Penelope Talks with Odysseus
Odysseus said to Telemachus, ‘My son, we must now get the weapons out of the hall. Take them down from the walls.’ Telemachus and his father took down the helmets and shields and spears. Then, as they carried them out Odysseus said, ‘Tomorrow, when the suitors miss the weapons and say, “Why have they been removed?” answer them, saying, “The smoke of the fire dulled them, and they no longer looked like the weapons that my father left behind him when he went to the wars of Troy. Besides, I am afraid in case some day the guests in the hall quarrel, with each other, and snatch the weapons in anger. There has already been conflict here. And iron attracts iron, men say.”‘
Telemachus carried the armour and weapons out of the hall and hid them in the women’s rooms. Then when the hall was cleared he went to his own room.
Then Penelope came back to the hall to speak to the stranger. One of her maids called Melantho, was there, and she was speaking angrily to him. This Melantho was proud and hard hearted because Antinous often talked with her and influenced her. As Penelope approached she was saying, ‘Stranger, are you still here, grabbing things and spying on the servants? Be thankful for the food you have got and leave.’
Odysseus, looking fiercely at her, said, ‘Why do you speak to me in such a way? If I go in ragged clothes and beg through the land it is because of necessity. Once I had a house with servants and much wealth, and the stranger who came there was not abused.’
The lady Penelope called to the maid and said, ‘You, Melantho, heard it from my own lips that I wanted to speak to this stranger and ask him if he had news of my lord. Therefore, it is not right for you to scold him.’ She spoke to the old nurse who had come with her, and said, ‘Eurycleia, bring a bench with a fleece on it to the fire, so that this stranger can sit and tell me his story.’
Eurycleia brought over the bench, and Odysseus sat down near the fire. Then the lady Penelope said, ‘First, stranger, will you tell me who you are, and what your name is, and your race and country?’
Odysseus said, ‘Ask me anything you like, lady, but not my name, or race, or country, or else you will fill my heart with more pain than I am able to endure. I am a man of grief. But haven’t you any story to tell me? We know of you, Penelope, for your fame goes up to heaven, and no mortal man can find fault with you.’
Then Penelope said, ‘What beauty or good character left me when my lord Odysseus went from this home to the wars of Troy. Since he went I have had to face many problems. Ah, if only he were here to watch over my life! The lords of all the islands around—Dulichium and Same and Zacynthus and the lords of the land of Ithaka, have come here and are wooing me against my will. They devour the food of this house and my son is being impoverished.’
‘Long ago a god put into my mind a plan to keep marriage with any of them away from me. I set up a great cloth upon my loom and I spoke to the suitors, saying, “Odysseus is certainly dead, but I ask that you don’t be too eager to marry me. Wait until I finish the cloth I am weaving. It is a shroud for Odysseus’ father, and I make it for the day when death shall come to him. There will be no woman to care for Laertes when I have left his son’s house, and I would not have such a hero be buried without a shroud, or else the women of our land would blame me for neglecting my husband’s father in his last days.'”
‘So they agreed to wait until the shroud was woven. In the daytime I wove it, but at night I unraveled the cloth. So three years passed. Then the fourth year came, and my suitors were hard to deal with. My treacherous maids brought them to me as I was unraveling the cloth. And now I have no other way to keep the marriage away from me. My parents command me to marry one of my suitors. My son cannot stand to see the wealth of his house and field being wasted, and the wealth that should be his destroyed. He too wishes that I marry. There is no reason why I should not be wed again, for surely Odysseus, my lord, is dead.’
Odysseus Said, ‘Your lord was known to me. On his way to Troy he came to my land, for the wind blew him out of his course, sending him wandering past Malea. For twelve days he stayed in my city, and I gave him good entertainment, and saw that he lacked for nothing in cattle, or wine, or food.’
When Odysseus was spoken of, the heart of Penelope melted, and tears ran down her cheeks. Odysseus had pity for his wife when he saw her weeping for the man who was even then sitting by her. Tears would have run down his own cheeks only that he was strong enough to hold them back.
Penelope said, ‘Stranger, I must question you about Odysseus. What clothes did he have on when you saw him? And what men were with him?’
Odysseus said, ‘Lady, it is hard to remember something that happened so long ago. It is now twenty years since I saw Odysseus. He wore a purple robe that was fastened with a brooch. And this brooch had on it the image of a hound holding a deer between its paws. Everyone marveled at this brooch, for it was made of gold, and the deer and the hound were so lifelike. And I remember that there was a man with Odysseus—he was a man somewhat older than his master, round shouldered and black-skinned and curly headed. His name was Eurybates, and Odysseus honoured him above the rest of his company.’
When he spoke about Odysseus, Penelope wept again. When she had wept for a long time she said, ‘Stranger, you were made welcome, but now you will be honoured in this hall. You spoke of the garments that Odysseus wore. It was I who gave him those garments, folding them myself and bringing them out of the room. And it was I who gave him the brooch that you described. Ah, it was an evil fate that took him from me, bringing him to Troy, that place too evil to be named by me.’
