here.”
She gazed in wonder, turned, and so withdrew,
her son’s clearheaded bravery in her heart.
But when she had mounted to her rooms again
with all her women, then she fell to weeping
for Odysseus, her husband. Grey-eyed Athena
presently cast a sweet sleep on her eyes.
The swineherd had the horned bow in his hands
moving toward Odysseus, when the crowd
in the banquet hall broke into an ugly din,
shouts rising from the flushed young men:
do you think you are taking that, you smutty slave?”
“What is this dithering?”
“We’ll toss you back alone
among the pigs, for your own dogs to eat,
if bright Apollo nods and the gods are kind!”
He faltered, all at once put down the bow, and stood
in panic, buffeted by waves of cries,
hearing Telémakhos from another quarter
“Go on, take him the bow!
Do you obey this pack?
You will be stoned back to your hills! Young as I am
/ The Odyssey, Book Twenty-One
05_273-611_Homer 2/Aesop 7/10/00 1:25 PM Page 555
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my power is over you! I wish to God
I had as much the upper hand of these!
There would be suitors pitched like dead rats
through our gate, for the evil plotted here!”
Telémakhos’ frenzy struck someone as funny,
and soon the whole room roared with laughter at him,
so that all tension passed. Eumaios picked up
bow and quiver, making for the door,
and there he placed them in Odysseus’ hands.
Calling Eur´ykleia to his side he said:
trusts you to take care of the women’s doorway.
Lock it tight. If anyone inside
should hear the shock of arms or groans of men
in hall or court, not one must show her face,
but go on with her weaving.”
The old woman
nodded and kept still. She disappeared
into the women’s hall, bolting the door behind her.
Philoítios left the house now at one bound,
catlike, running to bolt the courtyard gate.
A coil of deck-rope of papyrus fiber
lay in the gateway; this he used for lashing,
and ran back to the same stool as before,
fastening his eyes upon Odysseus.
And Odysseus took his time,
turning the bow, tapping it, every inch,
for borings that termites might have made
while the master of the weapon was abroad.
The suitors were now watching him, and some
jested among themselves:
“A bow lover!”
“Dealer in old bows!”
“Maybe he has one like it
“Or has an itch to make one for himself.”
“See how he handles it, the sly old buzzard!”
And one disdainful suitor added this:
“May his fortune grow an inch for every inch he bends it!”
But the man skilled in all ways of contending,
satisfied by the great bow’s look and heft,
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05_273-611_Homer 2/Aesop 7/10/00 1:25 PM Page 556
like a musician, like a harper, when
with quiet hand upon his instrument
he draws between his thumb and forefinger
a sweet new string upon a peg: so effortlessly
Odysseus in one motion strung the bow.
Then slid his right hand down the cord and plucked it,
so the taut gut vibrating hummed and sang
a swallow’s note.
In the hushed hall it smote the suitors
and all their faces changed. Then Zeus thundered
overhead, one loud crack for a sign.
And Odysseus laughed within him that the son
of crooked-minded Kronos had flung that omen down.
He picked one ready arrow from his table
where it lay bare: the rest were waiting still
in the quiver for the young men’s turn to come.
He nocked it, let it rest across the handgrip,
and drew the string and grooved butt of the arrow,
aiming from where he sat upon the stool.
arrow from twanging bow clean as a whistle
through every socket ring, and grazed not one,
to thud with heavy brazen head beyond.
“Telémakhos, the stranger
you welcomed in your hall has not disgraced you.
I did not miss, neither did I take all day
stringing the bow. My hand and eye are sound,
not so contemptible as the young men say.
The hour has come to cook their lordships’ mutton—
supper by daylight. Other amusements later,
with song and harping that adorn a feast.”
He dropped his eyes and nodded, and the prince
Telémakhos, true son of King Odysseus,
belted his sword on, clapped hand to his spear,
and with a clink and glitter of keen bronze
stood by his chair, in the forefront near his father.
BOOK TWENTY-TWO: DEATH IN THE GREAT HALL
Now shrugging off his rags the wiliest fighter of the islands
leapt and stood on the broad door sill, his own bow in his hand.
He poured out at his feet a rain of arrows from the quiver
and spoke to the crowd:
/ The Odyssey, Book Twenty-Two
05_273-611_Homer 2/Aesop 7/10/00 1:25 PM Page 557
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“So much for that. Your clean-cut game is over.
Now watch me hit a target that no man has hit before,
if I can make this shot. Help me, Apollo.”
