Book XX

The Last Banquet of the Suitors

Disorderly conduct of the serving-women⁠—Prayer of Ulysses for a favorable omen⁠—Its fulfillment⁠—Preparations for a feast of the suitors in the palace⁠—The feast⁠—Ulysses insulted by Ctesippus, who is reproved by Telemachus⁠—Strange prodigies observed by Theoclymenus, who leaves the hall.

The noble chief, Ulysses, in the porch
Lay down to rest. An undressed bullock’s hide
Was under him, and over that the skins
Of sheep, which for the daily sacrifice
The Achaians slew. Eurynomè had spread
A cloak above him. There he lay awake,
And meditated how he yet should smite
The suitors down. Meantime, with cries of mirth
And laughter, came the women forth to seek
The suitors’ arms. Ulysses, inly moved
With anger, pondered whether he should rise
And put them all to death, or give their shame
A respite for another night, the last.
His heart raged in his bosom. As a hound
Growls, walking round her whelps, when she beholds
A stranger, and is eager for the attack,
So growled his heart within him, and so fierce
Was his impatience with that shameless crew.
He smote his breast, and thus he chid his heart:⁠—

“Endure it, heart! thou didst bear worse than this.
When the grim Cyclops of resistless strength
Devoured thy brave companions, thou couldst still
Endure, till thou by stratagem didst leave
The cave in which it seemed that thou must die.”

Thus he rebuked his heart, and, growing calm,
His heart submitted; but the hero tossed
From side to side. As when one turns and turns
The stomach of a bullock filled with fat
And blood before a fiercely blazing fire
And wishes it were done, so did the chief
Shift oft from side to side, while pondering how
To lay a strong hand on the multitude
Of shameless suitors⁠—he but one, and they
So many. Meantime Pallas, sliding down
From heaven, in form a woman, came, and there
Beside his bed stood over him, and spake:⁠—

“Why, most unhappy of the sons of men,
Art thou still sleepless? This is thine abode,
And here thou hast thy consort and a son
Whom any man might covet for his own.”

Ulysses, the sagacious, answered thus:
“Truly, O goddess, all that thou hast said
Is rightly spoken. This perplexes me⁠—
How to lay hands upon these shameless men,
When I am only one, and they a throng
That fill the palace. Yet another thought,
And mightier still⁠—if, by thy aid and Jove’s,
I slay the suitors, how shall I myself
Be safe thereafter? Think, I pray, of this.”

And thus in turn the blue-eyed Pallas said:
“O faint of spirit! in an humbler friend
Than I am, in a friend of mortal birth
And less farseeing, one might put his trust;
But I am born a goddess, and protect
Thy life in every danger. Let me say,
And plainly say, if fifty armed bands
Of men should gather round us, eager all
To take thy life, thou mightest drive away,
Unharmed by them, their herds and pampered flocks.
But give thyself to sleep. To wake and watch
All night is most unwholesome. Thou shalt find
A happy issue from thy troubles yet.”

She spake, and, shedding slumber on his lids,
Upward the glorious goddess took her way
Back to Olympus, when she saw that sleep
Had seized him, making him forget all care
And slackening every limb. His faithful wife
Was still awake, and sat upright and wept
On her soft couch, and after many tears
The glorious lady prayed to Dian thus:⁠—

