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The Homecoming of Odysseus
The final part in our series about the Trojan War brings our ship-wrecked hero, Odysseus back home after 20 long years away. He arrives on his rocky island kingdom of Ithaca disguised as a beggar and finds that his palace is full of suitors wooing his wife, the faithful Queen Penelope. He and his son Prince Telemachus plot a fearful revenge.
This story is full of both exciting fights and touching moments of recognition – none more so than when the faithful dog Argos, lying on dung heap, senses his master. We round off the tale with some moving verses from Ulysses by Alfred Lord Tennyson.
Read by Natasha. Duration 20.48 minutes.
After the war ended, not all the Greeks enjoyed a pleasant homecoming. King Agamemnon went home to his Queen, the evil Clytemnestra – and while he was relaxing in his bath, she plunged a dagger into him. The cleverest of the Greeks, wily, red-headed Odysseus spent ten more years sailing home to his lovely Queen Penelope. When we last left Odysseus, his ship had been wrecked by a storm. All his crew were drowned, but he was washed up on shore, half dead. He managed to crawl to some bushes by the mouth of the river, and there he fell into a deep sleep.
The island was ruled by a wealthy, seafaring people. It just so happened that the King’s daughter – the lovely Nausicaa – had come down to the river with her maids. They were all playing with a ball , and one time it splashed into a swirling pool of the river. The maids shrieked with laughter, and their cries awoke the sleeping warrior.
He clambered out of the bushes, covering his naked, sea-tossed body with leafy branches. The servant girls let out squeals when they saw him – but Princess Nausicaa calmly asked him who he was and how he came to be there.
The stranger replied, “Princess. Your beauty is so great – are you a goddess or a mere mortal? In either case, I stand here at your mercy. My ship was wrecked in the great storm last night. My crew are drowned and I have lost everything.”
For once, the long-suffering Odysseus was in luck. The people of the island respected all who risked their lives at sea. The Princess led the stranger to her father. When the king learned that their guest was Lord Odysseus on his way home from Troy, he prepared a great feast in his honour. Then he ordered a ship to be made ready to take him home. He filled a sea chest for him with rich gifts – sumptuous robes, a golden cauldron, and a handful of jewels.
The ship carried Odysseus home to his rocky kingdom on the island of Ithaca. After 20 years away, he was far from certain what sort of welcome he would receive and so he asked to be put on shore in a quiet harbour, away from the town. There he hid his sea chest in a secret cave and wrapped himself in beggar’s rags. Wearing this disguise, he climbed up a rough path. He came to the part of the island where pigs were kept. As he approached the hut of the pigs’ keeper, some fierce dogs rushed out at him. They were about to tear at his limbs – a fine welcome home – but just in time the keeper appeared and called them off.
“You should be more careful,” he scolded, “for the gods would be angry with me if my dogs ripped apart an innocent stranger – if you are, indeed, an innocent stranger.”
Odysseus recognised the man as his old servant, Eumaeus. He was a good man, and he honoured the Greek tradition of giving food and shelter to strangers. In fact, in the Greek language there was just one word for both stranger and guest – because all strangers should be honoured as guests . That night the two men sat up talking. Eumaeus explained that his master was King Odysseus who had been away for twenty long years, and was almost certainly dead by now, but his loyal wife Queen Penelope would not believe it. Now his palace was full of scoundrels who ate his food and drank his wine. They demanded that Penelope pick one of them to marry but she refused. She told them that she could not marry until she had finished sewing her wedding dress. She worked all day and every night she unpicked her work, so that it was never done.
Her son, Prince Telemachus, had taken a ship and gone in search of his father – but he had found no news. He was expected back any day now. The suitors of Penelope had set up a watch down at the harbour, and they planned to ambush and murder him on the road to the palace.
