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Ancient Greece

Homer: “Odyssey”: Book II: The Debate in Ithaca


At the assembly which Telemachus calls at the beginning of this book, he is critical of the behaviour of the suitors, one of whom, Antinous, then blames Telemachus’ mother, Penelope, for deceiving the suitors, and urges him to send her to her father so another marriage can be arranged for her. After Telemachus rejects this advice, the seer Halitherses interprets the flight of two eagles as indicating that the suitors are putting themselves at great risk by their misbehaviour, as Odysseus will soon be returning home to take his revenge on them. After another suitor, Eurymachus, ridicules Halitherses’ augury, Telemachus demands a ship to take him to take him to the mainland to seek for news of his father, and the assembly is dissolved. The goddess Athene, disguised as Mentor, then promises to support Telemachus in arranging a voyage to Pylos, and Telemachus returns to his house, where he rebukes Antinous, who has been taunting him. He then asks the housekeeper, and his former nurse, Eurycleia, to prepare provisions for his journey. Although Eurycleia seeks to dissuade Telemachus from going on this journey, she does then agree not to tell his mother about it until his absence becomes a matter of public knowledge. Athene then acquires a ship, and arranges to  recruit oarsmen to man it. The book ends with Telemachus, Athene and their crew heading for the Greek mainland.

Ll. 1-38. The Assembly convenes. 

As soon as the child of the morning, rosy-fingered Dawn, appeared, then he (i.e. Telemachus) arose from his bed and put on his clothing and slung his sharp sword around his shoulder, and bound his fair sandals beneath his gleaming feet, and he made his way from the bedroom with his face looking like a god’s, and at once he gave orders to the clear-voiced heralds to summon the long-haired Achaeans to the assembly. And they made their summons and the (people) came together very quickly. Now, when they were assembled and had come together, he made his way to the place of assembly, and in his hand he held a bronze spear; nor (was he) alone, as two gleaming dogs followed after him. And upon him Athene shed a wondrous grace. And all the people marvelled at him as he came; then, he sat down in his father’s seat, and the elders made way (for him).

Then, among them noble Aegyptius was the first to speak, (a man) who was bent with age and knew countless (things). For the truth was that his son, the spearman Antiphus had gone in the hollow ships to Ilium, (the city) of fine colts, in the company of the godlike Odysseus; but the savage Cyclops slew him in his hollow cave, and made (of him) his last meal (i.e. the last one he made before he was blinded). Now, he had three other sons: one of them, Eurynomus, was consorting with the suitors, and the other two constantly kept up their father’s lands. But, even so, he could not forget him (i.e. Antiphus), and mourned and grieved (for him). And, shedding tears for him, he addressed the assembly and spoke to (them as follows): “Listen to me now, men of Ithaca, (and to the words) that I shall say. Never has our assembly or council met, since the day when godlike Odysseus departed in the hollow ships. And now who has thus gathered (us) together? Upon whom has such a need come; (was it one) of the young men, or (one of) the older generation? Has he heard some tidings of the army returning, about which he might tell us plainly, since he must have learned (of it) first (himself)? Or (is this) some other public (matter, on which) he is to speak and address (us)? To me he seems to be a good man, and a blessed (one). Would that Zeus may accomplish (something) good, (something) that he desires in his heart!”

So he spoke, and the dear son of Odysseus rejoiced at his speech, nor did he remain seated any longer, but was eager to speak; then, he stood in the middle of the assembly; and the herald Pisenor, full of wise counsel (as he was), placed the staff in his hands.

Ll. 39-83. Telemachus states his case.

