The Odyssey

Book XXI


Penelope proposes to the suitors a contest with the bow, herself the prize. They prove unable to bend the bow; when Ulysses having with some difficulty possessed himself of it, manages it with the utmost ease, and dispatches his arrow through twelve rings erected for the trial.

Minerva, now, Goddess cærulean-eyed,
Prompted Icarius’ daughter, the discrete
Penelope, with bow and rings to prove
Her suitors in Ulysses’ courts, a game
Terrible in conclusion to them all.
First, taking in her hand the brazen key
Well-forged, and fitted with an iv’ry grasp,
Attended by the women of her train
She sought her inmost chamber, the recess
In which she kept the treasures of her Lord,
His brass, his gold, and steel elaborate.
Here lay his stubborn bow, and quiver fill’d
With num’rous shafts, a fatal store. That bow
He had received and quiver from the hand
Of godlike Iphitus Eurytides,
Whom, in Messenia,[1] in the house he met
Of brave Orsilochus. Ulysses came
Demanding payment of arrearage due
From all that land; for a Messenian fleet
Had borne from Ithaca three hundred sheep,
With all their shepherds; for which cause, ere yet
Adult, he voyaged to that distant shore,
Deputed by his sire, and by the Chiefs
Of Ithaca, to make the just demand.
But Iphitus had thither come to seek
Twelve mares and twelve mule colts which he had lost,
A search that cost him soon a bloody death.
For, coming to the house of Hercules
The valiant task-performing son of Jove,
He perish’d there, slain by his cruel host
Who, heedless of heav’n’s wrath, and of the rights
Of his own board, first fed, then slaughter’d him;
For in his house the mares and colts were hidden.
He, therefore, occupied in that concern,
Meeting Ulysses there, gave him the bow
Which, erst, huge Eurytus had borne, and which
Himself had from his dying sire received.
Ulysses, in return, on him bestowed
A spear and sword, pledges of future love
And hospitality; but never more
They met each other at the friendly board,
For, ere that hour arrived, the son of Jove
Slew his own guest, the godlike Iphitus.
Thus came the bow into Ulysses’ hands,
Which, never in his gallant barks he bore
To battle with him, (though he used it oft
In times of peace) but left it safely stored
At home, a dear memorial of his friend.
Soon as, divinest of her sex, arrived
At that same chamber, with her foot she press’d
The oaken threshold bright, on which the hand
Of no mean architect had stretch’d the line,
Who had erected also on each side
The posts on which the splendid portals hung,
She loos’d the ring and brace, then introduced
The key, and aiming at them from without,[2]
Struck back the bolts. The portals, at that stroke,
Sent forth a tone deep as the pastur’d bull’s,
And flew wide open. She, ascending, next,
The elevated floor on which the chests
That held her own fragrant apparel stood,
With lifted hand aloft took down the bow
In its embroider’d bow-case safe enclosed.
Then, sitting there, she lay’d it on her knees,
Weeping aloud, and drew it from the case.
Thus weeping over it long time she sat,
Till satiate, at the last, with grief and tears,
Descending by the palace steps she sought
Again the haughty suitors, with the bow
Elastic, and the quiver in her hand
Replete with pointed shafts, a deadly store.
Her maidens, as she went, bore after her
A coffer fill’d with prizes by her Lord,
Much brass and steel; and when at length she came,
Loveliest of women, where the suitors sat,
Between the pillars of the stately dome
Pausing, before her beauteous face she held
Her lucid veil, and by two matrons chaste
Supported, the assembly thus address’d.
Ye noble suitors hear, who rudely haunt
This palace of a Chief long absent hence,
Whose substance ye have now long time consumed,
Nor palliative have yet contrived, or could,
Save your ambition to make me a bride—
Attend this game to which I call you forth.
Now suitors! prove yourselves with this huge bow
Of wide-renown’d Ulysses; he who draws
Easiest the bow, and who his arrow sends
Through twice six rings, he takes me to his home,
And I must leave this mansion of my youth
Plenteous, magnificent, which, doubtless, oft
I shall remember even in my dreams.
So saying, she bade Eumæus lay the bow
Before them, and the twice six rings of steel.
He wept, received them, and obey’d; nor wept
The herdsman less, seeing the bow which erst
His Lord had occupied; when at their tears
Indignant, thus, Antinoüs began.
Ye rural drones, whose purblind eyes see not
Beyond the present hour, egregious fools!
Why weeping trouble ye the Queen, too much
Before afflicted for her husband lost?