Odysseus listened to all this but did not say who he really was. The next morning, the swineherd pointed him on the road to the town. Odysseus set out and on his way he met his son, Prince Telemachus, who was smart enough to take a back route to avoid an ambush. The two men walked along – a tramp and a prince side by side. Then Athene, the wise goddess, made Odysseus appear as his true self – younger, stronger, and richly dressed. Telemachus was amazed. He realised that this sudden transformation must be the work of a god or goddess – and then he understood that the man standing before him was his father who had left him as a baby. After they had embraced each other for a long time, they hatched a plan. Telemachus would return to the palace alone, and Odysseus would follow on, dressed as a beggar and accompanied by the loyal swineherd. No matter how many insults his wife’s suitors flung at him, they would keep their tempers till the moment was ripe for revenge.
Later that day, Odysseus and the swineherd approached the town. On the way they were met by a man they both knew – a servant who kept the goats. When he saw the two shabbily dressed men he called out, ”Well look what we have here! One piece of filth sticking to another piece of filth. Old pig keeper, what are you taking that garbage to the palace for? All he’ll get there is a sound beating.”
Odysseus was sorely tempted to batter the man, but he knew he must keep his temper for now, and so he and the loyal swineherd walked past. Not far from the town there was a pile of dung and rubbish. Lying on top of it was a sad old dog who had been cast out of the palace by the suitors. The dog’s name was Argos, and in his prime he had been a fine hunting hound, the favourite of Odysseus. Now he was all but broken. The moment that Odysseus came near, he sensed his master’s scent. He lifted his muzzle from the dung heap and thumped his tail. Odysseus saw him, and went over to pat his faithful animal on the head. Argos licked his master’s hand. He was happy for the first time in many years. And a few moments later he breathed his last.
Inside the palace, they found the suitors feasting. Odysseus went round the tables, begging for food. Some of the suitors threw him some scraps, but their leader was more cruel. He turned to the swineherd and said, “Keeper of Pigs, why do you drag this old corpse into our dining room. Don’t we have enough beggars and pests in this town? Now kindly throw him out before I do much worse to him.”
And Eumaeus, the swineherd, replied, “My lord Odysseus was always kind and respectful to old soldiers who were down on their luck. It is his food and wine that you are helping yourself to – and he would gladly spare a few morsels.”
At this the leader of the suitors flew into a rage. “Fine words, swineherd,” he cried. “And this is what I think of your advice !” With that, he picked up a chair and flung it at Odysseus. It hit him on the shoulder. All the suitors burst out into laughter and started to pelt Odysseus and the swineherd with food. They both kept their cool, and retreated further into the palace.
Emmaeus found the old nurse who had looked after Odysseus as a baby. He said that the stranger was weary from tramping, and asked if she would bathe his feet. She gladly fetched hot water and began to do as she was asked. As she washed him, she could not help but notice a scar on the stranger’s leg. Odysseus had gone out hunting as a young man, and the boar had charged him and dug its tusk into his leg. She recognised the scar at once.
“My Lord,” she said. “You are home at last. Let me rush to your poor Queen and let her know this wonderful news.”
“Hold still,” said Odysseus. “One of the servants might hear her rejoicing and my secret will be out. Don’t breathe a word to a soul, not even to fair Penelope.”
The good old nurse swore that she would keep her master’s secret. As he walked back along the corridor, a maid spat at him and told him to get out of the palace with his begging bowl.
That evening, as Odysseus was sitting on the porch of the palace, along came a real beggar. His name was Irus and he was a complete scoundrel – a cheat and a sneak thief. He was a favourite of the suitors who recognised him as a kindred spirit. Irus was not pleased to see a rival beggar around the palace, competing with him for scraps.
“Get up and get out, you filthy swine,” he said. “Make yourself scarce before I box you around the ears.”
“What’s got into you?” replied Odysseus. “I’ve done you no harm. You’d better keep your mouth shut or you’ll be the one on the wrong end of a beating.”
“Are you threatening me old man?” said Irus. “Well stand up so I can punch your lights out.”
One of the suitors overhead the two old tramps quarrelling and thought it was hilarious. He ordered them both inside so that the suitors could enjoy the spectacle of a beggar’s boxing match.
A space was cleared in the middle of the dining hall. The suitors placed bets on which tramp would knock the other out first. Irus was the clear favourite to win. But then the two men stripped down for the fight. Odysseus’s muscles glistened and all could see that he was built like an ox. Irus began to tremble with fear – but it was too late.