He drew to his fist the cruel head of an arrow for Antínoös
just as the young man leaned to lift his beautiful drinking cup,
embossed, two-handled, golden: the cup was in his fingers:
the wine was even at his lips: and did he dream of death?
How could he? In that revelry amid his throng of friends
who would imagine a single foe—though a strong foe indeed—
could dare to bring death’s pain on him and darkness on his eyes?
Odysseus’ arrow hit him under the chin
and punched up to the feathers through his throat.
Backward and down he went, letting the winecup fall
from his shocked hand. Like pipes his nostrils jetted
crimson runnels, a river of mortal red,
and one last kick upset his table
knocking the bread and meat to soak in dusty blood.
Now as they craned to see their champion where he lay
the suitors jostled in uproar down the hall,
everyone on his feet. Wildly they turned and scanned
the walls in the long room for arms; but not a shield,
not a good ashen spear was there for a man to take and throw.
All they could do was yell in outrage at Odysseus:
“Foul! to shoot at a man! That was your last shot!”
“Your own throat will be slit for this!”
“Our finest lad is down!
You killed the best on Ithaka.”
“Buzzards will tear your eyes out!”
For they imagined as they wished—that it was a wild shot,
an unintended killing—fools, not to comprehend
they were already in the grip of death.
But glaring under his brows Odysseus answered:
“You yellow dogs, you thought I’d never make it
home from the land of Troy. You took my house to plunder,
twisted my maids to serve your beds. You dared
bid for my wife while I was still alive.
Contempt was all you had for the gods who rule wide heaven,
contempt for what men say of you hereafter.
Your last hour has come. You die in blood.”
As they all took this in, sickly green fear
pulled at their entrails, and their eyes flickered
looking for some hatch or hideaway from death.
Eur´ymakhos alone could speak. He said:
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05_273-611_Homer 2/Aesop 7/10/00 1:25 PM Page 558
“If you are Odysseus of Ithaka come back,
all that you say these men have done is true.
Rash actions, many here, more in the countryside.
But here he lies, the man who caused them all.
Antínoös was the ringleader, he whipped us on
to do these things. He cared less for a marriage
than for the power Kronion has denied him
as king of Ithaka. For that
he tried to trap your son and would have killed him.
He is dead now and has his portion. Spare
your own people. As for ourselves, we’ll make
restitution of wine and meat consumed,
and add, each one, a tithe of twenty oxen
with gifts of bronze and gold to warm your heart.
Meanwhile we cannot blame you for your anger.”
Odysseus glowered under his black brows
“Not for the whole treasure of your fathers,
all you enjoy, lands, flocks, or any gold
put up by others, would I hold my hand.
There will be killing till the score is paid.
You forced yourselves upon this house. Fight your way out,
or run for it, if you think you’ll escape death.
I doubt one man of you skins by.”
They felt their knees fail, and their hearts—but heard
Eur´ymakhos for the last time rallying them.
“Friends,” he said, “the man is implacable.
Now that he’s got his hands on bow and quiver
he’ll shoot from the big door stone there
until he kills us to the last man.
Fight, I say,
let’s remember the joy of it. Swords out!
Hold up your tables to deflect his arrows.
After me, everyone: rush him where he stands.
If we can budge him from the door, if we can pass
into the town, we’ll call out men to chase him.
This fellow with his bow will shoot no more.”
He drew his own sword as he spoke, a broadsword of fine bronze,
honed like a razor on either edge. Then crying hoarse and loud
he hurled himself at Odysseus. But the kingly man let fly
an arrow at that instant, and the quivering feathered butt
sprang to the nipple of his breast as the barb stuck in his liver.
The bright broadsword clanged down. He lurched and fell aside,
pitching across his table. His cup, his bread and meat,
were spilt and scattered far and wide, and his head slammed on the
/ The Odyssey, Book Twenty-Two
05_273-611_Homer 2/Aesop 7/10/00 1:25 PM Page 559
Revulsion, anguish in his heart, with both feet kicking out,
he downed his chair, while the shrouding wave of mist closed on his
Amphínomos now came running at Odysseus,
broadsword naked in his hand. He thought to make
the great soldier give way at the door.
But with a spear throw from behind Telémakhos hit him
between the shoulders, and the lancehead drove
clear through his chest. He left his feet and fell
forward, thudding, forehead against the ground.
Telémakhos swerved around him, leaving the long dark spear
planted in Amphínomos. If he paused to yank it out
someone might jump him from behind or cut him down with a
at the moment he bent over. So he ran—ran from the tables
to his father’s side and halted, panting, saying:
“Father let me bring you a shield and spear,
a pair of spears, a helmet.