“Goddess august! Diana, child of Jove!
I would that thou wouldst send into my heart
A shaft to take my life, or that a storm
Would seize and hurl me through the paths of air,
And cast me into ocean’s restless streams,
As once a storm, descending, swept away
The daughters born to Pandarus. The gods
Had slain their parents, and they dwelt alone
As orphans in their palace, nourished there
By blessed Venus with the curds of milk,
And honey, and sweet wine, while Juno gave
Beauty and wit beyond all womankind,
And chaste Diana dignity of form,
And Pallas every art that graces life.
Then, as the blessed Venus went to ask
For them, of Jove the Thunderer, on the heights
Of his Olympian mount, the crowning gift
Of happy marriage⁠—for to Jove is known
Whatever comes to pass, and what shall be
The fortune, good or ill, of mortal men⁠—
The Harpies came meantime, bore off the maids,
And gave them to the hateful sisterhood
Of Furies as their servants. So may those
Who dwell upon Olympus make an end
Of me, or fair-haired Dian strike me down,
That, with the image of Ulysses still
Before my mind, I may not seek to please
One of less worth. This evil might be borne
By one who weeps all day, and feels at heart
A settled sorrow, yet can sleep at night.
For sleep, when once it weighs the eyelids down,
Makes men unmindful both of good and ill,
And all things else. But me some deity
Visits with fearful dreams. There lay by me,
This very night, one like him, as he was
When with his armed men he sailed for Troy;
And I was glad, for certainly I deemed
It was a real presence, and no dream.”

She spake. Just then, upon her car of gold,
Appeared the Morn. The great Ulysses heard
That voice of lamentation; anxiously
He mused; it seemed to him as if the queen
Stood over him and knew him. Gathering up
In haste the cloak and skins on which he slept,
He laid them in the palace on a seat,
But bore the bull’s hide forth in open air,
And lifted up his hands and prayed to Jove:⁠—

“O Father Jove, and all the gods! if ye
Have led me graciously, o’er land and deep,
Across the earth, and, after suffering much,
To mine own isle, let one of those who watch
Within the palace speak some ominous word,
And grant a sign from thee without these walls.”

So prayed he. All-providing Jupiter
Hearkened, and thundered from the clouds around
The bright Olympian peaks. Ulysses heard
With gladness. From a room within the house,
In which the mills of the king’s household stood,
A woman, laboring at the quern, gave forth
An omen also. There were twelve who toiled
In making flour of barley and of wheat⁠—
The strength of man. The rest were all asleep;
Their tasks were done; one only, of less strength
Than any other there, kept toiling on.
She paused a moment, stopped the whirling stone,
And spake these words⁠—a portent for the king:⁠—

“O Father Jove, the king of gods and men!
Thou hast just thundered from the starry heaven,
And yet there is no cloud. To someone here
It is a portent. O perform for me,
All helpless as I am, this one request!
Let now the suitors in this palace take
Their last and final pleasant feast today⁠—
These men who make my limbs, with constant toil,
In grinding corn for them, to lose their strength,
Once let them banquet here, and then no more.”

She spake; the omen of the woman’s words
And Jove’s loud thunder pleased Ulysses well;
And now he deemed he should avenge himself
Upon the guilty ones. The other maids
Of that fair palace of Ulysses woke
And came together, and upon the hearth
Kindled a steady fire. Telemachus
Rose from his bed in presence like a god,
Put on his garments, hung his trenchant sword
Upon his shoulder, tied to his fair feet
The shapely sandals, took his massive spear
Tipped with sharp brass, and, stopping as he reached
The threshold, spake to Eurycleia thus:⁠—

“Dear nurse, have ye with honor fed and lodged
Our guest, or have ye suffered him to find
A lodging where he might, without your care?
Discerning as she is, my mother pays
High honor to the worse among her guests,
And sends the nobler man unhonored hence.”

And thus the prudent Eurycleia said:
“My child, blame not thy mother; she deserves
No blame. The stranger sat and drank his wine,
All that he would, and said, when pressed to eat,
That he desired no more. And when he thought
Of sleep, she bade her maidens spread his couch;
But he refused a bed and rugs, like one
Inured to misery, and beneath the porch
Slept on an undressed bull’s hide and the skins
Of sheep, and over him we cast a cloak.”

She spake; Telemachus, his spear in hand,
Went forth, his fleet dogs following him. He sought
The council where the well-greaved Greeks were met.
Meantime the noble Eurycleia, child
Of Ops, Pisenor’s son, bespake the maids:⁠—

“Come, some of you, at once, and sweep the floor,
And sprinkle it, and on the shapely thrones
Spread coverings of purple tapestry;
Let others wipe the tables with a sponge,
And cleanse the beakers and the double cups,
While others go for water to the fount,
And bring it quickly, for not long today
The suitors will be absent from these halls.
They will come early to the general feast.”