Either partake the banquet silently,
Or else go weep abroad, leaving the bow,
That stubborn test, to us; for none, I judge,
None here shall bend this polish’d bow with ease,
Since in this whole assembly I discern
None like Ulysses, whom myself have seen
And recollect, though I was then a boy.
He said, but in his heart, meantime, the hope
Cherish’d, that he should bend, himself, the bow,
And pass the rings; yet was he destin’d first
Of all that company to taste the steel
Of brave Ulysses’ shaft, whom in that house
He had so oft dishonour’d, and had urged
So oft all others to the like offence.
Amidst them, then, the sacred might arose
Of young Telemachus, who thus began.
Saturnian Jove questionless hath deprived
Me of all reason. My own mother, fam’d
For wisdom as she is, makes known to all
Her purpose to abandon this abode
And follow a new mate, while, heedless, I
Trifle and laugh as I were still a child.
But come, ye suitors! since the prize is such,
A woman like to whom none can be found
This day in all Achaia; on the shores
Of sacred Pylus; in the cities proud
Of Argos or Mycenæ; or even here
In Ithaca; or yet within the walls
Of black Epirus; and since this yourselves
Know also, wherefore should I speak her praise?
Come then, delay not, waste not time in vain
Excuses, turn not from the proof, but bend
The bow, that thus the issue may be known.
I also will, myself, that task essay;
And should I bend the bow, and pass the rings,
Then shall not my illustrious mother leave
Her son forlorn, forsaking this abode
To follow a new spouse, while I remain
Disconsolate, although of age to bear,
Successful as my sire, the prize away.
So saying, he started from his seat, cast off
His purple cloak, and lay’d his sword aside,
Then fix’d, himself, the rings, furrowing the earth
By line, and op’ning one long trench for all,
And stamping close the glebe. Amazement seized
All present, seeing with how prompt a skill
He executed, though untaught, his task.
Then, hasting to the portal, there he stood.
Thrice, struggling, he essay’d to bend the bow,
And thrice desisted, hoping still to draw
The bow-string home, and shoot through all the rings.[3]
And now the fourth time striving with full force
He had prevail’d to string it, but his sire
Forbad his eager efforts by a sign.
Then thus the royal youth to all around—
Gods! either I shall prove of little force
Hereafter, and for manly feats unapt,
Or I am yet too young, and have not strength
To quell the aggressor’s contumely. But come—
(For ye have strength surpassing mine) try ye
The bow, and bring this contest to an end.
He ceas’d, and set the bow down on the floor,
Reclining it against the shaven pannels smooth
That lined the wall; the arrow next he placed,
Leaning against the bow’s bright-polish’d horn,
And to the seat, whence he had ris’n, return’d.
Then thus Eupithes’ son, Antinoüs spake.
My friends! come forth successive from the right,[4]
Where he who ministers the cup begins.
So spake Antinoüs, and his counsel pleased.
Then, first, Leiodes, Œnop’s son, arose.
He was their soothsayer, and ever sat
Beside the beaker, inmost of them all.
To him alone, of all, licentious deeds
Were odious, and, with indignation fired,
He witness’d the excesses of the rest.
He then took foremost up the shaft and bow,
And, station’d at the portal, strove to bend
But bent it not, fatiguing, first, his hands
Delicate and uncustom’d to the toil.
He ceased, and the assembly thus bespake.
My friends, I speed not; let another try;
For many Princes shall this bow of life
Bereave, since death more eligible seems,
Far more, than loss of her, for whom we meet
Continual here, expecting still the prize.
Some suitor, haply, at this moment, hopes
That he shall wed whom long he hath desired,
Ulysses’ wife, Penelope; let him
Essay the bow, and, trial made, address
His spousal offers to some other fair
Among the long-stoled Princesses of Greece,
This Princess leaving his, whose proffer’d gifts
Shall please her most, and whom the Fates ordain.
He said, and set the bow down on the floor,
Reclining it against the shaven pannels smooth
That lined the wall; the arrow, next, he placed,
Leaning against the bow’s bright-polish’d horn,
And to the seat whence he had ris’n return’d.
Then him Antinoüs, angry, thus reproved.
What word, Leiodes, grating to our ears
Hath scap’d thy lips? I hear it with disdain.
Shall this bow fatal prove to many a Prince,
Because thou hast, thyself, too feeble proved
To bend it? no. Thou wast not born to bend
The unpliant bow, or to direct the shaft,
But here are nobler who shall soon prevail.
He said, and to Melanthius gave command,
The goat-herd. Hence, Melanthius, kindle fire;
Beside it place, with fleeces spread, a form
Of length commodious; from within procure
A large round cake of suet next, with which
When we have chafed and suppled the tough bow
Before the fire, we will again essay
To bend it, and decide the doubtful strife.