Then he spoke, appealing to the old man first: “O old man, this man who has called the host together (is) not far off, as you yourself shall soon learn; for on me especially has sorrow come. I have not heard any news of the army returning, about which I should plainly tell you, as soon as I should first learn (of it myself), nor am I bringing to your attention, or coming to talk to you about, any other public (matter) but my own concerns, (namely) the twin evils which have fallen upon my house: in the first place, I have lost my noble father, who was once king among you here, and he was as gentle as a father (to all of you). But now there has also come a much greater (evil, one) which will shortly destroy entirely my whole house, and will utterly ruin all my livelihood. (For) suitors are pestering my mother against her will, (and) the sons of men who (are) here are foremost (among them); they shrink from going to the house of her father Icarius (i.e. in Cephallenia), so that he may extract presents for the betrothal of his daughter, and give her to whomever he wishes, even to him who meets his favour; but now they are going in and out of our (house) every day, slaughtering our oxen, sheep and fat goats, (and) they feast together in large numbers and recklessly drink our sparkling wine; and our wealt0h is being exhausted. For (there is) no man available, such as Odysseus was, to ward off our household from ruin. Now we (are) not in any way such (as he was), so we can drive (it) away; and, indeed, if we do try, we shall then prove to be weaklings, and to have learned no prowess. But, in truth, I would defend myself, if I had but the power (to do so). For deeds, which are no longer endurable, have been wrought, (and) my house, (which is) no longer in a good condition, is being utterly destroyed. You yourselves should also feel resentment and a sense of shame with regard to those other men who are your neighbours, (that is those) who live roundabout, and you should fear the wrath of the gods, lest they turn upon you in some way through anger at these evil deeds. I pray (you), both by Olympian Zeus and by Themis, who dissolves and gathers the assemblies of men, forbear, my friends, and leave me alone to pine in my bitter grief, unless perhaps (you think that) my father, the noble Odysseus, did harm in some way to the well-greaved Achaeans out of ill-will, and that you should take your revenge on me for these (things, by) urging these men on to work evils (on me) in a malicious fashion. But, for me, it would be better that you (yourselves) should consume my treasures and my stocks. If you were to devour (them), there would be recompense in a short time; for just so long we should go up and down the city, demanding our goods back in a (loud) voice, until everything were repaid. But now, you cast woes upon my heart (that are) beyond cure.”

So he spoke in his wrath, and he dashed the staff down on the ground, as he burst into tears; and compassion took hold of all of the people. Then, all the others were silent, and no one had the heart to answer Telemachus with angry words;

Ll. 84-128. Antinous justifies the suitors’ behaviour.

Antinous alone spoke to him in reply: “Telemachus, (you) braggart, unrestrained in your fury, what (a thing) you have said, putting us to shame; so you wish to fasten the blame on us. But (it is) not the Achaean suitors (who) are at fault in any way, but your own dear mother, who, let me tell you, knows cunning tricks better than any other (woman). For already it is the third year – and the fourth will soon be (upon us) – during which she deceives the hearts in the breasts of the Achaeans. She offers hope to all, and makes promises to each man, when sending (them) messages, but her mind is set on other (things). And she has set up in her halls a great web, full of fine thread and very wide (it is), and (on it) she has begun to weave; and at once she spoke with us: ‘My young wooers, since godlike Odysseus is dead, be patient, though you are eager for my marriage, until I finish this (piece of) cloth – for let not my spinning come to nothing! – (for it is) a shroud for lord Laertes, for the time when the deadly fate of grievous death shall strike him down, lest any of the Achaean women in this land should be angry with me, if (a man who) won (so) many (possessions) should lie without a burial cloth.’

“So she spoke, and our manly hearts persuaded us (to agree). Then, day by day she kept weaving at her great web, but at night she unravelled (it), when she had torches placed beside (her). So for three years she beguiled the Achaeans by this trick, and kept their trust. But, when the fourth year came and the seasons went by, then one of her women, who knew all about it, informed us, and we caught her unravelling the splendid web. So she completed it against her will  by necessity; the suitors answer you thus, (Telemachus), so that you yourself may know (it) in your heart, and all the Achaeans (as well); send your mother away, and command her to wed whomever her father bids and (who) is pleasing to her. But, if she continues to vex the sons of the Achaeans for a long time, and is mindful of this in her heart, that Athene has endowed her above other (women) with knowledge of very beautiful handiwork, and an excellent mind, and wiles, such as hers, which we have never yet heard that any, even of the women of old (did devise); of those who were formerly fair-tressed Achaean women, Tyro for instance, and Alcmene, and Mycene of the lovely crown, not one of them was like Penelope in shrewdness of mind; however, she did not devise this (scheme) in a fitting manner. For they (i.e. the suitors) will continue to devour your livelihood and your possessions for as long as she shall keep the plan which the gods have now put in her heart. She is creating great fame for herself, but for you the loss of much of your substance. (As for) us, we shall not go to our own estates, or anywhere else, until she marries whichever one of the Achaeans she chooses.”