She spake; the handmaids hearkened and obeyed,
And twenty went to the dark well to draw
The water, while the others busily
Bestirred themselves about the house. Then came
The servants of the chiefs, and set themselves
Neatly to cleave the wood. Then also came
The women from the well. The swineherd last
Came with three swine, the fattest of the herd.
In that fair court he let them feed, and sought
Ulysses, greeting him with courteous words:⁠—

“Hast thou, O stranger, found among these Greeks
More reverence? Art thou still their mark of scorn?”

Ulysses, the sagacious, answered thus:
“O that the gods, Eumaeus, would avenge
The insolence of those who meditate
Violent deeds, and make another’s house
Their plotting-place, and feel no touch of shame!”

So talked they with each other. Now appeared
Melanthius, keeper of the goats. He brought
Goats for the suitors’ banquet; they were choice
Beyond all others. With him also came
Two goatherds. In the echoing portico
He bound his goats. He saw Ulysses there,
And thus accosted him with railing words:⁠—

“Stranger, art thou still here, the palace pest,
And begging still, and wilt thou ne’er depart?
We shall not end this quarrel, I perceive,
Till thou hast tried the flavor of my fist.
It is not decent to be begging here
Continually; the Greeks have other feasts.”

He spake; Ulysses answered not, but shook
His head in silence, planning fearful things.

Philoetius now, a master-herdsman, came,
And for the banquet of the suitors led
A heifer that had never yeaned, and goats
The fatlings of the flock; they came across
The ferry, brought by those whose office is
To bear whoever comes from shore to shore.
He bound his animals in the sounding porch,
And went and, standing by the swineherd, said:⁠—

“Who, swineherd, is the stranger newly come
To this our palace? of what parents born,
And of what race, and where his native land?
Unhappy seemingly, yet like a king
In person. Sorrowful must be the lot
Of men who wander to and fro on earth,
When even to kings the gods appoint distress.”

He spake, and, greeting with his offered hand
Ulysses, said in winged words aloud:⁠—

“Stranger and father, hail! and mayst thou yet
Be happy in the years to come at least,
Though held in thrall by many sorrows now.
Yet thou, All-father Jove! art most austere
Of all the gods, not sparing even those
Who have their birth from thee, but bringing them
To grief and pain. The sweat is on my brow
When I behold this stranger, and my eyes
Are filled with tears when to my mind comes back
The image of Ulysses, who must now,
I think, be wandering, clothed in rags like thee,
Among the abodes of men, if yet indeed
He lives and sees the sweet light of the sun.
But if that he be dead, and in the abode
Of Pluto, woe is me for his dear sake!
The blameless chief, who when I was a boy
Gave to me, in the Cephalenian fields,
The charge of all his beeves; and they are now
Innumerable; the broad-fronted race
Of cattle never would have multiplied
So largely under other care than mine.
Now other masters bid me bring my beeves
For their own feasts. They little heed his son,
The palace-heir; as little do they dread
The vengeance of the gods; they long to share
Among them the possessions of the king,
So many years unheard from. But this thought
Comes to my mind again, and yet again:
Wrong were it, while the son is yet alive,
To drive the cattle to a foreign land,
Where alien men inhabit; yet ’tis worse
To stay and tend another’s beeves, and bear
This spoil. And long ago would I have fled
To some large-minded monarch, since this waste
Is not to be endured, but that I think
Still of my suffering lord, and hope that yet
He may return and drive the suitors hence.”

Ulysses, the sagacious, answering, said:
“Herdsman, since thou dost seem not ill inclined,
Nor yet unwise, and I perceive in thee
A well-discerning mind, I therefore say,
And pledge my solemn oath⁠—Jove, first of gods,
Be witness, and this hospitable board
And hearth of good Ulysses, which has here
Received me⁠—while thou art within these halls
Ulysses will assuredly return,
And, if thou choose to look, thine eyes shall see
The suitors slain, who play the master here.”

