Myths of the Greek and Roman Gods
Odyssey, book 8, lines 340-461. Trans. Ian Johnston, 2019.
Johnston’s complete translation of the Odyssey can be found here: http://johnstoniatexts.x10host.com/homer/odysseytofc.html
In book 8 of the Odyssey, Odysseus is a guest of the Phaeacians, a mythical people renowned for their knowledge of ships and the sea. In the extract below, a festival that involves athletic games, dancing, and song, the poet Demodocus (“the minstrel” of the opening line) entertains the assembled guests by reciting the myth of how Hephaestus caught his wife Aphrodite in their marriage bed with Ares. The myth is referred to as a “song” because in the ancient Greek world, poets performed myths to the musical accompaniment of a lyre.
The minstrel struck the opening chords to his sweet song—340
how war god Ares loved the fair-crowned Aphrodite,
how in Hephaestus’s own home they first had sex
in secret, and how Ares gave her many gifts,
while he disgraced the marriage bed of lord Hephaestus.
But sun god Helios observed them making love
and came at once to tell Hephaestus. When he heard
the unwelcome news, the lame god went to his forge,
turning over deep in his heart a devious scheme.
He set up his enormous anvil on its block,
and forged a net no one could ever break or loosen,350
so they would have to stay immobile where they were.
When, in his rage, he had made that snare for Ares,
he went into the room which housed his marriage bed,
anchored the metal netting around the bed posts,
and then hung loops of it from roof beams high above,
as fine as spiders’ webs, impossible to see,
even for a blessed god—that’s how skillfully
he made that net. Once he had set the snare in place
around the bed, he announced a trip to Lemnos,
that well-built citadel, his favourite place by far360
of all the lands on earth. Ares of the Golden Reins,
who maintained a constant lookout, saw Hephaestus,
the celebrated master artisan, leave home,
and went running over to Hephaestus’s house,
eager to have sex with fair-crowned Aphrodite.
She had just left the presence of her father Zeus,
mighty son of Cronos, and was sitting down.
Ares charged inside the house, grabbed her by the hand,
then spoke, saying these words to her:
“Come, my dear,
let’s go to bed and make love together.370
Hephaestus is not home. No doubt he’s gone
to visit Lemnos and the Sintians,
those men who speak like such barbarians.”
Ares spoke. To Aphrodite having sex with him
seemed quite delightful. So the two raced off to bed
and lay down together. But then the crafty net
made by Hephaestus’s great skill fell down around them,
so they could not move their limbs or shift their bodies.
After a while, they realized they could not get out.
Then the famous crippled god came back to them—380
turning round before he reached the land of Lemnos.
Helios had stayed on watch and gave him a report.
With a grieving heart, Hephaestus went into his home,
and stood inside the doorway, gripped by cruel rage.
He made a dreadful cry, calling to all the gods:
“Father Zeus and you other sacred gods
who live forever, come here, so you can see
something disgusting and ridiculous—
Aphrodite, Zeus’s daughter, scorns me
and lusts after Ares, the destroyer,390
because he’s beautiful, with healthy limbs,
while I was born deformed. I’m not to blame.
My parents are! I wish they’d never had me!
See how these two have gone to my own bed
and are lying there, having sex together,
while I look on in pain. But I don’t think
they wish to lie like this for very long,
no matter how much they may be in love.
They’ll both soon lose the urge to stay in bed.
But this binding snare will confine them here,400
until her father gives back all those presents,
courting gifts I gave him for that shameless bitch—
a lovely daughter but a sex-crazed wife.”
Hephaestus finished. Gods gathered at the bronze-floored house.
Earthshaker Poseidon came, and lord Hermes, too,
the god of luck, as well as archer god Apollo.
But female goddesses were all far too ashamed
and stayed at home. So the gods, givers of good things,
stood in the doorway, looking at the artful work
of ingenious Hephaestus. They began to chortle—410
and an irrepressible laughter then pealed out
among the blessed gods. Glancing at his neighbour,
one of them would say:
“Nasty deeds don’t pay.
The slow one overtakes the swift—just as
Hephaestus, slow as he is, has caught Ares,
although of all the gods who hold Olympus
he’s the fastest one there is. Yes, he’s lame,
but he’s a crafty one. So Ares now
must pay a fine for his adultery.”
That is how the gods then talked to one another.420
But lord Apollo, son of Zeus, questioned Hermes:
“Hermes, son of Zeus, you messenger
and giver of good things, how would you like
to lie in bed by golden Aphrodite,
even though a strong net tied you down?”
The messenger god, killer of Argus, then said
in his reply:
“Far-shooting lord Apollo,
I wish there were three times as many nets,
impossible to break, and all you gods
were looking on, if I could like down there,430
alongside golden Aphrodite.”
At Hermes’s words,
laughter arose from the immortal deities.
But Poseidon did not laugh. He kept requesting
Hephaestus, the celebrated master artisan,
to set Ares free. When he talked to Hephaestus,
his words had wings:
“Set Ares loose.
I promise he will pay you everything,
as you are asking, all he truly owes,
in the presence of immortal gods.”
The famous lame god then replied:
Shaker of the Earth, do not ask me this.
It’s a risky thing to accept a pledge
made for a nasty rogue. What if Ares
escapes his chains, avoids the debt, and leaves—
how then among all these immortal gods
do I hold you in chains?”
then answered him and said:
“Hephaestus, if indeed Ares does not discharge his debt
and runs away, I’ll pay you in person.”
Then the celebrated crippled god replied:450
“It would be inappropriate for me to refuse to take your word.”
After saying this,
powerful Hephaestus then untied the netting.
Both gods, one they had been released from their strong chains,
jumped up immediately—Ares went off to Thrace,
and laughter-loving Aphrodite left for Paphos,
in Cyprus, for her sanctuary, her sacred altar.
Once there, the Graces bathed and then anointed her
with heavenly oil, the sort that gleams upon the gods,
who live forever. Next, they took some gorgeous clothes460
and dressed her—the sight was marvellous to behold.
That was the song the celebrated minstrel sang.
As he listened, Odysseus felt joy in his heart—
long-oared Phaeacians, famous sailors, felt it, too.