Ll. 129-176. After the omen of the two eagles, Halitherses prophesies. 

Then, wise Telemachus spoke to him again in reply: “Antinous, it is by no means possible that I might thrust from this house against her will (the woman) who bore me and reared me; and, as for my father, (he is) elsewhere in the world, but whether he is alive or dead (we do not know); it would be a terrible (thing) for me to repay Icarius a great (sum), if I myself should willingly send my mother away. For from him, her father, I should suffer evil, and a god will send other (evils), since she will invoke the avenging Furies, as she leaves this house; and for me there will be blame from men; so I shall never give this instruction. If your heart is indignant at these (things), (then) leave my halls, and prepare other feasts, eating your own substance, and moving alternately from house to house. But if it seems to you to be better and more desirable that one man’s livelihood should be destroyed without compensation, (then) consume (it); but I shall call upon the gods that live forever, (to see) if somehow Zeus will grant that deeds of requital do occur. Then may you perish within my halls unrequited.”

So spoke Telemachus, and then Zeus, who sees from afar, sent forth two eagles to fly from on high from a mountain peak. For a while they flew in company with the blasts of the wind, close to one another with outstretched wings; but when they reached the middle of the assembly, then they wheeled about and rapidly flapped their wings, and they looked down on the heads of everyone, and their looks forebode destruction; then they tore their cheeks and necks on all sides with their talons, and darted to the east across the houses and the city of the inhabitants. They were amazed at the birds, when the saw (them);  with their eyes; and  they pondered in their hearts at what was about to happen. Then among them, spoke the lordly old man, Halitherses, son of Mastor; for he surpassed all his peers in his knowledge of birds and in uttering words of fate; he sat in debate with good intentions, and addressed them (as follows):

“Listen to me now, men of Ithaca, (and) to what I have to say; and to the suitors do I especially declare and say these (things); for upon them a great calamity is rolling; for Odysseus will not be apart from his friends for long, but, I think, he is already nearby and is sowing (the seeds of) bloodshed and death for all of them; and this will also be a disaster for many others who dwell on clear-skied Ithaca. But long before (that), let us plan how we can put a stop to (this); and let them themselves bring (it) to an end; for straightway this is the better (course) for them. For I do not prophesy untried, but as one with sure knowledge; for in his case I declare that all (things) are fulfilled, as I told him when the Argives embarked for Ilium, and with them went Odysseus of the many wiles. I said that after many sufferings and losing all his companions, he would come home in the twentieth year; and so all this is now being brought to pass.”

Ll. 177-223. Telemachus plans to search for news.

Then, Eurymachus, son of Polybus, said to him in reply: “O old man, if you would get up now, you should go home and prophesy to your children, lest perhaps they may suffer some disaster in the days to come; in these matters, I am much better at prophesying than you. (There are) many birds that fly to and fro under the rays of the sun, and not all (of them) are (birds) of omen. As for Odysseus, he has perished in a far-off land, as I wish that you too had perished with him. (Then,) you could not talk so much about prophesying, nor would you be thus urging Telemachus on in his wrath, hoping to receive some gift for your house, if perchance, he should give (you one). But (now) I tell you this, and it shall come to pass. If you, knowing much ancient (lore), should exhort and stir up by your words a younger man to act harshly, for him in the first place it will be the more grievous, and in any case he will not be able to achieve anything, because of these (men) who are here. And on you, old man, we shall impose a fine, which you will be grieved in your heart to pay; and your pain will be bitter. And to Telemachus, I myself, in the midst of everyone, shall offer this counsel: tell your mother to go back to the (house) of her father; and they will prepare a wedding feast, and arrange the very many wedding gifts, as is it fitting should accompany a beloved daughter. For until (that happens) I do not think that the sons of the Achaeans will cease from their troublesome wooing, since, in any case, we fear no man, no, not even Telemachus, so full of words as he is, nor do we take heed of any prophecy, which you, old man, declare to no purpose, and (which) only makes you the more hated. Then his (i.e. Telemachus’) goods will be ruthlessly devoured, nor shall there ever be any recompense, so long as she (i.e. Penelope) obstructs the Achaeans in relation to her marriage; now we, waiting patiently every day, are rivals on account of her excellence, nor do we pursue any other (women), whom it might be appropriate for each one (of us) to wed.”