I can arm on the run myself; I’ll give
outfits to Eumaios and this cowherd.
Better to have equipment.”
“Run then, while I hold them off with arrows
as long as the arrows last. When all are gone
if I’m alone they can dislodge me.”
upon his father’s word Telémakhos
ran to the room where spears and armor lay.
He caught up four light shields, four pairs of spears,
four helms of war high-plumed with flowing manes,
and ran back, loaded down, to his father’s side.
He was the first to pull a helmet on
and slide his bare arm in a buckler strap.
The servants armed themselves, and all three took their stand
beside the master of battle.
While he had arrows
he aimed and shot, and every shot brought down
one of his huddling enemies.
But when all barbs had flown from the bowman’s fist,
he leaned his bow in the bright entry way
beside the door, and armed: a four-ply shield
hard on his shoulder, and a crested helm,
horsetailed, nodding stormy upon his head,
then took his tough and bronze-shod spears.
who held their feet, no longer under bowshot,
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could see a window high in a recess of the wall,
a vent, lighting the passage to the storeroom.
This passage had one entry, with a door,
at the edge of the great hall’s threshold, just outside.1
Odysseus told the swineherd to stand over
and guard this door and passage. As he did so,
a suitor named Ageláos asked the others:
“Who will get a leg up on that window
and run to alarm the town? One sharp attack
and this fellow will never shoot again.”
came from the goatherd, Melánthios:
“No chance, my lord.
The exit into the courtyard is too near them,
too narrow. One good man could hold that portal
against a crowd. No: let me scale the wall
and bring you arms out of the storage chamber.
Odysseus and his son put them indoors,
I’m sure of it; not outside.”
The goatish goatherd
clambered up the wall, toes in the chinks,
and slipped through to the storeroom. Twelve light shields,
twelve spears he took, and twelve thick-crested helms,
and handed all down quickly to the suitors.
Odysseus, when he saw his adversaries
girded and capped and long spears in their hands
shaken at him, felt his knees go slack,
his heart sink, for the fight was turning grim.
He spoke rapidly to his son:
“Telémakhos, one of the serving women
is tipping the scales against us in this fight,
or maybe Melánthios.”
But sharp and clear
“It is my own fault, Father,
mine alone. The storeroom door—I left it
wide open. They were more alert than I.
Eumaios, go and lock that door
and bring back word if a woman is doing this
or Melánthios, Dólios’ son. More likely he.”
The window in the mégaron, or great hall, connects with an external corridor that runs
to the rear of the house, past the women’s chambers, to the storeroom; the only exit from
the corridor to the outdoor courtyard is close to where Odysseus and his three allies have
posted themselves. It is therefore, as Melánthios soon points out, not a safe escape route.
/ The Odyssey, Book Twenty-Two
05_273-611_Homer 2/Aesop 7/10/00 1:25 PM Page 561
Even as they conferred, Melánthios
entered the storeroom for a second load,
and the swineherd at the passage entry saw him.
He cried out to his lord:
“Son of Laërtês,
Odysseus, master mariner and soldier,
there he goes, the monkey, as we thought,
there he goes into the storeroom.
Let me hear your will:
put a spear through him—I hope I am the stronger—
or drag him here to pay for his foul tricks
against your house?”
“Telémakhos and I
will keep these gentlemen in hall, for all their urge to leave.
You two go throw him into the storeroom, wrench his arms
and legs behind him, lash his hands and feet
to a plank, and hoist him up to the roof beams.
Let him live on there suffering at his leisure.”
The two men heard him with appreciation
and ducked into the passage. Melánthios,
rummaging in the chamber, could not hear them
as they came up; nor could he see them freeze
like posts on either side the door.
He turned back with a handsome crested helmet
in one hand, in the other an old shield
coated with dust—a shield Laërtês bore
soldiering in his youth. It had lain there for years,
and the seams on strap and grip had rotted away.
As Melánthios came out the two men sprang,
jerked him backward by the hair, and threw him.
Hands and feet they tied with a cutting cord
behind him, so his bones ground in their sockets,
just as Laërtês’ royal son commanded.
Then with a whip of rope they hoisted him
in agony up a pillar to the beams,
and—O my swineherd—you were the one to say:
“Watch through the night up there, Melánthios.
An airy bed is what you need.
You’ll be awake to see the primrose Dawn
when she goes glowing from the streams of Ocean
to mount her golden throne.
the hour for driving goats to feed the suitors.”
They stooped for helm and shield and left him there
contorted, in his brutal sling,
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