He ended, and Melanthius, kindling fire
Beside it placed, with fleeces spread, a form
Of length commodious; next, he brought a cake
Ample and round of suet from within,
With which they chafed the bow, then tried again
To bend, but bent it not; superior strength
To theirs that task required. Yet two, the rest
In force surpassing, made no trial yet,
Antinoüs, and Eurymachus the brave.
Then went the herdsman and the swine-herd forth
Together; after whom, the glorious Chief
Himself the house left also, and when all
Without the court had met, with gentle speech
Ulysses, then, the faithful pair address’d.
Herdsman! and thou, Eumæus! shall I keep
A certain secret close, or shall I speak
Outright? my spirit prompts me, and I will.
What welcome should Ulysses at your hands
Receive, arriving suddenly at home,
Some God his guide; would ye the suitors aid,
Or would ye aid Ulysses? answer true.
Then thus the chief intendant of his herds.
Would Jove but grant me my desire, to see
Once more the Hero, and would some kind Pow’r,
Restore him, I would shew thee soon an arm
Strenuous to serve him, and a dauntless heart.
Eumæus, also, fervently implored
The Gods in pray’r, that they would render back
Ulysses to his home. He, then, convinced
Of their unfeigning honesty, began.
Behold him! I am he myself, arrived
After long suff’rings in the twentieth year!
I know how welcome to yourselves alone
Of all my train I come, for I have heard
None others praying for my safe return.
I therefore tell you truth; should heav’n subdue
The suitors under me, ye shall receive
Each at my hands a bride, with lands and house
Near to my own, and ye shall be thenceforth
Dear friends and brothers of the Prince my son.
Lo! also this indisputable proof
That ye may know and trust me. View it here.
It is the scar which in Parnassus erst
(Where with the sons I hunted of renown’d
Autolycus) I from a boar received.
So saying, he stripp’d his tatters, and unveil’d
The whole broad scar; then, soon as they had seen
And surely recognized the mark, each cast
His arms around Ulysses, wept, embraced
And press’d him to his bosom, kissing oft
His brows and shoulders, who as oft their hands
And foreheads kiss’d, nor had the setting sun
Beheld them satisfied, but that himself
Ulysses thus admonished them, and said.
Cease now from tears, lest any, coming forth,
Mark and report them to our foes within.
Now, to the hall again, but one by one,
Not all at once, I foremost, then yourselves,
And this shall be the sign. Full well I know
That, all unanimous, they will oppose
Deliv’ry of the bow and shafts to me;
But thou, (proceeding with it to my seat)
Eumæus, noble friend! shalt give the bow
Into my grasp; then bid the women close
The massy doors, and should they hear a groan
Or other noise made by the Princes shut
Within the hall, let none set step abroad,
But all work silent. Be the palace-door
Thy charge, my good Philœtius! key it fast
Without a moment’s pause, and fix the brace.[5]
He ended, and, returning to the hall,
Resumed his seat; nor stay’d his servants long
Without, but follow’d their illustrious Lord.
Eurymachus was busily employ’d
Turning the bow, and chafing it before
The sprightly blaze, but, after all, could find
No pow’r to bend it. Disappointment wrung
A groan from his proud heart, and thus he said.
Alas! not only for myself I grieve,
But grieve for all. Nor, though I mourn the loss
Of such a bride, mourn I that loss alone,
(For lovely Greecians may be found no few
In Ithaca, and in the neighbour isles)
But should we so inferior prove at last
To brave Ulysses, that no force of ours
Can bend his bow, we are for ever shamed.
To whom Antinoüs, thus, Eupithes’ son.
Not so; (as even thou art well-assured
Thyself, Eurymachus!) but Phœbus claims
This day his own. Who then, on such a day,
Would strive to bend it? Let it rather rest.
And should we leave the rings where now they stand,
I trust that none ent’ring Ulysses’ house
Will dare displace them. Cup-bearer, attend!
Serve all with wine, that, first, libation made,
We may religiously lay down the bow.
Command ye too Melanthius, that he drive
Hither the fairest goats of all his flocks
At dawn of day, that burning first, the thighs
To the ethereal archer, we may make
New trial, and decide, at length, the strife.
So spake Antinoüs, and his counsel pleased.
The heralds, then, pour’d water on their hands,
While youths crown’d high the goblets which they bore
From right to left, distributing to all.
When each had made libation, and had drunk
Till well sufficed, then, artful to effect
His shrewd designs, Ulysses thus began.