Odysseus leaned towards her, and said, Do not waste your heart with endless weeping, lady. Stop crying because Odysseus is near. He has lost all his companions, and he doesn’t know how to come into this house, whether openly or by stealth. I swear it. I swear that Odysseus himself will stand up here before the old moon wanes and the new moon is born.’
‘Ah, no,’ said Penelope. ‘Often before wanderers have told me such comfortable things, and I believed them. I know now that your words cannot become true. But it is time for you to rest yourself, stranger. My maids will make a bed for you in the room, and then come to you and bathe your feet.’
Odysseus said, ‘Your maids would be unwilling to touch the feet of a tramp such as myself. But if there is in the house some old wife who has had such troubles as I have had, I would have my feet bathed by her.’
Said Penelope, ‘Here is an old woman who nursed and looked after that unfortunate man, Odysseus. She took him in her arms in the very hour he was born. Eurycleia, wash the feet of this man, who knew your lord and mine.’
Then the nurse, old Eurycleia, fetched water, both hot and cold, and brought the bath to the hearth. Standing before Odysseus in the flickering light of the fire, she said, ‘I will wash your feet, both for Penelope’s sake and for your own. The heart within me is moved at the sight of you. Many strangers have come into this hall, but I have never seen one that so resembled Odysseus.’
Odysseus said, ‘Many people have said that Odysseus and I resemble each other.’
His feet were in the water, and she put her hand upon one of them. As she did so, Odysseus turned his face away to the darkness, for he suddenly realized that his nurse, old Eurycleia, might recognize the scar that was on that foot.
How did that scar come to be there? It had been made long ago when a boar’s tusk had ripped up the flesh of his foot. Odysseus was then a youth, and he had gone to the mountain Parnassus to visit his mother’s father.
One morning, with his uncles, young Odysseus went up the slope of mount Parnassus, to hunt with hounds. In a lair a mighty boar was lying. When the sound of the men’s trampling came near him, he sprang up with gleaming eyes and stood in front of them all. Odysseus, holding his spear in his hands, rushed at him. But before he could strike him, the boar charged, ripping deep into his flesh with his tusk. Then Odysseus speared him through the shoulder and the boar was killed. His uncles looked after the wound and he stayed with them on mount Parnassus, in his grandfather’s house, until the wound was healed.
As Eurycleia, his old nurse, passed her hands along the leg, she let his foot drop suddenly. His knee struck against the bath, and the vessel of water was overturned. The nurse touched the chin of Odysseus and she said, ‘You are Odysseus.’
She looked to where Penelope was sitting, so that she could make a sign to her. But Penelope had her eyes turned away. Odysseus put his hand on Eurycleia’s mouth, and with the other hand he drew her to him.
‘Woman,’ he whispered. ‘Say nothing. Be silent, or else my enemies will learn what you now know.’
‘ I’ll be silent,’ said the nurse Eurycleia. ‘You know me. I am firm and unyielding, and I won’t let anyone know that you have come under this roof.’
So she went out of the hall to fetch water to replace that which had been spilt. She came back and finished bathing his feet. Then Odysseus arranged the rags around his leg to hide the scar, and he drew the bench closer to the fire.
Penelope turned to him again, ‘You are wise, my guest,’ she said, ‘and it may be that you are a man who can interpret a dream that constantly comes to me. I have twenty geese in the yard outside. In my dream I see them, and then a great eagle flies down from the mountains, and breaks their necks and kills them all, and lays them in a heap in this hall. I weep for my geese, but then the eagle comes back, and perching on a beam of the roof speaks to me in the voice of a man. “Take heart, wife of Odysseus,” the eagle says, “this is no dream but a true vision. For the geese that you have seen are your suitors, and I, that appeared as an eagle, am your husband who will swiftly bring death to the suitors.” Then the dream goes, and I waken and look out on the daylight and see my geese in the courtyard pecking at the wheat in the trough. Can you interpret this dream?’
‘Lady,’ said Odysseus, ‘the dream interprets itself. What you have dreamed will come true.’
‘Ah,’ said Penelope, ‘but it cannot now, for the day of my misery is at hand. I am being forced by my parents to choose a husband from the suitors, and depart from the house of Odysseus.’
‘And how will you choose from amongst them?’ said Odysseus.
‘ I will make a choice in this way,’ said Penelope. ‘My husband’s great bow is still in the house. The one who can bend that bow, and shoot an arrow through the holes in the backs of twelve axes set one behind the other—him will I choose for my husband.’
Odysseus said, ‘Your plan is good, Penelope, and some god has told you to do this. But do not delay the contest of the bow. Let it be tomorrow.’
‘Is that your advice, stranger?’ said Penelope.
‘It is my advice,’ said Odysseus.
‘I thank you for your advice,’ she said. ‘And now farewell, for I must go to rest. And you please lie down in the room, in the bed that has been made for you.’
So went to her room with her maids. In her bed she thought over everything the stranger had told her about Odysseus, and she wept again for him.