Then, the wise Telemachus spoke to him in reply: “Eurymachus, and (all) the rest (of you), illustrious wooers that (you are), in this matter I entreat you no longer, nor do I make my case; for the gods and all of the Achaeans are already aware of it. But come, give me a swift ship and twenty companions, who shall accomplish my journey there and back. For I shall go to Sparta and sandy Pylos to seek tidings of the return of my father who has been away for so long, if perchance some man may tell me, or I shall hear a rumour from Zeus, (of the kind) which so often brings news to men; if I shall hear of my father’s life and journey home, in truth, although I am sore afflicted, I could endure for a year; but, if I hear that he is dead and no longer living, then I shall return to my native land, and heap up a mound for him, and I shall bury him with due honours, (and) a great many (of them), as (will be) fitting, and I shall give my mother to a husband.”

Ll. 224-266. Mentor defends Telemachus.

Now indeed, having thus spoken, he sat down, and among them arose Mentor, (he) who was a comrade of the noble Odysseus, and, when he departed in his ships, he entrusted to him his whole household, and (asked him) to obey the old man (i.e. Laertes) and to keep everything in its place; full of good intentions, he addressed them and spoke to (them as follows): “Listen to me now, men of Ithaca, (and) to what I have to say: let no sceptred king be deliberately kind and gentle any longer, nor know (what is) right in his head, but let him always be harsh and do evil (things); (this is) because not one of the people whose lord he was remembers divine Odysseus, though he was mild like a father (to them). But, in truth, I do not begrudge in any way the haughty suitors that they perform deeds of violence in the base scheming of their minds; for (it is) at the hazard of their lives that they are (so) violently devouring the household of Odysseus, whom they say will return no longer. But now (it is) with the rest of the people that I am angry, how (it is) that you all sit (there) in silence, and utter no words at all of rebuke (so as) to put a stop to the suitors, (although they are) few, (while you) are many.”

Then, Euenor’s son, Leocritus, spoke to him in reply: “Mentor, (you) mentally crazed mischief maker, what kind of thing have you said, bidding our (people) to make (us) cease! And (it is) a painful (thing), even for men with the advantage in numbers, to fight just about a feast. For even if Ithacan Odysseus himself were to come, eager in his heart to drive the haughty wooers (who are) feasting in his house out of his hall, his wife would not rejoice at his coming, even though she was yearning (for him) greatly, but he would bring upon (himself) a shameful death then and there, if he were to fight with men who outnumbered (him); but you have not spoken properly. But come (now, you) people, disperse, each one (of you) to his own lands, and, as for this (fellow) (i.e. Telemachus), Mentor and Halitherses will speed him on his way, as they are his father’s companions from long ago. But I believe that he will never make this journey, but sit (here) in Ithaca for a long time inquiring about rumours.”

So he spoke, and hastily dissolved the assembly. Then, they scattered, each to his own house, but the suitors went to the house of the divine Odysseus.

But Telemachus went separately to the shore of the sea, and, having washed his hands in the grey sea-water, he prayed to Athene: “Hear me, (O you) who came yesterday (as) a god to our house, and bid me go in a ship over the misty deep to learn of the return of my father who has been gone for so long; all of these (arrangements) the Achaeans hinder, and the suitors, in their evil insolence, most of all.”

Ll. 267-308. Athene, using the voice of Mentor, offers to prepare a ship for Telemachus. 