Hear, O ye suitors of the illustrious Queen,
My bosom’s dictates. But I shall entreat
Chiefly Eurymachus and the godlike youth
Antinoüs, whose advice is wisely giv’n.
Tamper no longer with the bow, but leave
The matter with the Gods, who shall decide
The strife to-morrow, fav’ring whom they will.
Meantime, grant me the polish’d bow, that I
May trial make among you of my force,
If I retain it still in like degree
As erst, or whether wand’ring and defect
Of nourishment have worn it all away.
He said, whom they with indignation heard
Extreme, alarm’d lest he should bend the bow,
And sternly thus Antinoüs replied.
Desperate vagabond! ah wretch deprived
Of reason utterly! art not content?
Esteem’st it not distinction proud enough
To feast with us the nobles of the land?
None robs thee of thy share, thou witnessest
Our whole discourse, which, save thyself alone,
No needy vagrant is allow’d to hear.
Thou art befool’d by wine, as many have been,
Wide-throated drinkers, unrestrain’d by rule.
Wine in the mansion of the mighty Chief
Pirithoüs, made the valiant Centaur mad
Eurytion, at the Lapithæan feast.[6]
He drank to drunkenness, and being drunk,
Committed great enormities beneath
Pirithoüs’ roof, and such as fill’d with rage
The Hero-guests; who therefore by his feet
Dragg’d him right through the vestibule, amerced
Of nose and ears, and he departed thence
Provoked to frenzy by that foul disgrace,
Whence war between the human kind arose
And the bold Centaurs—but he first incurred
By his ebriety that mulct severe.
Great evil, also, if thou bend the bow,
To thee I prophesy; for thou shalt find
Advocate or protector none in all
This people, but we will dispatch thee hence
Incontinent on board a sable bark
To Echetus, the scourge of human kind,
From whom is no escape. Drink then in peace,
And contest shun with younger men than thou.
Him answer’d, then, Penelope discrete.
Antinoüs! neither seemly were the deed
Nor just, to maim or harm whatever guest
Whom here arrived Telemachus receives.
Canst thou expect, that should he even prove
Stronger than ye, and bend the massy bow,
He will conduct me hence to his own home,
And make me his own bride? No such design
His heart conceives, or hope; nor let a dread
So vain the mind of any overcloud
Who banquets here, since it dishonours me.
So she; to whom Eurymachus reply’d,
Offspring of Polybus. O matchless Queen!
Icarius’ prudent daughter! none suspects
That thou wilt wed with him; a mate so mean
Should ill become thee; but we fear the tongues
Of either sex, lest some Achaian say
Hereafter, (one inferior far to us)
Ah! how unworthy are they to compare
With him whose wife they seek! to bend his bow
Pass’d all their pow’r, yet this poor vagabond,
Arriving from what country none can tell,
Bent it with ease, and shot through all the rings.
So will they speak, and so shall we be shamed.
Then answer, thus, Penelope return’d.
No fair report, Eurymachus, attends
Their names or can, who, riotous as ye,
The house dishonour, and consume the wealth
Of such a Chief. Why shame ye thus yourselves?
The guest is of athletic frame, well form’d,
And large of limb; he boasts him also sprung
From noble ancestry. Come then—consent—
Give him the bow, that we may see the proof;
For thus I say, and thus will I perform;
Sure as he bends it, and Apollo gives
To him that glory, tunic fair and cloak
Shall be his meed from me, a javelin keen
To guard him against men and dogs, a sword
Of double edge, and sandals for his feet,
And I will send him whither most he would.
Her answer’d then prudent Telemachus.
Mother—the bow is mine; and, save myself,
No Greek hath right to give it, or refuse.
None who in rock-bound Ithaca possess
Dominion, none in the steed-pastured isles
Of Elis, if I chose to make the bow
His own for ever, should that choice controul.
But thou into the house repairing, ply
Spindle and loom, thy province, and enjoin
Diligence to thy maidens; for the bow
Is man’s concern alone, and shall be mine
Especially, since I am master here.
She heard astonish’d, and the prudent speech
Reposing of her son deep in her heart,
Withdrew; then mounting with her female train
To her superior chamber, there she wept
Her lost Ulysses, till Minerva bathed
With balmy dews of sleep her weary lids.
And now the noble swine-herd bore the bow
Toward Ulysses, but with one voice all
The suitors, clamorous, reproved the deed,
Of whom a youth, thus, insolent exclaim’d.
Thou clumsy swine-herd, whither bear’st the bow,
Delirious wretch? the hounds that thou hast train’d
Shall eat thee at thy solitary home
Ere long, let but Apollo prove, at last,
Propitious to us, and the Pow’rs of heav’n.