And thus the master of the herds rejoined:
“Stranger, may Jupiter make good thy words!
Then shalt thou see what strength is in my arm.”

Eumaeus also prayed to all the gods,
That now the wise Ulysses might return.
So talked they with each other, while apart
The suitors doomed Telemachus to death,
And plotted how to take his life. Just then
A bird⁠—an eagle⁠—on the left flew by,
High up; his talons held a timid dove.
And then Amphinomus bespake the rest:⁠—

“O friends, this plan to slay Telemachus
Must fail. And now repair we to the feast.”

So spake Amphinomus, and to his words
They all gave heed, and hastened to the halls
Of the divine Ulysses, where they laid
Their cloaks upon the benches and the thrones,
And slaughtering the choice sheep, and fading goats,
And porkers, and a heifer from the herd,
Roasted the entrails, and distributed
A share to each. Next mingled they the wine
In the large bowls. The swineherd brought a cup
To everyone. Philoetius, chief among
The servants, gave from shapely canisters
The bread to each. Melanthius poured the wine.
Then putting forth their hands, they all partook
The ready banquet. With a wise design,
Telemachus near the stone threshold placed
Ulysses, on a shabby seat, beside
A little table, but within the walls
Of that strong-pillared pile. He gave him there
Part of the entrails, and poured out for him
The wine into a cup of gold, and said:⁠—

“Sit here, and drink thy wine among the rest,
And from the insults and assaults of these
It shall be mine to guard thee. For this house
Is not the common property of all;
Ulysses first acquired it, and for me⁠—
And you, ye suitors, keep your tongues from taunts
And hands from force, lest there be wrath and strife.”

He spake; the suitors, as they heard him, bit
Their pressed lips, wondering at Telemachus,
Who uttered such bold words. Antinoüs then,
Eupeithes’ son, bespake his fellows thus:⁠—

“Harsh as they are, let us, O Greeks, endure
These speeches of Telemachus. He makes
High threats, but had Saturnian Jove allowed,
We should, ere this, and in these very halls,
Have quieted our loud-tongued orator.”

So spake the suitor, but Telemachus
Heeded him not. Then through the city came
The heralds with a hallowed hecatomb,
Due to the gods. The long-haired people thronged
The shady grove of Phoebus, archer-god.

Now when the flesh was roasted and was drawn
From off the spits, and each was given his share,
They held high festival. The men who served
The banquet gave Ulysses, where he sat,
A portion equal to their own, for so
His own dear son Telemachus enjoined.

Yet did not Pallas cause the haughty crew
Of suitors to refrain from stinging taunts,
That so the spirit of Laertes’ son
Might be more deeply wounded. One there was
Among the suitors, a low-thoughted wretch;
Ctesippus was his name, and his abode
Was Samos. Trusting in his father’s wealth,
He wooed the wife of the long-absent king
Ulysses. To his insolent mates he said:⁠—

“Hear me, ye noble suitors, while I speak.
This stranger has received an equal share,
As is becoming; for it were not just
Nor seemly to pass by, in such a feast,
The guests, whoe’er they may be, that resort
To this fair mansion of Telemachus.
I also will bestow on him a gift
Of hospitality, and he in turn
May give it to the keeper of the bath,
Or any other of the menial train
That serve the household of Ulysses here.”

So speaking, with his strong right hand he flung
A bullock’s foot, which from a canister
Hard by he plucked. Ulysses gently bowed
His head, and shunned the blow, and grimly smiled.
The missile struck the solid wall, and then
Telemachus rebuked the suitor thus:⁠—

“Ctesippus, well hast thou escaped with life,
Not having hit the stranger, who himself
Shrank from the blow; else had I pinned thee through
With my sharp spear. Instead of wedding feast,
Thy father would have celebrated here
Thy funeral rites. Let no man in these halls
Bear himself insolently in my sight
Hereafter, for my reason now is ripe
To know the right from wrong. I was of late
A child, and now it is enough to bear
That ye should slay our sheep, and drink our wine,
And eat our bread⁠—for what can one man do
Against so many? Cease this petty war
Of wrong and hatred; but if ye desire
To take my life, ’tis well; ’twere better so.
And rather would I die by violence
Than live to see these most unmanly deeds⁠—
Guests driven away, and women-servants hauled
Through these fair rooms by brutal wassailers.”

