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2.20: Book XX

  • Page ID
    • Homer (translated by Samuel Butler)
    • Ancient Greece
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    Odysseus slept in the cloister upon an undressed bullock’s hide, on the top of which he threw several skins of the sheep the suitors had eaten, and Eurynome156 [1] threw a cloak over him after he had laid himself down. There, then, Odysseus lay wakefully brooding over the way in which he should kill the suitors; and by and by, the women who had been in the habit of sleeping with them, left the house giggling and laughing with one another. This made Odysseus very angry, and he doubted whether to get up and kill every single one of them then and there, or to let them sleep one more and last time with the suitors. His heart growled within him, and as a bitch with puppies growls and shows her teeth when she sees a stranger, so did his heart growl with anger at the evil deeds that were being done: but he beat his breast and said, “Heart, be still, you had worse than this to bear on the day when the terrible Cyclops [2] ate your brave companions; yet you bore it in silence until your cunning got you safe out of the cave, though you made sure of being killed.”

    So he chided with his heart, and persuaded it to patience, but he tossed about as one who turns a paunch full of blood and fat in front of a hot fire, doing it first on one side and then on the other, so that he may get it cooked as soon as possible, even so did he turn himself about from side to side, thinking all the time how, single handed as he was, he should manage to kill so large a group of men as the wicked suitors. But by and by Athena [3] came down from heaven in the likeness of a woman, and hovered over his head saying, “My poor unhappy man, why do you lie awake in this way? This is your house: your wife is safe inside it, and so is your son who is just such a young man as any father may be proud of.”

    “Goddess,” answered Odysseus, “all that you have said is true, but I am in some doubt as to how I shall be able to kill these wicked suitors single-handed, seeing what a number of them there always are. And there is this further difficulty, which is still more considerable. Supposing that with Zeus’s [4] and your assistance I succeed in killing them, I must ask you to consider where I am to escape to from their avengers when it is all over.”

    “For shame,” replied Athena, “why, any one else would trust a worse ally than myself, even though that ally were only a mortal and less wise than I am. Am I not a goddess, and have I not protected you throughout in all your troubles? I tell you plainly that even though there were fifty bands of men surrounding us and eager to kill us, you should take all their sheep and cattle, and drive them away with you. But go to sleep; it is a very bad thing to lie awake all night, and you shall be out of your troubles before long.”

    As she spoke she shed sleep over his eyes, and then went back to Olympus. [5]

    While Odysseus was thus yielding himself to a very deep slumber that eased the burden of his sorrows, his admirable wife awoke, and sitting up in her bed began to cry. When she had relieved herself by weeping she prayed to Artemis saying, “Great Goddess Artemis, [6] daughter of Zeus, drive an arrow into my heart and slay me; or let some whirlwind snatch me up and bear me through paths of darkness until it drops me into the mouths of over-flowing Oceanus, [7] as it did the daughters of Pandareus. [8] The daughters of Pandareus lost their father and mother, for the gods killed them, so they were left orphans. But Aphrodite [9] took care of them, and fed them on cheese, honey, and sweet wine. Hera [10] taught them to excel all women in beauty of form and understanding; Artemis gave them an imposing presence, and Athena endowed them with every kind of accomplishment; but one day when Aphrodite had gone up to Olympus to see Zeus about getting them married (for well does he know both what shall happen and what not happen to every one) the storm winds came and spirited them away to become handmaids to the dread Erinyes. [11] Even so I wish that the gods who live in heaven would hide me from mortal sight, or that fair Artemis might strike me, [12] for I would rather go even beneath the sad earth if I might do so still looking towards Odysseus only, and without having to yield myself to a worse man than he was. Besides, no matter how much people may grieve by day, they can put up with it so long as they can sleep at night, for when the eyes are closed in slumber people forget good and ill alike; whereas my misery haunts me even in my dreams. This very night I thought there was one lying by my side who was like Odysseus as he was when he went away with his host, and I rejoiced, for I believed that it was no dream, but the very truth itself.”

    On this the day broke, but Odysseus heard the sound of her weeping, and it puzzled him, for it seemed as though she already knew him and was by his side. Then he gathered up the cloak and the fleeces on which he had lain, and set them on a seat in the cloister, but he took the bullock’s hide out into the open. He lifted up his hands to heaven, and prayed, saying “Father Zeus, since you have seen fit to bring me over land and sea to my own home after all the afflictions you have laid upon me, give me a sign out of the mouth of some one or other of those who are now waking within the house, and let me have another sign of some kind from outside.”