So they, whom hearing he replaced the bow
Where erst it stood, terrified at the sound
Of such loud menaces; on the other side
Telemachus as loud assail’d his ear.
Friend! forward with the bow; or soon repent
That thou obey’dst the many. I will else
With huge stones drive thee, younger as I am,
Back to the field. My strength surpasses thine.
I would to heav’n that I in force excell’d
As far, and prowess, every suitor here!
So would I soon give rude dismission hence
To some, who live but to imagine harm.
He ceased, whose words the suitors laughing heard.
And, for their sake, in part their wrath resign’d
Against Telemachus; then through the hall
Eumæus bore, and to Ulysses’ hand
Consign’d the bow; next, summoning abroad
The ancient nurse, he gave her thus in charge.
It is the pleasure of Telemachus,
Sage Euryclea! that thou key secure
The doors; and should you hear, perchance, a groan
Or other noise made by the Princes shut
Within the hall, let none look, curious, forth,
But each in quietness pursue her work.
So he; nor flew his words useless away,
But she, incontinent, shut fast the doors.
Then, noiseless, sprang Philœtius forth, who closed
The portals also of the palace-court.
A ship-rope of Ægyptian reed, it chanced,
Lay in the vestibule; with that he braced
The doors securely, and re-entring fill’d
Again his seat, but watchful, eyed his Lord.
He, now, assaying with his hand the bow,
Made curious trial of it ev’ry way,
And turn’d it on all sides, lest haply worms
Had in its master’s absence drill’d the horn.
Then thus a suitor to his next remark’d.
He hath an eye, methinks, exactly skill’d
In bows, and steals them; or perhaps, at home,
Hath such himself, or feels a strong desire
To make them; so inquisitive the rogue
Adept in mischief, shifts it to and fro!
To whom another, insolent, replied.
I wish him like prosperity in all
His efforts, as attends his effort made
On this same bow, which he shall never bend.
So they; but when the wary Hero wise
Had made his hand familiar with the bow
Poising it and examining—at once—
As when in harp and song adept, a bard
Unlab’ring strains the chord to a new lyre,
The twisted entrails of a sheep below
With fingers nice inserting, and above,
With such facility Ulysses bent
His own huge bow, and with his right hand play’d
The nerve, which in its quick vibration sang
Clear as the swallow’s voice. Keen anguish seized
The suitors, wan grew ev’ry cheek, and Jove
Gave him his rolling thunder for a sign.
That omen, granted to him by the son
Of wily Saturn, with delight he heard.
He took a shaft that at the table-side
Lay ready drawn; but in his quiver’s womb
The rest yet slept, by those Achaians proud
To be, ere long, experienced. True he lodg’d
The arrow on the centre of the bow,
And, occupying still his seat, drew home
Nerve and notch’d arrow-head; with stedfast sight
He aimed and sent it; right through all the rings
From first to last the steel-charged weapon flew
Issuing beyond, and to his son he spake.
Thou need’st not blush, young Prince, to have received
A guest like me; neither my arrow swerved,
Nor labour’d I long time to draw the bow;
My strength is unimpair’d, not such as these
In scorn affirm it. But the waning day
Calls us to supper, after which succeeds[7]
Jocund variety, the song, the harp,
With all that heightens and adorns the feast.
He said, and with his brows gave him the sign.
At once the son of the illustrious Chief
Slung his keen faulchion, grasp’d his spear, and stood
Arm’d bright for battle at his father’s side.

  1. A province of Laconia.
  2. The reader will of course observe, that the whole of this process implies a sort of mechanism very different from that with which we are acquainted.—The translation, I believe, is exact.
  3. This first attempt of Telemachus and the suitors was not an attempt to shoot, but to lodge the bow-string on the opposite horn, the bow having been released at one end, and slackened while it was laid by.
  4. Antinoüs prescribes to them this manner of rising to the trial for the good omen’s sake, the left-hand being held unpropitious.
  5. The δεσμὸς seems to have been a strap designed to close the only aperture by which the bolt could be displaced, and the door opened.
  6. When Pirithoüs, one of the Lapithæ, married Hippodamia, daughter of Adrastus, he invited the Centaurs to the wedding. The Centaurs, intoxicated with wine, attempted to ravish the wives of the Lapithæ, who in resentment of that insult, slew them.
  7. This is an instance of the Σαρδανιον μαλα τοιον mentioned in Book XX.; such as, perhaps, could not be easily paralleled. I question if there be a passage, either in ancient or modern tragedy, so truly terrible as this seeming levity of Ulysses, in the moment when he was going to begin the slaughter.


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