The Ancient One of the Sea
Menelaus said ‘Near Egypt there is an island that men call Pharos. I came to that island with my ships when we, the heroes who had fought at Troy, were separated from each other. There I was held, day after day, by the will of the gods. Our supply of corn was exhausted and my men were in danger of dying of hunger. Then one day while my companions were trying desperately to catch fish from the sea, I met on the shore someone who had pity for our plight.
‘She was an immortal, Eidothëe, a daughter of the Ancient One of the Sea. I begged her to tell me how we might get away from that place, and she advised me to ambush her father, the Ancient One of the Sea, who is also called Proteus, “You can make him tell you,” she said, “for he knows what you must do to get away from this island of Pharos. Also, he can tell to you what happened to the heroes you have been separated from, and what has taken place in your own home.”
‘Then said I to that kind nymph Eidothëe, “Show me how I can ambush your immortal father, the Ancient One of the Sea.”‘
‘ Eidothëe said, “My father, Proteus, comes out of the sea when the sun is highest in the sky. Then he lies down to sleep in the caves that are along the shore. But before he goes to sleep he counts, as a shepherd counts his flock, the seals that come up out of the ocean and lie round where he lies. If there is one too many, or one less than there should be, he will not go to sleep in the cave. But I will show you how you and some of your companions may be near without the Ancient One of the Sea being aware of your presence. Take three of your men—the three you trust more than all the others and as soon as it is dawn tomorrow meet me by the edge of the sea.”‘
‘Then the nymph Eidothëe plunged into the sea and I left anxious, but with hope in my heart.
‘Now as soon as it was dawn I walked by the sea shore with the three companions that I trusted the most. The daughter of the Ancient One of the Sea, Eidothëe, came to us. In her arms she had the skins of seals just killed, one for each of us. At the cave where the seals lay she scooped holes in the sand and told us to lie there, covering ourselves with the skins. Then she spoke to me saying,’ “When my father, the Ancient One of the Sea, comes here to sleep, seize him and hold him with all the strength you have. He will change himself into many shapes, but do not let go of him. When he changes back into the shape he had at first you may release him. Question him then as to how you may leave this place, or question him as to any other matter that may be on your mind, and he will answer you, speaking the truth.”‘
‘We lay down in the holes she had scooped in the sand and she covered each of us with one of the skins she had brought. The seals came out of the sea and lay all around us.. Then the nymph went back to the sea.
‘We lay there amongst the herd of seals until the sun was at its highest in the sky. The Ancient One of the Sea came out of the ocean depths. He went amongst the seals and counted them, and us four men he counted amongst his herd. Then in great contentment he laid himself down to sleep.
‘We rushed at him with a cry and seized him with all our strength. But we had no sooner grabbed him than his shape changed. He became a lion and faced us. Yet we did not let go. He became a serpent, yet we still held him. He became a leopard and then a mighty boar. He became a stream of water and then a flowering tree. Yet still we held to him with all our might and we were not afraid of the shapes he changed into before our eyes. Then, seeing that he could not escape from our hold, the Ancient One of the Sea, who was called Proteus, stopped changing and became as we had seen him first.
‘”Son of Atreus,” he said, speaking to me, “who was it who showed you how to lay this ambush for me?”‘
‘”It is for you who know everything,” I said, “to answer our questions. Tell me now why it is that I am held on this island? Which of the gods holds me here and for what reason?”‘
‘Then the Ancient One of the Sea answered me, speaking truthfully, “Zeus, the greatest of all the gods holds you here. You neglected to make sacrifice to the gods and for that reason you are held on this island.”
‘”Then,” I said, “What must I do to win back the favor of the gods?”‘
‘He told me, “Before setting sail for your own land,” he said, “you must return to the river Ægyptus that flows out of Africa, and offer sacrifice there to the gods.”‘
‘When he said this I was disheartened. I would have to sail a long and terrible way to make that sacrifice, turning back from my own land. Yet the will of the gods would have to be done. Then I questioned the Ancient One of the Sea for news of the men who were my companions in the wars of Troy.
‘Ah, son of Odysseus, I was indeed sad when he told me of their fates. Then I heard how my brother, great Agamemnon, reached his own land happily. But his wife hated him, and in his own home she and Ægisthus murdered him. I sat and wept on the sands, but still I questioned the Ancient One of the Sea. He told me about strong Aias and how he was killed by the falling rock after he had boasted that Poseidon, the god of the Sea, could not harm him anymore. And about your father, the renowned Odysseus, the Ancient One had a tale to tell.
‘Then, and maybe even now, Odysseus was on an island far away from all mankind. “There he lives in the hall of the nymph Calypso,” the Ancient One of the Sea told me. “I saw him weep because he could not leave that place. But he has no ship and no companions and the nymph Calypso holds him there. He longs to return to his own country, to the land of Ithaka.” After he had told me about Odysseus, he left us and plunged into the sea.
‘Then I went back to the river Ægyptus and moored my ships and made a sacrifice to the gods. A fair wind came to us and we set out for our own country. We arrived back home, and now you see me the happiest of all those who set out to wage war against Troy. Now, dear son of Odysseus, you know what an immortal said about your father—how he is still alive, but how he is prevented from returning to his own home.’
At last the youth Telemachus got news of his father. When the King stopped speaking they left the hall with torches in their hands and came to the room where Helen’s servants had prepared beds for Telemachus and Peisistratus. As he lay there the son of Odysseus thought about his father, still alive, but held captive in that unknown island by the nymph Calypso.