He ended, and the assembly all sat mute
Till Agelaüs spake, Damastor’s son:⁠—

“O friends! let no man here with carping words
Gainsay what is so rightly said, nor yet
Insult the stranger more, nor one of those
Who serve the household of the godlike chief
Ulysses in his palace. I would say
This word in kindness to Telemachus
And to his mother; may it please them both!
While yet the hope was cherished in your hearts
That wise Ulysses would return, no blame
Could fasten on the queen that she remained
Unwedded, and resisted those who came
To woo her in the palace. Better so,
Had he come home again. Yet now, ’tis clear,
He comes no more. Go then, Telemachus,
And, sitting by thy mother, bid her wed
The noblest of her wooers, and the one
Who brings the richest gifts; and thou possess
Thy father’s wealth in peace, and eat and drink
At will, while she shall find another home.”

And thus discreet Telemachus replied:
“Nay, Agelaüs, for I swear by Jove,
And by my father’s sufferings, who has died,
Or yet is wandering, far from Ithaca,
That I do nothing to delay the choice
And marriage of my mother. I consent
That she become the wife of whom she list,
And him who offers most. But I should feel
Great shame to thrust her forth against her will,
And with unfllial speeches; God forbid!”

He ended here, and Pallas, as he spake,
To inextinguishable laughter moved
The suitors. There they sat with wandering minds;
They swallowed morsels foul with blood; their eyes
Were filled with tears; their hearts foreboded woe.
Then spake the godlike Theoclymenus:⁠—

“Unhappy men! what may this evil be
That overtakes you? Every brow and face
And each one’s lower limbs are wrapped in night,
And moans arise, and tears are on your cheeks.
The walls and all the graceful cornices
Between the pillars are bedropped with blood,
The portico is full, these halls are full
Of shadows, hastening down to Erebus
Amid the gloom. The sun is blotted out
From heaven, and fearful darkness covers all.”

He spake, and loud they laughed. Eurymachus,
The son of Polybus, in answer said:⁠—

“The stranger prattles idly; he is come
From some far land. Conduct him through the door,
Young men, and send him to the marketplace,
Since all things here are darkened to his eyes.”

Then spake the godlike Theoclymenus:
“Eurymachus, from thee I ask no guide,
For I have eyes and ears, and two good feet,
And in my breast a mind as sound as they,
And by the aid of these I mean to make
My way without; for clearly I perceive
A coming evil, which no suitor here
Will yet escape⁠—no one who, in these halls
Of the great chief, Ulysses, treats with scorn
His fellow-man, and broods o’er guilty plans.”

He spake, and, hastening from that noble pile,
Came to Piraeus, in whose house he found
A welcome. All the suitors, as he went,
Looked at each other, and, the more to vex
Telemachus, kept laughing at his guests.
And thus an insolent youth among them said:⁠—

“No man had ever a worse set of guests
Than thou, Telemachus. For what a wretch
That wandering beggar is, who always wants
His bread and wine, and is unfit for work,
And has no strength; in truth, a useless load
Upon the earth he treads. The other guest
Rises to play the prophet. If thou take
My counsel, which I give thee for thy good,
Let them at once be put on board a barque
Of many oars, and we will send them hence
To the Sicilians; they will bring a price.”

So talked the suitors, but he heeded not
Their words, and, looking toward his father, held
His peace, expecting when he would lay hands
Upon that insolent crew. Penelope,
Sage daughter of Icarius, took her place
Right opposite upon a sumptuous seat,
And heard the words of every man who spake
Within the hall. They held that midday feast
With laughter⁠—a luxurious feast it was,
And mirthful; many victims had been slain
To furnish forth the tables; but no feast
Could be more bitter than the later one,
To which the goddess and that valiant man
Would bid the guilty crew of plotters soon.