    And so he prayed. Zeus heard his prayer and straight away, thundered high up among the clouds from the splendor of Olympus, and Odysseus was glad when he heard it. At the same time within the house, a miller-woman from near by in the mill room lifted up her voice and gave him another sign. There were twelve miller-women whose business it was to grind wheat and barley which are the staff of life. [13] The others had ground their task and had gone to take their rest, but this one had not yet finished, for she was not so strong as they were, and when she heard the thunder she stopped grinding and gave the sign to her master. “Father Zeus,” said she, “you, who rule over heaven and earth, you have thundered from a clear sky without so much as a cloud in it, and this means something for somebody; grant the prayer, then, of me your poor servant who calls on you, and let this be the very last day that the suitors dine in the house of Odysseus. They have worn me out with labor of grinding flour for them, and I hope they may never have another dinner anywhere at all.”

    Marcus Cyron and Tilemahos Efthimiadis, photograph of a wooden statue of a woman grinding grain, National Archaeological Museum, Athens, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

    Odysseus was glad when he heard the omens conveyed to him by the woman’s speech, and by the thunder, for he knew they meant that he should avenge himself on the suitors.

    Then the other maids in the house woke up and lit the fire on the hearth; Telemachus also rose and put on his clothes. He girded his sword about his shoulder, bound his sandals on to his comely feet, and took a mighty spear with a point of sharpened bronze; then he went to the threshold of the cloister and said to Euryclea, [14] “Nurse, did you make the stranger comfortable both in bed and food, or did you let him shift for himself?—for my mother, good woman though she is, has a way of paying great attention to second-rate people, and of neglecting others who are in reality much better men.”

    “Do not find fault child,” said Euryclea, “when there is no one to find fault with. The stranger sat and drank his wine as long as he liked: your mother did ask him if he would take any more bread and he said he would not. When he wanted to go to bed she told the servants to make one for him, but he said he was such a wretched outcast that he would not sleep on a bed and under blankets; he insisted on having an undressed bullock’s hide and some sheepskins put for him in the cloister and I threw a cloak over him myself.”

    Then Telemachus went out of the court to the place where the Achaeans [15] were meeting in assembly; he had his spear in his hand, and he was not alone, for his two dogs went with him. But Euryclea called the maids and said, “Come on, wake up; set about sweeping the cloisters and sprinkling them with water to damp down the dust; put the covers on the seats; wipe down the tables, some of you, with a wet sponge; clean out the mixing-jugs and the cups, and go for water from the fountain at once; the suitors will be here directly; they will be here early, for it is a feast day.”

    So she issued her orders, and they did even as she had said: twenty of them went to the fountain for water, and the others set themselves busily to work about the house. The men who were serving the suitors also came up and began chopping firewood. By and by the women returned from the fountain, and the swineherd [16] came after them with the three best pigs he could pick out. These he let feed about the premises, and then he said good-humoredly to Odysseus, “Stranger, are the suitors treating you any better now, or are they as insolent as ever?”

    “May heaven,” answered Odysseus, “repay to them the wickedness with which they deal high-handedly in another man’s house without any sense of shame.”

    And so they chatted. Meanwhile Melanthius [17] the goatherd came up, for he too was bringing in his best goats for the suitors’ dinner; and he had two shepherds with him. They tied the goats up under the gatehouse, and then Melanthius began taunting Odysseus. “Are you still here, stranger,” said he, “to pester people by begging about the house? Why can you not go elsewhere? You and I shall not come to an understanding before we have given each other a taste of our fists. You beg without any sense of decency: are there not feasts elsewhere among the Achaeans, as well as here?”

    Odysseus made no answer, but bowed his head and brooded. Then a third man, Philoetius, joined them, who was bringing in a barren heifer and some goats. These were brought over by the boatmen who are there to take people over when any one comes to them. So Philoetius made his heifer and his goats secure under the gatehouse, and then went up to the swineherd. “Who, Swineherd,” said he, “is this stranger that is lately come here? Is he one of your men? What is his family? Where does he come from? Poor fellow, he looks as if he had been some great man, but the gods give sorrow to whom they will—even to kings if it so pleases them.”

    As he spoke he went up to Odysseus and saluted him with his right hand; “Good day to you, father stranger,” said he, “you seem to be very poorly off now, but I hope you will have better times by and by. Father Zeus, of all gods you are the most malicious. We are your own children, yet you show us no mercy in all our misery and afflictions. A sweat came over me when I saw this man, and my eyes filled with tears, for he reminds me of Odysseus, who I fear is going about in just such rags as this man’s are, if indeed he is still among the living. If he is already dead and in the house of Hades, [18] then, alas! for my good master, who made me his stockman [19] when I was quite young among the Cephallenians, [20] and now his cattle are countless; no one could have done better with them than I have, for they have multiplied like ears of grain; nevertheless I have to keep bringing them in for others to eat, who pay no heed to his son though he is in the house, and fear not the wrath of heaven, but are already eager to divide Odysseus’ property among them because he has been away so long. I have often thought—only it would not be right while his son is living—of going off with the cattle to some foreign country; bad as this would be, it is still harder to stay here and be ill-treated about other people’s herds. My position is intolerable, and I should long since have run away and put myself under the protection of some other chief, only that I believe my poor master will yet return, and send all these suitors flying out of the house.”