So he spoke in prayer, and Athene drew near to him in the likeness of Mentor, both in appearance and also in voice, and she spoke and addressed him in winged words: “Telemachus, in the time to come you will be neither a base nor a witless (man), if any of your father’s fine spirit has been instilled into you, considering what a man he was in his accomplishments, both in word and deed; (so) then, this journey of yours will be neither fruitless nor unfulfilled. But, if you are not the son of him and Penelope, then I have no reason to hope that you will accomplish what you wish. For, let me tell you, few sons are like their fathers, the greater (part of them) are worse, and few (are) better, than their fathers. But since in the time to come you will be neither base nor witless, and the wisdom of Odysseus has not wholly failed you, then there is hope of you accomplishing this work. So now, heed not the will and counsel of the suitors, mad (as they are), since they are in no way intelligent or lawful; nor do they know anything of death and black fate, which, in their case, is close at hand, (for) they shall all perish in a day. And that journey of yours, on which you have set your heart, will not be long delayed; for I am such a comrade of your father’s (house) that I shall prepare a swift ship for you, and I shall go with (you) myself. But go to your house (now) (and join) the crowd of suitors, and make ready provisions and put everything in vessels, the wine in jars, and barley-meal, the marrow of men, in stout skins; and I will gather willing comrades from the town. Now, there are many ships in sea-girt Ithaca, new and old; of these I will choose for you the one that (is) best, and we will quickly get (her) ready and launch (her) on the broad deep.”

So spoke Athene, daughter of Zeus; nor did Telemachus tarry for long, when he heard the voice of the goddess; but he went his way to his house, and his heart was sorrowful, and there he found the haughty suitors in his halls, skinning goats and roasting hogs in the courtyard. And, with a laugh, Antinous went straight to Telemachus, and grasped him by the hand and spoke these words (to him) and addressed (him) by name: “Telemachus, (you) braggart, unrestrained (as you are) in your daring, let there be no other evil word or deed in your heart, but, I pray you, eat and drink, just as (you did) before. All these (things) the Achaeans will surely provide for you, the ship, (that is,) and the chosen oarsmen, so that you may speedily go to most holy Pylos to hear (news) of your noble father.”

Ll. 309-360. After the suitors have mocked him, Telemachus gathers the provisions for his trip. 

Then, wise Telemachus spoke to him in reply: “Antinous, it is by no means possible (for me) to feast quietly and to make merry at my ease with your overweening (companions). Is it not enough that in the past you consumed many goodly possessions of mine, while I was still a child? But now that I am grown and learn (by) hearing the words of others, and as now my spirit waxes within me, I shall try to hasten your evil fate, either (by) going to Pylos, or (by staying) here in this land. But go I will, nor will the voyage that I speak of (as) a passenger, be in vain; for I am not the owner of the ship or its oarsmen; as, I suppose, seemed to you to be the more profitable (policy).”

So he spoke, and easily withdrew his hand from the hand of Antinous; and the suitors were busy with the feast throughout the hall. Then, they mocked and taunted (him) in their speech. And thus would one of the overbearing young men speak (to him): “For sure now Telemachus is planning our murder. He will bring men to help (him) from sandy Pylos, or even from Sparta, since he is now so terribly set upon (it); or he wants to go to the rich land of Ephyra (i.e. a city of Thesprotia in north-western Greece) to bring deadly drugs from there and drop (them) in the wine-bowl and kill us all.”

And again another of the arrogant young men would say: “But who knows, if he himself goes on the hollow ship, he may perish wandering far from his friends, just as Odysseus (did)? And so he would cause our troubles to grow even more; for we should have to divide up his possessions among ourselves, and then we should have to give this house to his mother and the man who should wed (her).”

So they spoke, but he (i.e. Telemachus) went down to his father’s inner chamber, a wide (storeroom) where gold and bronze lay in piles, and raiment in large chests, and plenty of fragrant olive-oil; and in (it) there stood great jars of wine, old and sweet to drink, holding the unblended divine drink within (them), packed close in rows along the wall, if ever Odysseus should return home, even after suffering (so) many grievous (troubles). The closely fitted double-doors were locked; and a housekeeper was there inside (it) night and day, (and) she, with all her wits about her, kept everything safe, Eurycleia (that is), the daughter of Ops, the son of Pisenor. Then, Telemachus summoned (her) to the storeroom and spoke to her (as follows): “Come now, nurse, and draw wine for me in jars, sweet (wine) that (is) the choicest next to that which you are guarding, (ever) thinking of that ill-fated one, if perchance Zeus-born Odysseus may come, having escaped death and the fates. Now fill twelve (jars) and fit (them) all with lids. And pour my barley-meal into well-sewn skins; and let there be twenty measures of barley-meal crushed in a mill. But keep the knowledge (of it) to yourself alone; and let all the (provisions) be got together in piles; for in the evening I shall fetch (them), when my mother goes up to her upper-chamber and thinks of (going to) bed. For I am going to Sparta and to sandy Pylos, to seek news of the return of my dear father, if perchance I shall hear (some).”