The leader of the suitors whose name was Antinous swiftly changed his wager to back the newcomer. He called out to Irus, “You’ve filled your fat belly with scraps from our table – old goat that you are – but now it seems you’re going to get what’s coming to you.”
Odysseus hit Irus with a glancing blow and he was out cold. The servants dragged him out by his feet and threw him on the dung heap beside the corpse of old Argos.
The suitors gave Odysseus his reward for his victory: scraps of meat from their plates, but Antinous said to Odysseus, “That was a good hit from an old swine like you, but don’t get any ideas or get above yourself, or you’ll soon be out on your ear.”
Later that night, Odysseus and Prince Telemachus, held a secret conference. This is what Odysseus told his son to do. He must tell his mother to call the suitors together and tell them that she had made up her mind to hold an archery contest. She would marry the man who could string her husband’s old bow and shoot the straightest arrow from it.
Penelope agreed to this idea because she knew that the only man who was strong enough to string her husband’s bow was her husband himself. She thought the contest was a cunning way to show the suitors that not a single one among them was the equal of her true husband.
The next morning the suitors gathered in the dining hall for the contest. They set up a target at the end of the room, and Telemachus handed his father’s great bow to the first to try his aim. But the suitor could not even bend the bow, let alone fire it. The others all laughed at him for being so feeble, but not for long, for none of them had the strength to string the bow. At last, their leader, Antinous took it in his hands, and though he could bend it just a bit, he was far from able to hook the string over its end.
“Fair Penelope must be laughing up in her chamber,” he said. “A fine trick this is of hers, for there’s no man alive who could string this bow.”
Then Odysseus said, “I was once handy with a bow and arrow. I pray let me try my hand.”
The suitors all laughed at the tramp’s boast. But Antinous said, “Certainly. If you string the bow for me I will reward you with gold. If not, I shall beat you within an inch of your useless old life.”
At this, Odysseus picked up the bow and tried it for weight, balancing it in his hand. The suitors mocked him for this display. “Thinks he’s an expert, he does,” they jeered.
Then he placed the bow upright on the ground. He leant into it, and hooked the string over the end with ease. At first the suitors were astounded. And then they realised that the beggar was the king whose palace and hospitality they had been abusing, and whose wife they had been wooing. The realisation came too late to save their skins, for soon Odysseus was letting arrows fly from the bow and picking them off one by one.
One of the suitors who was better mannered than the others tried to bargain with the king. He swore that if he would spare their lives they would pay him back three times over for what they had taken. But Odysseus replied that if they wanted to save their lives they had better fight. Several men charged him with their swords, but Odysseus was swift at letting the arrows fly.
And so Odysseus and his son Telemachus dealt with all the suitors. At the end of the battle not one was left alive. Now Odysseus told his son to fetch Penelope. But when Penelope saw her husband she could not be sure after so many years that it was really him.
“Dearest Queen, how can you be so hard-hearted when you see your husband here before you after twenty long years, ” pleaded Odysseus.
And Penelope still was not sure whether or not to believe her own eyes so she decided to test him. She called the old nurse and told her to move the bed out of their room and prepare it for the stranger in the next room along the corridor.
“How can that be?” asked Odysseus. “If it is my bed then nobody could move it for I made it myself, and one of its pillars is the olive tree that grew on this spot where I build the bedroom with my own hands.”
And then Penelope knew that the man before her truly was her husband, Lord Odysseus, for whom she had waited twenty long years. She threw her arms around him and wept for joy.
And that’s the story over the homecoming of Odysseus. It is also the end of the tales from the Trojan war as told by the Greek bard, Homer, who wrote two epic poems called the Iliad and the Odyssey.
But although our hero was overjoyed to be home, that was not the end of his travels. For Odysseus always longed to go and see new places, and after some time he again set out. The English Poet Alfred Lord Tennyson (in a poem called Ulysses – another name for Odysseus) wrote a few lines about his unquenchable urge to sail the seas:
for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die.
It may be that the gulfs will wash us down:
It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles,
And see the great Achilles, whom we knew.
Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.