    “Stockman,” answered Odysseus, “you seem to be a very well-disposed person, and I can see that you are a man of sense. Therefore I will tell you, and will confirm my words with an oath. By Zeus, the chief of all gods, and by that hearth of Odysseus to which I am now come, Odysseus shall return before you leave this place, and if you are so minded you shall see him killing the suitors who are now masters here.”

    “If Zeus were to bring this to pass,” replied the stockman, “you should see how I would do my very utmost to help him.”

    And in the same way Eumaeus wished that Odysseus might return home.

    And so they talked. Meanwhile the suitors were hatching a plot to murder Telemachus: but a bird flew near them on their left hand—an eagle with a dove in its talons. [21] At this Amphinomus said, “My friends, this plot of ours to murder Telemachus will not succeed; let us go to dinner instead.”

    The others agreed, so they went inside and laid their cloaks on the benches and seats. They sacrificed the sheep, goats, pigs, and the heifer, and when the inward meats were cooked they served them round. They mixed the wine in the mixing-bowls, and the swineherd gave every man his cup, while Philoetius handed round the bread in the bread baskets, and Melanthius poured them out their wine. Then they laid their hands upon the good things that were before them.

    Telemachus purposely made Odysseus sit in the part of the cloister that was paved with stone; he gave him a shabby looking seat at a little table to himself, and had his portion of the inward meats brought to him, with his wine in a gold cup. “Sit there,” said he, “and drink your wine among the great people. I will put a stop to the insults and blows of the suitors, for this is no public house, but belongs to Odysseus, and has passed from him to me. Therefore, suitors, keep your hands and your tongues to yourselves, or there will be mischief.”

    The suitors bit their lips, and marveled at the boldness of his speech; then Antinous said, “We do not like such language but we will put up with it, for Telemachus is threatening us in good earnest. If Zeus had let us we would have put a stop to his brave talk before now.”

    So Antinous spoke, but Telemachus paid him no mind. Meanwhile the heralds were bringing the holy hecatomb [22] through the city, and the Achaeans gathered under the shady grove [23] of Apollo. [24]

    Then they roasted the outer meat, drew it off the spits, gave every man his portion, and feasted to their heart’s content; those who waited at table gave Odysseus exactly the same portion as the others had, for Telemachus had told them to do so.

    But Athena would not let the suitors for one moment stop their insolence, for she wanted Odysseus to become still more bitter against them. Now there happened to be among them a ribald fellow, whose name was Ctesippus, and who came from Same. [25] This man, confident in his great wealth, was paying court to the wife of Odysseus, and said to the suitors, “Hear what I have to say. The stranger has already had as large a portion as any one else; this is well, for it is not right nor reasonable to ill-treat any guest of Telemachus who comes here. I will, however, make him a present on my own account, that he may have something to give to the bath-woman, or to some other of Odysseus’ servants.”

    As he spoke he picked up a heifer’s foot from the meat-basket in which it lay, and threw it at Odysseus, but Odysseus turned his head a little aside, and avoided it, smiling grimly Sardinian fashion [26] as he did so, and it hit the wall, not him. On this Telemachus spoke fiercely to Ctesippus, “It is a good thing for you,” said he, “that the stranger turned his head so that you missed him. If you had hit him I would have run you through with my spear, and your father would have had to see about getting you buried rather than married in this house. So let me have no more unseemly behavior from any of you, for I have grown up now, know good and evil, and understand what is going on, instead of being the child that I have been until now. I have long seen you killing my sheep and making free with my grain and wine: I have put up with this, for one man is no match for many, but do me no further violence. Still, if you wish to kill me, kill me; I would far rather die than see such disgraceful scenes day after day—guests insulted, and men dragging the women servants about the house in an unseemly way.” [27]

    They all held their peace until at last Agelaus son of Damastor said, “No one should take offense at what has just been said, nor oppose it, for it is quite reasonable. Leave off, therefore, ill-treating the stranger, or anyone else of the servants who are about the house; I would say, however, a friendly word to Telemachus and his mother, which I trust may commend itself to both. ‘As long,’ I would say, ‘as you had good reasons for hoping that Odysseus would one day come home, no one could complain of your waiting and allowing the suitors to be in your house. It would have been better that he should have returned, but it is now adequately clear that he will never do so; therefore talk all this quietly over with your mother, and tell her to marry the best man, and the one who makes her the most advantageous offer. Then you will yourself be able to manage your own inheritance, and to eat and drink in peace, while your mother will look after some other man’s house, not yours.’”