Ll. 361-387. Eurycleia agrees not to tell Penelope of Telemachus’ mission until some time has elapsed after his departure.

So he spoke, and his beloved nurse Eurycleia let out a cry, and, as she wept, she spoke these winged words to (him): “Why then, my dear child, has this thought come into your mind? How are you willing to go over the wide earth, when you are an only (son) and well-beloved? Zeus-born Odysseus has perished far from his native-land in an unknown country. And, as soon as you are gone, these (men) will devise evil (things for you) thereafter, so that you may die through their cunning, and they will divide all these (things) among themselves. But stay here, sitting on (all) your (possessions); there is absolutely no need for you to suffer evil (things) and to go wandering over the barren sea.”

Then, wise Telemachus spoke to her again in reply: “Take heart, nurse, since, I must tell you, this plan is not without (the support) of the gods. but you must swear not to say (anything about) this to my dear mother, until the eleventh or twelfth (day) has come, or she herself shall miss me and she hears that I have gone, lest she mars her fair face with weeping.”

So he spoke, and the old woman swore a mighty oath to the gods that she would not do so. But when she had sworn and accomplished that oath of hers, then at once she poured wine into large jars for him, and poured barley-meal into well-sewn skins. And Telemachus went to the house and joined company with the suitors.

Then, the goddess, bright-eyed Athene, had another idea. In the likeness of Telemachus, she went everywhere through the city, and she stood beside each man (i.e. each of the twenty men she had selected) and spoke words (to them), and she bid (them) gather beside the swift ship when evening came. And then she asked Noemon, the splendid son of Phronius, for a swift ship; and he readily promised it to her.  

Ll. 388-434. Athene and Telemachus depart.

Now, the sun set and all the ways grew dark, and then she drew the swift ship down to the sea, and she put into it all the gear which well-benched ships should carry. And she moored it at the farthest point of the harbour, and round (it) the goodly companions gathered in a throng; and the goddess encouraged each (man).

Then, the goddess, bright-eyed Athene, had another idea. She went her way to the house of divine Odysseus; (and) there she began to shed sweet sleep upon the suitors, and she kept clouding their minds as they drank, and she cast the cups from their hands. Then, they rose and went to their beds in the town, nor did they remain seated for any length of time, since sleep fell on their eyelids. Then, the bright-eyed Athene spoke to Telemachus, calling (him) forth from the well-inhabited halls, in the likeness of Mentor, both in form and also in voice: “Telemachus, your well-greaved comrades are already sitting at the oar awaiting your (instruction) to set out; but (come), let us go, so that we no longer delay their voyage.”

Having spoken thus, Pallas Athene swiftly led the way; and then he followed in the footsteps of the goddess. Now, when they came down to the ship and the sea, then they found their long-haired comrades on the shore. And the strong and powerful Telemachus spoke among them (thus): “Come, my friends, let us fetch the provisions for the journey; for (they are) all now gathered together in the hall. My mother knows nothing about (it) at all, nor the housemaids either, and only one (person) has heard my account (of it).”

Having spoken thus, he led the way and they followed after (him). So, they brought everything and stowed (it) in the well-benched ship, as the dear son of Odysseus bade (them). Then, Telemachus went on board the ship, and Athene went before (him) and sat down on the stern of the ship; and Telemachus sat down beside her; and the (men) loosed the stern-cables, and came on board themselves and sat down on the benches. Then, bright-eyed Athene sent them a favourable wind, a West Wind blowing steadily and whistling over the wine-dark sea. And Telemachus urged on his comrades and ordered (them) to fasten the rigging; and they hearkened to his call. They raised the pine-mast and set it in the hollow mast-box, and bound (it) fast with forestays, and they hoisted the white sail with its well-twisted thongs of ox-hide. Then, the wind swelled out the middle of the sail, and the dark waves hissed loudly around the stem of the ship as she went; and she sped over the waves in accomplishing her journey. Then, when they had made fast the tackle in the swift black ship, they set forth mixing-bowls full of wine, and poured libations to the immortal gods who live forever, and above all to the bright-eyed daughter of Zeus. And all night long and into the dawn, the (swift ship) ploughed her way.

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