    To this Telemachus answered, “By Zeus, Agelaus, and by the sorrows of my unhappy father, who has either perished far from Ithaca, or is wandering in some distant land, I throw no obstacles in the way of my mother’s marriage; on the contrary I urge her to choose whoever she will, and I will give her numberless gifts into the bargain, but I dare not insist point blank that she shall leave the house against her own wishes. Heaven forbid that I should do this.”

    Athena now made the suitors fall to laughing immoderately, and set their wits wandering; but they were laughing with a forced laughter. Their meat became smeared with blood; their eyes filled with tears, and their hearts were heavy with foreboding. Theoclymenus [28] saw this and said, “Unhappy men, what is it that ails you? There is a shroud of darkness drawn over you from head to foot, your cheeks are wet with tears; the air is alive with wailing voices; the walls and roof-beams drip blood; the gate of the cloisters and the court beyond them are full of shades trooping down into the night of Hades; the sun is blotted out of heaven, and a blighting gloom is over all the land.”

    So he spoke, but they all of them laughed heartily. Eurymachus then said, “This stranger who has lately come here has lost his senses. Servants, turn him out into the streets, since he finds it so dark here.”

    But Theoclymenus said, “Eurymachus, you need not send any one with me. I have eyes, ears, and a pair of feet of my own, to say nothing of an understanding mind. I will take these out of the house with me, for I see misfortune overhanging you, from which not one of you men who are insulting people and plotting ill deeds in the house of Odysseus will be able to escape.”

    He left the house as he spoke, and went back to Piraeus [29] who gave him welcome, but the suitors kept looking at one another and provoking Telemachus by laughing at the strangers. One insolent fellow said to him, “Telemachus, you are not happy in your guests; first you have this importunate tramp, who comes begging bread and wine and has no skill for work or for hard fighting, but is perfectly useless, and now here is another fellow who is setting himself up as a prophet. Let me persuade you, for it will be much better to put them on board ship and send them off to the Sicels [30] to sell for what they will bring.”

    Telemachus gave him no heed, but sat silently watching his father, expecting every moment that he would begin his attack on the suitors.

    Meanwhile the daughter of Icarius, [31] wise Penelope, had had a rich seat placed for her facing the court and cloisters, so that she could hear what every one was saying. The dinner indeed had been prepared amid much merriment; it had been both good and abundant, for they had sacrificed many victims; but the supper was yet to come, and nothing can be conceived more gruesome than the meal which a goddess and a brave man were soon to lay before them—for they had brought their doom on themselves.


    [1] Penelope's head female slave.

    [2] Polyphemus.

    [3] Athena, greek goddess of wisdom and battle.

    [4] Zeus, king of the gods.

    [5] Mount Olympus, the highest mountain in Greece and traditional home of the gods.

    [6] Goddess of the hunt. She is also known for giving death to women by shooting them with one of her arrows.

    [7] Titan associated with the river that encircles the earth.

    [8] Aedon, Merope, and Cleodora.

    [9] Goddess of erotic love, beauty, and pleasure.

    [10] Hera was Zeus's sister and wife, goddess of marriage.

    [11] Female deities of vengeance in Greek mythology. Also known as the Furies. They seek vengeance against people who have sworn a false oath or done an evil act.

    [12] See note 6.

    [13] One of the worst jobs as a female slave. It mean kneeling for hours in front of a hand-mill, with the result that shoulders, backs, knees and feet became inflamed and arthritic. 

    [14] Telemachus and Odysseus' former nurse, a slave who enjoys some authority because of this.

    [15] Achaeans refers to one of the groups of the Greek-speaking peoples.

    [16] Eumaeus.

    [17] Brother to Melantho, one of Penelope's female slaves. He is a slave himself.

    [18] The Underworld.

    [19] Someone who raises livestock.

    [20] People from the Greek island of Cephalonia.

    [21] Obviously a bad omen. We get the word "sinister" from the Latin for one's left side, considered to be unlucky, and "dextrous" from the word for one's right side, considered the lucky side.

    [22] A major sacrifice of many animals.

    [23] Many groves of trees were considered sacred to specific gods, goddesses, or nymphs and satyrs.

    [24] God of light, music, and knowledge.

    [25] An island near to Ithaca.

    [26] Presumably this is where we get a "sardonic" expression from.

    [27] This would seem to imply that the male suitors were preying on the female slaves and that not all of the female slaves had given their consent (or even had been asked for it).

    [28] The exiled seer Telemachus had brought with him.

    [29] One of the men from Telemachus's crew who Theoclymenus lived with in Ithaca.

    [30] Inhabitants of Sicily.

    [31] A Spartan prince, Penelope's father. His brother was the stepfather of Helen of Troy (her biological father was Zeus), making Helen and Penelope cousins.


    This page titled 2.20: Book XX is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Homer (translated by Samuel Butler).